For a Florida State Park, Jack Island is long on solitude. Ironically, it isn’t all that far from Fort Pierce and the hustle and bustle of the US 1 corridor through St. Lucie County. But it’s tricky enough to get to that most visitors overlook its charms. It’s right off A1A north of popular Fort Pierce Inlet State Park, yet the parking lot is such a tiny sliver that you can blink and miss it.
But cross the narrow foot bridge, and you’re in another world. More than 4 miles of trails lead along mangrove-lined canals where mangrove crabs scuttle and little blue herons shriek. In summer, you’ll see manatees in the Indian River Lagoon. A popular destination – well worth aiming for – is the observation tower rising 30 feet above the lagoon, providing a sweeping panorama of bird life at work in a flurry of rookeries on surrounding islands. Bring your binoculars to watch osprey diving for their dinner and roseate spoonbills browsing the mudflats. It’s a quiet birders paradise.
Location: Fort Pierce
Length: Up to 5 miles, with shorter options available
Lat-Long: 27.501283, -80.308054
Fees / Permits: none (if that’s changed, let me know)
Difficulty: easy to moderate
Bug factor: irritating
There is little shade along the trails, so this is best done as an early morning hike, when the birds are most active. And yes, despite decades of mosquito control efforts, the mosquitoes can be vicious. Prep accordingly. The footbridge is popular with local anglers. This park is so hush-hush it doesn’t even have its own website! It’s managed by nearby Fort Pierce Inlet State Park.
From Florida’s Turnpike or I-95, follow SR 70 into Fort Pierce to US 1. Turn north on US 1 and drive 3.2 miles to North A1A (North Beach Causeway), then turn right. Cross the bridge and continue 2.4 miles to the traffic light just past Fort Pierce Inlet State Park. Turn left and drive north 1.2 miles. The entrance is on the left.
Cross the long, narrow footbridge to Jack Island, one of several mangrove islands making up Jack Island Preserve State Park. This is one of the lesser-visited state parks along the coast, as it isn’t on the beach – it’s on the Indian River Lagoon – and it offers no facilities on site. But the tradeoff is solitude. Jack Island provides a quiet escape for birders, photographers, artists, and writers who want to disappear off the Treasure Coast map, however briefly. The trail system includes a 4.2 mile perimeter hike and numerous cross-trails, making it possible to plan shorter walks, including a trip to the 30-foot-tower, the key man-made feature of the island.
There is a kiosk and map when you reach the island. Take the time to plan out a route. I hiked the perimeter counterclockwise by turning right and paralleling the canal. A series of dikes provide footpaths. Created during the era of mosquito control, the dikes divvy up impoundments throughout the island. Mangroves are everywhere. You’ll see wildlife melting into the shade beneath the taller white mangroves – perhaps a marsh rabbit here, or a white ibis there – and crabs scuttling through the pneumataphores of the black mangroves. The red mangroves have the distinctive “legs” anchoring them to the muck, although they look like they might pick up and walk.
At a trail junction where a “Tower 1 mi” sign points to the left, continue straight to explore the north end of the island. The trail passes a culvert where alligators sometimes hang out, and curves past a bench where you begin to see the holes of giant land crabs. Turning a corner to the left, you come face to face with a condo peeping up over the distant treeline – sorry about that! One little intrusion on the day from folks who live on the beach. As you reach the north end of the island, the trail turns left. Another outflow causes turbulence in the channel. A short boardwalk on the left crosses a mangrove-lined canal. When you reach the cross trail, you’ve gone 1.1 miles. Turn left to go through the heart of the mangrove forest, where wildlife is under the trees and in the branches – if only you look!
At 1.7 miles you meet the central trail junction for the island. Turn right to head to the observation tower. There is a high spot here where strangler figs co-exist with mangroves. You’ll pass a bench, and the trail continues along a broad canal. Strands of sea oxeye line the dike. At the next trail intersection, at 2 miles, you reach the observation tower. Climb up and savor the views. If you’re like me, you’ll spend a half hour up there, taking pictures and watching the birds everywhere. The condos in the distance define the nearby oceanfront.
Come back down the tower and turn left past the bench to follow the edge of the island along the Indian River Lagoon. This is the most scenic part of the journey, with benches that invite you to stop and sit awhile, watching pelicans and osprey dive into the water. The dike continues to curve left. At 2.9 miles, you meet the cross trail coming in from the left. Continue straight to stay along the island’s edge. The dike makes a sharp curve to the left and you’re back along the interior waterway, with a thin screen of mangroves dividing the trail from the tidal channel. At a bench at 3.2 miles, you can see four different kids of crabs – blue, fiddler, hermit, and giant land crab – living in harmony under the mangrove roots. A bench beneath a sea grape affords a spot of shade. Grab it!
A stand of cabbage palms shade the kiosk at the beginning of the loop, so when you see them, you’ve completed your journey. On your return across the footbridge, pause and watch for manatees. It’s a good place to see them in the shallows.