Treasure Coast Ecotourism Attractions, Activities
By Kevin Mims
It only takes one dip in the warm, clear waters on the coast of Martin County, one look at the sea life under the surface, a short stroll on a beach where endangered sea turtles have made their nests, a few minutes gliding down a river teeming with wildlife Florida is known for.
It’s nearly impossible to spend time in these places without starting to feel like you want to help protect them, and, with a little planning, you can enjoy the best nature has to offer while having a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly vacation.
To visit Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge is to experience Southeast Florida at its wildest and most unspoiled. The refuge 15 miles north of Jupiter boasts the largest segment of undeveloped beach in the region and is a vital nesting area for sea turtles and home to dozens of other threatened or endangered species. The Hobe Sound Nature Center, located at the refuge’s headquarters, provides educational activities including scrub tours, summer camps, and turtle walks.
Over on Jupiter Island, Blowing Rocks Preserve is a Martin County must-see. The massive, craggy rocks—which happen to make up the East Coast’s largest outcropping of Anastasia limestone—combined with crashing ocean waves result in the phenomenon that gives Blowing Rocks its name: geysers that can reach as high as 50 feet.
In Northwestern Martin County, Allapattah Flats Wildlife Management Area encompasses nearly 21,000 acres of protected wildlife habitat, which makes it perfect for wildlife viewing, especially for wood storks, crested caracaras, and sandhill cranes. An even closer look at South Florida’s wild animals can be found at the Treasure Coast Wildlife Hospital in Palm City, which helps to rehabilitate sick and injured wildlife and offers a number of educational programs for the public as well as opportunities to see the animals in their care.
St. Lucie Inlet
Some eco-friendly attractions, like St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park in Stuart, require visitors to leave their cars behind. Accessible only by boat, the park is a barrier island of live oak hammocks, mangrove forest, and a swimming beach where leatherback, loggerhead, and green sea turtles nest at night.
Whether by land or by water, there are endless opportunities for low-impact adventures in Martin County. Kayaking, snorkeling, diving, surfing, paddleboarding, and kiteboarding are all ways to make a splash without widening your carbon footprint. And the area’s foot and bike trails provide miles of opportunities for exploration through the diverse natural lands that make this area unique.
Just a few miles north and inland of Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge is Seabranch Preserve State Park, which is best explored on foot along its six miles of hiking trails. In just a few short miles, visitors can experience a wide range of habitats, including pine scrub, pine flatwoods, and swamp, which are home to diverse plant and animal species, including the beloved Florida scrub jay.
Barley Barber Swamp
Barley Barber Swamp west of Indiantown offers visitors the chance to get up close and personal with Florida’s famed Cypress swamp habitat. There, free guided swamp walks are available to the public from May to October.
Oceanographic Coastal Center
The Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center on Hutchinson Island, which sits on 57 acres between the Indian River Lagoon and Atlantic Ocean, is where you’ll find the headquarters for the Florida Oceanographic Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting and preserving the area’s coastal systems. This family-friendly destination has pavilions for children’s activities, sea turtles, a visitors center, nature trails, and a 750,000-gallon fish lagoon.
Of the area’s many paddling opportunities, Martin County Scenic Blueway Trail stands out for its vast network of trails spanning 37.7 and its many public access points. The blueway includes the Indian River Lagoon and St. Lucie River systems and has eight public launch or stopover sites throughout.
Surfing, Paddleboarding, Kiteboarding, Sailing
When you’re ready for a little more excitement, head to one of Martin County’s local outfitters for surfing, kiteboarding, or paddleboarding rentals or lessons. Guided tours and lessons are offered through Zeke’s Surf, Skate, and Paddleboarding. To venture farther, book a sailing session with Schooner Lily in Stuart and watch dolphins cruising along the St. Lucie River. The U.S. Sailing Center Martin County at Indian Riverside Park has opportunities for everyone from experienced sailors to beginners looking to take lessons and even offers a family learn-to-sail course.
Underwater adventures abound at the many beaches of Martin County, four of which are protected by lifeguards. Among those four, Bathtub Reef Beach in Stuart is a favorite with locals and visitors alike for its shallow, calm waters that are ideal for swimming and snorkeling. Want to venture a little deeper? Head to the popular Georges Valentine wreck dive.
FOOD AND DINING
When it comes to eco-friendly dining, the science is clear: being good to the environment means eating plants, eating locally-sourced food, and eating organic when possible.
Farm-to-table style dining is as fresh and local as it gets. In addition to serving up upscale dinners by notable chefs and hosting weddings, Kai-Kai Farm, which grows more than 80 varieties of crops on 40 acres in western Martin County, has a farm stand on site that’s open to the public.
Stuart Green Market
At Stuart Green Market, vendors set up at the waterfront on Sundays, offering up fresh and local goods. Shop the market while listening to live music in the mornings and concerts in the afternoons.
Shadowood Farm & Organic Food Market sells seasonal organic produce, hosts weddings, offers garden space rentals, and presents educational programs that include gardening workshops tailored to beginners at the beginning of the season in September.
If fish is on the menu, it doesn’t get more sustainable or environmentally-friendly than locally-caught invasive lionfish, an exotic species that is wreaking havoc on reef systems in South Florida and the Caribbean. Spearing lionfish, which happens to be a delicious and mild culinary fish, is allowed at any time of the year, but the Annual Lionfish Roundup event in June invites divers from near and far to spear their way to cash prizes while doing something good for the environment.
Little Moir's Food Shack in Jupiter serves locally-caught lionfish on occasion depending on availability. You have to check with them in advance to see if they have it. I wanted put that in the lionfish section of the story but they didn't respond in time.
A Walk in the Parks
Walking has always been the simplest and most environmentally-friendly mode of transportation, and the pathways and trails of Martin County make it a fun and easy way to get around and take in the sights, whether you’re in a bustling downtown or in the thick of nature. Some of the most popular walking and hiking trails in the area include those at Halpatiokee Regional Park and Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Indian Riverside Park in Jensen Beach is a walkable, family-friendly waterfront destination with historic buildings and a children’s museum.
To hit some of the area’s popular nature destinations by bike, take the Martin County US Route 1 Sidepath, part of the East Coast Greenway, which runs between Jonathan Dickinson State Park and Tequesta Park. Local outfitters such as Village Bike & Paddle in Hobe Sound have bikes for rent, as does Johnathan Dickinson State Park.
Tram, Scooters, Segways
To get around without breaking a sweat, hop on the Stuart Downtown Tram, a fully electric transportation system that’s partially solar powered. Alternative transportation options don’t stop there: local businesses offer scooter rentals, segway tours, and more.
From lowering water consumption to making more efficient use of energy, more and more hotels are making efforts to become greener. Jupiter Beach Resort & Spa and Hutchinson Island Beach Resort & Marina are two designated lodges with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Lodging Program, which focuses on waste reduction, reuse, and recycling, water conservation, communication and education, energy efficiency, and indoor air quality.
But to make the most out of nature with the least environmental impact, book a campsite at a state, county, or regional park campground: Jonathan Dickinson State Park, Phipps Park, Halpatiokee Regional Park, or DuPuis Management Area.
Vacations can be just as rewarding as they are fun, especially when you’re in an area surrounded by parks, beaches, and wildlife refuges. There are many ways to leave a place better than you found it, and in Martin County, giving back can mean helping wildlife, cleaning up beaches, or volunteering with a conservation organization or park.
Great American Cleanup
Surfrider Foundation’s Treasure Coast Chapter hosts events throughout the year aimed at ocean conservation and clean beaches.
The Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart has hundreds of volunteers and hosts beach cleanups and programs aimed at improving the health of coastal waterways, including seagrass and oyster reef restoration.
Florida’s state parks have a thriving volunteer program, and there is a wide variety of volunteer opportunities available. Jonathan Dickinson State Park, Savannas Preserve State Park, St. Lucie Inlet Preserve State Park, and Seabranch Preserve State Park can all be found within Martin County.
For visitors planning to be in the area for several months, the Hobe Sound Nature Center has volunteer opportunities for teens and adults. Volunteers can become sea turtle observers, docents, greeters, and animal caretakers. A three-month commitment is required for adults and a six-month commitment for teens.
Habitat for Humanity
Alternatively, build a vacation around a group volunteer effort for Habitat for Humanity, which builds affordable homes for people in need.