Tips for Exploring Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

An alligator rests while a Tri-colored heron searches for fish
An alligator rests while a Tri-colored Heron searches for fish

Off the coast of Florida‘s Atlantic shoreline lies its largest barrier island, and on that island, you’ll find Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Canaveral National Seashore. Herein lies two federally protected public lands you could potentially explore for days. I, sadly, only had one, but I made the most of it.

Planning Your Visit

I would recommend setting aside one full day for exploring Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and definitely stop by Canaveral National Seashore as well if time permits. If you have a weekend, I’d allow another full day for visiting the nearby Kennedy Space Center. We camped at Jetty Park in Port Canaveral and it was so peaceful to fall asleep to the sound of ocean waves. It’s also very pleasant to camp in Florida in February, as temperatures are much cooler. You could stay in Titusville, Cape Canaveral, Port Canaveral, or Cocoa Beach to easily access these wonderful attractions. It takes about one hour to drive here from the Orlando International Airport.

If you want to see space shuttles, alligators, birds, turtles, armadillos, manatees, pristine beaches, and more all in one place, head to Merritt Island, Florida. Click To Tweet

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge

Various egrets, ibises, and spoonbills wading in the swamp
Various egrets, ibises, and spoonbills wading in the swamp

I spent most of the day at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and didn’t get to see everything I’d set out for. That goes to show how much there is to do there. We stopped at the visitor center around 11 a.m., giving us only half a day to truly see the refuge and make our way to Canaveral National Seashore.

The visitor center itself is small but contains some fun interactive exhibits and a little bookstore for souvenirs. Most importantly, I was able to obtain passport stamps for my collection and we received input on how to spend our day from a friendly volunteer.

Black Point Wildlife Drive

My favorite alligator we saw on the drive, looking like it's smiling as it relaxes
My favorite alligator we saw on the drive, looking like it’s smiling as it relaxes

We saw SO MUCH on this short drive, it’s incredible. I’m still surprised, to be honest. There were an insane amount of birds wading, perfectly posing for photos. Alligators were sunbathing like mad out in the open to the excitement of tourists and native Floridians (like myself) alike.

The entire road was 3.5 miles, but we probably spent two hours driving it. We stopped occasionally and got out for a stroll on the short Wild Bird Trail as well as stopping for photos once in a while.

The birding was especially exceptional. We saw spoonbills, ibises, egrets, and herons of various types wading together. There were more than this as well, however, I’m not a huge birder, unfortunately, and couldn’t identify all of them.

Here are some of my favorite photos from the ride.

What I believe to be a Glossy Ibis searching for food
What I believe to be a Glossy Ibis searching for food
One of the largest gators we saw enjoying the sun
One of the largest gators we saw enjoying the sun
An egret along a short trail
An egret along a short trail
A stunning Tri-colored heron
A stunning Tri-colored Heron
A zoomed-in view of an enormous alligator
A zoomed-in view of an enormous alligator
Another perspective of one of my favorite alligators posing for me
Another perspective of one of my favorite alligators posing for me
A Tri-colored heron wakes up from a nap
A Tri-colored heron wakes up from a nap

Scrub Ridge Trail

A Florida Scrub-Jay searches for its food cache in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
A Florida Scrub-Jay searches for its food cache

Anxious to get out of the car after our ride along the drive, we headed for the Scrub Ridge Trail in search of the indigenous Florida Scrub-Jay.

These birds are some of the most charismatic, and one of my favorite species. At Lyonia Preserve in Central Florida, they’re so curious and friendly that they’ll often fly over and land on you. Especially if you have something shiny. Unfortunately, this is probably due to people feeding the birds. Never feed wild animals.

The Scrub Ridge Trail is a nice and easy one-mile hike. Some of it was a bit muddy, but I was able to avoid the mud in my sandals. I would imagine that for most of the year it is filled with bugs and mosquitoes, so bring your bug spray. You’ll also want sunscreen since the trail isn’t very shaded.

About halfway down the trail, we got lucky when five Scrub Jays surrounded us, obviously as curious as those I had seen before. Some even came out of the scrubs they were rustling in when we got quiet and they could tell we weren’t threats. I love getting up close and personal with the birds.

This friendly Scrub-Jay was studying me for a long time, allowing me to snap his photo
This friendly Scrub-Jay was studying me for a long time, allowing me to snap his photo

Florida Scrub-Jays are the only birds found exclusively in the state of Florida. Unfortunately, there are only 8,000 of them left due to habitat destruction. Thankfully, places like Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge exist and help protect this precious species.

Canaveral National Seashore

Canaveral National Seashore's Playalinda Beach
Canaveral National Seashore’s Playalinda Beach
Riley wears sandals and jeans as the ocean waves approach her feet
Enjoying having the beach all to myself (but clearly not dressed properly)

highly recommend grabbing a map from Canaveral National Seashore because it’s much more detailed than the map provided by the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. We had a tough time finding a road we were looking for, and I ended up driving into a part of the Kennedy Space Center not accessible to the public.

Oops.

Thankfully, a guard had me turn around and sent me in the correct direction. We decided we didn’t need to drive the road we had been searching for and turned toward Canaveral National Seashore and Playalinda Beach instead.

On our way to the beach, we had some more amazing wildlife sightings, including some armadillos! I was very surprised to see them. When I’ve stumbled upon them before, they haven’t hung around for long, so I’m surprised this one did. We also saw some more extremely large alligators basking away.

My new armadillo friend
My new armadillo friend
Yet another huge alligator enjoys the sunshine
Yet another huge alligator enjoys the sunshine

 

A closeup of the alligator we saw in Canaveral National Seashore. You can really see his smile!
A closeup of the alligator we saw in Canaveral National Seashore. You can really see his smile!

Unfortunately, our time to explore was already up. I definitely plan to return and spend some more time visiting these two amazing places.

 

2 Comments

  1. What a great post! Love those gators! I bet it was so cool being so close to them! I used to take care of a crocodile when I was working in Australia and it was seriously the cutest thing ever… it was a baby so definitely cuter than adults 😉 Thanks for sharing!

Reply