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Winter Wanderings Day #39-40, Gold Head Branch State Park, Keystone Heights, Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area, Flagler Beach, FL

We drove through Gold Head Branch State Park before leaving, to check out the Lakeview Campground for future visits. We did not like it, as well as, the Sandhill and Turkey Oak Campground loops, mainly, because it was at the end of the park, further from all the trails and ravine. We preferred the central location of the other two. After touring the campground, we parked at the end of the road at Big Lake Johnson to hike around. The wind was whipping and the temps, so low, we decided against hiking and set off on our way to Gamble Rogers. We really enjoyed Gold Head and look forward to returning.

We pulled into Flagler Beach at lunchtime. Yelp told us, Flagler Fish Company was tops, so that is where, we went. WOW! It was incredibly good! Can’t recommend it enough. You can pick your fresh seafood from the case and they will cook it up for you, any way you choose. We chose from the menu. Do not think you can go wrong, either way. We enjoyed the gazpacho, house chips, oysters on the half shell, fried seafood sampler, and a hot peanut butter and chocolate brownie, topped with ice cream and hot fudge. Hungry yet?!! Needless to say, we had half of this left over, including the brownie, so got our money’s worth, enjoying it again the following night. So yummy!

We had great camping karma, due to a last minute cancellation, landing a beachfront campsite for our first visit to Gamble Rogers. The ranger told us at check in, that the Gamble Jam was going on in the picnic area, so we went there before going to our campsite. We were so glad we did. There were a bunch of really cool folks, jamming and singing, despite the strong, gusty, cold wind. We sang lots of old classic rock favorites. What a wonderful welcome to the park. We talked to two super, northeastern couples afterward, giving them a bunch of Florida campground recommendations. One couple, Carl and Kathy, own the Xtreme Mobile Adventures Sportsmobile van. They travel with their dog, Hobo Joe to overland and outdoors expos and events. Their van was covered with sponsors, they do mobile advertising and live demos for at shows. Cool idea for funding travel.

Continue reading Winter Wanderings Day #39-40, Gold Head Branch State Park, Keystone Heights, Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area, Flagler Beach, FL
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Winter Wanderings Day #36-38, Jacksonville, Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park, Keystone Heights, FL

We arrived at Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park, early morning, so were unable to get into our campsite. We stopped on our way to the picnic area, when we saw signs that said, “Ravine Overlook” and “Ravine Parking”. Just the mention of a ravine in Florida, stopped us in our tracks. We had to see what that was all about. Wow! What an unexpected surprise. We hiked on the stairs, way down into the gorgeous ravine, to the crystal clear, spring creek, Gold Head Branch that cut through the land, over the centuries, to create the ravine. There were live oaks with Spanish moss, mixed in with saw palms, and the first vines of yellow jasmine of the season. At the bottom of the stairs by the creek, were trailhead markers in all directions for several trails. We’d have to come back to hike them over the next couple of days, while we were camping in the park.

We worked in the van in the parking lot, in the picnic area, that first day. At lunchtime, we hiked on a trail from the picnic area through a forest, a meadow, then coming out at the Little Lake Johnson lakefront, which was dotted with cabins. We hiked past the cabins over to Big Lake Johnson, but could not find a trail to continue around or across the land between, so circled back, coming out at the swimming area and canoes. The lakes and wetlands were full of shore birds and lily pads. It was so lovely. This park was beyond any expectations, I had. A friend from college, from Jacksonville had recommended it. I was so glad I listened.

Continue reading Winter Wanderings Day #36-38, Jacksonville, Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park, Keystone Heights, FL
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Winter Wanderings Day #34-35, George L Smith State Park, Twin City, GA, Jacksonville, FL

We woke to cloudy skies, but no rain, so all were happy. At lunchtime, we hiked from the campground on the Squirrel Run Trail, along the swamp, towards the historic mill. The trail was aptly named, as a bounding, running, leaping, and climbing squirrel got the puppies all rilled up. The boardwalk through the swamp was cool. We did not see any gators, due to the chilly temps. I am sure they were hunkered down in the bottom of the swamp, trying to stay warm. We hiked through the Parrish Mill, reading all about it’s interesting history. It was a combination grist mill, saw mill, covered bridge, and dam built in 1880. It was an impressive, beautiful old building. Inside, you could hear the heavy, rushing water below your feet, beneath the wood planks. Pippa was sure there were mice or the like, tugging me into a corner, trying to get them. We hiked on through to the far side of the mill pond, impressed by the power of the water, swirling and foaming on the far side of the dam. We got on the Deer Run Trail. We hiked to a lush, little spring, happy to see our first fiddleheads of the season. Hallelujah! We turned around after the spring, to head back for lunch.

After work, we hiked to the picnic area in search of a trail. When we found none, we returned to the mill, getting on the Deer Run Trail again, going in the opposite direction. We hiked about a mile through several diverse ecosystems: swamp, pine forest, bamboo, and wetlands. We saw some armadillo and deer prints, but, sadly, no armadillos or deer. The sun was setting, so not wanting to be out in the swamp after dark, we headed back to the campground. We were so thankful for a day without rain, decent temps, and a good 4.5 miles on the trail. Great day!

We woke to heavy rain, the following day. It was another day spent in the van…Thankfully, we had already decided to skip our final night at George L Smith to go to Jacksonville, FL to see our cousins for a night en route to our next park. We could not drive through JAX and not see the littles and their parents. We got there in time for dinner and some playtime. Always fun with little Lilli, Isaac, and Micah. Not much time for us to hangout with mom and Dad, Joe and Kim, but someday. For now, we get our kid fix! Once again, we were grateful for the van, and the ability to spontaneously stop see family and friends along the way. Had a ball visiting our peeps!

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Winter Wanderings Day #31-32, Sapphire, Brevard, Lake Powhatan, Asheville, NC, Diamond Lakes Regional Park, S Augusta, GA

On Valentine’s Day, we had a late lunch/early dinner at favorite, Blue Ridge Bakery in Brevard, topped off with their Valentine’s cupcake of the week, chocolate covered strawberry, a strawberry cupcake, filled with homemade strawberry jam, frosted with strawberry buttercream and chocolate ganache then topped with a hand dipped chocolate covered strawberry. Divine! We got provisions for the next few days and propane, then headed to Asheville to visit with Holly and family at her sister’s. That night we camped at our Asheville standby, Lake Powhatan, getting our favorite campsite #8 in the Big John Loop. Good camping karma. Perfect spot for the night, before heading south.

The following day, we drove, just south of Augusta, GA to Diamond Lakes Regional Park. It was an impressive complex with several baseball fields, basketball, tennis, playgrounds, library, fishing, hiking, and campground, right on the lake. There were no lakefront spots available, but our campsite #11 was on a little bog, full of peepers, who serenaded us all night long. Love the froggies!

We hiked about 2mi from the campground, around the series of lakes. It was just beautiful. We saw tons of turtles, herons, egrets, ibises, anhingas, Canada geese, deer tracks, beaver dams, and wetlands. Pippa did lots of pouncing along the shore, trying to get frogs and minnows, to no avail. Nigel played ball, the entire hike and jumped in the water a couple of times, splashing and digging. They had big fun on the gorgeous, sunny day, 15 degrees warmer than at home in WNC. Yea, for going south!

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Winter Wanderings Day #27-30, Fort Toulouse, Wetumpka, AL, Hard Labor Creek State Park, Rutledge, GA, Greenville, SC.

Saturday, we left Fort Toulouse. Pippa, immediately, jumped up in the dash, because there were leaves to hunt. After she tired of the fruitless hunt, she slept in dash. She’s a silly puppy! Nigel was in his daddy’s lap. I joked that they’re travel size. They really are!

We drove through rain and storms, again…It sure has been a wet winter. We arrived at Hard Labor Creek in the rain and freezing temps. The park looked wonderful. It had a really nice visitors center, where we checked in, golf course, mini golf, mountain bike trails, and brand new bathhouses from what I could see from the van, as we drove through. We had gotten campsite #20, in an empty cul-de-sac, in a gorgeous forest, right on Lake Brantley. We had the entire section to ourselves. Sadly, other than a trip to the bathhouse for a shower, and Wiley’s quick hike down to the lake front and back with the puppies, we were unable to hike or explore the park due to the stormy, cold weather. It’s a beautiful park with 24mi of hiking and equestrian trails, 17mi of mountain bike trails, campground, cabins, equestrian facilities, two lakes, beaches, and boat rentals. Only 2hrs from Greenville, with so much to do, this would be a great park to bring our granddaughter, Bree. Look forward to returning in better weather.

Continue reading Winter Wanderings Day #27-30, Fort Toulouse, Wetumpka, AL, Hard Labor Creek State Park, Rutledge, GA, Greenville, SC.
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Winter Wanderings Day #26, Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson, Wetumpka, AL

Grateful the rain broke, the sun, finally, came out on Friday, but the temperature had dropped into the 30’s. By lunchtime, it warmed up a good bit and felt good in the sunshine. The puppies were blissful to be liberated from the van and outdoors, as were we. We hiked from the campground, across the road to Fort Toulouse, a National Historic Landmark. We had it all to ourselves. The recreated 1751 Fort Toulouse was a charming little fort that sat at the fork of the the Talapoosa and Coosa Rivers, as they came together to form the Alabama River. It had, mainly, been used as a trading post, where the Indians exchanged fur pelts for guns and household items with the French, stationed there on the frontier of their Louisiana Territory. The local Alibamu Indians were part of the Creek Confederacy. “There were no battles at the post as French diplomacy forged allies with the natives. The surrounding Indians, commonly referred to as Creeks, wanted peace so they could trade with both the French and British”. There were high pointed log walls, encircling two standing structures, two chimneys, which were remnants of a third structure, an outdoor brick oven, and ledges in the corners for armed protection of the fort. The two remaining structures were a commandant’s house and a barracks that were colonial clapboard structures.

We then toured the two Creek winter houses and the one summer house, right by Fort Toulouse. It was interesting, seeing the different types of Creek homes. Two were mud-sided and bark roofed houses with bamboo multi level sleeping quarters, ladders, and dugout fire pits inside. The summer house was open sided with multiple level bamboo sleeping areas the length and width of the structure with a bark roof. There was an outside gathering and seating area between the three.

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Winter Wanderings Day #24-25, Big Lagoon State Park, Pensacola, FL, Fort Toulouse/Fort Jackson, Wetumpka, AL

It was difficult to leave Big Lagoon State Park in Pensacola. We had fallen in love and wanted to stay. We finally got the weather, we had gone in search of when we hit the road south from the WNC mountains, January 13th. Our time at Big Lagoon was dreamy! Sadly, pesky work got in the way, and we had to head north for meetings in Greenville, SC, this coming week. The rain, the morning we were to leave Big Lagoon, helped soften the blow. Will look forward to returning, next winter for sure. Add this one to you campground bucket list.

We drove through rain and storms from Florida to Alabama. It was an unpleasant trip. We arrived at Fort Toulouse-Fort Jackson Park, near Montgomery, in the rain. What we saw of the park, from the van, was good. There was, what looked like a fort by the Visitors Center/Camper Registration. We looked forward to exploring the forts and park in a couple of days when the weather cleared up. Looked like it was going to be a rough couple of days of rain until then…

The Visitors Center/Musuem/Camper Registration was “located inside the “Graves House”, a Carolina Tidewater Cottage built around 1830 in Lowndes County Alabama. The Bookstore and museum features archaeological collections from French colonial, early American and prehistoric Indian items”.

We registered then went to get settled. The campground was sparsely populated. We chose campsite #32 on a bluff above the wide Coosa River. We had no neighbors, which was nice. The site was under large Spanish moss covered trees. Despite the rain, it was a beautiful setting. We had awful thunder and lightning storms with strong winds all afternoon and evening. The puppies were super stressed. Pippa went and hid under the bed in her cave. Nigel came and cuddled up with me on the bed, while Wiley worked in the front of the van. That night they were both in bed with us.

We spent almost all day, the second day, inside due to weather. We started the day with a tornado watch, which is scary, when you’re in a campground, in a van, down by the river. Thankfully, we did not experience any severe weather, just thunder, lightning, and strong winds. It’s very rare, we have an entire day, where there is not a break in the rain long enough for us to get in at least a short hike. At one point, Wiley went to take the puppies for a walk, just through the campground, when he thought the rain had stopped, but as soon as they left the van, I heard the rain start up again. They were not gone long and came back wet. I did not leave the van at all. Not a fun day. Nigel, particularly, was not amused. We could not wait for it to clear up, the following day, so we could see all there was to see at the park. Bring on the sunshine!

From two days spent in the van, you get puppy pictures. You are welcome!

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Winter Wanderings Day #22-23, Big Lagoon State Park, Pensacola, FL

Monday and Tuesday were dreamy at Big Lagoon. It was low 70’s, both days and we were in shorts. Yes, shorts! It was the first time on our Winter Wanderings this year, that I was able to don shorts and a short sleeve shirt. Oh, happy day!

Monday, it was sunny and bright, but not hot. Perfection! We hiked to the Governor’s Pavilion and scenic overlook on Big Lagoon. We had a nice picnic in the Pavilion, then, as we were about to leave, we noticed some picnic tables, past the playground, through the woods, so decided to check it out. Boy, were we glad, we did. We stumbled upon West Beach on the Lagoon. There was a great sandy grass area, right before the beach, that was perfect for Nigel to play ball. For Pippa, there was a tree with brush all around the base, that she stayed hidden in, blissfully, hunting the entire time, Nigel was fetching. Everyone enjoyed themselves thoroughly.

Continue reading Winter Wanderings Day #22-23, Big Lagoon State Park, Pensacola, FL
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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!