Last weekend the family and I packed up for a true wilderness adventure! We had a nice day and a great ride down to the Merritt Island National Wildlife refuge! The last time the little guy and I headed out to the Brevard area, I was scoping out a scoping out some local hiking trails and stumbled upon this natural wonder right in our own backyard. Growing up in Florida, I always knew that the Kennedy Space Center was right in the middle of Canaveral National Seashore, but I wasn’t aware that a huge portion of the natural land around the space center is actually considered Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, under the jurisdiction of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge has lots to offer a frugal Florida family! While we were in the area, there were two main attractions within the refuge that I really wanted to check out. I had read on the US Fish and WIldlife Service website that there was a wildlife drive that was available for visitors to actually drive through. It sounded a bit like a drive through safari so it was the main destination of the day. Known as the Black Point Wildlife Drive, this twisting, winding, one way dirt road was a perfect start to our adventure. This is a well maintained dirt path, with multiple places to pull over and observe the local wildlife. The best times to go are early morning around sunrise or a few hours before sunset. We saw tons of birds, but little else on the wildlife drive. Granted we were there in the middle of the day, but it was still cool to check out. The admission is $5 per car and it’s handled on the honor system with a pay-station at the entrance. You can also pay your entry fee at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Welcome Center as well.
Accessible via the Black Point Wildlife Drive, the Cruickshank Trail is what appears to be a great 5 mile grass loop trail around a peninsula right off the drive. There is an observation town as well as basic restrooms available at the trailhead. I think I’ll come back one weekend to do the loop myself. It seems like an easy hike, and would be great as I’m just getting into hiking. It looks to be a very well maintained grass trail, but I wouldn’t consider it handicapped accessible by any means. There is an observation town just a bit into the trail where you can really see the entire ecosystem from an elevated platform. If you don’t necessarily want to pay to get into a hiking area, you can always checkout the Oak and Palm Hammock trails which offer about two miles combined hiking distance. There is a small boardwalk trail surrounding the welcome center which also offers a great opportunity to see the local wildlife. Another free trial known as the Scrub trail which is about a mile long and will take you along previous fire breaks where you can check out a local Scrub Jay habitat similar to Lyonia Preserve.
Another crowd pleaser at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is certainly the manatee viewing deck. Manatees are known to congregate around the Haulover Canal area when the water is about 70 degrees or so. This area is a little known local secret when it comes to manatees, but has been a fishing hotspot for years! No one quite knows why the manatees prefer the area, but it conveniently located around warm water sources such as local power plants, and is right next to the protected waters of the mosquito lagoon. Unfortunately we didn’t see any manatees that day either, but we plan on returning when it gets a bit colder and later in the winter season. This area is free and seems to have ample parking. During the high point of manatee season, you’ll definitely want to come down to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge just for the manatee viewing alone!
If you’re heading down to the refuge, you’ll want to take a few minutes and stop at the visitors center. This location staffed largely by volunteers, offers local maps, as well as a few perks you may not get elsewhere at the refuge. In addition to clean restrooms, you can also refill your water bottle from a bottled water cooler. I believe this facility has no fresh water as there are signs all over the place to not drink the water from the restrooms, so they offer a water cooler for you to use. I thought that was a nice bonus! The welcome center has multiple exhibits about the local wildlife, including a few pelts from local animals. My little guy loved to press all the buttons and hear about the ecosystems as well as touch all the furs and skins on display. He’s at the age that he loves to touch everything! If you happened to leave your binoculars at home, the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Welcome Center offers free loaner pairs. You must leave your driver’s license or a major credit card at the center as a deposit. The staff were all super friendly and they really seemed to appreciate all the visitors. Outside the center, there is a boardwalk that’s about a quarter mile loop that surrounds a body of water where were were able to see an alligator fairly close up. He seemed a bit sad as he was the only one, but I’m willing to bet there were more lurking around somewhere..
Although we didn’t really get to see much wildlife with the exception of lots of birds and a lone alligator, we loved the fact that we packed up in the car and had a great family outing. It only cost us $5 for the wilderness drive and discovered a few new trails that we’ll probably check out in the future. All in all it was a great day. If you have a free day and want to relax and do something different, take some time and head on over to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge!
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Specifics:
There is no postal address for the welcome center. You will want to check the above map for directions or use these GPS coordinates: 28.641467, -80.735842
Welcome Center Hours 9am – 4pm Tuesday – Saturday – Closed Sunday & Monday
Oddly enough however they were opened on Sunday when we went. Maybe they hanged their hours for peak season. Check their website for updated information.
Trails and Black Point WIldlife Drive open sunrise to sunset.
Cost of Black Point Wildlife Driver & Access to Cruickshank Trail: $5 Per Car, Bring Exact Cash Only