A January 2007 trip
to Florida by creekland
Quote: Need an escape from winter without the high cost of typical travel bills? So did we... and what a gem we found in Florida's State Park system - their motto? The REAL Florida!
To be more specific on highlights for this trip...snorkeling with the manatees in Homosassa Springs ranks right at the top. For /person (more if you need to rent gear) we went with a small operator (Air Tank Divers) and got a personalized trip to spend about 3 hours swimming, scratching (yes, touching—they enjoy it), and generally feeling on top of the world with one of nature's unusual endangered species.
The next best for us was renting canoes in Rainbow Springs State Park for a couple of hours (total cost was about for two canoes/two hours). We allowed ourselves to mostly drift downriver while admiring the crystal clear water with turtles, fish, and birds, and for our entertainment, otters—a great pleasure to watch, but they aren't always seen, so you can't "count" on them as you can with the other critters. We got lucky.
For other things we enjoyed? For me, long walks on the various beaches from the Atlantic to the Gulf—our favorite was probably Ft. Desoto County Park in St. Petersburg, FL, but we enjoyed all the ones we went to. The boys spent hours playing in the sand building various architectural masterpieces and trying to defeat the incoming waves.
Derby Lane (Greyhound Racing) in St. Pete was another inexpensive favorite of the family (though I suppose inexpensive might depend on how much one likes to gamble on their picks! It was only for admission...)
That said, generally reservations are required well in advance, especially for oceanfront sites. We didn't even DECIDE to come THAT far in advance, so assumed we'd be inland with our initial plans. "Just in case," I kept checking...state park reservations are made through reserveamerica.com. Fortunately, I found last minute cancellations, so we were oceanfront!
Be prepared for all weather. We had nights in the lower 40s and days up to the 80s with most in between. We enjoyed tenting, but most folks there were in RVs.
Also, inexpensive for us did not include theme parks...we mainly wanted some "down" time to recharge our batteries, so our enjoyment came from simple things—lots of nature—some hikes, some diving, some snorkeling, and lots of beach time. As a recharge, it worked superbly. If one wants to play with a famous mouse or be thrilled by roller coasters, this isn't the journal for you.
AND...as a start it was nice. Our site wasn't an ocean viewing spot though—plants were in the way—for future reference, sites to the north of the bathhouse have great views, those south have plants...one can HEAR the ocean from anywhere though, and that still beats PA for this time of year.
We had 2 really nice days here. The boys played on the beach for long periods of time (water's cold, but for wading and playing in the sand, it was fine—some folks DID swim). We also went across the street to do the nature hike. That was OK, but not superb. They have very little information to go with the hike, so all one does is stroll through a section of undeveloped Florida gazing at the plants and an occasional bird or animal (which IS nice considering our goal for this trip—relaxation).
The good/great points of this campground?
#1 - It is RIGHT on the ocean—a very short stroll over a dune to the beach—and a GREAT walking beach at that. Oceanview sites had a tremendous view. Ours had nature's ocean melody.
#2 - The bathhouse is one of the best we've been in—and one of the best in Florida's State Parks. There are flush toilets and HOT showers with a private dressing room that includes a seat and hooks, etc., for changing.
The downfalls to this campground are:
#1 - You're right next to the road, so besides hearing nature's wonderful ocean music, you also have man's traffic noise.
#2 - The weather this time of year is not at all predictable. We lucked out with 76 and 84 degree days for the first 2 days we were there—nigh onto perfect—BUT they were the only days that warm in the forecast. Most were in the 60s or even 50s.
We opted to leave 1 day early due to colder weather and rain on the way...to head further south. While this did make a nice "Get off Interstate 95" break, I'm unsure if we would do it again this time of year due to the unpredictability of the weather—especially since we tent camp. In an RV it wouldn't be as much of an issue.
Different times of the year (May - Sept) Loggerhead Turtles nest here. While we were there (Jan) we saw plenty of tropical birds, palm trees, and blue water—a good, relaxing start to our winter break.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on February 15, 2007
Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area
3100 South A1A
Flagler Beach, Florida 32136
Attraction | "Long Pine Key—Everglades National Park"
For more on the Anhinga Trail, see my previous Florida journal, as we did far more in the Everglades on that trip. The only addition I have is you don't need to go early to this trail. There are less crowds early, but it takes the sun being up to get the gators moving more (though I'm told if you go at night you can see the gators hunting, etc.—MUST try that next time...) We were there about 10am and were pleased with the level of activity. We had gone earlier only to find not much going on (comparatively).
Back to the campground...REALLY nice setting among trees and overlooking a nice pond. There were few people there our night (January midweek), so we got a prime spot directly overlooking the pond itself. We took some time the next morning to hike around it...It was very quiet, and definitely had more of a sense of being safe and serene than the other option we had (motels in Florida City/Homestead)—not to mention it was quite a bit less expensive.
There are no showers here...nor any other amenity besides nature and picnic tables (and flush toilets). What they do have is miles of trails both here and nearby. You can easily explore the whole eastern side of the Everglades from this campground, and it would only be a short (45-minute or so) drive if you wanted to see Biscayne National Park as well. Everyone is welcome from tents to big RVs, but quiet is expected in the evenings. However, it's truly a spot for nature lovers—not folks looking for amenities such as pools and electricity. The closest groceries are in Florida City.
I should add that they have quite the thriving bug population so have bug repellent and eat before dark (if tenting). Be sure the tent doors are totally closed. The bug repellent works well for the mosquitos, but seems to attract the gnats. There are several bodies of said critters in our citronella candles—makes an interesting conversational piece later—but is rather annoying at the time they are accumulating.
Another downside could be the bathhouse. The ladies' side was clean and adequate. The men's side ...hubby said it was one of the worst he'd seen. That, of course, could depend on who's been there. One never knows.
Overall, for its proximity to Everglades National Park and for the peacefulness of the setting, we'd stay there again easily.
Everglades National Park
Various Visitor Centers
Everglades National Park, Florida
Attraction | "Long Key State Park—On the Water in the Keys"
Staying in the Keys is generally a bit pricey, as are most waterfront places anywhere, but if you camp—whether tent or RV—you can have it all for approximately $30/night, complete with the ocean mere feet from your site.
Every site in Long Key State Park is direct oceanfront, with adequate space and shade to provide some privacy as well. The least private side is actually the beach...but this is not a crowded place... so you don't have hordes passing in front of you.
In the winter—midweek—this is mostly filled with retirees enjoying their winter break. We joined them and had a great, quiet time of sun and relaxation. The boys played on the beach and enjoyed themselves thoroughly in the warm Key air—the water was off limits due to an abundance of Man O War, but they waded some carefully. Without the Man O War, swimming and snorkeling are possible here—meaning, of course, we'll have to go back to see what they are like! Some people had inflatable boats with them that they used, and many folks fished from shore.
We took advantage of a free ranger-guided "Learn to Kayak" course that was enjoyable—and had the wind not been up the next day, we'd have traversed the "canoe trail" that is here. Instead, we walked the Golden Orb Trail and enjoyed learning about the different mangrove trees and local flora and fauna.
The biggest plus to this campground is the view—second to very few as far as campgrounds go. They also have very nice bathhouses complete with hot showers, picnic tables, ground grills, and each site has its own electric and water. The park was very quiet from the patrons—there's not even much wave noise here due to the reefs breaking the waves well off-shore.
The only downside I can think of is the road traffic noise. The Overseas Highway is right next to the sites, so you hear every car or truck that passes—at all hours—without the wave noise to drown them out. However, I would never let that stop us from staying here. The view and the general sense of peace and quiet far outweigh some basic traffic noise for us. This is one place we REALLY hated to leave.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on February 15, 2007
Long Key State Park
67400 Overseas Highway
Long Key, Florida 33001
We chose to dive Biscayne upon recommendation from divers living in Florida that assured us it was one of the top reefs in the state. It's patch reef in this area, and the captain picks the spots you dive. Ours was a high wave day—the dive was almost canceled because of it—but we got two dives in, getting a glimpse of part of the outer reef.
Our dive experiences away from home thus far have been limited to Hawaii and the St. Lawrence River. There's no comparison to be made from the tropical waters of Florida and the fresh water of the St. Lawrence, but comparing Hawaii, I can say we saw many more coral varieties in Florida and many more fish in quantity and variety in Hawaii. Both were enjoyable, and for those of us living inland and needing a "dive fix" on a trip, it was worth going to since we were already there. I'm not sure I would have made a special dive "trip" just to this spot, as I suspect other Caribbean areas would top it. However, there's more cost with those, so...
To dive Biscayne, the Park's Concessionaire offers trips on Saturday and Sunday only—and requires an 8 person minimum to make the trip. The cost for a two tank dive is $57 including tanks and weights, but not rental equipment (available if needed). The dives we went on were both shallow (max depth of 31' on our computer). All the set up of your equipment is self-done. The captain was friendly—gave a quick overview of the spot and gave you a time to be back on the boat (be sure you have a watch). On shore there are restrooms, but no hot showers. On the boat, there are no facilites.
Overall, we had an enjoyable time and I'd be interested in returning to see other areas of Biscayne underwater, especially on some of the glass-clear days this place is famous for.
For those that don't dive, snorkel trips are offered daily, as are glass bottom boat trips. The visitor's center has some nice exhibits and has three different movies on the park. Admission is free, the view is nice, and picnic lunches there seem popular. There is a small store, but don't expect much. If you want lunch, bring it—otherwise, head to Homestead for the nearest restaurant choices.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on February 16, 2007
Biscayne National Park
9700 SW 328th Street
Homestead, Florida 33030
Attraction | "Ft Desoto Campground - Pinellas County Park"
Ft Desoto campground is located on islands at the southernmost tip of Pinellas County (that's the one with St Petersburg in it - just west of Tampa Bay). This land could be prime development land, but instead, the county has deemed it a county park (not a state park) - how incredibly wonderful. See my other journal entry for the many beaches and activities available.
For camping, there are 236 sites all having electric and water. Sites #1 - 85 are for tenters, vans, or pop-ups only (hence, where we stayed). The privacy is nice with shade trees and vegetation between you and the folks next door. You can still see your neighbors, but not crystal clearly.
Sites #86 - 164 allow pets, and sites #86 - 236 allow anything (tent to large RV). Through the park's website (www.pinellascounty.org/park ), you can see a picture of any site you wish - what you see is what you get. If you see a water view, you have one - and many sites have nice ones. The vegetation puts a serious damper on the wind and we easily tented through a night of thunderstorms with no problems on the tent (or us) whatsoever.
Additionally, the campground also has flush toilets, hot showers, laundry facilities (inexpensive ones at that!), a playground, a small camp store, and a great "Day-Use Room" with a working fireplace that ended up being a great place to spend rainy times and dark evenings (nice book or cards, warm fireplace...).
Any site can be reserved 6 months in advance, but no refunds are given at all. Once you "buy" a site, it's yours whether you use it or not - meaning even though the campground was "full" some nights, the actual occupancy was a bit less due to folks that couldn't make it. It also means you can't look for last minute cancellations as you can with the state parks...
A short bike ride or drive away gives you access to history and award winning beaches in the rest of the park. You're also right next to St Petersburg for city activities. Two last notes... First, there are SEVERAL raccoons (seen day and night) - my son nicknamed the place "Raccoon National Park." Guard your food carefully - and enjoy watching the critters. Also, there are two driving tolls to reach the park - 50 cents and 35 cents - a small price for an otherwise free admission. Just have your groceries, etc, first to avoid additional tolls!
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on February 21, 2007
Fort De Soto Park
3500 Pinellas Bayway South
Tierra Verde, Florida 33715
Attraction | "Snorkel with the Manatees - Air Tank Divers"
Homosassa Springs is located near Florida's western coast almost due west of Orlando. This is a rural area of Florida - but a quickly growing one. While manatees winter in other areas of Florida as well, only this part of the state allows humans to have interaction with them. Folks can choose between Crystal River and Homosassa Springs. We were told the concentration of manatees is better in the springs. We sure weren't disappointed. You must come in winter though - manatees head to open waters in spring.
Many companies offer these swims. We chose Air Tank Divers because they take out small groups from 2 - 6 people (www.manateetours.net - $25/person). Being a family of 5, that suits us just fine - and we indeed had the boat to ourselves. As an additional plus, we also got more time in the water (3 hours). The larger boats came and left in that time.
So, you're at the shop (no frills here, but who needs those?). First you watch a video about manatees and what's allowed (and what isn't). Bring wetsuits - the river is 72 degrees... rentals are available. Then it's into a van to the boat.
A short cruise upriver brings you to these magnificent creatures. Hop in, swim a few strokes from the boat, and wait a minute or two. Generally the manatees come to you. You float, they come, and you scratch/rub while marveling at the scene in front you. The feel is leathery - not at all slimy - and the manatees love it. Many will turn over wanting you to scratch their bellies! Eventually one will leave, but then another comes. Smaller manatees are 5 - 6 feet long. Some reach lengths of 10 - 12'. All are gentle - and none get fed by humans (they eat grasses).
With Air Tank Divers, we picked where we swam. We tried the deeper areas of the river, met manatees there, then decided to check the shallow headwaters. However, here we felt overrun by crowds from the larger boats and didn't quite have the same "personal" visit with the manatees, so opted to return to deeper water. In hindsight, we'd have stayed deeper, but it was good to experience both areas to know what they were like. Deeper was definitely better if water depth doesn't scare you.
Shallow or deep, this swim is easily suitable for all ages and skill levels of swimming - and the sight you see is "one-of-a-kind." Bring your underwater camera! There's also an underwater video available for $30.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on February 26, 2007
Air Tank Divers
9027 Suncoast Blvd.
Homosassa, Florida 34446
Bahia Honda is a 524 acre state park situated on both sides of the Overseas Highway - a mere 37 miles north of Key West - making that a fairly easy 45 minute drive if you choose to camp here. However, there's so much more here than camping, that I opted not to put it solely in the campground section for those that might simply want to spend a day on one of the best beaches the Keys has to offer. I suppose, to be technical, Bahia Honda has THREE really nice beaches the Keys has to offer.
If looking for tropical activities, this park has them. Like the beach? Choose between Calusa Beach on the Gulf of Mexico, Loggerhead Beach on the Atlantic Ocean, or the more remote Sandspur Beach - also on the Atlantic Ocean but further away from all other activities in the park - giving one the "deserted island" feel (except for the Overseas Highway noise that can be heard from all parts of the park - this is a SMALL Key after all - you drove here, not flew). Both Calusa and Sandspur have picnic pavilions which can be used (or reserved for special occasions). There are also those all important bath houses with flush toilets and changing areas - no showers though (except for the outdoor rinse varieties).
Want more than the beach? How about history and science? Head into the Sand and Sea nature center (open 8am - 5pm and free to campers or with paid admission to the park). There one can see displays of the local flora and fauna (named), talk with the rangers asking any question one might have, and view short videos on the park itself (and all it has to offer) and learn about the history of Henry Flagler's rail line to Key West. Take the time and ask to see the video on the 1935 hurricane that devastated the Keys. It's eye-opening - much of it told by survivors - history captured instead of lost to the books of facts.
Finished with that? How about walking the trails? At the end of Sandspur is the Silver Palm Trail - a short (maybe 1/2 mile or less) trail through some native plants (including the largest remaining natural stand of Florida's Silver Palm Trees) and heading out to the beach before you return back to the start. There's an interpretive guide at the beginning that is helpful to pick up and read as you walk. Also, look for the tree snails as you walk by! Can't say I'd ever seen those before!
A second trail - a "shouldn't miss" one at that - is the short hike up to the top of the old train bridge. This is easily accessed from the nature center itself - and has a fabulous view of the entire Key from the top - not to mention the gorgeous water surrounding it. If you're old enough (as I was), you can remember driving on that bridge on earlier trips to the Keys... and marvel at the width of the road (or lack thereof) compared to today's newer versions...
On your way back, head past the restrooms (towards Loggerhead Beach) and stop by the Butterfly Garden to see who's "in." There's a nice chart showing you the names of who you've spied.
Up for more adventure? There's kayaks that can be rented, and there's acres of snorkeling areas in the water. There are also snorkeling trips out to Looe Reef (weather permitting). If you dive, check with a local dive shop about diving Looe Reef. Sadly, weather was not permitting the days we were there, so we couldn't experience those (meaning, of course, that we will HAVE to go back... there is a silver lining to every cloud). Don't have equipment? Gear can be rented in the gift shop area.
Otherwise, there's a marina, small snack shop, gift shop, and, of course, full service camping for those (like us) that like to stay with nature instead of heading to the more expensive condos and motels... There are also 3 duplex cabins that can be rented for those that prefer those (reserve WELL in advance - as early as 11 months prior to your dates).
For camping... there are pluses and minuses. For pluses, obviously the lack of cost has to rank high. Nights here will cost you just over $30/night plus tax - try to get that elsewhere!
Another plus... you're in the middle of all the activity and close enough to drive to Key West or Marathon without much difficulty. We also took an evening to drive to nearby No-Name Key to see the rare Key Deer (a couple islands south - follow signs). We saw several of the critters, both in the "wildlife viewing" sections and also in people's yards in the residential sections (Key Deer are still deer after all!). On our way back we stopped at Pine Key for groceries and Chinese... the closest spots for both.
If you camp here, you also have access to the night ranger programs (NOT available to day trippers). We were able to see closeups of the moon, Saturn, and a nebula as well as get a detailed talk about the stars one of the nights we were there. Very enjoyable.
Another plus for us is we "scored" an oceanfront spot in Sandspur Camping area - meaning it was quiet (less traffic noise), relaxing, and oh, what a view! For tenting (or vans, pop-ups), this is the most ideal section of the park to stay in. Only 9 of the spots are waterfront though (sites 64 - 72). Be aware - sites 49 - 56, 62, 63 look waterfront, but have vegetation. Reserve America is good with descriptions, just make sure you read the details.
As a general note for campers... Few of the sites here are waterfront - just those I mentioned and sites 12 - 25 (though these are on the gulf side and most have a terrific view of the Overseas Highway as well - along with the associated noise). Other sites are in the center of the island. A short additional note for those with small vehicles or tents that don't mind going without electric or showers... The "Bayside Camping Area" has 8 sites just for you (#73 - 80) - remote, but with traffic noise.
So, the minuses? The bathhouse we had had composting toilets... and the ladies side stunk! The showers also had nowhere to sit in the dressing section. While our campsite was great and I would stay there again, the bathhouse was certainly NOT one of our favorites - especially after having had such nice ones at other Florida State Parks. Note, this only applies to the bathhouse at Sandspur Camping area - we didn't get to see the bathhouses at the other sections. Perhaps those are better. For me, I often used the occasion to walk down the beach to the bath house at the beach (proper) section since they had flush toilets. However, that's not always practical - and that section closes at sunset. Still, I got a few nice (extra) walks in. I don't think I ever tire of walking on the beach.
I suppose another minus could be the traffic noise, but having stayed at Boyd's campground in Key West a mere 2 years ago and remember the traffic noise there - from vehicles and planes heading to the airport - give me Bahia Honda any day!
Overall, we really, really, really enjoyed this park and would go back there again easily. Besides, we have to go back - we didn't get to see Looe Reef yet! On a return trip we'd snorkel off the beaches, dive the reef itself, kayak, enjoy ranger programs, the beach, the nature center, the hikes, and a quick side trip to see the Key Deer again (might repeat the Chinese again too as that's awfully convenient after staying till dark to see the deer).
For camping or cabin reservations - all have to go through Reserve America at www.reserveamerica.com. For day trippers - just show up and pay the entrance fee.
Once again, I've opted to place this park under "Experiences" instead of "Campgrounds" as there's so much more to this park that it can easily appeal to daytrippers as well as campers. Myakka River State Park is one of the oldest and largest of Florida's state parks - and offers the glimpse into "Old Florida" - the Florida the settlers and Indian tribes knew.
Like to hike? Choose from long trails or short - across prairie or along the river. There's a popular nature trail with a twist... after walking through oak and palm forests you reach a short canopy walk in the treetops. Yes, I said in the treetops. You climb 25 feet up - and walk 85 feet on a suspension bridge among the tree leaves and bromeliads themselves - with some signs explaining flora and fauna along the way. Kids of all ages (myself included) love it. At the other end of the suspension bridge is a tower - 74 feet in height - that allows a great view of the park itself.
Another hike stays just inland of the river. From here, there are places you can see alligators sunning themselves on the riverbanks... one should be careful about their own presence close to the riverbanks and not let kids run on ahead on this trail once you are close to the river. However, when careful, it can lead to some great sightings of one of nature's most ferocious looking creatures - fortunately, they were on the other side of the riverbank when we were there. By the way, the gators are more likely to be scared off by your presence than hunting.
Like tropical birds and want to know more about what you are seeing? In the mornings the park often has a bird expert stationed at the end of the "birdwalk" (a boardwalk extending over a little bit of Myakka Lake). The gentleman there when we were had a wealth of knowledge to glean from - and a high powered binocular/telescope trained on some of the features of the day located on the other side of the lake. He not only could tell you about the 100 species of birds common to the area, but also about other similar varieties - and about park history/happenings in general.
Prefer to ride rather than walk? Take an airboat ride on the lake to learn more about the park and get some great pictures. Or, in the winter months, they offer a land based tram ride - also narrated - giving park and critter info. Both of these are an extra charge - and can be picked up at the concession stand/gift shop/snack bar located next to the lake.
Want more privacy? Bring (or rent) a kayak or canoe and head out on the meandering river or lake. Ride a bike down the 7 mile long meandering road. Fishing is popular if you want to catch your own dinner (and have the proper license).
For those wanting to taste 'gator, the snack shop offers Gator Stew, a tomato based vegetable stew with ground gator chunks. We all enjoyed it... Or perhaps you'd rather choose Gator Jerky? As a note, there are more traditional offerings for those not interested in trying the local reptiles.
Want more info on the park? Stop at the visitor center shortly after entering. There they have animal exhibits (some interactive), bird counts, and general info. They also have 5 short movies to choose from varying from "what can I do here" to "what was it like for the early pioneers exploring this area." We watched all 5 - and really enjoyed the pioneer one for the historical accounts.
Are you like us and enjoy camping? There are two different campgrounds within the park having a total of 76 sites - most, if not all, having water and electric. There are flush toilet bathhouses with hot showers - but no paper towels or hand dryers at ours, so plan accordingly. Reservations are highly recommended. As with all Florida State Parks, go to reserveamerica.com to get reservations as early as 11 months prior to your dates.
We stayed at Big Flats (Old Prairie is the other) and again, there are pluses and minuses. The biggest plus is simply being in the park itself and being able to soak up the peace and quiet feeling your internal batteries getting recharged. We walked to the Canopy Trail (a rather long walk, but enjoyable). Having water and electric was nice - and our particular site was nice for tents (site #38). The campground is well shaded with the old oak trees. Critters such as squirrels and coons abound. The cost is certainly reasonable (roughly $22 + tax).
Switching to minuses, most of the sites offer little or no privacy between sites. While this isn't a huge issue for RVs, most tenters (such as us) prefer at least a little vegetation between us and our neighbors. The bathhouse also was older and less reliable than other parks had to offer. Perhaps the one in Old Prairie was more up to date?
Ah, but we don't stay in campgrounds or go to parks based on their bathhouses... We go to see new things - hmm, more technically put we go to see old things, natural things, and to personally recharge our batteries while learning just a tad bit more about this planet we live on. For that, Myakka River State Park fits the bill just fine.
Located on a strip of five islands (keys) just south of the city of St Petersburg, FL, Ft. Desoto occupies more than 1,100 acres of prime development land spared from condos, restaurants, and hotels. Pinellas County wisely saved this area - and allows FREE use and access to it to anyone. There's no admission charge to anything - just two road tolls totaling 85 cents to get here (and that money does NOT go to the park). If you like, there is an excellent campground here for just $28/night - see my other Ft. Desoto journal entry specifically related to that if you're interested as I've written this one solely to relate "daytripper" activities.
To reach Ft. Desoto, head on I-275 to the Pinellas Bayway - then follow signs. Once here you might wonder where to begin? Most folks want to start at the beach... so you have your choice. For swimming, there are two named beaches. The most popular beach is North Beach - ranked #1 in North America by "Dr Beach" in 2005 and not without reason. You're looking out upon open Gulf of Mexico waters here - plenty of white sand beach (length and width) - and even an internal lagoon section with no waves for younger kids. There are picnic tables and pavilions here too - and oodles of parking. I'm sure in the hot summer months this place is probably packed, but in February - even on a Sunday - there weren't many folks about. There were a handful playing beach football and a smaller handful walking - leaving plenty of "get-away" for those of us who desire it. North Beach offers a small concession stand (open in season) and a gift shop.
At the other end there's East Beach where you can swim or walk the tip of land as it heads into Tampa Bay. You have a great view of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the distance, and occasionally get to watch ships and barges on their way over to Tampa. This is often a less-crowded beach and offers picnic tables, a large picnic pavilion, and great beach walking in addition to swimming.
Did you being your dog with you? Then head to the dog beach (west of East Beach) and let them enjoy the water too - or to the dog park appropriately named "Paw Playground" (fenced in grassy areas where dogs can roam and play).
If you really want the exercise, you can almost walk the entire section of beaches - crossing from one to another only by invisible line (and non-swimming areas) - but you're talking miles to do this. Consider it a longer hike with a really nice view! If you go as the tide is going out you can find a great selection of shells - and even some intact sand dollars. Along the way there are two piers to walk out on or enjoy fishing from. One juts 1,000 ft into the Gulf, the other 800' into the Bay. You also pass by the edge of the historic fort area. All beaches provide changing rooms, flush toilets, and plenty of parking. There are outdoor showers for rinsing.
If you can pull yourself away from the beaches for a stretch of time, there is Fort Desoto itself to explore - an outpost built and active from 1898 - 1910 to guard the entrance to Tampa Bay. The ammo storage area and big guns are still there - two of the big guns are the only two of their kind found in the Western Hemisphere. Most of the other buildings at the post are gone now - but live again on-site in (real) pictures on signs showing where they were and telling what they were used for. Outlines are shown in block on the ground. The Quartermaster Storehouse building has been rebuilt to standard and is open as a museum. A walking path guides you through the area.
There are other trails as well - even one that is "barrier-free" allowing access for all (handicap accessible), and a bird watching area (though the birds aren't confined to that area!). In the winter the park offers various nature walks on some of these trails on Saturdays and Sundays at 10am. Check at Park Headquarters to see the schedule and sign up.
Did you bring a canoe? There's a 2 1/4 mile canoe trail if so... Bring a larger boat? There's a boat ramp for access to the water. We didn't take it, but there's a ferry to Egmont Key State Park for those wanting to head there (extra fee). Another time we'll head out there to see what that's like. I'm told it's quite popular - and don't doubt it.
This park is most likely much more crowded in the warmer months when the water temperature is more compatible with swimming and folks are "heated up" enough to have "beach" on their minds. In the winter we found very few people here - just some retirees, other tourists like ourselves, and on the weekend, a handful of locals simply enjoying the serenity. Don't expect boardwalks packed with restaurants, T-shirt shops and the like here. This is not a resort beach. For that, head north to St Pete or Clearwater Beaches. Here you find pristine nature - kept up very nicely by the County Park and volunteers. It was literally perfect for the recharging of our batteries that we came to Florida for. What a gem. May it always stay that way. Thank you Pinellas County!
We stumbled upon Rainbow Springs State Park more or less by accident. All we had been looking for was a place to camp from which we could easily make our trip to snorkel with the manatees... we got that - and a whole lot more. (By the way, it's a 50 minute drive from the campground to Air Tank Diver's shop in case you're planning a trip yourself. See my separate journal entry for that highly recommended experience.)
It was our last day in Florida... and we weren't sure what to do. Another dive? We thought about it - almost did it too (in the Rainbow River) - but opted instead for a quiet and relaxing day. We're here at the park, so... why not explore the park? Admission was free if you're camping (and a whopping $1/person if you're not), so it was in line with our goal of a vacation without a lot of expense. It turned out to be a superb decision.
To begin with a little history and facts... Rainbow Springs used to be a small private Florida attraction dating back to the 1930s. In general, Florida has more natural springs than any other state (a new trivia fact for us), and some of these springs were developed to capture the early tourist dollar. Rainbow Springs is one of the largest springs the state has - with literally crystal-clear water (measured horizontal sight distance of 244 ft!), so it was an ideal choice. Developers added a swimming area, small waterfalls, trails, amusement attractions, and literally thousands of flowers - especially azaleas (which are at their peak in Feb and March - right as we were there). However, a certain famous mouse opened a BIG amusement park not far from here, so doom came to the springs in the 1970s and it closed.
Enter the Florida Park system in the 1990s... remove the rides and caged animals, refurbish the rest (some of this is still ongoing), and reopen to tourists allowing access to the water and trails. What do you get? A mostly non-crowded beautiful "escape" to "old" paradise - EXACTLY what we were looking for.
Note to those reading... we were there on a Friday in the middle of Feb. Crowds are probably larger on weekends - and perhaps in the summer. However, the day we were there, I'm guessing there were less than 50 people total in the park - and that might include the workers. Some retired folks were walking the trails and admiring the views. A couple younger folks brought their kids to swim. A handful of each rented canoes in the afternoon. Other than us... that was it. We were truly loving our escape.
So, what do you DO? Well, there's the swimming hole... a section near the headwaters of the spring that's roped off for swimming. The water is roughly 72 degrees year round and 5 - 15 feet deep (though the clearness of it makes it LOOK 2 - 3 feet deep - a remarkable sight even for non-swimmers). Some hardy folks were swimming. We enjoyed the underwater view to the bottom from above with no snorkeling necessary.
We had canoeing in mind, so set off for that. There was no line at all in the morning. Signs are posted telling folks it gets more crowded after lunch. We rented two canoes ($55 total for two hours) - divided up - and set off down the river. Kayaks are also an option to rent.
At first we paddled, then we allowed ourselves to drift downstream. Along the way, take the time to see nature as she really is. It's super easy in the clear water to see fish, turtles, and the variations in the bottom. Among the cypress trees on the riverbanks we quizzed ourselves on the tropical birds we saw and looked for more turtles sunning themselves. We looked for gators, but didn't see any. Ditto that for snakes. We did find otters - 3 of them - they swam along the bank parallel with us, then found their shoreline "spot" to hop out of the water and play - perhaps foraging too. In all of our travels, this was our first time seeing wild otters really up close and for a long time period. Eventually we turned around and paddled back to explore some more of the park. This is an activity that can be suitable for all ages - as long as young children have the attention span for it.
Lunch was next... they have a small concession stand there - carrying the basics for really reasonable prices - and again - no line. Picnic areas abound if you bring your own food. There's a small visitor center and a gift shop as well (a stuffed otter came home with us).
Then we're hikers... so off to the trails. Close to the entrance you pass the man-made waterfalls and small pools, all set in really pretty settings. You also go by the headwaters to the spring. Stop and look carefully and you can see where the water is percolating up through the sand - and it's all natural - coming from a large underground aquifer.
Continuing on, back where they used to have amusement attractions, the state is now setting up a native plant garden. Plants that are there are all named to take the guesswork out of wondering what is what. Beyond this is a trail through the oak hammocks and past some old phosphate pits that used to be the source of the town's boom days. More history on that is available in town. All in all, it's a quiet walk in the woods - 2 1/2 miles round trip from the visitor center - closer than that if you merely want to go to the native plant garden.
Dogs (on leashes) are allowed here. Swimming is allowed in the enclosed area of the headwaters - and beyond a certain point in the river (depicted by a sign). Some folks bring snorkels and opt to snorkel part of the canoe trip. If you want to do this - you NEED a dive flag - rentals available with the canoe/kayak.
We also camped here - but a BIG note - the campground is NOT with the actual park even though both are part of the same entity. By car, they're 6 miles apart. Along the river it's 1 1/2 miles. Large areas of the campground were also under construction while we were there, so look on the website, www.floridastateparks.org/rainbowsprings for updates.
What I can tell you... spots #1 - 35 (the only ones open when we were there) are obviously meant for RV's - though they let anyone camp there including us tenters. All of these spots have water and electric - some have sewer, too. What they don't have is shade or privacy - absolutely none - so, if you're tenting... either check out the areas that were under construction for better options or pick an edge spot to have some semblance of a tenter's campground.
As for other things at the campground? There were nice hot showers, nice laundry facilities, a rec room with a reading area, game area, TV, and computer, and a swimming pool. There was also a very small store, but shopping for groceries in nearby Dunnellon is easy. When construction is done, you're also able to rent canoes/kayaks, etc, right from the campground or bring your own. A couple trails will be available as well.
We saw an armadillo at night along the woods - and our neighbors unwittingly left their cooler out overnight - feeding the local raccoons. Keep food secure. Ground grills are provided, so bring firewood - or buy it there. Cost was a mere $20/night. Reservations are definitely recommended and like all Florida State Parks, are available through reserveamerica.com
All in all, we highly enjoyed our last couple days in this area - relaxing - and enjoying our time with nature. If you're looking for the simple enjoyment of life - perhaps this spot is also for you.
East Berlin, Pennsylvania