Guide to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge

A board along the Centennial Trail with the first National Wildlife Refuge, Pelican Island NWR, etched on it.
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge was the first step in the United States to preserve natural lands for wildlife management.

In 1903 a new era in wildlife protection was born in the United States of America. With a bold statement in the simple phrase “I so declare it” a young President Theodore Roosevelt protected 5.5 acres of land for migratory birds. It is called the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and it is the first of its kind. The creation of this refuge was a small first step but before Roosevelt’s presidency was over there would be 54 plots of land scattered across this great nation dedicated to the sole purpose of preserving and protecting natural places for wildlife to thrive. A little more then a century later this idea of protecting wildlife habitats has exploded into 540 refuges including more than 95 million acres.

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge Today

A Brown Pelican.
The Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge was originally created to protect the migratory lands of the brown pelican.

Today Pelican Island, the first wildlife refuge, has expanded from the initial 5.5 acres to more than 5400 acres. The refuge has added about 6 miles of hiking trails and two viewing platforms across three paths. This allows visitors to the area to see migratory birds and other wild creatures in their natural habitat.

Finding the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge

Getting to the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge must have been a challenge in the early days and probably remained difficult until our modern era of digital navigation. The road that runs through the refuge is made up of sand and rock. This is a section of the Historic Jungle Road and is accessed from Florida’s coastal highway A1A. If you didn’t know exactly where to look, this turn would be easily missed. Even with using google maps I found myself questioning whether this was the right spot. We ran into a lady out on the trail who said she had lived in the area for 40 years and had only found this area a few years ago.

The Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge Trails

The Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge hiking map.
A hiking trail sign is located at the first parking area inside the Pelican Island NWR.

Jennifer and I visited and walked every inch of the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge trail system. For the most part, these trails are nothing more than mowed down six foot wide swaths of grass. The terrain of the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge is made up of mangroves and lagoons. The path has been elevated to keep it lifted slightly above the surrounding swampy conditions.  A perfect environment where numerous bird species thrive alongside snakes, river otters, alligators, and other swamp creatures.

The Bird’s Impoundment Trail

The swampy conditions lining the Bird's Impoundment Trail.
These are the swampy conditions lining the Bird’s Impoundment Trail. A truly natural Florida environment is found at the Pelican Island NWR.

If you are tight on time skip the first parking area and go to the second.  The first parking area has a restroom facility and is the trailhead for the 2.5 mile Bird’s Impoundment Trail. The trail is a nice grass trail but it has limited breaks in the trees and no elevated platforms. We saw wildlife on this trail but not in the abundance and clarity that we saw from the other trails.

Centennial Trail

The Centennial Trail's boards with the National Wildlife Refuges etched into them.
All the National Wildlife Refuge names are etched into the boards that make up the Centennial Trail at Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.

The second parking area has no facilities. It does, however, have the very nice and wheelchair accessible Centennial Trail. This path was constructed in order to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the national wildlife refuge. The path is constructed with planks that have each of our nation’s refuges etched into the planks. As new refuge areas are created they are added to the list. It is a very cool tangible way to see those more than 540 refuges. The trail leads to an elevated overlook of the intercostal waterway. Here we saw numerous birds in the distance and a pod of dolphins. The trail also was covered in wildlife during our visit. We saw several egrets, a great blue heron, and an Osprey.

Pete’s Impoundment Foot Trail

Raised platform overlooking a lagoon on the Pete's Impoundment Foot Trail.
The raised platform overlooking the lagoon found on the Pete’s Impoundment Foot Trail.

The second parking area is also the trailhead for the grassy 2.5-mile loop known as Pete’s Impoundment Foot Trail. One mile in, this trail has a small spur with a dock overlooking a lagoon. This was one of the best spots to see wildlife. We spotted a brown pelican, two ospreys, and many other species of birds there. A group we passed on the trail said they had seen an otter prior to our arrival. It is a very nice trail and if you have to choose between this and the Bird’s Impoundment Trail choose this one.

Camping

There is no camping available at the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.

Sebastian Inlet State Park is located just north of Pelican Island and is a great spot for camping and other recreational opportunities.

Long Point Park and Campground is another great camping option. It is located on its own small island with a great short walking trail on another adjacent island.

Conclusion

The Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to visit to see the short history of wildlife protection in our country. This was the birth an execution of an idea for the generations.

A Pelican Island NWR sunset with trees silhouetted.
The sun sets on the Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.

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