Location: Melbourne Beach
Length: 1 mile
Lat-Long: 28.011165, -80.530555
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: low to moderate
Open Oct-Apr 7 AM-6 PM, May-Sep 7 AM-8 PM. No bicycles are permitted.
Managed by the Brevard EEL Program
From Interstate 95, follow US 192 for 9 miles east through Melbourne and over the causeway to where it ends at Indialantic Beach. Turn right and drive south on A1A for 6.2 miles, passing Coconut Point Beach before you come to the parking area for Juan Ponce de Leon Landing Beach on the left after the Publix.
Did Ponce de Leon actually land at Coconut Point? The signage here at the parking area along the beach is at odds – one sign lays claim to the event, stating “This is a Historic Site,” the other, more official-looking sign hedges its bets. Cross A1A and head north along the paved bicycle path to the trailhead kiosk. It says the loop is 3/4 of a mile, but the full hike is slightly more than a mile long. As you start into the coastal scrub on the dune tops, the landscape is very open, with no canopy but a thick understory of saw palmettos have that lovely silvery-blue cast that you often see near the sea.
Windflowers rustle in the breeze. Bright red blooms of coral beans peep up over the thickets of saw palmetto, which love vine attempts to strangle. The path is framed with shells and isn’t very wide, just a little wider than a gopher tortoise trail, but it does the job you need, snaking you through the saw palmetto thicket.
Coastal scrub is a diminutive forest that you have to look into, not over, to see the details. Saw palmetto gives way to tiny Chapman oaks, named for renowned 19th century Florida botanist Alvan Chapman, who is buried in Apalachicola. Their leaves have some jagged points, whereas myrtle oaks, another scrub oak, look like big teardrops in green. Both oaks, along with the more common sand live oak – which has canoe-shaped leaves, if you turn them over they will float – are the primary trees you’ll find in both coastal and inland scrubs. It’s a two-foot-tall forest, kept at this height, undoubtedly, by the constant wind coming off the ocean. Florida scrub-jays love hopping around in these short trees, and indeed, there is an interpretive sign here that yes, you might see scrub-jays. Look for flashes of blue between the trees.
There’s a noticeable drop in elevation as you step carefully over the gatorbacks (saw palmetto roots) and down. Cabbage palms now rise overhead, as do sea grapes. A tiny patch of shade is a welcome relief from the sun you’ve hiked in thus far. Sand live oaks and silk bay grow overhead here, and the saw palmetto understory loses its silver-blue hue. A yellow sulfur butterfly flits past. Charred trunks belie that a fire – perhaps a prescribed burn – swept through the landscape in the not-too-distant past. Watch your head as you duck under branches and come up to a bench at an intrepretive sign, “Life can be tough for plants on the barrier island.” This was a beautifully canopied hammock on my last visit, but the fire wiped out the canopy. The plants, tough as they are, are growing back nicely.
Continuing downhill, there’s a short stretch of soft sand before the trail enters a palm hammock. Past a powerline, there are gopher apple in bloom and another intrepretive sign, this one, meaningfully, about fire. Crossing an access road at 0.3 mile to the Sea World marine biology lab, the trail keeps on downhill to reach a boardwalk. A salt breeze kicks up, that detritus aroma that reminds you of mangrove marshes. The boardwalk crosses a primordial marsh of giant leather fern and sea myrtle. You pass under a tall white mangrove, and around a small pond with cattails. The footpath is a bit damp underfoot, with pennyroyal growing in it, which means it can flood here.
The next boardwalk is a series of slender boards into a gorgeous coastal hammock with a low, shady canopy. Windswept oaks host bromeliads and resurrection ferns on their limbs, as well as orchids that appreciate the constant humidity. Wild coffee peeps through the understory. Beyond this stretch of hammock, another, broader boardwalk guides you over damp spots with a little jog to the right before dropping you into soil with a bit of bounce underfoot and muck, along the edge of a sawgrass marsh. With mangroves behind it, it feels like a scene stolen from the Everglades – and smells like it, too.
Another series of bog bridges carry you along the edge of the tidal zone, but you still can’t see the lagoon for the mangroves and the tall marsh ferns. There are more silvery-blue palmetto in the upland. Coming to a junction at 0.5 mile, turn right. The wind picks up as you walk past fire ant nests and into a tunnel of red mangroves roots along another boardwalk. Popping out of the mangroves, you have a feast for the eyes. Colorful morning glory vines spills across the vegetation all along the shoreline of the Indian River Lagoon. You’ve emerged at Coconut Point, where morning glories meet mangroves and, if you stand on the observation deck for a while, you’ll see manatees surfacing in the shallows.
Returning to the junction back through the mangrove tunnel, continue straight. You walk past the skeletal remains of a couple of tall cabbage palms dead before their time, atop more bog bridges along stands on marlberry and mangroves, a narrow corridor amid the vegetation. Ambling past American beautyberry beneath the sand live oak canopy, you find another bench.
The trail tunnels through the oak hammocks and pops out within sight of the power lines again, closing in on the marine lab access road. The shady canopy recedes into the distance as you re-enter the scrub forest with its crispy tree trunks, and the footpath turns to bright soft sand. Look for prints of racoons and bobcats in the sand as you trudge through this difficult dune stretch. Off in the distance, you can see a kiosk near A1A. The trail continues to rise through softer sand, emerging at the sidewalk at 0.7 mile.
Turn left to walk along the bike path to return to the crosswalk to the parking area at Juan Ponce de Leon Landing. Crossing the entrance road to the marine lab again – where the Sea World sign is evident – you complete your walk at the parking area, a full mile. You can easily add on to your mileage by taking a beach walk in either direction.
0.0 Parking area at Ponce de Leon Landing
0.1 Trailhead kiosk for Coconut Point
0.3 Cross entry road for Sea World marine biology lab
0.4 Sawgrass marsh
0.5 Observation deck on Indian River Lagoon
0.7 bike rack and kiosk
1.0 Parking area at Ponce de Leon Landing