Saturday, April 25, 2009

River Lakes Conservation Area, Moccasin Island Tract Field Trip

If you’ve followed our previous posts, you’ve driven through the Viera Wetlands and perhaps strolled around Click Ponds - fun, convenient, and nearly instant gratification. The third leg of this adventure will make you work a little harder. Moccasin Island Tract is about 4 miles past Viera Wetlands and Click Ponds. You’ll drive west along a washboard road to reach a parking area, and from there, you will either walk, bicycle, or ride your horse along one of two trails. Your eventual destination is the St. Johns River and Lake Winder.

First, some history. Sometimes we tend to take our rivers and lakes for granted. Fortunately, organizations like the St. Johns River Water Management District take a more proactive approach. The District owns about half a million acres, and 98% of it is open to the public.

The River Lakes Conservation Area is District land. It comprises 36,156 acres in Brevard and Osceola counties and includes 14,000 acres the District bought from The Viera Company several years ago. The Moccasin Island Tract was part of that acquisition. The St. Johns River flows north, and as it makes its way through Brevard County, it forms lakes on its path, including Lake Hell ‘n’ Blazes, Sawgrass Lake, Lake Washington, Lake Poinsett, and our eventual destination, Lake Winder. (As I was researching this post, I got totally enamored of the river, nearly forgetting that my goal was to tell you about Moccasin Island Tract. There are references in the Links section that will take you to more river information.)

The How To Get There section of this post gives detailed instructions on how to get on the 3.5 mile road that will take you to the Moccasin Island Tract parking pasture. Driving down the washboard road, you’re riding alongside Duda Ranch property, and you’ll notice signs that tell you not to stop on the road. Pay attention. If you stop, somebody in a Duda Company truck will probably come along and ask you to keep moving. Also, be advised that offroad vehicles (including motorcycles and all-terrain or track vehicles) are not allowed on the property.

North Trail Gate, South Trail Gate, and Information Kiosk

Two trails lead from the parking lot. The north trail is 2.5 miles long and ends in a picnic shelter overlooking Lake Winder. The south trail is 2.6 miles long and ends in a 2-mile loop trail and a marshy area with a shelter. According to friend Wayne, an avid bicyclist, the trails are hard-packed short grass, basically tracks made by various authorized vehicles. A wide-tire bike is best, but a narrow-tire bike should have no trouble--might take more energy pedaling.

The River Lakes Conservation Area is home to variety of birds and critters, including gopher tortoise, Florida softshell turtles, wood storks, bald eagles, crested caracara, roseate spoonbills, sandhill cranes, white tailed deer, wild hog, and wild turkey. There are rumors of a nest of burrowing owls, but I don’t know anybody that has seen it. When Charlie Corbeil took me on a “recon” trip, we saw this beautiful red rat snake.

As always, many thanks to Wayne Matchett for sharing his biking adventure and photos with us. Click on the photos to enlarge.

Just the Facts
River Lakes Conservation Area
Moccasin Island Tract

"BIG PICTURE" LOCATION: Central Brevard, Mainland, Viera

WHEN TO GO: Seven days a week. The gate opens at 7:00 a.m. and closes at 7:00 p.m. You don’t want to get locked in there. Remember that it is going to be hot, hot, hot on those trails in the summer, so act accordingly.

HOW TO GET THERE: See the map and directions in the Viera Wetlands post (April 4 post). When you see the Road Ends sign, just before the South Central Water Reclamation Facility, make a right turn and then an immediate left turn. This puts you on a limerock road that ends in a parking lot at the River Lakes Conservation Area, Moccasin Island Tract.

WHERE TO PARK: Anywhere in the parking area.

WHAT TO WEAR: As you can tell from the parking pasture photo, this is Florida wild country – wear sturdy shoes, and remember your sunscreen, water, and mosquito repellant. Particularly remember to bring plenty of water – this is no place to get dehydrated.

PHYSICAL CONSTRAINTS: You need to be pretty hale and hardy for this adventure. No portolets, either!

HOW LONG TO STAY: In Wayne’s words: I rode the 2.5-mile north trail, which took about 1 hour out and about 45 min. back. As usual, I poked along taking pictures and checking out the flora and fauna. It was easy going with my wife's off-road bike. I probably got up to 5 mph at times. The point here is not speed. Take your time and smell the cow pies. Speaking of which, at one stop I didn't notice what I was doing and stepped off my bike into a very fresh cow pie.

The south trail is longer – 2.6 miles, then a 2-mile loop through an oak hammock that Wayne says is more interesting and shadier.

WHAT TO DO: Hike, bicycle, or horseback ride through one or both of the trails. At the end of the north trail, there is a picnic shelter overlooking Lake Winder. At the end of the south trail, there is a picnic shelter overlooking the St. Johns river.

BRING MONEY? No, this is FREE!

WHERE TO EAT AFTERWARDS: See the Viera Wetlands post for recommendations, or drive down Wickham Road to the Pineda Causeway. There is a little restaurant called Grecian Garden in the strip shopping center on the corner of Wickham and Pineda Causeway (lots of construction there – be careful) that has good food and great rice pudding.

HOW TO HELP: As always, don’t speed, don’t annoy the cows or the wildlife, and don’t litter. Pay attention to signs that say don’t enter. Don’t stop on the 3.5 mile road driving in, and don’t be late getting out.

NOTE: This area is surrounded by Wildlife Management Areas, so use caution during hunting season. Indeed, you’ll see a sign to that effect at the entrance to the north trail.

St. Johns River Water Management District
St. Johns River History
River Lakes Conservation Area Recreation Guide
River Lakes Conservation Area Management Plan

A LITTLE EXTRA: Thanks to Wayne's photos, there is a Moccasin Island Tract slideshow in the right-hand column of this blog

Near the observation tower on the north trail, a 2.5 mile agricultural dike built in the 1950s is being leveled. This will eventually result in reflooding of about 2,900 acres of marsh, much to the delight of fishermen (it will also serve as a water treatment area). This effort just started, so we’ll keep you updated with progress.

July 2011 update: A reader contacted me to see if dogs were permitted at Moccasin Island Tract. I checked with Charlie Corbeil, and he said dogs on a leash are allowed. Be a little careful - according to a recent story in Florida Today, a fellow picked up a palm frond and was bitten by the pigmy rattler hiding underneath. And of course, take plenty of water for your canine friend as well as for yourself.

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