Pelican Island came into being thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt, who acted on state concerns of protecting a known pelican rookery from hunters.
The island itself is less than five acres, but its importance is oversized. Federal protection of this rookery led to the creation of the National Wildlife Refuge system.
This refuge grew over the past century to encompass many islands in the Indian River Lagoon as well as a portion of the coastline of Orchid Island, south of Sebastian Inlet.
A pleasant place for hiking, birding, biking, and paddling, it is accessed off Florida A1A near the north end of the island, its trailheads along Historic Jungle Trail.
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Location: Orchid Island
Trailhead: 27.810644, -80.425956
Restrooms: At the primary trailhead along Jungle Drive
Land manager: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Open 7:30 AM to sunset. Pets are not permitted. Drinking water is not available.
The Pelican Island Orientation Area and Centennial Trail are accessible. Other trails on the refuge are not.
If you plan to hike or paddle within the park, be sure to use sunscreen and mosquito repellent. There is very limited shade and a lot of biting insects most of the year.
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 along it and you will find the Pelican Island Orientation Area (the first trailhead) on the left within the first mile. Other trailheads farther south are on the right side of the road.
More than a century ago, Florida’s extraordinary diversity of colorful wading birds were under attack by an industry that prized them for their feathers.
Hats adorned with plumage from herons, egrets, spoonbills, and pelicans nearly drove these species to extinction.
In 1886, the Audubon Society was established to fight against the wanton slaughter of flocks of birds by plume hunters by going after the fashion industry and the hunters at once.
The Audubon Society of Florida first met in 1900, and worked with the state legislature to ban plume hunting. They also began to hire wardens to protect Florida’s birds.
In 1903, at the urging of the Florida Audubon Society, President Roosevelt designated Pelican Island as the first federal bird reservation.
Since then, the National Wildlife Refuge System has grown to nearly 600 wildlife and wetland management districts across America.
Florida has more refuges than any other state in our country, established to protect the wintering grounds of migratory birds and the nesting grounds of year-round species.
Once you’ve entered the refuge, get your bearings at the big map kiosk at the Pelican Island Orientation Area, which is also the trailhead for Bird’s Impoundment Trail and the location of the only restroom in the refuge.
Of course, Pelican Island NWR is best known for birding. The Centennial Trail is the prime spot for easy finds and observation of the rookery on Pelican Island.
The two loop trails also appeal to birders during the winter months. Volunteers provide tram tours November through April along these loops so you can get to the best observation spots easily. Call ahead for details.
Three hiking trails at the refuge provide more than 6 miles of hiking along the edge of the Indian River Lagoon.
Bird’s Impoundment Trail
Bird’s Impoundment Trail is at the northern end of the refuge, accessed via a short connector trail from the Pelican Island Orientation Area, the main trailhead.
It is a 2.5-mile loop around a series of mangrove-lined impoundments created during the mosquito control period in Florida.
Joe Michael Memorial Trail
Formerly the Pete’s Impoundment Trail, the Joe Michael Memorial Trail is a 3-mile loop out to the edge of the Indian River Lagoon.
Access to the trail is via the paved Centennial Trail. The loop has an observation deck, Joe’s Overlook, that looks out across the salt marshes.
We found this an excellent place for birding during the winter months, spotting many roseate spoonbills on the shallow flats.
Completed in 2003 to celebrate the centennial of the National Wildlife Refuge system, the Centennial Trail is entirely accessible.
It has its own parking area and a long boardwalk with a slow increase in grade to reach the observation tower that overlooks Pelican Island.
The boardwalk tells the story of the growth of the refuge system, with planks for each refuge in order of the year they were established, up through the centennial.
The view from the roofed tower is the only location on the refuge where you can see Pelican Island, the original 4.5 acre island and pelican rookery that birthed the refuge system.
Bicycling is not permitted on the Centennial Trail or either of the impoundment trails. Cyclists are welcome to ride Historic Jungle Trail.
It is an unpaved drive which follows the original road that provided early land access on Orchid Island.
Park at the Orientation Area and ride south. You will need to cross one major road, CR 510, but otherwise it is a quiet and scenic route.
Cars do share this narrow canopied road, but are supposed to be keeping their speed low along the entire length of the 8-mile dirt road.
Near the south end of Historic Jungle Trail, Captain Forster’s Hammock Preserve provides another trailhead for cyclists as well as restrooms and a picnic area.
Most of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge comprises the Indian River Lagoon and a series of islands along it in addition to Pelican Island.
To paddle this area, you can put in at a kayak launch provided at 11820 Jungle Trail, Vero Beach (27.796274, -80.424064). Parking is limited.
See the refuge boundary map to get a feel for which islands are a part of it, along with this barrier island shoreline.
If you paddle, do not land on any island where birds are active, especially Pelican Island itself. Enjoy birding from a distance.
Refuge Boundary Map
See our photos of Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
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.