By James Hall
Martin County’s various hiking trails offer everything from rare wildlife to unique ecosystems.
“It’s an opportunity to explore our unique wildlife, and every time you go out, it’s like a mini biology lesson,” said Deborah Drum, Martin County’s Ecosystem Restoration and Management Manager.
Some trails, like ones at Jonathan Dickinson Park, shelter endangered species like the Florida scrubjay and gopher tortoise, while housing more common wildlife like bald eagles, deer, and turtles. Martin County also has great birding, especially during the winter migration.
Drum said the sand trail at Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge is just amazing. It is family friendly with a hilly, scrub brush environment that goes out to the Indian River Lagoon. One of Drum’s favorite memories happened at the refuge.
“I was with my family on sand trail,” she said. “We had binoculars, and we looked up at an osprey nest. A great horned owl with two baby owlets had taken residence. Sharing something like that with my kids was very powerful.”
Mark Nelson, Jonathan Dickinson State Park Manager, says he also enjoys instilling young people with the love of nature, especially since his love of the outdoors was cemented at an early age.
“All I ever wanted to be from a young age was a park ranger,” Nelson said. “When a kid comes out and I can show them an animal for the first time. To see the lights go on in their eyes after seeing that is really rewarding.”
Hiking in the county gives you the chance to enjoy the little things.
“We don’t have the big, grand vistas,” Drum said. “The beauty we do have is a bit more subtle. As you get out there, you get more of a hiker’s eye.”
One of the benefits of hitting the trail and appreciating nature is becoming more environmentally conscious. Drum said her family has gotten into the habit of picking up trash every time they go on a hike.
“It’s about being a steward of the areas you enjoy,” she said. “If you enjoy it, you should protect it. Leave the trail better than it was when you got there. You leave that much more satisfied because you were able to give back.”
“Biking is a good way to explore different parts of the county,” said Kevin Abbate, a competitive cyclist and Parks & Recreation Director. “Walking is too slow, driving is too impersonal; you can just take it all in.”
Abbate said one of his favorite places to cycle is Indian River Drive and A1A near Sewall’s Point. He said those are some of the best roads because every 15 minutes or so you get an elevation change going up or down the bridges. Also, if you continue off A1A to MacArthur Boulevard, you can enjoy Bathtub Beach and the House of Refuge.
Jupiter Island is an easy ride with coastal scenery. Because only a few call the island home, including Tiger Woods and Celine Dion, traffic in the area is scarce. There are also some great places to visit including the Jupiter Lighthouse and Museum, Blowing Rocks Preserve, and different parks.
Out west there are some great natural, scenic options. The Martin Grade, recently recognized as Florida’s 25th Scenic Highway, is a great, tree-covered ride which leads to the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail (LOST). According to VisitFlorida.com, LOST is situated high above the lake on the Herbert Hoover Dike, which provides a great view of the lake and surrounding area. Since only some of the paths are paved, you will want to be riding a hybrid or mountain bike, and parts of the trail are closed at certain times for dike maintenance. You never know what you’ll see on a nature ride.
“At the Lake Okeechobee dike, gators were a big thing, probably the coolest thing I’ve seen is a panther,” Abbate said.
You can also mountain bike in Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Nelson said the park contains a very unique resource, the ancient sand dune system called the Atlantic Coastal Ridge which contains the highest natural point south of the Lake Wales Ridge. Nelson said despite Florida not being known for mountains, you’re still in for elevation changes.
For those looking for a little competition or to ride for a good cause, Martin County has some great cycling events. At the Florida State Road Race Championships, everyone from junior to pro riders can compete. In 2013, Abbate won in his division’s race, and he was the race director in 2014. Abbate also participated in Ride for Heroes, one of the various charity rides in Martin County.
“It’s a great way to get lots of people together,” Abbate said.
Whether you are enjoying the beauty of nature, racing at high speeds, or riding in an event, the most important thing is safety.
“Being a guy who has crashed many times, that helmet has saved my life at least 3 times,” Abate said.
Martin County has all the biking opportunities you need, so strap on a helmet and discover what South Florida has to offer.
-Allapattah Flats: This is a vast area of marshes and flatwoods that provides great recreational opportunities while protecting habitat for rare animals, particularly sandhill cranes, wood storks, and crested caracaras, and game animals such as white tailed deer and wild turkey. Enjoy a hike or bike ride on the five mile long trail system. Please keep in mind that season hunting is allowed and refer to the FWC Regulations for hunt dates and area rules.
-Blowing Rocks Preserve: Visitors can get a glimpse of one of our state’s rarest surviving landscapes – an intact Florida dune habitat with beach sunflower, bay cedar, sea grape, and sea oats. Three hiking trails and boardwalks, each up to 1/3 mile long, feature interpretative signs all along the paths. A photo-worthy sea grape path winds from hardwood hammock, through coastal strands, and into the beach dune before arriving at the “Blowing Rocks.” Swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving are allowed from the beach during listed hours. The Hawley Education Center provides tourists and the local community an opportunity to learn about efforts to protect native habitats, plants, and animals in Florida and around the world.
-Halpatiokee Park: The largest park in Martin County with 65 acres of active park land surrounded by 470 acres of wetland preserves. Many sport activities occur here on the soccer/football fields, tennis courts, softball/baseball fields, and an open air roller-hockey rink. Bring your camera to catch wildlife along the many walking/hiking trails and 7.5 miles of mountain biking trails. You can bring your own kayak or canoe and explore the South Fork of the St. Lucie River (you may also rent them here too). Halpatiokee is the Seminole Indian word meaning “Alligator Water.”
-Hawks Hammock: This 432 acre natural area is a favorite for horseback riding, hiking and wildlife viewing. There are 4.5 miles of trails for horseback riding. As you enjoy the trail, look for the scenic marsh and wet prairie vistas and hawks perching on pine trees along the trail loops.
-Indian Riverside Park-Indian RiverSide Park (IRSP) is the premier family destination park in Martin County. Located in Jensen Beach, IRSP sits beach side on the Indian River Lagoon, with a walking path, fishing pier, interactive play fountain, beach, pavilions, banquet space and much more. Make sure you call for availability of tours on the Mansion at Tuckahoe or Captain Henry Sewall’s Home. IRSP is also home to the U.S. Sailing Center of Martin County and The Children’s Museum of the Treasure Coast.
-Jonathan Dickinson Park: Three scenic nature trails wind through the park, allowing visitors to explore the park’s various habitats. The Kitching Creek-Wilson Creek Trails start in the picnic area parking lot, and lead the visitor through pine flatwoods and along the creeks. The Kitching Creek portion is a self-guiding trail, with a brochure available. The Hobe Mountain Trail is a short, beautiful boardwalk that climbs up through the sand pine scrub to the observation tower, from which commanding views of the entire park and surrounding area may be had. The Camp Murphy Off-road Bicycle Trail System is a nine-mile network of mountain bike trails, with loops rated for beginners all the way to “black diamond, experts only.” Bicycles may be rented at the River Store.
-Kiplinger Nature Preserve: The 150 acre Kiplinger Nature Preserve is located off of Kanner Hwy, just south of SE Indian St. There is a trail and boardwalk system that leads you to an overlook at the South Fork of the St. Lucie River. Here you may see manatees, wading birds, osprey and bald eagles. This is a great spot for bird watching.
-Maggy’s Hammock Park: Formerly named “Rocky Point Hammock Park,” Maggy’s Hammock has been called “an oasis of tropical hammock in a sea of suburbia.” Take a hike along the mile-long nature trail to view the different plants and wildlife. The trails are a part of the Great Florida Birding & Wildlife Trail.
-Peck Lake Park: You can have a BBQ with family and friends at the pavilions in the front of the park or you can take a stroll on the 1/2-mile boardwalk that leads you to the edge of the Indian River and Peck Lake. A large pavilion will greet you on the deck overlooking the water for you to enjoy the panoramas or hide from the sun while fishing or spotting wildlife. Wildlife you may see at the park includes many species of birds, bobcats, snakes, rabbits, manatee, and dolphins.
-Phipps Park: Relax and get away from it all at Phipps Park. Located along the Okeechobee Waterway, this 55 acre conservation park is easily accessible from the Florida Turnpike and Interstate 95. The park offers fishing, nature trails, a boat ramp, and camping. There are campsites that offer “hook-ups” for RV’s and for those who like to rough it a little more there are primitive sites for tents. Visitors have spotted rare wildlife including burrowing owls, coyotes, otters and bobcats among other interesting flora and fauna. For camping reservations and more information call 772-287-6565.
-Rio Nature Park: In the community of Rio, pull off to the side of the road on NW Alice St and park in front of the Rio Nature Park sign. Take a stroll through the 2-acre natural area and find yourself sitting in a nice picnic area on the banks of the St. Lucie River. You will be able to see the city of Stuart on the other side of the river.
-Timer Powers Park: Beautiful Timer Powers Park is located in Western Martin County on Citrus Boulevard in Indiantown. The park is 37 acres with the scenic Okeechobee waterway bordering the east side of the park. The park has many large oak trees, and is listed as part of the Lake Okeechobee Scenic Trail. There are many pavilions and a Community Center available for rental for events. The park is also has a state-of-the-art, covered equestrian arena that is the only public equestrian arena in Martin County. It is available to the public for general usage and organized horse shows. Timer Powers Park is the location of the annual Indiantown Rodeo which is one of the nation’s most prominent rodeos and dates back to 1947.
-Zeus Park: Located in the heart of Hobe Sound, Zeus Park offers residents of the Zeus Park Community a great place to bring family and friends. There is a playground for children, a picnic area and bike trails. There is also a large grass field for everyone to exercise, play games or just layout and enjoy a beautiful day.