As the wind whips across a broad, sweeping peninsula reaching out towards Ponce Inlet, you can hear the squawks of shorebirds and the rustle of gopher tortoises intermingle with engines gunning and dogs barking. At New Smyrna Beach, Smyrna Dunes Park is one of those rare places where most recreational users are accommodated.
The 2-mile hiking trail is a wheelchair-accessible boardwalk, with side trips off to the sea via more rugged approaches. A dog beach attracts dog-lovers from all over. Beach driving is permissible up to the jetties. There is space to play and splash away from the cars on the inlet side of the peninsula. While the walk here is mostly in full sun, picnic shelters offer stopping points and places to grill up burgers. Within 250 acres of mangrove-lined shore, rolling dunes, and broad sand flats, the wildlife watching is superb. Smyrna Dunes Park is a destination onto itself.
Location: New Smyrna Beach
Length: Up to 2.4 miles
Lat-Long: 29.065864, -80.914742
Type: Loop with spurs
Fees / Permits: $10 parking fee (2016 rate)
Bug factor: low
The entire loop is wheelchair-accessible, although the side trails to the beach are not—they involve scrambles along sand paths, or staircases up and over the dunes. If you walk your dog here (and many people do), you must clean up after it.
To find the park, take I-95 exit 249, New Smyrna. Follow SR 44 east over the causeway into New Smyrna Beach, turning left on Peninsula Boulevard after 5.4 miles. Follow the road for 2.7 miles, until it ends at the Coast Guard Station. Turn right to enter the park, and pay your admission.
Starting at the parking area – which closes when it reaches its max of about 50 cars, so arrive early! – the boardwalk begins across the pavement from the restrooms and pavilion. A separate path, leaving the far parking area, leads down to the dog beach. To hike from the high dunes to the low sand flats, walk along the interpretive boardwalk, which leads into a maritime forest, While the shady canopy vanished several hurricanes ago, dense undergrowth of red bay and Hercules’-club persists.
As the trail clambers up into the dunes, you catch a glimpse of a large condo development off to the right before the boardwalk turns and, thankfully, puts it at your back. Tangles of saw palmetto and catbrier seem to hold these sand mounds in place. Watch for the first of many gopher tortoise holes–I have never seen as many gopher tortoises in one place as I have here at Smyrna Dunes Park. On an early afternoon walk, I counted more than a dozen sitting contentedly in the shade of their burrows, and a few more taking strolls through the underbrush.
At Walkway #8, turn right and follow the boardwalk up and over the deep bowls between the dunes. On the climb over the last dune, notice how the sand catches and gathers around the grasses. These white dunes look like mountains in miniature, with virtual glacial blocks of wind-hardened sand cracking away from the hillside, poised to break free. Sand cascades across the boardwalk, attempting to reclaim its territory. This is the populated side of the pensinsula, so it’s here you’ll see the beach drivers and, in the distance, the shimmer of tall condos in Daytona Shores. Consider this: all of the oceanfront within your view once looked like the dunes you stand amid now.
Follow Walkway #8 back to the main trail. The boardwalk rises high over a deep basin between the dunes, where you catch a glimpse of a white geodesic dome off to the left–the NASA tracking station, used to monitor launches as they pass over this portion of the Space Coast. Off in the distance, sails surrealistically slip behind the dunes, a constant parade of maritime traffic.Across the inlet, the tall brick form of the Ponce Inlet lighthouse towers over the landscape.
As you continue along the trail, it drops down into a low, barren, desert-like area. One row of dunes guards these lowlands from the ocean. You’ll pass more walkways to the beach, and pavilions outfitted with covered picnic tables and charcoal grills. The trail turns south to follow the inlet. Watch for the observation tower at 1.2 miles. A climb up this three-story tower gives you a sweeping view of the entire park and Ponce Inlet, including a cluster of tall sand dunes inland,across the river, broken only by the spikes of Washingtonia palms.
Take Walkway #2 to the right. It crosses an old road edged with very out-of-place granite boulders, perhaps a long-ago attempt at a jetty, and scrambles onto another boardwalk out into the mangrove swamp. Mangroves cluster around what looks like an old man-made canal. This is the northern extent of the red mangrove. The more common black mangroves (ranging north to St. Augustine) have shiny leaves and dark round seed cases.
Where Walkway #2 reaches the beach, you can turn right and follow the inlet around to the edge of the park – a beach walk of nearly two miles – back to Walkway #8, or head 0.3 mile south to Walkway #1. Erosion of the dunes along the inlet exposes the bright pink roots of sea purslane, a succulent with a high salt content in its thick leaves. Its tiny flowers bloom all summer. Also known as sea pickle, the leaves of sea purslane have been used to treat scurvy and kidney disorders.
The canal feeding the mangrove swamp barely touches the upper edge of the beach, so the sea only nourishes the swamp at high tide. Oysters cling to the mangroves’ exposed roots. This is the dog beach, so expect to see residents walking their dogs along the lapping waves. At the fishing pier, climb up the stairs to follow Walkway #1 back to the main loop, a 0.1 mile walk. On the main loop, turn right to return to the parking lot.