Visiting Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge Florida

|   Last Updated on March 2, 2023

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge Florida is the Yellowstone of the National Wildlife Refuge system. No, you won’t find bison or grizzly bears here, but it is the first of its kind. Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872 while Pelican Island became the first national wildlife refuge in 1903.

Following years of plume hunting in South Florida – industrial scale slaughter of birds, thousands a day by professional hunters to feed the demand for feathers to use in ladies’ hats – bird populations had collapsed. The disastrous effects of plume hunting launched the Audubon Society, the wildlife-focused American conservation movement, and, from the federal government, the National Wildlife Refuge System.

Wildlife, the brown pelican in particular, literally needed refuge.

Pelican National Wildlife Refuge was established as a bird sanctuary by President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid and expert birder, and the system was off and running. The National Wildlife Refuge System now includes more than 500 locations across the United States including the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, but it all started here at Pelican Island.

Visit Indian River County banner

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Way Vero Beach FL Directions

When GPS mapping yourself to Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge Florida, your smartphone’s directions may mislead you and take you to the administrative offices and driveway on Wildlife Way. Don’t despair, the public entrance is a quarter mile north on Highway A1A on the northern end of the Jungle Trail.

The first parking lot on the gravel road has restroom facilities. Most likely, you’ll want to continue driving south on the Jungle Trail – about two-tenths of a mile – until you reach the second pull off, the Pelican Island Viewing Area parking lot. You’ll know you’ve found the right place when you spot the strangler fig wrapped around a palm tree.

From here, the flat, paved ¾-mile Centennial walking trail offers views of Centennial Pond and culminates in a 500-foot ADA accessible observation tower and boardwalk with a view of Pelican Island in the middle of the Indian River Lagoon. Don’t miss it.

As the first of the nation’s national wildlife refuges, the boardwalk here has one plank recognizing each unit in the system. Use the refuge map to find the one closest to where you live so you can continue exploring the system from home. Chances are, one is located within 50 miles of where you live.

Breezing through the Centennial Trail and up to the observation tower can be accomplished in an hour from the Pelican Island Viewing Area parking lot. Of course, serious birders could spend all day there with binoculars and guidebook in hand. Fall through spring is the best times to see as many of the Refuge’s 130 different species as you can, including the enormous wintering white pelicans who migrate there.

A longer walk can be enjoyed on the three-mile Joe Michael Memorial Loop Trail. Flat, but alternately grassy, bumpy, gravelly and sandy, the wide trail leads through mangrove with its highlight being another observation deck overlooking a wetland.

This is Florida, remember, so sunscreen, bug spray, a hat and water are advised to avoid burns, bites and dehydration. There’s nothing arduous about the walks, but the heat and humidity (and bugs) can challenge the uninitiated.

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge.
Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Chadd Scott.

Pelican National Wildlife Refuge Historic Jungle Trail

Running 7.5 miles through Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge Vero Beach FL is the historic Jungle Trail, a hard packed sand trail built in the 1920s allowing the area’s citrus growers to drive their produce out of the groves here and to market. At one time, most of what was around the Refuge – including parts of the Refuge which has grown over the years – was citrus groves. This is Indian River County after all and surely you’ve heard of Indian River citrus?

The Jungle Trail is more of a road and two cars can pass by on it, carefully. It’s not a “through road” however, so traffic is light and it’s frequented by bikers and heartier hikers.

Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge Vero Beach FL Tours

Free Pelican National Wildlife Refuge tram tours are returning in 2023 and will be held January through April on every Wednesday at 8:00 AM. Space is very limited, so make reservations as early as possible by calling 772-581-5557; a Refuge volunteer will return your message for scheduling.

Last Updated on March 2, 2023