Hidden behind a screen of mangroves along the Indian River Lagoon, D.J. Wilcox Natural Area is an offbeat place to find a hike. You wouldn’t expect it as you drive down the entrance road, which is lined with canals edged with mangroves on both sides. You still wouldn’t expect it as you walk along the levee along the Indian River Lagoon, where the views are expansive and the probability you’ll see plenty of bird life nearly 100%. But take a wander past the comfort zone, where the anglers hang out and fish the edges, and the levee leads you around the corner and into the past. Hidden in these pine woods and scrub is the ghost town of Indrio, established in the 1920s.
Length: 2.3 miles
Lat-Long: 27.528049, -80.348533
Type: round-trip with loop
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: moderate
Open sunrise to sunset.
The interior loop can be a little confusing. Be sure to carry a GPS or map and compass. There is a secondary access point which gets you closer to the interior hiking loop by parking at the end of Michigan Street, but taking this approach makes you miss the views along the Indian River Lagoon. It does cut the length of the hike down to just 1.1 miles, however.
From Fort Pierce, follow US 1 north; from Vero Beach, follow US 1 south. From I-95, take the Indrio Road exit. In all cases, you end up at the intersection of Indrio Road and US 1. Drive east to CR 605, the Old Dixie Highway. Turn north and pass Michigan Street. Pass the trailhead parking for Indrio Scrub. Continue to the next right hand turn, Wilcox Road, into D.J. Wilcox Natural Area. Follow it to the end and park near the lagoon.
Your hike starts at the end of the parking area by following the landscape in the only direction you can walk (other than back up the entrance road) – along the Indian River Lagoon. A tidal marsh stretches before you, where roseate spoonbills sift through the silted shallows and ibis pick at tasty morsels beneath the mangroves. Following the levee south between the open waters of the lagoon and a mangrove marsh down the embankment to your right, you pass a fishing pier that doubles as a great perch to watch for osprey. Benches along the levee provide breezy spots to sit with your binoculars and keep an eye on the comings and goings of the herons and egrets. You may see anglers way out there in the lagoon, since it’s especially shallow in this area. Enjoy the breezy stroll.
The lagoonfront levee comes to an end at a water control structure. Turn right to follow an interior levee, which is an extension of Michigan Street. During the 1920s Florida real estate boom, this street led down to a busy wharf on the lagoon, with commerce the order of the day. Orange groves flanked the Old Dixie Highway, and their fruit was shipped out from this spot. The walk up the old road isn’t picturesque, since there are overhead wires and no shade. But mangroves crowd up to both sides, with a smattering of sea oxeye blooming in the sun.
After 0.7 mile, watch for an opening into the forest on the right. A trail leads you back into the past, which has been swallowed up by the rapid tropical growth of the surrounding hammocks. The Wilcox family settled here in 1924 as the town grew around a cluster of buildings which was once Indrio. Looking at the walls of vegetation, it’s hard to imagine a time when Model Ts stopped into a gas station here along the Old Dixie Highway, and local residents wandered down to pick up their mail from the post office. There aren’t a lot of clues. Three large mango trees are all that remain from those days, along with landforms that aren’t entirely natural. This spot was occupied as a homestead into the 1950s by the Wilcox family.
You cross a spring-fed waterway on a small bridge. It was this spring, freshwater so close to the lagoon, that sustained the little community and its gardens and groves. Remains of a water tank, a barn, and a garage have returned to the earth. That pond off to the left is called Gator Pond, probably with good reason. A trail leads along its south side to the alternative parking area for this hike, right through what was the major part of the old town. But your trek is straight ahead.
At the T intersection, just past Marker 1, which calls your attention to the myrsine in this tropical hammock, you’ve started the loop. Turn right, and you immediately see masses of grapevines, wild coffee, and an oak hammock with swaying vines, tall saw palmetto, and shade, blissful shade. Enjoy the shade of this coastal hammock! You walk through a boggy spot with marsh ferns, and bracken fern grow in drier areas. Wax myrtle towers above. This trail was originally set up as an interpretive loop to showcase the plant life, but we didn’t see many markers. Emerging into the scrub, it’s nice to see that care was taken to grub the gatorbacks out of the footpath. Sand live oaks cast puddles of shade across the path, and there are clumps of very old saw palmetto lifting themselves well off the ground. The habitat transitions into scrubby flatwoods, which feel a bit odd since there is no upper canopy of pine trees. Logged during the homesteading days?
The trail reaches a “V” shaped fork after 1 mile. Keep right unless you want to shorten your hike—to the left is a shortcut across the loop. Tall slash pines rise in the distance, and cabbage palms begin to dot the scrubby flatwoods. A fresh trail leads off to the right to an observation tower, which we missed on our walk but the park map claims is there. Perhaps it was under construction, given the freshly cut trail. The well-worn trail continues into more gatorbacks, and here they haven’t been removed as nicely. Step gingerly.
The trail makes a gentle curve to the right past very large, old pines with twisting branches; they provide a speck of shade in an otherwise warm landscape. Turning a corner to the right past a patch of shiny lyonia, a stand of loblolly bay catches your eye—wetlands! And freshwater, at that. The saw palmetto here has a silver-blue hue. Crunching leaves like cornflakes, you slip back into the shade of the sand live oak hammock. Going back in time through a succession of oak trees, each older and more wind-gnarled than the next, the air cools more. Then the trail pops back out into the scrubby flatwoods, which are broad and open and shadeless. Airplanes hum overhead and you can hear sounds across a vast distance.
At a T intersection at 1.4 miles, you’ve met the other side of the shortcut trail. Turn right, stepping through a soggy spot to dance along the edge of a bayhead with numerous loblolly bays and bracken fern, with little dips in the footpath collecting the dark water of the swamp. Heading into the shade of the oak hammock, you pass marker 13 before emerging into more scrubby flatwoods. The saw palmetto is tall enough to act like a garden maze, cutting off your view up ahead. Pennyroyal blooms along the edges of the footpath. Returning to the bayhead for a little shade, the trail returns back under the oaks, gaining a little elevation during one more jog through the open flatwoods.
Completing the loop just past Marker 16, take the trail to your right to exit, walking back past the little open area where a town, and a homestead, once stood. If you’re not too tired out, take the side trail to the right along Gator Pond for a peek through the center of Indiro—this trail exits out to the alternative trailhead. Come back to the main trail and continue along it to emerge on Michigan Street. Turn left to retrace your steps back along the levees – down the length of road where settlers once walked to the wharf, and back along the waterfront of the Indian River Lagoon, where the breezes are a pick-me-up as you head back to the trailhead.
|0.0||trailhead @ lagoon|
|0.3||follow interior levee|
|0.7||junction with interior trail|
|1.6||end of loop|
|2.0||Indian River Lagoon|
|2.3||trailhead @ lagoon|