Escaping tourism chaos among the barrier islands and ample wildlife of central Florida

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is a 140,000-acre overlay of NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center. It contains 500 different species of wildlife and 1,000-plus species of plants.

Visiting the central Florida coast with my family last week, we found ourselves with a rainy afternoon on our hands. We’d already visited the incredible Kennedy Space Center on Cape Canaveral, so we drove a bit farther north to spend a few hours at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Travel the United States and looking for a quick day trip? You’re usually not far from one of the nation’s 562 refuges. Florida has several national wildlife refuges, including historic destinations like Pelican Island and Ding Darling (the guy who created the agency’s distinctive blue goose logo) on the Gulf Coast. Haven’t visited those yet, but one of these Februaries, I’ll head south for Minnesota Twins spring training and check out the nearby refuges.

But back to the Atlantic Coast: a 140,000-acre overlay of the Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island refuge contains some incredible wildlife viewing opportunities. A walk through its palmetto understory and mangrove swamps offers glimpses at tropical scenery we Minnesotans normally only see in greenhouses.

We’re not in Minnesota anymore … The Merritt Island Refuge has several hiking trails that allowed these Minnesotans to walk among the live oaks, palmettos, and Spanish moss of coastal central Florida.

Working with NASA, the USFWS has managed the Merritt Island NWR since 1963, and the National Park Service runs the adjacent national seashore. The barrier islands that comprise the refuge contain more than a thousand plant species and more than 300 types of birds.

The refuge visitor center has some fine displays, including a full mount of a 10-foot-plus American alligator that impressed my 6-year-old daughter. A simple boardwalk outside the facility allows folks of all ages and health to walk among the jungle-like flora and fauna.

Ninety-plus-degree afternoons greeted us on most of our vacation last week, but the overcast weather last Friday provided some relief, with a comfortable temp around 80 – albeit shrouded in Florida’s glorious humidity.

There are several self-guided hiking trails worth walking, plus a 7-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive that travels through salt and freshwater marshes. It requires a $5 refuge daily pass, but it’s worth it. Expect to see wading birds, shorebirds, raptors (osprey are everywhere in the region), plus bigger critters like alligators, otter, and even manatee. From our vehicle, we saw a sow wild pig along with a half-dozen piglets, too.

The 25-mile-long barrier island that comprises the refuge includes sights and sounds of rocket launches amidst plants and animals from both the subtropical and temperate climate zones.

Eight miles or so from the visitor center, we checked out the Haulover Canal that connects the aptly named Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River Lagoon to look for manatee. A “manatee observation deck” exists at the site because of all the marine mammal activity there. Two friendly old-timers fishing the canal from shore gave us the “you shoulda been here two days ago” lament when we asked them about manatee sightings. An aggregation of about 20 had been feeding in the canal area a couple days earlier, but they hadn’t seen any since.

Not the end of the world, since my sons and I had seen two manatee earlier in the day during a kayak tour in Cocoa Beach. We also paddled up on a pod of bottlenose dolphins. (An aside, we hired a guide and kayaks for a two-hour tour out of Wildlife Watersports in Cocoa Beach and had a great experience. We could’ve just rented watercraft, but for another few bucks, we had a guide, Mika, who led us through the Thousand Islands area of the Banana River, and his experienced eye saw the dolphins and manatees. Without him, I doubt we’d have seen either species. There are several reputable kayak outfitters in the area, and I assume most are pretty good. With Wildlife Watersports, we spent more time than I would’ve preferred paddling past mansions, but the price was right, and we couldn’t argue with the wildlife we witnessed. Ask for Mika. A native Floridian who lives on his sailboat, he has great knowledge and respect for the wildlife and vegetation of the region. Leave extra time, too. Our two-hour tour was closer to a welcomed 2.5 hours.)

A mounted American alligator at first surprised, then impressed 6-year-old Minnesota girl Elisabeth Drieslein.

The eastern shore of the refuge comprises the Canaveral National Seashore, including Playalinda Beach. We didn’t have time to visit but if we’re ever in the area again, it looks like a fantastic, undeveloped stretch of coastline. Great beaches and habitat for sea turtle nests.

Finally, if you haven’t visited the Kennedy Space Center  go! It’s amazing, though surprisingly expensive (like $50 a head) because it receives no government funding. Highlights include the Space Shuttle Atlantis and a Saturn rocket (moon landing era).

I’m looking forward to returning to the refuge, preferably in winter when the volume of migratory birds on site likely borders on overwhelming. In the meantime, I’ll keep trying to see all of America’s hidden jewels we call the National Wildlife Refuge System

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