Saturday, November 26, 2011

Collier Seminole State Park

- Author's note - May 2018

*** This blog was originally posted in 2011, so many improvements made to the park since then are not listed. *****

“A nice short trip, but let's go south instead of north this time,” I suggested. 

“OK,” my wife answered, “pick a spot and let's go!”  

I picked Collier Seminole State Park, just a few miles from Marco Island, Florida. It would be a nice, two-hour tow, about 90 miles or so, almost due south from Port Charlotte.  

I have driven past the park many times with my parents as we headed to Tampa from Miami, long before I-75 was built, but we stopped only once.  We didn't go into the park as my dad didn't want to pay the entrance fee just to look around.  The park is located right on U.S. Highway 41, and even closer, we found on this trip, to Collier County Road 92, which runs adjacent to many of the campsites in the back side of the main loop.  The back of the palm hammock campsites are just a few feet from the fence that butts against the county road. I felt sorry for one fifth-wheel camper who pulled in well after dark and slowly crept through the darkened campground searching for his site.  I hope he had great portable lighting to see behind him as he tried to park his huge, cumbersome rig.  The sites are level, clean, and mostly grass, but some are a bit of work to back into.

Originally a county park and turned over to the State of Florida in the late 1940s, it has had several rebuilds as is evident by the outstanding area around the boat ramp and the really nice children's play area, but, unfortunately, the toilet and shower facilities are over due for rehab.  The facilities were clean as possible, especially considering the Thanksgiving holiday crush, but they are old and in need of replacement to match the rest of the park.

Main Camping Loop at Collier Seminole State Park
The original campsites were laid out years ago when tent camping and smaller travel trailers were standard.  The planners who laid the sites out had no idea about the length of today's behemoth fifth-wheel trailers or the monstrous Class “A”s that can barely negotiate the access roads, much less back into the heavily wooded campsites.  The woods between the campsites are palms and palmettos, not the hardwoods of the adjacent hammock,  so there isn't any privacy between sites.

The boardwalk on the Royal Palm Hammock walking trail.

We pulled into the park main gate without any trouble, and everything went smoothly.  I had picked a site back in August and was the only camper, other than the campground hosts, planning on spending the four day Thanksgiving weekend.  I picked a site that, on the Internet, looked like we might have some privacy, be close to the facilities, and be easy to back into.  It was on a corner site with our door facing away from the rest of the campground. Many of the sites have length restrictions, but this one looked perfect for our 21 foot trailer.

Rental canoes are available at the entrance gate ranger station
As we pulled in to the campground, we were struck by the beauty of the stately Royal Palms that define the atmosphere of the old well, manicured park.  We slowly made our way around the one-lane access road and realized the Internet map on is quite inaccurate!   Our planned site, 69, was in the middle of the interior loop and not on a corner, and besides being far shorter than expected, the picnic table and fire pit were on the same side of the site as the water and electric hook-up.  Since the door is on the other side of the trailer, this makes for an awkward campsite.  Not wanting to walk around the camper every time we went outside, I called the park office to see if we could switch sites.

The pleasant ranger quickly searched the available sites and told us there were only two left in the entire park!  We picked the one we liked best and within an hour we were settled in and ready for our glass of wine, er, grape juice.  Our first night was really pleasant as few of the sites were filled, but by Thanksgiving morning, the campground was packed. Still, it was not unpleasant even with all campsites filled. Everyone we met was friendly and cordial, except for one small group of Civil War Re-enactors in loop 1, the tenting area, who glared at us as we stared at the big Confederate Battle Flag they had strung between two trees.  

There are two camping loops. The first loop, sites 1 through 19, is better suited for tent campers and small pop-up type trailers. It is the prettier of the two loops as it is in the hardwood hammock and foliage separates most sites. That's where we found the flag. I doubt many trailers longer than 12 or 13 feet, or even a medium sized Class “C” could use any of the sites. The other loop is the main, triangular shaped RV loop, but even it is sometimes perilous for big rigs. 

The Royal Palm Hammock walking trail, a 45 minute loop through the Gumbo Limbo trees and Royal Palms, is well maintained and has a section that is a brand new, raised boardwalk. The facilities at the boat ramp area are also nice, but does not have shower facilities.  The walking trail is accessed at the boat ramp area.  The famous 1920's walking dredge used to dig part of the Tamiami Trail is on display at the entrance to the State Park. It is a pretty park with close access to the western Everglades, even Shark Valley and Loop Road.

A Strangler Fig attacks a Bald Cypress in the nearby Fakahatchee Strand
The State Park is seven miles from Marco Island and the nearest grocery stores and gas stations.  This is an up-scale winter residence area so be prepared to pay more for gas and groceries than a little farther up the road in Naples.  In the other direction down U.S. 41, the Everglades National Park West entrance is 13 or so miles away at Everglades City.  The Fakahatchee boardwalk, about eight miles away, the East River Canoe and Kayak trail, and even the Turner River are only short drive from the campground.

The town of Copeland is just north of U.S. 41 on Florida 29, about 16 or 17 miles away. Copeland is where you go if you want to see where a modern day Florida cracker might live. Some of the residents are descendents of settlers who lived here years ago when the railroad ran down to Everglades City. Don't expect the rural glamor espoused by the legend of the Crackers 'cause it ain't here. What is here, however, if you are into Florida history, is Ted Smallwood's store on nearby Chokoloskee Island. If you are a fan of Peter Matthiessen's "Killing Mr. Watson," you will be right at home.

There is a unique part of the Florida Park System here though, called Jane's Scenic Drive.  A dirt road heads north out of the remnants of Copeland to the trail-head of two separate hiking trails some four or five miles apart.  Both trails take you up the limestone depression known as the Fakahatchee Strand all the way to Alligator Alley.  Quite a hike for most casual visitors to the Glades.

 The drive itself travels through prairie and hammocks that are unique to the Everglades.  If you explore the beginning of the well-graded road, you will find two rock structures a Florida Ranger said were the work "of the locals". He didn't know the origin of the rock piles, so I suggest they are from some pre-Calusa society that may have rivaled the Celts when they built Stonehenge. Or, they could be a pile of rocks some past developer used to highlight a dream of a future city. Whatever.

Rock structure may rival Stonehenge, or, maybe not.  Copeland, Florida
If you are looking for privacy and state-of-the-art shower facilities, Collier Seminole isn't for you.  The park gets crowded quickly when all the sites are full, and the awkward dump station causes more than its share of traffic issues, again, mainly to the old layout and design.   But if you have a smaller unit, love the Everglades and can handle the mosquitoes, then this is a great park. The salt marsh mosquitoes, by the way, are part of the experience at any campground anywhere remotely near the Everglades, and Collier Seminole is no exception. Bring insect repellant or protective clothing for an enjoyable camping experience.  Lots of it.

Next: Northbound in the winter- the only RVs on the road, at:

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Whacked! Stephen C. Foster Cultural Center St Park

One of our favorite campgrounds got whacked! Stephen Foster Cultural Center State Park at White Springs, Florida, was almost unrecognizable when we pulled in late on a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of September. Gone was the lush vegetation that separated each campsite, and with it the privacy and seclusion that we so enjoyed here in the past. I doubt the palmettos and myrtles were removed for fire reasons as the ground was covered with a thick layer of cuttings and mulch, branches and dead palm fronds. 

Site 7 at Stephen Foster CC State Park in April, 2011...
If removing fuel from possible wild fires was the reason, all they did was move the fuel from vertical to horizontal. It may take years for the bushes and trees to grow back, if it is allowed to grow at all.  I certainly hope so, and I'm sure in time it will look like the campground we remember.

The campground is still a great campground, just a little shock for us from what it had been.  Now, it is like most of the other nondescript campgrounds that offer little privacy between sites. To us, it now looks less like a state park, and more like a commercial campground.

...and Site 8 on September 22, 2011
As we backed our twenty one foot travel trailer into site 8, we were distracted by a fairly loud male voice booming from a class “A” camper parked next to us in site 7, the site we had used twice before in the past. We stopped and listened as a group of six or seven men and women sitting in lawn chairs arranged around the side of the camper, paid rapt attention to a recorded sermon about the Bible blaring from the camper's outside speakers. 

They seemed oblivious to us as we hooked up our electric and water connections. My wife and I decided to retire to our trailer and turn on the air-conditioner even though the outside temperature was really quite pleasant. Even with the windows closed and the air on, it was still possible to listen to a deep baritone voice tell everyone within earshot what he thought the animals thought about as they boarded Noah's Ark. Really, Grown men and women listening to a lecture about what animals thought as they boarded the ark! I listened for a few minutes, resisting the urge to comment on the somewhat entertaining discourse. I wondered if the speaker had recently read George Orwell's Animal Farm. Oh well, perhaps the carnivores were having a telepathic, philosophical debate about what, and when, to eat. 

Maybe the cows were trying to ban the crocodiles; they can swim so they don't need to be on the boat, right? I wonder who remembered to bring the fire ants?  If the volume had been that loud for rock music, I have no doubt there would have been complaints, particularly from them.

The impromptu revival meeting - I hope it wasn't scheduled - broke up soon afterward and middle-aged couples wandered back to campers and RVs around the campground.  Silence once again prevailed over the awkwardly naked campground.  We don't know if they were traveling together or if they met at the at the park for an event of some sort.  

We had a an uneventful night, forgoing our usual traditions of shrimp cocktail and spaghetti dinner, as we didn't really feel this one night stop-over qualified as our first night of camping.  

We weren't rushed, and leisurely unhooked everything the next morning. We were wished a nice trip by our pleasant, smiling evangelical neighbors who were having a big group breakfast as we pulled out. We were on the road by 9:00am and looked back at what had been one of our favorite campgrounds with a twinge of remorse. One last look back confirmed it did not look as we remembered it from past visits. We wonder how long it will take to grow back. Maybe it'll help deaden the sounds between camp sites.

Next: A change, this time we head south to the Collier - Seminole State Park, at:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Anastasia State Park, Revisited

I picked a campsite I liked at Anastasia State Park, in St. Augustine, Florida, while browsing the on-line reservation system, and idly went off to ask my wife about our vacation schedule. By the time I returned to the PC to confirm the reservation, the site I wanted had been snapped up by someone else! I needed a five day window for our camping excursion, and only a few sites were open for five days in a row that particular week in August. I grabbed the next open site and we made plans to head back to our favorite campground in the Florida Park system. We were doing a doubleheader camping vacation, spending time at a park that was new to us at Wekiwa Springs, and finishing the vacation sitting on the white, pristine Atlantic beach of Anastasia State Park.

We arrived on a Friday afternoon after spending a wonderful week at Wekiwa Springs State Park, some 95 miles south. We always travel back roads when possible, and the trip up using FL 44 and Florida Highway 11 from Deland to Bunnell had been a really pretty, uncomplicated drive on a great road. Florida's state and county roads are really a treasure most motorists don't enjoy.  The drive from Deland to Bunnell is especially nice.

It didn't take long to understand why we had a problem getting reservations at Anastasia. The adjacent St. Augustine Amphitheater was having a concert headlined by Alison Krauss and Grand Union Station that very Friday night and many concert goers had brought their campers and tents to be conveniently located just a few hundred yards from the concert site. 

St. Augustine Amphitheater, adjacent to Anastasia State Park

Hint number 1: If you want a camping space on a Friday during a concert, make reservations early. Hint number 2: Check the on-line website for the St. Augustine Amphitheater schedule, and if you find a show you like, incorporate it into your camping stay. The service gate between the park and the Amphitheater is usually open, but it may be closed for performances, so if you plan on using the state park, be sure to check with the Amphitheater when buying your tickets! Duran Duran will be there in October, but they aren't on my must-see list.

While most of our camping neighbors walked through the woods to get to the concert, Ilse and I went down to the dark, almost deserted beach and listened to the concert of the pounding, heavy surf. We got back to our trailer just as the concert goers were emerging from the woods. We all had a good time.

A dead Red Bay tree stands among the dense foliage of the park

Anastasia offers 139 camping sites on five separate loops, several of which are for smaller RVs and trailers only. Most of the sites are level, and almost all are in full shade. However, several sites have quirks that can be aggravating, such as trees that grow in the middle or edge of the campsite that prevent use of awnings, or even keep you from backing fully into the campsite. Most, however, are really great sites. Only two we know of aren't level in the entire campground, and even they can be compensated for with judicious maneuvering of your RV.

One of the odd items this trip were the number of dead Red Bay trees, killed by an attack of Ambrosia Beetles.  The infestations, first seen in nearby Duval County only five years ago, have devastated the plentiful Bay trees of the Anastasia State Park.  State parks have restrictions on bringing firewood that may carry infestations from other locations to prevent introduction of diseases, but the Red Bay trees have succumbed to the pest beetle throughout the park.  None of the other trees have been affected, so the canopy of the dense woods prevails throughout the park even with the numerous dead Bay trees.  

The beach is one of the finest I've seen, and there is plenty of it! The nearby walking trail through the old ancient dunes is a pleasant 30 minute walk, and bicycling at Anastasia is a great way to get around! The kayak and sailing concession at the inlet offers rentals to those who don't bring their own boats. We have used our own kayaks here in the past, and find that this is one of the few State Park locations that allows private owners easy access to the water. Another reason we like this park.

We were impressed the first time we were here, and the second visit simply confirms our opinion: Anastasia State Park is a camping destination we will visit again. We had the unexpected pleasure of a beautiful Florida full moon the first time we were here. Walking through the park to the beach at midnight was a beautiful, almost dreamlike experience. 

I'd like to schedule another visit during a full moon of Fall.  Or maybe even during the winter with the cold, Atlantic air blowing over the sand dunes.  A neat place.

Next:  A change to one of our favorites, at Stephen Foster Cultural Center State PArk, at:

More information about Anastasia can be found at:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Wekiwa Springs State Park

Is there anything else I can you help with?” the pleasant Florida State Ranger asked as he handed our camping park pass and informational brochures through the car window at the entrance to Wekiwa Springs State Park, not far from Orlando, Florida.

“Why are there two spellings for the area around here?” I asked. “Sometimes we see it spelled with a “w,” like here in Wekiwa Springs State Park, but we have also seen it written Wekiva in other places, even just outside the gate. What's the difference?”
“Both are Creek Indian words,” he answered with a big smile. “Wekiwa means bubbling water, and Wekiva means flowing water, so Wekiwa is the spring, and the river the springs feed is the Wekiva River.” 

A flock of wild turkeys wander by the edge of the campground

So, now we know why the different spellings for an area we like as well as any in Florida. The state park is located on 7,800 acres just north of a huge urban area that includes greater Orlando. It is actually just north of Apopka, Florida. Once you enter the park, however, civilization is left behind. You even get a lecture at the gate about the do's and don'ts about Florida's Black Bears.

We drove in slowly, and had only traveled a few hundred yards when two wild turkeys took their time and strolled across the road right in front of the car. Our golden retriever, Taz, his head hanging out of the car window, thought he had died and gone to heaven. The turkeys cautiously eyed exuberant Taz and slowly wandered off into the underbrush. Later, while walking the dogs one morning, we had a flock of twelve turkeys walk through the campground.
A ranger stopped by told us to move our screen room completely onto the camp pad.
We found our shady, reserved camp site and backed in with no problem. The camp roads are all paved, with plenty of room to maneuver. There are two camping loops with a total of 60 individual camp sites. Each loop has a modern, clean shower and toilet facility in its center. The campgrounds are shaded, well spaced, and level, with water and 30 amp electrical service. Each site also has a fire ring and a picnic table. We were informed the campgrounds will be closed for almost a year beginning in October as a major upgrade is made to the facilities. Sewer hookups will be added to each campsite, removing the dump-station and its associated septic system. Check with the park before planning any camping as the schedule appears to be tenuous at best. The park and the springs themselves will be open to the public while the upgrade to the campground are being made. Wekiwa is already better than most of the other five campgrounds we've been to this year. I'm sure Wekiwa will probably be great when they finish.
Sand Lake

Wekiwa Springs State Park draws huge crowds on weekends, as do all of Florida's spring-based state parks, so we scheduled our arrival on a Monday morning, long after the weekend crowds have left. In fact, they close the park after all the parking spaces at the spring are full, so if you are trying to get in with an RV on a busy weekend or holiday, you may have a long wait on traffic just to get in. The campground had only a smattering of RVs on Monday when we arrived, with quite a few tent campers, mostly with small, school age children. One last camping fling before school starts for most of them.

Trail to Sand Lake

Our first morning was quiet and hot as always in Florida in August, but with low humidity and a nice breeze. Ilse and I took a leisurely bicycle ride on the shady two-lane park road to Sand Lake. We walked around the small, pretty lake as a nice quiet interlude. We were struck by the silence. No birds, no wildlife at all. A really odd experience for mid-August Florida. We saw a single Gopher Tortoise, and that was it. The lake is ringed with picnic tables and grills, and, unfortunately, cans and bottles left over from the careless few who leave it to someone else to haul out their trash.

The park offers walking trails as long as 15 miles. The trails are well maintained and well marked. On our first forest walk we startled a small herd of deer which scattered through the underbrush. While almost all of the trails are wide, the trails through the sand hill underbrush overgrow the walking area so chigger protection is a must.

The highlight of the park, however, is the beautiful spring. The basin wall was concreted in years ago, making the border of the spring into walkways and staircases to the clear, 72 degree water. The actual spring fissure is only feet from the main retaining wall and the rush of clear, flowing spring water can easily be seen from just a few feet away. The basin itself is shallow enough in spots to allow wading, but wet-shoes are recommended because of the rocky bottom. The swimming area is separated from the downstream river by a wooden pedestrian bridge that was being rebuilt while we were there. The concession that rents canoes and kayaks is just a few yards below the foot bridge. While you may bring your own boats, you must unload in the parking lot and transport everything down a footpath to the launch area, which is cumbersome and not really meant to be attractive to kayak owners. The busy concession stand is obviously meant to make renting a boat a far more attractive proposition than lugging your own. 

Wekiva River

While we were talking to the young man who was taking a break from hustling with kayak paddles and life jackets to the constant stream of paddlers, we noticed two aluminum Grumman canoes tied up at the bank with turtles in them. Not just a few common cooters, but quite a collection of different turtles, all taken from the river and spring area. Several young men and women were taking a break nearby, stripping off scuba gear and wet suits. One heavily tattooed young man in a soggy tee-shirt and swimsuit came over and began chatting with us when I pointed at a small soft-shell snapper that was crawling along the bottom of one canoe. When I called another one a mud turtle, he grinned and said, “Well, yes, but it is actually a variation of a musk turtle.”

They were with the Central Florida Fresh Water Turtle Association, a volunteer group started by Penn State several years ago to monitor the health and population of turtles found in the fresh waters of Florida. He thoroughly enjoyed picking up the different species and showing them to us, explaining how the turtles were numbered and tagged. When I asked if he had any real snapping turtles, he grinned and pulled two big cooters out of the way to show a full size common snapping turtle that obviously didn't want to be in the canoe. Given enough time, I have no doubt he could have chewed his way out. He wouldn't have to, of course. After tagging, all the turtles were released back into the Wekiva River.

The Wekiwa Springs State Park offers us all we look for in a campground and park. Plenty of walking and hiking trails, a nice paved park road for biking, a beautiful spring and river, and a really nice campground. In addition, the nearest grocery store, in case you have to make a milk run, is just several miles outside the main gate.

This park gets five stars from us, and I'm sure after the addition of the sewer hook-ups later this year, it will even be better.

Next: Back to Anastasia - Another view of one of our favorite campgrounds at:

More info about Wekiwa Springs at:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

O'Leno State Park

The 1934 suspension bridge over the Santa Fe River at O'Leno State Park
When I turned off the paved main park road onto the entrance to the Dogwood camping loop, my first reaction was, “Whoops, I must have missed the turn somewhere!” Nope, both of the camping loop roads, both Dogwood and Magnolia, are not only narrow one-way, single lane dirt roads, but it has been a long, long time since they have seen a grader. Ragged is the first word that comes to mind. The ruts in the first few hundred yards did not make the rest of the loop seem inviting. Nevertheless, we pulled into the heavily-forested campground and checked our reserved site, number 32, with some dismay. It is the very first site of the loop, and at the very bottom of a gently sloped hill. Not wanting a repeat of sloshing through puddles as we had done at Rainbow Springs, we called the park office and they cordially gave us a list of available, alternate campsites that would be available for our planned four-day stay. The Internet map, by the way, is only a vague resemblance to the actual campground. Well, the map's loop is round, sort of.

The Dogwood Camping Loop

We checked the next two sites and picked site 34, a shady site at the top of the small hill. A quick cell phone call to the office and we were all set. Our next revelation was there is no vehicle access to the shower/restroom facilities to the Dogwood loop. The only road is an access road for service vehicles only, adjacent to the camp host's site. The toilets are land-locked, so to speak, with only barren, narrow, and very rocky foot paths that lead from the back of each site to a main path that precariously meanders to the bathhouse. Stumbling along the rocky, and sometimes mossy, path to get to the toilet is the hard part: the facilities are fairly new and spotlessly clean.  There is a covered trash can station at facility as the main dumpster, as is the dump station, is a mile and a half away at the Magnolia campground. The shower and toilet facilities at the Magnolia loop are not only drive up accessible, there is room for several vehicles at once.

Almost all of the sites we looked at are full shade, with water and 30 and 50 amp electrical service, on packed sand, and all appeared fairly level. It only took us 30 minutes or so to be completely set up. Larger campers or longer trailers might have a problem backing in to some of the sites as there is little room to maneuver as you back into the 90 degree sites from the single-lane, dirt road. 
Campsite 34 on the Dogwood Loop

The rocky, moss covered path to the restroom/showers

We didn't do our traditional spaghetti dinner. Instead, we broke out the shrimp and the cocktail sauce along with a couple of glasses of wine, and relaxed after an almost 5 hour drive up from Port Charlotte. We broke our usual travel rule and traveled up I-75 almost the entire trip. My nerves were frazzled, as they always are when I have to share the road with a two-ton missiles operating at speeds above 90 feet a second by operators who can't see my big, white, 20 foot trailer! I'm firmly convinced many of them can't see each other, as well. I'll take my back roads any day!

The campground was almost 4 degrees cooler than the road coming in. With a nice breeze, it was really a beautiful July day in Florida, just barely over 90 degrees. We took a drive over to the other campground, the Magnolia loop, and watched a doe and her fawn alongside the nice shady main park road, and then took Taz and Daisy on a mile and a half walk around the Sante Fe River sink. The river actually goes under ground here, and pops up again some three and a half miles south at the Sante Fe River Rise.

The trails are well maintained and marked, and they have trails for every type of hiker.  Bicycles are allowed on only some trails, you need to check the park brochures for details, but pets are allowed on all trails. By the time we finished the “Yellow” trail, Daisy and Taz were exhausted from the heat and humidity, even though we were protected in the shaded forest. Again, take precautions against ticks and chiggers by spraying your shoes and legs with insect repellent, (spray everything!)  especially in the summer season.  We had a problem with chiggers here that we hadn't had anywhere else, but, in all fairness, we spent quite a lot of time walking the beautiful trails with our two dogs and we failed to spray ourselves before we walked.  Checking for ticks after walking the forest paths and trails is mandatory. 

[For more information on Chiggers, see my link at :]

The park is one of the oldest in Florida, and is actually built on the old Florida town of O'Leno, which we were told is pronounced “O'Leeno” Why, you ask? Because the original name of the town was Keno, named after the card game. Church and Civic pressures were applied in the middle 1860's and the name was changed. But, apparently, not the pronunciation.

It is a beautiful, unique park, with a thick forest covering the entire park. The proximity of I-75, however, might be a draw back during the months when you don't have your A/C on if you stay at the Magnolia loop campground. Highway traffic noise can be clearly heard from the Magnolia campground, but not from the Dogwood Campsite, which is further away from the Interstate.

This is a nice campground, and even a better park. It is a great place to use as a base to check out central north Florida. There are more springs near here than I can list, including at least three local “Blue Springs.” The sandy sites might be a drawback to some, but the sites are hard packed and no problem.

The Sante Fe river was very, very low due to the lack of rain, and not at its prettiest.  The swimming area was temporarily closed due to lack of water.  The river is fed off of the upper Suwanee River, and when that river is low, so is the Sante Fe. Still, the old suspension foot bridge, built in 1934 by the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, is unique, as is the history of a town that time has long since vanished and been forgotten.

On Sunday, we drove out of the park and headed south along U.S. 441, looking for the Santa Fe River rise, and eventually found a county canoe ramp near the spot the river crosses under the highway. We took photos of the pretty stretch of river and watched the many wading birds that were taking advantage of the low water level. A woman soon walked up with an older Black Labrador on a leash, and we began chatting about the area. As we talked, the Lab, named Sheba, pulled toward the shallow river, so her owner, Ann, unleashed her. Sheba slowly waded out into the river and laid down.

Sheba cools off just before meeting a canoe

Ann and her husband are transplants from Sugarloaf Key, and have lived in the area for over ten years. We had a pleasant time talking about the pros and cons of living this far north versus living in Miami and the Florida keys. while we chatted, Sheba stood up and waded further out into the river between several large rocks that protruded out of the gently flowing river, and laid back down in the water. Sheba was facing downstream with the water running past her hips.  She was as happy as any Black Lab can be.  Soon, an aluminum canoe came slowly paddling downstream with three young people leisurely enjoying the quiet river. The young woman in front paddled, as well as the young man in the rear, but the woman in the middle was just looking around, enjoying the ride.  As they passed by the remnants of the old highway buttress right in front of us, they ran aground with a loud crunch. 

The girl in front saw Sheba and called back to us laughingly, “Have the dog give us a push!” 

The girl in the middle had been looking over the other side of the canoe and did not see Sheba, who stood up just as the girl turned her head to look at us.  I have no idea what the girl thought, but by the look on her face it must have been a real shock to see a huge, black animal rise up out of the  river and look at her at eye level from only a few feet away! Sheba just watched as the trio finally got out of the canoe and pushed through.

We said goodbye to Ann and Sheba, and drove down to High Springs just a mile away to continue exploring this part of Florida.

The O'Leno campground is quiet, offering very good privacy and space between most campsites. Both campgrounds are completely covered with a beautiful hardwood forest. The Magnolia campground is adjacent to the river sink, along with the swimming facilities, which were closed while we were there due to lack of water, and adjacent to the permanent facilities of the park. There is no gift shop at the park. Limited items such as caps or shirts are available at the ranger station when you drive in.
The Sante Fe River rises some 3.5 miles away and continues its journey south

Next: A new tow vehicle and my grandmother's wrenches, at:

More information about the park can be found at:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rainbow Springs State Park

Rainbow River

As we approached the intersection of State Road 484 in Dunnellon, Florida, headed north on US 41, I spotted the discrete, low mounted camper icon arrow pointing to the right out of the corner of my eye. The main road sign for Rainbow Springs State Park points straight ahead, but the almost unnoticeable white image of a camper on a brown background mounted below the main sign post has an arrow pointing to the right instead. 

Rainbow River
We thought, “How cool! They actually had the foresight to warn campers the campgrounds for the State Park are on the other side of the Rainbow River from the main park.” In fact, the two parts of the park are about seven miles apart by the shortest route.

However, after turning on to state road 484 and driving for fifteen minutes without seeing any further signs, we began to question if we had indeed misread the first sign. We diligently checked every intersection, looking for the next sign pointing to the campground. It was raining, and we were extremely cautious not to miss the turn-off sign.

The rental canoe rack at the head-spring.
When we crossed State Road 200, some 9 or 10 miles from U.S. 41 without seeing any signs for the State Park, we were not happy. We pulled off at a wide spot of the road and checked the GPS, which takes you to the main park at the head-springs on the wrong side of the river, not the campground. 

The GPS map showed a possible access road, 180th Ave, which proved to be the right road to the campground. A U-turn towing a travel trailer is always a pain in the butt, especially on a two lane road, and State Road 484 is no different!

The Rainbow Springs State Park campground is not marked from either direction from SR 484!1 There is no indication of the state park campground entrance anywhere on the State Road. Too make matters worse, when I finally pulled into the State Park entrance on 180th Avenue in a driving rain storm, I was informed the entrance I had entered is for tubers only. The campground entrance is another two miles up the road. I might as well had gone tubing, by the time I had sloshed over to the office and back, I was wet enough.

The walking trail at the campsite

Site 25 at Rainbow Springs State Park

After another U-turn to get out of the tubing entrance, I pulled back onto 180th Ave and continued on for another two miles or so. When I pulled into Rainbow Springs State Park Campground, I wondered where the guard house, or welcome shack, was located. 

There is a swing arm gate that closes at sundown across the two-lane road, but no ranger station. The first thing we encountered is a strangely laid out tarmac with a dump station on the far left side. It was still raining heavily when we arrived so the only thing we could see was what appeared to be a huge parking lot and a gift store. That's it! After walking to the gift shop, which indeed is where we registered and got our windshield pass, I squished back to the truck and looked up our reserved site, trying not to get the map wet. It was almost a quarter to 4:00 pm by the time we registered. We had wasted almost an hour because of the missing sign on SR 484.

Ilse at the Main Park Overlook

We found our site, number 25, just as the rain began to let up. Ilse didn't get too wet as she backed me into the slot, which was completely under water. She held our little Motorola Walkabout radio in one hand and her collapsible umbrella in the other as she tip-toed through the huge puddle, giving me directions and making sure I didn't knock down the electrical box on the side of the campsite.

We sat in the car for a few minutes as the little flood subsided from the almost perfectly level campsite. She laughed as she told me about the site which was listed as partial shade. There is one scrawny, pine tree and that's all. Recently graveled, it was soon ready to walk on without getting our shoes sopping wet. We were completely un-hooked and set up in about 30 minutes. 

A full service campground, the fairly new campground has water, 30 and 50 amp electrical service as well as a sewer hook-up. The sites are rather sparse as far as vegetation is concerned, with only a few sites offering any shade. Privacy isn't bad, depending on the site location, but there are several completely in the open. I would avoid the first few sites on either loop at all costs as they sit in the middle of the pull-in loops, and have no privacy what-so-ever.

The restroom/shower facilities are new and absolutely spotless. Not the same can be said for the area around the office/gift-shop, which is in dire need of tender loving care. The closed swimming pool at the rear of the office has weeds growing around the perimeter, as in fact, does most of the campground.3 Dog Fennel, a tall but unattractive native Florida weed that is always the first plant to grow back after a fire, is everywhere. A good mowing is in order, but that is an issue that probably has been whacked by the recent budget cuts.

After breaking out the shrimp and the cocktail sauce, which served as a great appetizer, we had our traditional first dinner, spaghetti. Then we took a stroll to one of the prettiest, clear rivers in Florida, the Rainbow River, just a few hundred yards beyond the office/gift-shop. The evening air was cool, clear and mosquito free. A pleasant, Florida stroll.

There is a small swimming area here, and an aluminum ramp used to launch both paddlers and tubers who flow downstream two miles to the takeout point at the first park entrance. The park runs a tram for tubers between the two locations downstream from the head-spring. The main area at the head-spring seven miles away has a much bigger swimming area and many more canoes and kayaks for rent. 

You are given two windshield passes when you check in. The one is for your windshield at the campground and the other is for the main park entrance at the head-spring which normally costs two dollars.

An otter climbs up a tree branch while a cormorant watches warily
The park at the main head-spring is one of the prettiest parks in the Florida park system.  A former Florida tourist attraction that went bankrupt in the middle seventies, a victim to both I-75 and the then newly-opened Disney World in Orlando, most of the attraction's beauty has luckily been saved. Closed for several years due to litigation and legal wrangling, the State of Florida eventually opened the head-spring area to all visitors.

Getting to the main park from the campground on the other side of the river requires a car, or bravery, if you are a cyclist. The short route, north to County Road 40 is around seven miles long. Riders must share the road with motorist doing 55 mph on both county roads as well as U.S. 41 as there is no bike trail or bike lane. The southern route is almost four miles longer, and just as dangerous. The main park, however, is a park not to be missed.

The walk from the parking lot to the entrance is a taste of the beauty of the park. Once inside the park you have two choices: To the right leads downhill to the swimming and paddling area, the other side to the once commercially-maintained gardens and forest. The head-spring area for swimmers and paddlers who flock to the 72 degree spring, especially on weekends, is very popular. I highly recommend visiting during the week, if at all possible. The forest trail has a low, wide paved path to the waterfalls, and a higher return path back to the gift shop. The gift shop, incidentally, doesn't open until 11:30am, and closes again at 4:30pm, so don't count on buying batteries if you get there too early.

Man-made waterfalls and cascades have been preserved as well as the foliage that dominates the area. The walking path leads to the Butterfly garden, and if you are lucky, you'll get to meet Charley, the volunteer who almost single-handedly maintains the beautiful area, and get to chat with someone who really knows his plants. The other side of the butterfly garden leads to several walking trails, one of them three miles long.

Swimming area at the Main park
The swimming side of the spring has a dock for swimmers, and a few hundred feet further downstream, a rental facility that has 20 Grumman aluminum canoes and 12 two-man Pamlico kayaks which can be rented for $10.00 an hour, with a two hour minimum. There can be a waiting list for rentals on weekends.  Years ago, glass bottomed boats took tourists for short, twenty minute excursions down the river, pointing out individual springs and hiding places for the Large Mouth Black Bass that helped make the river famous.

On Tuesday morning, we parked our Jimmy in the lot in front of  the gift shop at the campground location and walked the short distance to the river put-in ramp.  Luckily, we met the driver of the tram from the tube rental part of the park, the entrance gate we had erroneously pulled into during the rainstorm. On weekends, the concession has a full-time person on site all day, but during the week, you have to catch the driver of the tram as he has the keys to the boat rack and the required paperwork. The tram appears every half hour or so. After signing a waiver, leaving your driver's license with the tram driver, and paying your $20.00, you get to push off into one of Florida's prettiest, clearest rivers.

The water flow is consistent, but not overwhelming, as you paddle toward the head spring. The paddle is an easy 40 to 45 minute trip, with houses on one side of the river and wild forest on the other. About half way up the river, we met an otter which theatrically climbed up on a log for us so I could take a quick photograph. A Cormorant sitting further up the tree log watched apprehensively. Several children in a canoe started yelling about the otter and it immediately slipped quietly back into the river. We never saw it again.

The river is absolutely clear and every bass, bream, anhinga, turtle, or even cormorant, that swims anywhere near your boat is clearly visible. The absolutely crystal clear water is 72 degrees, and after a few minutes the water is actually comfortable enough to drag your hand or foot as you take a break from the leisurely paddle. We met many kayakers headed toward us from the head-spring area, with a few typically unconscious paddlers who probably drive their cars with the same total disregard for others as when they paddle.  Don't expect other paddlers to know what they are doing.  I HIGHLY recommend paddling on the river during the week rather than on weekends. We were told by the tram driver the past weekend traffic jam had backed up the county road leading to the park with tubers and paddlers. I can see why, this one of the nicest paddles we've done in along time.

This park rates as a “will come back,” one of the prettier parks in Florida.

Next Up: Oleno State Park at:

More information about the Rainbow Springs State Park can be found at the official web site at:

1 According to park rangers, the original campground markers at SR 484 were removed during road improvements by Marion County. At the completion of the road work, Marion county tried to charge the Florida State Park system $1200 to remount the signs, the Florida park system rejected the bill and the signs have never been remounted!
3 The $18,000 required for repairs was stricken from the State Park Budget by the 2011 Florida legislature.

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