Natural Riches of the Treasure Coast

By: Herb Hiller

The beaches and state parks of the Treasure Coast are fun and family friendly.

You can't miss the signs that Martin County beaches are different.

Martin County, which includes the cities of Stuart and Palm City, is located just 30 minutes north of Palm Beach. Signs everywhere point the way to public beaches, while at some, the signs also tell about habitat restoration. This is a place that takes protecting its natural resources seriously.

Drive south along Highway A1A and a sign at one of the county's first parks says it all. At Jensen Beach Park: "No plastic lids and straws given out." Even concessionaires avoid adding to litter.

No cars cruise these beaches. There are no buildings taller than four stories casting shadows on the sand. Forget spring break. Martin beaches are family friendly.

What you get are moms and dads teaching sons and daughters how to play catch and tots with pails and shovels building sandcastles. Families spending quality time together while discovering all that's rare and exciting in this secluded corner of Florida.

Close by the big Marriott resort are the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center, with its coastal hardwood hammocks and mangrove swamp communities; the Elliott Museum (reopening in March 2013 after renovation) with its displays of Americana that include antique cars and historic baseball cards; Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge, which dates from 1876 (the oldest building in the county, once a haven for shipwrecked sailors), and Bathtub Reef Beach, where shallow waters make this an unusually toddler-safe recreational shore.

Two more beaches rank exceptional, both on Jupiter Island; The Nature Conservancy’s Blowing Rocks Preserve and the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge on the island's undeveloped north end.

When easterly winds bluster through and the seas are rough - the kind of day when at beaches elsewhere there's little to do - the surf pounds ashore and erupts at the south end of Jupiter Island through the blowholes of limestone rock formations. You want to be here to see geysers shoot up to 20 feet in a spectacle that gives this beach its name, Blowing Rocks.

Nor is there anything quite like the miles of pristine beach at the wildlife refuge, located at the north end of Jupiter Island.

The town that bears the island name sits between Blowing Rocks and the Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge. It's been called the richest zip code in America. Yet all around are these welcoming natural places that also include Jonathan Dickinson State Park west across the Intracoastal Waterway, and on a mainland section of the refuge, Peck Lake with its wildlife observation tower.

On the barrier island, the refuge extends three miles north of town, its beaches wild and famed for turtle nesting. Nights between May and July, rangers lead small groups to sites where, by using non-disturbing lights, visitors can witness the age-old nesting process.

St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park occupies the last northern three miles of wilderness. Unless you want to walk, you can only reach here by skiff, cruiser or by paddling over.

A good place to put in is at Sandsprit Park. It's a two-mile paddle to the park from this site on Manatee Pocket, one of east coast Florida's favorite hurricane holes. Pirates Cove supplies a marina popular with yachters bound for offshore islands, which lends international cachet to this laidback small hotel.

Where the Pocket gives way to St. Lucie Inlet at a confluence of sheltered waters that began drawing fisherfolk here a hundred years ago, you paddle south a mile through the Indian River Lagoon before entering a cove at the park. A dock extends into deep water for large boats to tie up. Paddlers find a sandy cove to beach theirs.

A two-thirds-of-a-mile boardwalk extends through mangrove forest to the Atlantic beach. Especially midweek, odds are that you won't find but a handful of visitors here - maybe any. The beach is broad even at high tide and firm for walking. For miles there may be only you, your shadow and imagination. 

The paddle back leaves you imagining you've experienced a stop-the-clock moment. You'll be thankful that you know the way back again.

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