At Halpatiokee Regional Park in Stuart, the riverside South Fork Nature Trail provides one of the most scenic hikes along the Treasure Coast.
This is thanks to the efforts of the Tropical Trekkers chapter of the Florida Trail Association over more than two decades.
Originally, the trail maintainers built a very scenic riverside trail that only paddlers could reach and hike. It included a primitive campsite along the South Fork of the St. Lucie River.
They also created a nature trail near the picnic grounds that we hiked for the Hiker’s Guide to the Sunshine State more than 15 years ago.
Eventually, with additional land conservation surrounding the park, the two trails were able to be joined.
The result is a spectacular walk along both high bluffs and low along the river’s edge, through palm hammocks and scrub, and even a loop around a botanically lush peninsula.
At the far end of the trail is the primitive campground, open to backpackers who call ahead to reserve a spot. It is shared with paddlers and bikepackers as well.
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Length: 3.1 mile balloon
Trailhead: 27.1041, -80.2519
Address: 8303 SW Lost River Rd, Stuart FL
Restroom: at the trailhead and the ballfields
Land manager: Martin County
Open daily 7 AM to 11 PM. Leashed dogs permitted. Carry a map with you.
For primitive camping, call the number above to make a reservation.
Expect a lot of mosquitoes in the river hammocks, as well as encounters with wildlife. Gopher tortoise sightings are very common, as are manatees in the river.
Portions of this trail can flood. Expect to wade along parts of it after heavy rains. If there is flowing water on the trail, turn back.
From Interstate 95, take exit 101 for Kanner Highway (SR 76) / Stuart. Go east one block. Turn right at the right at Lost River Road and follow it 0.6 mile to the second park entrance on the left, past the Holiday Inn Express and other businesses.
Turn right at the circle and follow the road around the baseball fields and past the tennis courts to where the picnic pavilions are. Park closest to the loop at the end of the road to access the trailhead.
Starting from the parking area adjacent to the screened picnic shelter, walk up the paved path to the trailhead kiosk.
A trail map is displayed on it, and maps are sometimes available. Take one if there is, as there are some unmarked junctions. Take a picture of the map if none are available.
A sign is by the gap in the forest just behind the kiosk. Head that way. The short path through the oaks meets a T intersection. The South Fork Trail turns right.
This broad clearing through the forest on the bluffs above the river is part of the original nature trail in the park. The river soon shows up on the left.
This is your first glimpse of many of the South Fork of the St. Lucie River. It’s a blackwater river rising from marshes south of here and north of Jonathan Dickinson State Park.
The trail turns away from the river and a side trail joins in from the right, an alternate way to reach the nature trail from the picnic area. Turn left and enter a corridor under a canopy of oaks.
Pause when you come to the overlook platform, which provides a view of Treasure Island, one of the small islands in the river.
The river flows north to meet the St. Lucie River, which in turn empties into the Indian River Lagoon. This piece of the river is a beauty to paddle, as you’ll see from walking along it.
After the trail pokes out along the edge of the disc golf course, a long straight tunnel through the oaks lies ahead. Pass by the remains of an abandoned trail bridge.
Beyond it, water burbles in small cascades in tight spots next to the ditch. This straightaway ends at a picnic table at the next overlook on the river.
Turn right and cross the broad bridge. The trail sticks close to the edge of the river bluffs, serving up nice views wherever there are breaks in the vegetation.
Look for disturbances on the top of the water like a giant soap bubble is about to emerge from the depths. That’s a signal where manatees might be surfacing. Watch for a back, a snout, or a tail.
Edged by saw palmetto, this piece of the trail is another straightaway. It curves left where it would otherwise lead you straight into a marsh.
Instead, it keeps to the edge of it. There can still be puddles through this area, which becomes a tunnel between the saw palmetto.
The trail emerges at a junction with a forest road. This is the north end of the loop portion of the hike. Turn left to tackle the river section of the trail first.
The FT sign provides a clue this is where to turn, the trail entering a tight corridor between saw palmetto under the slash pines.
It twists and turns as it works its way back towards the river. While the path is obvious, both white blazes and orange diamonds mark the route.
The closer you get to the river, the bigger the saw palmetto get. Live oaks are laden with bromeliads, and cabbage palms rise out of the damp forest floor.
Wild coffee, with its bright red beans, grows in the understory. Eventually long sword ferns and bluestem palms fill in.
After gaining elevation past an interpretive sign, the trail becomes drier and the habitat does too. The vegetation is still close on both sides as you come to a bridge over a sluggish tannic waterway.
On the other side of the bridge, it’s a surprise to climb into a scrub habitat, with white sandy soil and little cover from the sun.
Bromeliads still grow thickly in the scrub oaks because of the proximity of the river, but blueberries and shiny lyonia line the footpath too.
Despite the change in habitat to the right, the river bluff drops off not far to the left. There are occasional places you can see the water far below.
The deeper into the scrub the trail gets, the taller the slash pines are. The understory is so thick that the trail is crowded by it. That only changes when you reach a palm hammock.
The transition from scrub to palm hammock is aburpt and a bit surprising. Live oaks swaddled in resurrection fern curve gracefully, as do ancient saw palmetto on their long trunks.
As you would expect in a palm hammock, it gets wet here. After a rain, there are puddles in the trail. You reach an incredible beauty spot where the river is framed by an arching live oak.
Climbing upward from there, it’s surprising to find water across the trail.
It’s possible to hit some wading whenever the trail dips into the jungle-like tropical hammocks along the river basin.
The trail climbs out of the floodplain into a dry corridor through the scrubby flatwoods where small oaks line the footpath.
The larger oaks creating the forest canopy are covered in gleaming filaments of wild pine. Coming to a T intersection after 1.1 miles, there is a connector to the return loop.
If you turn right here, you’d walk back up to the FT sign at the start of the river section of the trail in a half mile, and be to the trailhead by 2 miles.
However, you’d miss the most immersive part of the river hammock. So only bail here if there is flooding up ahead. Follow the markers to make a left at the T.
The trail literally plunges back into the tropical hammock, where a soggy approach to a boardwalk is quickly followed by a walk to the river’s edge.
This is why this section can flood: the bluffs here aren’t very tall.
The views of the river here are closer and wilder. Keep alert for wildlife in this section all the way up to the campsite. Especially alligators and snakes.
The corridor of palms presses in and the footpath remains a bit damp. Watch for the ground orchids emerging between decaying palm fronds on the forest floor.
By 1.4 miles, the trail opens up into a clearing that feels like a campsite, but it isn’t. Here, a blue-blazed side trail takes off to the left.
Largely shaded by palm fronds, this narrow loop tunnels through the tropical vegetation to circle a peninsula that creates a horseshoe bend in the river.
It’s worth the side trip for the botanical beauty and a few peeks at the river. The footpath is narrow and pretty rough, and you do have to hop over a small waterway.
Watch for giant air plants, marlberry, and more ground orchids near where the small loop ends. When you return from this dense tropical hammock to the main trail, turn left.
After leading you under a canopy of oaks, the trail reaches a long footbridge.
Primordial-looking giant leather ferns rising from the waterway below have fronds that are as tall as hikers.
The trail edges out to the bluffs along the river for the clearest views of the waterway yet.
In fact, there is very little room between the footpath and the dropoff. A bench is half hidden by vegetation.
Moving away from the water, the footpath becomes soggy as a fern-laden swamp spills into it. Then suddenly, there is a lawn in view.
Emerging at the primitive campground, you’ve walked 1.8 miles. Thanks to the picnic tables, this is a nice place to take a break.
It’s also where the loop turns away from the river for a walk through mostly upland habitats.
There is a canoe take-out here, and adjoining the camping area, the River Trail, part of the mountain bike trail, slips by.
Leave the campground by walking in the opposite direction from the take-out. The broad path opens up onto a forest road.
To the left are signs marking where the East Corridor meets the River Trail along the Halpatiokee Mountain Bike Trail. Turn right to head north.
This piece of the trail ambles up a grassy forest road, much easier walking than the past mile along the river.
It’s also an introduction to upland habitats that you haven’t seen much of since getting into the palm hammocks.
Primarily pine flatwoods with tall slash pines, this section isn’t always drier. But the wildflowers are more obvious along the edges.
You may have to splash through a waterway flowing from the pines into a swamp on the right. Soon after, at 2.1 miles, is that earlier bail-out point along the trail.
Pass by it and continue up the forest road. Scrubby flatwoods dominate the west side of the trail, where the mountain bikers have their own big loop trail.
Wildflowers are abundant here in fall. Passing another sign and a small waterway to the left, the trail reaches the top of the loop at the FT sign at 2.5 miles.
Now that you’ve sealed the loop, go straight ahead at this clearing, leaving the forest road for the tunnel of vegetation around the wetland area.
Return to the last panorama of the South Fork of the St. Lucie River from the high bluffs.
Crossing the bridge, turn left at the picnic table on the bluff after one last peek at the river from that vantage point.
Follow the oak-shaded straightaway up to where it meets the disc golf greenway and turns right.
When you reach the overlook deck, stop for one final look at this fascinating river.
Turn left at the next junction to walk through the woods and emerge at the parking area, completing a 3.1 mile hike.
Learn what else you can do at Halpatiokee Regional Park, including the extensive mountain bike trail. Wider portions of it are open to hiking, along with all the forest roads.
For safety’s sake, heed signage where “no hikers” is signposted along bike trails intersecting this trail.
In addition, there is close to another mile’s worth of footpaths in the park to the north of this trail, accessible off the paved trail that you step off of at the beginning of this hike.
See our photos of the South Fork Nature Trail
More worth exploring while you’re in this area.
Find a wonderland of white sand and small shrubs at Seabranch Preserve State Park, which protects a sand pine scrub and more along the Atlantic Coastal Ridge
At Spruce Bluff Natural Area, trails lead to the site of a pioneer settlement and the largest Ais mound in South Florida amid scrub and wetlands in Port St. Lucie.
One of South Florida’s best backpacking destinations, Jonathan Dickinson State Park encompasses a vast mosaic of ecosystems along the wild and scenic Loxahatchee River