Friday, May 14, 2010

Florida State Parks - home for the winter

It's been about five months since I did an update about where we've been staying. And the quick summary is that we spent the winter in Florida, mostly in the state parks, averaging a little over a week in each.

Most park systems have rules that limit a camper's stay at any one park to a couple of weeks, either consecutive (as with Florida State Parks) or cumulative within a calendar year (as with National Parks). Some retiree "snowbirds" find ways around the limits, such as volunteering in exchange for an all-season slot, or making reservations under multiple names. When the parks aren't booked full, park managers will sometimes approve an extended stay.

We prefer to stay on a site for at least a continuous week. This allows us to relax, unpack, and put things out on shelves. When we only stay a day or two, it can be a toss-up whether to leave a bicycle on the couch or finagle it through the door and down the steps, then back up and in after not even riding it.

But because we didn't make detailed plans months ahead this year, there were some days (especially weekends and holidays) that were booked tight in the more popular coastal parks. This meant some hopping back and forth between inland and beach parks, or among sites within a single park, sometimes staying only a day or two. Our itinerary also included some time at the Disney resort campground (look for a later post on this), so we mixed in shorter stays at state parks to recuperate from the intensity (and "expensity") of mouse-centered vacationing.

I wrote about Fort Clinch State Park (SP)  and Faver-Dykes SP in December. We ended up spending several weeks in Faver-Dykes SP, which offers fishing, paddling, and nature trails through piney woods. It's remote enough to be quiet, but is only a short car trip to Flagler Beach.

Also on the east coast, Tomoka SP was a bike ride or a short car trip from Ormond Beach. It was too chilly when we were there, but there was a good waterway for kayaking/canoeing in other weather.

The campground at Gamble Rogers State Recreation Area is right on beach, and we could walk a block along the beach to High Tides at Snack Jack - a cute little restaurant/bar that makes the most of its quaint history and its great view.

Florida has more than a few freshwater springs, and the warm spring runs play host to manatees in the winter. In prior years we've stayed at Manatee Springs SP, which has a great boardwalk along the bank of the spring run, through the cypress woods. It was out of our path this year, but we will be back there someday.

This year we did most of our manatee (and gator) watching at Blue Spring SP, which is similar to Manatee Springs, but near the east coast. We happened to be there for the Manatee festival, and the boys spent hours watching (and chatting up) a blacksmith working on the grounds of a historical house which is maintained as a museum in the park. The birds there were great, too, especially the red-shouldered hawks (mating season?), an osprey, and a reliable bald eagle. A couple of nights, I walked alone down to the spring run to listen to the scores of manatees gently splishing and breathing in the dark. Some experiences are truly unique.

At Wekiwa Springs SP we went swimming in a rock-lined pool at the headspring. It was chilly, but really fun to feel the current push us around, and to watch the fish do their fishy things in the clear water. Hillsborough River SP has nice wooded trails along a blackwater river.

After some time at Disney and visiting with friends, we headed to the Gulf Coast. A few years ago we adopted Henderson Beach SP as our Florida home. We started visiting Destin when my brother lived in Navarre, and we've come back almost every year to stay at this campground. There's a boardwalk trail through a pristine dune landscape, fragrant with rosemary, to the best beach we know. The boasts of "white sugar sand" and "emerald green waters" are not exaggerations.

Just inland a bit is Rocky Bayou SP which has several short walking trails, water for paddling, and is also a base for day trips to Henderson Beach when that campground is full.

The last Florida park we stayed in this year was Grayton Beach SP with a beach almost as nice as in Destin. We usually ride our bikes over to Seaside, which is sort of the polar opposite of the campground life - a planned and polished gingerbread resort town, worth seeing once or twice.

Well, this was a long post, and glossed over so many great experiences. I'll come back soon and write about our extended and friend-filled experience at Walt Disney World. Otherwise I think I've caught us up to ... March?

Here are some photos ... winter solstice in Ormond Beach and manatees at Blue Spring. We don't take many photos, so these are just iPhone quickies -- better than nothing, eh?