On the boundary between modern subdivisions and the floodplain of the St. Johns River, Ritch Grissom Memorial Viera Wetlands – modeled after Orlando Wetlands Park, to process wastewater naturally – has proven to be one of the best wildlife watching sites in the county. While its trails can, often, be driven in a passenger car, you’re more likely to see wildlife if you walk a route around the 200 acres of impoundments. Colonial nesting birds gather on the shubbery of small islands, while wading birds stalk a meal on the edges of shallower impoundments. It’s entirely in the open, with no shade, but well worth the trek for some stellar photography.
Length: 2.4 miles
Fees / Permits: none
Good for: birding, wildlife
Bug factor: moderate
If the driving route is open, please be cautious of vehicles. Taking a dog here is not recommended because of the alligators and abundant bird life.
In Brevard County, exit Interstate 95 at Exit 191, Wickham Road. Drive west 0.4 mile and go around the traffic circle. Continue straight to stay on N Wickham Rd. The turnoff into the park is after 2.2 miles, on the left. A large parking area is below the levee. At times, there is a driving route open through the preserve.
Officially designated the “Ritch Grissom Memorial Viera Wetlands,” everyone locally just calls it Viera Wetlands. A large kiosk near the beginning of the trail system provides a map and explanation of the impoundments, and details about the habitats constructed here in 1995.
Climbing up to the top of the dike from the parking area, make the first right. You have a sweeping view of the wetlands off to your left, one of the best advantages to walking along a levee. Follow the exterior of the dike as it turns around the corner and then take the first left to begin your walk through the interior trails, where wildlife watching is best. A gazebo overlooks the water. Walking along, you see a vast swath of pickerelweed on the right, where ibis may be browsing, and open water on the left. An observation deck is visible off in the distance ahead. By the swirl of birds flying from place to place and the squawks that emerge from clumps of greenery, you can tell this is a very birdy place.
After a half mile, you reach the observation deck. It looks over two ponds that are thick with pickerelweed and cattail. After scanning the ponds for bird life, leave the deck and continue along the central trail that heads to the back of the park – you stepped off it to get to the deck, and while there is a “Do Not Enter” sign, that only applies to cars. When we walked it, a trio of otters came bounding down the road towards us, looking like puppies until they got close enough we could tell exactly what they were. Two sets of sandhill cranes browsed along the water’s edge. A little green heron is perched in a wax myrtle. Far in the distance to the right, you can see what’s left of the Duda cattle ranch, which surrounds this park.
Walking along, you see the changes from shallow marsh to deeper water with open areas where cormorants dive and fuss. One pretty spot to sit and watch the birds is a bench overlooking an impoundment with a line of old pine trees in the far distance. Duck potato and pickerelweed fill the shallows thickly. Beyond the impoundments stretches the ranch and scattered trees in the river floodplain. As you reach the far end of the impoundments you can hear the roar of water being released back into the St. Johns River floodplain, through a flood gate into the canal system.
Reaching a T intersection at 0.9 miles, at the edge of the park, you can see open prairie with scattered pines and cabbage palms with a saw palmetto understory, all part of the ranchland that surrounds the park. Deer sometimes bound through this area on the other side of the fence. Turn left, passing the Cell 3 sign. A bald eagle flies overhead. There is a bench on the curve as the trail makes its way along the edge of the wetlands. Off to the right, you see more prairie dotted with cabbage palms and pines. On the left is the sweep of the wetlands. Along this stretch, we noted little green heron, little blue heron, Louisiana heron, coots, and lots of sandhill cranes.
Passing the next bench looking out over the wetlands – a scattering of open marsh and pickerelweed – you can see that the birds are well camouflaged against the textures of the near marsh, and the alligators are even better camouflaged by the thick growth. The snag attracts eagles, osprey, and great blue heron. A screen of longleaf pine and wax myrtle is in the foreground as you look over at the grazing cattle on the right.
At 1.5 miles you come to a 3-way junction where the interior and exterior trails meet. Go straight ahead to head back on the interior trail so you can walk with wetlands on both sides. Turn right at the T intersection – where there is a bench – and listen to the chatter of birds just beyond. A nesting plank for osprey is within view. The water is shallower in this impoundment, called the Click Ponds. Within a mile, the character of the marsh on the right changes from shallows with water lilies and pennywort to more open water; you can see gator trails in the shallows. The impoundment on the left is open water.
At the next trail junction, turn right at the bench, continuing around Cell One. There are more open waters in the distance. In this stage of the process, the water is very clean, as you can see native aquatic plants growing beneath the surface. You reach the exterior trail again at 1.9 miles. Turn left to continue the loop around the exterior side, walking along the broad, open water where great blue herons soar. Passing a bench overlooking the open impoundment, and on the right hand side of the dike there is a ditch with pickerelweed in it. By 2.2 miles you can see a big island where colonial nesting birds like cattle egrets gather. You start to see the gazebo again off to the far left up ahead. Reaching the entrance kiosk, turn right to exit, completing the 2.4 mile hike.
|1.7||junction / bench|
|2.2||island in impoundment|