Friday, June 7, 2013

Canaveral National Seashore

View from the top of Turtle Mound.
My friend Walt and I went for a late spring hike at Canaveral National Seashore, just south of New Smyrna Beach.  I have been to the Merritt Island part of the park several times before on fishing trips and canoeing the Mosquito Lagoon, but had never made it to the Canaveral Seashore.  The Seashore is 24 miles of undeveloped shoreline on the Atlantic coast along a barrier island, running from seven miles south of New Smyrna Beach down to Cocoa Beach.  It also contains the government sites of the John F.Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.  This land was set aside in the late 1950's to provide room around the space center and military base.  In 1963 the US Fish and Wildlife Service managed Merritt Island Refuge with the National Park Service operating the National Seashore since 1975.  Car and motorcycle daily entrance fees are $5, bicycles enter for $1.
The shore, few people and absolutely no buildings.
The shoreline is made up of a brown, course sand (unlike Daytona Beach's white fine sand) and the views stretch for miles with no buildings.  No condos.  No hotels.  No homes.  No businesses.  No cell towers.  No nothing.  When you get onto the beach and walk, it feels like what was intended by nature, a natural, relaxing and peaceful walk in the sand.  Personally, I would prefer all of the nation's shorelines to be just like this one, with a road and parking spaces every few miles, and no beach access allowed over the dunes anywhere except where deck access has been built for you, and with no permanent structures built on the variable land of barrier islands.
The Canaveral Seashore can be a narrow world between the waters.  There are places you could throw a rock-sized shell from the Atlantic Ocean into the Mosquito Lagoon.  Some areas of the barrier island are much wider across, like at Turtle Mound and around the old town of Eldora.  We knew the weather was going to get very hot soon and the bugs would be awful, and we wanted to visit the park before summer heat and humidity set in.
Walt on the easy walk up and down boardwalk of Turtle Mound.
Mosquito Lagoon.
Turtle Mound is a shell midden, or mound, now about 50 feet tall.  In the past it was estimated to reach another 25 feet in elevation.  It was an east coast navigation feature marked on most of the early Spanish, French and British sailing maps of the time and can be seen miles out to sea.  This mound is built of oyster shells mostly, and fish bones and it must have taken multiple generations of native American workers to process and pile these shells to this height.  When you look at how tightly the shells have been pressed together, you wonder at how many shells there can be in a mound this tall.  The mound walls become so steep near the top, the park service has built a trestle-like walkway to easily climb to the top of the mound at a gentle grade, and then when on the top to be able to look both in all directions without the users causing erosion or disrupting the mound.  The breeze on top was excellent.  The trees have stunted grown here are similar to the krumholtz wind-damaged trees in the Rocky Mountains.  The salt content in the air continually kills new growth, keeping the trees small.  It is believed the Timucuan Indians settled this region and built these mounds from 800 to 1400 AD.  The views are awesome!
The scenic view in the trees on the way down from Turtle Mound.
The lagoon's edge at Turtle Mound.
At the base of the mound, a school bus load of elementary children from Volusia County were learning the fine details of using a siene net and about how the Timucuan Indians lived, hunted and worked the land and sea.  Taught by knowledgeable National Park Volunteers, I could have sat and listened for hours.
The Welcome Center is where we started our morning, viewing a video about the park.  If you call with a question or to reserve a campsite, this is where the phone calls are answered.  The rangers here were excited about the turtle laying season about to begin and were discussing all the turtle programs they have underway and all the people they expect to visit the park.  Most of the Federally endangered Leatherback turtles come back here from the sea to where they were born to lay their eggs in the sand.  When they hatch at night, baby turtles follow the light reflected from the sea to return to the ocean.
Volusia County students in learning mode.
From Turtle Mound, we drove south to the end of the road and walked down to the beach.  It was mostly surf fishing-people here, some with carts loaded with poles and gear and we watched someone reel in a blue fish.  We noticed the crowds were mostly staying close to the parking areas.  The empty areas between parking lots seemed to go on forever, with nobody in them.  I decided that this will be one of my next bicycle rides, along the surf on the deserted beach.  We also walked over to the lagoon side where there was a boat launching ramp at waters edge.  From here you could easily see the how high the dune was above us, and imagine how easily a huge wave during a storm could crash over this area.  No Atlantic hurricanes are known to have attacked the area from Cocoa Beach north to St. Augustine in our time.

Looking north along the empty beach.

And looking south.
Castle Windy is the second shell midden we went to see.  Parking at the beach lot, we followed the half mile path through the woods to the lagoon side.  There was a pamphlet in a box at the start, numbered to identify plants and trees marked with posts along the path.  Here was where we met the full force of the name sake of Mosquito Lagoon.  The mosquitos were so thick around our heads we couldn't breath without inhaling a few.  My long sleeves and pants kept the bugs off my body.  Walt's back was black, covered with mosquitos and they wouldn't leave us alone until we re-applied my eucalyptus bug spray.  We finished the walk and stood along the lagoon shore in the wind where there were few bugs, before returning to the car.

Along the mosquito-infested trail to Castle Windy.

Castle Windy shell midden.
We next visited the community of Eldora after watching a turtle maneuver in the parking area.  This was once a farming community where Indian River citrus was first developed and grown in Florida, a popular brand of fruit you can still buy, though for years it has been grown elsewhere in the state.  They also grew indigo (a plant-based material for coloring fabric blue), raised honey bees and grew vegetables.  This is where saw palmetto plant berries were harvested for making pharmaceuticals (and are still used in treatment of prostate issues).  Palmetto honey is a light and very tasty honey that was a favorite up north where the crops were shipped.  Two tears of killing frost in the 1890's decimated the citrus industry and the town never recovered.  The last remaining house in Eldora was restored by the Friends of Canaveral in 1999 as a museum and it has a video you can watch about the early town, riverboat traffic and the people who pioneered the area.  The native plant life around the house was beautiful.
A Florida variety of coral honeysuckle.
Fishing is another major highlight in the park.  In Florida you can get a no-fee license to fish from the sea shore or from a dock.  You can then fish in the Mosquito Lagoon shoreline, from the dock, in the surf at the beach, and you can fish while wading in the water.  For those who prefer fishing from a kayak or boat, a $17 saltwater fishing license will get you started.  Click here for fishing license details.  We saw several people boat and kayak fishing in the deeper water just off Turtle Mound, on land from the Eldora dock, while wading in the shallow lagoon and surf casting in the Atlantic.
Fishing at the Eldora dock.  The State House is in the background.
Fishing at Turtle Mound in the deeper water.
The endless sea life in both the lagoon and the ocean took our breath away several times during the day.  From Turtle Mound I saw what looked like a whale leaping and crashing in the ocean.  I tried on several occasions to get a photo of the several dolphin splashing in the lagoon.  Mullet jumped from the water many times and from the Eldora dock you could see fish swimming in the shallow water.
Birds are another big draw at the Seashore, with over 300 species recorded here.  There are over 1000 species of plants listed, for many of the plants this is as far north in Florida as they grow.  There are 14 federally endangered or threatened species of wildlife living here including manatees, turtles, southern bald eagles, wood storks, peregrine falcons, eastern indigo snakes and Florida scrub jays.  And in the winter there are the migratory birds from up north.
Resurrection fern in non-resurrected mode, waiting for rain to burst forth with green growth.
A strangler fig tree strangling an oak.
Flowers are everywhere.
There is primitive camping at the park, though I suggest you plan to camp here in the winter months when it will be much cooler at night.  You can register for either of the two Apollo beach area campsites or any of 14 waterfront sites on barrier islands along the Mosquito Lagoon.  You will need your own boat to reach them or you may rent a canoe for sites 1-5 at the park welcome center.  Campsite reservations cost $2. This backcountry camping brochure says campsites will cost $10 to $20, depending on how many people you bring.  My suggestion is that you call the Ranger at 386-428-3384 and ask.  Also check out the kayak and canoe trails in the area like this one in the Mosquito Lagoon at Shipyard Island (nice photos).
It was in the mid-80's the day we went, and the Florida weather was beautiful.  Walt and I finished the fine day with lunch outside the park at a fish camp on the Mosquito Lagoon and enjoyed a quiet drive through the barrier island village of New Smyrna Beach.  It was a great day!
Turtle in parking lot.


  1. Wow, I never thought that palmetto leaves can useful too, what I've read about is that saw palmetto berries are really useful for men when it comes to their prostate health. When is the best time to harvest saw palmetto berries? Is there a specific time for it?

  2. Hanna,
    It is my understanding the berries ripen during the months of August and September due to the Florida heat and high humidity. The berries need to be dried below 140 degrees so the oils are not baked, then be sent to Europe where extractors process the oils and send them back as finished extracts.
    There are dangers to harvesting these berries, the cutting saws of the plant leaves plus the eastern diamondback rattlesnake who hangs out in the shade.
    There is much online, just Google "Harvesting saw palmetto berries". Best of luck!