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Winter Wanderings Day #21 Big Lagoon State Park, Pensacola, FL

Sunday morning, waiting for it to warm up at Big Lagoon, I worked on the second leg of our Winter Wanderings. We begin to head north on Wednesday to be in Greenville, SC for Wiley’s meetings 2/10-12. We’ll visit with family and friends there, then go check on the house and see friends in Sapphire for a couple of days before returning south. Of course, everything in Florida is booked, because of the snowbirds. Thankfully, I put in requests on for all the parks and dates we want. WanderingLabs has always come through in the past, so here’s hoping that trend continues. We were able to book our old standbys, Jekyll and Edisto, for the return trip. We always love both of them, but that is all we were able to book. Eek! Send good vibes!

Before lunch, we packed a picnic and set out from our campsite, #28 to catch the boardwalk, right across from us, leading to the trail system. Sweet spot! We hiked to Long Pond, where we decided to have our lunch at the covered picnic table overlooking the pond. It was sunny and 62, an absolutely perfect day. The day, I had been dreaming of since leaving the mountains 1/13. We had a lovely picnic then hit the Estuary Trail towards the observation tower and Big Lagoon. When we arrived at the shore, we saw sailboats, fishing boats, and kayakers enjoying the water. The sun was glistening off the water’s surface, like diamonds. It was so picturesque. It just took my breath away. In that moment, there was nowhere on earth, I would rather be than right there with Wiley and the puppies. My heart was so happy and grateful.

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Winter Wanderings Day #20, Buccaneer State Park, Waveland, MS, Bark Park, Perdido Key, Big Lagoon State Park, Pensacola, FL

On Saturday morning, we left Buccaneer and headed east. We were excited to drive through historic Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian, MS, I had heard about from my parents. They were really beautiful! Sadly, neither had a dog friendly beach, so we kept going. We stopped at Buc-ees, Texas sized “convenience store” near Foley, AL on Ashe’s recommendation. It was crazy! Outdoors gear, toys, home decor, grills, smokers, boilers, fire pits, food, and more. The size of a TJ Maxx. If you see one, stop! En route to Pensacola, located a dog beach for us, just 4.5mi before we arrived at Big Lagoon State Park. The “Bark Park” or River Rd Dog Park was right before the bridge that takes you from Perdido Key to Pensacola. The park was cute. It had a big dog and a small dog area. It was cold and very windy, so we had it all to ourselves. We opted for the big dog area, because it had agility equipment and covered picnic table, where the small dog area had nothing. After exploring and playing ball a bit, we went on through to the beachfront area. It was great! It had a small sandy beach and a wonderful, huge saw palm and brush area at the base of a tree for the dogs to hunt in. Our two loved it! Nigel played ball and hunted, because the hunting area was so sweet. Pippa was in heaven. Being so chilly, us parents did not make it long. After a while, we had to rally the troops and get back in the van. Being so close to the campground, we could return when the weather would be warmer, while we were staying nearby if needed. We would see.

We drove into Big Lagoon and were pleased from the get go. We wound through the pretty sand hills, all the way to the end of the park on the Big Lagoon. We parked and walked towards the observation tower. We were amazed by the beauty of it all. There were boardwalks over marshes, raised, covered picnic areas, overlooking the water, trails throughout, and the tower with great views of Grand and Big Lagoons, the marsh, beaches, lakes, and forest. We looked down into Big Lagoon from the tower to see two dolphins, swimming near one of the two kayakers. Wow! This park is a dream, especially with the promised weather ahead. Hallelujah! This was the perfect place to end this leg of our Winter Wanderings. It was chilly and windy, so we just did a short hike around, planning to explore a lot more over the next few days with warmer temps. The only drawback, being, like all Florida State Parks, no dogs allowed on the beaches. Other than that it was perfect!

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Winter Wanderings Day #18-19, Buccaneer State Park, Waveland, MS

Thursday at Buccaneer State Park was a little chilly, but sunny. We were thrilled to have sunshine. At lunch, we hiked from the campground to the Pirates Alley Nature Trail. At 1.5mi, the Nature Trail was a maze of trails through the woods and along the marsh. It had a nice pier with a picnic table on it, overlooking the marsh. We saw lots of herons, egrets, ibises and other shore birds, hunting in the marsh. It was beautiful! Throughout the wood were fabulous red and orange, spotted, fairy mushrooms, which I loved. We did the the park’s lone trail, Thursday and Friday. The second day, between the rains, I saw what I, initially, thought was a fox through the woods. I called Wiley back to see it. Turned out it was a small red, wild pig, we could see clearly through the underbrush. We were so excited! The puppies smelled it, but didn’t see it. The little piggie stared at us for a couple of minutes, then ran off. The entire wood was all torn up, so we knew there were a lot more, where that one came from.

Both Thursday and Friday, after the nature trail, we hiked down past the water park, to the tiny beach area across the street from the park entrance. Nigel played ball and Pippa hunted. Friday on the beach, Pippa was hunting and dove snout first under a concrete block, which looked like it would hurt. She was focused and unwavering, as she stayed on whatever it was the entire time, we were down there. At one point Nigel abandoned his ball, curious as to what she was so fixed on. Determining, there was not anything, he returned to his ball. When Pippa finally emerged, she had a thin, long scratch on her snout. Poorest girl. She didn’t seem bothered by it. She is a dedicated huntress for sure, injured in her quest for the kill, that rarely ever happens. I admire her dedication and perseverance.

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Winter Wanderings Day #17, Fountainebleau State Park, Mandeville, LA, Buccaneer State Park, Waveland, MS

On another gray, wet, chilly day, we took a walk down to the Lake Pontchartrain waterfront and onto the pier, before leaving Fountainebleau State Park. I look forward to returning to this gem of a park, that I didn’t get to explore, because I was in NOLA with Ashe. Wiley and the puppies had some great hikes on the trails and boardwalks. We will definitely be back!

As we drove the short distance to Mississippi along the Gulf Coast, we saw a wild pig rooting around on the side of the highway. This fall, we saw a herd in FL and a couple in GA, all of them along the highway. Wiley saw the two babies at Fountainebleau, cross the trail, right in front of him. It is always exciting to see them, especially without incident. LOL! We stopped, just short of Buccaneer State Park, where we were to camp, so we could play on the dog-friendly beach with the puppies. Let me mention here, that we have now been to two Mississippi Gulf beaches, but have not let the dogs in the water. We saw a dead cat and two dead shore birds at Ocean Springs Front Beach, then a dead possum here in Waveland. These parks and beaches were closed this summer due to blue green algae. I believe there is still toxicity in the water, based on what we have seen…It is so disturbing, especially after the recent federal government’s lifting of what water protection there was. Agricultural, municipal, and industrial waste is what causes the water contamination, making it unsafe for humans and pets. Sickening and scary that this is allowed and will be even more prevalent going forward…

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Winter Wanderings Day #16, New Orleans, Fountainebleau State Park, Mandeville, LA

My final day in New Orleans with Ashe, we went to lunch between her classes. We ate at Louisiana Pizza Kitchen, again, close to campus at St. Charles and Carrollton, across from Jazmine Café, and next door to Le Madeleine, all on the Tulane meal plan, which is so nice. They have so many fabulous restaurant options near campus, around Uptown that are on their meal plan. These are restaurants people come to New Orleans to dine at. The students are so spoiled! I hope they know how lucky they are. We started with Boudin Balls, which are fried sausage, rice, onion, and peppers, a New Orleans specialty. So good! Ashe got a yummy pasta primavera. I got one of the specials, a Thai shrimp wrap with Caesar salad. It was delish! The servings were huge and enough for a whole other meal for both of us. Yea leftovers! I took Ashe back to school and went to run some errands before picking her up again.

That evening, after work, Wiley drove over the 24mi Lake Pontchartrain Bridge to come meet us at Ashe’s. He had never seen her new apartment and, of course, wanted to meet Hugo. I had scoped out a wide street with two other vans parked on it, right around the corner from Ashe’s, for Wiley to park Happy. Luckily, when he arrived there, there was a spot available. He came in to see Ashe’s place and meet the kitty. Hugo did not come out, right away, so we decided to go get the puppies from the van to go for a walk down fabulous Freret St. in Ashe’s neighborhood. We stopped to get chai at Mojo’s then did a big loop back to the apartment. We put the puppies back in the van then hung out for a while at Ashe’s. Hugo, finally, came out and warmed right up to Wiley. He’s such a friendly cat.

For dinner we drove back down Freret, to Uptown favorite, High Hat. It had a great atmosphere. It was a historic pharmacy with beautiful tile floors, dark wood, and huge windows. It was crowded by 6pm with a happening bar scene. Luckily, we walked right in and got a table by a window. We could not resist and got Boudin for the second time that day, but wanted Wiley to try it. Plus, this was not rolled into balls and fried, but flat and grilled. So yummy! Wiley got their fried catfish. I got the fried chicken special with pimento cheese mac and cheese and greens. Ashe got the oyster po-boy. I tried everything. It was all divine. Everyone thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a wonderful evening. Eat at High Hat!

After dinner, we said our difficult goodbye then Wiley and I hit the road back across Lake Pontchartrain to Fountainebleau State Park. It took about 45min, which is not bad. It’s so much nicer than the Bayou Segnette State Park, only 30min from Ashe, but there’s no comparison. Bayou Segnette has pitiful trails along concrete culverts and chain link fencing by the highway. The road noise is constant. The campground looks like a parking lot with no trees. Fountainbleau is gorgeous, so worth the extra drive time. It is our New Orleans campground home now. I looked forward to exploring a little the following day before having to leave. Wiley had been telling me all about the great trails and boardwalks through the woods, the bayou, and along the lake. I was bummed I had missed the two young wild pigs, that crossed the trail right in front of him, the previous day. Wiley and the puppies had been having plenty of fun without me, which felt weird, but I was glad they had enjoyed themselves. I cherished the time with Ashe and would not trade that for anything. So grateful for Wiley driving us to NOLA and for the van, allowing us to so easily visit family and friends. Yea Happy Camper!

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Winter Wanderings Day #15, New Orleans, LA

Monday morning, we went to breakfast with Ashe’s precious friend, Kat and her two visiting Costa Rican Couch Surfers, Margot and Tanya. We met at Kat’s. I gave Kat a pair of silver and moonstone star earrings, I had made. She loved them and immediately put them on, which made me so happy. The five of us walked around the corner to Toast to eat. Kat is fluent in Spanish and Ashe conversational, currently taking Spanish as a senior at Tulane. Me, well, it had been 28yrs since I studied in Ecuador for a short semester, so finding the words to speak in Spanish was challenging, but I did my best, which was ok. We had a super fun meal. Loved hearing about the girls travels and lives. Kat had lived in Argentina and has been a touring musician, so she’s really interesting and bright. I got smoked salmon, capers, cream cheese, and scrambled egg on toast, which was to die for. Kat ordered Aebleskivers for the table. They were crazy good, pancake balls covered in powdered sugar and served with your choice of dipping sauce. We got Nutella. They were insane! Toast is a breakfast or brunch must when in NOLA. Fabulous atmosphere and ridiculous food! Only in New Orleans, they have three locations across the city. Go!

After lunch, Kat’s visitors gave Ashe and me “Pura Vida” wooded key chains and Costa Rican chocolates, and Kat a beautiful, handpainted, wooden Costa Rica mug, which was so sweet. We drove the sisters to the French Quarter and said our goodbyes, as they set out to play tourists. We then went with Kat to NOPSI Hotel, the lovely boutique hotel, where she works. She showed us around the historic, former utility company building, turned chic hotel. She had to get to work, but told us to take the elevator up to check out the 9th floor rooftop. It was amazing! There was an infinity pool, cabanas, lounge chairs, and nice bar with lots of tables and 360 degree views of the Central Business District and Superdome. Highly recommend this hotel! It’s really special. Ashe and I took some skyline pics, said bye to Kat, then headed out to do a little shopping before she had to get to her afternoon Spanish class.

I drove Ashe to class and picked her up. She normally walks the 0.5mi, but we wanted to spend every minute together, we could. That afternoon we went to the locally owned pet store on Magazine St to buy more toys and treats for my spoiled grandkitty. That evening, we just stayed in and ate leftovers from the previous two days, so we could just chill and spend time together with Hugo. Love being with Ashe in her apartment. It is really a gift, seeing your child in their own home, making a life. She’s so happy and thriving in New Orleans. I’m thrilled for her. So grateful to be able to share it with her and for Wiley being willing to spare me for a few days to have this precious mother-daughter time.

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Winter Wanderings Day #14, Davis Bayou, Gulf Islands National Seashore, MS, Fountainebleau State Park, Mandeville, New Orleans, LA

We swung by the visitors center at Davis Bayou, first thing in the morning. We were refunded for the nights, we were no longer staying, which was nice. I got my National Park Passport stamped then we headed out, towards Louisiana. It was only 1.5hrs to Fountainbleau State Park.

We arrived in the rain to find the most beautiful park. As we drove into Fountainbleau, we crossed the Tammany Trace, a 31mi bike path from Mandeville to Slidell, part of the Rails to Trails program. The park was covered in huge, ancient live oaks with lush resurrection ferns and abundant Spanish moss. We saw ruins from the former sugar cane plantation and brickyard, that once stood on that land. As we drove through the park, we went on past the campground to the park’s waterfront on Lake Pontchartrain, directly across the water from New Orleans. We were impressed by what we saw from the van of the beach pavilion/bathhouse, pier, splash park, fishing pond, picnic area, and multiple trailheads, although, it was too nasty to check it out at the time. We drove from there over to the cabin area and were blown away. The cabins were fabulous! They were modeled after old Louisiana fishing cabins with colorful wood siding, each on stilts out in the lake with boardwalks to access them. Near the cabin area, was a meeting pavilion, and cool, giant tee pees for group camping. Incredible facilities! We were thrilled with the park, just icing is its being so close to New Orleans and Ashe.

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Winter Wanderings Day #13, Gulf State Park, Gulf Shores, AL, Ocean Springs Beach, Davis Bayou Campground, Gulf Islands National Seashore, Ocean Springs, MS

Saturday, it was rainy and 34 degrees in Gulf Shores. The weather on the Gulf Coast had, certainly, not been our friend, except for our one 60 degree day at Gulf State Park for which, we were so grateful. We left the park, making a stop at the fabulous Gulf Coast owned, Rouses Grocery, where we bought groceries for the week and a king cake, because we could not resist the festive display. We hit the road west toward the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Mississippi would be our 20th state to have camped in. We were excited to be adding a state sticker to our travel map in the van.

We used, as we often do, to find a dog friendly beach near our campground destination in Ocean Springs, MS. We parked Happy right on Ocean Springs’ Front Beach Dr. close to the yacht club. There were beautiful historic and newer homes, overlooking the beach. There was heavy use along the really nice Front Beach Walking Path, used by walkers, runners, dogs, and cyclists, but we walked in the sand by the shore. We had great views of the Biloxi Bay Bridge, Deer Island, and the Mississippi Sound. There were fun, concrete, bonfire pits along the beach, every so often, as we walked. Halfway down the beach was a fishing pier. Across the street was Fort Marpaus Park with shade covered playground, splash pad, and nature preserve. The whole stretch of beach was an impressive, city enhancement project. What we saw of Ocean Springs, we liked. The charming, historic, beach downtown had quaint cottages, restaurants, galleries, and shops. I looked forward to exploring more in the next few days.

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Winter Wanderings Day #12, Gulf State Park, Gulf Shores, AL.

Well, Friday was the day I had been hoping for, sunny, and 64 at lunchtime. Hallelujah! We hiked on the Campground Trail, to the Armadillo Trail, to the Middle Lake Overlook. The lake was gorgeous with the sun glistening, like diamonds, on the surface. Wiley and I sat at the overlook picnic table with the puppies lying on the dock, all basking in the glorious sunlight, soaking the warmth in after weeks of cold. It was just what the doctor ordered!

On the hike back, there were several people gathered around a small waterway in the campground. They were looking at a gator sunning itself on the far bank. I got a little to bold for Wiley’s liking and went to the closer bank’s water’s edge to snap a picture. Wiley asked, that I please not get “gatored” and get away from there, so I obliged, but only after I got my shot. Yea gator!

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Winter Wanderings Day #11, Gulf State Park, Gulf Shores, AL

Thursday morning was gray and chilly. The rain was not predicted until 3:00, so at lunchtime we layered up with hats and gloves, hitting the trails towards the “Dog Pond at Lake Shelby”. We took some dirt and some paved trails to hike the 1.5mi to the dog park. The park was definitely more biker friendly, than hiker. The signage was confusing with no long length dirt only trails, but 27mi of paved bike trails.

We first hiked to the Canal Trail Observation Dock for a nice view of Lake Shelby and the Lakefront and Eagle Cabins across the lake. The canals, we hiked by in the park were fascinating. “They were dug 600yrs ago by the Mississippian Indians. These canals made it possible to travel from Mobile to Pensacola to borrow, sell, and trade stuff with their neighbors. Connecting the park’s lakes to the back bays kept the native travelers safe from the dangers of open water”.

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