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 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!

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 maxfosterphotography.com.

Naples Old Pier by Max Foster

Bienvenidos a Miami!  As mentioned in a previous post, we had planned our month in Florida ahead of time, however; Miami was the only place where we didn’t have reservations as there are very few RV spots near the city and the few that exist book out months in advance. So we left the dates open in hopes of finding a last minute cancellation and kept calling around.  Two days before arrival, we called Embassy RV Park (30 minutes north of Miami) and left a messaged asking if they had two nights available.  The park manager called me back almost immediately to tell me that while they were fully booked with seasonals, they could make an RV spot temporarily available for the weekend by having us park on the side of their shuffle board court. I said we’d take it!

Miami Beach

We were thrilled as we had been looking forward to going to the Miami Yacht Show near South Beach. Up to this point in the trip, we had been wearing athletic clothes almost every day so this was an opportunity for me to dress up a little, put on some makeup and feel a bit more girly and glamorous! Good thing I spruced up a bit, because the Yacht Show was the epitome of flaunting what you’ve got with men in Italian suits wearing their Rolexes, to countless women wearing designer shoes and one in particular carrying her Hermes Birkin bag (they start at $10,000!) with her little dog in it!

We thought once we paid the entrance fee we’d be able to walk the docks and occasionally board a yacht or two to see the interior.  Well, that turned out to be partially correct for used yachts, but if you wanted to get close to a new yacht and have the opportunity to board you had to sign up in that company’s database, give them the specs of your current yacht and tell them what you are looking for in your next yacht purchase.  The conversation often went like this… “Hi, Nice to meet you. So what type of yacht do you currently own? Well, we don’t own one yet, but we’d love to take a look around. Gotcha, well tours are for serious buyers only.  Are you interested in purchasing?  Not at this time, we are just browsing.  Ok, well feel free to come back when you are interested in purchasing.”  You can see where this is going…so we basically got to see the yachts from the dock, but didn’t get to tour any unless we wanted to bullsh*t our way through.

Miami Yacht Show
Miami Yacht Show

Man, sometimes I wish I was a better schmoozer for situations such as this, but I really suck at it!  We had just been rejected from one yacht that was for charters only, so I said to myself, “I paid to get in here so I’m going to tour a dang yacht!”  I put my game face on and the next yacht we tried to tour the guy actually let us board.  When he asked me about my interest in the yacht I asked him what the cost was to charter for a week…he then gave me a funny look and said, “This boat is for sale, not for charters.  Are you interesting in purchasing?”  Argh, failed again!  We still had fun at the Yacht show, but it proved that the $25 per person entrance fee only gets you so far as you need to already own a yacht (or pretend you already own one) if you wanted access to the full experience.

Finally Touring a Yacht!
Finally Touring a Yacht!

After the Yacht Show, we relaxed with some Pina Coladas on the beach and strolled the board walk toward South Beach. On our walk, we had a good laugh at the juxtaposition of our past life vs. our current life.  Nine years earlier we had vacationed on Miami Beach, spending the days near the beach or hotel pool, going out to fancy dinners each night and clubbing at the hottest nightclub in Miami (LIV @ the Fontainbleu).  Now, we had quit our full-time jobs, were on a 14 month road trip living in our RV “Big Red” and were on a budget of $100 per day. This meant that between the RV Park and the Yacht Show there wasn’t anything left over for fancy meals on the town. Guess that’s part of our new found RV life!

I should mention here that though my career up to this point had been in merchandising for Target either directly or indirectly, we have now gone to the “dark side” and become avid Walmart Grocery shoppers.  Why, you might ask? Well, first and foremost, Walmarts are EVERYWHERE. Even if you are in the middle of nowhere, there is likely a Walmart within 20 miles from your location.  Good luck finding a Whole Foods, Costco or Target in some of these places!  Secondly, if you are on a budget, Walmart is cheap and has a much better grocery selection than Target (Sorry Target, but you probably already knew that!). Third, if you want to be efficient with your time, consistency helps so being able to find the same produce and brands everywhere we go cuts down on grocery shopping time. Oh and lastly, Walmarts always have massive parking lots which makes them easy to maneuver and park our 28’ RV. So keep an eye out on People of Walmart.com as you never know when we may be featured. 😉

Anyway, it was after dark when we got back to our RV the night of the Miami Yacht Show. We made dinner, cleaned up and noticed a few ants here and there crawling inside Big Red.  Max took care of the ones he saw and suggested we get some ant killer the following day to nip it in the bud. The next morning we woke up to a full on ANT INVASION!! The ants were literally everywhere…in our cupboards, inside food packaging that had been rolled and sealed with a clip.  They were inside our fridge, in our laundry hamper, in our wardrobe closet, etc.  To be clear, we are super clean people!  Max could even be considered OCD clean, so we really couldn’t believe this was happening to us!?  We never leave any food out, always hand wash our dishes after every meal and Max sweeps our floors 8 times a day!

Ant Invasion!
Ant Invasion!

After tearing our place apart trying to find what caused this invasion, we still could not find anything specifically that attracted them.  It wasn’t until a couple hours later after Max came back with ant killer that we realized we were parked on a giant ant hill!!  The ant killer helped to decrease the number of ants invading Big Red, but what we really needed to do was to get the hell out of there!  After leaving Miami, it took us a week to get rid of all of the ants, but we eventually got back to living sans ants.

After 1,500 miles on the road in freezing temps, we were thrilled when we finally made it to our first destination at Coral Sands Oceanfront RV Resort – a resort right on the beach in Ormond by the Sea, Florida. We arrived after dark and got to work hooking up Big Red to electric, sewer and water.  Knowing we needed to de-winterize Big Red, we pulled out the RV manual to find the instructions and start the process.

To our surprise, the only thing it mentioned was sanitizing/flushing the tanks, but there was nothing about de-winterizing. Thinking it couldn’t be too hard, Max went ahead and hooked up the water to start flushing out the tanks. Immediately, water starting shooting out of tubes underneath our trailer! Max then tried the city water hookup option (instead of the fill tanks), but water continued spilling out everywhere. Slightly concerned at this point, I grabbed my phone and did some quick internet searching on “How to De-Winterize Your RV?”.  After all, it couldn’t be that hard, right?  We quickly learned that RV plumbing is very model specific, so internet instructions for a different RV aren’t going to help us decode ours.

Coral Sands RV Resort

After trying and failing for over an hour to figure out a fix, we decided to throw in the towel and call an RV repair shop to de-winterize it for us the following day. At 9PM on Friday night, we called RV Tim’s mobile repair shop to leave a message and to our surprise he answered the phone.  Not only did he answer on Friday night, but he spent the next hour walking us through step by step on how to de-winterize our trailer. Thanks to RV Tim, we learned that there are eight different hidden valves behind wood panels that need to be turned on or off during the de-winterizing process. What a guy…would highly recommend if you need any RV assistance in the Daytona Beach area!

It was past 10PM when we finally settled into our RV that night and we still hadn’t eaten dinner. Exhausted with a completely empty fridge, we went to the closest open restaurant nearby, IHOP, and finished the night with some comfort breakfast food.

Ormond by the Sea is a quiet little beach town, just 20 minutes north of Daytona Beach.  It was the perfect spot to relax and adjust to living in our new tiny home. I’d love to say the adjustment was a breeze, but there were lots of things that still took some getting used to like cooking with a travel sized stove and limited counter space. After bumping into each other 50 times while making dinner, we realized only one person can be in the kitchen at a time due to the tight quarters. So now one person makes dinner while the other is on dish duty as we definitely do not have a dishwasher. We had a great four nights there and continued our journey south towards Jupiter Island, Florida.

I can’t believe it’s already been a month since we left on our 14 month road trip across the USA driving from Minnesota to Florida.  A lot has happened that we want to fill you in on, but first and foremost – yes, we are still alive and no, we haven’t gotten sick of each other just yet. 😉

As we sort of expected the first month presented a few obstacles, starting with winter weather.  We had originally planned to leave on Monday, February, 5th, but woke up that morning to a forecast for 6 inches of snow in Iowa.  After a little deliberation, we decided we’d rather be safe than sorry, so we pushed out our start date until the following day.  Good thing we waited!  When we drove through Iowa the next day, we saw more than 25 cars stuck in the ditch from the previous day’s snowstorm.  Luckily, we made it through to St. Louis, MO with no problems.

Neither Max nor I had been to St. Louis, so we were fortunate to have family there to stay with and be our tour guides around the city.  We did the obligatory Gateway Arch tour which provided some amazing views of the city, then ate lunch and had a few cold ones at the Anheuser Busch brewery.

Our plan after leaving St. Louis was to spend a couple nights in Nashville and mosey our way down to Florida; however we scrapped that given our delayed start and seeing that Nashville temperatures were still dipping below freezing at night.  Our Winnebago travel trailer “Big Red” is a 3 season trailer, so the furnace doesn’t work so well when it dips below freezing.

From St. Louis we drove to Atlanta and boondocked at a petting zoo/animal farm for our first night in Big Red.  It was in the mid-40s when we arrived that night, so we piled the blankets on our bed, turned the heat on and hoped for the best.  When we woke up the next morning it was freezing inside as the heat had stopped working due to the low temps!  We made some coffee and oatmeal to warm ourselves up and then hit the road for Florida.  Somewhere on the interstate between Atlanta and Jacksonville, someone may have found a nice little present as we realized our bumper caps (that hold our RV disposal tube inside the bumper) had fallen off and along the way our sh*t tube flew out…time to get a new one!