Discovering Lookout Mountain Parkway – and more

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Little River Falls

With our urban meanderings out of the way for a while, we set our eyes on what Reader’s Digest called “One of America’s scenic drives,” the Lookout Mountain Scenic Parkway.  It’s 93 miles long and spans three states as it stretches from Gadsden, Alabama, through the northwest corner of Georgia to Chattanooga, Tennessee.  Lucky for us the the parkway begins right where we’re currently located, at Noccalula Falls Campground in Gadsden.

Lookout Mountain Parkway Map

Lookout Mountain Parkway

Because rain was forecast for later in the day, we set out early with map in hand, planning to drive as far as Desoto State Park in Mentone, Alabama.  After having lunch there we would wind through small towns, climbing several grades to see the lush and green scenery.  On the Parkway we expected to see waterfalls, canyons, unique towns and villages, state and national parks and preserves.  Although it was an overcast day, we were hoping to avoid the rain long enough to see and capture some beautiful waterfall pictures.

Lookout Mountain Parkway

Dekalb County Rd 1005

Lookout Mountain Parkway

Although rain clouds were hovering, like the cows we must continue on our mission!

Our first stop was at DeSoto State Park, where the water of DeSoto Falls plunges 120 feet into the river below.  The highest falls in the area, it was named for the spaniard Hernando DeSoto, who searched unsuccessfully for gold nearby.  Upon arriving and parking there, the first thing we saw was a lovely reservoir situated above the falls.

Desoto Falls

Desoto Falls

Desoto Falls

The state park featured miles of hiking trails, so we had to take some time to pick our favorite candidates.  The first one had several intersecting trails with the sound of water rushing through streams along much of its length.  It was also very fragrant with the smell of many wildflowers – the best-smelling trail we can remember!  Although not very strenuous, we felt like this was the first real hiking environment we’ve been in for many months, and we were glad we had brought lunch along so we could spend as much time as possible in its beauty.
Desoto Hiking Trail


By the time we got to Little River Canyon Preserve, the sky had already darkened and we felt some raindrops.  We forged on and discovered that Little River is a mountaintop river that plunges into a nature sanctuary.  It’s one of the nations’s longest rivers that forms and flows for most of its length on top of a mountain.  There is a boardwalk that leads to the Little River Falls lookout.

Little River Falls

Boardwalk to the Little River Fall lookout

Little River Falls

Little River Falls – actually it’s not so little!

Little River Falls

Rock formations at Little River Falls

It began raining lightly, so after quickly taking some pictures we decided to take another trail to nearby Martha’s Falls.  Bad idea, since we were wearing only light, non-waterproof jackets.  The trail was mostly flat until it got close to the river where it was very steep, and since it was pouring rain at this point we were trying to walk down a muddy path.  At the Falls, which were a bit of a disappointment anyway, Steve declared, “This is officially not fun anymore.”

Marthas Falls

Martha’s Falls – nice, but not worth walking through pouring fain for

Trail at Marthas Falls

Climbing up a muddy, slippery path in a downpour is “officially not fun”


Uh-oh, being lost is what’s really on our mind!

We had intended to follow the 11-mile scenic drive along Canyon Rim Drive to view more of the river and canyon scenery.  Alas, it did not work out, as we somehow missed a turn and didn’t realize our error until it was getting too late to backtrack.  Seeing the “Welcome to Georgia” sign was the first hint that we were lost.  But there was a silver lining after all – Steve saw a roadside jerky stand and we stopped there to get directions.  While talking, we tasted several of Tony’s excellent jerkies and ended up buying two bags.  I discovered that Steve just can’t be upset about being lost when he’s chewing on a good piece of jerky!


Must be really good, it says so right there!

“Tony the jerky guy” confirmed we were several miles off course, and that going back to complete the Canyon Rim Drive would have gotten us home pretty late. So, we started back on the more direct route and after a while Steve spotted a pickle store.  Well, the only thing he likes as much as a good piece of jerky is a good dill pickle, and we had never before seen a store dedicated to pickles.  We stopped to taste the array of spiced pickles and other products.  The owner/pickle maker told us the story of how the business began, and how she discovered that her products are very popular among southerners.  Forty dollars later (pickles, olives, tomato/mozzarella salad and roasted peanuts) we walked out with big smiles.  And that’s how our trip to the Lookout Mountain Parkway ended – we missed part of the scenic drive, but got enough yummy munchies to last a while in return.  Life is funny!

There were other hiking and biking trails to explore beyond our campground at Noccalula Falls.  One was the James D. Martin Wildlife Park and Walking Trail.  We found it located behind a large shopping mall and thought that was rather strange.  Then we learned that the land James D Martin Wildlife Parkbordering the H. Neely Henry Lake is too swampy for commercial use and was set aside as a flood plain and wildlife recreational area.  It turned out that we were pleasantly surprised by the two-mile long green trail that also provided a raised network of boardwalks.  It allowed us to walk out into a 300-acre lake which provided me with great bird-watching opportunities amongst the wildflowers, were in full bloom.

James D Martin Wildlife Park

Boardwalk on the Green Trail

We didn’t think we’d spend much time on this short trek, and since it was overcast when we started, we failed to bring our sunglasses and hats along.  We were sorry about that when the sun came blazing out halfway through our enjoyable walk.

James D Martin Wildlife Park

Great Blue Heron

Sentries of the swamp


Great Egrets and Great Herons are nesting here through June

Biking the Chief Ladiga Trail was also on our must-do list here.  This trail is Alabama’s first extended rails-to-trails project.  It covers 33 miles through the countryside of Calhoun and Cleburne counties in northeastern Alabama, and ends at the Georgia state border. Although we were off to an early start, it quickly got hot and humid so we clocked only 16 miles on this ride.  The rails-to-trails paths are usually paved and offer a maximum of 2-3 degrees of slope at any point, because that’s all the train locomotives could handle at the time.  Although not physically challenging, these trails have proven to be a very enjoyable way to leisurely bike on tree-covered paths with lots of bridges and birds singing to us along the way.  They often go through several small towns so you can get a real feel for the area, and sometimes even stop for lunch along the way.  Not a bad way to spend a half day!

Chief Ladiga Trail

Farmland along the Chief Ladiga Trail

Our one-week stay at Noccalula Falls Campground in Gadsden, Alabama was active and outdoorsy, as we enjoyed mostly sunny weather.

And that’s how we spent our last few days in Alabama, now onward to Tennessee!


Up Next:  Chattanooga, TN


The real Iron Man, Lady Liberty and a Cherokee Maiden…

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The five-day stay at our favorite Corp of Engineer (COE) campground in Gunter Hill, AL (you can search back to Steve’s review from March 2013 here) was more of a downtime stop – we’re calling it the calm AFTER the storm.  It’s not like we don’t have enough downtime, but this was one stop where we didn’t even leave the campground.  We took our tour of Montgomery  last year while we were here, one of many history-laden stops enroute to the northeast.  If you want to see that part of our travels, click here to see what we learned in Montgomery.  This time our efforts were concentrated on drying out  one of Betsy’s compartments (which took 4 days) and trying out some new stuff that Steve got for Betsy – more on that in an upcoming post.

We were able to take several walks and bike rides around the wooded campground, and since our WiFi was pretty lousy I spent some time cleaning up my digital library – getting back 10G of space!  Steve was right, I do take a lot of “duplicate” shots of my feathered friends.  But I can’t help myself!

Gunter Hill, Alabama

Down time at Gunter Hill Campground

wpid24873-2014-05-05-AL-1290952.jpgAs you may be noticing, our current pace is slower compared to this time last year, and now that the weather is allowing us to proceed north our only obligation is not until June 13th when Betsy’s chassis maintenance and new tires will be done in Gaffney, SC.  So, we’ll be hanging out in Northern Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina a bit longer than anticipated, which will give us plenty of time to check out the Great Smoky Mountains.  Gadsden, AL is our home base for a week now, as we check out the city of Birmingham and the Lookout Mountain region of Alabama.

Birmingham, Alabama

Yellow wildflowers dot the beautiful green hillsides

Our friend Ayn of RoadLife, who lived and worked in Birmingham for many years, gave us a short list of things the city has to offer – in fact only two items, to be exact.  The city is proud of its two statues, one is the original iron man – in somewhat revealing attire – and the other is a more moderately-dressed replica of a very famous statue.  However, both are displayed raising their right arm – one with a spear and the other a torch – to the heavens.

Meet Lady Liberty and Vulcan, the iron man!

At 31 feet tall and weighing 10 tons, Lady Liberty is one of the largest replicas of the Statue of Liberty.  She was cast in the same foundry in France as the original.  This lady can be seen from I-459 at the Birmingham area Boy Scouts headquarters.  The small park area at the base of the statue is open to the public and free of charge during daylight hours. Unfortunately, people aren’t allowed inside this one.  The Boy Scouts headquarters and a memorial to all Eagle Scouts who served in North and Central Alabama are nearby.

Boy Scouts of America

Eagle Scouts Memorial

Eagle Scouts Memorial

Vulcan, on the other hand, stands 56 feet tall from toe to spear point and sits on a 124-foot tall pedestal, rising to a total height of 180 feet.  This one weighs in at 101,200 pounds.  He is the largest cast iron statue in the world, and the largest metal statue ever built in the United States.  To promote Birmingham and Alabama at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, it was decided to build a statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge.  Vulcan was created to highlight the area’s growing industrial capabilities, and to personify Birmingham’s pride in its local iron industry.  Vulcan was awarded the “Grand Prize” at that fair.


Over 100 years later, Vulcan now stands atop Red Mountain, over the iron ore mine that was instrumental in Birmingham becoming the Iron City.


The highlight of our visit at Vulcan Park and Museum was climbing the 157 stairs to the top of the tower (there’s also an elevator for those so inclined) for a panoramic view of Birmingham.  Looking up at the statue, the first thing we saw was his big old iron butt 😉 The statue’s naked behind has been a source of humor for many years, and some folks actually protested its move to Red Mountain because they didn’t want to look up from their homes and see that butt every day!  A novelty song, “Moon Over Homewood”, refers to the fact that the statue moons the neighboring suburb of Homewood, Alabama.

Birmingham Alabama

Panoramic view of Birmingham, Alabama

Top of Vulcan

Just another tourist …

Here are some items at the museum that we thought were interesting:


Steve loved this “sculpture” of the many iron items cast right here in Birmingham

Finally, back at our campground at Noccalula Falls, we visited the Cherokee maiden. Located only about 1000′ from our campsite, she stands at the edge of the Falls.  Legend says that the daughter of an Indian chief committed suicide at the beautiful Black Creek ravine to avoid marrying a man forced upon her by her father that she did not love.  The statue stands poised and ready to leap at the very spot where she, Noccalula, supposedly jumped to her death over the falls to the rocks below.  The Falls and several area attractions have subsequently been named Noccalula Falls.


Noccalula Falls cascades more than 90 feet into the Black Creek ravine, and is the centerpiece of this popular park and recreation area in Gadsden, Alabama.  The city campground where we stayed is part of the park complex there, and it’s a nice green area.  You can see Steve’s campground review here.

Noccalula Falls

Noccalula Falls

We were not satisfied with only viewing the Falls from the top, especially when we found out there was a “hike at your own risk” path leading behind the cascading waters. Although the hike was fairly strenuous and we were concerned about the mist from the Falls ruining our camera, it was worth it to get another angle on the rapidly-flowing water that has carved a deep ravine into the western end of Lookout Mountain.  This mountain stretches from Gadsden, Alabama all the way to Chattanooga, Tennesse – which just happens to be our next destination!

Black Creek Gorge

Black Creek Gorge

Noccalula Falls

Behind the cascading Noccalula Falls

Under Noccalula Falls

Although it was 80 degrees and humid outside, the cavern under the Falls was cool and beautiful – we didn’t want to leave

The trail to the foot of the falls was conveniently accessible from our campsite.  It had been a while since our last real hike, so we were a bit sore the next day after scrambling up and down the boulders and steep paths.  We also took several walks on the  Black Creek Trail a 2-mile crushed stone path  which was literally right behind our site, making our daily exercise super-convenient. The trail is lush with tall green trees and meanders along the Black Creek gorge.

Noccalula Falls Campground

Walking up the hill from the trail to site #A19 in the campground

Each afternoon after our day of activities, we would sit outside reading and watching hikers passing by.  And like every afternoon our entertainment is watching  these little black squirrels as they went about their daily routines, running around, eating and just having fun.

Black Squirrel

Check out this guy as he played in our fire pit and got himself all powdered white.  We don’t know what he was doing, but he seemed to be having fun and we enjoyed watching him make a mess of himself! Life’s little pleasure.

Lastly, a trip down scenic Lookout Mountain Parkway begins right outside our park at Noccalula Falls.  And that’s where we’re taking you next time, so hop in and enjoy the ride!



How do you catch a snake? A GBH knows!

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Great Blue Heron

Jacks up, slides in and we were out of there, happy to be heading north from the Alabama coastline into new territory.  Like other folks we’ve been following, we’re glad we came through that vicious storm relatively unscathed.  As longtime Californians, we just aren’t used to this kind of crazy weather!  But we’re reminded that we need to continue keeping weather monitoring at the top of our list as we begin heading into parts of the midwest that are also known for unpredictability.  Among other things, we must:

  • Have the necessary tools to be aware of and track storms.  We use the Weatherbug and MyRadar Pro apps that send alerts, and we have a handy solar/hand-crank NOAA Weather Radio (thanks, Ben!) that will function even while we’re boondocking.  Our cell phones are also programmed to send us severe weather alerts.
  • Eton microlink FR 160Stay tuned to the Weather Channel and monitor the prediction and progress of storms, whenever possible.
  • Always know which county we are camping in, since warnings are usually issued by county, not city.
  • Have some emergency clothing and other items ready by the door, in case we need to get out in a hurry.
  • Learn where any shelters or sturdy structures are around the campground.

Although we realize we can’t outrun a tornado, we hope this short list will help keep us on the go with a minimal chance of major weather problems.   Any other tips you more experienced travelers can add to our list?

Well, that little rant was totally off-topic, but I had to digress and share our recent learning experience.  With that out of the way, here is the real story behind the title – it’s about a snake and a big bird, a Great Blue Heron (GBH for short).  This is a leftover story from our stay at Gulf State Park, where the Great Blue Heron was a familiar sight.  They usually stood at attention around the campground, by the lake, in the woods, on the beach or even on top of a tree, posing for me.  Always focused and waiting for unwary prey, they are really fun to watch!

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron primping its breeding plumage

The tall, long-legged Great Blue Heron is easily spotted, and many of you have probably seen them since they’re very large birds with one of the widest wingspans in North America.  But I doubt that most of you have taken as many pictures of them as I have!  We spent a lot of quality “heron-watching”  time while at Gulf Shores, even witnessing one of them stalking and catching a snake.  I thought it might be worth sharing some of those moments.

Great Blue Heron

Lets have fun with a few heron facts – Great Blue Herons are identified by their red-brown thighs and a pair of red-brown and white stripes running up their flanks.  The neck of these herons is rusty-gray in color, with black and white streaks running down the front.  They have a mostly white face, with the rest of the head being more pale.

Great Blue Heron

This is who I am – tall, pretty and proud of it!

Great Blue Herons look huge in flight, with a wingspan of up to six feet.

Great Blue Heron

Just another day at the beach…

In flight, a Great Blue Heron’s neck is folded back into an “S” shape, and the legs are stretched out behind its body.

Great Blue Heron in flight

A Great Blue Heron is capable of swallowing a fish many times wider than its narrow neck, which has been known to choke and kill them on occasion.

Great Blue Heron

No, no, no!  Don’t put fish parts in the dumpster – that’s my lunch we’re talking about here!

Although they typically nest in colonies, herons hunt alone and that’s why I’ve never seen a group of herons hunting.  Besides fish, they eat a wide variety of prey such as frogs, salamanders, turtles, snakes, insects, rodents and small birds.  Just look at that menacing beak!

Great Blue Heron

Hey, don’t get too close or I’ll put your eye out!

They have special vertebrae in their necks that allow them to curl it into an “S” shape. This allows them to make a long and lightning-fast strike at their prey.

Great Blue Heron

On one of those days before the storm hit, Steve and I were reading and relaxing outside when we caught a glimpse of a GBH stalking around.  Of course, I ran for my trusty camera while Steve grabbed the binoculars to enjoy the show.  We watched as it stood completely motionless for a long time, then walked very slowly – almost like a cat – getting into striking range of its prey.  Then, with a quick thrust of its sharp bill, it snapped up a snake and tore it in half.  That poor snake must have wondered what the heck had just happened, as it continued to wiggle around in the heron’s mouth.

Stalking a Great Blue Heron

The following short clip shows that the snake almost got away, but the heron was quicker. And to think I was right in that area a little earlier taking some pictures!  I called that heron our “guard bird” for getting the snake before it could come into our site.

Do I detect a smile on this guy’s face as he enjoys his lunch?

Great Blue Heron

Wildlife scenes such as this may not be spectacular, but to us they’re fascinating and make our lifestyle even more rewarding.  More so when it happens right outside our door, like when the Sandhill Cranes visited us in Sebring, Florida, or when the little Black Bear emptied out our bird feeder in Lake Monroe, Florida.  Good times!



Outdoor fun before the storm – Gulf State Park, AL

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Hugh S Banyon Backcountry Trail

Bugs BunnyWe have been dilly-dallying near the Alabama coast before continuing our trek north, wanting to make sure that Spring has sprung and temperatures are on the rise before we continue our adventure.  So here we are, hanging out at Gulf Shores for the next three weeks.  There’s lots to do here, but because this is our second trip into the Gulf Shores area, we’re trying to do a little more relaxing this time around.

While staying at Gulf State Park, we have finally found what we consider a perfect “10” campground.  Hearing a lot of good things about this huge 496-site park in the past, we tried to make reservations for our stay last year but discovered they were fully booked through March.  This is the only state park we are aware of that allows monthly stays from November through March, and a 14-day maximum all other times.

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Gulf State Park as seen from Gulf Oak Ridge Trail

What’s to like about this park?  First, it met all of our personal criteria; park location, site levelness and spacing, and not too much road or “people” noise.  It was just a great atmosphere to hang out in.  Easy access to several hiking/biking trails and many other amenities were icing on the cake.  If we were really going to be picky, we might complain about the lack of hills or mountains to scale or look at.  But that’s not the park’s fault, and besides, the white sand beaches of the Gulf Coast are only a mile away!  To see more things to do while at this park, click here.  We strongly recommend it to anyone coming to this area.

Live Oak Road, Gulf State Park,

We’re at site #37, Live Oak Road

Middle Lake, Gulf State Park

Middle Lake as seen through our dinette window

After birding with Laurel and Eric on our first two days here, we began to explore the park and hit the trails before the forecasted storm, wind and rain arrived.  Just walking through the campground can be a workout – it’s 2 miles end-to-end, not including any of the side roads or walking trails.  But to make it even better, it also has easy access to the Hugh S. Branyon Back Country Trail.  Traveling between Gulf State Park and Orange Beach, this complex of 6 attached paved paths covers 12 miles.  It’s believed that the area is historic, as it was once used by indigenous people and early settlers.  It took us 2 rides, one at 19 miles and another at 15 miles to cover all of the paths and get back to the park.  The Hugh S. Branyon Back Country Trail traverses a wide diversity of habitats, running along marshes, secondary sand dunes, swamps and over several creeks.

Hugh S Branyon Backcountry Trail

Trailhead of Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail from within the park

We took our rides early in the day and observed that the paths got busy later on. Leaving early also allowed us to encounter some wildlife along the way.

Lefty, the alligator

This mother alligator was seen along Rosemary Dunes Trail with her five babies on board

Gulf Oak Ridge Trail, Hugh S Branyon Trails

We liked Gulf Oak Ridge Trail, as it was shaded with a few mild elevation changes to keep our hearts pumping

Catman Road Trail, Hugh S Branyon Backcountry Trail

Looking at yet another water snake along Catman Road Trail

Rattlesnake Ridge Trail, Backcountry Trail

Steve with “helmet hair” at Rattlesnake Ridge Trailhead

Great Blue Heron on top of tree

Can you find the Great Blue Heron?

On other days, we walked all 9 of the unpaved connecting trails within the park.  It was flat, but we got fairly good workouts nevertheless.

Alligator  Marsh Trail, Gulf State Park

No, we did not see any alligators on this trail

Gulf State Park

Along Campground Road

Bear Creek Trail, Gulf State Park

Bear Creek Trail

On these walks I practiced capturing some wildflowers up close and low to the ground using my Point and Shoot Panasonic DMZ-ZS19.  It got some pretty decent shots.

We took the one-mile walk to the beach and then added several miles while walking along the shore.  There are over 3.5 miles of white sand beaches available in both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama.  Best of all, it’s free!

Gulf State Park Beach

Gulf State Park Beach

Brown Pelicans

Brown Pelicans in a feeding frenzy were fun to watch

Common Terns

Unlike the Common Terns in Florida, these guys were skittish and wouldn’t let us get too close

Lowes RV Adventures

Yes, we are enjoying our last few days at the beach before moving on!

All of these activities were done within the confines of the sprawling Gulf State Park, with no driving required.  The park also offers birding, golfing, boating, fishing, kayaking and canoeing.  After four days of active fun the storm hit, and it was a doozy just like the forecasters predicted.


Next up:  What do you do when cooped up for three days?

A detour to one of our favorite places – Dauphin Island, AL

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Great Horned Owl

Since it’s still a bit early to continue our northward trek, we’re chillin’ for a couple of weeks at one of our favorite Gulf Coast stops, Dauphin Island.  Unfortunately, a severe weather system slammed the area just a day after our arrival, the worst storm we’ve endured since we began our travels.  It wasn’t just the buckets of rain, but also the lightning and fierce winds that made us hunker down in Betsy.  Our windshield cover even blew off in one of the wind gusts, and that’s never happened before.

Dauphin Island Beach Campground

Poor Steve had to wade out into the water in pouring rain to retrieve our windshield cover

Although this was an unplanned stop, we were excited to be back.  After a couple of weeks here we’ll move back to Gulf Shores, AL for a final three weeks on the shoreline.  That will take us up to May 1st, when it should be warm enough to head north and leave the beaches behind for quite a while.  Our pace will be more leisurely this summer, as we don’t see ourselves visiting as many historical and resort spots as last year.  In keeping with our goal of visiting all 49 states, we’re guessing we’ll be able to add 9 or 10 to the midsection of our map by the end of the year.

The planned route will take us to Michigan by mid-summer and back to Texas by December, where we plan to spend next winter.  The stops along the way will be determined as we move along, and by the end of our third year we will probably have visited at least 38 beautiful states.  Well, that’s the “jello plan” for now, we’ll see what surprises this part of the journey brings – hey, that’s the fun of it!

2014 planned route

Rough outline for our 2014 adventure route

Back to Dauphin Island.  Although we were here around the same time last year, there were a few things we missed during that short stay that we wanted to explore this time around.  Our first couple of days were spent waiting for better weather and doing fun things – like finalizing our taxes 😦  But we tend to get “cabin fever” fairly quickly, and we couldn’t wait to get out to breathe the fresh air and get moving again.  The good news is that our home base at Dauphin Island Campground had private access to the white sand beach, trails to the bird sanctuary and access to the bike path that runs the length of the island (8 miles).  There are other activities within walking/riding distance that made our car almost unneeded here – a pair of healthy legs were the only requirement!


Dauphin Island Beach

We’ll definitely be missing this in the months to come

So, what have we done so far?  Well, I did mention that the RV park had direct access to the Audubon Bird Sanctuary, and that was my first destination.  Actually, the whole island is designated as a bird sanctuary, just for good measure.  Everywhere we went the birds could be seen and heard – heaven!  Steve even got caught up in the possibility of seeing new and beautiful birds, so he grabbed our binoculars and tagged along.

We were not disappointed. A great horned owl had established a nest by the beach and was nurturing her two young ones.

Great Horned Owl

This Osprey nest was taken over by a Great Horned Owl, and she and her owlets were the talk of the town

Great Horned Owl

They seem to be saying, “What’s all the fuss about?”  Aren’t they the cutest?

Dauphin Island is the first landfall for neo-tropical migrant birds after their long flight across the Gulf from Central and South America each spring.  In inclement weather, the island has been known to receive large flocks of exhausted birds landing all at once, in what is called a “fall-out.”  Having my first Alabama bird-watching experience after that storm hit was quite amazing.  And that will be covered in my next post.

Finally, our first sunset taken at the west end of the island.

Dauphin Island Sunset


Next up:  Dauphin Island goes to the birds!

Experiencing the deep south – Montgomery, AL

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Alabama State Capitol
Alabama State Capitol

Alabama State Capitol

With our beach days over for now, we headed back to the hills and north to Montgomery, Alabama.  As any history buff can verify, Montgomery has had two pivotal moments in American history – the birth of the Confederacy and the Civil Rights Movement.  There is no better place for me as an immigrant to delve into it than in the city which was the center of it all.  The city has done a great job of preserving, restoring and marking historical areas that allow us visitors to walk and follow the Civil Heritage Trail.  I will share a few highlights of the many historic sites – hopefully you won’t fall asleep halfway through.

Montgomery is where a fascinating period in American history began, when in Feb 1861 six of the seven seceded states formed a new nation to be called the Confederate States of America.  This is where they established a provisional government, selecting Montgomery as the provisional capital and electing their first and only president, Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.

First White House of the Confederacy

First White House of the Confederacy

Because of its significance in American history, the state capitol is a designated National Landmark.  In Feb 1861, it served as the first capitol of the Confederacy with Jefferson Davis being sworn in on the front steps as its President. Much later, on March 25, 1965 this spot is where the Civil Rights March ended.  The march, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., demanded voting rights for African Americans.  President Johnson passed into law the Voting Rights Act of 1965 five months later.

Just around the corner from the capitol is the First White House of the Confederacy, where the President and his wife lived during the first months of the confederacy until the confederate capital moved to Richmond, VA in May 1861.

Montgomery Bus BoycottWe stood at the bus stop where, in 1955, Rosa Parks sparked the Bus Boycott – signaling the start of the Civil Rights Movement and making Montgomery the epicenter of a groundbreaking societal shift in this country.

An ornate  fountain built in 1885 on top of an existing artesian basin can be seen at the center of town.  It is named Court Square Fountain.
Court Square Fountain

On another day we drove about 20 miles from our campground to the Daniel Pratt Historic Disctrict in the city of Prattville.  We checked out Autauga Creek and the manufacturing complex around which this New Engand style village was developed by Daniel Pratt.  He chose this town to build his gin mill, saw mill and grist mill on the banks of Autauga Creek in the early 1830’s.

Autauga Creek

Autauga Creek and the Pratt manufacturing complex

Olympian Center, Jasmin Hills and Gardens

Olympian Center

Before the rain hit us again, I visited the Jasmine Hill Gardens, nicknamed “Alabama’s little corner of Greece”.  It is a 20-acre garden that features mythical gods and Olympian heroes.  The facade of the Olympian Center, which is the entrance to the garden, is an adaptation of the Temple of Hera the oldest sacred building in Olympia, Greece

The gardens feature reproductions of famous Greek works of art and Olympian heroes and inside was the world’s only full-size replica of the Temple of Hera ruins at Olympia, site of the ancient Olympic Games.

Temple of Hera Ruins

Replica of Temple of Hera Ruins

Jasmine Hill Gardens

The rain did come, and we had a leak leak similar to the one at Patagonia, AZ.  This time Steve figured out that the rain had created a pool of water on top of the slide cover and seeped through it.  So, we know the cause of the problem and that it only happens under certain conditions.  Now all we have to do is figure out what to do about it. wpid11985-2013-04-05-AL-1380012.jpg

We stayed at our first US Army Corp of Engineers (COE) campground, and it became one of our favorites.  We stayed on the Catoma Loop at Gunter Hill Campground, the newer of the the two loops.  The park is wooded and right on a lake.  Most of the sites are super long and there is generous space between sites.  The downside is that there are no hiking trails, but we made do by walking/biking to the other Antioch Loop, which is about 4 miles roundtrip.  I particularly liked it here, as our feathered friends were abundant in the area.  The park is about 20 miles south of Montgomery.  Click here for Steve’s review.

Steve loves to cook, and when the weather turned gorgeous he did his thing:

And with spring come the blooms!

Next up: LaGrange, GA and a visit to the Little White House.

Southern Sojourn -Gulf Shores, AL

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Mobile Bay FerryWe did something a bit different upon leaving Dauphin Island for our next destination, Gulf Shores, AL.  You see, the ferry is taking only cars and motorcycles right now; no RV’s.  So, Steve had to drive Betsy 85 miles along the Alabama Scenic Byway (not a bad gig) while I simply hopped a ferry ride across Mobile Bay to Gulf Shores – 29 miles total for me!  The Mobile Bay Ferry connects Fort Gaines at Dauphin Island to Fort Morgan on the Gulf Shores side.  Luckily, there was no threat of torpedoes during my crossing, or I guess Steve would have had the last laugh after all!  It was a fun ferry ride as I got a closer look at some oil rigs along the way and watched seagulls trying to catch a free ferry ride.wpid11134-2013-03-19-AL-1360645.jpg

Once settled in at the RV park, we hopped into our dinghy to check out the area.  Gulf Shores is a popular resort destination, hence more frenetic compared to the quite slow-paced life at Dauphin Island.  And add to that, it’s spring break!  The beach and nearby restaurants at Gulf Shores were busy with spring breakers.  Fortunately, most of our desire for long walks on sugar-white beaches and sunny days had been satisfied while we were on the Island.

Not only were the beaches packed, the RV parks were also booked with snowbirders from northern States.  We wanted to stay at either Gulf Shores State Park or Meares State Park (both with over 100 sites), but snowbirders apparently booked their monthly sojourn months in advance, keeping them full until April.  We managed to snag the last spot at Island Retreat RV Resort (love it when they call their park a “resort”) for a few days.  Here, many of the guests were from Michigan, while the rest were from Missouri, Minnesota and Kentucky.  There are no RV parks on the beach here, but the Gulf Shores State Park is very close.

For several months now, we have been using the site RV Park Reviews as a resource for our upcoming trip stops.  Steve is now contributing reviews to the site for each park we use.  Although we realize these reviews won’t be helpful to everyone because “different strokes for different folks” and the fact that conditions at parks can change fairly often, we will create a link to our reviews in case you want to take a look.  For now, click here to read Steve’s recent park reviews.

Although the 32 miles of white sandy beaches is the main attraction at Gulf Shores, there are a lot of other things to do here.  For historians, Fort Morgan Historic Site and Museum is at the tip of the western peninsula, where I disembarked from the ferry.  Alabama is a birding paradise – on the coast alone there are six Alabama Coastal birding trails.  When in this area, fresh seafood is king when it comes to restaurants.  With the help of one local dude we found one to satiate our taste buds.  At Tacky Jacks, the atmosphere is casual and the food to die for is the Cajun Shrimp Pasta.  Jason was so right, it was simply the best shrimp pasta we had tried so far.

Mifi set up

New WiFi setup, and it works!

Since we were now near civilization, we took care of some business. With the big “T” day approaching, we gathered all tax docs and did a conference call with our tax preparer, did some banking changes and most importantly we trashed errr… I mean cancelled our Verizon MiFi contract.

Nina’s thorough post about their wifi set up and a personal tour of the setup used by Hans and Lisa at Metamorphosis Road finally pushed us to abandon our appalling Verizon MiFi device and move to Millenicom’s device.  It also uses Verizon service, but the old device never worked correctly and after replacing it multiple times we gave up.  Steve’s blood pressure is almost back to normal now!  Using a micro-to-mini cable to charge the MiFi from the Wilson cradle as Hans suggested also helped clean up the wiring, so everything looks nice mounted to our power panel.  Thanks for the help, all!

Fort Morgan Road Trail

Fort Morgan Road Trail

With all of our business completed it was time to relax and act like retired people!  Our RV park was along a nice paved bike trail, so we took an 11-mile ride along Fort Morgan Road Trail.

Hiking and viewing the birds along the Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge was a good way to get away from the crowds.  We walked 10 miles along the interconnected Pine Beach Trail, the Jeff Friend Trail, Gator Lake Trail and the Centennial Trail (all part of the Fort Morgan Loop .)

Here are some of the resident birds.


Osprey gathering twigs to build a nest

The south is known for its  hospitality and I felt it here, for I was addressed as “ma’am” at the store, restaurants and most other places.  That’s much nicer than what Steve usually calls me!  I’m beginning to like this place.

“Damn the Torpedoes…”

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Fort Gaines.

For the history buffs among you, visiting Fort Gaines while on Dauphin Island is a bonus. Fort Gaines stands at the eastern tip of the island, where you can not only get a panoramic view of the bay and Gulf of Mexico, but also be immersed into the historical and thrilling account of the Battle of Mobile Bay.

English: Fort Gaines, Dauphin Island, Alabama

English: Fort Gaines, Dauphin Island, Alabama (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On August 5, 1864 the US Navy attempted to run the gauntlet between Fort Gaines and Fort Morgan, in what is now known as the Battle of Mobile Bay.  The passage between the forts was protected by the guns of the forts themselves, torpedoes (also called mines) and other obstructions.  While running the gauntlet the navy warship USS Tecumseh struck a mine and went to the bottom in seconds.  It was at this point that Admiral David Farragut reportedly uttered the famous words, “Damn the torpedoes – full speed ahead!’  The navy pushed on, and the 3-week naval and land battle resulted in the capture of Fort Gaines and the Confederate Fleet by the union forces.

East Bastion

It was cool and breezy as we followed the self-guided walking tour of the fort, which was built in the 1800s.  Exploring the original tunnels, bastion, blacksmith area and multiple huge canons really gave us a feel for what it may have been like here during the heat of battle.

Steve enjoyed the museum, learning about the many types of weapons and ordnance used at the time.

It cost only $6.00 per person to visit the Fort, and Steve was happy to find a nice Hanes Daupin Island T-shirt for only $10.00.  Not bad!

A day of history lessons was just enough reason to take another long walk on the beach, as we had been doing every day.  Several visits to the sanctuary and other bird sites yielded no migrant birds yet, but the resident birds were merrily chirping away.  Click here for the birds I managed to capture at Dauphin Island.

Now about where we stayed.  Folks have already asked about the accommodations, so we’ll give the best report we can.

There are really only two options for where to park your RV, Dauphin Island Campground on the east end or Pelican Nest near the center of the island.  Nina of  Wheeling It wrote a thorough review of the Dauphin Island Campground that you may want to check out – it was fully booked when we were there.  So, we stayed at Pelican Nest RV Resort Park, which has only 12 sites and is located right across the street from the center of the beach and pier.  We liked this park a lot during the first few days, but when the weekend rolled around with beautiful warm weather it got busy and noisy on the road out front.  They also re-opened a restaurant next door and it was VERY loud on the weekend nights.  It may come down to deciding how much the noise will bother you in return for the fantastic beach access.  The road noise will be reduced some if you can get a spot behind the office – sites #7-10.  Try to NOT get #1 next to the road, which is where we stayed.

We really enjoyed our week on Dauphin Island – it’s small, relatively quiet and less touristy than some other places in this area. This island has a popular bakery full of yummy goodies and a fresh seafood store.

And finally, another day another beautiful Alabama sunset.

Dauphin Island

Our upcoming stops – tell us about any “must do” tours, excursions,
restaurants, etc. you’ve enjoyed at these places:

Pensacola, FL

Montgomery, AL