Pelican Island isn’t just a National Wildlife Refuge, it’s the National Wildlife Refuge that started the whole idea going, back in 1903.
Even further back, in 1858, the small island in the Indian River Lagoon – offshore from where the refuge access is today – was documented as a brown pelican breeding ground.
On March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt designated Pelican Island as the first Federal bird reserve.
This first-ever act by the Federal government to set aside land for wildlife would lead to the creation of the National Wildlife Refuge system, as well as our National Parks and National Forests.
One hundred years later, Pelican Island’s Centennial Trail opened as the centerpiece of a nationwide celebration of the National Wildlife Refuge system.
The Centennial Trail is the shortest and easiest of the refuge’s three hiking trails. Its paved walkways and boardwalks make it fully wheelchair-accessible.
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Location: Orchid Island
Length: 0.8 mile round-trip
Trailhead: 27.803342, -80.429350
Restrooms: At the Pelican Island Orientation Area
Land manager: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Open 7:30 AM to sunset. Pets are not permitted. This parking area and trail are fully accessible.
Restrooms are located at the Pelican Island Orientation Area, north along Historic Jungle Trail. Drinking water is not available.
From US 1 in Sebastian, take CR 510 (Wabasso Beach Rd) across the Indian River Lagoon to Orchid Island. Turn north on A1A and drive 3.7 miles north to the refuge entrance on the left.
From Sebastian Inlet, follow A1A south for 3.3 miles to Historic Jungle Trail. A refuge sign points you down this unpaved canopied road. Drive 0.6 mile past the Pelican Island Orientation Area (the first trailhead) on the left before you come to the Centennial Trail trailhead on the right.
The whole reason to take this little hike, of course, is for the birds. The island has long been a nesting area for brown pelicans, and this short walk features a wide variety of birds.
Our first sighting started with the impoundment adjacent to the welcome and historical kiosk.
A black skimmer showed off its skimming behavior, swooping low to the water and shoveling it up with his bill. It was worth some time on a trailside bench to watch his technique.
The trail winds away from the impoundment and along the edge of a wetland you’d expect to see along the Indian River Lagoon, with cabbage palms and tall grasses.
As the paved path rounds a bend past a kiosk, it reaches the Centennial Boardwalk. Look underfoot as you head up this long ramp.
You’ll see the names and founding dates of every National Wildlife Refuge, though some have faded from the sun and the wear of foot traffic.
Looking down and out, you’ll see a mangrove-lined canal popular with herons and egrets.
Alligators lie in wait just beneath the surface along the brackish mud flats. A cormorant might be drying its wings while perched on a mangrove.
The boardwalk ends at a covered observation deck with two free telescopes for viewing Pelican Island, the nesting area for brown pelicans.
Use your own binoculars or the telescope to sweep over the landscape and spot ospreys, green herons, and — of course — pelicans!
Take time to enjoy the view, the breeze, and the bird life — and be thankful that, more than a century ago, our ancestors had the foresight to start saving habitat for species that were disappearing.
Return the same way, enjoying the stops along this leisurely walk. The side trail kiosk points out the start of the the Joe Michael Memorial Trail, a 3-mile loop out to the edge of the Indian River Lagoon.
View our video filmed along the Centennial Trail
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
One of few places where the Indian River Lagoon mingles with the Atlantic Ocean, Sebastian Inlet is the central feature of Sebastian Inlet State Park, which protects the tips of both barrier islands.