Of all the state's nicknamed coasts (Emerald Coast, Forgotten Coast, Paradise Coast), you’d think Florida's Space Coast would be the most developed. Its name implies a certain amount of infrastructure – the massive man made apparatus (literally) fueled the American exploration of space – but it is, in fact, home to some of the largest tracts of pristine waterfront in a state that is well-known for its coastline.
The preserved beaches and adjacent ecosystems of this natural playground are all the more impressive when one considers they sit smack within Central Florida, an area that is absolutely teeming with human activity. Put it this way: if you’re staring at Cinderella’s castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom – the most iconic vista in a theme park that is an exemplar of a constructed, artificial environment – you are about a 90 minute drive from the pristine dunes of Merritt Island, gently eroding under the Atlantic’s salt breezes.
The lay of the sandy land
There are over 72 miles of beachfront in the Space Coast, and this coastline doesn’t just hug the ocean. The three main protected areas – Canaveral National Seashore, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and Sebastian Inlet State Park – are all barrier islands. While you’ll find white caps on the east side of the beaches facing out to the Atlantic, the west side faces the calm waters of Mosquito Lagoon, the Indian River and the Banana River.
Canaveral National Seashore
You’ll find 24 miles of shoreline here, all protected by the National Parks System. For Florida, this is a frankly enormous stretch of undeveloped coast. There are two roads in and out of the island, and they dead end, leaving some 16 miles of wilderness between them. If you thought Florida was a pretty state, you’ll be gobsmacked by the preserved beauty on display here. Limited primitive camping is available here from November through April.
The main attraction for most visitors is, understandably, the beach, and there are a few here. Apollo Beach is popular with families and has boardwalk access. At six miles long, there are a lot of places here where you can experience something that is often quite rare in Florida: a piece of beach all to yourself. With that said, if you really want to get away from everyone, hike out to Klondike Beach. You have to walk or bike here, and you’ll need to buy a $2 backcountry permit, but this may be one of the most isolated beaches in the state. At all beaches, be aware of potentially strong rip currents.
Head to Mosquito Lagoon if you want to paddle or take in mangrove ecosystems. On the north side of the lagoon, Turtle Mound rises 35ft out of the ground like a lumpy tuft of unexpected elevation. This isn’t a random hill – it’s a shell midden, a dump site for mollusk shells used by pre-contact Native Americans. If you were to dig into the mound (don’t do that, by the way - this is an important archaeological site), you’d find around 1.5 million bushels (53 million liters) of oyster shells.
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge
Yes, this is one of the most easily accessible wildlife refuges in the state, but it remains an absolute natural escape as well. There’s an incredible diversity of ecological goodness contained within the 140,000 acres of this refuge, from coastal dunes to brackish marshes to hardwood forests. You’ll find (or you can try and find) some 1500 species of fauna living in the refuge, including threatened and endangered species like the Eastern Indigo snake, Florida scrub jay, gopher tortoise, wood stork and West Indian manatee.
Beyond those rare species, you can see North American river otters, armadillo, white-tail deer, bobcats, and a whole grinning party of alligators. The easiest means of accessing the refuge is to stop at the visitor center, then drive 7-mile Black Point Wildlife Drive, which includes a pull-off for several trails that pierce the heart of the refuge, including the wonderful 4.8-mile Cruickshank Trail.
Sebastian Inlet State Park & Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge
While this state park is attractive, it feels undeniably busier than the National Seashore and Merritt Island thanks to the presence of many families and fishermen. If you’re looking for an escape, head to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, located just to the south (about 2.5 miles away). This was the first federal bird reservation in the country, and it is still home to thousands of brown pelicans, as well as some 140 other species of birdlife. Three hiking trails meander over seven miles of refuge land.
It’s worth noting that you don’t have to fully immerse yourself in the sandy wilderness to experience the natural beauty of the Space Coast. Family-friendly towns like Cocoa Beach and Melbourne Beach, with their decent restaurants and nightlife, all make for excellent bases of exploration. From Cocoa Beach, you can link up with Fin Expeditions, which offers guided kayak tours of the Banana River Lagoon. Your guides will help you navigate a vegetative labyrinth of mangrove channels and inlets while helping to point out local wildlife.
During the summer, when dinoflagellates illuminate any movement under the water, this outfit also offers bioluminescence tours. Watching your paddle paint a streak of blue green light across the lagoons – or watching a manatee leave a glowing trail in its ponderous wake – is about as magical a way of experiencing a summer night as we can imagine.
The Environmental Learning Center, near Vero Beach, is worth checking out if you find yourself heading just south of the Space Coast. This spot includes over five dozen acres of protected wetlands and estuarine environment on Wabasso Island, criss crossed by a mangrove boardwalk and numerous paddling trails. 64-acre reserve, dedicated to educating folks about the fragile environment of the Indian River estuary, offers hands-on displays and a boardwalk through the mangroves. There’s a lot of activities for kids, including a touch tank, and if you want to explore the water, you can arrange a canoe trip (for adults) or a pontoon trip (for families).