January 6, 2015

Camping in Florida's Natural Areas

Dusk at Shark Bay Everglades Nat'l Park
Camping in Florida is an awesome experience, provided you plan well.

A couple years ago I had a longing for a night counting stars beside a fire on the beach, so I invited my family to go camping at Cayo Costa State Park. C-a-m-p-i-n-g? In the "off" season?
Resistance would have been prudent but I thought, It'll be ok. After all, there's a sea breeze. Foolish mistake! As a 4th generation Floridian I should have known better, but it had been sooooo long since we'd been camping. Well, I confess it was stupid. No amount of bug spray and fire smoke would dissuade the little !#&%* biting pests (mosquitos and no-see-ums). We left after one very memorable, miserable night.
That's just how it is here in Florida, year in and year out. Remember rule #1 - 50 degrees or less (50 degrees is when the little suckers go into hibernation) and rule #2 - never break rule #1. It will, no doubt, be an eternity before my family stops ribbing me about it. My brothers claim torture. They say, they gave a pint of blood away the hard way. Lesson learned, but it has not stopped me from camping. As long as you plan well and go at the right time of year, it's a whole lot of fun.
Camping is a great way to bring people together. The smell of a wood-burning fire while basking in its warmth under an inky blue endless night sky surrounded by the laughter of friends or family is irreplaceable. Stress drifts away and frivolity abounds. Far from the city lights, the brilliant stars are hypnotic. You'll undoubtedly forget what your doing, then laugh when you burn your skewered double marshmallows. You'll probably proclaim, It's just how you like them. S’more, please!

Camping Options
Honestly, I love camping but, I hate setting up the tent and sleeping on the ground. That's why I often prefer a cabin. However, some campers say, Pitching a tent is the only true camping. It does allow for a more remote, unique locations. For others, RVs are the only way to go. The comforts of home on wheels. Cabins are available for rent in many Florida State Parks. They are even available in our theme parks, such as, Disney World's Frontier Land where they're not nearly as rustic as they are in natural area parks. I'll admit, camping in a tent these days isn't as primitive as it once was. If you can afford the good stuff, tent camping can be wonderfully modern. Some tents practically set themselves up since camping gear went high tech.
Whatever your accommodation preference, choosing the right campground for your adventure is an equally important decision. Whether your goal is chilling out or more active pursuits, it’s important to find the right amenities and activities to suit you and your fellow campers. We once set up camp and the "campers" next to us pulled out a giant TV and plopped it on their picnic table. My thought was, "You've got to be kidding me!" Fortunately for us, they never turned it on or there would have been a park ranger involved! Perhaps, it was my less than subtle chiding. Before you book, contact the park and ask a lot of questions about what you want and what to expect from "neighbor" campers. They may get a lot of local weekenders (in our case college students) that bring everything but the kitchen sink. Know before you go.

Unique Opportunities
Modern adaptation of a Seminole Chickee
available for camping ENP
Chickee Camping: In Everglades Nat'l Park (ENP) "Chickees" have become hugely popular. They are located along rivers and bays where dry land is inaccessible. How cool is that? They are elevated 10' x 12' wooden platforms with roofs where you can pitch a free standing tent. Definitely a hard surface to sleep on. Stakes and nails are prohibited, as well as, campfires, but it's well worth the trade off for the stellar location and the paddle in and out access. Imagine waking up to this view with a good cup of coffee and breakfast made on a camp stove.
Potts Preserve

Equestrian Camping: If you’re more interested in horses than in boats or bikes, there are many places in Florida where you can camp with your horse. Very, very cool! These parks are filled with trails for riding. It almost makes me wish I had a horse, but then I remember mucking out the stalls on one or two occasions with my friend Lindy. I don't even like cleaning out the cat litter box. Still, it does look like a wonderful way to go camping. Hmmmm. I wonder if you rent a horse just for the camping trip?

Rustic Wedding: If you are really into camping, and are planning your big day, Ocala National Forest in central Northern Florida has a venue for a camping wedding. If a banquet room is not your cup of tea. Perhaps, whiskey barrels, farm tables, mismatched chairs, mason jars candles and bare rafters strung with lights are your idea of incredibly romantic. If so, this may be the perfect wedding venue for you. Yours will be the wedding they'll remember.
Whatever your reason for going, Florida has many great ways and places to camp.

December 22, 2014

Welcome to Florida's Winter Wonderland

It's not news that people love to visit Florida. They come here for the warm weather, the beaches and the theme parks, but did you know that winter is the perfect time to visit Florida's natural areas? Besides getting a break form the heat, it's a reprieve from the bloodsuckers. No, not your boss, the IRS or your lender, although you may consider that to be true as well, I'm talking about mosquitos and no-see-ums. Every Floridian can relate to this metaphor, "If you don't think a small thing can make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito." The good news is at 50 degrees, the tiny evil creatures shut down for the winter.
Fireside chats can go on to nearly dawn

Given the absence of the usual discomforts, suddenly hiking, biking, kayaking, canoeing and camping are a lot more enticing. Gathering around a campfire and counting stars, once again, become romantic notions, rather than insane ones. It is absolutely the best time for visiting Florida's wonderful natural areas. Although, you will want to bring a long sleeve shirt and a hat, because the sun burns as bright as ever. Ask yourself, When was the last time you made S'mores, went hiking, sat around a bonfire, or gazed at a million stars in a clear night sky?
Here are some great places for getting back out. The Florida Everglades and the Florida Keys parks, such as, John Pennekamp State Park, are obvious choices, but there are plenty of wonderful, less than obvious places for your consideration. Here are a few of my recommendations. Cayo Costa State Park, just north of Sanibel and Captiva islands, is accessible by boat or small plane. It is a beautiful, serene island park with camping, cabins and plenty of water activities. Alafia River State Parknear Tampais known for mountain biking trails. Sebastian Inlet State Park, south of Melbourne, although a little chilly in winter, is popular for surfing, beach cast fishing and treasure hunting (a 1715 Spanish fleet wrecked just offshore). Myakka River State Park, near Sarasota has 12 miles of river flowing through it and 15 miles of horse trails. Dry Tortugas camping is a bit more challenging due to its location, but more than worth the trip. Almost 70 miles (113 km) west of Key West, it is accessible via Key West Ferry or your own boat. A 10-site, primitive campground is located on Garden Key, the same island as Fort Jefferson, and is a short walk from the public dock. Nothing beats the view from here and you can explore the 19th Century Fort and snorkel crystal clear waters. An unforgettable experience. All of these parks have camping areas. My last recommendation is not a park but a journey; a Peace River canoe camping trip. It's an experience your family will always remember. There are exceptional guides and group outings available, so all you need worry about is having fun.
January - North Captiva Island / Cayo Costa State Park