It’s hard to believe 2016 is drawing to a close. And it was quite a year when it comes to outdoor adventures, both close and far. With a three-week road trip all the way to Los Angeles, lots of camping with family and friends, my first solo trip and endless microadventures, it is next to impossible to narrow down ten best. But I’ll still try.
“It’s about the journey not the destination” might be a cliche but that’s the principle we apply when it comes to planning our trips. We usually go for the slowest mode of transportation possible to get up close and personal with the lands through which we travel. This year, our road trip took us all the way to Los Angeles to see my new niece, and while walking or biking to California would have been fun, I wanted to see the kid before she started school so driving it was.
In my previous post, I wrote about the first part of our Lake Superior Circle Tour, which included a train ride through Agawa Canyon and exploring Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. After we left the Bay Furnace campground near Pictured Rocks, we made a few stops at various waterfalls and arrived at Porcupine Mountains shortly after sunset. The Lake was unusually quiet and perfectly smooth, and the transition between water and sky was seamless, almost invisible.
Lake Superior doesn’t need introduction or promotion. Part of the Great Lakes, it is the world’s largest freshwater lake in area and third largest by volume. The Ojibway called it the Gitche Gumee, which means ‘great sea.’ And that’s exactly what it is – a great, beautiful sea.
So finally the best part of our trip – Everglades.
Our last stop before entering Everglades was Robert Is Here Fruit Market, a feast of colours and tastes. We packed our car with fresh produce, exotic dragon and star fruit, and locally grown mangoes and avocados and set out on the last leg of our journey.
By the time we reached Flamingo Campground, it was already dark. The registration booth was empty so it took us a while to figure out how to get to the walk-in area where we had a site reserved. When I was booking a site, I was seduced by the walk-in’s proximity to the ocean. Drive-in and trailer campsites are not too far away but you can’t really see the water from there. I knew that the walk-in area was a big open field with an occasional palm tree. What I couldn’t know from the pictures was the fact that the area was pretty swampy with about a quarter of the sites covered ankle deep in water, something we discovered pretty quickly as we tried to pick a site by the flashlight. Another thing we weren’t prepared for were the mosquitoes. I did read other people’s accounts of practically ‘being eaten alive’ but I thought: how bad can it be, we’ve been camping a lot, we are not afraid of some mosquitoes. Well, I was wrong because there are mosquitoes and then there are mosquitoes at Everglades or rather, as we later found out, in the Flamingo area. But I’ll get to the bugs later, now back to our campsite.
We quickly realized that we would not be able to choose a proper site in the dark. Plus carrying all the gear from the car would take a while and all we wanted at that point was to get inside our tent. So we ended up setting camp right by the side of the road next to our car. I kept repeating, more to myself than others, that things would be better the next day. Yet, even in the morning I had my doubts. I must confess that for the first time in our camping history, I was contemplating leaving and looking for alternative arrangements. I am glad I decided to stay because we all ended up loving the park, bugs and all.
The next morning after an unsuccessful attempt to move to the drive-in area, which looked more shaded and cozy, we finally picked a walk-in site and moved all our gear there. I will not go into details but apparently the park uses a very ‘sophisticated’ manual site registration system and the staff don’t really know how many sites will be available until ‘the lady’ comes around midday to check all the sites and put up ‘reserved’ notes. After they told us to come back later for the third time, we gave up. It all worked out in the end. Our neighbours moved out that same night and we managed to occupy a site with a tree, a luxury at the walk-in campground. The tree provided shade, particularly useful in the morning if you want to sleep a little longer, but it also gave an illusion of privacy and was excellent for climbing, too. And that proximity to the ocean that made me book this site in the first place? It gave us a front-row view of incredible sunsets and sunrises.
For more pictures of sunsets and sunrises, check out my Random|Pix blog.
Everglades National Park is the largest tropical wilderness in the United States, the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi River and is visited on average by one million people each year. Most of those people come during the day and they usually stick to the Anhinga Trail and boat cruises. Anhinga Trail is a prime location for watching famous crocodiles and alligators as well as numerous species of birds. From the safety of a boardwalk, you can see crocs and gators everywhere, sunning, swimming, sleeping or maybe just pretending to be sleeping while constantly watching you from under their half-closed lids. It was exciting to see these prehistoric looking creatures but because of the sheer number of these reptiles and most importantly people the whole experience felt almost staged. Coming across an alligator during our canoe trip or riding past a gator family on our bikes felt more authentic, probably because there was no boardwalk to separate us from the animals. The birds were also a lot of fun to watch as were the manatees down by the Flamingo marina. Since the marina was only a ten minute bike ride from the campground, petting manatees was a daily must for our kids.
For more pictures of alligators, manatees and birds, visit my Random|Pix blog.
Another attraction at the Flamingo marina is a narrated boat cruise either into the backcountry or around the Florida Bay. We decided to skip it and get a full-day canoe rental instead (for the price of one boat ride ticket). For part of our expedition, we actually followed the boat and could hear the guide talk about the differences between crocodiles and alligators and different kinds of mangroves but then the boat sped away and we were left to explore on our own. Other than an occasional gator sunning on the bank and mangroves lining the shores, canoeing into the Everglades backcountry didn’t look or feel any different than canoeing in Canada.
When we tell people that we camped at Everglades, the first thing they ask us about is alligators and sometimes pythons. Somehow everyone has this idea that the park is crawling with these reptiles. Well, here is good news: while alligators are abundant around marshes and lakes, they don’t come to the campsites. There are lots of birds in the campground and every morning we would wake up to a flock of ibises grazing nearby or a pack of vultures trying to get to our food. As for pythons, they are very hard to find even if you go looking for them (as we learned during a ranger-led talk) so there is no danger of them falling on you from a tree. Our son did have a lizard fall on him on one of our bike rides, but no pythons were in sight.
I still maintain that when it comes to ‘wildlife’ in Everglades, mosquitoes were the most menacing. I would like to say that it got better on day two but there were still as many of them. Plus they were joined by the so-called no-see-ums, tiny insects that you can’t see, as the name implies, but can definitely feel as soon as they bite. We were prepared though. By the time the sun set, we had finished our dinner, washed the dishes, packed all our food, put on pants and long-sleeve shirts, ready to retreat into the tent should it become unbearable. We even joked that we felt as if we were in a zombie/vampire movie waiting for the creature of the night to appear as soon as the last ray of sun fades away. Forced inside our tent so early in the evening, we played card games and Settlers of Catan listening to the buzzing outside. And early bedtime made us all into early risers, feeling rested and energized for the day ahead. We survived as do numerous people that go camping at Everglades every year (more than survived, actually, we really enjoyed it and are now considering doing some backcountry camping there), even though my husband did look like he had a severe case of measles by the time we were leaving.
I am happy to report, too, that in a few days the temperatures cooled down a bit in the evening and it even rained on New Year’s Eve reducing bug levels to bearable. We could spend our evenings outside and we were able to ring in the New Year by the campfire. Since we forgot to bring sparklers, our attempt to write 2015 with sticks and marshmallows failed miserably. It was a fun celebration nonetheless. We cooked an eclectic fusion of Japanese miso soup, Mexican guacamole and Italian gnocchi. Then, at twelve (or at least twelve according to our clock because not everyone seemed to agree on the time), we joined a growing chorus of Happy New Year across the campground.
Unfortunately, vacations always come to an end. On our way out, we made another stop at Robert Is Here market for the most delicious fruit shakes (that was our breakfast) and to stock up on more fruit. The fruit salad that I made on my lap in the moving car at the end of day one and the ugli fruit that we enjoyed somewhere around Pittsburgh felt like an extension of the holidays.
After a long drive from Tampa and a stop for groceries, we finally crossed the bridge to the Keys just as the sun was about to set down. We stopped for dinner at the aptly named Sundowners restaurant in Key Largo. More yummy seafood plus beautiful views.
Camping at Sugarloaf Key
Our destination was a KOA campground down at the Sugarloaf Key. My original plan was to book a site at Bahia Honda or any other state park in Florida Keys. Unfortunately, since campsite reservations for Florida parks open eleven months in advance, there were no campsites left by the time we started planning our trip. After some research, I found a KOA campground not far from Key West. During our road trips, we often book cabins at various KOAs for one- or two-night stops. It is less expensive than a hotel room and doesn’t interfere with the whole camping vibe of the trips. We weren’t sure about tenting, though, since the tent sites we’d seen at different KOAs varied significantly – from decent-size wooded lots to small pebble-covered patches tucked in between RVs. The site we got at this KOA exceeded our expectations by a lot: it was further away from the RVs, and had lots of shade and space (enough space to even play soccer). We then discovered that there were other tent areas, with the green one (where we stayed) and the yellow one being the best. All the others were across from the RV area, which looked more like a parking lot than a campground and made me claustrophobic every time I had to walk through it.
The campground as a whole was far from the wilderness camping experience we are used to and reminded more of a resort with its own bar, café, tiki huts and inflated bouncing and climbing structures in the beach area. It had some nice features, though, like kayak, canoe and boat rentals, and was a good base for exploring the Keys and visiting Key West (plus we had lots of wilderness waiting for us over at Everglades). We stayed there for three days going on bike rides, kayaking, soaking up the sun and watching pelicans and iguanas. Pelicans were abundant, especially around the fish cleaning station waiting for occasional fish remains or lining up on the fishing bridge seemingly oblivious of the people right next to them. Dozens of iguanas were sunning in the mangroves, their striped tails hanging among the branches. It was a fun game to see who could find the most of those masters of disguise. Sometimes, they would scatter around the campsite or play hide-and-seek around the car. (For more pictures of pelicans and iguanas, go to my Random|Pix blog.)
The best part of the trip, of course, was getting to spend time with my family, my brother and his wife. In the evening, we would have long conversations around the fire or listen to our friendly neighbour Roger play his guitar.
We dedicated one day to exploring Key West since it was only 20 miles away from the campground. Instead of driving there, we decided to take public transit. There is a bus running all the way through the Lower Keys and it only costs $4 for adults and $2 for kids. Biking would be another green transportation option since there is a bike lane along most of Highway 1 that runs from Key Largo to Key West. The bus does take some time, though, since it makes frequent stops and circles a bit around Stock island and Key West but then you don’t have to worry about finding parking, not an easy task in a town as busy as Key West.
Key West is a pretty, lively town at the very south of Florida Keys so almost everything has ‘Sounthernmost’ in its name, like “Southermost Hotel’ or ‘Southernmost Beach.’ The southernmost point in continental USA actually features a huge buoy with the ’90 miles to Cuba’ marker, a very popular destination with a huge lineup of people wishing to take a picture in front of it. I guess this fascination can be explained by the fact that for now Americans can’t get any closer to Cuba. ’90 miles to Cuba’ is another popular sign you’ll see around the city.
Key West, just like the rest of the Keys, has a bit of a Caribbean vibe. Beautiful houses, tropical plants, roosters wandering in the streets, lots of restaurants and cafes, delicious seafood (again), yummy ice-cream and famous Key Lime pie, music and dancing everywhere. And, of course, the sunset celebration at Mallory Square with flaming skies and street performers.
We had great time exploring the city and taking silly pictures, like looking over the fence of Hemingway’s House or pretending to be taking a selfie with a statue at the Museum of Art and History.
For more pictures of Key West, check out my Random|Pix blog.
Before long, it was time to leave Florida Keys. As always, it felt that there was so much we hadn’t done. We had plans to stop at Bahia Honda Park on the way back since it has the best beach in all of the Keys. Unfortunately, the day use area was packed so we had to readjust our plans. We ended up at Sombrero Beach, a lovely public park in Marathon. It felt surreal to be swimming in the ocean at the end of December and the water was the warmest we’d experienced in 2014 (yes, much warmer than the lakes in Canada were this past summer). After a few hours on the beach and a grocery shopping trip, we headed for Everglades, with a beautiful Florida sunset in our rear-view mirror.
Off to Everglades…
We like long road trips. Every summer we hit the road to explore parks around Canada and the United States. This summer, though, we weren’t able to take time off so we decided to make up for it with a winter camping trip to Florida.
On the road
The drive from Toronto down to Florida usually takes about two days (depending how far south you want to go) but it’s a fun trip in the winter. As the temperatures outside go up, the amount of clothing you have to wear goes down. You shed coats, sweaters and boots like trees shedding leaves in the fall and after two days emerge on the other side of the weather spectrum: hot, humid and sunny.
Our trip was pleasantly uneventful. Even border crossing was surprisingly quick. We really enjoyed driving through both Virginias: beautiful mountain vistas with clouds grazing the tops. I was trying to imagine those peaks dressed up in summer greens and already planning a trip there once it gets warmer.
We decided to break up our drive a bit and make a stop at Savannah. Ever since reading and watching “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” I wanted to visit the city– it seemed so mysterious and charming. It didn’t disappoint and delivered every ounce of promised charm and mystery. Unfortunately, it also delivered copious amounts of rain. Light drizzle on the first day added to the charm and we had fun taking pictures with an umbrella. However, the drizzle turned into a downpour on day two, plus our younger son decided it was a good time to come down with a fever so we had to cut our explorations short. We did manage to see some of the old city and enjoy a delicious dinner at the Shrimp Factory down on River Street.
For more pictures of Savannah, check out my Random|Pix blog.
Another highlight of the trip was our cabin at the KOA campground. We arrived late at night and at a first glance it seemed no different from any other KOA we’d stayed at before. Then we noticed big white spots all over the lake by our cabin. In the morning, it turned out they were swans. The birds were everywhere – gliding, flying, cleaning their feathers and quite often fighting. There were also ducks, cormorants, Canada geese and wood storks. Quite a site to wake up to in the morning.
I posted more pictures of swans on my Random|Pix blog.
When we left Savannah, we headed south to Tampa, Florida, to visit my brother. Since our son was still sick and needed time to rest, we didn’t see much of the city. All we could squeeze in was a short walk along the waterfront and more delicious seafood. Oh, and an epic game of Settlers of Catan. The combination of rest, sun and family fun did the trick and our son was back to normal the next day. So we set out for the Keys.
Check back for more…