Cooped up as we’ve been all summer working on our newest book, The Florida Trail, we almost let this important anniversary slip by. It was August 25, 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson signed the act into law that created the National Park Service. Thirty-five National Parks – the oldest being Yosemite and Yellowstone – already existed, but the U.S. Army was in charge of overseeing them. The act established a formal framework for the designation, protection, and management of these vast public spaces.
Today there are more than 413 public lands protected under the National Park System, from historic homes and battlefields to vast wilderness areas, geologic wonders, national scenic trails, and seashores. Between John and I, we’ve been fortunate to visit about a third of them. They are “America’s Best Idea,” to quote Ken Burns, as the concept of holding lands in public trust has been exported around the world.
We spent yesterday exploring the National Park closest to our home, Canaveral National Seashore. It protects one of the last wild and natural shorelines in Central Florida, an expanse stretching nearly 30 miles from New Smyrna Beach to Kennedy Space Center, a thin strip of land between the Indian River Lagoon and the Atlantic Ocean.
At its north end, the park is characterized by dense coastal hammocks, the remnants of pioneer settlements like Eldora, and significant middens, Turtle Mound being the easiest to visit.
Along the beach – which is narrow and slopes steeply in some places – an impenetrable wall of saw palmetto stretches to the far south horizon. Apollo Beach is where sun worshipers gather at the north end. The road ends, and only a 20-mile hike along Klondike Beach, a remote and wild shore only open for hiking and camping during the winter months, connects to Playalinda Beach at the south end of the park. Otherwise, it’s an hour and a half drive between the two parts of Canaveral National Seashore. The prettiest and most remote route is via SR 3 through Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge.
At the south end, Playalinda Beach is the “people” beach. Driving to it between the salt flats, you see panoramas of the northernmost launch complexes at Kennedy Space Center, including the now-defunct pad 39B where the Space Shuttles launched.
Despite free admission for the Centennial celebration, the beach parking areas weren’t as busy as you’d expect on a hot summer afternoon. The exception was parking area 13. I wanted to visit it as it’s the southernmost point of the Klondike Beach Trail. John had told me people often walked just up north of it to sunbathe nude, despite that there is no official nude beach at Playalinda, no matter what you’ve heard.
What we saw was another matter, as we found out by walking up the crossover to the beach. The man right in front of us stepped out of his shorts before we even got to a view of the water. Instead of being “a little north” people sunbathed au natural both south and north of the crossover. As we left, we saw signs plastered in the front window of a Jeep telling people that “this is a nude beach” and if “you’re offended, you should leave now.”
Looking for a more natural view, we stopped at Eddy Creek, and found manatees. At least six kept poking their snouts out of the unfortunately pea-green soup that the creek has become this summer. Algae lay thick on the sea grass in the shallows.
On our way out, we stopped at one of the deeply dried out salt ponds. It’s strange how the summer rains beat wildly across one end of the island and not the rest. The mud crackled in strange geometric shapes.
Spending the day at Canaveral National Seashore made us reflect on how nice it is to have this shoreline protected for the future, its historic sites like Seminole Rest and the Eldora state house still sharing stories of Florida’s past – many stories we’d never heard before. We’re proud of America’s legacy of national parks, and look forward to visiting many more.