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 > TR: Christmas Trip to Florida and the Keys

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NRALIFR

Truck Camping Out West

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Posted: 01/10/15 08:12am Link  |  Quote  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

The boss and I made a spur-of-the-moment trip to the Florida Keys for Christmas this year. It turned out to be a very enjoyable trip for us, as things just seemed to fall into place for us. All of our Christmas related activities with family took place before Christmas day, and we were left on our own this year. We had been talking about making a trip to the Keys, but hadn't made any reservations because there were still a few work related things that were up in the air.

On the morning of Dec. 24th, we finally knew there was nothing keeping us in town from Christmas through New Years Day. We quickly packed up the camper on the 24th, and left Christmas morning for Florida. The weather was cold, but clear in AR on Christmas. Gray and wet was on it's way though, so we were glad to be heading south. We crossed over the Mississippi River near Lake Village, AR on a bridge that was new to us. We haven't been this way in a few years, and were glad to see they had replaced the old bridge. I think it opened in 2010.

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Spent the first night out at Paul B. Johnson State Park near Hattiesburg, MS. I like their Christmas spirit!

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The next day we headed for the east coast of FL. We drove until it was dark that day and spent a night in a Walmart parking lot somewhere in northern FL along the way. Even though I used to live here, I always forget about the way they close their park gates at sundown. Sundown comes too early for me this time of year. I seem to recall being "surprised" by this once before. I doubt I'll remember next time either. We just don't come this way often enough for it to stick with me, but that's why there are Walmart parking lots, right?

So far, we haven't needed reservations (though I guess they would have come in handy that first night), but knew we would absolutely need them in the Keys. The boss was watching the ReserveAmerica site for cancellations in any of the State Parks in the Keys on the way down, and managed to snag a site in Long Key SP for Sunday night, which was perfect for us. She kept watching over the next few days and eventually got another site in the same park for Monday night too. Bingo! That's all we would be able to stay in the Keys anyway.

We made a stop at Ft. Pierce, visited the Manatee Center, had lunch, and enjoyed the views outside.

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About the same time the boss was saying how she hoped we would see a manatee in the waters around the center, I spied one under a nearby bridge. It soon swam by us below.

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We drove much of the way south on the Florida Turnpike, but got off for a short time around Jupiter to get a better price on fuel (and avoid the crazy lines at the service plazas), and tried to drive a while on non-toll roads. Very quickly gave that up and got back on the toll road to Homestead. The surface streets were making the cat nervous, and let me tell you, you don't want this cat cheesed off at you!

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We stayed the next night in Everglades NP, and spent some time exploring the sights. The National Park, even as big as it is, only encompasses about two fifths of the everglades. I used to live in the panhandle of FL, but I never made it this far south so this was all new to me. For some reason, I kept recalling the old "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" show, and the episodes they filmed in the Everglades. I loved watching those, and miss ol' Marlon Perkins. [emoticon]

This is the Mahogany Hammock Trail, where the largest mahogany tree in the US can be found.

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The largest mahogany tree.

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With nobody on the trail but us, the cat was content to walk on her own,

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Lots of other interesting things to see as well, like this Strangler Fig that is trying to envelope its host tree.

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The Everglades is dotted with these hardwood "hammocks" that are their own little ecosystems, and very interesting to explore.

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The spider webs were covered with morning dew, making them stand out. This may look like a grass prairie, but it's actually a shallow, slow-moving river that at this point is about eight miles wide.

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Just like a horse when it gets in sight of the barn, her pace picks up a little when she sees the camper.

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We then went on the Anhinga Trail, where we saw a lot more wildlife. This portion of the NP was originally Royal Palms State Park. A flock of buzzards was apparently roosting nearby, and some of them decided this rental RV was the place to be.

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The Anhinga is native bird that has got to be one of the most fascinating birds I've ever seen. To say it's a swimming bird is an understatement. It swims around underwater like a fish! It can stay underwater an incredibly long time and swim amazing distances very fast. When the Anhinga isn't swimming, it's usually sitting around doing this.

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They move so fast under water that it's very difficult to get a picture of them. This is the only one I could get, when he stuck his head up for a second.

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After swimming around for a while, it sat on this branch and preened its feathers.

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Finally, we see what everyone who comes to the Everglades wants to see: ALLIGATORS! Quite a lot of them, and all in the "Pre-Shoes and Handbags" (PSaH) stage of alligator development. I understand that alligator meat tastes just like chicken. I wonder what alligators think we taste like? Anhinga?

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There were several of these cormorants sitting on the railings along the trail, and they didn't seem to mind all the people around them for the most part. I had to laugh watching one of the other tourists as she was baby-talking to one of them and trying to actually pet it! The bird would let her get to within about six inches, then it would take one step away from her. "Ooooh pretty birdie".....step (Don't touch me)......."Such a pretty birdie".........step(don't touch me). I was waiting for the bird to give her a peck, but he showed remarkable restraint. More than I would have, anyway.

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The boss thought their eyes were cool. I think they're a little creepy, actually.

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This one is giving his right foot a rest. Tomorrow will be "Give the Left Foot a Rest Day".

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We left the NP and headed south on US-1, or the "Overseas Highway" for our camp site at Long Key State Park.

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As you may know, access to the Keys was originally by a narrow-gauge rail line that was constructed by Henry Flagler using his personal funds. It opened in 1912, and much of it was destroyed by the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. It was purchased by the state and converted to highway use in 1938. Many of the original bridges still stand and are used as fishing piers.

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These people have it made!

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US-1 through the Keys is a mixture of two and four lane road, and the two-lane sections can get backed up if there is an accident in front of you. We make a stop in Islamorada to stimulate the local economy. We bought T-shirts!

We make it to the park, and get setup on our site. It's a short site, just long enough for our TC. One thing I've always liked about TC's is how quickly you can be relaxing after arriving at your site.

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Five minutes after backing in:

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A beautiful Florida Keys sunset.

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The next day we take our time getting up and around. The boss decides to wade out in the water, and catches me in my robe.

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The sunrises are pretty nice here too.

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Since we will have to change sites today, we head to Key West for lunch at Louie's Backyard. We enjoy the views along the way, and traffic isn't too bad. I like these old bridges.

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The old bridge at Bahia Honda is particularly interesting in that the highway deck was built on top of the arches of the train bridge. Looks precarious, but it apparently served its purpose.

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We were told that the week between Christmas and New Years is one of the busiest times in the Keys (I'll have to take their word on that) so I was a little worried about finding a parking spot in Key West. It worked out fine though, as we were able to park on the street just a block from the restaurant.

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Lunch was delicious, and the scenery was equally enjoyable. Conch fritters, a snapper sandwich, and fish tacos, washed down with a mohito and beer. Excellent!! All enjoyed outdoors on the patio with the waves breaking just beyond the railing.

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After lunch we went walking around Key West, shopping and enjoying the sights. This is about as close as we could get to the concrete buoy marking the southernmost point of the USA. There was a line about a block long of people waiting to take their picture in front of it. We weren't about to wait in that line, and I'm pretty sure butting in front of them would have been considered bad form. I most likely would have ended up being tossed in the water, so we enjoyed it from a distance.

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Duvall street view.

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We eventually made our way to the port where the cruise ships were docked, and we watched a couple of street entertainers riding some very tall unicycles while juggling swords, meat cleavers, axes, etc. Then just to make it interesting, he squirted lighter fluid on all of them and set them on fire. The guy on the tallest unicycle was missing a few teeth, uniquely and artfully inked and pierced, eclectically dressed, and kept up a lively banter with the audience. At one point he called out to the crowd "Parents! Bring the kids! I'm a role model!" He cracked me up.

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Harry S. Truman's Little White House.

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We were tired after all that walking, so we head back to the campground as the sun was setting. The next morning we had another beautiful sunrise.

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We hated to say goodbye to the Keys, but we were anxious to get back to the cold, wet weather back home......................not.

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One thing I wanted to do on our way back through the Everglades was take an airboat ride. I'm not usually a boat person, but I think if I lived down here I'd want to have one. Those things look like they would be a blast to drive! We stopped at one of the tour operators on the Tamiami Trail (US-41). Of course we get there at their peak time of the day, and I thought we were going to have to pass it up because there was no place to park. We drove back and forth on the highway in front a few times, and eventually caught someone leaving. I had to squeeze in quick, as there were several others doing the same as I was.

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These contraptions look like they were built by Tim "The Toolman" Taylor.
MORE POWER!!!

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How's this for a selfie? Even got the boat driver in it.

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One of the other drivers was giving his group a thrill.

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Ho hum. More gators. BTDT......next! [emoticon]

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After the airboat ride we headed towards Naples, and Collier-Seminole State Park. We got there just before sunset, but had no reservations. No problem, you can dry camp in the boat basin parking lot.

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We drove to the campground the next morning to dump our gray water, and noticed that it looked pretty crowded. I think we got the better deal, myself.

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On the way in to the park I noticed they had some strange mechanical contraption on display next to the road, so we stopped to see what it was on the way out. It turned out to be a historic "Walking Dredge" that was used to build the roadbed for the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades. The limestone under all the surface growth was blasted into rubble, and was then scooped up by this dredge. Quite a machine for it's day.

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We encountered more of Florida's native wildlife crawling on the dredge. I left it alone, and it left us alone.

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I have no idea what this is, but there it was begging us to take a picture.

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We drove into St. Petersburg on New Years Eve, and had lunch at a nice restaurant on the bay.

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After lunch, we continued on up into the panhandle, and spent the night at Falling Waters State Park.

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This was one of the places I liked to camp when I lived in FL. There are several deep sinkholes in the park, and Florida's tallest waterfall. The park has changed a lot since I was last here about 35 years ago. I hardly recognize it! I don't think the small lake was there then, which gives the sinkhole waterfalls a year-round supply of water.

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Florida's tallest waterfall. Seventy-three feet.

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After leaving Falling Waters, we head back down to the coast to visit Ft. Pickens on the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The last time I was in Florida, the road to Ft. Pickens was closed due to hurricane damage.

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We spent the night in the campground, again no reservations but they had plenty of open sites. The next morning we had a hearty breakfast of eggs-in-toast with a side of ham-n-hashbrowns. Yummy! A couple of Tums for dessert and I'm ready for the day.

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Ft. Pickens is an old coastal defense fort that pre-dates the Civil War. It was from a time when the nations security was ensured by defending the major ports. Ironically, it only had to defend Pensacola Bay and the Navy yard against the Confederates. It remained in Union hands during the war.

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Geronimo and 15 other Apache men were held at Ft. Pickens for about a year in 1886-1887.

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One of the bastions (Bastion D) is missing due to a fire in 1899 that eventually reached the magazine, and set off 8000 lbs of gun powder in an explosion that was so great it threw bricks 1.5 miles across the bay into Ft. Barrancas.

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The original brick and mortar fort eventually became obsolete, and later on a reinforced concrete gun battery (Battery Pensacola) was built inside the old brick fortress.

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One of the big 12" guns of the type that was installed in Battery Pensacola. They could fire a 1000 lb. shell about eight miles.

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Walking on the beach one last time.

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Our last night out was spent at Percy Quin State Park near McComb, MS.

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Once again, the cat lets me know who's in charge. One of her favorite sayings is: "I'm a wild cat.....I'll do what I want!"

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On our way through Natchez, MS we drive by an example of vintage Americana. A restaurant by the name of "Mammy's Cupboard" operates from this structure. Open for lunch and dinner. Just our luck, we're passing through in the early morning or we would have stopped. Their food gets great reviews.

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And that, my friends, is THE END of this trip report!

I hope you enjoyed it.

[emoticon][emoticon]

* This post was last edited 01/11/15 07:19am by NRALIFR *   View edit history


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CptnBG

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Posted: 01/10/15 08:26am Link  |  Quote  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Great report! You did a lot in a short time. Wearing shorts in the winter, gotta love it!


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JumboJet

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Posted: 01/10/15 08:32am Link  |  Quote  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

"The last time I was in Florida, the road to Ft. Pickens was closed due to hurricane damage."

We must have been headed there around the same time - Last of June, 2012. We went over to Topsail State Park and stayed a week after our Ft. Pickens camping was cancelled.

We spent a week at Ft. Pickens in July, 2014.

Great pictures.

dockmasterdave

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Posted: 01/10/15 08:32am Link  |  Quote  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Great report and pics.
I live in extreme south FL. and am considering going north to the panhandle.
What is it from Naples about 9 hours?


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jmtandem

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Posted: 01/10/15 08:43am Link  |  Quote  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Excellent report. Makes me want to visit that area. Thanks.


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NRALIFR

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Posted: 01/10/15 09:08am Link  |  Quote  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

dockmasterdave wrote:

Great report and pics.
I live in extreme south FL. and am considering going north to the panhandle.
What is it from Naples about 9 hours?


8-9 sounds about right. We spent about an hour or so in St. Pete for lunch and made it to Falling Waters near Chipley around 7 PM.

[emoticon][emoticon]

mbloof

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Posted: 01/10/15 09:23am Link  |  Quote  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Great report! I enjoyed reading+viewing it.

lj2654

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Posted: 01/10/15 10:23am Link  |  Quote  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Thanks for the great pictures and storyline! makes me want to pack up and go....


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mrquacker

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Posted: 01/10/15 11:46am Link  |  Quote  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Great trip report.





exhaustipated

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Posted: 01/10/15 01:13pm Link  |  Quote  |  Print  |  Notify Moderator

Very nice trip report along with wonderful photos and narratives of the trip. It really looks like you did a lot in such a short time. This great report makes me want to pack up and go also. It sure would be nice to be able to wear shorts somewhere warm during the winter.


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