While the theme parks tend to dominate the image of Orlando, there are several opportunities to enjoy the more natural side of central Florida while you are visiting. One of our favorite spots is the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, located approximately 50 miles east of Orlando. A visit to the Refuge makes for a great side trip.
The Refuge was established in 1963 as part of a habitat conservation zone associated with the John F. Kennedy Space Center. The Refuge has over 140,000 acres and includes a mix of habitats, such as coastal dunes, estuaries and marshes, freshwater impoundments, pine flatwood, scrub and hardwood. This diverse habitat supports an even greater diversity of plant and animals species and provides an excellent opportunity for bird and wildlife observation.
Black Point Wildlife Drive
One highlight of the Refuge is the Black Point Wildlife Drive. This is a seven-mile, one way drivable loop that follows a dike round around marsh impoundments and pine flatwoods. There are viewing points and numbered signs on the route which you can follow along via an informational booklet provided at the beginning of the route. Typical wildlife observations include a wide variety of birds, such as raptors, wading birds, water fowl and shorebirds. Other wildlife, such as alligators, bobcats, and river otters may also be seen. After sunrise and before sunset provides best viewing times as the birds are feeding and the lighting is great for taking photos.
The Refuge also includes a manatee viewing platform at Haulover Canal. There is an interpretive display at this location and the slow and curious manatees are will surface in this area. You do have to be patient though, as manatees can stay underwater for up to 20 minutes! However, it is well worth the wait. Other activities that are popular in parts of the refuge include kayaking and canoeing. Fishing and waterfowl hunting are also permitted, but you will need to have necessary permits.
Visitor Information Center
The Refuge maintains a staffed Visitor Information Center that includes information and maps, exhibits, programs, movies, restrooms, water and snack vending and a book store. The Visitor Center is open Monday through Saturday, and is also open on Sundays during November – March. It is always good to call ahead to confirm hours at 321-861-5601.
What to Bring
When preparing for your visit to the refuge, be sure to pack sunscreen and sun-protective clothing, bug repellent, a camera, binoculars, water and snacks and comfortable walking shoes.