Lookout at Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Photo by R.C. Staab

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Escape the tourist frenzy of the sprawling Miami/Ft. Lauderdale/West Palm metroplex to discover an untouched jewel on Florida’s Treasure Coast just 30 minutes north of Palm Beach on the Atlantic Ocean.

While the treasure isn’t truly a jewel, it rewards you with pristine beaches, deep sea fishing, Key West-style restaurants, and Stuart’s fun downtown for eating and shopping, all while enjoying the subtropical climate of the area. Grab a sun hat and get ready to unearth the gems of this coastal playground.

Our highlights tour begins in Hobe Sound and continues north to Port Salerno and Stuart.

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Hike, Fish, Bike, and Cycle to Hobe Mountain at Jonathan Dickinson State Park

Lace up your shoes and explore over 25 miles of trails winding through pine flatwoods, cypress swamps, and coastal sandhills including the 8.79-mile Ocean to Lake multi-use trail. Embark on a serene kayak or canoe journey along the Loxahatchee River. Glide through mangrove tunnels, spot otters sunning themselves on the banks, and listen to the birds sing.

Spend a peaceful afternoon fishing in one of the park’s freshwater lakes or along the Loxahatchee River to catch bass, catfish, and crappie. After a 10-minute hike, reach the lookout tower at the summit of Hobe Mountain and be rewarded with a breathtaking panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean and Jupiter Inlet.

It’s 86 feet above sea level, making it the highest natural point — makeshift landfill mountains excluded – in South Florida.

Winter and spring are ideal times to visit the park for long bike rides and hikes because the excellent paved path often lacks significant shade. Take plenty of sunscreen and wear a hat in the summer.

Search for the Wild Man of the Loxahatchee in the Park

At the Kimbell Environmental Education and Research Center learn about the “Wild Man of the Loxahatchee,” a real person known as Trapper Nelson. Arriving in the 1930s, Nelson became well known for wrestling alligators, befriending snakes, and navigating the swamps.

His charm and showmanship drew crowds to a zoo he built with exotic animals. As civilization encroached, Nelson retreated into the shadows, his story becoming shrouded in mystery and his death in 1968 a whispered enigma. Keep an eye on him (or his ghost) when traveling through the park.

The Loxahatchee Queen pontoon boat takes visitors on a 90-minute tour of the river with a stop at the restored 1930s camp of Trapper Nelson and further north from the Education Center along the river.

Glamp out at a Safari Tent at the Park with the Family

Take a ride to find Trapper Nelson at the State Park.  Photo by R.C. Staab
Take a ride to find Trapper Nelson at the State Park. Photo by R.C. Staab

Glamping is the newest experience offered to visitors at Jonathan Dickinson State Park with deluxe safari tents that are 400 square feet and include king-sized or queen-sized beds and at least one set of bunk beds, making it a family adventure.

Tents include a mini-refrigerator, electrical outlets to charge devices plus air-conditioning and heating. Outside, there are two hammocks with stands, a fire pit, a charcoal grill with a cooking grate, exterior string lights, two camp chairs, and a picnic table. The tents are near spots used by RVs and traditional campers.

Reservations can be made online through the park’s website at https://www.floridastateparks.org/parks-and-trails/jonathan-dickinson-state-park Most weekends are sold out through June, but there’s plenty of availability mid-week.

Best Tips & Tools to Plan Your Trip

Play, Paint, Learn, and Kayak at the Hobe Sound Nature Center

Go Glamping at the State Park. Photo by R.C. Staab
Go Glamping at the State Park. Photo by R.C. Staab

Immerse yourself in the wonders of the coastal ecosystem at the Hobe Sound Nature Center. Explore interactive exhibits showcasing the plants and animals that call this region home. Touch a horseshoe crab shell, marvel at vibrant butterflies in the Discovery Garden, and learn about the vital role of mangroves in protecting the coastline.

Guided hikes led by expert naturalists unveil the secrets of the scrublands and hammocks and travel along a quiet cove of the west side of the Indian River Lagoon. From May through July, evening Turtle Walks during nesting season are offered. A donation is required. Book ahead. These special tours sell out. The rest of the activities including admission and tours are free. Closed Mondays.

Feel the Ocean’s Power at Blowing Rocks Preserve

When the tide is right and the wind is strong from the east, witness ocean waves crashing against jagged limestone, sending plumes of seawater skyward up to 50 feet. As a Nature Conservancy staff member said, most people don’t come expecting a geyser, rather it’s to spend the day at a very secluded beach.

Don’t miss the breathtaking sunrise, where the golden light paints the crashing waves in a fiery glow. The Conservancy considers this park one of their proudest achievements because the Preserve helps protect endangered plants and animals, including the rare loggerhead, and green and leatherback sea turtles.

See Murals and the Tunnel of Trees Going to Hobe Sound Beach

From I-95, Beach Road extends east past strip malls and finally through a small village of shops in Hobe Sound. Along the way, search out colorful murals on the walls of buildings in the downtown shopping area. On the way to Hobe Sound Beach, cross the railroad tracks and check out the Tunnel of Trees, a natural cathedral of towering banyan trees draped in emerald vines.

Next stop, is the bustling port of Stuart along the St. Lucie River.

Go Fishing at the Sailfish Capital of the World

With the Gulf Stream just about 10 miles off the coast, Stuart is considered the gateway to the premier deep-sea sport fishing locations in the United States. Charter boats travel offshore to the fishing grounds where sports fishermen can capture sailfish, tuna, snapper, swordfish, marlin, grouper, and wahoo.

As the staff at the main marina in Stuart suggests, head over to Pirates Cove – also known as the Manatee Marina — in Port Salerno, along the St. Lucie River, to see the fishing boats coming and going. There are dozens of charters that can be booked through fishingbooker.com or found on TripAdvisor.com.

Dine on Freshly Caught Fish at Manatee Marina

It feels like Key West every night at Manatee Marina where the catch of the day from fishing boats off-loading at the marina turns into dinner for seafood lovers at several restaurants overlooking the Manatee Pocket of the St. Lucie River.

Live music and a party atmosphere infuse the area which includes Shrimpers Grill and Raw Bar, Two Georges Dockside Grille, and Mangia Clam Bar. Be wary of Google Maps, which incorrectly labels the Port Salerno Historic Waterfront District as further east in a residential neighborhood. Best to search maps by individual restaurant names or Manatee Marina on SE Dixie Highway.

Imagine Daring Ocean Rescues at Gilbert’s Bar House of Refuge

See the Indian River Lagoon at Hobe Sound Nature Center. Photo by R.C. Staab
See the Indian River Lagoon at Hobe Sound Nature Center. Photo by R.C. Staab

Don’t let the name confuse you. This is neither a bar nor a place for immigrants. Rather, it’s an opportunity to step back in time to a bygone era when shipwrecks were frequent along the coast and thousands of lives were lost. Under the aegis of the U.S. Life-Saving Services, life-saving stations were built up and down the East Coast.

In Florida, these life-saving stations became known as a House of Refuge for survivors of shipwrecks to take refuge before returning to their homes. Gilbert’s Bar or St. Lucie’s Rocks refers to a natural rock formation and outcroppings that were often the cause of shipwrecks.

Built in 1876, the structure was severely damaged by a hurricane in 1933 and moved 30 feet further back from the ocean from the U.S. Coast Guard, the successor to the Service. Since 1956 under the aegis of the Historical Society of Martin County, visitors can explore the restored rooms furnished with period artifacts and learn about the daring maritime rescues that unfolded here.

In the 60 years of the Service, with non-motorized boats and equipment, the surfmen at the House of Refuge and other life-saving stations helped to save more than 186,000 people.

Even if you and your fellow travelers have limited interest in the history, this is one of the most breathtaking sites along Florida’s coast with waves crashing into the rocks on one side and the Indian River Lagoon just yards away on the opposite side. There is limited but free parking at the historical site or stop further south at Chastain Beach to watch the surfers.

See an Amazing Auto Collection at the Idiosyncratic Elliott Museum

Operated by the Historical Society, the Elliott Museum is a gleaming modern 48,000-square-foot building that reflects the life and achievements of Sterling Elliott, a prolific inventor who revolutionized women’s bicycle design.

On the first floor, the Stuart Main Street Auto Gallery has more than 90 cars and trucks ranging from early classics like the 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen to American muscle cars of the 1950s and ‘60s. An ingenious robotic racking system allows visitors to see any of the cars that aren’t readily displayed on the floor.

Upstairs, the General Store is a unique blend of departments from a barber shop to an ice cream soda fountain, from an apothecary shop to a post office. Try on vintage clothing, test your spelling skills, and write a postcard. Across the hall is the Notorious Ashley Gang – The Making of a Legend exhibit detailing the saga of John Ashley and his band of outlaws who confiscated weapons, robbed banks, and tried to escape with high-speed chases through the Everglades.

There is a combo ticket available for the Elliott Museum and the House of Refuge.

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Get Up Close and Personal with Marine Life at Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center

See the Hobe Sound Murals. Photo by R.C. Staab
See the Hobe Sound Murals. Photo by R.C. Staab

With an enormous 750,000-gallon outdoor gamefish lagoon, the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center is an outstanding opportunity to see stingrays, large fish from the area, and sea turtles. Interactive exhibits bring the wonders of the ocean to life, showcasing the diverse marine life found in the Indian River Lagoon. Don’t miss the immersive theater experience, where you’ll journey through the depths of the ocean, encountering playful dolphins and majestic sharks.

Shop Historic Downtown Stuart

Sandwiched between railroad tracks on one side and the river on the other side, downtown Stuart manages to stretch out in a long thin strip for a shopping and dining destination that is easy to walk and manage. As the local hot spot for tourists and for locals interested in non-chain stores, find beach essentials, hand-crafted gifts, breezy clothing, and an array of dining and live music options.

Local history can be found at the Stuart Heritage Museum in the old Stuart Feed Supply store on Flagler Avenue. A few blocks east of downtown along Colorado Avenue is the Creek District of Arts & Entertainment with a more eclectic section of stores, scenic Bruner Pond Park, and monthly arts walks.

Get a Tan at Jensen Beach

Ride through the Tunnel of Trees. Photo by R.C. Staab
Ride through the Tunnel of Trees. Photo by R.C. Staab

Jensen Beach, a serene jewel tucked away on Hutchinson Island, promises more than just sunbathing bliss. Dive into the crystal-clear waters, a playground for kayakers, paddleboarders, and snorkelers.

Explore vibrant coral reefs teeming with colorful fish or cast your line and test your angling skills against battling game fish. But if you want to just sit back and enjoy the sun, there’s free parking and lifeguards for those who are reluctant ocean swimmers.

Tips for Visiting Stuart and Hobe Sound

Getting Around: I-95 connects Stuart and Hobe Sound with the rest of the eastern coast of Florida. Often along the East Coast of Florida, Dixie Highway and U.S. Route 1 are identical. Here the roads are separate but parallel. Be alert that the new Brightline train runs through this area regularly, including Jonathan Dickinson State Park. Obey the railroad crossing signs. Trains pass at a high speed.

The West Palm Beach Airport is the closest international airport.

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Author Bio: For more than 40 years, R.C Staab has been a tourism and culture expert who has been quoted by and had photos published in numerous publications including the New York Times, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the LA Times, and CNN. He wrote 100 Things to Do at the Jersey Shore Before You Die, now in its second printing, and is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly magazine. His latest book, New York City Scavenger: The Ultimate Search for New York City’s Hidden Treasures, explores Manhattan from Battery Park to Washington Heights with both famous and unexpected sites in all neighborhoods, including Times Square, Greenwich Village and Central Park. Pick up a copy of his Jersey Shore book and his new NYC book. He splits his time between New York and Florida with his wife, Valari, and dog, Skye.

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