Lake City RV Resort: Lake City, Florida

Lake City RV resort doesn’t quite live up to the “resort” part of its name, but it is a very cozy little RV park that we both quite enjoyed in northern Florida. It also heralded relief from the sky-high prices found in southern Florida.

We Paid: $36 per night for 2 nights
Discounts Used: Good Sam
Address (GPS Link): 3864 North US Highway 441  Lake City, Florida 32055
Amenities List: Power, Water, Sewer, Rec Room, Wireless, Cable TV, Bathrooms, Showers, Cabins, Tent Camping, Propane, Horseshoes

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Best Features

  • Pretty grounds
  • Comfortable facilities

Worst Features

  • Mosquitoes

The Details

We found Lake City RV Resort to be big on charm. It is a small park with a lot of greenery including many large trees, lush lawns, and small lily ponds. The overall feeling is that of a cozy little camping spot secreted away in the suburbs. There is just a bit of road noise from a nearby highway but not so much that you can hear it from inside your RV.

Lake City doesn’t live up to the resort name in my estimation since it has no pool or other premium amenities. A horseshoe pit is about as deluxe as it gets here. The clubhouse, bath, and showers are very nice, however. They clearly did a remodel recently and the results are very warm and inviting. The pads are mostly dirt or grass, but we found them to be fairly level. The parking spots are pretty close to one another. We didn’t run into any problems but set between two large motorhomes with pull outs, there was not a lot of room to spare on either side.

We didn’t try out the wireless here but unlike much of Florida it is free and so is the Cable TV. Considering their price is also down to earth compared to most of the places we have camped, I’d say they qualify as something of a bargain by Florida standards. That is likely because their location is not near any significant tourist attractions. That said, there is a national forest near by which includes a historic civil war battlefield so there are things to do.

At night, the ponds play host to a number of frogs and insects that sing quite melodiously as the sun sets. The only down side is that to enjoy their serenade you must brave the brazen mosquitoes here. My attempt at evening exploration earned me quite a few bites.

All said and done, I give Lake City RV Resort a solid recommendation. I would absolutely stay here again.

Pretty much every Florida park has one of these. We did see one small gator hanging out by the pond during our stay.

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Padre Island National Seashore

Off the coast of Texas lies the longest stretch of undeveloped barrier island in the world: Padre Island National Seashore. Just over 70 miles long with over 65 miles Gulf beach, much of this massive island hosts a variety of untouched beach, dune, and tidal flat environments. Over 380 bird species can be found on this island depending upon the seasons, thanks to the Central Flyway, a major migratory route for birds.

Among this incredible scenery is Laguna Madre, one of the most significant and pure lagoon ecosystems in Texas. This rare hypersaline lagoon protects the coastline and provides a safe nesting grounds for nesting sea turtles, resting areas for migrating birds, and a watery home for dozens of finfish species.

Padre Island National Seashore Sign

Padre Island National Seashore Sign

Malaquite Beach

We only had time for a day trip, so from Corpus Christi, we drove south for about an hour to the only visitor center within the park. We took a quick turn around the small museum and bookstore, before taking a hike on Malaquite Beach. Near the island’s north end, Malaquite Beach is rarely crowded, and we could walk southward unhindered for 65 miles to the end of the island if we wanted to. We encounter brown pelicans on the wing, cowardly little ghost crabs escaping into their little sand burrows, and the occasionally beached Portuguese Man-of-War. A genuinely peaceful setting tempt any weary soul into giving it all up just to stay here.

Ghost Crab - Takes a bit of patience to spot one!

Ghost Crab – Takes a bit of patience to spot one!

South Beach Drive

We make our way back to the visitor center and to our truck for a drive on South Beach. I’m surprised to learn that you can camp right on the beach. There are a few RVs parked along the grass line. It’s primitive camping, so no sewer, electricity or water hookups. Cellular reception is non-existant, so folks camping out here will truly getting away from it all. For about five miles, driving on the beach is easygoing and smooth.

We spot a number of folks enjoying themselves with ocean fishing, sunning, and even kite flying. One activity that caught my interest is beachcombing. Padre Island is the first national park unit I’ve been to where they allow people gather and take home items found on the beach. Natural and cultural resources are protected at the National Seashore, but you are allowed to keep up to a five-gallon bucket filled with treasures that you find so long as they do not contain any endangered animal parts, actual live animals, or historical artifacts. I’m told by a local that the best beachcombing sites are at Small Shell Beach (10-mile marker) and Big Shell beach (20-mile marker), which you need 4×4 wheel drive to get to by land. I would suggest checking with the ranger before you go.

Shells from Small Shell Beach

Shells from Small Shell Beach

Missed the Sea Turtles

All five of the sea turtle species found in the Gulf of Mexico find something they need at Padre Island National Seashore and in its adjacent waters. When we arrived at Padre Island, we were about a month too soon to witness sea turtles nesting and two or three months out from watching a hatchling run. When they happen isn’t exact, but according to the rangers, sea turtle season can happen between April to September. They also have a Facebook page and Hatchling Hotline to get info on sea turtle activities.

If you do get a chance, you find that Kemp’s ridley sea turtles nest here more than at any other location in the U.S. Juvenile green sea turtles live in the waters here year-round, and adults nest on Padre Island in low numbers. Loggerhead sea turtles also nest in the park in low numbers and forage offshore. Leatherback sea turtles travel through the Gulf and historically nested here. Hawksbill sea turtles also travel through the area, finding food and rest along the way. All of these species are federally listed as either endangered or threatened. Padre Island National Seashore is the only location in Texas where nests from all five of these species have been found.

Kemp's ridley hatchling - courtesy of the NPS site

Kemp’s ridley hatchling – courtesy of the NPS site

Fun in the Sun

On the Laguna Madre side, we saw kayakers, canoers, and windsurfers enjoying themselves. Folks looked pretty happy fishing from their boats. November to April is peak birdwatching season on the island. There are also plenty of birdwatching tours that will take the avid birder to the hot spots. One bird I was hoping to see was the White-tailed Hawk. But alas, I think we were too late to see them soaring above the grasslands and nest on the island. That alone makes this destination worthy of a re-visit for me!

Portuguese Man of War - They sting! so watch out for signs before swimming Cowfish on the Beach So many shorebirds! American White Pelican - there are brown ones too Wake up to the sun when camping on the beach Plenty of Shore Birds

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Thousand Trails Orlando RV Resort

Thousand Trails, Orlando is only the second time we’ve been able to book a free stay with tour Thousand Trails membership. While it was a rather nice park overall, we are having a hard time getting good value from the membership.

We Paid: $0 per night for 4 nights
Discounts Used: Thousand Trails Membership
Address (GPS Link): 2110 Thousand Trails Blvd, Clermont, FL 34714
Amenities List: Power, Water, Sewer, Camp Store, Games Room, Rec Room, Pool, Jacuzzi, Playground, Pickleball, Dog Run, Wireless, Bathrooms, Showers, Cabins, Tent Camping, Propane, Miniature Golf, Shuffleboard, Community Events, Fishing

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Best Features

  • Nice Bathrooms
  • Good location

Worst Features

  • Long distance to amenities

As with most Florida Parks, there is a lot of greenery here, even in the midst of a drought.

The Details

Thousand Trails Orlando is far and away the largest park we have stayed at. It’s really enormous in terms of its capacity. Keeping your map handy is a good idea as the twisty network of one-way roads can be hard to navigate when you are trying to find your way. Its sheer size leads to one of the few problems we encountered. Nearly all the amenities are centrally located. Depending on where you are at, it can be a rather long walk to get there. Fortunately, they do have a lot of parking, so driving is a reasonable option if you have toad or tow.

Like many Florida parks, there is a fair bit of wildlife here. Apparently, it doubles as something of a wildlife sanctuary and you can find sandhill cranes and tortoises wandering around much of the time. At the end of the property, you can find a large lake where you can fish or go boating. Swimming is not a good idea due to the alligators.

While this is an older park, it is kept up pretty well. The bathrooms seem to have been recently re-furbished and were especially nice. Everything worked great and it was kept very clean. The large community activity center shows its age, but they had a pretty robust schedule of events considering we there on the shoulder season. 

While you need to make reservations at the park, we were not assigned a specific spot and were instead given an area where we could take whatever was available. That worked out fairly well for us but your mileage may vary. I was not able to find out what the non-membership pricing for the park was. It definitely caters to Thousand Trails members. While we were there a good bit of effort seemed to be put into convincing people to upgrade their memberships. No one was pushy with us, but we got a lot of flyers and there were signs all over the campground about it.

We enjoyed our stay at Orlando Resort RV and it is a very decent park, but it doesn’t stand out compared to the best RV Parks. 

Something you see a lot at lakes in Florida.

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Big Bend National Park: East Side Trails

For the remainder of our stay at Big Bend, we pushed toward the distant eastern side of the national park. As we drove toward Rio Grande Village, we crossed over ancient limestone-filled lands and marveled at beautiful Rio Grand vistas against the magnificent Sierra del Carmen escarpment. From our basecamp at Lajitas, the total distance is well over 60 miles, with Panther Junction Visitor Center being the midpoint that marks the difference between West and East Big Bend. Without letting the mileage deter us, we embarked toward the rising sun to satisfy our curiosities and discover wondrous things.

Grapevine Hills - looking back at the trail

Grapevine Hills – looking back at the trail

Grapevine Hills Trail

One early morning, we turned off onto Grapevine Spring Road. This single-lane dirt road is dotted with washboard and rough at the edges. At mile marker six, we parked our truck in a rocky clearing and set out on the trailhead. According to the signs, Grapevine Hills Trail is an easy 2.2-mile round trip hike and leads to a group of balanced rocks in the heart of the Grapevine Hills. The initial hike took us along a gravel wash where we were surrounded by mesquite, cactus, and yucca.

 Balanced Rock at the end of Grapevine Hills Trail in Big Bend National Park

Balanced Rock at the end of Grapevine Hills Trail in Big Bend National Park

About halfway, we entered in a bowl, where red rocks and stone structures rose up around us. Lizards resting on rocks flicked their tongues at us as we passed, and insects fled in our wake. At the end of the gravel wash, we were fully surrounded by massive rock boulders piled upon each other. Excited by what we could find, we followed the trail markers and climbed a steep path upward into the fieldstones.

Sig at Balanced Rock

Hitch at Balanced Rock

Among the hills, giant rounded boulders tempt adventurous climbers or curious ringtails and provide homes for wayward snakes and lizards. At the very end of the trail, we finally came upon a giant boulder balanced and suspended overhead by two other rocks. We took a moment to rest and enjoy the view before heading back down to our truck.

We found a throne!

We found a throne!

Ernst Tinaja Trail

On another day, we roamed to the Big Bend backcountry. About 18 miles south from Panther Junction Road, we aimed Northward on Old Ore Road. The ten miles on this rugged road rattled our bones! Our 4×4 truck easily traversed over rocks and dipped through dry washes, undaunted by the terrain. We turned onto Ernst Tijuana primitive campsite, found ample parking, and a small sign saying “Do not swim in Ernst Tinaja” marking the trailhead. A rocky creekbed, edged with fragrant citrus-scented desert persimmons, guided us toward a narrowing canyon. When we turned our gaze downward, we spied fossils amid the colorful rubble. It wasn’t long before we came upon an area filled with uplifted limestone slabs embedded with the fossils of giant oysters, ammonites, and gastropods from the Late Cretaceous Age – a time over 70 million years ago!

Giant Oyster Fossil from 90 million years ago

Giant Oyster Fossil from 90 million years ago

Water-eroded canyon walls then revealed themselves; their swirling vibrant layers of red, orange and pink rock dazzling us into amazement and wonder. The trail then rose upward into a layer of rock known as the Boquillas Formation (deposited here some 90 million years ago) and then quickly dipped down toward a deep pool known as Ernst Tinaja. Tinaja means “earthenware jug” in Spanish. Ernst Tinaja is the largest in the region and served as an important water source for humans and animals for generations. I remember a ranger telling us to stay clear of a tinaja’s edge — animals sometimes drown in it trying to reach the water. At the time, the water looked murky and dangerous, I couldn’t imagine anyone drinking it, but in a desert, one can’t be choosy about water.

Imagine the amount of water needed to carve this tight slot canyon

Imagine the amount of water needed to carve this tight slot canyon

We press further into the canyon, the limestone turns white, and we spotted several smaller tinajas tucked away in hidden places. At the end of a trail, we faced a balanced rock and a sheer rock face leading deeper then upward into the hills. Those with climbing gear could make quick work and continue on, but we, on the other hand, must turn around and head back the way we came.

The Ernst Tinaja - naturally-formed rock pool which is also referred to as a "kettle".

The Ernst Tinaja – naturally-formed rock pool which is also referred to as a “kettle”.

Hot Springs Canyon & Historic Trails

Hot Springs is one of my favorite hikes along the Rio Grand. The hike combines two trails in one, and then a relaxing dip in the Boquillas Hot Springs as a reward. From Gano Springs Road (also known as Park Route 12 on the east side of Big Bend), we turned southward on a dirt Hot Springs Road for 1.5 miles before reaching the packed soil parking lot. We missed this road at first, and only realized it when we reached the tunnel at Dead Man’s Curve.

Hot Springs Canyon Trail

Hot Springs Canyon Trail

Hot Springs Historic Trail by itself is an easy one-mile hike that passes remains of a resort, pictographs, homestead, and hot springs. a brochure at the trailhead offers more information. Just near the resort we took the north fork and continued eastward to the top of the bluff. Sometimes called Upper Hotsprings Trail, this path leads to marvelous views of the Rio Grand and portions of the Sierra del Carmen escarpment.

The Beautiful Rio Grande

The Beautiful Rio Grande

The trail then weaved downward toward the Rio Grand and split into an east-west fork where, Hot Springs Canyon Trail proper lead us eastward along the water edge for a few hundred yards, before it climbed upward along another cliff framing the river. As we stood upon stone outcrop, we paused to take in the stunning desert-scape juxtaposed to the meandering green waters of the Rio Grand.

After 2 miles, we finally made it to the heart of Hot Springs Canyon, and just a few hundred yards from the Rio Grande Village Campgrounds. We turned around and headed back the way we came. As we reached the trail fork again, we took the bottom trail along the edge of the water, and then headed toward Langford Hot Spring. J.O. Langford’s impressive bathhouse is long gone, but when we arrived we discovered a spring contained by the ruined foundation of the bathhouse. Together we soaked upon the north bank of the Rio Grande while enjoying the unparalleled scenery. On the way back to our truck, we passed cliffs dotted with fossils and the remains of the old Hotel Resort. Imported palm trees waved so peacefully in the breeze, that we just didn’t want to leave.

Resting in the Hot Springs after a hike

Resting in the Hot Springs after a hike

Boquillas Canyon Trail

For our final hike, we drove out to Boquillas Canyon, the easternmost of the 3 main narrows sections along the Rio Grande within Big Bend National Park. The canyon itself is about 20 miles long, starting just east of Rio Grande Village. Boquillas is not as deep or sheer as Santa Elena but is still very impressive. We started at the Boquillas Canyon Trail Parking Area and then a gentle climb to a rocky bluff overlooking the Rio Grande, where we noticed mortar holes formed from native inhabitants.

Boquillas Canyon at the Rio Grande's Edge

Boquillas Canyon at the Rio Grande’s Edge

We then descend a gentle slope into the canyon before coming to a wide sand bar alongside the river, where took our time before continuing on to the trail’s end where the water meets the canyon walls. As we walked, we met a man singing, his voice reverberating in the canyon. Over our heads, swallows swooped down for insects and falcons perched in the sheer limestone cliffs.

Mortar holes left by native peoples.

Mortar holes left by native peoples.

For those who wish to experience Boquillas Canyon in its full glory, come an hour or two before the sunsets. You’ll be treated to a gorgeous sunset-drop behind the canyon’s western walls. Just be sure to bring a headlamp so you can make your way safely back to your car.

Boquillas Canyon Over Look with Hitch

Boquillas Canyon Over Look with Hitch

Big Bend is Awesome

Big Bend National Park is a distinct and diverse haven of natural wonder. A land with inky black night skies and astonishing shrine-like fissures that carved by rivers. Here be geological wonders rich history: from the long forgotten time of sea fossils, dinosaur bones, and volcanic dikes, to the age of man with settlers and ranchers. After a month at Big Bend, I honestly felt that we needed more time. Nearby we had the opportunity to visit Closed Canyon at Big Bend Ranch State Park, take a horse trip up Mesa de Anguilla, or feel the cool spray of Cattail Falls. There was just so much to do in this remote National Park that I’m considering a second trip.

The Ernst Tinaja - naturally-formed rock pool which is also referred to as a "kettle". Orange Ernst Tinaja Boquillas Layers Balanced Rock in the Shadows A window along Ernst Tinaja Trail Grapevine Hills Trail Near Hot Springs Canyon Itself Hitch and the Ernst A window along Ernst Tinaja Balanced Rock

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Tampa East RV Resort: Tampa, Florida

Tampa East is easily the largest RV park we have ever stayed at. It has three entrances, each with their own clubhouse and pool. It neither has a lot to recommend it, nor any fatal flaws.

We Paid: $48 per night for 5 nights
Discounts Used:
Address (GPS Link):
Amenities List: Power, Water, Sewer, Camp Store, Games Room, Rec Room, Pool, Jacuzzi, Playground, Shuffleboard, Miniature Golf,  Pickleball, Dog Run, Wireless, Cable TV, Fishing, Bathrooms, Showers, Cabins, Tent Camping, Propane, Exercise Room, Fishing

Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Best Features

  • Lots of space
  • Lots of amenities
  • Affordable by Florida Standards

Worst Features

  • Limited Wireless

One of the three pools in the park. All were pretty nice, some larger than others.

The Details

Beyond its sheer size, what I found most unusual about East Tampa RV were the residents. This park seems to cater to full-time residents who convert their trailers into stationary homes. Unlike typical trailer homes, these are actual RVs that have add-on rooms attached to them to create a kind of hybrid RV/house. Many look like they are never likely to move again. In the back areas of the park, there are actual permanent homes on the property as well. Overall, I thin there are more long-term residents than short term ones.

East Tampa RV Resort has a goodly number of amenities and most are in decent condition. They show their age but are largely well maintained. The men’s bathroom near our spot was an exception, with a good amount of graffiti and broken faucets. The showers were nearly as small as the one in our trailer. Trail reports the women’s bathroom in the same building is much nicer, better maintained, and featuring spacious showers.

Here is one of the converted trailers. There were tons of these at East Tampa. I’ve not seen the like before.

While the park does provide free wireless, a rarity in Florida so far, it is not broadcast across the whole park and is limited to areas around the clubhouses. There are three of these and they do provide plenty of space to sit down and plug in. Because there are multiples of nearly every amenity this park is almost like three parks joined together, and thus despite its size, what you need is typically close at hand.

The grounds are not especially lovely, and some of the trailers themselves are a bit of an eyesore, but neither is it ugly. There are many large trees and three lakes on the property. We saw a lot of lizards and other wildlife while exploring the park including sandhill cranes and aquatic turtles. Its size and heavy forestation also make for a quiet park with only a hint of road noise unless your site abuts the nearby drives.

Again, the prices here are high, but not by Florida standards. Considering the market, they seem fair.

The short term pull through spots were fairly empty when we visited so we had lots of room.

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Adventures in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas

While Dallas is not exactly famed for its tourist destinations, we made a point of it in order to visit family during our travels. By sheer coincidence, Both Anne and I had family in the area. My mother’s family is from the area and I had an open invitation from my uncle to visit. Trail’s brother and his wife recently moved to the area to be close to their family. The two family branches were only about 15 minutes drive from one another.

A Welcoming Oasis

Dallas actually has quite a few things to see in the area and my Uncle had provided me with a great list of both places to visit and sample the local cuisine. Unfortunately, we were also rather behind on our blogging at the time so we spent most of the time we were not visiting family, working on the trailer or writing. None the less we managed to get at least a taste of the city while we were there. We’d been warned it was not all that exciting, but in truth, we had a great time there.

We’d been in texas more than three months by this time, mostly in relatively remote areas. One thing we didn’t find a lot of in Texas was Asian food and Trail was beginning to grow desperate for anything made with curry or soy sauce. But Dallas proved to be an oasis of Korean and other Asian cuisines. There seems to be a pretty healthy community there and were able to both eat out and stock up on groceries. Other food encounters were likewise very satisfying. Surprisingly Dallas was one of the better cities for eating we’d been through.

Gen Korean BBQ House

Gen Korean BBQ House, one of the many fine dining establishments in Dallas.

Visiting Trail’s Family

Our time with Trail’s family featured a lot of food oriented adventures. Unfortunately, Trail’s brother was working out of town in Michigan so we didn’t get to see him, but his wife and her brother’s family were great hosts both at home and showing us around the town. My experience with Filipinos-American families is that no one ever is going to leave a gathering hungry. Trail did her part for the tradition by cooking a chicken and gravy dinner for everyone the last night we were together.

One of the coolest places we went was the Kula Revolving Sushi Bar. We have conveyor belt sushi places in Seattle, but not like this. Like others, Kula has a winding belt that carries Sushi offerings throughout the restaurant. You can sit down and just start grabbing whatever food looks tasty. Kula takes it up a notch by having a digital touch screen at each table where you can order additional goodies at any time. After a brief time, an alert sounds, and a special express conveyor belt zips your order to your table. Plates are disposed of into a mechanism at the end of the table, each time, a cartoon character appears on the screen to thank you for your patronage. Insert enough plates and a machine above the table plays a little song and dispenses plastic prize eggs to the table. The food was very good and the atmosphere absolutely bonkers. We loved it.

We were also treated to Hard Eight Pit BBQ. You can order your meat by the pound on a giant platter, then pick up sides in a cafeteria style set up. Finally, there are unlimited beans, condiments and drinks to round out your meal. We brought a lot of family with us and sat down for a pretty epic meal. The brisket was especially good, tender and smokey. I ate enough meat to constitute a small family farm. After everyone went next door to a retro style candy store for ice cream. I whimpered for mercy and stuck to enjoying the sugary treats with my eyes since my stomach had no room for such delights. Especially amused by the 5lb gummy bears they sold, I shuddered at the thought of what that charming monster would do to my digestion.

Kula Revolving Sushi

Kula Revolving Sushi – get a prize for your 10th sushi plate!

Visiting Hitch’s Family

Visiting my Uncle and Cousin’s family was exciting for me as this was the first time in my life that I’d seen them, at least so far as I can remember. I’d come to Texas once with my mother when I was young, but my memory of it is pretty limited. My Uncle and his wife were on vacation when we arrived so our visit came towards the end of our stay in Dallas. We were struck by their generosity when they offered to let us have the run of their house while they were away. We tend to stay in our trailer when visiting folks in order to care for our two kitties but we did take advantage of their amazing steam shower while they were away. For a couple of road-weary travelers, that thing was a godsend of luxury.

My cousin had just finished moving to the area so I felt privileged to get the chance to meet, him, and his family as well as my Uncle and his. We all had dinner together on my Uncle’s return. They were amazingly welcoming and treated us both, well, just like family. It’s a pretty great experience to meet someone for the first time and be so warmly embraced and welcomed. Both Trail and I were very moved by their kindness. We had a great meal together and spent the time sharing stories and getting to know one another. I very much look forward to the next time we meet.

Sig, Craig and John

My uncle Craig Jung, cousin John Jung and myself, sporting a shirt I picked up in Dallas.

Last Hurrahs in the Lone Star State

For our final day in Dallas, Trail’s Sister’s Brother took us out to see the daily Longhorn Cattle Drive at the Fort-Worth Stockyards. It seemed quite a lot of other people had this same plan and we got snarled up in traffic and just missed the actual drive. Undaunted, we headed to where they keep the Longhorns to get a good look at these famous cattle. They really are wonderful animals and we spent a good 45 minutes watching them. We were especially amused as they tried to move past one another to get to the hay piles. Their horns are sometimes as wide as their bodies are long making some awkward navigation in close quarters. After we all toured the open air market while the kids searched for the perfect candy treats.

Leaving Dallas both Trail and I were full of heart from such warm hospitality. Being able to visit far-flung family is one of the many great opportunities that can come from a life on the road. Full-time travel can be a little lonely in some respects as most of the folks you meet are strangers to you. The times when you can connect with family and friends make for a welcome change.

Longhorns at the Stockyard in Fort Worth

Longhorns at the Stockyard in Fort Worth


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Sunshine Travel: Vero Beach, Florida

Sunshine Travel has helped redeem the Encore/Thousand Trails park network. We’ve had not so great luck with them so far, but this is a very nice, and well-run park.

We Paid: $53 per night for 3 nights
Discounts Used: Thousand Trails Membership
Address (GPS Link): 9455 108th Ave  Vero Beach, FL 32967
Amenities List: Power, Water, Sewer, Camp Store, Games Room, Rec Room, Pool, Playground, Shuffleboard, Miniature Golf, Horseshoes, Dog Run, Bathrooms, Showers, Cabins, Tent Camping, Propane, Petanque

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Best Features

  • Clean and well maintained
  • Quality amenities
  • Nice layout

Worst Features

  • None

This is some of the long term parking at Sunshine Travel. Their monthly rates are some of the best in Florida.

I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Sunshine Travel, and that is something of a rarity. While this is not quite a resort park, it comes close with a full slate of amenities including a rather nice Mini-Golf course. After some real mixed experiences with parks in the Encore network, this one was a surprise. The restrooms bore a sign claiming they were the cleanest in Florida, and they might be right. Everything in this park, old or new looked well maintained and cared for.

Unlike other parks in the network, we were able to select a site while making reservations. This can really help you get the experience you want and increase customer satisfaction. Why other parks in the network don’t do this, I don’t understand. We got a nice large pull through near the centrally located clubhouse and pool. Neither were spectacular but both were clean, comfortable, and inviting.

Here is a nice view of the put-put golf. I regret I didn’t get a round in.

If you like squirrels, you are in luck, because there are enough here that it seems that every lot comes equipped with at least one fuzzy tailed critter. If you don’t like squirrels, you will probably have two of them. What I am saying is there are a LOT of squirrels here. This provided ample entertainment for Kia and Kekovar (our cats) who watched them longingly from the safety of the screen door.

Sunshine Travel isn’t cheap, but by Florida standards, it is reasonable. Anywhere else and I’d complain about it, but in the sunshine state, you count yourself lucky if a park runs under $50 a night before the state’s nightly resort fee of $4 a night kicks in. This park isn’t exactly a bargain, but it made for a very pleasant and relaxing stay.

This was our site’s designated squirrel companion. We may have encouraged him with some peanuts.

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Waco Mammoth National Monument

As we rolled into Waco Texas, the only think I knew of it was the Branch Davidian shootout that took place in there in 1993. It turns out that another thing they are famous for is Mammoth fossils. In 1978 a couple of locals were searching an old riverbed for Indian arrowheads when they stumbled upon some very large bones. They took them to Baylor university where they were identified as the bones of a Columbian Mammoth. The university gathered up volunteers and they began excavating the site.

Not only did they discover a large number of Mammoths, they also found other mega-fauna of the period such as saber tooth cats and ancient camels. Among the Columbian Mammoths were adult males as well as children along with at least one large bull. This makes it the only known find of a Columbian Mammoth nursery. In total, more than 30 mammoths have been discovered on the site.

Columbian Mammoth are not wooly mammoths. They are, however, creatures of that same, ice-age time frame. They lived south of the glacial zone and were significantly larger than their wooly brethren. These were the largest mammals ever to walk the earth. They were up to 13′ tall and could have tusks up to 16′ long.

Here are the remains of one of the male mammoths. Both males and females had tusks and the most direct way of identifying sex is the shape of the hip bones.

What you will find

If you visit, you will discover that it is not a large park. The site consists of a visitors center, a short nature trail, and a large enclosure where you can view the main dig site. All in all, you can visit the park and have a good look in under an hour. As usual, Trail and I tend to linger longer than most, looking carefully at the artifacts and reading all the signs we can find.

The dig site is the main attraction here. The large building covers the dig site and protects it from the elements and local fauna. A catwalk lets you walk above the dig site and look down at the remains within. Most of the animals have been left in the ground such that you can see the exposed bones, but they are still embedded in the earth in the positions that they were discovered. We felt it was a great way to present the remains. Most of the time you see the creatures re-assembled, with missing pieces filled in. Here you are looking at them exactly as they were discovered.

The grounds themselves are very nice, perfect for a picnic lunch if you want to extend your stay. There were quite a few lizards, birds, and butterflies on hand when we made our visit in early spring. They even have a nice amphitheater for special events and lectures though none were going on when we visited.

The catwalk gives you a good view of the dig site while protecting the artifacts below.

The Tour

To access the dig site enclosure you will need to join a tour. Unlike many national parks, there is a tour fee of $5 that is not covered by a National Parks pass. There is no other fee for the park, but since the enclosure is the main attraction, it is assumed everyone who visits is going to go on the tour. We found the ranger to be both engaging and very knowledgeable about the site. You will get a lot of information from your guide that is not found on the interpretive signs. You also get the opportunity to ask questions.

Waco Mammoth was made National Monument in 2015 by Obama. Prior to that, it was a Texas state park run in conjunction with Baylor University. As a result, the money collected is shared between the national parks service and the state parks service. One cool thing you can find in the visitors center is the actual signed executive order that created the monument, signed by the president. It is the only one we’ve yet seen on display. If you visit Baylor itself, you can find more information about the site and the Mammoths in their museum of natural history.

The area around the dig site is quite lovely. I was struck by the shape of his tree highlighted against the morning sun.

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Big Bend National Park: Chisos Basin

At the heart of Big Bend National Park resides the Chisos Mountains. They extend nearly twenty miles from the Punta del la Sierra in the southwest and then to Panther Junction in the Northeast. This is the only mountain range to be totally contained within a single National Park. A forest of piñon, oak, and juniper cover the crowns and crags, but at high elevations, you can find quaking aspen, douglas fir, drooping juniper, bigtooth maple, and ponderosa pine. This creates a splendid habitat for a multitude of animals and insects, but bears and mountain lions are the most notable inhabitants. Such apex predators indicate a healthy well-protected wildlife environment, mostly thanks to forest regrowth and a community that supports wildlife protection.

View from The Lost Mine Trail

View from The Lost Mine Trail

Chisos Basin Junction Road

For our second week, we drove along the six-mile Chisos Basin Junction Road. Starting at Gano Springs road in the desert, we turned southward on Basin Junction road. At a decent pace, we saw the gradual transition between arid desert and cooler mountain habitat as we traveled. By the time we passed Maple Canyon, majestic rough rocky peaks come into form. Before we knew it the sotol, lechuguilla, and yucca were gone — replaced with junipers, pines, oaks, and Texas madrones. After our passage through Panther Pass, the winding road rose to over two thousand feet above the desert floor. We then descended into breath-taking vistas of mountain summits and an incredible erosion-formed basin covered in vibrant greens.

North side of the Chisos Basin

North side of the Chisos Basin

Lost Mine Trail

Just as we sank into the basin, we passed the Lost Mine Trailhead and parking lot. The Lost Mine Trail is perhaps the most important hike to undertake if you only have a day to spend in Big Bend. If you go the distance, you’ll cover five miles and gain 1,000 feet. You can even take a paper interpretive guide with you and discover all sorts of plants, animals, and geological formations. Check the ranger schedule and join a guided hike up the trail, you’ll learn even more. Near the end, after the switchbacks stop, the trail continues up a relatively gentle slope through a clearing and to what appears to be the peak. If you look back towards the trailhead, you’ll see Casa Grande and Chisos Basin — a few totally worth the day hike.

Alternate view of the Chisos Basin from Lost Mine Trail

Alternate view of the Chisos Basin from Lost Mine Trail

Down into Chisos Basin

After Panther Pass and Lost Mine, the Junction Road weaves downward. Here we took a stop at the last bend to take in the amazing views of Chisos Basin. We could see a ridgeline that encircled the area: to the southeast, Casa Grande rose up into the sky like a castle. To the west, the ridgeline breaks and dips down into v-shape called The Window, before it turns southward toward Emory Peak.

Chisos Basin from Panther Pass

Chisos Basin from Panther Pass

Mountain Lodge & Visitor Center

We hopped back into the truck and continued our way into the heart of this natural splendor. Just past the camping ground turn off, the road ends in a parking lot and a set of buildings which house a lodge, the visitor center, and convenience store. In the visitor center, we learned about the area and wildlife. In a corner, we stared at a map indicating over 100 bear and 10 mountain lion sightings for the whole of the park — most of them concentrated in the Chisos Basin. When offered by a ranger, we immediately agreed to a lesson on how to avoid bears and cougars while on the trail before heading out to Window Trail.

Trail Hub

Chisos also happens to be the central hub for many of the trails leading up and around the Chisos Mountains. Each range from easy short and accessible hikes, to multi-day backpacking routes.

Window View Trail

The shortest and easiest is Window View Trail at less than a mile round trip and provides excellent views of the mountain peaks surrounding the Chisos Basin, and a view through the window. We sat on one of the benches along the trail and enjoyed a classic Big Bend view.

Panorama of The Window

Panorama of The Window

Window Trail

This nearly 6-mile trail descends through Oak Creek Canyon to the Window pour-off which frames panoramic desert vistas. Luckily during early November, there wasn’t much water, but sometimes during wetter periods Oak Creek can flow with water, so be prepared for a bit of wet trekking. I should say that this trail can get tricky: the top of the Window pour-off is the slick rock with no railings, watch your step.

The Window - A pouroff leading down into the desert floor

The Window Up Close – A pouroff leading down into the desert floor

South Rim Trail, Up Laguna Meadows Trail, and Down Pinnacles Trail

If you got the time, I cannot recommend the South Rim Trail enough. This challenging trail is well worth the 2,000 foot gain, as midway are the stunning vistas from the South Rim. You can ascend by way of the steeper Pinnacles Trail, but I suggest the more gradual Laguna Meadows Trail for your up-route, then take Pinnacle down. This is a 13-mile round trip, so bring your gear, lots of water, extra food, and of course watch out for bears and cougars. The views along South Rim are stunning and you will not regret your hard work.

South Rim is Amazing

South Rim is Amazing

Farewell to Chisos Basin

As the sun made her way down into the V-shaped gap of The Window, we heaped ourselves into the truck and basked ourselves in the blessedly cool air conditioning. This time we headed back to Lajitas with the sun to our backs and arrived to our Airstream under a brilliant star spray of the Milkey Way.

Another amazing view from the South Rim Trail Sig Reclines before The Window Chisos Mountains Casa Grande looks like a castle instead of a "Big House" to me! Chisos Visitor Center - Take a moment to learn some bear and mountain lion safety

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Big Bend National Park: The Desert

Big Bend National Park is a magical place for the outdoor lover. Avid hikers will find a paradise of trails within the borders of this often misunderstood National Park. When folks think of west Texas, they picture empty desert. Not Big Bend. Trekkers have access to more than 150 miles of trails, enough to satisfy any single day or overnight backpacking trips. Yes, there are deserts, but you’ll find a spectacular array of colorful rock formations, the occasional oasis, and fossils, lots of fossils. Near the Rio Grande, you can hike along the riverside through paths boarded by reeds and mesquite, while canyon walls loom over you like watching sentinels. Within the Chisos Mountains, hike to elevations above 7,000 feet while surrounded by lush oak, fragrant junipers, and prickly pines.

After spending a month in this wondrous yet remote location, Hitch and I felt a new appreciation to this highly underrated National Park. Ever day we woke up to a golden sun blazing over rust colored mesas. At night, the milky way scattered itself across a dark sky like a river of stars. During the day, we explored portions of Big Bend National Park at a leisurely pace. For our first week, we drove into the desert side for our first expeditions.

Cerro Castellan

Cerro Castellan – a steady landmark along Ross Maxwell Drive

Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive

One of our early journies carried us off on thirty-mile Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive on the west side of Big Bend. This lovely drive took us to the Castolon Historic District and Santa Elena Canyon. Along the way, we stopped at enough historic and geological sites to fill a day or two’s worth of exploring.

Sam Nail Ranch

For our first stop, we found ourselves sitting under the green shade of a marvelous oasis. As we sat, I tried to imagine Sam and Nina Nail carving out a living in this unforgiving desert. Like many homesteaders of their time, they dug a well, planted a garden, built pens for livestock, and a home. The windmill they built still pumps water keeping the trees and shrubs in the area alive. This little man-made oasis attracts animals such as javelinas, foxes, and ringtails. Various birds visit too, I remember seeing painted buntings, mockingbirds, and green-tailed towhees.

Sam Nail Ranch - the well still pumps water today

Sam Nail Ranch – the well still pumps water today

Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail

Back on the road, we spotted a side trail and decided to take a chance. Since the kiosk indicated that the trail was only a one-mile hike, we meandered slowly upon Lower Burro Mesa Pouroff Trail. After a few hundred feet, the trail turned into a gravel drainage. Texas persimmons, with their strange sweet ripe black fruit, edged on either side of us, while colorful rocks and fossils fragments (brought here by seasonal flood water) lay at our feet. We promptly ended up in a narrow box canyon where water carved a deep channel into Burro Mesa. Here at the end of the trail, the base of a 100-foot dry pour-off was lined with smooth and nearly polished stones – each giving a silent testament to the power of water that floods this canyon during summer rains.

Burro Mesa Pour-Off Trail

Burro Mesa Pour-Off Trail

Mule Ears and Mule Ears Spring

Having finished our short hike, we made a quick return to the truck and headed back on the road.  Over the horizon, two dark peaks crept into view. Our curiosity urged us to take a side route to Mule Ears Overlook.  From this location could see the tips of two peaks dominating the view. On another day we came back to hike Mule Ears Spring Trail. This short and flat hike lead us through a garden filled with a dozen species of cacti, and the ever present desert-trio of sotol, lechuguilla, and yucca. At the end of a canyon, a spring resides at the center of a large green oasis. Nearby, the remains of a stone dwelling show traces of pipework leading to the stream. Clear, drinkable water always flows, but the volume is reduced to a trickle in dry weather, with a pool a few inches deep. We had to dodge paper wasps while visiting this tiny spring.

Mule Ears - Easy Hike

Mule Ears – Easy Hike

Tuff Canyon

From Mule Ears Overlook we took Ross Maxwell Road deeper south, and soon passed Tuff Canyon. At this observation point, there are three overlooks which offer great views into the canyon. We spotted a trailhead at the south end and decided to take the short hike part way down into the canyon itself. There we found excellent samples of tuff, a welded volcanic ash that make up most of the shallow but sheer-walled ravines.

Truff Canyon From the overlook

Tuff Canyon From the overlook

Castolon Historic District

As we left Tuff Canyon behind, the sun shone in full force and shimmering mirages started to form on the road before us. As we crested a hill we passed by Cero Castillion and the bright ash flow rocks at its base. When we rounded to the other side of this curious mesa, we spotted a disheveled set of buildings in the distance. We took a slight turn into the parking lot and discovered a rest stop. Turns out that these buildings were once an established as a cavalry camp in the early Twentieth Century, Castolon later served as the headquarters of the La Harmonia Company. All of the buildings are built with adobe walls, and most are roofed with corrugated metal roofing. The shade awning is a kind of thatch made of Ocotillo branches. Today the buildings house a visitor center and camp store — where we bought cool drinks and snacks before heading on.

Castolon Historic District

Castolon Historic District

Santa Elena Canyon

From the road, the red dusty cliffs display themselves prominently, like a mysterious bastion of rock on the horizon. As we quickly approached, we quickly realized that the Rio Grande had sliced a vertical chasm out of pure limestone to form one of the most magnificent canyons in the park. If you stood atop the mesa and looked down to the river from a 1,500-foot height, you would see that the south wall is in Mexico, while the north wall is in Texas. Later in the week, we came back and hiked a fabulous trail which followed the river upstream then drops down to the canyon floor. If we owned a canoe, I know a float trip through the canyon would have been just as wonderful as the hike.

Imagine floating on the Rio Grande wighin the Santa Elena Canyon

Imagine floating on the Rio Grande within the Santa Elena Canyon

Old Maverick Road

After our initial stop at Santa Elena Canyon, we then drove the north fork on Old Maverick Road, which runs between Maverick Junction and Santa Elena Canyon. The 14-mile improved dirt road passes along the Terlingua Creek badlands on the west side of the park. We found the road to be a little rough and washboard, and a few times when we had to traverse a wash, but our 4×4 truck made quick work of it.

Luna’s Jacal

As we drove along Old Maverick Road we happened upon a small sunken rock hut known as Luna’s Jacal. A jacal is an indigenous Tejano dwelling suited to the desert environment. This one was built about 1890 with a low sandstone and limestone wall about 4 feet, with forked poles set upright into the walls, supporting roof poles. The far wall of the house backs up to a large boulder. The roof was made of ocotillo branches weighted down with earth and stones, presently replaced with an inappropriate soil-cement roof. The jacal belonged to Gilberto Luna, a Mexican pioneer farmer, who raised a large family and peacefully coexisting with otherwise hostile Comanche who used the Alamo Creek area as a war trail. According to the signs, Gilberto Luna died there in 1947 at age 108 or 109.

On that day, we also happen to meet an elderly gentleman, his daughter, and his son. After a short conversation, we shortly discovered that the older man was a son of Gilberto Luna and he was celebrating his birthday by visiting his birthplace. We felt lucky to have met someone tied to a historic place we were visiting. After wishing Señior Luna a “Feliz Cumpleaños,” we got back to our drive.

Mr. Luna was celebrating his birthday

Mr. Luna (son of Gilberto) was celebrating his birthday

Rattlesnake Mountain

From Luna’s Jacal, we made our way up toward Rattlesnake Mountain. We took a brief stop at this is a rough campsite located on a plateau to enjoy an excellent 360-degree vista of the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert and distant mountains. If we didn’t have cats waiting for us back at the Airstream, it would have been the perfect place to spend the night under the blanket of the Milky Way

Back to Basecamp

By the time we reached Maverick Junction, our shadows were long and when we headed back west toward Lajitas, we drove off into the sunset like two characters in some cheesy western movie.

Santa Elena Canyon Cerro Castellan Ash Flow Sunset on the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park, Texas Desert Hiking in Big Bend

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