8 Amazing Experiences In Jonathan Dickinson State Park
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Discover Jonathan Dickinson State Park

Story and photos
by Kathleen Walls

Jonathan Dickinson State Park on the Loxahatchee River is the largest state park in Southeast Florida. It's the perfect place to visit any time of the year. It's in Martin County, Florida, which offers you wonderful places to explore while camping at Jonathan Dickinson Park. One of my visits here was on a comped press trip, but my opinions are my own. 

Looking for the perfect camping spot or just a place to play for a day? Jonathan Dickinson State Park is the place for you. I fell in love with this park the first time I visited it when I hiked the boardwalk to the top of an ancient sand dune, Hobe Mountain. At 86 feet above sea level, Hobe Mountain is the highest natural point south of Lake Okeechobee. I could see across the park, to Highway A1A and the Atlantic Ocean just beyond.

If you are lucky, you might spot the rare Florida scrub jay, but you are sure to see some amazing wildlife. More than 150 species of birds live or visit here. My love affair with the park deepened when I had a close encounter with two momma sand-hill cranes and their babies last time I visited. There were two mommas and their babies on the side of the main road into the park. They let me get amazingly close. My camera was snapping like crazy.

If you want to get on the river, take a boat trip to see the former domain of Trapper Nelson, legendary Wild Man of the Loxahatchee. Loxahatchee Queen pontoon boat takes visitors for a 90-minute tour of the river with a stop at Trapper Nelson's 1930s compound. A ranger leads you around and tells you about Trapper Nelson. The very rustic buildings Nelson built to house himself, visitors, and wildlife are still there. Nelson settled here in the 1930s and put together what might be called Florida's first theme park, Trapper's Zoo and Jungle Gardens. He charged guests $1.50 to park their boats in a crude boathouse he built, he had a cabin he would rent out for overnight stays, and a homemade zoo with alligators, raccoons, bobcats, and other native wildlife he trapped. Trapper Nelson died here of what the coroner said was a suicide, a shotgun blast to his stomach. There is a common belief it was murder, however. On the way to the compound, you will see turtles and possibly alligators in the river.

You can camp in one of two family campgrounds, Pine Grove Campground, with 90 sites, located near the ranger station on the east side of the park, or The River Campground, with 52 sites, near the Loxahatchee River, and enjoy wild Central Florida. Your furry friend is welcome in the campgrounds. You won't be surprised the park won second place for Best State Park for RVers in the 2021 USA Today Readers' Choice Travel Awards.

Tour Guide, Jean, at the Elliot Museum

1. The Elliott Museum

If you want to explore outside the park, Martin County offers lots of choices. Elliott Museum is a trip back in time to the early 20th century and some interesting car facts. The museum honors the inventions of Sterling Elliott ranging from the first Knot Tying Machine to many innovations of the automobile. I learned how the term “back seat driver” came about. Our guide, Jean, showed us one of the first electric cars, a Detroit Electric Model 489 Duplex Brougham, and explained that the person in the back left seat had the same controls as the driver and could become a backseat driver if needed.

Elliott was a champion of equal rights. He designed a bicycle especially for women and fought against a law that banned African Americans from bicycle racing. Because of this fight, Marshall Taylor became the first black world-champion bicyclist.

The museum has more vintage automobiles than I've ever seen as well as bicycles and Elliott's other inventions.

2. Gilbert's Bar House Of Refuge

Stepping back in time, we visited Gilbert's Bar House of Refuge, the oldest structure in Martin County. In 1876, the U.S. Life-Saving Service, which later merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard, built 10 of these houses. This is the only House of Refuge remaining. They were created to minister to survivors of shipwrecks along Florida's treacherous Atlantic coast. During WWII they served as lookouts for German U-boats. In the 1950s, this one became a museum and a refuge for sea turtles.

Keepers Quarters

The artifacts inside tell of the keepers' lives and the shipwrecks from which they rescued survivors. My favorite part is the replica of the keeper's home.

3. Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center

Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center on 57-acres on Hutchinson Island, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River Lagoon, introduces you to aquatic life. It's a fantastic mix of education and entertainment about sea life in the Atlantic Ocean. There's a tank where we could pet the stingrays. The turtle tank is inhabited by sea turtles that cannot be rehabilitated and returned to the sea.

The center has lots of educational information about helping keep the reefs safe and what oyster beds do for the environment. The butterfly garden swarms with fluttering jewels. Behind the main center, there are two nature trails. The one-third-mile “I Spy” trail is great if you are traveling with youngsters. The mile-long Indian River Lagoon Loop Trail takes you past the Indian River and is about half boardwalks over salt marsh and mangrove swamp.

4. The Fish House Art Center

The quaint fishing village of Port Salerno is just 5 miles from downtown Stuart. The Fish House Art Center is home to a variety of artists from painters to ceramic artists. You can visit Elizabeth Kelly's Tibetan hand weaving studio, rent a paddle board, or even stay in an Airbnb apartment on the water. The center is located on the waterfront. There are restaurants like Twisted Tuna for great seafood, Craft & Creamery where you can get ice cream or a cold brew, and an open bar in the middle of the center.

Tour Guides Patricia and PatrickMesmer

5. Port Salerno Ghost Tour

Port Salerno Ghost Tour, which starts at The Fish House Art Center, is part paranormal, part history, and totally fascinating. I loved that the hosts, Patrick and Patricia Mesmer, tell so much accurate history of Martin County. The Mesmers outfit you with some psychic alerting tools and walk you around the wharf and town to places that actually are associated with the stories. My favorite is the one about John Ashley, the notorious Florida gangster who was either executed after being captured and handcuffed or killed in a gunfight when he and some of his gang were arrested. Don Pedro Gilbert, a vicious South American pirate who frequented Martin County, is another whose spirit is still hanging around. The tour involves about 2 hours of walking at an easy pace with lots of stops.

6. Mansion At Tuckahoe

The Mansion at Tuckahoe has a free tour to experience the lifestyle of the rich and famous. The mansion was once the home of Coca-Cola heiress Anne Bates Leach. Tours are on temporary hold due to the COVID pandemic, but normally take place every first and third Wednesday, September through May at 10 a.m. and 11 a.m.

Stuart Welcome Mural

7. Stuart Main Street

Stuart has a walkable and cute main street area. Individual business reign here, not chains. They are on the Florida Mural Trail and have many colorful murals like the one that says “Welcome to Stuart” painted by artist Maureen Fulgenzi at 12 SW Flagler Avenue. The mural depicts workers picking pineapples with the Atlantic Ocean in the background. It's surrounded by tiles showing more of the city's history. The mural is near another Stuart treasure, the Lyric Theatre. Built in 1925 as a silent movie house and venue for vaudeville acts, it fell into disrepair and for a time was owned by a church. Today, it is back operating as a live event venue. Stories say it is very haunted.

Stuart Boathouse Restaurant and Bar

8. Dining

There are many great restaurants in Martin County. Two we visited were Stuart Boathouse Restaurant and Bar in Stuart and Shuckers on the Beach, on Hutchinson Island just across the county line. At Boathouse, every seat in the house has a view of the beautiful St. Lucie River, or you can sit on the patio. I had New England-style clam chowder and Boathouse Buffalo Wings, both of which were delicious. My friend had Boathouse Specialty Burger and loved it.

At Shuckers on the Beach, I went Key West-style and had Conch Chowder and Conch Fritters spicy and delicious. My friend had the shrimp tacos. The star there was dessert, a slice of key lime pie.


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