Although the St. Johns River defines the Brevard County line to the west, you only glimpse a little of it off Interstate 95 near Cocoa or when crossing it at Cocoa or Melbourne.
That’s because the river floodplain is so vast. There is no way to put a road or trail anywhere near the marshes that hold the river’s constant ebb and flow.
Protecting more than 42 miles of river basin, River Lakes Conservation Area ensures a steady supply of drinking water for Melbourne. It spans both sides of the river from SR 520 to US 192.
Boaters and paddlers can put in at three different ramps to access this natural waterway, which boasts the biggest alligators ever discovered in Florida.
For land-based recreation, however, there is only one access point, the Moccasin Island Tract.
Here, former ranchland is being returned to wetlands, but don’t be surprised to encounter cattle in this open landscape.
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Length: 7.2 mile round-trip with loop
Trailhead: 28.230111, -80.811168
Address: 23002 N Wickham Rd, Melbourne
Land manager: St. Johns River Water Management District
Main gate open 7 AM to 7 PM. Leashed dogs welcome. Cyclists will need fat tires. The roads and trails are mostly very grassy. At times, motorists may need 4WD to reach the trailhead.
Most of the hike is in open pastureland and prairie. Use sun protection.
Pay close attention to the weather: this is not a good place to get caught in a thunderstorm.
As this entire preserve is in the St. Johns River floodplain, be mindful of river levels and turn back if you encounter flowing water along the trails.
Seasonal hunting occurs, with warnings generally posted at the trailhead. Wear bright orange if hiking during hunting season.
North of Melbourne or south of Cocoa, exit Interstate 95 at Exit 191, Wickham Road. Drive west 0.4 mile and go around the traffic circle. Continue straight to stay on N Wickham Rd. After 2 miles, where you see a curve up ahead with high-tension power lines overhead, turn right on the dirt road. Make an immediate left into Duda Ranch. You are still on Wickham Rd.
Now comes the tricky part. Despite the urban growth right up to the edge of Duda Ranch, the remainder of Wickham Rd west is a bumpy unpaved road. It’s firm for about the next mile, to the edge of the farm. Once it enters the ranch, it narrows and has a lot of soft sand. We don’t have 4WD and couldn’t slow down for fear of getting stuck until we made another 2 miles to the end of the road and through the gate, where the surface for the ample trailhead parking is a firm former pasture.
Two marked trails radiate from the trailhead at the Moccasin Island Tract, the White Trail and the Yellow Trail. A third unblazed trail follows the canal west, but is not shown on the map at the kiosk.
The route we covered in the second edition of 50 Hikes in Central Florida as the Moccasin Island Trail includes the Yellow Trail and the Red Trail.
From the trailhead kiosk, climb up to the bridge over the canal. This man-made waterway stretches west, emptying into the St. Johns River, carrying an obvious sediment load.
It was once part of Duda Ranch, vast landholdings along the river valley that the family, over the past few decades, has parlayed into the city of Viera.
You passed through their ranch to reach the trailhead. It borders the north side of this trail, and from our last visit, cattle still roam on this public land.
This conservation area is the river floodplain, bisected by drainage canals to dry up the wet prairies into dry pasture. The District has been restoring the natural hydrology, but many canals remain.
After 0.3 mile, a slender canal snakes through the landscape, edged by spoil banks. Water pools in swales to both sides of the dike.
Picturesque stands of cabbage palms break up the otherwise flat expanse. The trail is a two-track road, grassed over in places. Crested caracara may be seen on fence posts.
As the elevation drops, a stand of cabbage palms and pines form an island along the rim of a newly-recreated marsh, the beginning of an archipelago that parallels the trail to the east.
At 0.9 mile, a canal provides a place for cattle to cool down in the hot sun. Cabbage palms line the eastern side of the trail as you continue walking in the open sun.
The prairie opens up again after a bit, with scattered cabbage palms and a cypress dome off in the distance. Cross another slender canal.
At 1.5 miles, the trail makes a sharp right at the next canal. Continue through the gate and be sure to shut it behind you.
Where canals meet, you’re cheered by the appearance of trees close to the trail – sand live oaks and cabbage palms. Cabbage palms grow thickly along the north side of the fence.
Follow this straightaway towards treeline. That’s the landform called Moccasin Island, and you can guess at the reason for its name.
Tall longleaf pines loom ahead above a thick cluster of forest spilling out across the trail. You’ve reached treeline at 2.2 miles, thankful to reach the shade.
A quarter mile later, the Yellow Trail meets the Red Trail, which makes a loop around the island called the Oak Hammock Loop.
Turn right onto the Red Trail and cross over the canal. Following the red diamonds, the trail jogs along the edge of the hammock.
While it provides both patches of shade and wide-open views framed by cabbage palms, it’s nicest when in dives into the hammock.
Where the Red and Yellow Trails meet again, you’re at the north end of the hammock. If the river has receded enough that the Red Trail remains dry, it has the better views.
The Yellow Trail is the high-water route in case you need to stay out of the floodplain.
However, the Yellow Trail bypasses the shelter along the river. Airboaters sometimes come in across the marshes to this island as a stop.
As you walk the Red Trail, expanses of the floodplain stretch out beyond the cabbage palms.
Alligators may be seen in a marshy cove and indeed, anywhere along the river basin.
The state record-holding alligator for size was captured just south of here in Lake Washington. It measured more than 13 feet.
Meandering through beautiful palm hammocks along the floodplain, you come to the Moccasin Island shelter after 4.3 miles.
While this was a campsite a decade ago when our book came out, it’s since been decommissioned and is for day use only.
If the mosquitoes aren’t too worrisome, it’s a good place to stop and take a break.
Leaving the river floodplain, the Red Trail turns east, meeting the Yellow Trail again in the oak hammock. Turn right.
While the walk through the oak and palm hammock is enchanting, it ends all too soon as you step out into the sunshine.
Reaching the end of the loop at 4.7 miles, where the Red Trail junction is off to the left, it’s time to leave Moccasin Island and walk the old ranch roads back to the trailhead.
With one last glimpse of the river in the distance, follow the yellow diamonds back to the straightaways through the old ranch.
Watching for sandhill cranes in the open prairies on the return walk, you return to the trailhead after 7.2 miles.
Our thanks to Kevin Mims for his assistance with research and photography on this hike.
The White Trail leads due north through a gate at the north side of the parking area, following an old ranch road through this distinctly open expanse.
It crosses two canals before turning west to end after 2.5 miles at a covered shelter at a corner of what was once vegetable fields on Duda Ranch. The shelter overlooks the floodplain.
A round-trip to the shelter and back is 5 miles, all in the open. Birders will find it fruitful for sandhill cranes in winter, but pay attention to where the hunting boundary is along the trail.
See our photos of River Lakes Conservation Area
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
A prime Space Coast destination for birding and wildlife photography, Viera Wetlands is a man-made habitat perched on the edge of the St. Johns River floodplain
An engaging connector trail to Viera, the Brevard Zoo Linear Park educates while providing a long boardwalk for exercise and birding
An exploration into the wilderness along the St. Johns River near Cocoa, the Taylor Creek Loop invites you to immerse in the shade of ancient palms in a floodplain