Wrapping up our winter sojourn in Florida

Comments 37 Standard
Navarre Beach

From the pure solitude and remoteness of Ochlockonee River SP, we drifted back toward civilization.  Our last two weeks in Florida had been a mix of touristy activities, hiking, canoeing and family visits, complemented by a variety of weather ranging from sunny skies to thunderstorms with pouring rain.  That’s Florida for you!

Destin, Florida

Navarre Beach Campground

I hope Steve doesn’t get sunburned!

Along the Florida panhandle is a 24-mile stretch of sugary white sand and emerald waters facing the Gulf of Mexico.  The sand was created of pure Appalachian quartz, giving the water its trademark emerald green color as it reflects sunlight, hence the moniker Emerald Coast.  Had we stopped at this stretch of beach last year, it would have easily made our list of favorites.  But alas, we drove right by it on our way toward Perdido Key.  We’re glad we took the opportunity to check out this beautiful area between Pensacola and Destin this time through.

Navarre Beach

The gorgeous Navarre Beach

It was at the Harbor Village in Destin that Steve saw a water activity that really got his attention.  I knew that look in his eyes when he realized they were renting water jetpacks here – he HAD to try it.  So he signed up for the mid-level “flight” experience, and off we went on their boat to the training area.

There’s only so much you can learn in 30 minutes, but after a couple of “crash and burns” into the water as he figured out how to balance and turn correctly, he was up and flying along.  The photo below shows him “walking on water”, which he got pretty good at.  He also did the “submarine” several times, which is where you dive under water and then the jetpack pops you back up in the air when you surface.  Although the jetpack will levitate folks up to 30 feet in the air, he was limited to only about 5 feet during his first lesson.  You can probably tell he enjoyed it!

JetPack, Destin

JetPack, Destin

Here's how the pros do it!

Steve’s instructor flying high – here’s how the pros do it!

On one of the cooler days when we couldn’t hang out at the beach, we drove along the far-western Florida coast from Destin to Pensacola.  On this drive I enjoyed all of the colorful water towers…

…and these strange little rental homes along the beach:

Our final Florida home base, and the only other state park for which we were able to get a reservation, was Blackwater River State Park (Steve’s review is here).  Like Ochlockonee River SP, we camped under a canopy of longleaf pines in a very spacious site.  But unlike Ochlockonee, our solitude here was unfortunately interrupted by heavy helicopter traffic during the day on several weekdays.  We later learned that the helicopters were from a nearby military base and were doing training exercises in the area.  Bummer!

Site 26, Blackwater River State Park

Site #26 at Blackwater River State Park

The dark tannic water that gives the river its name is a sharp contrast to its sandy bottom, white beaches and large sandbars.  This was very evident as we leisurely paddled and floated along one day in a rented canoe.  The snow white sand bars here are very similar in appearance to the white beaches of the Emerald Coast.  We learned that Blackwater River is the only sand-bottomed river left in the United States, and it averages only 2.5 feet in depth.  Too shallow for boats, but perfect for canoes and kayaks!

We were happy that our longest hike in Florida finally happened here.  Our GPS showed that we covered 12 miles, and there were some elevation changes that gave us more of a challenge.  We encountered three snakes on this trail, but not much other wildlife.

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Finally some hills – we’re going to feel that in the morning!

This guy got our attention!

This guy got our attention!

Winter wrap up –

Well, four months of exploring and wintering in Florida zoomed by quickly.  We discovered that the state has much more to offer than we had imagined.  So many things we discovered – the beaches, fresh-squeezed juice, thousands of birds and other critters, the Everglades and the Keys – did not fail to impress us.  But what was more impressive was experiencing the “Real Florida”, which we were previously oblivious to. Our exposure to wildlife and enjoyment of the havens of beauty at the preserves, refuges, pristine rivers and springs were amazing and unforgettable.  And most importantly to me, the birding experience was superb!

This map shows our coverage of Florida during our 4-month stay here.  We ran up just over 1,500 miles during our 12 stops, and feel like we covered most of the state fairly well.

Meeting new friends and reconnecting with old ones put the icing on the cake, and completed the whole experience for us.

What we won’t miss are the humidity and the “no-see-um” bugs that bit us and made my life miserable for several days – apparently I’m allergic to them.

Blackwater River

Our last pose in Florida at a beach on the Blackwater River

Well, that wraps up our winter in Florida.  We hope you enjoyed riding along, and that our stories gave you a few ideas in case you come this way someday.

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…and hello Alabama!

 

Next up:  A detour back to one of our favorite places so far – Dauphin Island, AL


Our last days of nature-tripping at St. Marks NWR

Comments 17 Standard

Great Blue HeronWe are now on our last few days of nature tripping, wildlife viewing and generally just gawking at the beauty of Florida.  We are savoring every minute as much as we can, for we know it will be a long time before we head this way again.  With the little time we had while at Ochlockonee River State Park, we ventured a bit further and visited St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.

But let me first show you some neat off-road vendors who were selling the freshest shrimp, tastiest sandwiches and Tupelo honey (all-natural and 100% raw). There are no big-box stores here, and patronizing the local small business folks is fun and guarantees excellent products!

It was a gorgeous day when we visited St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.  On our way there, beautiful cloud formations caught my eye and as we entered the area they became a great backdrop for the open areas of the refuge.

Headquarters Pond, ST Marks NWR

This unique refuge was established in 1931 to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds.  Wildlife abounds at St. Marks NWR, due to the wide diversity of habitats – from wilderness saltmarshes to rolling longleaf pine forests – with freshwater swamps, lakes, and palm/oak hammocks in between.  It’s one of the oldest refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System. Encompassing 68,000 acres, it is a well known natural Florida habitat for wildlife, especially birds.  Indeed, on this day we saw several birders and nature lovers armed with binoculars and long-range cameras.

St Marks National Wildlife Refuge

Driving along Lighthouse Road, we immediately experienced vistas of wide-open blue skies contrast with amber brown and green landscapes of diverse natural habitats.  This seems to be a place that doesn’t get too busy, and we enjoyed the relaxing drive and quiet of the area.

American Coots

Hundreds of American Coots on the pond

St Marks National Wildlife Refuge

Steve and I had a hard time deciding where to begin and which trail to follow, as there are several of them to enjoy.  We began by driving from the Visitor Center to the old historic St. Marks Lighthouse all the way at the other end, which covered about 6.8 miles of the wildlife drive.  From there we walked the Lighthouse Levee Trail, a short path that focused on coastal plants.

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Lighthouse Levee trail, ST Marks NWR

Lighthouse Levee trail

We saw all kinds of birds from up on the observation tower. The bald eagle sat on top of the tree majestically, while the ducks and coots were busy feeding below. It was a delight to just watch and hear them sing their own tunes!

Wildflowers were realizing spring was upon us, and starting to perk up and color the grounds:

Next we drove back and followed the Tower Pond Trail, which winds through slash pine forest, oak and salt marsh.  Hundreds of American Coots could be seen on the lake. About half a mile into the trail we came across a pond where we saw a variety of migrant wading birds.  I tried to identify them from up in the photo blind, but they were too far away. We just sat there for a few moments and observed them.

Photo blind at Tower Pond Nature Trail

Photo blind at Tower Pond Nature Trail

Great Egret

The Great Egret stands tall among the Snowy Egrets.

Willets or Plovers

Wading birds huddling together

Tower Pond Trail

St Marks Lighthouse viewed from Tower Pond Trail

We walked up to an observation deck at the Headquarters Pond Trail, across from the Tower Pond trailhead.  The moorhens, ducks, egrets, coots and baby alligators all seemed to be getting along well together.

Headquarters Pond Trail

View from the observation platform at Headquarters Pond

Baby Alligator

Baby Alligator

Moorhen

A pair of Moorhens

The refuge was an exceptional place to enjoy nature and wildlife at its best and you don’t have to be a birder to be here.   Each inlet or body of water was full of different species of birds – migrants and/or the local residents. St. Marks NWR is truly one of Florida’s many hidden treasures, and we found ourselves in a moment of peace as we explored this pristine area.  Our visit was a great ending to what we’ve been experiencing, classic Florida wildlife preserve.

 

Next up:  Wrapping up our winter sojourn


 

The haunting beauty of Wakulla Springs and River

Comments 28 Standard
Manatee

VulturesThere was an added bonus in meeting Laurel and Eric of Raven and Chickadee.  Since they had spent so much time in northwestern Florida and have family there, they know the area very well.  They advised us that a trip to Wakulla Springs State Park for one of their river boat tours was not to be missed.  Wakulla springs is located just south of Tallahassee and is one of the largest and deepest freshwater springs in the world.  The world?  Yep, thats right.  We learned that this spring discharges an average of 260 million gallons of beautiful, fresh water every day.

Wakulla Spring

Wakulla Spring – Some of the old Tarzan episodes were filmed here.  Today, the abundance of wildlife are fortunate to enjoy the beauty of the area.

Here are some fun facts about freshwater springs in Florida:wpid23297-2014-03-09-FL-1320158.jpg

  • Florida has the largest concentration of freshwater springs on earth more than 600 in all.
  • Most of the springs are found in north and north-central Florida.
  • Water coming from the springs flows through the Aquifer and is the source of over 90% of the state’s drinking water.

With no rain in the forecast for the next few days, we scheduled our continuing exploration of the “Real Florida”.  The spring is the heart of Wakulla Springs State Park.  It is the origin of the Wakulla River, which flows southwest and finally dumps into the Gulf of Mexico at Apalachee Bay. We came here for the main attraction of the river tour, but the park itself is beautiful with many picnic tables and walking paths that make it a great place to spend a day.

After paying the $8 per person fee, we took the first ranger-guided boat tour at 9:00am. For 45 minutes we were treated to close-up sightings of what we have recently grown to appreciate and love, classic Florida river scenery and wildlife.  Unlike other rivers we have traveled, Wakulla River is bordered by tall Spanish Moss-draped Bald Cypress trees.

Bald Cypress along Wakulla River

Seeing vultures hanging out in the treetops induced a kind of “haunted house” feeling, like something you might see in an old horror movie.

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The tour covers the first three miles of the river, which is  protected as a wildlife sanctuary within the Wakulla Springs State Park.

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As we cruised along, several of these gorgeous little guys paid no attention to us:

Male Hooded Merganser

Male Hooded Merganser

Hooded Merganser

Female Hooded Mergansers, no doubt rushing off to the beauty salon.

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One of the areas where Tarzan swung through the trees.  Pristine and gorgeous!

Anhinga

Anhinga working on his tan

River Boats at Wakulla Springs State Park

River boat dock at Wakulla Springs State Park

There was an abundance of wildlife that our knowledgeable park ranger pointed out to us.  She told us that since only the park’s tour boats are allowed here, the wildlife has become accustomed to them.  That’s why we were ignored and got such an up-close look at them.  Even the normally skittish turtles didn’t jump into the river as we passed!

Here are a few more of the beautiful creatures that posed for us:

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Turtle

Hey, you looking at me?

But the highlight on this day was witnessing some tender moments between a couple of manatees.  We have typically seen them just slowly cruising along, occasionally coming up for a gulp of air.

Manatee

A happy manatee acting like an otter.

Well, this time we witnessed two manatees actually hugging and obviously enjoying each other’s company – amazing!  Click the link below to see a short clip of what we saw (sorry it’s a bit shaky, I was so excited!).

One last shot…

Mating Manatees

Next up:  Our exploration of the Real Florida continues…

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Rare Species and New Friends – Ochlockonee River State Park

Comments 31 Standard
White Squirrel

Ochlockonee River State ParkSnagging a reservation at a Florida state park during the winter months is like winning the lottery, and odds are you won’t get in if you don’t reserve far in advance.  We thought booking nine months ahead would be enough, but it wasn’t for most of them.  If you’re setting your sights on staying at Florida state parks next winter, now is the time to reserve.

We did manage to get reservations at two parks, one being Ochlockonee River State Park.  Ochlockonee means “yellow waters”, and is a mix of brackish tidal surge and fresh water.  This river is pristine and deep,  and it empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Ochlockonee River

Fire at a distance reflected on the Ochlockonee River

Ochlockonee State Park is located 38 miles south of Tallahassee, in the town of Sopchoppy.  It encompasses 543 acres along the banks of the Ochlockonee and Dead rivers.  Getting Betsy in there wasn’t easy (see Steve’s review here).  However, once we were settled in we fell in love with this very secluded park.  There are only 30 spacious campsites nestled in the shady wooded trees, surrounded by a beautiful pine woods forest.

#6 Ochlockonnee River State Park

Betsy stands alone in site #6 at Ochlockonnee River State Park

Our site had its own path leading to the Ochlockonee River and Pine Flat Woods Trail.  It runs along the river, then winds through picturesque pine flat woods.  Since the access was right in our back yard, we walked it every day when it didn’t rain.

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Ochlockkonee River Nature Trail

The peaceful atmosphere here made our walks very relaxing.  On days when I walked alone, the solitude I felt beneath the tall canopy of longleaf pines was very refreshing. The splendor of the longleaf pine habitat, the array of bird calls (lots of them) singing/chirping, the woodpeckers hammering away and the rustling of the wind made me feel blessed to be here.  Very tranquil!

Pine Flatwood Trail, Ochlockonee River State PArk

 

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Ochlockonee River Trail

I learned that three of this park’s local residents are rare species.  One is the white squirrel, whose coat is a product of a rare genetic mutation of the Eastern gray squirrel. I saw it darting and leaping along the branches of the live oaks but couldn’t get a picture. Fortunately, Steve was also on the lookout and he caught a glimpse of this fellow in our neighbor’s yard.

We had another rare sighting as we were walking along the trails.  It was a Piebald deer, which is white and brown.  I learned that a genetic variation (defect) produces the piebald condition in some white-tailed deer.  It certainly ruins any chance of camouflage for this poor guy, he’s so easy to spot!

But my most exciting sighting was the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species since 1970.  The park hosts several of them, due to its mature pine forest.  In fact, during registration we were told to take note of some pine trees that were marked as the homes of red-cockaded woodpeckers, which only nest in old-growth trees. Looking closely at one tree, we saw the candle-wax effect of sap spilling down its trunk. The woodpeckers drill into the tree just under their nest to make sap run down and ward off snake invasions.  How cool is that?

Finally, we had a human sighting as we met some new friends – not in the park, but in the town of Apalichicola.  Being the social butterfly that I am, I never pass up an opportunity to meet other like-minded folks, especially bloggers.  So when I realized that Laurel and Eric of Raven and Chickadees were only a few miles away, I quickly set up a get-together.  They are full-timers from southern Oregon who have covered a lot of ground here in northwestern Florida.  Their blog is full of “Real Florida” adventures, complemented by great photography.  Our time together flew by as we shared stories of our adventures, and we hope to cross paths with these fine folks again.

Raven and Chicadee

With Laurel and Eric

Typical of late, we were homebound for two days as the rain just kept coming down.  But as soon as the sun peeked out again we had a campfire.  It had been a while, and we started early so we could enjoy the fire before the pesky skeeters could come out to get us. Steve and I usually read while enjoying our fire, but the abundance of birds made me forget about my book as I started snapping pictures once again.  I didn’t have to walk far, as my feathered friends were hanging out right around our site.  Some of them were challenging to get shots of, but here are my latest sightings.

All of those three types of woodpeckers could be heard pecking nearby.   If you’d like to see more of my bird pictures, click here.

I really loved sitting outside first thing in the morning, enjoying the serenity and beauty of this park.

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Next up:  More Real Florida-Wakulla Springs and River

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Our “alone time” at Homosassa Springs, FL

Comments 35 Standard
Pink Flamingo

Real floridaIn our lifestyle, “alone time” is occasionally required (my fellow full-timers know exactly what I’m talking about).  Most people would otherwise end up at each other’s throats after hanging out together 24/7.  Although Steve and I do get along very well, we make sure to enjoy some alone time, even if it just means Steve running off to the store for a bit or me doing laundry by myself.  Sometimes I can hardly wait to do the laundry!

I had some real quality alone time when Steve stayed at home to work on Betsy while I went off to Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, which was advertised as a showcase of Florida wildlife.  I was not disappointed, and I think Steve wished he had gone along when he saw the pictures of gorgeous wildlife I took there.  But of course he wouldn’t admit it!

There are two ways to visit this park, one by tram and the other on a pontoon boat along Pepper Creek.  I chose a 20-minute ride on the pontoon boat and gave my camera a real workout.

Pepper Creek,Homosassa Springs

During the trip our guide narrated the history of Homosassa Springs, its beginnings and the importance of the spring.  At the same time, he pointed out the many colorful wood ducks swimming alongside us.

Wood Duck

First a brief history of the park.  In the 1920’s, a train stopped at the springs to allow passengers a close look at the crystal clear 55-foot deep springs that form the headwaters of the Homosassa River.  In later years a zoo-like park of exotic animals  was built.  The ownership of the springs area changed many times since 1940 due to economic hard times and recession.  Then on January 1, 1989, the attraction officially became the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, owned by the State of Florida and managed by the Department of Environmental Protection.

Homosassa River

All exotic animals and non-native plants were removed in order to restore the park to the “Real Florida” – except for one.  If not for hundreds of school children protesting the removal of Lucifer the Hippo, the last exotic animal would have been gone.  “Luc”, who remains in the wildlife park from the attraction days, has received an honorary citizenship by declaration of late Florida Governor Lawton Chiles.

After the boat ride I immediately went to the centerpiece of the park, a freshwater spring which produces millions of gallons of fresh, crystal-clear water every hour. This spring outflow actually creates the Homosassa River.  The spring and headwaters of the Homosassa River is the only known place in the world where thousands of fresh and saltwater fish congregate.  These fish are free to come and go to the Gulf of Mexico, nine miles downriver.

Homossasa Springs

Fish Bowl floating and underwater observatory directly over the spring

At the Fish Bowl floating and underwater observatory, I saw literally thousands of fish from above the lookout and then below the surface in the clear spring environment. Unfortunately, the park’s resident manatees were not present while I was there.

And that was just the beginning!  I followed the elevated boardwalk while taking the Wildlife Walk.  The 210-acre park is home to native Florida wildlife, and I got to see them all in their natural setting.

Strolling on the boardwalk, I had a front-row view of Florida’s wildlife, including a bear, bobcats, Key deer, alligators, a wide variety of wading birds, birds of prey and some beautiful Flamingos.  Although I always prefer to see these animals in the wild, it looks like this is the best I’ll be able to do for some of them.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Bird paradise!

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Flamingo

Some of the birds here were injured and can not be returned to the wild.  I feel very fortunate to have been in Florida’s wilderness (refuges/ preserves/national parks) and exposed to many of these birds – although some at a great distance.  On this day I got quite excited as I had an up-close view of some endangered and threatened species. Since Steve was not there to whisper in my ear about taking so many pictures, I snapped away to my heart’s content.  Click on each image to get a bigger and better look.

After almost overheating my camera, I sat down and listened to the Flamingos honking in unison, while also enjoying the sound of the Whistling Ducks at the nearby Shore Bird Aviary.  I thought all ducks quacked until I met these guys.

I had a wonderful day at this park and went home whistling like a duck!  I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys wildlife and is in this area. It’s worth every penny of the $13 entry fee.

On my drive home I caught a glimpse of this sign – do people really have to be told how to use parking spaces?  Hmmm..I wonder if it’s meant for locals or tourists?

Parking notice

Back at home, Steve was also smiling and looking contented. He had completed a few of his Betsy to-do’s.  He even commented about how relaxing it is to do his work while the “supervisor” is away.

He had installed these nifty door locks for our new residential refrigerator, to keep the doors closed while we travel.  They can be “disabled” once we are parked, and they actually look kind of cool.  They’re designed to keep children out of the refrigerator, but work perfectly for our purpose.  Only about $5 each at Toys-R-Us, not bad!

Refrigerator locks

Cheap but effective refrigerator locks

He also took our noisy fireplace back apart for the second time to clean and lubricate the motor again.  It runs quiet for a while each time he does this, but we’re going to replace the motor next time it gets noisy.  Steve’s become quite an expert with electric fireplaces, so at least we’ve been able to save money on labor – and he loves taking things apart.  I love it when he puts them back together!

Motorhome Fireplace

The guts of an electric fireplace

We enjoy our alone times such as this.  How about you, are you getting enough alone time?

Next up:  Rare Species and New Friends

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Fun and fruit in Citrus County – Homosassa, FL

Comments 33 Standard
Crystal River Preserve State Park Trail

With our 2nd anniversary celebration week out of the way (hey, we’re always looking for something to celebrate), we’re back to posting about “regular” stuff.  We have been fortunate to enjoy mostly gorgeous weather lately, and being outdoors and active beats sitting in front of the laptop anytime.  We’re continuing to slowly make our way up the Florida panhandle, seeing even more of the unspoiled and laid back nature here.  And the temperatures seem to drop a few degrees with each stop we make – maybe we’re moving too fast after all?

We exhaled a sigh of relief when we arrived at Chassahowitzka River Campground in Homosassa (Steve’s review here).  Why?  At our previous two stops we had dealt with terrible road noise and jetliners roaring overhead.  The reason is that the RV parks most frequented by snowbirds save their best sections for the regulars who come down for extended stays every year, while the transient folks like us get relegated to the noisiest sites right next to the roads.  Of course, that’s the way it should be, but it didn’t make our stay in those busy areas very pleasant.  Oh well, that’s behind us now and our new home base was a county-owned property that was rustic and near a river – a long way from the sounds of the hectic life.  Peaceful days and restful nights could be had once again!

Chassahowitzka River Campground

Back to the quiet life – this is more like it!

We were in the midst of Citrus County, with its four main towns within an easy drive of each other.  While registering for our site, the office staff gave us a list of 41 points of interest in the towns of Crystal River, Homosassa, Inverness and Floral City.  We couldn’t see them all in just a week, so we selected and timed our “must-do’s”, taking into account some forecasted rain.  But first I inquired, “If this is Citrus County, then where are all the citrus trees”?  The reply was that the county was originally named for its abundant citrus trees, but citrus production declined dramatically after the “Big Freeze” of 1894-1895. Today, citrus is grown at only one large grove, Bellamy Grove, within the county.  We did see many roadside stands selling fruits, mostly the very yummy Honeybell oranges which we had heard weren’t in season any longer.  Well, we got some!

Of the two nationally protected areas in Citrus county, we chose to explore a section of the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge.  The Refuge itself is over 31,000 acres that were set aside by the federal government in 1931 to protect the rich waterfowl habitat there.  It also happened to be located only about three miles down the Chassahowitzka River (called “The Chass” by locals) from our campground.  And our site was only a short walk from a boat ramp, which was the ideal starting point for exploring the river and it’s surrounding springs, creeks, water trails and wildlife.  After forking over $30 to rent a kayak for the day, we paddled off early in the morning to avoid the crowds and we were richly rewarded.  The river was very clear, shallow and calm.  

Chassahowitzka River Campground

We paddled leisurely along as we viewed bald eagles and an abundance of egrets, great herons, little blue herons, ospreys, ducks, manatees, turtles and more.  We can’t remember a place with such a variety of wildlife packed into such a small area!  It was a very relaxing day of paddling, experiencing nature and just being in a quiet place surrounded by all of that unspoiled beauty.  Awesome!

We drove to the county’s smallest town, Floral City.  It is known in the area for its Avenue of Oaks, which are at least 125 years old.  We came here to refresh ourselves with what Floral City is really known for, fresh-squeezed orange juice from Ferris Groves.  The business began in 1930 as a roadside fruit stand and has grown to include a retail store with a gift fruit business.  The juice was excellent, and we ended up hauling a gallon of it and a bag of oranges home with us.  Yum!  Did you know that Florida provides 80% of the orange juice sold in the country?

Our next outing was to take on the claim to fame for the city of Inverness – Withlacoochee State Trail.  It is Florida’s longest paved multi-use path, and a recognized National Rercreation Trail.  At 46 miles long, it stretches from Inverness all the way to Trilby in Pasco County.  This trail made it into our top seven biking trails, for it is shaded in many parts and has ample comfort stops along the way.  Since it also passes right through Floral City, it’s a great trip to include a break for lunch (which we did) and pick up some fresh orange juice at Ferris Groves.  We began our ride at the Inverness trailhead and quickly discovered how popular this trail is, as we had lots of company from other cyclists, walkers and runners.

On another day, Steve and I decided to hit the walking trails at the Crystal River Preserve State Park.  There were several trails to choose from and we decided on the longest one, a 7-mile loop.  This trail was characterized by marshes, swamps, hammocks, flat woods and tidal creeks.  We didn’t really have any wildlife to entertain us, so with my camera on standby we got some good exercise.  Although there was a mosquito warning, we were in luck as the skeeters apparently decided to take that day off.  Yay!

The RV park manager mentioned there was a restaurant nearby that the locals raved about, called The Freezer.  We decided to give it a try for lunch and were very pleasantly surprised.  The place was packed, and we ended up getting the last two seats at the bar. Very informal and with a simple menu, we heard their boiled peel-and-eat shrimp were to die for.  And they were!  I got a pound of them, while Steve tried the Talapia and was extremely happy with it.  We really struck gold when we discovered this out-of-the-way place, and we’d recommend it to anyone coming within 50 miles of it – it’s that good!

Lastly, the final outing was an “alone time” for me, as Steve decided to stay home and do some little maintenance chores on Betsy.  Like most folks, we need to be away from each other once in a while and this was a perfect way to do just that.  Being alone, no one can whisper in my ear, “How many pictures do you have to take of that bird?”

So off I went on my merry way to Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park…to be continued!

Homosassa Springs

Next Up:  Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

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Our favorite beaches – Final 2nd Anniversary Post

Comments 35 Standard
Dauphin Island Beach

This last installment of our 2nd year anniversary celebration week postings is a new category that will appear only once.  We jammed along the coastlines of both the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic ocean last year (Mar 1, 2013 to Feb 28, 2014).  I thought it would be fun (and possibly helpful to others) to share our favorite beaches during that journey. Walking on the beach, enjoying the smell of the salt air, the sounds of the water, the hypnotizing rolling waves, the crunching of the shells, and the birds entertaining us made the saying ” life’s a beach” a reality for us.

Our selection is obviously colored by the fact that we visited many of these beaches off season, hence the overall experience was enhanced by the lack of noisy crowds.  Many times we enjoyed the solitude with just the birds keeping us company.

So, in no particular order – since it was too difficult to pick a favorite – below are the beach experiences that we will miss and remember most fondly as we travel the midsection of the country this year.  As before, the blue link with the location name is a link to more information about that spot, and the month we were there.  The “Click our related post here” goes to our blog about it.

Dauphin Island, Alabama – March

Betsy was parked across from the public access to the beach, so we had no issues with parking or entrance fees.  The water was blue and calm with small waves.  With no huge attractions or condo buildings lining the beach, it was a very quiet, unspoiled place to just enjoy walking the stretch of white sand and dunes.  We loved watching the birds and gorgeous sunsets so much that we’re going out of our way to spend a couple more weeks there at the end of this March!

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Dauphin Island Beach

Dauphin Island Beach

Rosamond Johnson Beach – Perdido Key, Florida – April

This beach is part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore and is considered among the whitest, most beautiful sand beaches in America.  It is considered an excellent example of a pristine Florida Panhandle beach.  With no commercial buildings or residential homes, it remains unspoiled and beautiful.

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Gulf Shore National Seashore

Kitty Hawk Beach – Outer Banks, North Carolina – October

Betsy was parked just across the street from the beach, making it a pleasure to jump out of bed in the morning and run over to get sunrise photos and hang out, or to take a long walk.  There were no tall condos or hotels along the beach and the area was characterized as low to medium density, single-family residential developments – mainly running small businesses.  Our memories are of sunrises painting the sky with colorful pastels of orange, pink and yellow.

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Kitty Hawk, Outerbanks, NC

Kitty Hawk Beach

Glorious sunrise at Kitty Hawk

Bonita Beach Park – Bonita Springs, Florida – January

The beach got crowded with snowbirds as the day progressed, but not early in the morning when we arrived to take our walks.  The shorebirds were plentiful and fat, hanging around and waiting for the equally fat tourists to feed them.  Although the beach is not known for shelling, we could hear our steps crunching as we walked on piles of sea shells.

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Bonita Beach Park

Bonita Beach, FLorida

These guys ignore anyone who won’t feed them – and we never do!

Marconi Beach – Cape Cod, Massachusetts – September

This gorgeous beach is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore, and the moment you look out from the bluff you become mesmerized by the miles of white sand beach and the huge steep sand cliff located behind the surf line.  The beach is beautiful and serene, providing an unbroken, pristine natural scene in all directions.

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Marconi Beach, Cape Cod

Marconi Beach looking north

Marconi Beach, Cape Cod

Marconi Beach looking south

How about you?  What’s your favorite beach to spend time at?

Next up:  Real fun in the “Real Florida”…

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Our Top Seven Biking trails – 2nd Anniversary

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Continuing with our 2nd anniversary celebration posts, this time we share our top seven biking experiences during the period March 1, 2013 to Feb. 28, 2014.  Steve is always happy when he can unload our bikes so we can actually ride them, rather than just haul them around the country.  Our qualifications for these rides is the most points for: (1) the trail was nice to ride and well-maintained, and (2) the experience during the ride was memorable.  The list below continues the tradition I started with last year’s top seven.

1. Jekyll Island Bike Path – Golden Isles, Georgia – 20 miles of  diverse  scenery, from biking on the beach with panoramic ocean views, traversing lush maritime forest, and cruising through the moss-draped live oak trees of the historic district.  The best!

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2. Block Island – Rhode Island – There is plenty to see while experiencing Block Island, and biking it is the best way to do it.  Our 20-mile ride meandered over rolling hills, a beach bluff, and a wildlife refuge – all while offering sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean.  Then we stopped for a look at the lighthouse before returning to town to check out the old and new harbors so we could select a wonderful restaurant for lunch.  We took a ferry ride to get to the island and rode on the roads, sharing with automobile traffic and many other bike enthusiasts.

Click related post here.

Block Island, RI

Block Island National Wildlife Refuge

Block Island National Wildlife Refuge

3. Shark Valley – Everglades National Park, Florida – This is a 15-mile scenic loop in the Everglades where a multitude of alligators and birds will wow you!

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Shark Valley, Everglades

Shark Valley bike path – gators ahead!

4. Niagara River Trail – Niagara, New York – (12 miles).  Niagara (American, Bridal Veil and Horseshoe) Falls are your reward at the end of this journey – it really doesn’t get any better.  The secret to this ride is to start early and avoid the crowds that flock to the falls every day.  Our ride began at La Salle Waterfront Park in Niagara, then we headed past Goat Island until we reach the stunning falls.

Click related post here.

Niagara River Trail, Niagara Falls

Horsehoe Waterfalls, Niagara, Niagara River Trail

5. Western Maryland Trail – Hancock, Maryland – We clocked 20.13 miles on this ride, and fortunately we chose the western route which was more wooded and shaded.  This was one of our favorite quiet and serene rides.

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C&O Canal

C&O Canal Towpath

Western Maryland Rail Trail

Western Maryland Rail Trail – gorgeous!

6. PEI National Park – Prince Edward Island, Canada – 12 miles of breathtaking landscape along PEI’s north shore, and the striking red sandstone cliffs of Cavendish made this ride one of my favorites.  On this route we enjoyed a Red Fox walking along the path, a resting Bald Eagle and the cool breeze that made the ride very pleasant.  I love PEI!

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Bald Eagle, PEI

Can you spot the Bald Eagle?

Red Cliff Sandstone, PEI

7. Withlacoochee State Trail – Inverness, Florida – On the very last day of our date range (2/28/14), we biked 16 miles RT on this 46-mile rail-to-trail path.  What we liked on this relaxing tree-covered ride were the various shaded rest areas and a stop for fresh-squeezed orange juice at Ferris Groves – yum!

How about you?  Do you have a biking trail to share with us and our friends?

Next up:  Continuing on our celebration week – our favorite beaches.

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Our Top Ten Favorite Hikes – 2nd Anniversary

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Stone Mountain Trail

We have crossed another milestone.  Two years ago today, on March 1, 2012, we embarked on our new lifestyle of living on the road.  One of our many goals was to continue to exercise and be active.  Building on what I began last year, and to commemorate our 2nd year of full timing, I have compiled our new set of favorite hike/walk trails.  This top ten list covers the trails we explored between March 1, 2013 and Feb 28, 2014.  It does not include the dozens of beach walks we took while on the east coast.  Although we love long walks on the beach, they tend to be fairly similar and we decided not to try to rate them.

Our criteria has remained the same, and that is: (1) the trail had an awesome reward at the end (2) the trail was well-maintained and (3) the experience along the way was memorable.  These trails were fairly short, and some even overlapped each other – unlike the ones we blazed out West.

Below are our top ten favorite hiking/walking experiences.  Clicking on the name of the trail will take you to a website that describes it further.  The “Click related post here” link will take you to our posting that included the hike/walk.

1. Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail – Acadia National Park, Maine

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Cadillac Mountain South Ridge Trail

Going down Cadillac Mountain

2. Buck Hollow Trail – Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

Click related post here.

3. Combined Trails at Schoodic Peninsula – Acadia National Park, Maine

(Anvil Trail, Adler Trail, East Trail and  Schoodic Mountain Summit)

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4. Sleeping Beauty Trail – Lake George, New York

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Sleeping beauty trail, Lake George

Sleeping Beauty summit

At the Sleeping Beauty summit – what can we say?

5. Overlapping Trails at Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia

(Allegheny Trail, Yellow Birch Trail, Elakala Trail, Red Spruce Trail, Balanced Rock Trail and Lindy Point Overlook)

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6. Overlapping Trails at Stone Mountain Park – Atlanta, Georgia

( Walk-Up Trail with connections to Cherokee Trail, Nature Garden Trail and  Songbird Habitat Trail)

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7. Overlapping trails of Cavendish Duneland Trail and Homestead Trail – PEI National Park, Prince Edward Island, Canada

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Cavendish Duneland Trail

Cavendish Duneland Trail

Homestead Trail PEI

Homestead Trail

8. Niagara Gorge Trail – Niagara, New York

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Whirlpool Bridges, Niagara

Upper Great Gorge Hike

Great Gorge Scenic Overlook Hike

Great Gorge Scenic Overlook Hike

9. Black Ridge/Rock Castle Gorge Trail – Blue Ridge Mountains, VA

Click related post here.

10. Lake Monroe Conservation Area – Osteen, Florida

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Lake Monroe Conservation Area

How about you?  Do you have a favorite hiking trail to share with us and our friends who might be there one day?

Next up:  Our Top Seven Favorite Bike Rides – 2nd Anniversary Post

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Good Friends Gather Once More – Punta Gorda, FL

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We are continuing to meander up the southwest coast of Florida, on our slow northward migration.  Our next stop was in the city of Punta Gorda, spanish for “fat point”.  It sits at a point where the Peace River meets Charlotte Harbor.  On our way there we caught a glimpse of this interesting car.  Would you ride in this red wagon?  Steve said he would!

Immediately after settling in, we contacted our friends Dave and Sue, John and Pam, and Joe and Judy to make arrangements to get together one more time before we leave Florida.  Fortunately they were able to carve some time away from their “busy” retirement schedules to meet us for meals.  But more on that later, as Steve and I had some exploring to do around our new home base.

Harbor Bridges, Punta Gorda

Harbor Bridges Mural

During our walk along the Punta Gorda Harborwalk we discovered the cool Harbor Bridges Mural.  It depicts Theodore Roosevelt (who came to Punta Gorda in 1917) and his guide in the foreground with a Manta Ray they had beached.  The center of the mural shows Charlotte Harbor, and the sides show the old and new Harbor Bridges.  The arrow indicates the locations of Punta Gorda and Gasparilla Island, our points of interest while staying in the area.

Punta Gorda Harbor Walk

A section of the Harborwalk with the Harbor bridges (highway 41 north and south) in the background

Steve and I had been lamenting that our walks here in Florida lacked elevation.  The walking/hiking trails are almost completely flat, and we were hoping for some changes in elevation as we walked around scenic Charlotte Harbor.  The pathway is quite popular, well maintained and cuts through various city parks.

As we neared the east end of the pathway, it branched out.  One path went safely under the bridge and the other lead across it.  We followed the one onto the northbound US 41 bridge, and ahead of us was the steepest incline we have seen in months – the bridge itself.  Pitiful!

US41 bridge heading north

Hey, look at that hill!

Harbor Bridges

Twin bridges, US 41 Northbound and Southbound

Walking across bridges is obviously not our favorite way to exercise, what with the noise and car emissions.  But we walked both of them, and after adding that to our harbor walk we had covered several miles.

Harbor Bridges, Punta Gorda

The Harbor Bridges (also called the Highway 41 Twin Bridges) cross the Peace River and connect Punta Gorda to Port Charlotte to the north. Our efforts were rewarded with several wildlife sightings – dolphins, jellyfish, stingrays and other fish.  Not bad after all!

In another area we saw these feathered friends frolicking and scurrying for food in the the pond at nearby Fishermans Village.

On another day we hauled our bikes to Gasparilla Island, part of a chain of Gulf Coast barrier islands.  We paid the $6 causeway toll and a $3 parking fee before beginning our ride from the south end of the island where the restored 1890 lighthouse sits.

Boca Grande Lighthouse

A restored 1890 Boca Grande Lighthouse

From there we followed the Boca Grande bike path, a paved 6.5-mile trail which is credited as Florida’s first rail-trail.  It travels the length of the Gulf Coast barrier island. The northern section has a separate jogging/walking path that is privately maintained and beautifully landscaped.  We shared the bike path with an ocassional golf cart, which appear to be the preferred mode of local transportation in this upscale area.

Boca Grande Bike Path

Landscapde Boca Grande bike path

On our way back home we stumbled upon a Fishery Market and Restaurant in Placida. We saw fresh-caught fish being unloaded from a boat and taken directly to the market. I was so excited to see not only the various fish, but they also had blue crabs available when we stopped by.  I wasn’t going to pass up that opportunity!  I got 5 crabs and 3 various kinds of fish for a measly $17!  After packing them into our trusty ice chest that never leaves the car, we proceeded to have a fabulous lunch at the Fishery Restaurant. Then we raced home so I could clean my yummy catch in time to have some more for dinner!

One day we hopped on a boat cruise that took us across Charlotte Harbor for Sunday brunch at a place called Burnt Store.  Legend says the Trading Post there was burned down by Billy Bowlegs, the leader of an Indian settlement who was pissed off when settlers invaded their territory.  The Trading Post was never rebuilt, and the name Burnt Store stuck.  The road leading to it – and the one on which we stayed at Gulf View RV Resort (see Steve’s review here) – is Burnt Store Road.  Although the boat cruise was relaxing, the brunch was not very good and there was nothing much else to see or do at Burnt Store.  However, we were happy to see the migrants just offshore, White Pelicans hanging out on a sandbar.  It’s hard to tell in the picture, but these guys are huge – much bigger than a typical brown pelican.

White Pelicans

White Pelicans migrants

The birthday boy, Steve, celebrated his birthday by going to the Muscle Car City Museum after reading Sue and Dave’s recent post about it. He discovered that the museum  was right up the street from our RV park.  It had an amazing collection of Corvettes, at least one from every year it has been produced.  He also salivated over the Camaros, Chevelles and El Caminos, all of which he had worked on and rebuilt in his earlier mechanical life.

Muscle Car City

Muscle Car City Museum

This guy bought a former Walmart store and filled it with classic cars – how cool is that?

Muscle Car City Museum

Steve had a good laugh at this sign in the restroom

Finally, the chance to gather with friends had arrived.  We first met up for lunch with Joe and Judy at Ft. Myers, a midway point between Bonita Springs and Punta Gorda. They were so kind to restock us with fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice from Sun Harvest.  After our BBQ meal we talked about where we might meet again and said our goodbyes.

Next we drove to Venice, Florida to meet up one more time with Sue and Dave of Belugas Excellent Adventure, and John and Pam of Oh the Places.  We had a delicious lunch at Sharkys by the Pier and then walked to the Venice pier and along the beach.  Sue introduced us to fossilized shark tooth hunting/collecting.

Sue told us that collecting prehistoric shark’s teeth has been a favorite pastime for visitors and residents of the Venice area for years.  They may be black, brown, or gray, depending on the minerals in the soil in which they have been buried.  They range in size from one eighth inch to three inches, and on rare occasions larger.  Collectors or enthusiasts bring their metal sifter, scoop up a bunch of sand, then dump it on the beach before sifting through for the teeth.

During subsequent walks I have collected some items, but I think only one of them might be a shark’s tooth.  Am I right Sue?

Fossilized Sharks Teeth

Fossilized Sharks Teeth?

After the beach adventure we followed our friends to Snook Haven, where the sign says it all:

Snook Haven

After enjoying a refreshment and more talk, the cool people had to split up and be on their way.  We vowed to meet again somewhere in this vast land of ours, perhaps this summer.  Thank you friends, for hanging out with us – and lets keep in touch!

Next up:  A 2nd Anniversary Post of our Top Ten Hikes

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