Sleep on Your Own Under-the-Radar Island Off the Coast of Florida

Plus paddle in bioluminescent waters, sip craft brews, and see manatees and dolphins.

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If you’ve thought about lounging—perhaps even sleeping—on some warm weather sands anywhere in Florida of late, you might have noticed open spaces are about as scarce as a helmet at Daytona Beach Bike Week.

But there’s one singularly awesome spot most visitors overlook where you can day trip or camp—for free—on sandy islands near Fort Pierce and likely have all to yourself (especially if you visit midweek). Welcome to the secret of the Spoil Islands of the Indian River Lagoon.

Natural sounds dominate on these islands: listen closely and you might hear the whooshing exhalations of manatees surfacing for air nearby. At the edge of the mangroves lining most of the islands, herons of all types stalk the water for minnows. And dolphin sightings in these parts are as common as seeing squirrels in Central Park. For those staying the night, the sky prickles to life with a canopy of stars and you can sleep to the sound of the lapping Indian River Lagoon.

Whether you’re day tripping or camping, coming to see bioluminescent bays, or visiting the city of Fort Pierce, here’s how to play Robinson Crusoe on Florida’s Spoil Islands.

Aerial view of the Spoil Islands
These mounds of sand did really well for themselves. | Photo courtesy of Verola Studios

So what are the spoil islands?

Never heard of the Spoil Islands? They’re a byproduct of 20th century dredging of the Indian River that was undertaken to create the Intracoastal Waterway. The sandy mounds that were initially just spit out of machinery as “dredge spoil” have evolved into wild islands. Many of them are now protected for conservation and lined with seagrasses, mangroves, and other native plants that provide a vital habitat for inshore, coastal, and offshore species (including manatees, juvenile fish species, wading birds, and much more). What’s now the most biodiverse estuary in all of North America, the Indian River Lagoon parallels Florida’s east coast, stretching south from Ponce Inlet along almost 40 percent of the state’s coastline.

Many of the Spoil Islands are designated for recreational use, too, and have sandy open spaces where you can camp for free, no reservations necessary. Humans have left their mark on some of the islands in the form of fire rings, rope swings, and rudimentary wooden benches built mostly by locals with boats, who come to swim and party on the islands during weekend days.

But most of the day crowds leave by late afternoon and you can have these little pieces of paradise largely to yourself. Just remember to pack out everything to keep the islands pristine for the next visitors.

Girl on sandy beach in front of small boat
The Spoil Islands are easily accessible by boat. | Photo courtesy of Terry Ward

How to visit Fort Pierce’s Spoil Islands

Since the islands are often less than a mile from the mainland, you could kayak out to one in less than 30 minutes. Or if you want to explore many of the islands, keep paddling to browse whichever parcel of land strikes your fancy and pull up on shore. Rentals are available from numerous businesses in Fort Pierce, including Lisa’s Kayaks, and you can easily strap packs to the boats.

If you’d rather skip the exertion and you know how to captain a boat and navigate inshore waters, you could rent a motorboat from Salty’s Water Sports or Boatsetter.

Or, if neither of those apply, have someone do it for you. Captain Mike Dedrick of Happy Pineapple Boat Tours offers day trips and makes overnight excursions hassle-free.

For overnight trips, Dedrick takes up to six passengers and even includes tents, water, and camping toilets. You would just need to bring your own food and sleeping bags. The captain picks the best Spoil Island for the night’s adventure depending on where the cross breezes are blowing and where your group is most likely to have the island to yourself. Since Diedrich grew up on these waters, he knows them like the back of his sailor hand. He can point the way to exploring on your own using one of the SUPs he brings along. Or he’ll put you over the best ledge with your fishing line to catch dinner to grill back at camp later.

For day trips, Dedrick ferries you around so you can splash at a sandbar at low tide or go tubing near Fort Pierce Inlet. Then you can retire to a comfortable nearby hotel with a view of Indian River Lagoon. Hutchinson Island Plaza Hotel & Suites, right at the river’s sandy edge, has a private beach and its own pier jutting into the lagoon. You’ll be within walking distance here for a truly excellent seafood dinner, too. At Chuck’s Seafood Restaurant, the smoked fish dip is legendary and there’s usually hogfish among the many flopping-fresh offerings from Florida waters.

Farmer's market among palm trees in downtown Fort Pierce
It’s a palm tree farmer’s market. | Photo courtesy of Terry Ward

Get drinks and entertainment in Downtown Fort Pierce

Of course, you could spend your entire time out in nature and be happy as an island clam. But nearby Fort Pierce makes for an excellent pit stop.

On Saturday mornings, Florida’s best farmers market takes over the park fronting the Indian River Lagoon. The Downtown Fort Pierce Farmers Market’s offers seafood dips, Florida-grown produce, and a seasonal spread of Indian River citrus—really, you haven’t tried Florida oranges until you’ve sampled these precious balls of pure liquid sunshine. The market’s bounty extends to everything from custom made “chicken bonnets” (exactly what they sound like, for your fashion-conscious home hens) to handmade Native American flutes and gorgeous Tahitian pearl leather necklaces. Be sure to sidle up to the water for a neat view: hundreds of hungry mullet are usually swirling in the shallows of the Indian River Lagoon, hoping for handouts.

At the Manatee Observation and Education Center, steps from the market, there’s an 800-gallon saltwater tank home to native Florida and non-native species (but no manatees—those are outdoors). From there, you can paddle out into the Indian River Lagoon on guided kayak tours where you might encounter said manatees and see dolphins, too. Or take the easier route on one of the center’s 90-minute wildlife pontoon boat cruises.

Downtown Fort Pierce outdoor market
We’re all eyeing the smoked fish dip. | Sailfish Brewing Company

For an eco adventure aboard a kayak with a motor, head out with certified Florida naturalist Billy Gibson of Motorized Kayak Adventures. Gibson offers evening tours to see bioluminescence during the summer months when the phenomenon is most prevalent. He also hosts daytime “jungle” paddling excursions into the maze of mangrove tunnels of the Indian River Lagoon, where you’ll float in the realm of osprey, kingfishers, and herons.

All that nature can make you thirsty, and Florida’s Treasure Coast Wine & Ale Trail in downtown Fort Pierce excels at the sudsy stuff. Make stops at places like Sailfish Brewing Company (the White Marlin Wit is always refreshing) and Pierced Ciderworks, where coconut and northern blackberry-flavored ciders are on tap inside a historic building over a century old. In nearby Port St. Lucie, continue the artisan sipping at Hop Life Brewing and Side Door Brewing Company.

Indian River Lagoon Spoil Islands
You can see why the fish would like it here. | Phillip Sunkel IV/Shutterstock

Head offshore to go fishing

Wahoo, mahi-mahi, and yellowfin are among the coveted species anglers land on the regular during fishing trips from Fort Pierce Inlet. The Gulf Stream runs particularly close to mainland Florida here, roughly 15 miles offshore, making for exceptional fishing conditions without the longer boat rides required at other points along the coast.

Happy Pineapple Tours runs inshore charters in the Indian River Lagoon and just offshore from Fort Pierce Inlet, too. And if you want to head out to fish where the Gulf Stream draws in trophy types, charter operators like Last Mango Fishing Charters and Apex Predator Sportfishing are good bets for getting the big boys to bite.

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Terry Ward is a freelance travel writer in Tampa, Florida, who has lived in France, New Zealand, and Australia and gone scuba diving all over the world. Follow her on Instagram and find more of her work