Although Erna Nixon Park is just down the street from one of the busiest shopping malls on the Space Coast – Melbourne Square – it transports you right out of suburbia and back into the wilds of Florida’s past. Primarily a boardwalk, the interpretive trail that is the main feature of this Brevard County Park is an easy stroll for any age or ability, and can handle wheelchairs as well. Lifting you ever so gently above the surrounding habitats, it provides a perch from which to immerse in the forest without getting your feet wet—or dirty.
The interpretive markers along this trail are some of the best I’ve seen in Florida, with images, textures, and content woven together in context. Dendrochronology (aka “tree cookies”), for instance. Even the most basic of markers provide a photo to help you spot the tree amid the forest. On the basis of interpretation alone, this is a don’t-miss nature walk for the entire family.
Length: 0.8 mile
Lat-Long: 28.091333, -80.655617
Fees / Permits: None
Bug Factor: low to moderate
Erna Nixon Park & Nature Center (321-952-4525), 1200 Evans Rd, West Melbourne. Open 9-5 daily
From I-95, follow US 192 east to Evans Rd. Drive north 2 miles on Evans Rd to the park entrance on the left, two blocks past the Melbourne Mall, just beyond Hibiscus Road. Great Florida Birding Trail signs help to navigate you to this county park.
The parking area is set firmly in a scrub forest, with only a few spaces – handicapped parking – adjoining the trailhead. Walk from the main parking area past the entrance to the obvious trailhead kiosk. Just past the kiosk, there’s a butterfly garden off to the right. Continue through a large picnic shelter, which is a gathering place for school groups and the location of the park’s restrooms. Just beyond the shelter, the trail begins in earnest, a firmly packed natural path.
Turn right, as the trail is interpreted and marked counterclockwise. It’s pretty obvious where you’ll be walking, as the footpath is confined by a low board fence, with a side spur trail leading to an observation deck overlook in the scrubby flatwoods. Back on the main trail, mounted pieces of trees – “tree cookies” – provide a touch-and-look lesson on counting rings to determine the age of a tree. As the boardwalk begins, a gentle slope leads up onto a level, broad path above the forest floor. Grab rails assist those in wheelchairs to make the grade.
Meandering through an oak hammock, the boardwalk then descends as you pass by dahoon holly and red maple, clear indicators of wetlands. And indeed, there are royal ferns and Virginia willow; a blue dragonfly hovers. Sawgrass grows to one side, and there is buttonbush and black tupelo. This is a dense marsh, the water low, the pickerelweed stranded amid marsh fern and cinnamon fern with silvery-tinged palmetto behind them. There is a wide spot here – Vista I – for relaxing and birding.
As the boardwalk rises back up into oak hammock, you see wild pine bromeliads hanging from vines like chandeliers, and red blanket lichen mottling the trunks. The boardwalk makes a sharp left turn and you’re facing a stand of cabbage palm with sword fern growing beneath. Just beyond are golden polypody growing out of the “boots” of the cabbage palm trunk. Past a tall, thick oak, shoelace fern cascades down a cabbage palm trunk covered in lumps of sphagnum moss. Birdsong fills the forest in the early morning hours.
Passing another enormous oak, you smell a skunky aroma in the air—simpson’s stopper, or nakedwood, with obvious bare trunks that reek like a diluted skunk’s spray. As you come up to a junction in the boardwalk, there are strap ferns growing out of the base of a large live oak on the right, and tropical hammock regulars like wild coffee and marlberry on the left. The boardwalk to the right is currently blocked off— perhaps a planned expansion, or a “field trip only” area of the park.
Make a sharp left and the boardwalk continues past more immense oaks swaddled in resurrection fern. Vista II – another area with benches – is at 0.4 mile. Back in the shade as you leave the vista, you’re surrounded by tropical hammock, transitioning into a palm hammock with a forest floor that could get wet at times. You pop into a patch of sunlight before the boardwalk winds its way through the palms and back into the shade of the higher oak canopy, with ferns and wild coffee galore in the understory. Look for massive fungi on some of the rotted logs.
A cascade of love vine beneath a stand of cabbage palms marks Vista III, where there are more ferns in many different shades and shapes, and saw palmettos that stand up tall, mimicking cabbage palms. Passing Vista IV at a half mile, the boardwalk continues into an area thick with grapevines in the understory. The cicadas become nosier; the understory, thicker. Bees buzz around cabbage palms in bloom. You start to hear a smattering of traffic as the trail begins to jog back and forth through the woods. The boardwalk comes to an end, gently landing with more grab bars, in the pine flatwoods. Bracken fern thrives in the understory where ever saw palmetto isn’t crowding in closely.
Trail’s end is in front of the picnic shelter. Pass through it to continue back out to the short path through the butterfly garden, to the right. This is a demonstration garden to showcase the types of plants to use in various habitats – hydric, mesic, xeric – to attract butterflies. You pop back out at the kiosk at the small parking area. Walk across it to the main parking area to complete this 0.8 mile walk.