Bordering and managed by the Archie Carr National Wildlife Refuge – the first wildlife refuge in America established to protect sea turtles – Maritime Hammock Sanctuary showcases maritime, or coastal hammock, marshlands, and mangroves along the Indian River Lagoon. It’s 150 acres preserved from the residential development that has otherwise spread up and down A1A through Melbourne Beach along this barrier island, and shows signs in places of having once been a former nursery. Eradication of non-native species continues. “This is the place where the North meets the South” … biologically speaking.
Location: Melbourne Beach
Length: 2.8 miles
Lat-Lon: 27.956304, -80.502777
Fees / Permits: none
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Bug factor: Moderate to painfully annoying
According to the trail kiosks, bicycles and dogs are not permitted along this trail.
ADDRESS: Maritime Hammock Sanctuary, 6200 S Highway A1A, Melbourne Shores, FL
From Interstate 95, take exit 180 for Melbourne. Follow US 192 east 8 miles through downtown and continue over the causeway to Indialantic. When the highway ends at the beach, turn right and follow A1A for 10.3 miles, passing a variety of public beaches en route to the community of Melbourne Beach. Park at the north trailhead (you’ll have to pull across the bicycle path to do so, so watch for pedestrians and bicycles) and start your hike there.
Start your hike at the North Trailhead, where there are several grassy parking spaces on the slope above the bike path. Stop at the kiosk to pick up a map. The preserve is shaped like a bridge, with an incursion of subdivision in the middle section, although the houses are well-hidden from view. There used to be a nursery through this section. Most of the non-native plants have been removed. A nice spill of brilliant violet, almost ultraviolet, morning glory tumbles over a fallen log. The trail is partially shaded by cabbage palms and live oaks. Wild coffee and marlberry grow in the understory as you pass a baffle along an old fenceline, entering a nice shady hammock. Resurrection fern carpets the oak limbs. Sword ferns spill down the slope of an old canal off to the left; it may have been built to provide water to the nursery. The trail trends moderately downhill through a forest of tall, skinny marlberry.
The trail loops uphill through a small scrubby area and under the shade of red bay and live oak trees with closely-knit limbs. Coral bean shows off its brilliant red blooms. Snaking around and down, the trail enters a lush hammock. The skunky smell in the air is white stopper, the “naked wood” of this hammock. Look up into the high canopy for orchids, primarily butterfly and greenfly orchids, which bloom in the summer months. Even off-season their leaves are rather showy. As the corridor narrows, you’re surrounded by more tropical trees and shrubs in the understory. A natural archway rises over the trail; you may need to duck under it. The trail twists and winds through the dense forest beneath tree limbs outstretched in graceful windswept arcs like ballet dancers. Becoming mushy underfoot, the footpath comes up to a series of bog bridges surrounded by pennyroyal and giant leatherferns. Broadening out, the trail comes up on a T intersection at a fenceline. Turn right. After crossing a bridge past a bench, you walk along a palm-lined channel, a tropical creek. A side spur trail provides a shaded bench from which to look out and savor the view. Scan the waters closely for alligators, as they’re frequently seen along this trail.
At the trail junction, the “You are Here” marker provides a map to show where the trail system goes. Turn right to head up along the stacked loops on the north end of the sanctuary. The trail is right behind the mangrove roots along the Indian River Lagoon. There are big holes beneath them where giant land crabs lurk, and smaller holes for fiddler crabs. Crossing a bridge, the trail slips around a mound of oyster shells. Perhaps a hidden midden? The trail can certainly get wet when the tide is up. It rises into another palm hammock with bog bridges and a more substantial bridge over a larger waterway choked with algae. Off to your right is a large marsh full of giant leather ferns. The palms overhead make a constant rustling sound in the breeze off the lagoon. A half mile in, you encounter a large gumbo-limbo tree. This is the northernmost spot I’ve seen one in the wild. The gumbo-limbo is also jokingly called the “Tourist Tree” due to its distinctive red, peeling bark.
Another “You are Here’ map marks the bottom of the next loop. Going right takes you uphill atop shard of clams and oysters under the leaf litter, most likely another midden. The footpath is a bit wider so it no longer seems like you’re elbowing your way though the forest. The trees overhead are draped in bromeliads. Sprays of shoelace fern and goldfoot fern emerge from the tall cabbage palms. Southern woods fern grows to Jurassic sizes. Winding past a stand of bamboo, the trail continues back into the palm hammock, where roots stick out prominently amid gooey spots, both conspiring to trip you up if you don’t look down. The earth is dark and rich.
You emerge at a beauty spot at the next trail junction, a panoramic view of open marshes framed by cabbage palms and giant sprays of sand cordgrass in the foreground. Turn right to circle the marsh. Mounds of coreopsis and aster are in bloom throughout the open areas. This is an excellent spot for birding. At a junction with a gate to the right, stay left. The trail continues along a levee between two man-made marshes, where coots are floating in the nearshore reeds, fussing at each other. A side trail leads off to the right to the adjoining neighborhood, where there is a kiosk and bike rack at this back entrance to the sanctuary. Pass it by and continue along the marsh on your left.
To complete the upper loop, the trail makes a sharp left and crosses a weir that allows tidal waters to flow in and out of these impoundments. Take care to walk on the boards if water is flowing over the weir. Turn right on the far side to return on the western side of the incoming loop. After a mile, the trail turns left and you’re along the lapping shoreline of the Indian River Lagoon. Here, the mangroves grow substantially taller. A boardwalk leads through a wet area. Sea wrack and oyster shells are spread across open spots between the mangroves.
The trail continues through a palm hammock where young sea grapes, nickerbean, and morning glory spill through the understory. A tall stand of white mangrove is between you and the lagoon, an interesting yellowish hue to their trunks. Snake plant – another introduced species, probably from the old nursery – has taken over a large swath of land behind the mangroves. You complete the double upper loop, returning to a junction with a map. Continue forward past the marsh filled with giant leather ferns and across the bridge to reach the initial junction at 1.4 miles.
The next part of the trail isn’t as interesting as what you’ve hiked so far. It’s a necessary connector between the two preserved hammocks within this sanctuary, skirting the residential inholding, and as such, is a long walk along a tall levee next to the mangroves that line the Indian River Lagoon. I’m guessing the levee was created to prevent the neighborhood hidden behind the trees from flooding. You may spot ibises in the mangrove limbs, and a massive alligator lives at the base of one sharply banked turn in the levee, so don’t hike this piece on auto-pilot, as you may be tempted to do. A long straightaway leads down to this left turn. Reaching an interpretative sign about the impoundments, which were created for mosquito control many decades ago, watch for a bridge on the left that finally gets you off the long dike and back into the tropical hammock again. Turn left at 2 mile at the bench, your last place to look out over the Indian River Lagoon along this hike, to cross the bridge over the mangrove-lined canal.
More shells are scattered on the dark ground beneath the tropical understory. There are many opportunities to trip over roots and hit your head on low hanging branches. You encounter benches more frequently as the trail passes through a forest of young gumbo-limbo. Passing an interpretative sign about the tropical plants, the trail is infused with a damp, skunky aroma. The young tropical trees are skinny, smooth-barked, and packed densely through this part of the forest, reminding me of the tropical hammocks of Key Largo. Branches curl into bizarre inchworm shapes overhead as the high canopy fills in with red bay and live oak again. Passing a bench and crossing a boardwalk, there’s another gooey section of trail up ahead, and poison ivy starts to crowd a bit too close for comfort.
A spur trail leads off to the right at 2.3 miles to an observation deck that opens up onto a lagoon. If you can tolerate the mosquitoes – which are more intense here than along the rest of the loop, where they’re still noticable – take the time to look for wading birds roosting in the mangroves. Turn around and continue into the hammock, where another bench provides a resting spot as the trail curves around a rather large red bay tree. Here, the upper canopy isn’t looking especially healthy, although both resurrection fern and poison ivy have found a home there. Florida’s red bay trees, the primary hardwood found in the maritime hammock, are under attack by the redbay ambrosia beetle.
More shells crunch underfoot as you continue walking through the shade of the hammock, past another bench. At 2.5 miles, the trail makes a sharp left and goes down a corridor with a scrubby feel. You reach a spot where some trees have burned, and re-enter the dense tropical hammock again. Still twisting and winding, the trail passes beneath oaks arching from left to right, undulating fingerlings of branches spreading to provide deep shade and shelter for more bromeliads and orchids. The footpath gets hilly, as if you’re climbing up and over middens. Passing another old baffle in a fence, the trail pops out under a powerline. A marker ushers you to the right, where you emerge out on the paved bicycle trail at the South Trailhead.
Turn left and walk up the paved trail past the inholding – Mark’s Landing – as traffic zips past at high speed along A1A. Reaching the North Trailhead, you complete a 2.8-mile loop.