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Wildlife Exploration: From Gators to Manatees to Turtles

One of the most scenic areas on this stretch of the coast is Jonathan Dickinson State Park, 12 miles south of Stuart at 16450 S. Federal Hwy. (U.S. 1), Hobe Sound (tel. 772/546-2771; www.floridastateparks.org/jonathandickinson). The park intentionally receives less maintenance than other, more meticulously maintained parks in order to resemble the rough-around-the-edges, wilderness-like environment of hundreds of years ago, before Europeans started chopping, dredging, and "improving" the area. Dozens of species of Florida's unique wildlife, including alligators and manatees, live on the park's more than 11,300 acres. Bird-watchers will be delighted by glimpses of rare and endangered species such as the bald eagle, the Florida scrub-jay, and the Florida sandhill crane, which still call this park home. You can rent canoes from the concessions stand to explore the Loxahatchee River on your own. Admission is $6 per car of up to eight adults, $4 per single-occupant vehicle, and $2 for hikers, bikers, and walkers. The park is open from 8am to sundown.

Close to Jonathan Dickinson State Park is Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge and Nature Center, on North Beach Road off S.R. 708, at the north end of Jupiter Island (tel. 772/546-6141). This is one of the best places to spot sea turtles that nest on the shore in the summer months, especially in June and July. Because it's home to a large variety of other plant and animal species, the park is worth visiting the rest of the year as well. Admission is free but it costs $5 per car to park, and the preserve is open daily from sunrise to sunset. Exact times are posted at each entrance and change seasonally.

For turtle walks on Hutchinson Island, call tel. 877/375-4386. These walks take place from May 22 to July 22 at 9pm on Friday and Saturday. Reservations are necessary and should be made well in advance (they're accepted as of May 1); each walk is limited to only 50 people.

A Boat Tour

The Loxahatchee Queen (tel. 561/746-1466; www.floridaparktours.com/boattours.html), a 35-foot, 44-passenger pontoon boat in Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound, makes daily tours of the area's otherwise inaccessible backwater, where curious alligators, manatees, eagles, and tortoises often peek out to see who's in their yard. Catch the 2-hour tour, given Wednesday through Sunday as the tide permits, when it includes a stop at Trapper Nelson's home. Known as the "Wildman of Loxahatchee," Nelson lived in primitive conditions in a log cabin he built himself, now preserved for visitors. Tours leave four times daily -- at 9am, 11am, 1pm, and 3pm and cost $20 for adults, $12 for children 6 to 12. Staff tip: Try to avoid tours on Tuesdays or Wednesdays, when Trapper Nelson's is closed.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.