st. lucie florida sunset

Discovering St. Lucie with the Nature & Wildlife Pass provides True Natural Encounters

By Diane Bedard Posted on May 25, 2023

With schools across Florida’s Nature Coast letting out for the summer, we thought it would be helpful to write about a fun activity for families to experience. St. Lucie County, on the east side of the state offers a Nature & Wildlife Pass to introduce visitors to their many outdoor amenities, as well as some unique indoor learning and hands-on experiences.

I was able to visit St. Lucie for the first time in early April of 2023 as part of a group of travel writers, and as guests of the St. Lucie Visitor’s Bureau. I plan to return, as I was enchanted with the amount of nature available as well as the diversity of water. The freshwater lakes, beautiful Indian River Lagoon waterway teeming with life, and the amazing Atlantic Ocean provide this area with a lot of choices for outdoor activities.

And since some of us are single or empty nesters, I highly recommend a visit no matter what your lifestyle. Get a group together, go with your sweetie, or just head out for your own nature adventure in this fun area.

St. Lucy County is made up of several smaller destinations and I visited Ft. Pierce, St. Lucie, North Hutchinson’s Island, and Port St. Lucie. Each has its own flavor and they blended together well, although this was a whirlwind tour over three days where we visited. The Nature & Wildlife tour locations were throughout this destination, with some providing an hour or two of entertainment and others left me wanting a week for a deep dive.

Let me share my experiences with you, and you can decide on your own itinerary. If you need help, the Visit St. Lucie website is a great resource. You can also reach out to the Visit St. Lucie team via phone or email. They are happy to help.

riding around the lake at mccarty ranch
Riding horses around the lake at McCarty Ranch. Image by Diane Bedard.

St. Lucie Nature & Wildlife Tour

We began our tour by checking into the Marriott Residence Inn in Port St. Lucie, which was a moderate hotel with a lovely staff and morning breakfast bar. Our room had a kitchenette and living area, with a separate bed and bath, so it was more of a suite. The location was perfect for exploring the area.

The Recyclo-Sauraus outside the Oxbow Eco-Center shows how St. Lucie County values natural education for its students. Image by Diane Bedard.

We traveled to the Oxbow Eco-Center first, where I was impressed with a recyclosaurus and their educational center. Children were using hands-on displays inside and it was open and inviting. We took a guided hike along their acres along the North Fork of the St Lucie River, where we learned about the local eco-systems and enjoyed the shaded path along the river.

Children exploring “hands-on” at the Oxbow Eco-Center in Port St. Lucie. Image by Diane Bedard.

This wonderful resource is owned and operated by St. Lucie County and is free for all to visit. Our guide was both knowledgeable and friendly –  and we met an active gopher tortoise upon our return! You can check out the Guided Nature Programs to help plan your visit here.

Next, we visited Heathcote Botanical Gardens, walking through the gift shop and into an oasis in the midst of an urban area. Built by Jim and Mollie Crimmons when they moved their New York nursery to Ft. Pierce, and their family home to the location in 1972, this series of “garden rooms” includes the largest tropical Bonsai Garden in the United States! Learning about the art of bonsai, viewing the huge miniature trees and the Japanese Garden with its koi pond, bridge, fountain and transcendental peace were my favorite. There is a $10 admission fee, $3 for kids 6+ and they are closed Sundays and Mondays. I could have stayed here for days, honestly.

Heathcote Botanical Gardens, home of the largest tropical Bonsai Garden in the U.S. Image by Diane Bedard.

The next morning we took horses on a ride in the McCarty Ranch Preserve, owned and run by the City of Port St. Lucie Parks and Recreation Department. These 3,107 acres of largely old Florida pinelands was purchased by the City with plans to use it as a water storage and treatment facility to help meet the water demands for decades to come.

It is an environmentally friendly passive recreational area for all to enjoy with open views and lakes, camping, RV sites, trails for hikers and equestrians, kayaking, and more. Our ride was relaxing and helped me imagine what the McCarty family must have felt as they grew pineapples, citrus and ranched cows here for nearly 100 years.

faerie forest
The Faerie Forest is one of many magical gardens at the Port St. Lucie Botanical Gardens. Image by Diane Bedard.

Then we were off to the Port St. Lucie Botanical Gardens. After walking through the open concept visitor center, we stepped into the garden area, planted with rosemary and flowers. It was vibrant and welcoming, beckoning us to explore further into this free resource for locals and visitors! Our guide was a local volunteer who shared her love of each garden as well as some good stories, such as the Faerie Forest, where one of the volunteers’ faerie creations have found a permanent home. Their magical whimsy enhances the verdant forest in which they now live. There are many gardens rooms here, with a paved walkway connecting them. The Bromeliad Garden was spectacular! The Gardens are run by an all-volunteer Friends organization, and a $5 donation is appreciated.

Touch tank
The touch tank at the St. Lucie Aquarium was a great way to get hands-on education after learning about several aquatic ecosystems through their displays, as well as the amazing Smithsonian Carribean Reef tank. Image by Diane Bedard.

Visiting the St. Lucie County Aquarium and Smithsonian Marine Center was an educational treat! This small aquarium right on the Indian River Lagoon was a treasure trove of aquatic information delivered by their Director. As soon as we walked through the entrance doors, we saw their 3,000-gallon spectacular living model of a Caribbean coral reef ecosystem!  There are several large aquatic ecosystems displayed in the 5,000-square-foot museum that offer self-guided tours and living classrooms. The $4.25 admission is well worth it and the views along the lagoon are breathtaking.

Manatee Education Center in Ft. Pierce
More hands-on experiences are available at the Manatee Observation and Education Center in Fort Pierce. Image by Diane Bedard.

The Manatee Observation and Education Center was a quick stop, where we were greeted by the Center’s Director holding a snake! This waterfront environmental education and wildlife viewing center located on Florida’s east coast in beautiful downtown Fort Pierce, just west of the Atlantic Ocean where the Indian River Lagoon, a saltwater estuary, and Moore’s Creek, a freshwater tributary meet. This is a historical congregating place for Florida manatees, but alas the only one we found was statuesque. Admission is only $3 which helps the center with their educational goals.

Snake at the manatee center
The Manatee Observation and Education Center’s Director shows visitors a harmless rat snake, offering the opportunity to “touch a snake. Image by Diane Bedard.

The FAU Harbor Branch Ocean Discovery Visitors Center was another small museum of aquatic displays. A public gateway to FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute showcases the on-going efforts of marine scientists and engineers. The Citizen Science project of “Be a Dolphin Spotter” was my favorite display. This simple program allows anyone to take photos of dolphins with their cell or camera and submit them to support dolphin research. Talk about a Win-Win! A $5 donation is requested for the museum.

The last place on our Nature & Wildlife Tour was a mile-long guided hike through the DJ Wilcox Preserve. This quiet, environmentally sensitive preserve is home to a variety of habitats, including pine flatwoods, mangrove swamp, hammock, and bay-gall swamp bordering the Indian River Lagoon. Because of the site’s diversity, there are a lot of opportunities to see wildlife. We saw softshell turtles, alligator snapping turtles, and freshwater fish from the boardwalk surrounding the pond. Alligators are commonly sighted. At the brackish water we saw a variety of mangroves, a green heron and our walk was highlighted by a vast view of the Indian River Lagoon.

Bring a tent and camp, rent an RV, or enjoy the amenities of the Sandpiper Bay Resort in Port St. Lucie or a relaxing suite at the Residence Inn by Marriott Port St. Lucie (where we stayed) exploring the natural delights that St. Lucie County offers without breaking the bank and give yourself, your family, or your tribe loads of memories to sustain you through the dog days of summer.

The Nature & Wildlife Pass experience consists of nine unique nature-based attractions in Fort Pierce, Port St. Lucie, and Hutchinson Island. It was a real treat to experience so many nature-based activities in St. Lucie and the number of volunteer and government run parks and nature education centers indicated that St. Lucie knows how to value its nature, as well as pass that love onto the next generation!

nature and wildlife pass sign

The free Nature & Wildlife digital pass is easy to use with any smartphone and doesn’t require an app. Just click here to visit the St. Lucie Nature & Wildlife Pass, scroll down and click the button that says Sign Up. Give your name, zip, phone, and email, and you will be able to check in at each location.



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