Are the kids driving you crazy? Are you sick and tired of seeing the teenagers on their phones? Do you just need to get away? Well, you're in luck...I have the perfect place for you, and you don't even need to leave your car.
Early on a Saturday morning, I woke up and decided I was going to check out the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, I've been there a dozen times before and love it, but had never been there first thing in the morning. So, I headed to my girls bedroom at 6:30 in the morning and asked them if they wanted to go. As is typical in most teenage households I got the "Mom, it's not even 7 o'clock" and "do I have to go?" so with a quick kiss good-bye I headed out on my own. Now...at first I was pretty sad, but then I realized I was going to have peace and quite for hours WooHoo!
From Orlando to the refuge only takes about 45 minutes. On a recent trip to the refuge with my daughter's Girl Scout troop I found out that the refuge was actually part of the 140,000 acres purchased by NASA in 1962. The land surrounding what is now known as the John F. Kennedy Space Center was the perfect place to build a launch pad for rocket ships. There was nothing but ocean and open land for miles, until they realized that several of the inhabitants were not so friendly. Pretty soon they were over run with mosquitos, alligators and birds that were making life on KSC unbearable. In 1963 the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Service signed an agreement to manage the land around the space center and called it the Merritt Island Natioanl Wildlife Refuge. A second agreement was signed in 1975, that established the Canaveral National Seashore. Together, they cover a vast amount of land that for the most part is untouched.
Right from the comfort of your car you can travel the refuge and see an incredible amount of wildlife. The most popular wildlife drive is the Black Point Wildlife Drive, please note that it cost $10.00 to get into this drive, be prepare to pay at the pay station at the beginning of the drive. This is an unmanned station and you must have the exact dollar amount. From beginning to end the drive will take you about 1 hour depending on how quickly you drive, keep in mind that it is one way in and one way out, so once you're on the drive, you have to complete it. If you're worried about little kids and the restroom, don't be, at about the halfway mark there is a parking lot, with restrooms along with a trail that takes you to a few observation decks.
This drive will meander for 7 miles through the salt and fresh water marsh where you are bound to see water fowl, wading birds, raptors, shorebirds, alligators, and maybe a river otter or two. Keep in mind that this area changes seasonally to accommodate the hundreds of birds that migrate to the refuge from the North. The best time to see birds is going to be early in the morning, or around sunset, from October - March. You can also drive on Bio Lab Rd. this is a shorter drive that hugs the coastline. I was lucky to visit on a day where the Snowy Egrets, Herons, and Roseate Spoonbill were in plenty. The trees were overflowing with these birds, each fishing for a morning meal. If you are in search of the alligators, I have always had my best luck on the drive at Peacocks Pocket, this drive takes you through the marsh as well but it is more of the wetland forest. Often times you can find them sunning on the banks.
Birds Typically Found in the Refuge
A Marsh Full of Color
After your day of driving you need to head to the visitors center, there you will find the perfect place to have a picnic, pick up a gift, or enjoy the interpretative center where kids can see a giant alligator, climb the stairs to see the bald eagle family or learn all about conservation and the animals that call the Merritt Island NWR home.
Here are a few tips to really enjoy your time here.
- Arrive early, wildlife is active early in the morning or late in the afternoon towards sunset.
- Pick up a map at the visitors center, there are tons of walking trails too.
- As much as I would love to drive with the windows down...mosquitos, hornets, and bees will fly in (I learned that the painful way).
- Be sure to have a full tank of gas.
- If you're going to do one of the trails, wear bug spray (even in the winter).
- While on the wildlife drives, do not get out of the car.
- Drive slowly, even the sound of the car window going down will scare off wildlife.
- Bring a snack or pack lunch, this is a remote area far from restaurants.
- Keep the traffic moving, it's ok to stop, as long as their are no cars behind you.