Seabranch Preserve State Park encompasses nearly 1,000 acres along the Intracoastal Waterway south of Stuart. The Park protects several critical habitats in an area overrun with coastal development.
In addition to supporting populations of Florida scrub-jays and gopher tortoises, the Seabranch Preserve hosts 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 water flows towards the tidal marshes of the Indian River Lagoon.
Although the park fronts the water, you can’t see it through the thicket—a fact quickly discovered by the intrepid trail-building crew! After a fact-finding mission, the crew 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, they create a 4.8-mile, orange-blazed perimeter trail through the scrub and scrubby flatwoods, passing by the bayhead near the middle.
Built and is maintained by the Tropical Trekkers chapter of the Florida Trail Association, this trail 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. I spotted a Florida scrub-jay and gopher tortoises on my hike. 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 forest of small Chapman and myrtle oak. 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 the North Loop.
Rising up from the bayhead into scrubby flatwoods, the trail passes a tangle of love vine and greenbrier atop the gallberry. Look for gopher tortoise burrows, and for light-green bachelors button flowers in the spring. The trail gains elevation as it enters the sand pine scrub. A building in the distance marks the south edge of the preserve.
After 3.5 miles, turn right, to leave the jeep trail and go back into the first. Keep alert for a double blaze on a tree on the left so you don’t miss the turn.
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.