Seabranch Preserve State Park encompasses nearly 1,000 acres along the Intracoastal Waterway south of Stuart, and protects several critical habitats in an area overrun with coastal development. In addition to supporting populations of Florida scrub-jays and gopher tortoises across its many acres of diminutive scrub forest, Seabranch Preserve contains one of South Florida’s rare bayhead communities. Also known as a baygall, this swampy habitat filled with loblolly bay and sweetbay magnolia filters runoff from the adjacent scrubby flatwoods as the water flows down towards the tidal marshes of the Indian River Lagoon. Despite the fact that the park fronts the water, you can’t see it through the thicket—a fact quickly discovered by the intrepid trail-building crew, who after a fact-finding mission, decided a boardwalk (planned for the future) would be the only way to show off this beautiful floodplain forest.
Length: Up to 4.1 miles
Lat-Long: 27.130517, -80.169517
Fees / Permits: none
Bug factor: moderate
No fee is charged for the use of this park, where the local Tropical Trekkers chapter of the Florida Trail Association built and maintains the hiking trail system. A composting privy sits near the shaded picnic tables.
To find Seabranch Preserve State Park, take I-95 exit 61, Stuart / Indiantown (FL 76). Follow Cove Road east for 4.5 miles, crossing US 1, until you reach CR A1A. Turn right and continue 1.5 miles south. Make a left into the small parking area across from the VFW.
The trail system at Seabranch – the only way to explore the preserve – consists of two loops, North Loop (3.2 miles) and South Loop (1.9 miles), divided by an old forest road. Together, the loops create a 4.8-mile orange-blazed perimeter trail through the scrub and scrubby flatwoods, passing by the bayhead near the middle. It was built and is maintained by the Tropical Trekkers chapter of the Florida Trail Association. This is not an easy hike, since it’s through soft sand, but it’s certainly an interesting one.
The North Loop best showcases the subtleties of the scrub ecosystem. There are patches of rosemary scrub, where rounded Florida rosemary grows to shoulder-height. The trail weaves in and out of open patches of sand between the rosemary and scrub oaks, so it’s important to keep alert to where the next orange blaze leads you. Keep alert, too, for the endangered wildlife that lives here—along the North Loop, I spotted a Florida scrub-jay and gopher tortoises on my hikes through the preserve. Several scrub-jay families take up residence along the trail. Birders will also delight in the cardinals, eastern towhees, and cedar waxwings that flit between the wizened scrub oaks.
The plants are interesting, too. In the open oak scrub, the trail winds like a maze, leading you through scant patches of shade and across a diminutive forest of Chapman and myrtle oak, where you’ll feel like Gulliver in the backcountry of the Lilliputians, able to scan the far horizon of a canopy of trees barely waist-high. As the trail reaches makes a definitive southward turn, you parallel the Intracoastal, but you can’t see it—although you’ll glimpse the bayhead from the scrub. At the trail junction at 3.1 miles, you can continue straight to walk the perimeter using the South Loop, or turn right to complete just the North Loop.
Rising up from the bayhead into scrubby flatwoods, the trail passes a tangle of love vine and greenbrier atop the gallberry. Two large gopher tortoises try to push their way into a single burrow, with neither one succeeding. Tiny light-green bachelors button grows along the edge of the footpath. The trail continues to gain elevation as it enters the sand pine scrub. You see a building in the distance, marking the south edge of the preserve. Keep alert for a double blaze on a tree on the left so you don’t miss the turn that takes you off the jeep trail and back into the forest on your right, after 3.5 miles.
After 4 miles, the trail emerges from the pines and faces the road. Under the shadow of tall sand pines, earthstars, a form of puffball mushroom, thrive on the pine duff. One ancient oak with gnarled branches serves as a gathering place on Halloween Eve for scary stories. Keep alert—when you can see the road sign up ahead on A1A, take the jeep trail to the left into the forest. You emerge at the parking area after a 4.8-mile hike.