Sunday, April 8, 2018

T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park - Florida (March 2018)

Google maps said we should be able to travel from Hardridge Creek COE Campground to T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park near Port St. Joe in a little more than four hours. Google lied! It took more than six hours to reach Florida's Gulf coast. 

Google wasn’t alone in this optimistic travel time estimate. Our Garmin GPS and Ford's navigation system also thought Florida was much closer to us than it really was. 

All three systems (we refer to our Garmin GPS as Jill, our truck's system is called Jack and Google Maps is simply known as Google) could only agree that we should be forced to drag Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer, down some tiny country roads running through Alabama's and Florida's farm country. For some unexplainable reason, the speed limits on too many stretches of these roads were 35 or 45 miles per hour and a frightening number of those speed limit signs had the annoying “Strickly Enforced” notices attached. Jack would point us to the left, Jill would say go right and Google said to keep going straight. It was as if we had too many cooks in the kitchen. 

Somehow we managed to make a wrong turn and ended up in Georgia. Jack, Jill and Google all agreed we were heading in the wrong direction, but true to course, none agreed how to get back on track. 

To be fair, Jack, Jill and Google tend to agree when we are rolling down the Interstates. It appeared to us that once our navigation devices figured out we were traveling country roads to our destination, they were competing to see which unit could come up with the slowest, I mean most scenic, route to Port St. Joe. 

After driving for what seemed forever, we found a place in the middle of nowhere with a Methodist church directly across the street from a Baptist church. There was a parking area in front of the Baptist church large enough to allow us to stop for a while and stretch. Both churches had signs saying that burials in their cemeteries must be preapproved and that you could not simply show up and start digging a gravesite. It appeared that random burials were a problem in that community. 

As expected, Jack, Jill and Google didn’t wisely use our break time to agree on the best route for the rest of our trip. We were becoming painfully aware that technology was not going to get us to the Florida Gulf Coast in a timely manner. 

As we meandered through the backroads of Alabama, Georgia and Florida, we started talking about family vacations when we were kids. The backroads were the main highways then because the first legs of the Interstate system were only in the planning stages. 

My memory of vacations was of the family in the Buick and Daddy following his TripTik from AAA. As I was the youngest child, I was permanently assigned the middle of the back seat with my feet resting on the driveshaft hump. My brother and sister had to fight our family dog in what often was a losing battle for the open window in our car that lacked air-conditioning. 

One of our family traditions was the turning of the TripTik page. Mom would always read the description printed on the new page telling us what to look forward to for the next 50 or so miles of our trip. 

Becky had different memories as her family had a Ford station wagon and her permanent seat wasn’t really a seat. She sat in the area behind the last seat. The advantage to traveling in the luggage area was that she could stretch out and nap while traveling. It was always a mystery to her as to how they ever arrived anywhere as she snoozed her way through family trips. 

After much longer than the initial time estimates, we turned on U.S. Highway 98 heading for Florida Highway 30A, the road hugging the Gulf coast and the gateway to T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. It is amazing how our spirits lifted at the first sight of the Gulf. 

We finally see the Gulf

One of our traditional conversation points while driving through the Cape San Blas area is about how it appeared more built-up in a year's time. We were shocked at the amount of construction since we camped there last year. It appeared that the road to our secluded beach area was quickly becoming developed. 

Rosie as we turn off Florida 30-A and head to the state park near Port St. Joe, Fla.

Selfie taken as we turn on to Cape San Blas Road

Fortunately, Cape San Blas Road dead-ends at the state park and you are quickly removed from the growing clutter of “progress.” After checking in, we headed to our site in the Gulf Breeze loop.  

Sign at the entrance of the park

We have our list of favorite sites, but word must have leaked out because we couldn’t get any of our “A-List” sites. We found ourselves on the “marsh” side of the loop this time. 

Rosie in our Gulf Breeze campsite

We have camped in this park in a variety of weather conditions. There were several times during our tent days that all we talked about was how cold it was.There were also times when it was simply too hot for tent camping. The weather isn’t as big a factor for us now because it is always pleasant inside Rosie and that was a good thing because the wind was the weather story this year. We had a couple days of 25-30 mph winds and the temperature dipped into the 40s a few mornings. The winds kept us off the beaches and mostly inside Rosie for three days this time. 

The beach area was closed during the wind storm

Our timing normally places us in this park during the traditional Spring Break season. Of course, the college students tend to gather an hour west of this park in Panama City Beach. We usually see families from Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio in this park. The college-age Spring Breakers that stay here seem to fit in as they appear to enjoy the natural beauty of this area. In fact, several of our neighbors commented on how quiet the park was while it was full of campers. 

Here are some specifics about this park:
  • There are two camping loops (Gulf Breeze and Shady Pines) in the park. There are some tree-lined narrow passages in the Shady Pines loop and I don’t think I would try to navigate some of the sharp turns in that loop with a rig longer than 27 feet. 
  • There are advantages to both loops. Shady Pines has more of a feeling of camping in the woods. Gulf Breeze seems to accommodate larger rigs and is closer to the beach. We noticed while walking around the camping loops during the wind storm that we felt more of the wind in Gulf Breeze than in Shady Pines. 
  • Our site was dirt and it took many leveling tools to help with the port to starboard lean. I think our leveler tools sunk in the sand as the lean became more pronounced during the week. 
  • Our site had 30 and 20 amp electrical service. I don't think the park offers 50 amp service. 
  • In addition to electrical service, our site had a water connection. The water pressure on our connection was a healthy 44 pounds. 
  • Our site did not have a sewer connection and I don't think any sites in this park have sewer connections. 
  • There is a single dump station near the exit of the Gulf Breeze camping loop. You should plan on waiting for your turn at the dump station if several other people decide to leave about the same time as you. 
  • There is a dump station in the Shady Pines loop near the Eastern bathhouse. You cannot reach it with your RV, so you must lug your sewer tote across some soft Florida beach sand to reach it. While this is a challenge, it is easier to use when camping in the Shady Pines loop than dragging your tote to the Gulf Breeze loop. 
  • There are two bath houses in each camping loop and they are all well maintained by the park's staff. The Gulf Breeze loop bathhouse nearest the boardwalk appears to have been updated more recently than the others. That bathhouse was also heated, something we appreciated during the short cold snap while we camped there. 
  • The AT&T signal was slightly better this year. We had two bars of voice and 4G data service inside Rosie. We are not sure if this is the result of the buildup of Cape San Blas or if we parked Rosie in one of the “magic” spots that simply had better service. 
  • There are two WiFi access points in the park. The WiFi at the campstore seems to be a little faster than the WiFi point between the two camping loops. I think I had a dial-up modem 30 years ago that was faster. Expect the bandwidth speeds to plummet when someone else starts sharing the WiFi signal you are using. 
  • There is a campstore in the park with some last minute necessities. I think it may be cheaper to buy a cow from a local farmer than a carton of milk from the store. 
  • This is a pet friendly park. 
  • We were able to watch ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS most of time time using Rosie's antenna. We also consistently saw digital channels ME-TV and CW. Signals from GRIT, H&I and Escape drifted in and out during the day.
This is a park that we always want to bring our bikes and kayak to. Toss in some of the best beaches on the Gulf and spectacular sunsets and you are talking about some great reasons for spending Spring Break in this park. 

We saw nine Airstream trailers and motor homes in the campground while we were camping at the T. H. Stone St. Joseph Peninsula State Park this year. 

The bay side of the park

The "alligator" lake

Along one of the trails in the park

Becky and Suzy at the beach

Seen between the Shady Pines and Gulf Breeze camping loops
A pelican near the camp store 

Suzy on the boardwalk

Becky and her new friend in Port St. Joe, Florida

Lunch in Port St. Joe, Florida

Sunset over the Gulf



Rosie at the dump station as we leave the park

Monday, March 26, 2018

Hardridge Creek COE Campground - Alabama (March 2018)

The first signs of Spring always start us thinking about taking Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer, out on our inaugural trip for the new camping season. This has traditionally been to visit the Florida State Park near Port St. Joe, the campground we have visited every Spring Break for nearly 20 years.

We thought we would do things differently this year. We would divide the trip into staying for a few days at a park a couple hours down the road then continuing on to Port St. Joe.

Hardridge Creek COE Campground was a little ways off our normal route to Florida, but Google Maps said Hardridge was about two hours from our house then it was another four hours to continue on to Port St. Joe. That sounded perfect and it would give us a chance to de-winterize Rosie before arriving in Florida.

Rosie at Hardridge Creek COE Campground

First, Hardridge is a very nice COE campground. It is along Lake George on the Alabama side of the lake, the same lake the local people call Lake Eufaula.

Hardridge has some of the best lakefront campsites I’ve ever seen in a COE campground. The loop called Pirate's Cove juts out into the water and is always full. Like most of the loops in this park, Pirates Cove has electric and water connections. We elected to stay in the loop that also added full hookups instead of the one offering amazing lake views.

View at Hardridge

Looking at Lake Eufaula

View from one of the camp sites

Our campsite had a view of the lake, which was about 50 feet behind Rosie. Of course, there weren’t leaves on the trees yet. We thought that it would be hard to see the lake once the trees filled out with leaves.

View behind Rosie

It seems that fishing is the primary activity in this park. Our campsite had the normal fire ring, picnic table and it also had a small table for cleaning fish. 

Temperatures were hovering around freezing at night while we were camping in Hardridge. Our heat pump wasn’t able to keep up with our desired temperature as it approached freezing outside and we had to switch over to an electric heater. Since the lows were right at freezing, we elected to not fire up Rosie’s furnace.

Looking at one of the camping loops in Hardridge

We were supposed to stay at Hardridge for three nights. Becky realized on our first morning that we needed to attend to something at home. We quickly jumped in the truck and headed there in time to correct our problem. Instead of turning around and going back to Rosie, we spent the night at home. 

It felt strange to be home because we were in the camping mode. The refrigerator was empty and many of our comfort items were two hours down the road in Rosie. We headed back to Hardridge the next morning thankful we were able to take care of things before going to Florida. 

While on our way back to the campground, we passed by a horse-drawn covered wagon train heading into town complete with police escort. It seemed that the rodeo was arriving in a very nostalgic way.

The rodeo heading into town

Here are some specifics about Hardridge Creek COE Campground:
  • There are multiple camping loops in this park. Some have amazing lake views. 
  • Our site had 50, 30 and 20 amp electrical service. 
  • Our site had a water connection with 35 pounds of pressure. 
  • Our site had a sewer connection. 
  • There was one dump station located in the middle of the park. 
  • The trash dumpsters were close to the park's entrance. It was too far to walk to, so you had to drive there with your trash. 
  • Our site had a concrete pad and was level. 
  • We found two bathhouses in the park. One was near our site, which had full hookups. It seems that some sites in this campground are a long ways from a bathhouse. 
  • The bathhouse in our loop was clean and well maintained. 
  • The park did not provide a WiFi signal. 
  • AT&T placed a good 4G signal over our campsite. This was a surprise since there was no signal at the entrance to the park. 
  • It was clear to us that the AT&T signal was coming from the other side of the lake. The middle of the lake is the border between Alabama and Georgia. It is also the time zone line as Georgia is in the Eastern time zone and Alabama is in the Central time zone. Our iPhones kept displaying Eastern times and that caused us to believe our cellphone connection was coming from the Georgia side of the lake. 
  • We were able to watch the following TV networks using Rosie's antenna: ABC, CBS and NBC. We were able to receive the following digital channels: Bounce, Cozi, CW, Escape, Grit, LAFF, ME-TV and MY. 
There was an old fashioned restaurant/soda fountain in a drug store about five miles from the park. I wanted to visit it, but we couldn’t this time. Maybe we will be able to do so the next time we visit Hardridge Creek COE Campground.

We passed this on the way to Hardridge!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Grayton Beach State Park - Florida (October 2017)

We had heard rumors for several years that the original loop of the Grayton Beach State Park was going to be updated. This was the more rustic loop in the campground and featured some sites right on the water. Some campers speculated that the loop would be cleared of trees and scrubs so that sewers and 50 amp electrical service could be easily added to those campsites.

Grayton Beach State Park

We saw the construction sign when we turned into the park. We focused on the words “sewer project” and wondered if the original loop was about to become a parking lot in appearance.

Construction work at Grayton Beach State Park

The ranger who checked us in had good news and bad news about the construction. The good news was that the contractors were not supposed to remove any trees while adding sewer connections and 50 amp electrical service to the campsites in the original loop. The bad news was that the park was going to stop taking reservations for the that loop after Labor Day 2018 and the loop would be closed for a year. 

Not all of the campsites in the original loop are going to be upgraded. Several campsites in this loop will be passed over because trees are in the way of the upgrades and that is OK with us to protect the look of this campground. 

When we made our reservations, our first choice was to be in the original loop. We were fortunate to camp in one of the sites along the lake last time and hoped to stay in the same site this year. It ended up being that all the sites in that loop large enough to hold Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer, were booked. There were a couple of sites available in the newer loop and that meant our visit this year would be different than in previous ones.

Rosie in the Newer Camping Loop
Our site

There are some advantages to camping in the newer loop that we overlooked in the past. First, the newer loop has full connections including sewer. Second, the road around the newer loop is paved. That made a huge reduction in the amount of dust collected in Suzy’s coat. (Suzy is our Yorkie.)

Grayton Beach State Park is just outside the Watercolor community. There are some great trails and bike paths in this area, so this is a park you bring your bikes to.

One the bike path to Watercolor

Steve and Suzy in a park near Grayton Beach State Park

A boathouse in Seaside

Becky and Suzy on the foot bridge

There was an Environmental Day in the park while we were camping there. Several organizations had displays in the park. The one that caught our attention was a nature talk about the intercoastal waterway. The speaker mostly talked about the alligators living in and near the park. We always saw the “alligator” signs around the park, but never an alligator. We left that talk convinced that gators were in the park and that we may see one while on one of our visits.

The alligator sign

Here are some specifics about this park:
  • There are two loops in this park. This was our first time camping in the newer loop. 
  • Our site was gravel and level. 
  • Our site had 20, 30 and 50 amp electrical service. 
  • Our site had water and sewer connections. 
  • AT&T placed a strong 4G voice and data signal over our site. 
  • TV has been a hit-or-miss deal in this park. This visit has to be classified as a miss because we could only receive the ABC affiliate this time. 
  • The bathhouse in the  newer loop is, as you guessed, newer and up-to-date. We will see if the bathhouse in the older loop is renovated during the construction project next year. 
  • This is a pet-friendly Park. 
It will be harder than normal to get reservations in Grayton Beach State Park for the next year or two. The good news is that the park will have more great sites in both loops when the renovation is completed. 

The beach

The beach

The "famous" trees at Grayton Beach State Park

View from on the the trails inside Grayton Beach State Park

The Gulf near sunset time

Close to shore

Sunset over Rosie

A fly-by

Cool day at the beach

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Big Lagoon State Park - Florida (September 2017)

What are the odds? You have to reserve campsites in most Florida State Parks nearly a year in advance to get a decent spot. Its ironic that we selected an arrival date at Big Lagoon State Park that turned out to be a couple days after Hurricane Irma hit Florida. In case you don’t remember Hurricane Irma, it destroyed and flooded property from the Florida Keys to the Florida panhandle.

We called the park the day before we were scheduled to arrive to make sure it was open. We were told that Big Lagoon was one of only two Florida State Parks that were open and able to accept campers. What are the odds?

You could not miss the convoys of utility trucks heading into Florida as we pulled Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer to the Pensacola area. It is always comforting to see people arriving to help after a disaster. Thousands and thousands of homes stretching from the Keys to north Florida were without power and an army of power trucks were moving in to help restore service. Pensacola may have been one of the few areas of Florida that was not feeling the impact of Hurricane Irma.

Rosie in Big Lagoon State Park

Our campsite in Big Lagoon State Park

We noticed that the park was nearly empty when we arrived. That was understandable since many people probably canceled their reservations due to the unpredictable path of the hurricane. Those camping in the park didn’t appear to us to be normal campers as few awnings were open and we didn’t see the usual trimmings found at most campsites. It didn’t take long to figure out that the park had several hurricane refugees who fled their homes with their RVs and were waiting to hear that they could return. 

For example, there was an Airstream family parked across from us. They told us they had fled from the Keys and were leaving the next morning to start the long drive home. They hoped their home stood up to the wind and waves. 

We were probably one of the few campers in the park paying the camping fees. The governor of Florida waived park fees for Florida residents escaping the storm. That helped explain why some campers in the park didn’t appear to be there on vacation. 

We tend to associate certain activities with the campgrounds we frequent. Big Lagoon is our “kayak” park. We enjoyed watching the birds along the shore as we paddled through the lagoons. We also found a baby alligator along the boardwalk connecting the campground to the lagoon.

The boardwalk in Big Lagoon State Park

A walking trail in Big Lagoon State Park

The Bay

Our youngest son and his family were able to visit us on Saturday. We drove over to Johnson Beach so that our eight-month old grandson could have his first beach experience. By the way, he wasn’t impressed with the Gulf but enjoyed eating ice cream that evening.

Our son, daughter-in-law and grandson visit Big Lagoon

Our grandson's first visit to the beach

Our grandson in Rosie

Our family in the park's observation tower
 Pensacola Naval Air Station is only a few miles from Big Lagoon State Park. We visited the Naval Museum of Naval Aviation and watch the Blue Angles perform.

We found an A3D on the tarmac (the type of jet Steve's brother worked on while he served in the U.S. Navy)

Becky found the "Blues"

That probably was the wrong button to push!
Suzy wasn't too impressed with the Blue Angles

Here are some specifics about this park:
  • There were three primary camping loops in this park. 
  • Our site had 50 and 20 amp electrical service. Some sites had only 30 amps. 
  • Our site had a water connection with 40 pounds of pressure. 
  • Our site did not have a sewer connection. 
  • There was one dump station located near the campground exit. 
  • Our site was dirt and required multiple leveling tools. 
  • Each loop had a bathhouse. The bathhouse in our loop was well maintained and clean. 
  • There wasn’t a breeze flowing through the bathhouse and that meant it was hot and stuffy. 
  • Another bathhouse issue was that the timer controlling the lights wasn’t properly set. Too many campers found the lights off inside while it was still dark outside. 
  • There was a camp store in the first camping loop. It was tiny, but had a good selection of items that weren’t “tourist “ priced. 
  • The camp store sent a delivery cart around the campground every evening with firewood and ice cream, which are campground necessities for many people. 
  • AT&T placed a strong 4G voice and data signal over the park. 
  • The park did not offer Wi-Fi, but Wi-Fi was available at the public library just outside the park. 
  • We were able to watch off-air TV signals from: ABC, CBS, CW, COZI, FOX, NBC and PBS. We also saw digital signals from Antenna, Get, Grit, Ion and ME-TV. 
We continue to learn things on our camping adventures. We had two take-always from this visit. 

First, always travel with a few truck/Rosie cleaning supplies. We drove through a colony of love bugs and that meant we needed to clean both vehicles as soon as we parked. 

Second, we need to pay attention to the season when we reserve a campsite. The park wasn’t full in part due to Hurricane Irma. The other reason was because other people knew better than to make reservations where it will be hot during September. A Ranger said that the campground usually fills in October when the weather turns cooler. I think the odds are good next year that we will head north or to the mountains. 

We lost power a couple of times during our stay and it wasn’t the park’s fault. A big motor home plowed over a water connection and a power box while attempting to park. The rangers disconnected power to our section of the park to make sure the destroyed power box was safe then switched the power off again while fixing the problem.

You can rent canoes in Big Lagoon State Park

Becky completed a plein air watercolor painting from the top of the observation tower

Enjoying the beach

Suzy plays with one of her toys

Big Lagoon State Park

Who is afraid of an alligator?

Boardwalk to the observation tower in Big Lagoon State Park