By Chloe Berge
I half expect a swamp monster à la Creature from the Black Lagoon to rise out of the river. Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Martin County, Florida has beauty on a cinematic, prehistoric scale, and while no mythical monsters may exist here, alligators do. I’m exploring the park solo, which perhaps also lends an uncanny air to the scene. In the steamy Florida heat, I trek along a narrow dirt trail flanked by cabbage palm and tall slash pine trees that look like umbrellas with their bulbous, leafy tops and leggy trunks.
“You can’t get lost,” assured the park ranger as she handed me a map before I set out. This much is true. For someone who tackles multi-day wilderness hikes, Jonathan Dickinson’s Kitching Creek Nature Trail is more a walk than a trek, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. Numbered stops call out the area’s flora and fauna, including jagged saw palmetto and pink ground orchids that bloom in the underbrush. The park is home to several rare and endangered animals like the Florida scrub-jay, the Florida mouse, and gopher frogs, so I keep my ears pricked for any rustles in the greenery. Beyond this hiking route, the 10,500-acre park is carved with myriad mountain biking and horse trails—but the water beckons.
On Florida’s Treasure Coast—named after the loot that’s washed ashore from 18th-century shipwrecked Spanish fleets— an azure ocean kisses a bright, cerulean sky. Unlike other hotspots that dot the state’s Atlantic side, you’re likely to have the beach to yourself in Martin County. I'm basing myself at the Hutchinson Island Marriott Beach Resirt & Marina, which has rooms in the Sandpiper Tower that are located directly on the ocean. I make my way down to the water along sugary white sand, patterned by the sun-dappled shade of waxy sea grape trees. This morning, I’m joining Leisa Bee, co-owner of Zeke’s Surf and Paddle, for a sandbar hopper SUP excursion. Sailfish Flats is a calm inlet; our boards glide effortlessly over the water’s surface under the golden light of the rising sun.
“Did you see that?” says Leisa, pointing the end of her paddle underneath my board. The crystalline water affords a view all the way down to the bottom, where the sand is marked with a rippled pattern reminiscent of hammered silver. I catch a shadowy creature flit quickly across the depths. Most likely a ray, says Leisa. “I still get so excited by everything I see here, and I’ve lived in Martin County all my life.” The area is a wellspring of marine life, including giant conch, starfish, and comb jellies that glow fluorescent red and blue. A stroll along the ribboning stretches of beach will bring you to the nests of sea turtles, where during hatching season, you can watch the babies make their valiant quest down to the ocean.
If you’re looking for more of a thrill on the water, opt for a self-drive catamaran ride through the Jupiter Narrows with Riding the Waves. You’ll slice through the waterway at high speed, pausing throughout to learn about the mangroves’ diverse ecosystem. But make no mistake, the true pleasure of Martin County is to be found in savouring its quieter, contemplative natural beauty.