Discover Florida’s 12 Best Islands: Explore Merritt Island

Merritt Island is where pure nature and awe-inspiring technology co-exist.
Merritt Island Nat Wildlife Refuge

Descending the boardwalk at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. (PETER W. CROSS/VISITFLORIDA.COM)

Skirting Central Florida’s Atlantic coast, Merritt Island is where pure nature and awe-inspiring technology co-exist. Although one of the largest barrier islands in Florida, it’s also one of the least developed, purposely so to accommodate rocket launches at Kennedy Space Center, which shares the island.

On its north end, Canaveral National Seashore boasts miles of blissfulness tucked between the ocean’s roaring waves and Mosquito Lagoon’s quiet brackish waters. It’s perfect for beach purists searching for straight up beautiful water, sand and dunes with absolutely no sign of civilization. The dreamy, 10-mile stretch called Playalinda is a popular beach, but on weekdays you may very well be the lone person combing the shore. (Note: There is a nude section of the beach at parking lot 13.) Walkovers lead from parking areas over tall, plump dunes to a breathtaking windswept spectacle. From the raised platform, you can gaze at a golden sandy shore and let your eyes feast on an endless 360-degree view of sea, coast and wetland interrupted only by NASA’s launch pads in the far distance at the adjacent space center.

Klondike Beach (13 miles) is an example of what the state’s coast might have looked like a thousand years ago. It’s accessible only on foot or by bicycle, and you need a backcountry permit from the ranger to visit. Warning: It can be a strenuous hike since its shore has slope and soft sand. The national seashore’s northernmost stretch is Apollo Beach (6 miles), which is home to a visitor’s center, and interpretive trails that lead to Mosquito Lagoon, where kayaks and boats launch.

On the west side, Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is nestled between the lagoon and the Indian River; it consumes a whopping 140,000 acres. Birders and nature photographers find opportunity on its Black Point Wildlife Drive, which meanders through flatwoods and marshland. Sightings include shorebirds in winter, roseate spoonbills and black-necked stilts in summer, and herons, ibises and egrets year-round. Alligators and otters are also spied here.

South of Mother Nature’s sprawl sits the epicenter of the nation’s space program. Some of the world’s most advanced technology comes to life at Kennedy Space Center, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 rockets that launch frequently. The bus tour to view the humongous Vehicle Assembly Building, (think of it as a working garage for spacecraft) shows the vastness of both the island and the space complex.

Don’t Miss…

Moonlight Kayaking

In the summer, twinkling bioluminescence—the emission of light from living organisms—makes a moonlight paddle along the mangrove shores of Merritt Island
National Refuge twice as exciting. Blue flashes appear in the water with the sweep of a paddle. In cooler months, comb jellies turn rainbow colors when hit by the beam of a flashlight. Tours are
offered by A Day Away.

Fishing Mosquito Lagoon

This shallow-water fish habitat is one of the country’s best locations to target tailing redfish with light tackle or on fly. Mosquito Lagoon’s grass flats are home to shrimp, crabs, clams and other baitfish that keep the reds chomping all year long. Fishing guides can help you sneak up on these feisty game fish and hook a 20 pound-plus red.

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