The Space Coast is home to many scenic nature trails, but the largest and most renowned is the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. This reserve spans 140,000 acres just north of Titusville and boasts views of alligators, rare birds and even the NASA Vehicle Assembly Building. Visiting this area is worthwhile for any vacation and necessary for any local!
There is a lot to do at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and it can be hard to decide where to start. I have visited a few times and have come up with a good game plan for a day trip here. Whether you are interested in hiking, paddling or fishing, you are guaranteed some unforgettable sights at this picturesque Space Coast refuge.
The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge Location
The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is located just east of Titusville in the northern part of the Space Coast. This puts it an hour away from Orlando, Melbourne and Daytona Beach Florida. The area is very secluded and it is a bit off the beaten path to get to. Make sure you have all the supplies you need and a tank of gas before going over the Veterans Memorial Fishing Pier!
Once here, you can either turn into the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge or keep going to get to the Canaveral National Seashore. Also known as Playalinda Beach, this is a gorgeous stretch of 24 miles of pristine beach perfect for spending a day in the sun. This post will mainly focus on the refuge area, but if you want to get some beach time in, check out this area before or after your hiking experience.
Overview of Trails
Arriving at the visitor center, you can learn a lot about the local nature and pick up maps and other information. There is also a short quarter of a mile hike here that is worth taking a walk around, especially by the water.
The most popular trails to hike here are the Oak and Palm trails, which are three quarters of a mile and 2 miles respectively. Both are loops, so as long as you stay the trail, you should have no issue getting lost. On these trails, you will find a variety of different trees and birds, as well as potential some mammals. Make sure to be prepared for mud on these if it has recently rained.
The main attraction is Black Point Drive. This is a 7-mile drive along a marsh with multiple stops to get out and observe nature. It costs $10 per car and I recommend bringing cash for this. There is no turning around once you are on the trail, but you can pull over to the side of the road anytime. There is also a bathroom on stop 9.
If you plan to drive through the entire thing, it will only take about half an hour. I recommend stopping at both stop 4 and stop 9 for a little hiking though. Stop 4 has a Wild Bird Trail quarter of a mile loop, and you will see a lot of birds on the water. Stop 9 has the 5-mile Allan D. Cruickshank Memorial Trail. You do not have to take a full 5-mile hike though and instead can spend a as much time as you want in the general vicinity and viewing scenery from the Observation Tower.
For very serious hikers, there is the 6.5 mile Scrub Ridge Trail and the 13 miles Pine Flatwoods Trail. With these, you can also just do your own shorter version if you prefer and you will tend to see more land animals on them then water ones. I think the hammock trails and the Black Point Drive are the most unique experiences here personally.
If you want to go boating, there are plenty of places to put your boat, canoe or kayak in. You will find six boat ramps throughout the refuge, mainly in the mosquito lagoon. However, for small craft, you can put your vessel pretty much anywhere, except for most of Black Point Drive. There is only one spot here to park and take your boat in this area and that is at L Pond Road.
Andrew and I took a day trip to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge on a surprisingly cool April day. We have been the Canaveral National Seashore before for the beach and bioluminescent kayaking, but this was our first time here for hiking. The visitor center was closed due to COVID-19, but we parked near there to check out the boardwalk trail. This is only a quarter of a mile loop, so it takes about fifteen minutes to explore the area.
There was a nice pond view and lots of unique trees to see. We haven’t done much birding, but we did sit on a bench and see some woodpeckers come by. It was a relaxing start before checking out the Hammock Trails. We did the shorter Oak trail and again saw a lot of interesting wildlife like birds and turtles. I was disappointed to have not seen a gator yet though!
After the two trails, we went on to Black Point Drive. Here, we expected to see sprawling marshes, but unfortunately, this was during a severe drought so a lot was dried up. The bird trail was a pleasant spot to walk around, especially with the little gazebo areas. However, the Allan D. Cruickshank Memorial Trail was a lot more exciting. We caught a few glimpses of gators while driving, but here we saw a bunch up close. You still have to keep your distance, but we could see them sunbathing in the shallow water!
We also really enjoyed the gorgeous views from the observation tower as well. Here, you get a panoramic view and there is so much to see! I tried to spot a bald eagle, as they are also found here, but I had no luck this time. We spent almost an hour walking around and taking pictures at this spot and then headed out for the day.
Suggested Itinerary for Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
Our day at the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge started around noon, but that is when wildlife is least active. It is ideal to go either early in the morning or late in the afternoon. I recommend starting at the Visitor’s Center area first so you can grab a map and learn a little.
After this, I think Black Point Drive is the best, since it is a mix of driving and hiking. Then you can check out the other trails after Black Point Drive. This way, you have plenty of energy to explore the Allan D. Cruickshank Memorial Trail!
If you want to make this a whole day experience, I also recommend going to the beach. It’s just a short drive from the refuge and you can find some of the most pristine beaches in Florida! If you plan to do some sort of paddling, you should probably just stick to that and Black Point Drive, unless you are feeling extra ambitious.
Whenever you go, you will want to make sure to eat enough to sustain your hiking experience! My two favorite restaurants in the area are Third Culture Kitchen and The Brix Project. Third Culture Kitchen is perfect for lunch before heading to the refuge. The Brix Project is a great ending spot for dinner and a beer. If you are going early and want breakfast on the way, Bagel 13 is a tasty place for grabbing food. You can always pack a lunch and eat it at the refuge as well!
Know Before You Go: Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
If you are looking for a unique nature experience, The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is the place to go. I have never seen so many different birds as I did hiking around here, and it is also the closest I have been to an alligator. People of all ages and abilities can enjoy the sights here whether walking around, hiking or driving. Here are some tips to make you experience even better!
- The Merritt Island National Refuge is open daily from sunrise to sunset.
- It is free to visit with the exception of $10 to drive through Black Point Drive and $20 to visit the beaches of the Canaveral National Seashore.
- Peak wildlife season is October through March. The best times of day to see wildlife is in the early morning or late afternoon.
- You can bring boats, kayaks canoes and paddleboards and launch from multiple spots in the refuge.
- Be wary of flooding and muddy conditions in the summer, especially on the Hammock Trails.
- They have free maps at the park, but here is one online to look at before you go.
- For more info about going on a bioluminescent kayaking tour here, check out this blog post about our experience with BK Adventure.
Have you been to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge before? Let me know what animals you have seen there if you have! For more ideas for things to do in the area, check out my Space Coast Travel Guide and my Central Florida Attractions list.