Travel Journal


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.

Rio Grande Village Hike
Rio Grande Village Hike

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.

Big Bend Hot Springs
Soaking in the Hot Springs

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.

Lost Mine Hike
Lost Mine

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.

View from Lost Mine Hike
View from Lost Mine Hike

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.

South Rim View
South Rim View

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.

Santa Elena Canyon
Santa Elena Canyon Reflection

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.

Santa Elena Canyon
Paddling in the Santa Elena Canyon

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.

Sandbar Break in the Canyon
Sandbar in the Canyon

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.

Biking in Austin
Biking in Austin

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. 😉

Relaxing after Mountain Biking
Relaxing after Mountain Biking

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!

"Bandana Guy"
“Bandana Guy”

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! 😉

Free Beer in Fredericksburg!
Free Beer in Fredericksburg!

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! 😉

Bayou Segnette Campsite
Bayou Segnette Campsite

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.

New Orleans at Night
New Orleans at Night

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.

National WWII Museum
National WWII Museum

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.

Oak Alley's Famous Live Oaks
Oak Alley’s Famous 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.

Max shooting at Gulf Islands National Seashore
Max shooting at Gulf Islands National Seashore

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, 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!

Gulf Islands National Seashore - Fort Pickens
Gulf Islands National Seashore – Fort Pickens

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.

Gulf Islands National Seashore Sunset
Gulf Islands National Seashore Sunset

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!

Gulf Islands National Seashore - Santa Rosa Island Blue Hour
Gulf Islands National Seashore – Santa Rosa Island Blue Hour

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.

Our Campsite

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.

Amy Packrafting
Packrafting Merritt’s Mill Pond

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.

Charlotte Harbor Marina

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.

We had no idea how popular Florida was with RVers during the winter until we tried to book reservations two months before our trip…only to learn that many Florida winter RV spots book up eight months to a full year in advance.  This made it slightly challenging to find places to stay near popular destinations such a Naples during the month of February.

However, while researching for our trip we were lucky to stumble upon the website Campendium which shows all camping options in your search area from free BLM land (public land) to spendy RV resorts. In addition, users can leave star ratings and detailed feedback about the condition of the site, how level the sites are, what amenities are included and even the strength of cell signal in each spot (3 bars AT&T 3G, 2 bars Verizon 4G, etc.). This last bit of info is super helpful on our trip given that Max is working remotely and needs to be connected during the work week. Using Campendium we were able to find a nice RV spot at Belle Mead Campground in Picayune Strand State Forest that was roughly 45 minutes away from the Naples pier for $20 per night with reservation or $10 per night first come first serve.

Picayune Strand Campsite

You can see why so many snowbirds come to Naples in the winter because the beaches are beautiful, the weather is warm and it just has that Tommy Bahama upscale relaxing vibe to it.  In the three days that we had there, we spent most of our time on the beach between Naples Old Pier and Naples New Pier as both were good places to relax and for Max to shoot seascapes. I loved how every night about 30 minutes before sunset the local residents would come down to the beach with a picnic blanket and a bottle of wine to watch the sunset.  Just as the sun dipped below the horizon you could hear a round of applause as everyone clapped for that night’s performance.

Naples Old Pier
Naples New Pier

In addition to relaxing on the beach, we got some much needed trailer maintenance done during our stay in Naples. After our bug situation in the Everglades, Max purchased clear silicone caulking and applied it around all of our window screens to prevent further bugs from flying through any small cracks.  We also finally bought the right connector so that we were able to hook up two Lead Acid Marine Batteries to the trailer giving it one extra day’s worth of power. So now with two batteries we officially have two day’s worth of power when “off the grid”.  We’re still contemplating purchasing solar panels, but for right now are getting by with two batteries and a generator.

Prepping for Double Battery Install

I mentioned that Max is working part-time remotely on this trip, but I haven’t shared much about his other big time commitment and passion – photography!  My husband Max is an extremely talented landscape photographer which is a big reason why we decided to go on this 14 month US adventure.  His biggest constraint with photography is not having enough time in the field to shoot, so this trip is perfect as it allows him to work a couple hours, but also gives him the ability to shoot at sunrise and sunset in new locations without worrying about being to work at a certain time each day. Flexibility is key when it comes to outdoor photography, as the weather can change at any moment and you need to be at the right place at the right time to produce amazing work like he does. I’ll be posting more of his photos on the blog as we go, but if you want to see his current portfolio you should check out his website at

Naples Old Pier by Max Foster

The next stop on our route was Everglades National Park, the first National Park of our trip!  Most national parks are created to preserve unique geographic features; however Everglades National Park was the first created because of its biodiversity.  It is home to endangered species such as the Florida Panther, American Crocodile and West Indian Manatee to name a few.  The Everglades is also the only place in the world where you can find Alligators and Crocodiles together in the wild due to the unique climate and geographic location.

After getting settled into our campsite at the Long Pine Key Campground, we headed out to shoot sunset at a small pond nearby.  Max and I had a bet going as to who could spot the very first alligator in the park and the winner would get a splurge meal of their choice. We both scoured the pond and nearby areas for alligators, but saw none.  Just as the sun was setting, I spotted something really small moving in the water.  As it swam closer and closer to us we realized it was a baby alligator and there were four others swimming toward us as well.  They were really cute, but we knew that wherever there were baby alligators, mama wasn’t far behind!  Between that and the crazy amount of mosquitos that swarmed us at the onset of dusk, we left and headed back to Big Red.

That night while we were making dinner, we noticed small bugs flying around our ceiling lights.  At first we thought we accidentally let them in through the door when we opened the RV, but even after we caught most of them their numbers kept increasing! Our doors were closed and we had screens on all of the windows, so how were they getting in?  After closer inspection with a flashlight from both inside and outside the trailer, we noticed that many of the window screens are not flush with the wall, which left small openings for bugs to fly in. Unfortunately, that meant we had to keep all of our windows and doors closed in the 85 degree weather until we were able to get to a hardware store to seal up those cracks.

The next morning we set out for the Anhinga Trail. This trail is known for being able to see American alligators up close as the boardwalk rises above the marshes and waterways.  Because this is such a popular trail for visitors to the Everglades, the full parking lot also attracts another type of visitor – vultures.  We were shocked to learn that vultures at this particular parking lot like to eat the soft rubber on cars, so if you are the unlucky one in the lot you may come back to see the soft rubber shredded on your car.  Given the severity of the problem, the visitor center provides large tarps to cover your car on a first come first serve basis. Luckily, we were able to get one of the tarps and escaped unscathed after our visit. Oh and most importantly, we got to see several alligators on the trail!

A trip to the Everglades would not be complete without a stop at the Flamingo Visitor Center, also known as the end of the road. While not in the best condition due to recent storms and lack of funding, the area around the visitor center provided a great way to see more unique wildlife.  As we strolled the boardwalk around the saltwater lagoon, we saw several manatees up close eating the vegetation off the side of the docks. These massive gentle creatures are on average 10ft long and weigh up to 1,300 lbs with females generally larger than males.

Given that the Everglades is the only place in contiguous US where crocodiles are found, we really wanted to see one. We heard the best place to view them is behind the Flamingo Visitor Center’s general store at the confluence of where the saltwater and freshwater meet.  As we waited to see a crocodile appear, I noticed kayakers calmly paddling up and down that very same water way.  Part of me wanted to kayak the waters, but the other part of me was screaming “are you crazy?” However, I came to my senses on the basis of not wanting to spend money on the kayak rental. After waiting there for what seemed like an hour with no sight of crocs we both disappointedly walked back to the car.

Outside the Flamingo Visitor Center
Outside the Flamingo Visitor Center

As were in the parking lot ready to drive away I heard a boy yell “Crocodile!”  I immediately jumped out of the car and ran over to see a 12ft crocodile slowly swimming from one side of the water way to the other.  At the same time, an unsuspecting kayak was coming back from their paddle up the river and their parents were yelling at them frantically to move to the other side!  A park ranger showed up, but didn’t seemed phased by the kayak in the water with the croc situation. I asked the park ranger about it and he said they have never had an “incident” with humans and crocodiles even when kayaks have tipped sending someone overboard!

The ranger could tell I was still a bit uneasy about the idea, so he suggested we sign up for a ranger led canoe trip the following day where we’d canoe through mangroves in search of alligators and crocodiles…and it was free! Ranger led…safety check, free of charge…budget check – now I certainly couldn’t say no!

Crocodile Sighting!
Crocodile Sighting!

That following morning we launched our canoe at Nine Mile Pond through the mangroves in search of alligators and crocodiles.  Even though we weren’t able to spot the resident 14ft crocodile “Croc-zilla”, we had a great time going deep into the water jungle and spotted a few alligators along the way.

Canoeing 9 Mile Pond
Canoe Selfie

Lastly, to top off our Everglades trip we stopped at the famous Robert is Here Fruit Stand in Homestead, Florida which is known for their fresh key lime milkshakes and hard to find tropical fruit.  While a bit on the spendy side, ($40 for a key lime milkshake, guanabana banana smoothie, a mango and a guanabana) the fresh tropical taste brought us island vibes without the cost or hassle of a plane ride.