Scenic Drives of Florida’s Space Coast – South Tropical Trail, Merritt Island to Indian Harbor Beach

Back in the late 1960s when I first moved to Florida, South Tropical Trail was a narrow winding two lane roadway starting at the West end of Mather’s Bridge which connects Indian Harbor Beach to the South tip of Merritt Island, and wound along the western edge of the island northward to the more populated center of Merritt Island near State Road 520. Mather’s Bridge at the time was an old wooden bridge that I spent my youth fishing from and at the west end on Merritt Island sat the old Mather’s bridge Fish Camp. Along the trail, large homes nestled among large properties on the east side of the road stretched from the Banana River shore westward across the trail to the Indian River. These “estates” were broken up by undeveloped properties with jungle-like vegetation, giving a mysterious otherworldly aura to this part of the island. There were also several urban legends about the Trail, including the “Haunted House”, an ancient, dilapidated, and abandoned nursing home allegedly still haunted by the residents who died there. There was the “Madman with the Machete”, a supposedly insane man who prowled the trail on foot at night, looking for unsuspecting teenagers parked in vacant lots. Then there was the “Girl in the Glass Coffin”, whereas the story goes, a man raises his blind daughter until she dies tragically in her young teens. The father, distraught over her death and lifetime of blindness entombs his daughter’s body above ground on their property in a glass coffin so that “she will not have to spend eternity in darkness as she spent her short life”. Then there was our own version of “Dead Man’s Curve”, a section of the trail where a higher than normal number fatal traffic accidents occurred, usually younger drivers showing off late at night. The alleged “Haunted House” was there, ghosts or not, as was “Dead Man’s Curve, a narrow curve on the edge of the Indian River Lagoon lined with thick trees. The “Girl in the Glass Coffin” was a story you always heard third hand, I never met anybody who had actually seen her or could tell exactly where she was, and I never personally met the “Machete Madman”.

However, with that said, the drive between State Road 520 in Merritt Island Southward to Mather’s Bridge, which connects the South tip of Merritt Island to Indian Harbor Beach is one of the most interesting drives along the Space Coast of East central Florida, and can be driven in three sections, however in my opinion it gets better the farther south you go with the southernmost section being the best.

The northernmost access is from State Road 520 Causeway at the first stoplight east of the Indian River Bridge from Cocoa. If approaching from the east it will be the next stoplight west of the intersection of 520 and South Courtenay Parkway. Heading South from 520, South Tropical Trail will wind through mostly residential neighborhoods for the first 3 miles, but once past that, the trail runs along the eastern shoreline of the Indian River lagoon offering expansive views of this most biologically diverse estuary while to the east of the road, high end home-sites dominate. This will continue for a little over 2 miles at which point the trail turns to the east to meet up with South Courtenay Parkway, where it again turns to the south and South Courtenay Parkway or State Road 3 becomes South Tropical Trail or County Road 3.

The second leg, which can be accessed by directly by South Courtenay Parkway if you wish to bypass the first leg, will at first go through residential on both sides of the road but very quickly begins to hug the Banana River to the east offering great views of this beautiful river, while to the west, beautiful homes on expansive lots are the rule.

The third or southernmost leg starts as the trail passes underneath Pineda Causeway and can be accessed or exited at this point. This is also the most scenic portion of the drive as the trail now begins to hug the Indian River Lagoon shoreline to the west. The island is thinner here and many of the homeowners along this stretch own the property from the Banana River to the Indian River and tropical foliage abounds while attractive gazebos and docks line the shoreline. The views are spectacular, especially towards sunset. South Tropical Trail ends at Mather’s Bridge and at this point the island is not much wider than the road, as it turns to the east across the bridge, becoming Banana River Drive entering Indian Harbor Beach.