At a state park best known for its great surfing, the Coastal Hammock Trail at Fort Pierce State Park is a gentle introduction to a seaside semi-tropical forest, a counterpoint of deep shade to the sunny shores just beyond. Dynamite Point, at the tip of the inlet, has persistent waves that once served as a training ground for Navy SEALS and now attract a steady stream of surfers. While the Coastal Hammock Trail is the nature trail loop at this park, I’ve blended in a walk out to the point and along a small section of beach for a day hike that showcases the park.
Location: Fort Pierce
Length: 1.3 or 2 miles
Lat-Long: 27.472838 -80.294758
Type: loop and round-trip
Fees / Permits: state park entrance fee
Bug factor: moderate to annoying
Restroom: at both parking areas
The park is open 8 am to sunset.
From I-95, take Orange Ave (CR 68) for 4.5 miles into Fort Pierce. Turn north on US 1 and follow it for 1.7 miles. Turn right on A1A and cross the bridge over the Intracoastal Waterway. The park entrance is on the right hand side in a wooded area just before the road turns left to head up towards Pepper Park. Follow the park road to the end and park in the first big parking area, on the right, near Picnic Pavilion 5.
Starting at Picnic Pavilion 5, across from the playground, follow the old service road past the restrooms – for an introduction to what makes Fort Pierce Inlet State Park special. As the track curves to parallel the waterfront, you can see all the way across to Jetty Park on the far side of the inlet. A dense coastal hammock nudges close on the left side, with a spill of beach sunflowers across the sand. On my visit, a rather large gopher tortoise was grazing its way through the profusion of flowers and vines.
At the second picnic area, continue to walk forward on what’s now a sandy path following the inlet towards the Atlantic Ocean. You can hear the strum of waves in the distance. To prevent the shoreline from washing away during tides, big chunks of concrete form a breakwater along the inlet.
As you walk out on the beach, you’ll see fishermen out on the rocky jetty. This spit of land is Dynamite Point, where hefty waves roll in, attracting surfers from all over Florida. Islands of sea oats punctuate the bright white sand of the beach. Take a left and walk along the dune line. By 0.3 mile, you’ll see a line of oceanfront development in the far distance and, depending on the time of year, marked sea turtle nests along the shoreline. Where you reach the dune crossover, turn left. The well-marked walkway is lined with ropes between fenceposts to discourage trampling of the fragile dune vegetation. It emerges near another set of restrooms along a large parking area.
Turn right and follow the sidewalk along the edge of the parking area to the bike trail. Turn left and follow the asphalt path across the parking area and along the forest edge for a short distance. You come to a stop sign that’s perpendicular to you. To the left, a sign says “Red Bay Run,” to the right, “Coastal Hammock Trail.” Turn right to begin the Coastal Hammock Trail. It takes no time at all to be immersed in the coastal hammock, a canopy of red bay and cabbage palms providing shade, a thicket of saw palmetto filling in the understory, and lizards scattering at your approach. Scattered interpretive signs tell you about native plants like the sea grape; some of the saw palmetto have a silvery-blue hue. Red bay adds a fragrance to the salt breeze.
As the trail twists and turns, you see patches of blue overhead, breaks in the canopy from older trees that uprooted during the hurricanes of the last decade. Passing an interpretive marker on “birds of sea and shore,” you might hear an osprey crying out overhead. In the deepest shade, mosquitoes can be especially annoying. Squirrels race each other on the red bay limbs as you come up to the back side of a sign that says “Red Bay Run.” Another sign says “Exit.” You’ve reached the beginning of the loop within the Coastal Hammock Trail. Turn right down a pretty corridor of saw palmetto, with gumbo-limbo rising above and marlberry and wild coffee scattered through the understory.
The forest pulls in more tightly past interpretive marker 16 and you come to a trail junction. Make a quick trip to the right, up to the edge of the parking area, where you can see the main entrance to the nature trail, marked with a large “Coastal Hammock Trail” sign. Pick up an interpretive brochures from a box on the sign. As you return into the woods to the trail junction, the splash of red flowers in the understory is from coral bean. Turn right at the T intersection to continue around the loop, enjoying the arching limbs of red bay providing more shade around marker 3. Wild coffee is denser in this part of the understory. Pass a strangler fig on the left. The path is very wide here and easy to follow as it snakes through the tropical undergrowth, following an undulating landscape. Sunlight filters in through the palm fronds above.
Emerging into a sunlit corridor where the old canopy has been stripped away by storms, the trail gets a little rougher underfoot and grassy, seeming less maintained than the rest of the trail. American beautyberry shows off its bright purple berries in fall. Wild coffee surrounds marker 6. Popping back into the sunshine, notice how dense with vines the forest is to your left. Yellow sulphurs seek out blossoms on the catbriers. Walking in a mix of sun and shade, you pass another strangler fig. Increasingly, spiny-barked trees fill the forest – perhaps the silk floss tree, not one you’d want to try to climb.
As the trail turns right, duck under cabbage palm fronds into a tunnel of vegetation, deeply shaded under the windswept forms of red bay trees. Watch the footpath for red ant nests. Resurrection ferns make tree limbs furry, while catbrier tangles from above. The trail makes a sharp curve to the left, then another to the right. Up ahead, you can see the “Exit” sign near marker 13. You’ve hiked a mile. Turn right.
Backtracking on the connector trail back to the bike path, you emerge at the park road. Cross it and begin the short Red Bay Trail. The newer of the nature trails in the park, it makes a loop inside this patch of tropical coastal hammock closest to the sea. Here, the understory is much more open. Rounding a corner, past the “who rakes the leaves sign,” there’s an arrow to your right. A bench sits in the deep shade adjoining a very large red bay tree that has fallen across the ancient dunes. The trail swings a sharp left and loops back on itself. Past the peeling bark of a gumbo-limbo, the trail goes up and over a rise and past a mature strangler fig. Near an interpretive marker for sable palm, you see more strangler figs in the understory. These opportunistic tropical trees often get their start in the canopy of a sable palm thanks to seeds deposited in bird droppings.
Emerging from the forest, you’ve returned to the park road and bike path. Turn left and follow the bike path past the speed bumps. At the junction in the park road, turn left off the bike path and walk up this short stretch of road to return to your car, near Pavilon 5 and the playground, for a 1.3 mile hike. Alternatively, you can retrace your walk out to the beach again and return along the service road to extend your walk a bit and enjoy the waterfront, completing a 2 mile hike.