Travelling Southeast USA: Southern Mississippi, and Alabama, and the Florida Coasts

? By Peter Vander Sar

Route Map

In previous articles in The RV Times we wrote about RV?ing in an area of the United States that we have visited many times: along the west coast, in the southwest, and in Texas and Louisiana. In this article, we continue into the Gulf coast areas of Mississippi, Alabama, and the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of Florida. We have travelled in this area only once by RV ? in 2000 ? so this will be more of a travelogue than a tour guide. However, we have made sure that information about costs and when places are open is current. Prices are in US dollars.

Coastal Mississippi

It?s possible to rush across the 80 miles (129 km) of Mississippi?s coast on Interstate 10 in an hour and a bit, but why? Instead, take US 90. It?s much closer to the coast, although about halfway across the state, near Gulfport and Biloxi, the view of the Gulf of Mexico is blocked by casinos. You know these places ? they let you put your money into their machines with a small chance of getting some of it back. But on the plus side, many are quite interesting to look at (outside and in), and many will let you stay in their parking lot overnight at no charge. The casinos in this area were hit hard by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but nearly all are back in business. The campground to the east, associated with the Gulf Islands National Seashore, remained closed for the winter of 2006-07 because of hurricane damage.

Coastal Alabama

Driving to the southwest side of Mobile Bay leads to the Fort Gaines?Fort Morgan ferry, which is fairly pricey at nearly $45 for an RV with two people and a towed vehicle. We chose instead to go through Mobile on Interstate 10 and happened to catch a wonderful Nicholas and Alexandra exhibit at the Civic Centre. We learned about it at the Alabama Visitor Center on the Interstate. These visitor centres are one advantage of entering a State via a big freeway. Along the east side of Mobile Bay on Hwy 98 and 98A is the fair town of Fairhope, which has a park and pier that are perfect for a coffee break or picnic.

 

We stayed at the Alabama State Gulf Park, which is quite large with more than 500 sites. The campsites are well back from the beach, which is partly taken up by convention facilities with more to come. The park is oriented to long-term visitors and offers activities such as craft classes. It was crowded and short of convenient spots for transients like us when we visited mid-January. Our water hoses made it to the shared tap, but the electric cord did not reach. Since we were there, a great deal of renovation has been undertaken.

Florida

Tourist destinations such as Disneyland in Orlando attract folks from all across the world to Florida during the winter. We will focus on the coastal areas, which tend to be of more interest to snowbirds (mostly from north-eastern US and Ontario and Quebec), and RV?ers doing the continental loop like ourselves. Florida is a relatively large State, more than 800 miles (1,287 km) from the western edge near Pensacola to southernmost Key West. More importantly, it is nearly 500 miles (805 km) north to south and the difference in temperature is significant. In the northern part of Florida, prices and facilities for private campgrounds are comparable to those in Texas or Arizona, but further south in the State they typically cost 50% more, and in the Keys they are as much as two or three times more expensive than State park rates. Here you can find yourself spending $100 to park for the night in a resort-type facility that is complete without being spectacular (i.e. rated 8/9/8 in the Trailer Life directory).

Florida is also experiencing a trend common to many vacation areas: the conversion of privately-owned campgrounds into condominiums and owned or membership-only RV sites. As mentioned in a recent RV Times, this is probably a bigger threat to camping and RV?ing than the price of gasoline or diesel fuel. Available space is decreasing as few, if any, new camping parks are being established while populations and travel have increased. So if you want to visit full-facility RV parks in southern Florida without buying a membership, come while there?s still room!

Alternatively, you can stay in federal or state campgrounds ? as we prefer to do anyway. Florida has about 150 state parks, gardens, etc, with entrance fees ranging from $4 to $6 per vehicle. A $40 park pass allows a vehicle and the driver (plus $1 per additional person) to enter all such spots for a year. So, if, like us, you plan to stop to picnic, walk the beach, or sightsee in more than about ten places, it?s worth getting the park pass. Unlike in Texas, having the pass does not affect camping fees, which range from $19 in the western Panhandle to $32 in the Keys.

A small warning: while enjoying those delicious Florida oranges and grapefruit, it is only natural to want to share them with the folks you had to leave back home. Many companies offer to ship north of the border, and I?m told it can be done. However, the staff at one (admittedly smaller) stand swore up and down that they could and would ? but did not. So be warned.

Western Florida (the Panhandle)

This is the cooler and windier part of Florida. Highway 98 is the coastal route from the Alabama border starting near Pensacola ? a route that features lots of fresh seafood! Across the water is Fort Pickens National Park, one of our favourite parks in the southeastern US. Unfortunately, at the time of writing (March 2007), it is closed because of hurricane damage. If you are travelling in the area, check to see if it has re-opened because the park is, or at least was, well worth visiting for its history and many land and beach walks. Several State Recreation Areas (SRA?s) with campgrounds and beautiful beaches further to the east are open, with rates of $19-24 per day and day passes for $4-5 dollars. They include Grayton Beach SRA just east of the town of Fort Walton Beach, and St Andrews SRA south of Panama City, which has a Coney Island-style beach amusement area. St Joseph Peninsula State Park, further east via a scenic Highway 98 gulf-side drive, is pretty but somewhat isolated and quite windy.

Stop in Apalachicola to watch the fishermen and buy oysters. We aimed for the state park on the Ochlokonee River, which we were told is very pleasant and good for birding. However, we ended up at a private campground on the bay where we were compensated by a very nice water-side sunset. A few miles take you to the northernmost edge of the Gulf of Mexico and you are only about 25 miles (40 km) from the state capital, Tallahassee. We had to stop there for repairs, but did not find it a particularly interesting place to visit. Maybe the circumstances clouded our view.

Central Florida Gulf Coast

Highway 98 remains the coastal route, but it turns away from the water for the next hundred miles (161 km) and becomes a busy four-lane highway. Several roads, including Loop 361, venture a little closer to the Gulf water but they mostly lead to very expensive private beach real estate. From here on south there are a lot of interesting spots for views and camping, most associated in name or fact with the springs that are common in this area of Florida. The first is Manatee Springs Park, which is well worth visiting with its smaller swimming spring and pool and guided walks to the Suwannee River. Here one can see what at first glance appear to be floating logs but, in fact are manatees, which are somewhat akin to sea lions. We did not camp in the park, but I?m sure it would be a good experience as it is home to the largest and most enthusiastic group of volunteers we?ve ever met.

Rainbow Springs PoolRainbow Springs State Park, northeast of Dunnellon, is a touch difficult to find as it?s not on the Rand McNally map. Instead, follow the directions in the Trailer Life guide. There are two sections to the park. The first is around the huge spring-fed pool where you can swim. Or you can rent a canoe for a leisurely float to the campground a few miles downstream while watching birds, turtles and alligators. We enjoyed both sections. The campground has some very pretty camping spots and excellent picnic sites near the river. It used to be a private facility and was showing its age a bit when we visited, but has recently re-opened after renovations so the Trailer Life guide ratings may be a little low for what you?ll find there now.

A few miles south, just before 98 goes inland and Highway 41 becomes the coastal route, is Homosassa Springs State Wildlife Park. There, manatees and zillions of fish can be seen really up close right in the spring from an underwater viewing area. The park also features a small zoo-like area, with wildlife ranging from flamingos and a pair of whooping cranes to huge alligators. There has been a strong move to revert Florida Parks to their ?natural? state, even going so far as cutting non-native varieties of palm trees, so having a ?zoo? in the parks system is a source of contention. See it while you can.

The whooping cranes are in the park because just a few miles away is the Chassahowitzka National Wildlife Refuge, which is the winter home for the eastern migratory population of these rare and endangered birds. In an earlier RV Times article, we mentioned that the flock migrates between Wood Buffalo Park in northern Alberta and the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in coastal Texas. As a single flock could easily be decimated by a single disaster, it was decided to try to establish a second migratory population. Chicks are raised in Wisconsin and are trained to run and then fly behind ultralight airplanes, which are then used to lead them on their first migration to Florida. You may be aware of Operation Migration, the Canadian group that runs most of this process, from the movie Fly Away Home, which documented this concept with Canada Geese.

A little further south, Tarpon Springs used to be centre of the sponge-diving and processing industry when a sponge was a sponge, if you know what I mean. The hundreds of divers who came from Greece 100 years ago left a lasting mark to this day and the Greek flag is still flown in many places. The docks and warehouses have been converted into a quaint little tourist area. We found it pleasant enough to visit, but it was a little difficult to drive around in an RV ? and that was without a toad.

St. Petersburg Area

One of our favourite parks in Florida is the Fort De Soto County Park at the southern tip of the Saint Petersburg peninsula. Our feelings are shared by many others as the park entertains more than two and a half million visitors each year. There are many informative historical exhibits, miles of walking and biking paths, lakes for canoeing, and a beach that was rated the best in the US in 2005 by someone who apparently rates beaches for a living. It?s possible to make reservations up to six months in advance, but county residents can make reservations in person up to seven months in advance ? and do. As a result, the camping area is packed during winter weekends, and probably summer weekends too. You may be able to get in during the week as some sites are left for walk-ins (drive-ins?) but don?t count on it. Be extra careful with your food as there are many large, aggressive, and hungry raccoons. They can be a real nuisance ? one stole a lamb chop off a hot barbeque griddle during a minute of inattention!

Having said that, it?s a wonderful park and well worth the effort of trying to get in. We found out after we left the area that Saint Petersburg is the home of the Salvador Dali Museum, which we would have visited had we known about it. A visit to a tourism office, or just more research, would have been worthwhile.

The approximate 100 miles (161 km) between Tampa-St Petersburg and Cape Coral-Fort Myers has several museums and a couple of state parks that we did not visit ? and real estate even more expensive than Florida ?normal?.

Southern Gulf Coast and the Keys

The Resort-like Bahia HonKoreshan State Historical Site and Park south of Fort Myers is not very popular, which means there is space to camp even during the Christmas and New Year holiday season. That could be just because it has no beach. Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Recreation area, a day-use only park a few miles south was crowded, and it is so popular (mostly for shelling) that its website has warnings about lack of parking.

Soon afterwards you must drive inland, at least partly on busy two-lane Highway 41, also known as Tamiami (get it?) Trail. It parallels a canal by the same name that is full of alligators, lots of them. Some interesting stops and side trips are possible: a gravel loop to the north was made worthwhile by views of thousands of swallows, hundreds of ibises, and many turtles. We swallowed out eco-pride and quite enjoyed the airboat tour at Micosukki Indian Village, which showed us, up close, some very large alligators, snakes and birds, including the Purple Gallinule which is not common.

Key West SunsetYou must get onto Highway 1 to get to the Keys, but you can bypass the Miami area via Highway 997, which meets Highway 1 at Florida City. There you can stay in the absolutely no-frills, grassy field type municipal campground, which, at $20/night, is inexpensive. You can then spend the money you saved in the restaurants and bars across the road that are not. Florida City is the jumping-off spot for the Southern Everglades Park Visitor Centre, which is reached via a pass whose height is conveniently marked in metric for foreign visitors (?.9 meters?). The park boat tour was less interesting than we?d hoped, perhaps because of the large group and the relatively long run to get to the interesting spots. We much preferred a similar tour we took in Okefenokee Park in Georgia.

The Keys have some unusual State Parks with reasonable costs of typically $32/night. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on the northeast Keys has only gravel-lot camping, but the glass bottom boat tour to the coral reef was worth the price (and the near seasickness), and you can snorkel or scuba dive on your own. Bahia Honda State Park has gorgeous resort-like facilities on the Gulf side, and nice beaches and boondock-type camping on the Atlantic side. Despite that, we cut short our stay because of the no-see-ums.

And therein lies a problem in the state and federal facilities in Florida ? insects. There are lots of mosquitoes, but worse are the very small biting midges or no-see-ums. I suspect they are not as bad in the private camping areas because of more liberal use of sprays ? but they are definitely a problem elsewhere. The no-see-ums are small enough that they can go through (aptly-named) mosquito screens and inflict painful bites. You can spray the screens to reduce the mesh size, but while this keeps the little buggers out it also reduces air flow. So bring insect repellent and turn on the air conditioning.

Key West is RV-friendly in the sense that there is RV parking at the Tourist Information Centre and a shuttle service from there. There are several Key attractions besides shopping in this most touristy of tourist spots.

One is the treasure museum, which we thought was expensive. The other very inexpensive option is participating in the ?watching the sun go down over the sea? experience ? a rare experience for the majority of people living in North America. We lucked out: it was a spectacular sunset, with just a few clouds to add colour. The buskers, large crowd, and take-out drinks added to a general party atmosphere. On the way back north we stopped in Key Largo to walk around and see the African Queen of movie fame.

Florida?s Atlantic Coast

St Augustine FortThe Atlantic side of Florida is generally more crowded than the west or Gulf side. The main coastal route, Highway 1 is quite busy, especially the 100 miles (161 km) in the Miami area. Here, you might consider using the freeway or tollway if you?re not going to stop in Miami. Further north around Daytona and Cocoa Beach is another busy area. Fortunately, in many locations there is an alternative route. Highway A1A is much quieter and closer to the ocean and goes through some very quiet and pretty spots. It is actually right next to the beach just north of Daytona Beach. You?ll have to get a detailed map of Florida to spot these opportunities as the Rand McNally Atlas only shows a few sections.

Miami is the still the Caribbean cruise capital, and the huge ships make for an interesting view as you come in from the south. At a Miami oceanfront art deco hotel we were served a pleasant Sunday morning brunch with a beach view, at a reasonable price. Like most ?brunchy? places it gets busy around noon, so get there earlier in the day to get an easy in-an-out parking spot for your RV and your toad.

There are several state recreation areas in this area, many on the water, including a pretty one near Key Biscayne, but very few with camping. However, with the help of the local chamber of commerce tourist office we found Broward County?s Easterlin Park in Oakland Park, which is close to Fort Lauderdale. It is in the Trailer Life directory, but not rated in the 2005 version. We found the park well maintained and quite pretty with lots of flowers. But it is somewhat noisy as it is in the city and bordered by the main/commuter railway line to Miami and close to Interstate 95. However, it is within stumbling distance of a pub and not too far from shopping at Sawgrass Mills, purported to be The Largest Mall ? whether in Florida, the US, or the world we could not determine.

About 100 miles (161 km) north of the really built-up area is Sebastian Inlet State Park with a small, inexpensive, but interesting historical museum focusing on pirate treasure discovered in the area, and another museum about the cultural history of the Inlet?s fishing. There is also a pavilion where you can have a lunch, snack, or coffee, and several piers where you can meet and talk to local fisherman and see lots of birds including gray and white pelicans, ibis, egret, heron, storks (which are rather ugly), as well as porpoises. We stayed for two nights, despite less-than-perfect weather.

The Kennedy Space Center, which some of us remember as Cape Canaveral, is another 75 miles (120 km) north. It has lots of facilities for visitors. The tours we took of the recreated control centre used for Apollo 9, the Saturn Rocket, several movies, and the exhibits related to Skylab were all interesting.

Be prepared for busy roads here. Once past very crowded Daytona Beach, Highway A1A is a welcome respite, running almost next to the beach with several small State parks and beaches that are great for coffee or lunch stops.

Then comes Saint Augustine, a town that struck us, and others, as being quite different from a lot of Florida cities. Its historic old town and fort area are quite touristy with shopping, bars, etc., but very interesting nevertheless. Close by is the Memorial Presbyterian Church which was donated by Henry Flagler, an early Florida tourism and agriculture entrepreneur. One of Flagler?s hotels is still open for business and it is very much in the old Ritzy style. Anyone can visit the lobby to admire the beautiful glasswork available in the gift shop. (Sort of like souvenirs ? but more expensive!) Nearly within walking distance of downtown is the Anastasia State Recreation Area, which includes sheltered campsites and lots of beachfront.

We did not stop at any of the waterside State Recreation Areas with camping that are just to the north of Jacksonville, which is another big city with lots of freeways. Instead, we went inland about 80 miles (129 km) to Okefenokee Swamp just north of the Florida border. Just as we recommended that you go off the coastal route near New Orleans to visit the city of Natchez, we recommend that you go off the coastal route here to visit the swamp, which became one of our three favourites in the US Southeast.

Georgia?s Okefenokee Swamp

Okefenokee SwampOkefenokee Swamp resident and visitorOkefenokee Swamp was one of two exotic-sounding places Ann and I had talked about visiting for years ? the other being the Everglades. Unlike the Everglades, Okefenokee Swamp National Wildlife Refuge exceeded our expectations, despite several years of anticipation. At Stephen C. Foster State Park there were alligators up the gazoo ? er ? actually, right up the boat ramp. Though we could have rented a canoe, we chose a relatively inexpensive, and in our opinion, safer tour of the swamp and were glad we did. The guide was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable young lady, who expertly steered our boat and showed us alligators, river otters, ibis(es?), and buzzards. All without us having to paddle and risking the possibility of meeting the alligators up-too-close and natural.

There were some electrical problems at our site but there have been upgrades at the park since we were there. We would return if we were in the area again.

Onward and Northward

Now that you?re here, the logical way to continue your trip around the continent is to take the coastal route towards Washington DC and New York City. Both are very large cities, but unique enough to warrant a visit ? though this is a lot easier if you are towing, to be sure. And if you chose to bypass Florida, and we left you back around New Orleans, you can get to these big cities and then to the beautiful New England states via the Natchez Trace and the Blue Ridge Parkway ? an RV route par excellence. We?ll relate some of our experiences along both routes in another RV Times. As we?re leaving the South, we leave you with a see y?all!

 

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