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.

T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park - 2013

For many college students, the transition from winter to spring includes a visit to Florida's panhandle. OK, we don't qualify as college students and we make sure we are miles away from the party-minded college students during spring break season, but we enjoy observing that long established college tradition by traveling to St. Joseph Peninsular State Park to officially launch another year of camping in Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer.
We have tent camped in this park for years. Who knew that the name of this campground was really the T. H. Stone Memorial Park? I don't remember seeing that name on any of the park's signs.
There are two camping loops in this park: Shady Pines and Gulf Breeze. As a hold-over from our tent-camping days, we normally reserve a site in the Shady Pines loop. The nice trees in this loop help make it cooler inside tents during warm days. Since we were camping this year in Rosie, we decided to venture out and try reserving a site in the Gulf Breeze loop.
While I am sure it was a coincidence, the Gulf Breeze loop lived up to its name. We could not extend the awning because of the 15-20 mph winds. Of course, the winds were the result of a weather front!
Rosie in the Gulf Breeze loop
While we missed the "in the woods" feel of the Shady Pines loop, the Gulf Breeze loop had more reminders that you were at the beach and we enjoyed our stay there.
View from Rosie' back window
One of our favorite areas at this Florida State Park is the marina. This is where the pelicans gather during the day. It is always fun to see a dozen or so birds sunning themselves on the dock.
Pelicans at the marina
A brave (or tame) pelican
One of our interesting sightings this year was a group of white pelicans flying over the park. This was our first sighting of a flock of white pelicans.
A flock of white pelicans fly over Rosie
As usual, we watched the deer in the park. We were fortunate in that we saw a family cross a waterway.
We welcomed a construction project during our stay. There is a boardwalk connecting the Shady Pines and Gulf Breeze loops. We have watched the effect of weather as it wore away the walkways. Park volunteers started replacing the weathered planks while we were camping in the park.
Part of the walkway connecting the park loops
The boardwalk between the camping loops
A bench overlooking a waterway
You always find a crowd of people gathering along the beach at sunset. We were treated to some amazing sunsets during our stay this year.
Weather is always questionable during spring break. I mentioned the brisk winds earlier in this posting. Temperatures were also cooler than in pervious years. We had to wear jackets most of the week.
It was "jacket weather" this year
At the end of the week, we hooked Rosie up to our truck and headed off to our next adventure. Annie, our Yorkie, loves to ride "shotgun" as we leave the park.
Some specifics about the T. H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park:
  • There are two bath houses in both the Shady Pine and Gulf Breeze loops. The most recently remodeled bath house is in the Gulf Breeze loop. Bath houses were well maintained by the park volunteers.
  • This is a "pet friendly" park. (Make sure you pick-up after your pet!)
  • AT&T 4G and 3G service was spotty. We could only call or use our iPhones for Internet connections at the back window in Rosie. (One of our neighbors had a cell phone repeater and claimed it worked well inside the park. Maybe this is something we should investigate adding to Rosie's technology.)
  • There is wi-fi available at the camp store. After years of no wi-fi, sluggish wi-fi is welcomed. Of course, you have to drive to the store in order to use it.
  • We were able to watch TV stations from Panama City (ABC FOX, and NBC), Dothan (CBS) and Tallahassee (PBS). We found the embedded digital channels to be more interesting (ME-TV, THIS, ANTENNA-TV, etc.)
  • Camping sites in both loops have water and 30-amp electrical service. Make sure you bring your waste tote because you will be needing it to dump your sewage at the dump station when your gray and black tanks start to fill.
  • Make sure you pack enough food for your stay. The park is miles and miles away from non-tourist type shopping. There is a camp store in the park, but you may need a mortgage on your home to buy anything there.
  • We had heard over the years that sites along the open fields tend to see rodents during the day and hear them at night. We can now verify that claim. Our site this year backed up to one of the water ways/fields and we did see rats poking around during the day. The tent campers next to us said they heard "critters" scurrying around during the night. This was the first time we saw rats and this was the first time we camped next to an open field.
  • This is a park you need reservations before arriving. The odds of finding an open site without reservations are slim. In fact, many sites are reserved 11 months in advance.
  • Pay attention to the maximum rig sizes when making reservations. Some of the sites are shallow and rigs larger than Rosie (25 feet) would not fit in the "compact" sites.
  • Larger rigs should avoid the Shady Pines loop. Some of the turns on the road going through this loop are "challenging" for larger RVs. The big boys need to stay in Gulf Breeze.
Speaking of reservations, we plan to reserve another site in the Gulf Breeze loop next year.