Thursday, November 28, 2013

Grayton Beach State Park, Florida

Our visit to Grayton Beach State Park was unplanned. We were going to stay a full week along Florida's Gulf coast at another popular park, but discovered our original park was not the natural paradise we thought it would be. A camper there suggested we might be happier at Grayton. After a quick check, we found that we could check out of the first park and move to Grayton Beach State Park.
Grayton Beach State Park

Within moments of arriving, I knew that this park was much better suited for us. The main attraction at Grayton is nature and not the park itself, although the park is excellent. We had a site with shade and it had bushes on the sides of our spot, meaning we were not staring at our neighbors. We felt we were in the woods along the Gulf coast.
Rosie in the Grayton Beach State Park

Our moods immediately changed as we started setting up Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer. Instead of parking on a level concrete pad as we did at our last campground, we had to use our levelers because our site was gravel and dirt. While some people love concrete pads, we are OK with a natural site.
One of the trails in this park

As we were pulling in the park, we noticed that there were several other Airstream trailers there. During our stay, 11 different Airstreams visited the park. We first thought we stumbled into an Airstream rally. It turns out that we are not the only Airstreamers who enjoy Grayton Beach State Park.
One of the views from Grayton Beach State Park
Park literature claims that Grayton Beach is consistently ranked among the most beautiful beaches in the United States. While our ability to compare all of America's beaches is limited, it is difficult to imagine too many other beaches better than this one. If you like beautiful beaches, you will love Grayton Beach.
The beach area
The Gulf shore

We noticed that we were not finding sea shells along this beach. We were told that an offshore reef keeps the shells from washing ashore. That is interesting because we have camped along the Florida Gulf coast less than 50 miles away and found lots of shells.
While there are some good bicycle trails in the park, we enjoyed following the bike trails a mile or two outside the park to the Seaside Beach area. If you are wondering about what Seaside is, think up-scale tourist beach. For example, the Seaside community invited about a dozen artists there to paint during the week then had an art show and sold their work over the weekend. A spare couple thousand dollars could have landed you some amazing paintings created in the area that week. We ended up munching on the food served at the art showing and enjoying the paintings without taking one home.
Artist at work in Seaside

There are two camping loops in Grayton Beach State Park. One has sewer connections and the other one doesn't. We noticed that the side with sewer connections didn't have the amount of shade found in the other loop. When adding the sewer connections, the construction team clear-cut the camping sites in that loop. While the trees are starting to grow back, it will take a few years before they can start providing the needed shade in that loop. Sadly, sewer service is going to be added to the second loop one day at the cost of the trees there. We will miss the shade in that loop when the State of Florida decides it has enough money to complete this project.
Make sure you bring your water filtration system to this park. We have a water filter on the main water connection plus another water filter on the kitchen sink. With the dual filters, the water tasted fine, unfiltered water didn't.
Both camping loops had well-maintained bath houses. These were located in the center of each loop.
The one element of the park that didn't make sense to us was the dump station. There is only one and it is in a strange location. Anyone using the dump station blocks the road so that no one can pass. If you are caught by another camper using the dump station, you simply need to be patient and wait until they finish.
Campers know that this has been a banner year for ants in many parks. We had legendary battles in some of the parks we visited trying to keep the ants outside Rosie. We lost the battle in a couple of parks and held our own in others.
As soon as we started setting up, I walked over to our neighbors and asked them about the ant problem only to find out that they had not seen any ants at this park. It was nice to not worry about ants while camping at this park.
Some specifics about this park:
  • Electrical connections in our loop were 20 and 30 amps. We didn't have 50 amp connections.
  • AT&T provided stong 4G service over the campground.
  • There is no WiFi service in the park.
  • There is no WiFi service close to the park. If you need WiFi, plan to travel 20 minutes to find a restuarant with free WiFi.
  • We were able to watch ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC TV stations from our antenna. We also saw ME-TV and CW digital signals while in the park.
  • While you feel as though you are in the woods when camping here, you are very close to shopping. We were able to ride our bikes to several shopping areas.
Painting by Becky while at Grayton Beach
Grayton Beach was not the park we planned to camp at on this trip. In fact, we hadn't heard that much about Grayton Beach. As it turned out, Grayton Beach was a great find and a park that we will return to in the future.
Here are some additional photos from Grayton Beach State Park:
A trail in the park

The famous pines
Prayer of the Woods

Friday, November 15, 2013

Topsail Hill State Park, Florida

For more than a year, we planned our trip to Topsail. While sharing favorite parks with other campers on our many adventures, Topsail kept coming up as a "must see" park.
First, Topsail is along Florida's Gulf coast and is located near Destin Beach. This is a beautiful area of Florida and we love camping on the Gulf.
The campsites in Topsail are not on the water, but there is a tram that moves campers to the beach. You cannot be in a hurry because the tram only runs every hour.
While speaking about the beach, you need to know it is beautiful. Of course, most of Florida's and Alabama's Gulf coastline areas qualify as beautiful.
Arriving at the park, we commented on the major "theme park" quality there. The park is amazingly well manicured. Every bush in the park is well groomed. The park is spotless and it looks like they must mow the grass daily.
The other thing we noticed was how many campers they can squeeze into a small space. We were going to be next to other campers on all sides of Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer.
The closeness of the trailers became apparent when we started backing into our site. One of our neighbors had to move his children's bicycles from along the front of their site because there was no way we could maneuver into our site without our neighbors moving their stuff.
I was able to repay our camping community back later that evening when a huge fifth wheel arrived after dark and several campers had to help that young family navigate into their site.
Once we parked Rosie, I started the outside set up and Becky started getting the inside ready. After a few minutes, Becky asked if the power was on because she wanted to switch on the air conditioner.
When I replied that we were connected to the AC, Becky informed me that there was no power inside Rosie. A quick check confirmed that we were connected to the camp's power source, but power was not making its way into Rosie.
While I was getting out my tools ready to play Mr. Fix-it, Becky went looking for a Park Ranger to check our power connection box. Quickly, several rangers converged on our site to start working on our problem. Sadly, they determined that it was OUR problem. Our electrical cord was broken.
To set the stage, it is 3 p.m. on Saturday afternoon. If we don't find a power cord, we will be spending the night without power and that means no AC. Once again, the Rangers came through by telling us where the closest Wal-Mart was plus they mentioned that a new Camping World just opened in Panama City, which was about 50 minutes down the road.
We jumped into the car and headed to Wal-Mart. While Becky was driving there, I used my iPhone to find and call Camping World to confirm that they had the cord. We stopped at Wal-Mart and quickly looked over their camping supplies. They didn't have the power cord. Immediately, we changed directions and started heading to Panama City.
Another wrinkle in the mix was that Camping World closed at 5 p.m. and that was 90 minutes away. If you have ever driven through Panama City, you know that traffic can be an issue there. We were fortunate in that there were no traffic delays and we arrived before the store closed.
Camping World had the power cord we needed plus it was on sale for the store's grand opening. We ended up buying two power cords and started back to Rosie because the next issue was that it was starting to get dark and we didn't want to complete our setup after sunset.
The new cord confirmed that our old cable was the problem and Rosie was back on the power grid.
That was the easy problem to fix at Topsail. The next probelm was a doozey.
After we completed setting up Rosie, we went for a walk around the park, There are two loops in this park. The first, the one we were in, seemed to have campers packed in as tight as possible. The second also had a high number of RVs, but that loop had a little more space between campers.
We were not happy at Topsail.
We felt as if we were in a fishbowl because campers were packed in all around us.
We were not happy at Topsail.
They call Topsail an RV resort and we cannot argue with that. The park was well maintained and nothing was out of place, except us. We prefer more of a "back to nature" atmosphere at our campground, not the world of a resort.
We were not happy at Topsail.
Another camper told us about Grayton Beach State Park. It sounded better to us because it was a state park focused on nature and not on providing a resort atmosphere.
We called Grayton and the ranger said that they had one of their non-reserved sites open that morning and he would hold it for us for two hours.
We had two hours to tear down our campsite at Topsail, hitch up Rosie and travel up the road to Grayton Beach. Needless to say, we were in our "get on the road as quickly as possible" mode.
It took about 30 minutes to completely tear down and hitch Rosie up to our truck. We quickly checked out of Topsail and set our sights on Grayton Beach.
We will talk about Grayton Beach in our next posting.
Here are some specifics about Topsail Hill State Park:
  • If you like well maintained parks, Topsail is for you.
  • The park offers 20, 30 and 50 amp electrical service to the RVs.
  • The restrooms and showers are not at the level you would expect for this type of park. Maybe these facilities haven't been updated because all of the camp sites have sewer connections.
  • The park has TV Cable service. Our cable connection wasn't working, so we ended up watching over-the-air TV.
  • We were able to watch ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox plus ME-TV and THIS digital channels while in this park.
  • The camping pads were concrete and they were level.
  • AT&T had good 4G service in this park.
  • Half of the park has WiFi and the other half has to go to the camp store to use WiFi.
  • If you have a problem, the camp volunteers and rangers will quickly come to your rescue.
  • There is lots of shopping near this park.
Many people love this park and it is easy to see why. It is a very nice park. It just isn't the style of park we enjoy.

Friday, October 25, 2013

White Oak Creek Campground, near Eufaula, Ala.

White Oak Creek is an Army Corps of Engineers park located on Lake George just south of Eufaula, Ala. This is a park that is normally open only during spring, summer and a little during the fall season. It is scheduled to be closed during winter. We didn't know this little fact when we arrived for a visit.
White Oak Creek
We were surprised when we arrived because only one loop of this park was open. The park attendants had volunteered to stay for a while and keep the park operating after the scheduled seasonal closing passed a week or two earlier. Needless to say, we were very grateful that the park attendants volunteered to keep one loop of the park open.

Camping at White Oak Creek

There was an air of uncertainty while we were in the park. One of the conversation points among our fellow campers was speculating how long the volunteers were going to keep the park open.
Similar to many COE parks, the camping sites were spacious. We always appreciate having some space between Rosie, our Airstream trailer, and the next camper.
Lots of space at White Oak

Our spot was on the water and we enjoyed watching the ducks, geese and other birds playing along the shore. At times it sounded as if the ducks were all laughing at a joke told by one of their flock. We also saw schools of fish jump in the lake right after sunset.
Lots of ducks and other birds

The volunteers keeping the park open did a great job keeping it up. The park and restrooms were clean and well maintained. It was easy to see that they took pride in this park and wanted to share it with everyone.

White Oak Creek did reinforce our idea that most of the COE parks we have visited are great places to camp.

Camping at White Oak Creek
Some specifics about this park:
  • This park is close to shopping. If you need to get some supplies, there is a store about five miles outside the main gate.
  • I thought that we would see all of the TV stations from Columbus, GA. We ended up only seeing an occasional signal from a CBS station.
  • AT&T provided good 4G service over the park.
  • There wasn't a WiFi signal at this park.
  • The park has power and water at the camp sites. There was a dump station in the park. (We think there was another dump station, but it was probably in the closed section of the park.)
  • The power connections were interesting. The power box at our camp site offered only 30 amp service. There wasn't a 20 nor a 50 plug available.
The rumor mill among the campers kept speculating if the park would be open beyond the Monday after we were scheduled to leave the park. My first thought was that the volunteers keeping the park open were about to throw in the towel. It appears that our fellow campers were thinking about something we were not considering--the federal government's shutdown.

A rainbow after a fall shower
As hard as it is to believe, the federal government did shut down the following Monday and the park was scheduled to close along with every other federal park in America. White Oak Creek did not close because the city of Eufaula entered into an agreement with the Corps of Engineers to keep the park open. According to local news reports, White Oak was the only federal campground open during the shutdown.
Rosie on the road again
This qualifies as both good news and bad news. It is good that the local community decided to step up and keep this wonderful park open. The bad news is that all federal parks need to be open, not just one.

Watercolor painted by Becky at White Oak Creek
Before drifting intro a tirade about what is wrong in Washington, I'll conclude by saying White Oak Creek COE Campground is a solid campground and worth visiting.
Watercolor of hickory nuts by Becky

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Gulf Shores State Park

The Gulf Shores area of Alabama is very familiar to our family. For many years, my employer sent me to an annual convention in that area and the family always went along to enjoy the beach. While we knew about the area and the convention hotel down the street, we had never visited Gulf Shores State Park. This trip was a first for both us and Rosie, our Airstream trailer.

Gulf Shores, as you would expect, is along the Gulf of Mexico. While the Gulf shoreline has received lots of negative coverage during the BP oil spill disaster, the lingering effects of that event are no longer visible to the casual viewer.
The Gulf Shores State Park Beach

To put things into perspective, we show up the weekend of Labor Day and the park is quickly filling up with campers. Our assigned site was in one of the secondary loops. By that, I mean that we were not in the prime spots on the water.

I wasn't sure what to expect here because the park frequently falls victim to the Gulf's hurricanes. It seems to me that every time the State of Alabama repairs the most recent hurricane damage, another storm comes along and tears up the park. 

On our visit, we found that the park has a swimming pool and it was open. The park has a larger than normal camp store and it was open. The park has several playgrounds for children and they were open. The park has tennis courts and this area was also open. Thus, we didn't see any storm damage in these areas.
The boardwalk to the beach

That's not to say that the park didn't have any storm damage. The visible damage had to be the lack of trees in the park. I don't think many trees survived the storms. That is a shame because this park can use all of the shade it can get.

As soon as we arrived, we started scouting out better sites on the water. We ended up with a list of several water-front sites where the campers were pulling out before the end of the weekend.

The next morning, we started patrolling the sites we picked as ones we wanted to occupy as soon as the current campers left and discovered that one camper was packing up. We quickly hitched up Rosie then went to the camp headquarters to officially move our site. This was when things started going sour.

One of the volunteers working at the park's office decided that she couldn't help us because she was too busy with some unidentifiable task. After patiently waiting longer than a reasonable amount of time, Becky asked if the "workers" in the office were all volunteers or if a state employee was on duty. It turns out that a state employee was on duty, heard my wife's question and quickly changed our site to one with a beautiful water view.
Rosie's new site along the water

It seems that we always learn something from every Rosie adventure. We quickly learned after moving to consider more factors than view when choosing sites.
The view from Rosie's back window

I mentioned the lack of trees earlier in this posting. No trees translates into no shade and that means Rosie was baking in the hot sun during the day. Rosie has a good air conditioner, but it was unable to keep up with the direct September sun shining on her aluminum skin.

The solution was multiple trips to the store to purchase car window shades. We ended up putting shades in all of Rosie's windows, which blocked the view we moved to enjoy. After talking to our neighbors, we noticed that return campers tended to stay across the street from the water because there was a little shade there and first time visitors to the park took the view over the shade. When we return to this park, we will join our fellow park veterans and choose shade.
Rosie in the direct sun

There is lots to do in this park and we enjoyed riding our bicycles there. One of the interesting events at the park while we were there was a triathlon. We watched the bike element of the triathlon weave through the park that weekend.
Watercolor painted by Becky at Gulf Shores

Watercolor painted by Becky at Gulf Shores

Here are some specifics about the park:
  • This park is huge. We think there are hundreds and hundreds of camping sites in this park.
  • Sites have water and electric connections.
  • Most sites have 20, 30 and 50 amp service.
  • There were multiple dump stations along the park's main road.
  • Bathhouses were adequate and clean. A camper warned us that the showers didn't have hot water. I discovered that the showers had plenty of hot water, but controls worked opposite of what you expected.
  • We were able to watch TV signals from CBS, NBC and several religious TV stations. When the wind was right, we could see Fox. We missed some of the digital channels we enjoy while camping.
  • Expect to find the Rockefeller family in the camp store squandering the family fortune. Keep in mind that there are other shopping opportunities just outside the park and you can afford to pay for the gas on what you save over camp store prices.
  • The park has a large swimming pool and many visitors took advantage of this recreation facility.
  • AT&T provided good 4G service throughout the park.
  • We think the park had WiFi, but it wasn't working while we were there.
While the park is on the Gulf, the campsites are not. If you want to see the Gulf, you need to drive a little to get there.

If you are heading to Gulf Shores State Park in Alabama during the summer, we recommend that you think about finding a campsite with shade. This will help make your time in the park significantly more comfortable.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

R. Shaefer Heard Campground, West Point Lake, Georgia

There are several Army Corp of Engineer parks around West Point Lake in Georgia and we decided that it was time for Rosie, our Airstream camper, to see if these parks measure up to what fellow campers said about them.
We had other reasons for wanting to try one of these parks. Becky wanted to invite her brother to join us for a couple of days and the West Point Lake parks were convenient for him to visit us.
R. Shaefer Heard COE Park
R. Shaefer Heard COE Park
We decided to stay at the R. Shaefer Heard Campground because of its location. It was close to I-85 and easy to find.
Similar to many other U.S. Army Corp of Engineer facililties in that region, the main feature of this park is a large lake. Many of the campsites in this park are on the water and offer great views.
Camping at R. Shaefer Heard
Camping at R. Shaefer Heard
What we didn't know heading into this park was the decent in the approach leading to many of the campsites. Our specific campsite had a grade that made unhitching and hitching a challenge. I will talk more about that later.
The park is well maintained and there is much appreciated space between sites. Some parks seem to cram sites right next to each other. It is always nice when there is room between your camper and the ones next to you.
The restrooms were clean and well-maintained and centrally located in the camping loops. Showers were not located in all of the restrooms and most people ended up having to drive to the showers.
It rained during the week we stayed in this park. It rained in the mornings, afternoons and evenings. I guess you can sum up the week by saying it rained. During the few breaks, we enjoyed going out in Becky's brother's boat.
Here are some specifics about this park:
  • This is a campsite that you have to pay attention to the maximum rig size for each site. Some of the sites in this park would struggle to accomodate Rosie, our 25 foot long trailer.
  • Sites have water and electrical connections. There is a dump station in the park. We had to haul our sewer tote to the dump site several times while staying in this park.
  • The electrical connections included 20, 30 and 50 amp service.
  • AT&T provided marginal 3G and 4G service. There were times during the day that we could not make cell phone calls from this park.
  • Television service was spotty. I thought we would have good service from the Columbus, Georigia market. Don't forget to pack a good supply of movies to watch while staying here because over-the-air TV is unreliable.
I mentioned earlier that our site had a steep grade to it. While it probably was easy for 5th-wheels to negotiate, it presented a challenge for Rosie when we first parked. This issue came back when it was time to leave.
The angle was such that we could not connect the weight distribution bars on our hitch. We had to couple the ball then pull Rosie up to the road and finish hitching up there. That was a first for us.
It seems that we always learn something on every camping trip and our lesson on this trip was to pay attention to the grade accessing the campsite. If it is too steep, we need to change sites.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Wind Creek State Park and the 4th of July

While coordinating calendars one evening, we discovered that we had a longer than expected Fourth of July holiday. This would be a great time to schedule an adventure in Rosie.
There were a few caviots to scheduling this trip. First, we were talking about one bonus day for the holiday and not a significant amount of time. Second, I would have to spend a little time during the weekend to complete a project for work and that meant I needed to be inside a WiFi footprint at the campground.
When you add those two elements together, the sum was that Rosie was headed to either Wind Creek State Park or to Gunter Hill Corp of Engineers Campground. Both are within a 90 minute commute from Fort Rosie, which is where we store our Airsteam trailer.
While both parks have their advantages, Wind Creek State Park won this time because of the bicycle trails. Wind Creek has more bike paths than Gunter Hill and riding our bikes around the park in July sounded like fun.
Several Alabama State parks have a policy of reserving you a space in the park, but not a specific camp site. That means you have to get to the park then race around to find the actual site where you really want to set up your camping rig.
Many of the lakeside sites are currently closed for renovation at Wind Creek. That greatly reduced the "prime" sites available during the holiday weekend.
Knowing this, we decided on a clever plan: we would head out early in the morning and beat the crowd.
Someone let our secret out. There was a line of want-to-be campers at the registration office trying to get the best of the remaining sites. When it was our turn, we decided on a site in one of the first loops in the park.
This was our first time in the park where our site was not on the lake. We discovered that some families with young children like these loops because they feel it is safer being farther away from the lake. While I am not qualified to determine if the early loops are really safer, they did appear to be quieter than the "party" atmosphere found nearer the lake.
Our plan was to spend the week at Wind Creek and I would commute to work, as needed. We pulled out after three days.
Why? We have stayed in Wind Creek for a week before, what happened this time to convince us that it was time to pack up and head home?
Shortly after setting up, it started to rain. Then it continued to rain, followed by more rain. It rained everyday while we were there and the weather apps on our iPhones were predicting another week of rain.
After spending three days in a soaking rain, the reality that we were going to spend the entire week inside Rosie started to sink in. It wasn't going to stop raining that week. It was time to hitch up and head home.

It seems that we always learn something on every camping trip. The "take away" from this trip was to know when to throw in the towel.
We camp because we enjoy sharing each other's company, we enjoy seeing nature from Rosie's panaramic window and we enjoy being outside in the campgrounds. We don't camp so that we can sit inside Rosie and watch TV. If the weather is forcing us to be couch potatoes, it is time to move on down the road.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Fort Pickens Campground - Gulf Islands National Seashore - Florida

The Fort Pickens Campground is located on Santa Rosa Island near Pensacola, Florida. It is inside the Gulf Islands National Seashore and you must purchase admission to the Seashore from the National Park Service before being allowed to travel to the campground.
Fort Pickens campground
Be careful of the route selected by your GPS to this park. I don't think there is a way to this park without paying tolls to cross some bridges. The question is how many tolls will you pay?
While our GPS may have found the absolute shortest path, it took us over a $12 toll bridge. The toll collector said that there was another route the locals know that has only a $1 toll. Thanks, GPS!
Pensacola Beach is a typical Florida beach in that it has many condos, hotels and souvenir shops. It is easy to tell that you are entering the park area because the landscape turns natural.
You cannot help but notice the top edge of the station where you purchase admission to the seashore area. It appeared that it was frequently hit by the big rigs entering the park. I took a cue from previous visitors' mistakes and made sure that Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer, had plenty of room to clear the building.
You have to pay for admission to the national seashore on top of your camping fees. The fee is valid for five days or you can buy an annual pass.
Once you are in the park, you have to drive a couple of miles to the registration building for the campground. There is a 90 degree turn heading into that parking lot and the thought crossed my mind that Becky could be backing Rosie out of this little road if I made a mistake in following the signs. (Becky handles reverse because I cannot accurately backup a car, much less Rosie!)
It turns out that you really have to turn off the main road to register for the campground. The RV parking spaces were hidden by the sand dunes when you first turn off the main road.
Speaking of sand dunes, the road leading to the campground passes through a narrow strip of land with the Gulf on one side and the bay on the other. You cannot help but notice the beautiful dunes and how the sand is starting to come over the sides of the road.
There are five camping loops in this park. Loop A is separate from the others. Loops B, C, D and E are in one large area. The frequent hurricanes passing over this park have taken out many trees and the shade they provide. Loop A has the most shade. The other loops are mostly in the direct sun. Rosie's air conditioner ran non-stop while at this park.
Rosie at Fort Pickens campground
We were surprised at how shallow the camping sites were. Our site was listed as OK for trailers up to 30 feet. Once we parked Rosie, there wasn't enough room to park the truck. We had to put the truck in the overflow area across the street.
Parking the truck in the overflow area
One of the first things we noticed in this park was the wildlife. Osprey and heron nests were full of baby chicks and the parents were either standing guard or catching critters to feed their young.

Along the beach, the manta rays were playing in the surf. We saw dozens of manta rays in the evenings.
You cannot visit this park without going to the fort. It was built before the Civil War and was used through World War II.
Fort Pickens
I imagine that the troops stationed at this fort had to suffer through some very hot days.
We were surprised by the number of campers in this park from Mississippi and Louisiana. Someone said this was the first good beach for those residents as they drive east.
We had to agree that this park features an amazing beach. The water is clear, the sand is powdery and white and there are some great sand dunes along the beach area.

Some specifics about this park:
  • There are five camping loops in this park. All five have lost trees and shade from the frequent gulf-bound hurricanes. It appears that the sites in Loop A have more shade than the others.
  • You really need to pay attention to the maximum rig sizes for the sites. Some of these sites are very shallow and barely fit the rigs. After parking Rosie, our truck didn't fit and had to be parked next to all the other trucks in the overflow parking area.
  • Sites have water and electrical connections. There is one dump station for Loop A and one for Loops B, C, D and E. You need to plan your exit time to avoid lines at the dump station.
  • Loop A is separate from the others. Loops B, C, D and E are in one large camping area.
  • Sites have both 30 and 50 amp service.
  • There is one bathhouse in Loop A and three for the remaining loops. The only problem is that one of the bathhouses serving loops B-E is closed and it doesn't appear that it will be reopened anytime soon.
  • The bathhouses can be listed as adequate. They are not modern and they are showing their age.
  • The bathhouse in Loop A is centrally located. You may be going for a little hike to reach the bathhouse in the other loops.
  • AT&T provides good 3G and 4G service over this park.
  • There is no wi-fi in the park.
  • We were able to pick up TV signals from ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC and PBS. Some of the digital signals received were ME-TV, MY-TV, COZI and THIS.
  • There is a camp store in the park. Expect to pay a premium price for the things you buy there.
  • There is a Publix grocery store about six miles from the park. You will pay a dollar in tolls to drive to this store.
  • The park is across the bay from Pensacola Naval Air Station. One of the missions for this base is to provide flight training for Naval jets and helicopters. We didn't find the noise from the base to be disturbing.
  • Make sure you bring your camera and binoculars to this park. You will need both.
The Fort Pickens campground was a great find. We planned to camp at another park and quickly discovered it didn't appeal to us. We were able to use our iPhones to change our reservations to Fort Pickens and had a great experience. I am sure we will visit this park again.
We usually learn a lesson when we camp. There were two lessons learned on this trip. The first is to not be afraid to change reservations if you don't like a park. We were able to move from a park with limited appeal to one with many attractions.
The second lesson learned was to always carry the sewage tote when on the road. Our original reservations were in a park with full connections. At the last second, we decided to throw the tote on the truck. This made it easy to move to another campsite and we ended up at a great park.
I think that the Fort Pickens campground will become a family favorite.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Blackwater River State Park - Florida

I saw a video about the Blackwater River State Park about a year ago and it convinced me that we needed to camp there in Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer.
This is another campground that you have to trust your GPS to get you there. AT&T's cellphone service was spotty along the way, making the maps on our iPhones less valuable than the road signs.
The road to Blackwater River State Park
As you arrive, you see the sign proclaiming that this is an award winning park. In fact, it has two national awards in its back pocket!
Two awards!
It was obvious that this park was operating with a reduced staff probably due to lingering economic issues. The first clue was on our arrival. The Welcome Hut at the entrance of the park was closed. There was a sign that told registered campers to setup on their sites then come back between 5:30 and 6:30 in the evening to register.
Rosie at Blackwater River State Park
That wasn't to say that the staffer wasn't at the park. He was busy cleaning up the sites vacated by the guests.
In fact, let's talk about the two national awards this park has won. I'm not sure who awarded these and what they are for, but it was easy to see that the staffer (Daniel) and the campground hosts took great pride in this park and worked to keep it clean.
You should know that Blackwater River State Park is a small park. There are only 30 campsites and one bathhouse. It is located between the two loops. The bathhouse appeared to be recently renovated and was kept clean by the volunteers. (With only one bathhouse in the camping area, you had to feel sorry for the tent campers during the 45-60 minute cleanings.)
Riding the current on the river
So, what is the big draw to this park? It has to be the river with its white sandy bottom and its slow current through the park.
We noticed soon after our arrival that most of the campsites featured canoes, kayaks or tubes for riding on the river. Those campers would leave in the morning to spend the day floating down the river. Not having a canoe, kayak or a tube, we were missing out on the primary feature of the park.
I mentioned earlier that this is a small park. We found that we were not motivated to ride our bicycles because it takes only a few minutes to go around the two loops. While this is a nice park, it is small.
Path through the wetlands
If you forgot your canoe, what is there to do here? There are areas of wetlands and these are interesting to observe.
Warning sign about gators
While we didn't see any alligators, we couldn't miss the warning sign. Having grown up in Florida, we listened for the sounds of gators and didn't hear any.
Part of the wetlands
A conoe on the river
The lesson we learned was to bring something to float on the river when camping at this park. We quickly ran out of options at this campground and decided to move on to a new adventure. And that is one of the good things about Rosie, we can be ready to move on in about an hour.
Here are some specifics about this park:
  • All 30 sites have full hook-ups, including sewage connections.
  • Electrical service includes 50 and 30 amp service.
  • This is a "pet friendly" park.
  • There is only one bath house in the camping area. It appears to have been recently renovated. It was well maintained and clean.
  • AT&T's 4G and 3G service was in and out. While it was in more than it was out, you could check email and look at a few Web sites as long as you are patient and don't mind waiting for the right moment.
  • There is no wi-fi in the park. In fact, I don't think you can find a public wi-fi spot within 10 miles of the park.
  • We were able to watch several TV stations from the Pensacola market. (ABC, NBC, ME-TV, CW and THIS were strong enough to watch.)
  • It is a long way to a store. Make sure you pack plenty of food and supplies before camping here.
  • Don't forget to bring a canoe or kayak to this park.
  • The site we camped in was level. I imagine that the other sites are also level.
  • The park features curb-side pick-up of trash. You need to have your trash out by 8:30 every morning. The squirrels check out your trash bag by 9 a.m. Pick-up is around 11:30 a.m.
While we were ready to move on after a couple of days, it is easy to see why campers who love water sports love this little park.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Cotton Hill Campground (near Fort Gaines, Georgia and Eufaula, Alabama)

Cotton Hill is an Army Corps of Engineers campground located on the Georgia side of Walter F. George Lake. This is a park that most GPS units cannot find and your intuition is that the bumpy roads leading to the park must be wrong. Who would volunteer to take their RV down these roads?
A colleague at work told us about the park, gave us general directions, then said to pay attention to the road signs. This proved to be valuable information as the signs, not the GPS, brought us to the park. While 30 satellites were arguing over where we were at that moment and our velocity, terrestrial road signs directed us into this park. (The information on, the site you need to use to reserve a site at this park, includes GPS coordinates. We found several reviews online that said those coordinates were wrong. That made the advice from my co-worker more on target: cross the Alabama/Georgia line on Hwy 82 at Eufaula, turn right on Georgia State Road 39 then follow the road signs. )
Normally, we would have used the Google Maps app on our iPhones to verify the route to the campground. This failed because AT&T hasn't discovered Georgia State Road 39 yet and there is no service along this highway. Without reliable cell service, Google cannot figure where you are and load the proper roads. Once again, you need to follow the signs.
Road sign at the park's entrance
While checking in, we asked the park attendant what he thought about the site we reserved on the Web site. He bluntly replied that it wasn't his favorite because of the angle and it would be terrible for trailers with rear doors because there is a drop-off at the end of the pad. With less than a ringing recommendation, we took off looking for our site.
We quickly discovered that the attendant was correct. We could not have selected a more difficult site for Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer.
A quick trip back to the Park Attendant's Station and we trading in our reserved site for one of the non-reservable ones.

Our new site at Cotton Hill
One of the first lessons we learned about this park, besides the fact that it is a challenge to find for the first time, is that some of the best sites are on the walk-in list. We asked the park attendant to recommend a site and he gave us three suggestions. We took the one he said was his favorite and it turned out to be great.
Most of the campsites in this park are large. That means there is some space between your site and your neighbor's.
There are three loops in this campground. They are Pine Island, Marina View and Old Mill Road. All of these loops feature lots of sites with views of the lake.
We ruled out the Marina View because many of those sites are pull-throughs. These are great for campers with their "best views" on the side. Since Rosie's best view is out the rear window, we would be staring at the truck and camper behind us.
There are some great sites in the Old Mill Road loop. There are also some steep declines to trailer pad. While I am sure our F-150 truck could handle the angles, I wasn't positive our nerves could deal with it. That left the Pine Island loop as our choice for Rosie.
The attendant warned us that AT&T's cell service in this park was awful. We found that we had strong 4G/3G service at the back window facing the lake. You lost the signal by the time you reached the road in front of the trailer.
The pocket of cell service was unique to the Pine Island loop. We tested our iPhones in the other two loops and never found any reliable coverage. Other campers said that Verizon had good coverage over the entire park. That is something we cannot confirm.
This is a great park for riding bicycles because the roads are flat and there are beautiful views.
We also found lots of wildlife in the park. We saw several deer about 100 yards from Rosie. One of our most interesting sightings was a pileated woodpecker. Having watched more than my fair share of Woody Woodpecker cartoons in my childhood, it was fun to see and hear this bird.
Another exciting sighting was golden eagles. We thought we saw one the first evening in the park. We drove down to the dam the second day and saw several there.
There were also several ospreys sitting on nests around the park and on posts sticking out of the lake. Most of these birds were very vocal as you approached their nests.
Multiple possums, armadillos and raccoons were seen in this park during our stay. I saw a raccoon jump from the dumpster as I took our trash out one night. When I threw our trash bag in the dumpster, I heard several "thumps" indicating that more raccoons were inside feasting on our trash.
Lake George is huge and you can see storms building across it. We saw a storm building on Friday and it rained all day on Saturday. Back in our tent camping days, an all-day rain was a deal-breaker. Instead of huddling in the tent and being careful to not touch the sides, we were able to enjoy watching the storm's effect on the lake and enjoy life inside Rosie.
The rains on Saturday were accompanied by some strong winds. People talk about the aerodynamic design of Airstream trailers helping them weather winds. While we heard the wind in the trees near Rosie and we saw the results looking out our windows, we didn't feel Rosie being buffeted by these winds.
Cotton Hill turned out to be a park that we enjoyed and one we will return to later.
Some specifics about the Cotton Hill COE Campground:
  • There is only one bath house in each of the loops. That means you have a hike if you need to visit the bath house.
  • The bath houses are not in the best of shape. While they are regularly cleaned, the don't qualify as "modern."
  • This is a "pet friendly" park. (Make sure you pick-up after your pet!)
  • AT&T 4G and 3G service was poor to non-existent in this park. Our iPhones worked only near the shore in the Pine Island loop.
  • There is no wi-fi available anywhere in the park.
  • We were able to watch TV stations from Columbus, Ga (CBS, ME-TV), Dothan, Ala. (ABC, CBS, CW, MY-TV) and Montgomery (FOX, Antenna and THIS).
  • Camping sites in all three loops have full connections, including sewerage.
  • Electrical hookups includes 50 and 30-amp service.
  • Bring bottled water to this campground. We have a filter on the entire trailer plus Airstream provides a filter on the kitchen sink. After two filters, we found the camp's water to be hard to drink and we ended up going out and buying several gallons of water.
  • Several people said that the Bagby State Park has a restaurant and that this is one of a couple places you can eat at near the park. We decided to go there for the Friday night seafood buffet. We checked the buffet before we decided if we were going stay and discovered the buffet was fried catfish, baked unidentified fish, popcorn shrimp, boxed mashed potatoes, soggy onion rings and something that had sausage and corn in it. We agreed that this buffet wasn't worth $15.95 and left.
  • There isn't any real shopping near Cotton Hill Campground. Make sure you pack everything you need because you won't find it within 10 miles.
  • It is worth taking a trip into Eufaula. There are several old homes there including the Shorter mansion. Eufaula is the best place near Cotton Hill for shopping and a meal out.
The bottom line is that this park is worth visiting.