Visiting the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge: Vero Beach, Florida
Traveling has always been a great educator for me and a recent visit to the east coast of Florida proved once again that there is always something new to be learned no matter where your travels take you. We were fortunate recently to spend a few days in a part of Florida that we had not visited before, Vero Beach.
For those of you who love the great outdoors and are familiar with this area of Florida you may know that the National Wildlife Refuge System all started here in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt set aside the tiny 5.5-acre Pelican Island as the country’s first federal bird reservation, forerunner to the National Wildlife Refuge System. Thus began a movement that would spread across the country and today encompasses over 560 wildlife refuge areas protecting over 150 million acres. Upwards of fifty million visitors annually are now able to enjoy these protected areas where they can see wildlife in its natural habitat.
The Birds of Pelican Island
The existence of the Pelican Island NWR owes a great debt of gratitude to a gentlemen by the name of Paul Kroegel. Kroegel lived on the West Bank of the Indian River within eyesight of Pelican Island during the late 19th century. Kroegel made it his personal responsibility to protect the birds of the island who were hunted for their feathers. At great risk to his personal safety, Kroegel would take his boat and his shotgun out to the island to protect the birds. Eventually Kroegel was hired by the Florida Audubon Society to protect the island and after President Roosevelt created federal protection for the land, Kroegel was hired as the very first manager of a National Wildlife Refuge.
The Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge is located just off of route 1A1 approximately three miles south of Sebastian Inlet in what is known as the Indian River Lagoon. The public use area of the refuge has expanded to over 5,400 acres and is located on the Historic Jungle Trail, which is actually a packed dirt/sand road that was constructed in the 1920s for the citrus industry to transport fruit. The Jungle Trail runs for nearly eight miles along the Indian River and offers spectacular coastal scenery for those looking to walk, run, bike, or drive the trail. Don't worry, it is well maintained and easy to travel on.
Were you aware that the National Wildlife Refuge System all began here at Pelican Island?
The wildlife refuge has three main hiking trails totaling about seven miles. For our visit we decided on the Centennial Trail, which takes visitors to the Pelican Island observation tower. This is the shortest of the three trails, approximately ¾-mile roundtrip, but offers visitors a rather interesting and pleasant surprise. The raised boardwalk section of the trail contains over 560 engraved planks, each containing the name of a National Wildlife Refuge. Each plank contains the refuge name, state, and the year it was established. It was great fun identifying the refuge areas that we have visited and discovering that there are actually a few in our home state that we have never heard of. The boardwalk was opened in 2003 to mark the 100-year anniversary of the establishment of the National Wildlife Refuge System, hence the name Centennial Trail. It was quite the education.
Pelican Island NWR Trails:
Bird’s Impoundment Trail: 3-mile loop trail
Joe Michael Memorial Trail: 3-mile loop trail
Centennial Trail: .75 miles roundtrip
Prior to reaching the boardwalk section of the trail you will pass the butterfly garden and a fresh water pond that is a great spot to observe birds and the local water fowl of the area. While checking out the pond we were fortunate to see a number of blue crabs in the water and amazingly they seemed to respond to our presence, maybe they were expecting to be fed? The pond is also home to turtles, fish, snakes and a lot of local birds looking for a meal.
As you walk the trail you will pass a number of interpretative panels to help educate visitors on the refuge and the wildlife that call this area home. There are also some well placed benches along the trail so you can sit and watch the wildlife. The trail around the pond will lead you to the raised boardwalk section with the NWR planks and eventually this will take you to the observation tower that looks out to Pelican Island.
The Centennial Trail ends at the elevated observation tower in the photo above and it provides a great view of Pelican Island and the Indian River Lagoon. The island is one of the last Brown Pelican rookeries on the east coast and offers a prime nesting area for a number of Florida birds including brown pelicans, egrets, blue heron, ibis, anhinga, cormorant, and wood storks. During the migratory season, which is November through March, you can expect to have several thousand birds roosting on this one tiny island. While at the observation tower be sure to utilize the two spotting scopes that both work very well and give visitors an up close look at Pelican Island and some of the other surrounding islands. I would certainly suggest bringing binoculars if you have them. If you are visiting during the fall to early spring you may also see the beautiful white pelicans that visit this area.
If you would like to join in on a free wildlife tour while visiting the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge you can schedule one by calling 772-581-5557, extension-2. Tours are conducted by volunteers on Wednesdays from 8 am to 10 am, and run from November through March. A reservation is required and this is a great way to learn about the refuge from a knowledgeable guide.
I hope you enjoyed this visit to our nations very first National Wildlife Refuge. Pelican Island is certainly one of the most historically important wildlife sites in the United States and paved the way for a system of protected refuge areas that everyone can visit and enjoy.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Questions & Answers
Are dogs allowed on Pelican Island?
Pets of any kind are not allowed in the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Are there entrance fees to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge in Vero Beach?
There is no entrance fee to visit the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. They do offer a pontoon boat ride, which costs $30, but to just enter the Refuge and walk/hike there is no fee.
© 2017 Bill De Giulio