The Roarbots’ series of NPS Adventures takes a big-picture view of one location within the National Park Service and highlights some of the best activities that site has to offer. This is usually done through a kid-friendly lens and almost always includes activities and suggestions we can recommend from personal experience. And pictures. There are lots and lots of pictures. Glad to have you aboard!
Welcome to Canaveral National Seashore!
- Canaveral National Seashore
- Location: Florida
- Established: 1975
- Admission: $10/vehicle, $1/walk-ins
- Social Sites: Facebook
A recent quick trip to Florida brought me close to Canaveral National Seashore, so of course I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check it out. Canaveral is on the Atlantic coast between New Smyrna Beach (south of Daytona Beach) and NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center. In fact, it borders NASA on the south end. The south entrance of the park is about an hour from Orlando. The Visitor Center, though, is in the north part of the park and a bit farther from Orlando.
The 24-mile stretch of gorgeous sand and the surrounding islands, mangroves, and wetlands are pure, undeveloped beauty. The land has been preserved as a wildlife refuge and sanctuary since at least the 1950s when it was originally a buffer for NASA’s facilities during the space race.
Today, Canaveral National Seashore is like a shining pearl on Florida’s mostly overdeveloped Atlantic coast. It’s a place of solitude, wilderness, and peace.
(Click on all pictures to embiggen.)
Obviously, the beach is the main draw at Canaveral National Seashore. Since it’s part of the National Park Service, and you need to pay to access it, the beach is cleaner and quieter than many Florida beaches. This is where you go when you want to escape the madness that plagues other beaches. There are no shops, hotels, or boardwalks here. There are no hordes of spring breakers. There is no obnoxious noise (of any kind) drowning out the natural sound of the surf.
The park’s 24-mile-long beach is the longest undeveloped beach on the east coast of Florida. Apollo Beach is up north, and Playalinda Beach is down south (which butts up against the Kennedy Space Center complex). Connecting the two is Klondike Beach, which has no road access and provides a truly desolate beach experience. It’s just tough to get to.
There are several parking areas in both districts (5 for Apollo, 13 for Playalinda), providing beach access at several points. Truly, if you’re looking for a quiet, relaxing day at the beach, Canaveral is the place to go.
Black Point Wildlife Drive
Though technically it’s part of Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, this scenic drive is absolutely worth doing if you’re in the area and have the time. It’s a 7-mile one-way drive around several shallow marsh impoundments and through pine flatwoods. There is a $10 fee to access the drive (paid via the honor system at the entrance). It’s unclear if the $10 fee paid at Canaveral covers this, too, but you’re covered if you’re an annual NPS pass holder.
Make sure you set aside at least an hour for the drive. Even though it’s only 7 miles, you’ll want to take your time. The road isn’t made for speed, and if you tear through here at anything much more than about 15 mph, you won’t see anything and you’ll scare away all of the wildlife.
This is an excellent place to see wildlife and the local plant life from the comfort of your car. You will want to stop and get out, though. There are several scenic pull-outs, and the Cruickshank Trail and observation tower are accessible at about the halfway point.
Canaveral National Seashore is not abundant with hiking trails, but there are a few. None is particularly challenging, but each provides a great way to experience the park and the habitats it supports. Just be sure to bring the bug spray; the mosquitoes are relentless!
The North (Apollo) District has a few short hikes that are best described as nature walks. There are four to choose from, and each rambles through similar terrain. You can’t really go wrong with any of them. With the time I had, I opted for the Eldora loop and Castle Windy.
The Eldora Hammock loop begins at a small parking lot and goes just a few hundred yards over a level, sandy, unpaved road to the site of the 19th century community of Eldora. Not much remains of the settlement today, save for the Eldora State House historic home, which dates to 1913. The building is a museum, but it was closed when I arrived. The structure has been renovated and is in good shape, and if you have the time, it’s well worth the easy walk to check it out. It (and the far end of the trail) is also right on the water, and there’s a public fishing dock here.
The Castle Windy trail is an easy 1/2-mile arrow-straight walk through a dense coastal hammock. The trailhead is opposite the beach Parking Area #3, and it ends at the shore of Mosquito Lagoon (aptly named). The Visitor Center has a trail guide (CastleWindy) to help you identify some of the plant life you’ll see. It’s a fascinating walk through some seriously dense foliage, and if you think Canaveral is just about beaches, Castle Windy will change your tune.
The South District, which is actually Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge also has a few good trails. The Oak Hammock (1/2 mile) and Palm Hammock (2 miles) trails are short loops through some dense foliage with occasional open views over water. This can’t be stressed enough, though: Bring your bug spray! Unless you enjoy getting eaten alive.
The Cruickshank Trail is a 4.8-mile loop along the Indian River Lagoon. It’s accessible from about the halfway point of the Black Point Wildlife Drive. There’s an observation tower right near the parking lot, which provides some fantastic views of the surrounding wetland and river. The full trail is great for some peaceful rambling and birdwatching.
Walk carefully, though: alligators are abundant. One crossed the trail just a few dozen feet ahead of me, and I legitimately thought I found a prehistoric monster.
The park also offers plentiful opportunities for fishing, boating, hunting, and island camping. Check the park’s website or Visitor Center for more information about these activities. It should be noted that backcountry camping is only permitted in the northern, Apollo section of the park. Camping permits ($20/night) and canoe rentals can be arranged through Recreation.gov or by calling the Visitor Center.
As always, the Junior Ranger program is one of the highlights of any NPS visit for the little Roarbots. However, I visited Canaveral without the little ones in tow. I picked up the Junior Ranger booklet for them to complete at home, though. Two of the requirements for the badge are to watch the park video in the Visitor Center and pick up trash off the beach, which kids obviously can’t do from home. The ranger explained that they could do something equivalent wherever we are and complete as much of the book as possible. He also gave me the Historic Preservation booklet (which is a special badge). So yeah, it’s possible to complete a book and mail it in. The badge and certificate will be returned by mail. Just be patient.