I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is, the Florida State Parks are a fabulous place to spend the winter in an RV. The bad news is, every RVer on the planet knows it.
As our friend, Shannon, recently explained, getting a campground reservation in the Florida state park system during the winter requires a 34 step anxiety riddled process that begins at 4:00 a.m. exactly eleven months before your desired reservation date… but that’s because Shannon is really committed to staying in beautiful campsites in desirable locations for lengthy periods of time. I, on the other hand, am firmly committed to not ever having to wake up at 4:00 a.m. And it turns out, if your standards are “any Florida state park that has availability for my dates and which does not require me to wake up at 4:00 a.m. like Shannon does,” you might just get lucky.
In fact, this past winter, we stayed at ten Florida state parks, and I didn’t have to wake up at 4:00 a.m. for a single one of them (I still booked them 10 or 11 months out, but not at 4:00 a.m.). Now, the downside is none of the parks were in the Keys or right near West Palm Beach, none of our stays were 14 days long, and none of our sites were as idyllic as the ones Shannon gets, but, with the exception of one park we considered a dud, we truly enjoyed every one of our visits.
For the most part, we stuck to the interior of the state, and we stayed north of Tampa. The state parks in the interior are lush, vibrant, green, environments bursting with animals who are totally trying to kill you.
But assuming you don’t get dragged to a watery grave by a prehistoric nightmare monster, you can look forward to long hikes through slash pine forests, peaceful kayak trips along crystalline rivers, and interesting visits to well maintained historic sites. And when you’re done with your adventures, you can relax in a large, private, quiet, campsite that usually looks something like this:
But don’t relax too much because it’s still Florida…
Each of the state parks we visited was enjoyable in its own way, but in the interests of not boring everyone to tears, I’ll just hit a few highlights… (I’ll list all our parks at the bottom and link to reviews.)
Rainbow Springs State Park
This is a perfect place to kayak. The campground is located on the Rainbow River, just a mile or two from the head springs, so you can rent a kayak from the campground store, kayak to the springs, and then kayak back. The waters are crystal clear and, at times, feature all the colors of the Caribbean. As you paddle, you’ll see an enormous assortment of birds sunning themselves on protruding branches, turtles invading each other’s space on fallen logs, and no trace of alligators – who are definitely there, swimming around beneath you, waiting for you to screw up just *this* much…
Once you get to the head springs, you can pull your kayak out of the water and wander around the rest of the park. (You can also swim at the springs, which release 400,000,000 gallons of 72 degree water each day, but the only thing between you and the alligators will be this ring of buoys:
…and if you actually read the sign that I posted above – a sign that is located just 30 yards from this swimming area – it specifically says: “Do not swim with alligators,” and since I’m reasonably sure they don’t teach “buoy awareness” at alligator school, I was having no part of that nonsense.)
The park is appealing not only because of the river’s natural beauty but because of its history. In the 1930’s, it was a privately owned theme park, and a number of the theme park’s man-made features, like waterfalls, still remain.
It’s a pretty place to wander, bring a picnic lunch, or take advantage of all the water-based activities (including tubing during the summer).
Silver Springs State Park
This park’s campground offers some of the biggest campsites we’ve seen (see photo in gallery above). Jump in the car and drive about 5 minutes down the road and you get to the rest of the park. This place feels like it belongs to a different time – because it does.
While visitors have been coming to the springs since the Civil War, the glass bottom boat tours that made the park famous began in the late 1800’s. The attractions surrounding the springs grew throughout the 20th century, with many of the park’s structures being built in the 1950’s.
The glass bottom boat tours are still the main draw. The regular 30 minute tour costs $12 and was a fun and different way to learn about this natural phenomenon. The tour guide told us about the park’s history, showed us several archaeological finds, pointed out various marine life, and even explained some relics that had been left behind from a James Bond movie that was filmed on site.
Once you finish with the boat tour, it’s worthwhile to wander through the rest of the park, which features meandering paths and large green spaces.
Paynes Prairie State Park
This is a peaceful, quiet park that is conveniently located just down the road from Gainesville, home to the University of Florida. It’s also home to whatever lives in algae covered swamps like this:
The park’s proximity to the university means there are several interesting museums and cultural exhibits available as well as a thriving and active downtown. We headed into town several times and enjoyed our visits. It was a bit quieter than usual because the university was on break, but even then, there were still plenty of people around and it had a good university town feel.
Winter Social Season
Speaking of pizza and breweries, another nice thing about spending the winter in Florida is you will not be alone.
We spent lots of time with friends, Eric and Laurel (Raven & Chickadee), first in St. Augustine and then at Paynes Prairie.
Laurel is the one who told me about all these state parks and her blog is a treasure trove of information about Florida since she and Eric spend so much time in the state. So, if you’re looking for info on these parks, check out her site.
While at Anastastia with them, we all spent a fun afternoon/evening with Sue and Dave (Beluga’s Excellent Adventure) in St. Augustine. We also finally met Jeff and Debbie of We Are the Millers and Steve and Laura of The Wandering RVer. (Check out Laura’s online shop if you want a fun custom t-shirt or koozie featuring your own RV). As always, it was great to finally meet the folks we’ve communicated with online for all these years.
We also caught up with friends Shannon and Ken of ZamiaVentures (the same Shannon of magical campsites mentioned above,) and Sean and Julie of Chickerys Travels. We last saw all of these folks in Arizona last winter, so it was nice to catch up again. I didn’t take group pictures of either of these get togethers (Bad Blogger!!), though I did snap a picture of Sean playing with Thor…
We have a black tank rinsing system which runs water into our black (toilet) tank to clean it out. Just prior to our time in Florida, the rinsing mechanism stopped working (it just gets gunked up… Ewww). Anyway, Kevin couldn’t easily remove the old one cause Tiffin jammed it in behind the fresh water tank, so he started looking into other options. He soon learned that one method for clearing the crud is to use an air compressor to force compressed air into the system to clear it. Knowing that there is a black tank overflow valve on the roof of our RV, I asked what the likelihood of him creating a “poop volcano” was. Then, I decided I didn’t actually want to know and, as Kevin brought his compressor into the RV and got set up in our bathroom, I laid down in the fetal position, rocked back and forth, and became completely non-verbal.
For better or worse, the poop volcano method did not work.
The next option was to just ignore the original mechanism and start over with an entirely new one. This way, he wouldn’t have to go against Tiffin’s master plan to make life difficult. Sounded great. So Kevin ordered the parts, got all his supplies ready, and went to work doing what no human being wants to do – drilling a hole in an RV’s black tank.
A little while later came the moment of truth. While I watched the newly installed system for leaks, Kevin turned on the water.
Success! No leaks!
Me: “Great – I’ll be inside.”
5 minutes later:
Kevin: “Well, I have bad news and I have good news. The bad news is, the black tank flush still doesn’t work. The good news is, we now have a gray tank flush.”
That’s right, my – by all accounts – highly intelligent husband drilled a hole in the wrong tank.
And yes, to answer your question, he IS an engineer.
“Diagrams? Who needs diagrams? Drill baby, drill!!”
He made lemons into lemonade by drilling another hole in the actual black tank and then fashioning a fix that allows him to toggle between a gray tank rinse and a black tank rinse. He assures me lots of people like having a gray tank rinse and it will add value to the coach.
Whatever. He’s ridiculous.
A New Sink
On one or two occasions, I may have mentioned (to anyone who would listen) my utter disdain for the divided sink our RV came with.
It was tough to find one with the right dimensions, but we finally found one that would work and Kevin switched it out. (Here’s a link for anyone with the same sink.)
I never knew a human being could want to hug a sink before, but I want to hug this thing every day of the week.
Seriously, if you’re considering whether or not to take on this project, do it!! It makes life so much easier. (And yes, the counter cover panels still fit.)
(Fun fact: the AirBnB we’re currently staying at in Austin has a divided sink. Seriously. WTH??)
Kevin also spent time replacing the headlight housings on the Xterra because they were completely yellowed from years of baking in the sun. While the new headlights looked fabulous, the process of replacing them was one of the reasons we later decided it was time to let the Xterra go.
As he was working on removing one of old housings, a bolt broke off in his hand. The metal was so fatigued, it just snapped.
That’s not good.
That started discussions about the advisability of keeping our 18 year old truck. I’d kept records of all the repairs we’d done and, in the last 4 years, we’d spent as much on mechanics as we had in the prior 10 years. Turns out, there are no cheap repairs for an 18 year old car. Every bill was $500 or $600 or $1,000 – and those were for the things that Kevin couldn’t fix on his own. We started thinking about what we’d need to do to get it ready for Alaska and suddenly, the numbers really started adding up. And even if we did all those things, we had to wonder what else might break while we were up in the middle of nowhere. We just didn’t have confidence in it anymore.
We looked into a couple options for vehicles we could tow four down and the one we settled on was the 2014 Honda CR-V. We know several people who have them, we know they’re reliable, and we know they have good safety ratings, all of which are important to us. I found one that would work (CR-V’s were only flat towable until 2014) and, after wading through every cliche used car salesman tactic in the book, we walked away with our new (to us) car.
We’ll miss the Xterra. It was a beast of a truck that never stranded us no matter how much we abused it. We never, ever worried about getting stuck in ice or sand or mud or anything else. Its high clearance allowed us to head out on unpaved roads and trails with confidence and we drove to all kinds of out of the way spots with zero concern.
I don’t expect we’ll be as free wheeling with the CR-V.
On the other hand, when I open the driver’s side door to exit the CR-V, it doesn’t come flying back full speed at my legs, the roof liner isn’t falling down on our heads, the dashboard warning lights don’t light up like the Manhattan skyline every three days, and we can actually drive more than 10 miles between gas fill ups. So, that’s nice.
Next up, we head to John F. Kennedy Space Center with my dad, we have an overly eventful drive across the panhandle, and we spend a fun but damp week on Pensacola Beach.
Where we stayed:
Here’s the list of the state parks we stayed at this winter and the number of nights we spent at each (in parentheses). I didn’t write individual reviews for most of them because it would take forever and, honestly, most of them would sound the same. Also, I’m lazy. For the ones I don’t have personal reviews for, I’m linking to Campendium.
Grayton Beach State Park, Santa Rosa Beach, Florida (12): My 2017 review
Suwannee River State Park, Live Oak, Florida (1): My 2017 review
Anastasia State Park, St. Augustine, Florida (12): Campendium
Paynes Prairie State Park, Micanopy, Florida (13): Campendium
Rainbow Springs State Park, Dunnellon, Florida (2): Campendium
Silver Springs State Park, Ocala, Florida (3): Campendium
Wekiwa Springs State Park, Apopka, Florida (10): Campendium
Hillsborough River State Park, Thonotosassa, Florida (5) (this was the only one we didn’t like – the sites were very haphazard, crunched together, and offered less privacy than the others.) Campendium
O’Leno State Park, High Springs, Florida (6): Campendium
Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, Santa Rosa Beach, Florida (5): Campendium