White Sands National Monument located in southern New Mexico houses the largest gypsum dune field in the world. What makes this so special is that gypsum is rarely found as sand because it dissolves when in contact with water. However, given the isolated location and unique weather of the area, as the water evaporates the minerals are left behind creating gypsum deposits that eventually form these glistening white sand dunes.
As we were researching a place to camp using Campendium, we found a FREE dry camping spot only 5 minutes away from White Sands National Monument. The spot was located on a small lake right next to Holloman Air Force base. It was common to see the jets fly overhead and about once a day you would hear a sonic boom which my husband absolutely LOVED! Don’t worry, the jets don’t fly at night so it did not affect our sleeping. If you like things fast, shiny and loud (and free) this is the place for you!
The next morning as we drove to White Sands National Monument, I kept looking out the window thinking “Where are all the dunes”? If you see pictures of White Sands National Monument you see endless sand dunes, but as you drive to it, you don’t see much of anything. It’s not until you go through the entrance and keep driving down the main road that the dunes slowly start to appear. The farther in you go, the dunes continue to multiply and grow larger until you come to a dead end with dunes surrounding you in every direction.
The landscape was completely mesmerizing and other-worldly, like being on the moon! Something about the place made it feel like we were living in a state of “make believe” as opposed to real life. It felt like a giant playground for both kids and adults, with people of all ages sledding, sliding and jumping off the dunes. Close to the road, footprints cover the dunes, but if you hike a little ways out you can get away from the crowds and find fresh dunes without any tracks. Max and I had a blast running up and sliding down the dunes – especially the ones with no footprints as we competed to claim “first tracks”.
It was an incredible place for taking photographs because of the texture of the ripples on the bright white sand. We planned to stay after sunset for Max to shoot blue hour, but found out the park gate closes 30 minutes after sunset. With the hike back to the car being a minimum of 30 minutes, the only feasible way to shoot sunset/blue hour is to camp overnight. White Sands does not allow any RV camping, but rather has 10 backcountry (tent) camping sites which are obtained on a first come/first serve basis.
Given the limited number of sites, I’d highly recommend being in line before the Visitor Center opens to ensure you snag one. I got there 20 minutes before they opened and was the 4th party in line. You can camp for one night at a time, so if you want to stay more than one night you have to be in line the following morning to reserve the next night. This gives more people the chance to enjoy this unique backcountry camping experience. It also may be a safety feature too, to make sure people have enough water and food as there are no amenities out in the dunes.
We had such a fabulous time camping in the dunes and Max came away with some great photos as well (most are still in his backlog)! Some places you hear about, you know will be incredible, but this one was and we had no idea how great it would be. It was definitely an unexpected highlight of the first few months on the road and one I can’t wait to go back to!
After a five and a half hour drive, we finally reached the first big city (El Paso) since leaving Big Bend National Park. Our destination for the evening was White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, but first we had to get Max’s phone repaired/replaced after having dropped it in the Rio Grande.
We called ahead to the Apple store and got the last appointment of the day for his phone to be repaired. Unfortunately, after taking one look at the phone, they said if it sustains any water damage they do not repair but rather will quote the cost of replacing it. Since it was Max’s business phone, Apple suggested we take it to a Verizon dealer as they typically offer better replacement deals when linked to business accounts. At that point, it was about 10 minutes to mall closing time, so we booked it over to the Verizon kiosk to see if they could help us.
The two guys working the kiosk were extremely courteous and got to work right away trying to figure out how to they could offer Max the best replacement deal. They spent the next hour with us, long after store closing, to see us through and send Max home with a brand new phone.
While we were waiting for them to activate the new phone, we asked about places to eat knowing El Paso has excellent Mexican food. They both highly recommended going to Taco Tote saying their families are super picky about Mexican food and they all love this restaurant. We weren’t sure what to expect as they said it was sort of like Chipotle where you order at the counter and then choose your own place to sit, but they said it was a local favorite.
We showed up to Taco Tote close to 9PM on a Sunday night and the place was packed! We ordered 7 tacos between the two of us and went crazy at unlimited chips and salsa bar. So many kinds of fresh salsa and taco toppings – it was like salsa heaven! Both Max and I agreed it was the best tacos we ever had, so delicious and our bill only came to around $25 dollars for the tacos (no drinks). They have other locations in AZ, TX and NM, so we will definitely keep our eyes peeled to find another one on round 2 as it was sooo good!
Big Bend National Park, located in southwest Texas, is named after the large bend in the Rio Grande which forms the border between Mexico and the US. This park is unique in that it houses the entire Chisos Mountain Range making it the only national park to have a mountain range fully within its borders.
Being that Big Bend is 5 hours away from the closest major city, we thought it may be less visited and therefore easier to snag a reservation. Turns out we were wrong as all reserveable spots were booked. The park does set aside a few spots as first come first serve, but given that it would be a 7 hour drive from Austin to get there, we weren’t keen on making the drive unless we knew we had a place to stay the first night. After checking the reservation system several times per day for about a week, we lucked out and scored a cancellation for 4 nights!
During our time staying at the Rio Grande Village Campground, the temperature was on a hot streak hitting 100 almost every day. Thank goodness our campsite had power hook ups so we could cool off during the day with the help of our A/C. At night, because of the desert climate the temp cooled down to a more comfortable level in the 70s. Speaking of nights, we had a few wild visitors that liked to show up after dark. It’s not uncommon for javelinas (wild pigs) and coyotes to roam the Rio Grande Village campground in search of food at dusk. They don’t attack, but we were told not to get too close!
Big Bend National Park is the 8th largest national park in the lower 48 states, with three distinct areas found within. The first place we explored was the land surrounding the Rio Grande Village. On this side of the park, the climate is desert-like and unforgiving in the mid-day sun. We attempted a hike from the campground along the Rio Grande to the famous hot springs, but turned around halfway because it was too hot! It was probably a good thing, because we wouldn’t have lasted a minute in the hot springs in the middle of the day anyhow.
So the next day we got up before sunrise while the temps were still cool and drove the winding dirt road to the hot springs. Upon arrival, two people were on their way out so we had the entire place to ourselves! It was a great experience soaking in our very own “natural” hot tub that just happened to be on the riverbank of the Rio Grande. On the other side of the river, just a hop skip and jump away, was Mexico. It was strange seeing an international border in its natural state just 20 feet away and seemingly so easy to cross. After our 30 minutes of solace, we were greeted by two more couples coming for an early morning dip. We chatted for a bit, swapping stories of life on the road and then got out when the morning sun turned up the heat.
The next place we explored were the Chisos Mountains, which are located in the center of the park. Due to the elevation gain, the temperatures in this part of the park were much cooler and made for very comfortable day hiking. Our first hike was the Lost Mine Trail, which was a moderate 4.5 mile trail with an elevation gain of 1,200 feet. We started our hike late in the afternoon, Max shot sunset at the top and we hiked back after dusk.
The next morning, on our way to the Santa Elena Canyon, we stopped by the backcountry office to inquire about getting a camping permit for the following evening on the South Rim. Max had done some research and found a photographer who said site SW4 was one of the best in the Chisos Mountains. Upon inquiring, the ranger told us that SW4 was booked for the following evening, but it was open this evening if we wanted to take it. When we asked what he had available for the following evening, he stared us straight in the eyes and said “You do not want to miss this opportunity. It is the best site in the Chisos and is a peak experience.” Given the rangers sense of urgency, we dropped the current day’s plan and scrambled to get ready for the camping in the backcountry.
Part of our scramble had to do with the fact that we had to be out of our reserved RV site by noon the next day. Knowing we wouldn’t be back from our hike by that time we had to move the RV that day. Luckily, the campground had one remaining site available, but it was in a part of the campground that does not have electric hookups and does not allow generators. We didn’t know how we were going to keep power going when we got back, but we didn’t have time to iron those details out. We packed up our backpacks, moved the trailer and headed off on our hike to the South Rim.
This was my first real backpacking trip and I was excited to finally use the pack I had gotten for my birthday the previous October. It took some getting used to the extra weight, but I was so happy with how comfortable my pack fit on my hips, shoulders, and back. For those looking to purchase a backpacking pack, I’d highly recommended going to a place like REI that will measure your back and ensure you have the best size and model for you. I tried on several brands, models and sizes and found the Gregory Deva 70 pack was the absolute best fit for me.
After completing the 6.5 mile hike with a 2,300 foot elevation gain, we were pooped, but had no time to waste as we arrived just before sunset. We dropped our packs at the campsite, quickly setup our tent and headed out to find comps for Max to shoot. Max headed east on the rim and I headed west to cover as much ground as possible. The view from the South Rim was incredible! I found a really cool foreground composition with a barren tree and agave plants that I wanted to show Max, but by that point he was too far away to hear me and his cell phone didn’t work. So I took a few photos and made a mental note of the location to show Max for a possible comp at sunrise.
The next morning we got up super early to shoot the stars against a pitch black sky. We then waited around for sunrise with Max using the location I found the night before for his comp. After the sun rose, I headed back to the tent to catch up on sleep as I am not a morning person, especially 3AM alarms! With a few more hours of shut eye for both of us, we packed up and headed out on the remaining 6 mile hike down the mountain.
Waiting for us back at our campsite was our RV with a completely dead battery. We figured there was a chance this might happen, but had hoped there would be another site available in the generator allowed zone that we could move to. Unfortunately, all sites were completely taken so we had to come up with plan B. We asked the camp host if it would be possible to move the RV to another area of the campground temporarily so that we could use the generator to charge it. They were very nice and said given the circumstances they would allow it. So we parked the RV on the perimeter of the campground, hooked up the generator and let it run for 3 hours while Max and I showered, worked and did laundry.
It was dark when we finally finished charging the RV, so we packed up the generator and drove the RV back to our campsite to settle in for the night. After we unhitched, I went inside to do my normal routine of putting the slide out; however when I went to press the power button everything died. Max grabbed a flashlight and checked the breaker/fuse box, but it seemed fine. He looked at the manual to see if there were any other hidden fuses or breakers, but couldn’t find anything mentioning it. It was after 10 at night, with solution in sight, so we went to bed knowing we’d have to deal with it in the morning.
The next morning we went to the camp host to ask if there was an RV repair shop nearby. They told us the closest repair shop was 2 ½ to 3 hours away from Big Bend National Park. We called the repair guy and even though his shop was technically closed due to moving locations, he agreed to take a look at our trailer if we made 3 hour drive there that day. However, he said he did not take RV insurance so we wouldn’t be able to use our existing RV policy. At this point, we didn’t know what exactly the problem was, so we started calling other RV repair shops that accepted our insurance plan to see when and where we could get in. The average wait for all the shops we called that accepted insurance was over a week just for the diagnosis! Given that we were living in the RV, we couldn’t afford to go a week without power, so we decided to leave the park and drive to the shop that could get us in that day, even if they didn’t accept our insurance.
After making the three hour drive to the repair shop, we arrived to find it empty. We called the shop’s number and the guy said he’d be back shortly as he was just running a few errands in town. Knowing his shop was supposed to be closed that week, we couldn’t fault him for being away as we were grateful he was willing to help us out, but we were still super anxious to figure out what was wrong!
I made a quick lunch in the RV and he arrived shortly after getting to work diagnosing the problem. We told him we thought it might be a blown power converter, but didn’t know for sure what had caused it. We were just hoping it wouldn’t be too expensive since we couldn’t use insurance on this repair. He worked on our RV for about an hour, then came out and said he figured out what the problem was, but would need to check his stockroom to see if he had the spare part on hand. Ten minutes later he walked out with a smile on his face and said the problem was due to a blown inline fuse and he had the replacement part on hand! On top of the good news regarding the spare part, the repair guy said the total charge for repair would be $125, which was only $25 more than what our insurance deductible would had been. After all was said and done, we were out of his shop in less than 2 hours and back on the road!
Through his diagnosis we realized we had made a mistake the previous day when we moved the trailer to run the generator in that we forgot to unplug the RV from the truck before turning the generator on. Having two power sources connected to the RV at the same time caused one of the five inline fuses underneath the trailer to blow.
Since the repair was done much faster than we anticipated we chose to drive the 2 ½ hours back to Big Bend National Park to the campsite we had already paid for. The draw for going back to was that we had not yet had a chance to visit the Santa Elena Canyon, which is one of the top things to see there and another one of the “peak experiences” our ranger friend said we had to see.
So the next morning, we woke up before sunrise with the plan of driving the 1.5 hours to the west side of the park to shoot sunrise at the canyon. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way we took a wrong turn and went 30 minutes out of the way before getting back on course. This detour caused us to arrive just after the soft morning glow turned to harsh light on the canyon walls. I know Max was really bummed because he wanted to get some great photos from this location, but I was content just being there and exploring the canyon.
We took a short hike along the canyon and afterwards got out our packrafts in order to explore the area by water. There weren’t many people on the water when we launched our rafts, but every once in a while a canoe or kayak would paddle past us. I remember at one point a canoe paddling toward me with three people in it. As the canoe got closer the man sitting in the front of the canoe greeted me with “Good Morning!” and I greeted him back. When I finally saw the man’s face up close, I did a double take, and it was none other than the late Anthony Bourdain! I immediately turned around to quietly get Max’s attention, but he was too far away and completely oblivious to who the man was paddling past him.
Later, as we paddled another mile down the canyon, there was a guy on the largest paddleboard I had ever seen holding what looked like 30 tents. I said “Wow that is quite the cargo load!” and he said it was for a group of them filming a TV show. At that point, I knew they must be the crew filming for Anthony Bourdain’s TV show “Part’s Unknown”, but I asked anyhow just to be sure. He confirmed and said they had stayed overnight a few miles down the canyon in a small Mexican town. I was really looking forward to watching this future episode of Parts Unknown to see what was filmed in the Santa Elena Canyon, but don’t know if this episode will ever air. Like the rest of the world, I was shocked and saddened to hear of Anthony’s death in June, just three months after we crossed paths in the canyon.
At several points while packrafting that day, the water level was so low that we would get stuck on the river bottom and would have to get out to move our rafts to deeper water. Unfortunately, one of those time Max jumped out of his raft too fast and out flew his brand new iphone into the water. The good news was he was able to grab his phone since the water was so low, but the bad news is that the water damaged his phone so that the screen constantly flickered. It was supposed to be water resistant, but I guess that doesn’t mean it can be fully submerged in water! 😉 So we knew the next big city we drove through we’d need to have his phone either repaired or replaced.
All in all, we had planned to spend four nights at Big Bend National Park, but we ended up staying seven nights. This allowed us to do the backcountry camping, as well as visit the Santa Elena Canyon despite having a day spent on RV repairs. We really enjoyed the different climate and scenery in each of its three unique areas and would highly recommend going, especially if you live in Texas!
Austin, the capital of Texas, is one of the fastest growing big cities in America. It’s known for its live music scene, outdoorsy vibe and finger lickin’ good BBQ. Neither of us had been to Austin before, so we were looking forward to checking it out – especially the BBQ!
Before we arrived in Texas, Max had been having an issue with the shock on his mountain bike which made it unrideable. We needed to have it professionally repaired, but had a difficult time finding a shop that could turn it around in two to three days. Thankfully, with Austin being a city known for its outdoor culture, they had plenty of bike shops and we were able to find one that could fix the bike in just two days.
While we were at Bicycle Sport Shop waiting to pick up Max’s bike, I walked over to the sale section to see if they had any good deals on mountain bikes. Back home we do a lot of road biking, but Max has always wanted me to try mountain biking as it’s his favorite. We found one for a reasonable price and Max convinced me to buy it so we could mountain bike together on our trip. An hour later, I walked out of the store with my very first real mountain bike! The bike shop also helped package up my road bike to ship home since I’d be using the mountain bike on our trip from here on out.
As the bike shop was just a few blocks from downtown Austin, we took my bike for its first spin on a trail that loops around the city. It was a really fun way to see the city of Austin and get a better sense of the city’s vibe. There were people enjoying the outdoors everywhere we looked whether it be on the trail (biking, running, walking), on the river (paddle boarding, kayaking), or in the grass (playing Frisbee, having a picnic, etc). It totally reminded me of the Uptown vibe back home in Minneapolis with everyone enjoying summertime around Lake Calhoun.
After our bike ride, we were super hungry and all we could think about was BBQ! We had heard the Austin BBQ scene is known for crazy long lines (think Franklin BBQ with a 4+ hour wait), so we hoped to find a good BBQ spot with a more reasonable wait. After doing a little research on top BBQ places nearby, we headed over to Terry Black’s BBQ. While they did have a line out the door, we saw that it was moving pretty quickly AND they still had the brisket available. We both ordered the brisket sandwich, along with a few sides, brewskies and dessert. It was easily the best brisket we had ever had! So good that Max went back to buy a Terry Black’s BBQ hat!
The next day, with both of us now having mountain bikes, we decided to hit up a real mountain bike trail at Reveille Peak Ranch. I was pretty nervous with this being my first time on a mountain bike trail, but Max assured me we’d start out easy on the beginner loop. However, we soon realized the beginner trail at this ranch was a lot harder than most beginner loops. I was so scared going down some of the rocky slopes that I started crying and had tears streaming down my face. Max kept asking if I wanted to stop, but through my crying I kept saying no I’m just scared, but I’ll be ok. For whatever reason, crying seems to help me push through my fear so I can think straight again. After the tears subsided, I was able to enjoy the trail a bit more, gaining more confidence with every pedal. While I did come away with a few minor scrapes and bruises I was proud of myself for completing my first real mountain bike trail. Although one trail for the day was good enough for me – I told Max he should do another one, but this time alone. 😉
We planned our visit to Texas Hill Country (45 minutes northwest of Austin) in mid-March as they are known for their incredible Blue Bonnet blooms at that time of year. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we found out we were two weeks early for the bloom given the colder than normal weather. So, instead of shooting wildflowers, we spent our time exploring the quaint hill country towns and taking day trips to downtown Austin.
Another hiccup to our plans had to do with finding a place to stay. Not only was it spring break, it was also the week of the South by Southwest festival so every campground within an hour of Austin was completely booked. Texas doesn’t have any BLM land either, so that wasn’t an option for us here. We did finally find a campground called Camp Creek Recreation Area near Marble Falls that operated on a first come first serve basis, however; the reviews were slightly disconcerting as they mentioned campsites being left with trash and homeless people sleeping in their cars. Without any other good options and having arrived after dark, we reluctantly pulled into the first empty spot we saw, parked the trailer, drew the shades and went to sleep.
The next morning around 7AM we woke up to the sound of music blasting from a car stereo. We looked out the window and realized we were the only ones in the whole campground except for a guy and girl sitting in their sedan, doors open and music blasting. We thought it was rude, but even more we thought it was a strange thing to be doing so early on a Wednesday morning. After a while, the guy got out of his car, opened his trunk and started pulling things out of a duffle bag. He then proceeded to get dressed putting a black t-shirt over his head to look like a hood, then grabbing a red bandana which he tied over his face and mouth. Lastly, he put on gloves so the only exposed part of his whole body were his eyes.
At this point, we had no idea what was going on. What else was in his duffle bag? Did he have a weapon? Should we stay inside the trailer or get the hell out of there before something happens? Max seemed less concerned than I did and started hitching up as we had an 8AM trailer maintenance appointment we had to get to. I on the other hand was not going to take my eyes off this guy until I knew what was going on, so I kept watch through a small slit in the blinds. All of a sudden, bandana guy started air punching to the music as if getting ready for a fight. My heart which was already beating fast, started racing. Then out of nowhere he jumped onto the hood of his car, while the woman got into the driver’s seat. I sat glued to the window as she drove around the campground with him acting a fool on the hood of his car. After several laps around the empty campground, they drove back to their original parking spot, he got off the hood, undressed and they left. What the hell was that about?? Not sure if he was prepping for a fight or if he was making a low budget rap video, but I was really glad they were gone!
That morning after dropping off our trailer to get the bearings repacked, we spent the day driving through the quaint hill towns. We stopped for lunch in Fredericksburg, which was super cute, with a bustling main street area full of shops. It reminded me of the kind of place you’d go for a romantic Bed & Breakfast getaway weekend in the country. Oh and I can’t forget the “free beer” cooler that one of the shops had sitting by the register. When I went to the counter to purchase my Texas t-shirt I asked… “Is the beer really free?” And she said “Of course it is!” Dang, I like their style! 😉
After our day spent driving through Texas Hill Country, we picked up our trailer from the shop and headed back to the campground hoping to pick a more secluded site. It was midweek so we were the only ones there and were able to choose any campsite we wanted. We picked a site as far from the parking lot as possible that had a large grassy area. While we were setting up camp, we noticed a strange smell that seemed to be coming from the fire pit. When I went to inspect it, I noticed strips of silver sheathing strewn all over the ground and lumps of silver colored molten metal in the pit. The smell coming from these molten globs of metal was terrible and I knew it wasn’t going to go away unless I got rid of them.
So I grabbed our portable metal shovel and got to work pulling each and every silver molten piece out of the fire pit to throw away. Once I began the fire pit cleanup, I realized I had overlooked all the other pieces of trash strewn around the campsite. They ranged from the molten metal lumps, to beer bottles, to baby wipes, but the worst were the multiple used condoms…really people?! Thanks goodness we carry disposable rubber gloves with us…sick!
Once we got our campsite back to a level of clean we could live with, we built a large bonfire and relaxed the rest of the day. There were quite a few fallen trees in the area so we had plenty of wood to keep the fire going all night. To finish the day, we cooked one of our favorite meals – fajitas – on the wood fired grill!
Located near the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, New Orleans, is a world renowned city known for its unique cuisine, creole culture and vibrant night life, most notably Mardi Gras. Neither Max nor I had been to Louisiana before, so when we first started planning our 14 month road trip, New Orleans was one of the “must see” cities on our list. We were especially looking forward to visiting the Big Easy for its vibrant night life and spicy cuisine.
We arrived in New Orleans at the beginning of March – two weeks after all the craziness of Mardi Gras had passed. Since we weren’t willing to pay the astronomical rate of $150 per night to stay at the only RV park in the French Quarter, we stayed across the Mississippi river at Bayou Segnette State Park instead. This park was much more reasonably priced ($37 per night) and was still relatively close to the city (30 minutes away). Oh and this park had free laundry to boot…if you could snag an open machine! 😉
Parking in the French Quarter can be a nightmare due to its narrow roads, high prices and restrictions, so being that we were staying just across the Mississippi river, we opted to take the ferry. Getting there from our campsite was super easy as we parked in the Algiers neighborhood (free) and took the Algiers ferry ($2) across the river right into the heart of the city. We took the ferry over at night and were treated to a beautiful display as the city lights lit up the night sky and sparkling on the water.
Our first stop in the French Quarter was Bourbon Street and it definitely lived up to its reputation! Wowza…we expected Bourbon Street to be crazy, but nothing prepared us for how busy it was and how much trash was on the ground!?! There was literally trash, beads, puke…you name it…all over the street! I think we mistakenly envisioned the party scene to be more like Vegas set in a Gaslamp district, but it seemed more like a college frat party gone wild. We heard from a local that they judge how great the party it is by how much trash is on the ground the next morning. While we had fun seeing what Bourbon Street was all about, Max summed it up best when he said, “This would have been REALLY cool when I was 21, but not so much at 33”. Ok, now I feel old!
New Orleans is famous as being one of America’s top culinary cities. However, being on a $100 per day budget, we opted to order Po Boys from a grab and go spot rather than eating at a fancy restaurant like Galatoire’s where dinner jackets are a must. For dessert, we walked down to Jackson Square and ordered beignets and coffee from the famous Café Du Monde. The beignets were delicious and reminded me of an elephant ear you’d get at a carnival covered in powdered sugar! We would have loved to stay and explore the Jackson Square area more, but it was getting late and the gates to the square had closed.
The following day was rainy so we thought it would be fun to visit the National World War II Museum. Prior to leaving on our trip, I had read “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, which peaked my interest for all things World War II. Apparently I wasn’t the only one who thought going to a museum on a rainy day was a good idea as the place was jam packed! Through a bit of quick thinking we were able to purchase tickets on our cell phones and pick them up at will call which saved us an hour of waiting in line.
The purpose of this WWII museum was to show America’s involvement in the war in every facet. The exhibits were very interactive with rooms staged to look like scenes from Normandy, various battlefields in Europe and the South Pacific. The museum displayed thousands of WWII artifacts such as uniforms, personal belongings, diaries and artillery. There was so much to see that towards closing time Max and I were running from room to room to make sure we didn’t miss anything. One of the highlights was the large hanger with restored airplanes that were used in WWII. They had multiple viewing platforms that allowed you to see the planes from both below and above them.
On our last day in New Orleans we drove the famous river road to see the plantations. Max wanted to photograph Oak Alley’s famous live oaks so we paid the $25 entrance fee per person allowing us to take the “big house” tour and wander around the property. Unfortunately, the “big house” tour was not self-guided and was quite congested for having purchased tickets in advance. They herded twenty five people room by room through talking about each artifact in the house. This is definitely not our style of sight-seeing, but we had a good eye roll and laugh about it along the way. In hindsight, we would recommend skipping the tour altogether and photograph Oak Alley from the street looking towards the mansion. This way you can avoid the $25 per person entrance fee and you still get to enjoy the beautiful scenery of the live oaks.
Gulf Islands National Seashore is a 150-mile stretch of seashore that runs from Cat Island in Mississippi to Santa Rosa Island in Florida. It is the longest stretch of federally protected seashore in the United States. This famous coastline, also referred to as the Emerald Coast, gets its name from the bright blue-green waters that flow over the powdery white beach sand.
Since it’s part of the National Park Service, there is a $20 per vehicle fee to enter Gulf Islands National Seashore. However, if you purchase an $80 annual America the Beautiful park pass like we did, you can get into all National Parks, National Monuments, National Seashores and any other federal recreation sites for free. Annual passes can be purchased online at NPS.gov, at National Parks, and at some other federal recreation areas. This is definitely the way to go if you plan to see more than two federal recreation sites in a year as most entrance fees are between $20 to $30 per vehicle. The annual pass can have two adult’s names listed on it, so you only need one annual pass per couple and it will cover everyone traveling in your vehicle.
There are two campgrounds in Gulf Islands National Seashore – one located in the Mississippi bayou called Davis Bayou Campground and one on Florida’s emerald coast called Fort Pickens Campground. Since we wanted the Emerald Coast beach experience we had our sights set on the Fort Pickens Campground on the Florida side. Because of its popularity this campground books up months ahead of time, so when we first tried to book it, it was completely full. However, we didn’t want to give up so we left the dates open in our trip planner in hopes of getting a cancellation later on. Fast forward a few weeks and after checking the reservations online every few days we were able to snag a cancellation!
One thing we learned is if you really want to stay at a certain campground, be persistent and keep checking back for cancellations. Cancellations most often happen between 1 and 10 days prior to the reserved dates when people realize they can no longer come due to a conflict, health, weather, etc. Also, if you have an RV that doesn’t require extensive effort to setup and teardown, search for campsite openings with availability for one night. In our case, we wanted to stay for four nights, so we were able to reserve one night at one site and three nights at another site (within the same campground). If we had only searched for sites with four nights available it would have said there was zero availability for our dates. While not ideal, we don’t mind doing this when it’s our only option to get into a sought after campground.
Florida’s Gulf Islands National Seashore did not disappoint! It topped the list as our favorite beach in Florida due to the soft white sand, emerald green water, wind ripples on the beach and lack of commercialization that so many other Florida beach areas have. We were there at beginning of March, so it was too cold for swimming, but we walked for hours on the beach collecting shells, laying out and watching the wildlife. We saw jellyfish, stingray, great blue heron and even a pod of dolphins! At night we were graced by several amazing sunsets that lit up the sky in all directions. This is definitely a place we are already planning to going back to!
For the next stop on our Florida tour, we were looking for something to break up the drive between Florida’s Springs and the Gulf Coast. Max had researched an interesting area named Merritt’s Mill Pond near Marianna, FL which is a clear spring fed lake surrounded by large Cypress trees. It looked similar to the famous cypress tree swamps of Louisiana, but rather than murky water these waters were clear.
In the interest of saving money, Max reserved a campsite at Christoff Landing run by the Florida Water Management District which allows you to camp free of charge as long as you register in advance. We rolled into the campground after dark on a Saturday night and were surprised to find someone else in our campsite. That’s when we realized just how small the campground was with only three campsites in whole place. When I got out of the car to talk to them about it, a guy approached me and said they were surprised to see us too as they had never seen any other campers the many times they’ve stayed there. I wasn’t sure if that was a good or bad sign? Anyhow, since their crew occupied two of the three sites, they asked us if we could move to the only open one for the night as they would be leaving the next morning. We agreed, setup camp and crashed as we were tired from our busy day.
The next morning we woke up to find our neighbors gone leaving behind a smoky fire burning in their pit. Being a safety hazard, we went over to put out the fire and noticed all the trash they left behind. They had trash both in and out of the fire pit from beer cans, to McDonalds fries to soiled baby diapers. Gross! We then spent the next hour cleaning up their crap and putting out their fire. After we were done with the cleanup, we were feeling a little uncomfortable about the campground situation so we drove half a mile down the road to check out the nearby river. The very first thing we saw was a homeless man living out of his truck tucked into the woods and him making a small fire nearby. That didn’t make us feel any more confident about the place, but we still tried to stay optimistic.
Later that afternoon we headed over to explore Merritt’s Mill Pond. We launched our pack rafts at the public boat ramp and paddled around looking for good locations for Max to shoot that night. After we’d been out there for a few hours, we were exploring an area near some docks when all of a sudden we heard a big splash and a loud “clomp”! We were a bit spooked so started slowly paddling away from the area when we heard it again. After hearing it several more times we were pretty sure it was an alligator catching a fish, but never saw the actual alligator which was probably a good thing! We made it safely back to the boat launch that night.
The next morning we drove into town to find a coffee shop where Max could charge his laptop. We went to a local café that looked like a hole in the wall, but had really good reviews. We had only planned on getting coffee, but the prices were so cheap that Max & I had a full breakfast and coffee for only $12.00!
After breakfast, we drove to the laundromat so I could do laundry while Max worked (since we had no reception at the campsite). Up to this point, we had used the laundry facilities that were onsite at the various campgrounds we had stayed, so this was my first foray into the world of public laundromats and I was a wee bit apprehensive. The laundromat itself was located in a rundown strip mall of which all the other storefronts were empty. I brought with me $15 in quarters, but soon realized I had completely forgotten the detergent back at the trailer and would need to buy some. Additionally, the price per load was twice as much as I had been paying previously so I didn’t have enough money leftover after paying for detergent and washing to dry the clothes. Since it was a cash/coin only laundry, I asked the lady working there if there was an ATM nearby. She said there wasn’t one onsite, but gave me directions to one a few miles away on the other side of town.
As I was heading out the door to drive to the ATM, a man who had overheard my conversation asked how much I needed. When I told him I wasn’t quite sure (since the drying time was based on minutes per quarter rather than a set fee) he just handed me a whole handful of quarters and said “Use whatever you need”. I was shocked and touched that this complete stranger was willing to give me all of his extra quarters when in reality he probably needed them more than I did in the grand scheme of things. I told him how much I appreciated his kind gesture and said I would make sure to pay it forward! After finishing with the laundry, I was glad to see this man was still there as I was able to give him at least half of his quarters back. Nonetheless, the fact that he willingly gave them all to me and didn’t expect any of it back is what I’ll remember.
When we returned to our RV to drop off the laundry, there was a car idling in one of the empty campsites. There were four 18-20 year old looking kids in a sedan and they just sat in the spot without getting out of the car. Right away Max said “I bet they are doing a drug deal.” So we did what any other True Crime fans would do and put everything on pause while we watched through our window blinds waiting for the action. Just as we suspected within five minutes a truck drove up, parked window to window to the sedan, and passed a baggie through the window. During this exchange, one of the parties dropped the baggie on the ground, but since the cars were only inches apart neither one could open the car door to pick it up. The dealer car finally had to back up so the kids could open the car door and get the baggie. Needless to say, we already put our reservation request in for next year to ensure we get the same campsite again. What a gem! 😉
Many people flock to Florida for its beaches, but another unique draw is its high concentration of freshwater springs. Florida has over 700 freshwater springs with most of them located in the north central part of the state. For our first Florida Springs experience, we decided to check out Manatee Springs State Park which features a first magnitude spring that flows directly into the Suwanee River. Because the temperature of the spring stays 73 degrees year-round, manatees swim up the river to this spring haven when the ocean temperature is colder. Therefore, you have a good chance of seeing manatees in the winter months when ocean temperatures are at their lowest.
The spring looks like a swamp from a distance, with cypress trees growing around it, but as you get closer you can see the waters are crystal clear. When we were there it was an unseasonably warm March so unfortunately the manatees had already left for the ocean. However, with the spring being 73 degrees it was warm enough for us to swim in, so we grabbed our swimsuits and snorkeled around in its clear waters. The spring itself is 25 feet deep and has a pool that extends 75 feet across. The deepest part of the spring has a sandy bottom, submerged logs and a noticeably strong boil (where water emerges from the source, developing eddies as it rises).
Later that night as Max was walking back to our campsite, he heard some rustling in the leaves. As he got closer, he saw a hard shelled creature the size of a cat with a long rat-like tail. He tried to follow it for a bit so he could get a picture, but it scampered away. After searching online, he confirmed it was an Armadillo. We also learned that you want to keep your distance from them as Armadillos are the only animals besides humans known to carry leprosy and they can transfer it by spitting on you! Apparently Florida has had several cases in the past few years, as strange as it sounds.
The following day we wanted to explore more of the Suwanee River (which the spring is connected to), but were unsure if it would be safe to packraft in the river knowing alligators roam these waters. We spoke with Anderson Outdoor Adventures, a river outfitter, who assured us alligators don’t want anything to do with us so long as we leave them be. So we stuffed our packrafts in our backpacks and started hiking towards a place a few miles upriver where we could launch them. Along the way, we stopped to ask for directions since we didn’t have good cell reception and a women overheard us and said “I’ll take you there…no need to hike!” We assured her we would be fine hiking, but she insisted on taking us to the boat launch.
Once there we blew up our packrafts and were about to launch them in the river when four speed boats whizzed by going upwards of 60 mph. Apparently speed boat racing on this river is super popular as people had their lawn chairs out watching them for most of the day. When we finally launched our packrafts, we were extra careful to stay near the banks of the river just in case they boated by again…which they did several times making good sized waves each time they passed. Fortunately, our packrafts are very stable so while we got splashed every so often, we didn’t have to worry about tipping over. We then made a lazy afternoon of it paddling slowing downriver three miles to our campsite at Manatee Springs State Park.
Given the high concentration of springs in this part of Florida, we wanted to see as many as possible during our last day there. We spoke with Anderson Outdoor Adventures again who suggested we drive an hour northeast to do a half day canoe rental on the Santa Fe River. We parked at Gilchrist Blue Springs and had our outfitter drop us off at one end of the river so we could canoe downstream exploring the springs along the way.
The Santa Fe River has multiple well known springs connected to it such as Ginnie, Poe, Hornsby, Lilly, Rum Island, Mermaid and Gilchrist Blue, to name a few. We were lucky to have a beautiful 75 degree day to explore the springs on the Santa Fe River for our last day there. With only three days exploring Florida’s springs, we barely scratched the surface and look forward to our next visit.
For this leg of the trip, I searched for places to stay near the beaches of Sanibel or Captiva, but they were all booked or way out of our price range. So we turned to another website for RVers called BoondockersWelcome. This site allows you to find other RVers that serve as hosts and are willing to let you park overnight on their property for short stays (usually 1-4 days) for free. In all honesty we were using this site as a last resort because we thought it would be weird sleeping/parking overnight in a strangers driveway, but with limited options we decided to give it a try. We found a host with 5 star reviews in the bayside city of Punta Gorda, but what really caught our eye is that their profile mentioned they belong to a boating club and anyone who boondocks with them is welcome to go boating with them. So we pushed aside our hesitancy and requested to stay for two nights.
When we arrived at their house, I’ll admit it was a bit awkward ringing their doorbell to introduce ourselves to complete strangers, but they could not have been more welcoming. They showed us where we could park (in their driveway) and where we could get power and water. Then without skipping a beat the host invited us to go boating with her the following afternoon to which we most definitely obliged. The nice thing about living in an RV is that no matter where you are – at a beach, in the mountains or parked in someone’s driveway, you simply shut the blinds and find yourself in the comfort of your own home.
The following day was 90 degrees and sunny…perfect for an afternoon on the bay. As we drove over the bridge towards the marina, I noticed a dolphin jumping several feet out of the water over and over again. It looked like it was having the time of its life! Once we got to the boat, we took note of where we had seen the dolphin and boated in that same direction. Within 15 minutes we saw a whole pod of dolphins playfully jumping and splashing in the water. Our host said that in all her years of boating there, they’ve only seen dolphins a handful of times, but never as many or as playful as we were seeing. Now there appeared to be multiple pods and they hung around splashing and playing for roughly an hour. It wasn’t until after we took some video that we realized it was likely mating season for the dolphins as we unknowingly captured some R-rated moments with dolphins getting a bit frisky!
After our dolphin encounter, we jumped in the water to cool off for a bit and headed back towards the marina. On our way, we encountered stingrays gracefully swimming near the top of the water. Once back at the marina, we topped off our boondocking experience by treating our host to ice cream at her favorite shop Harborwalk Scoops and Bites.