Saturday, November 21, 2009

Stephen C. Foster State Park Campground, Georgia

Our first trip to the Okefenokee Swamp was just going to be a one night stop-over as we headed up to see our daughter and son-in-law in Athens, Georgia. This was our first long-distance haul, so to speak, headed up from southwest Florida, and we didn't want to try to cover too much ground in one day. I picked the Stephen C. Foster State Park near Fargo, Georgia, as it wasn't too far off US 441, and was about halfway to Athens. I made reservations for just one night. Since we weren't Georgia residents, the fee was $20.00.

The entrance road to Stephen C. Foster State Park, Georgia

It took two gas stops, six and a quarter hours to cover the 313 miles, which for us was an adventure in itself. Our two dogs did really well, but only after the first 100 miles though, as Daisy had a melt down in the beginning. It didn't bother Taz in the least. The ride was as pleasant as any Interstate trip can be when towing a trailer. We got off the wonderful world of unconscious drivers just below Lake City, and picked up US 441, which we eventually followed all the way to Athens. The only detour we took was the 17 miles off the highway to the Stephen C. Foster State Park not long after crossing the Georgia state line.

The road into the park has a beauty of its own, if you understand Longleaf Pines Forests, or as they are known by southerners, Slash Pines. The campground at the dead end of the access road has two loops an offers good privacy.  Sites 1 to 26 are in the first loop, sites 29 to 68 are in the second loop.  

We went by the Trading Post/office to pick up our paperwork. We were given an orange tag with the date on it, and told to pick any available open orange-tagged site and simply back in. Just place the tag they give you in the holder in front of the site and that's it! We drove both loops of the narrow, twisty access road twice before picking a site we thought was perfect.  After backing in and leveling the trailer, we cranked out the awning and relaxed. We didn't unhook the trailer as we really didn't plan on any side trips and we just wanted to leave in the morning with a minimum of effort.

Whitetail Deer were everywhere. They were on the roads between the cabins, in the open areas, and even on the camp sites themselves. They watched warily as we walked along the shady access road to the visitor's center. Since there were very few campers, and they were scattered around the campground, the deer practically had the entire park to themselves.

After collecting as much information and as many fliers as possible at the visitor's center, we strolled around the gift shop and I broke down and did something I never thought I would do: I bought a cap pin. My very first one. Our friends have a Teddy Bear with two scarves adorned with cap pins from all over the country. The Teddy Bear accompanies them on every trip, and I think he now weighs about 12 pounds from all the hardware pinned to him. Ilse says we will have to have a stuffed alligator instead of a bear. I'm not sure what any decent, stuffed alligator would wear, but I'm sure we'll find something. An alligator would be more appropriate as there was a real six-footer sunning himself on the nearby boat ramp. He too, looked like he had the run of the place.  
 If you don't see the gator on the ramp, look again.

We walked across the wide parking area on the far side from the boat ramp with our dogs so as not to be seen from the ramp, but a middle-aged couple with a small Terrier on a retractable leash headed for the water’s edge, oblivious to the alligator laying at the bottom of the ramp. We stopped and called out to them, to warn them of the danger. The man paused and looked at us, then ignored our warning completely and continued heading for a confrontation he obviously underestimated. Luckily, his wife had more sense and rather firmly informed her husband not to take the dog down the ramp. He grudgingly hesitated, then turned around and walked back, pulling his unknowingly endangered pup behind. People who have never seen an alligator on dry land are usually stunned by how fast they can be. This alligator would have thought he was being served meals on wheels, or in this case, on a leash.

The park has a playground, an interpretive center/museum, and 9 cottages as well as the RV campsites. There is a 3/4 mile Nature Trail that has a 2100 foot boardwalk that extends toward off the raised boardwalk. The sites are all nice, with great privacy between most sites.  The sites are mowed, almost manicured, and had 30/50 amp electrical service and water. The pads were grass and gravel, level, and clean, as was the bathroom facility. It also offers cable TV, but offers only a limited amount of stations. Still, it isn't bad way out there in the sticks. We were in bed by 9:00pm, and on the road the next morning by 8:40am. The route up US 441 is great! Little traffic, and great road. We now go that way every time we tow the trailer. We will be back to this park, we will bring our kayaks next time.

If you are interested in the other Stephen C. Foster State Park in Florida, click on: 

Check For our most recent visit to Stephen C. foster State Park in Georgia when we had the campground, and the lake, to ourselves..

The web site for the park is at:

Next up - Our first County Park Campground: Tobesofkee, GA

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Highland Hammock State Park, Florida

Highland Hammocks State Park, Florida

Two months to the day after we embarked on our aborted maiden voyage, we tried again.

This time, we were going to meet friends at a nearby state park for an extended three-day weekend. We thought we had covered just about anything that might pop up, and were looking forward to our first successful outing.

It was early October, but by 11:00 am., the Florida heat was a stifling 94 degrees. I had checked the campsites at the Highland Hammock State Park by Internet and picked what I believed to be a shady site on the eastern side of the campground. I thought we might be able to sit outside and enjoy our newly purchased screen room, somewhat protected from the Florida sun. Packed and ready to roll by 2:15 pm, we turned on our new GPS and keyed in the destination along with the instruction to choose a route using the least fuel. The compliant GPS immediately plotted our course and we were off. We had no idea how far off. Everything was really great as we trucked along familiar, well paved and maintained county roads headed for U.S. 17, another familiar route. We stopped once to check safety chains and connectors, tires and lights, and again were on our contented, satisfied way. Our little GPS had a proper, cheery female voice that told us to prepare to turn right in plenty of time to make the turn onto Fish Branch Road at Gardner's Landing.

The unfamiliar road was not a high quality county road, more like a residential stretch of pavement in need of tender love and care, but we obediently followed instructions from our confident little electronic friend and innocently towed our little camping trailer into an adventure we hadn't counted on. Soon, our perky GPS told us to bear right and then left, and we found ourselves going through a church parking lot. We stopped and checked a regular Florida highway map that showed a faint black line headed along the directions our electronic guidance device had told us to follow. Perhaps Chatty Kathy knew where she was going after all. With great trepidation, we slowly headed toward the far side of the parking lot. We slowly drove through the overhanging Live Oak trees on the far side of the paved lot, and through the dark, shaded botanical tunnel that shaded a road that had turned into a single lane, and sure enough, on the other side of a small bridge, the road continued. It was, however, a single lane. I thought it had turned into someone's driveway. There were a few houses, and before I could turn around, the pavement ended. Our oblivious but supremely confident GPS said in her annoying female self-confident voice, “continue for 13 miles!”

With no place to turn around except backing up five or six hundred yards, and after looking at the Florida road map, we decided to slowly and carefully motor on. How much worse could it get? We soon found out as the road turned to sand. To make it even more interesting, the transmission in the Jimmy started to slip as the temperature passed 98 degrees and it looked like it wasn't going to cool off any time soon. We found we had to keep the speed at around 35mph to keep from bogging down in the silica that is the base for all of Florida's citrus farms. Once I got the Jimmy up to speed, the transmission would settle down and pull normally. The road was still one lane, but at least with a turn to the north. We were sweating even with the air conditioning on at full cold. We were watching the moronic GPS with the stare of condemned men waiting for a governor's pardon. We could only hope we didn't meet another vehicle coming the other way. After ten minutes or so, we saw a line of trees that marked the intersection with another county road, and thankfully, this one was paved. Our GPS dutifully said, “Turn Right!”

After a few miles, we entered a narrow paved road that led to the west entrance of the park. Not finished with being absolutely wrong, Chatty Kathy told us to “Turn left” as we sat at a “T” intersection while we could see the welcome sign to the State Park on the right! So much for absolute faith in any GPS! The error with the dirt road was my fault. The mistake I had made in the original set up was to not specify avoiding unpaved roads. I didn't even know the option existed as I hadn't scrolled all the way through the setup options! The error in direction at the intersection, however, belongs to the GPS programmers. I learned to keep a current map handy at all times.

After checking in and picking up our tags and maps, we headed to our preselected campsite. Highland hammocks is a nice, open park with Florida Oaks providing shade for most of the sites. The one I had picked, however, was on the side with the Slash Pine trees and we soon found we had little shade. The sites were standard Florida State Park sites, with fire pits and picnic tables, but the park was being repaired and was due to close the day after we left. The sand access roads were being paved to match the recent addition of state of the art showers and toilets.

By 6:00 pm we were set up and had our second camping dinner, this time quesadillas. We didn't make much of a night of it, and after watching part of a DVD, we were fast asleep.

We woke to a beautiful, misty Florida October morning. After walking the dogs and taking a slow tour of the park, we decided to head into nearby Sebring and pick up a few groceries we had overlooked. Our neat little GPS performed as expected as it didn't make a sound as we passed the grocery store we had keyed in. It did tell us, however, to turn into an empty field instead on the way back.

I went over to the park office and moved our camp site to the shaded west side without any problem. While I was there, Bill and Barbara, the friends we were meeting for the weekend, pulled up to the main gate. They had just come in from Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida keys. They were soon set up and we all went for a bicycle ride to the museum and had ice cream. It was a marvelous evening as Ilse made dinner, and we ate at Bill and Barbs as their Class C camper with the slide out that had far more room than our little Cikira.

The evening went well and we played cards until 10:00 pm or so, but Ilse was beginning to feel uncomfortable with an old, familiar feeling. It was a bad night as she passed another kidney stone. We decided against heading to Sebring and the nearest emergency room as the pain subsided a little after 3:00 am. By morning, she was feeling better, and even though we had decided to break camp and head for home earlier, she felt well enough to wait to see if Sunday would be better. She felt good enough to take the park tram ride at 1:00 pm. We had taken the dogs out earlier for a slow, tentative stroll and walked into a herd of deer. They stopped and stared before bolting for the undercover. Our dogs were so stunned they didn't even bark. We had dinner with Bill and Barb once again, and Ilse rested most of the rest of the day.

Monday morning was a beautiful morning, and Ilse was feeling almost back to normal, except for being exceptionally tired. We broke camp and headed out, using the front gate and the Florida map instead of the GPS. But, every trip is an experience and this was no exception. As we passed over the exaggerated speed bump not far from the main entrance, the trailer jumped off the hitch and slammed into the pavement with a crunching, grinding sound that made me cringe with dread. The safety chains did exactly what they were supposed to do and we stopped without further incident. The emergency trailer brakes hadn't energized because the pull wire was set just a little longer than the chain length, but the bottom of the tongue jack had taken quite a scrapping. I used the tongue jack and raised the trailer back up so I could back the Jimmy once again under the hitch. I looked around, there was no traffic in either direction. I quickly hitched up and this time I remembered to put in the safety pin that prevents the hitch coupler from accidentally unlatching. I had left it hanging on the side of the propane tank, where I could see it and remember to put it in.

Next stop: Our third campground: One of the two Stephen Foster State parks at

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ortona Locks South, Florida - Corps of Engineers Campground

Bring your own shade!

My wife and I had answered an ad we found on Craig's list, and soon found ourselves in the lobby of our local Bank of America, waiting to draw a cashier's check for our new camping trailer. It wasn't new, but it only had one owner who had obviously not used the camper. It was a deal we couldn't pass up. The transaction took only minutes, and after a quick trip to the motor vehicle registration, the keys were ours.

We had dabbled with the thought of a small camper for several years, looking at A-liners, a small, fold up camper, and other small towables that offered us the ability to enter the world of recreational vehicles without a substantial financial investment. We had been tent campers for many years, but sleeping on the ground was something we wanted only as a memory. We were looking for something with its own bathroom. Few of the small towables or soft-sided pop-ups offered a toilet other than a port-a-potty that barely met the needs of a single, overnight stay.

We had found a camping trailer that weighed only 1745 pounds actual axle weight, with a gross vehicle weight of 3100 pounds. With only a 215 pound hitch weight, it was a perfect fit for the 1999 GMC Jimmy that could tow it easily. It was a Cikira 13FD, with an actual length of 14 feet, 9 inches. It was equipped with a 13,500 BTU air conditioner, a 7 cubic foot refrigerator, a microwave, and a two-burner gas stove. The dinette folded down to a full queen-size bed, and it had a full separate toilet and shower! We were impressed with the quality, and the cleanliness of the unit, and decided to take the plunge.

Clean and roomy, excellent facilities
Before we could pick up our new trailer, I had to add a trailer brake controller and a seven-pin RV plug to the existing wiring harness. I already had a flat, four-pin trailer connector used for boat trailers that does not have a hot 12 volts needed to charge the battery in the camper. That wire has to be added from the battery of the tow vehicle to the new seven-pin RV plug, and it has to be fused. After checking several sources, I dropped by a shop that specializes in trailers and got an estimate on both the controller and the wiring. When I picked up my Jimmy the next day, I found the actual bill came out 80 dollars higher than the estimate. All I could think of was “welcome to the wonderful world of RVing! This is going to be just like owning a boat!!”

After getting the camper home and looking it over with a fine toothed comb, we decided all it really needed were more storage hooks! And a place to try it out. We decided on a campground that was close by, but far enough away to seem like we were really camping and picked a U.S. Army Corp of Engineers park at Ortona Locks, on the Caloosahatchee River, about halfway between Lake Okeechobee and Ft. Myers. We easily and quickly made our reservations on line and we were ready to go.

On August 9th, 2009, at 11:45 am, we pulled out of our yard on our first camping trip! It was only 56 miles to the Campground, but it was far enough to be a real adventure. Towing anything on I-75 is always an adventure! After checking in the really nice campground, we noticed there were only four other campers. Our first observation was there was no real shade from the blistering Florida sun. It was 97 degrees by the time we carefully set up, and we immediately closed up and turned on the air conditioner.

The campground is on the south side of the lock, and is typically clean and spacious, as we have found all Corps of engineer parks to be. There simply isn't a lot at the campground other than the lock itself, but it is quiet and safe, with controlled access as with all Corps parks. We settled back and made our first dinner, a spaghetti dinner, complete with rolls and a salad. Aah! So far, so good.

Our evening walk with our two dogs was cut short as the stifling heat was just too much for our oldest dog to endure. Back to the camper and into the air conditioning. We had picked up a small, 13 inch flat-screen TV that fit perfectly on the counter space, and we ended up watching a few of the regular shows before a thunder storm rolled through and we packed it in for the night.

We woke up the next morning a little after 7 am, and were amazed at the quiet campground. The dogs seemed to understand as well, and did not make a sound as we went about our first breakfast. We were soon outside with our sling chairs, armed with books we meant to read, but, somehow, even the best laid plans seem to go wrong at the strangest times, and for the strangest reasons.

Ilse wasn't feeling well all morning, and by 11:00 had called our doctor to see if she could get to see him as soon as possible. We broke camp and were on our way out of the campground by 12:05 pm. The attendant at the gate took some quick information from us and wished us the best. We were back home by two, and Ilse suffering from intense pain in her side, went to the doctor immediately where they diagnosed her as having passed a kidney stone! She was home again by 5 pm, with pain killers, but the crisis had passed, and she began resting and wondering why it had to happen on our first camping trip. We had used the new GPS to locate hospitals and doctors just in case they were needed, and do that now before every trip.

We decided to wait a month before trying out the camper again, and in the meantime, we got a credit on our charge card from the Corps of Engineers for a “medical credit.” They had refunded the part of our prepaid reservation that we hadn't used!

We washed it again after getting it home, even though it wasn't really dirty, and prepped the little unit for its next trip. Excitedly, we began making plans for our next trip, and were thrilled when friends invited us to meet them at Highland Hammocks State Park near Sebring only two months later. We began making plans for our second trip, and could hardly wait to roll out again.

Next: Second try at Highland Hammocks State park

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