01-07 to 01-09-2014 From Emerald to Forgotten

Current:Manatee Springs State Park, Sunny with predicted high temp 70 F

St Joe SP_017The Emerald Coast of Northwestern Florida has many wonders.  The sand is probably the whitest I have seen anywhere and the emerald to turquoise colored waters rival anything I have seen in the Caribbean. It also has high rises, and traffic, and requires some skill to manage with a dog.  The cool (can you say cold?) temperatures were not a surprise.  Southern Florida is warm in winter.  I spent enough time in Ocala to know that winter frosty days are not unusual in Northern Florida.  And the “dry season” isn’t always that dry. 

St Joe SP_013Still, unless you want to barrel through the state on interstates, the Emerald Coast through Pensacola, Destin, and toward Panama City is the best way to get to another secret of Florida, The Forgotten Coast.  We decided to skip 30A and stayed a bit north to travel highway 98 toward Panama City.

A great resource for dog owners is a website called BringFido.com, with listings of dog friendly resources all around the country.  In a state famous for No Dog beaches, with that trusty little website I found a surprise.  With the exception of St Joe Peninsula State Park (our destination) most of the beaches in Gulf County are dog friendly!  Amazing!

St Joe SP_001The warm sunshine was glorious when we parked the rig at the Pier at Panama City Beach, in a huge empty parking lot next to Margueritaville. There is a small area west of the pier for a few hundred feet that is not only dog friendly, but no leash required.  Abby got a dose of playing in the water and we got another dose of pure white sand, this time accompanied by bright sun and balmy breezes.  Almost warm enough to take off the jackets!

St Joe SP_021Still in the morning hours when we arrived, the touristy town with beach shopping and bright colors was fairly quiet, traffic was minimal, and people were scattered.  Looking around, I could only imagine what this place might be like just a little bit later in the season.  Spring Break is approaching in another couple of weeks and I don’t think I would want to be here then.

site 42 in Gulf BreezeAfter our relaxed respite on the beach, we continued east along the coast toward Panama City, a town that seemed a bit worn for wear.  Best find for us was a rig friendly car wash, where we managed to get the salt and sand washed off the MoHo and the Tracker before heading for another salty, sandy beach camp.

Early afternoon arrival at St Joseph Peninsula State Park was perfect.  When making all the crazy reservations I worked on last summer, I decided to skip this park, but last week thought better of it and added two nights using ReserveAmerica.  Most of the Florida State Parks that I have reserved seem to use this system.  On arrival, we were glad to have a reservation since even in early afternoon the park was nearly full.

St Joe SP_025-001Ahhh….now this is why I wanted to come to Florida.  No high rises, no traffic, slow roads and quiet beaches, bays filled with birds and calm water.  Sunshine.  Sunrises and Sunsets on the beach. 

Our first afternoon and evening were simple, with walks on the boardwalk and through the campgrounds with Abby, and beach walks for me.  No dogs on the beaches here, but there are several trails around that do allow dogs on leashes.

St Joe SP_010.NEFSaturday morning we decided the weather was perfect for a bay kayak, and drove around to explore the peninsula a bit before deciding where to launch.  The campgrounds are about half way down the long, narrow curve of Cape San Blas, with the northern end of the cape protected as a wildlife preserve.  With a simple free pass obtained at the entry station, we were allowed to drive into the reserve.  Thinking that the road (showing up on google maps) went all the way to the end, we were surprised to discover that the road was gated, and it was a 6.5 mile walk to the northern tip of the reserve.

St Joe SP_064.NEFInstead, we parked at the beach access parking lot, and with cool temperatures, clouds, and shade, decided to let Abby wait in the car while we walked across the dunes to see the beach. At 12 years old, Abby seems to finally get the idea that we will return, and we didn’t see any evidence of frantic dog after our 45 minute walk.  Even a short walk on the beach with the two of us was nice, since sometimes in places like this we need to take turns.  I tend to be more the beach walker and Mo will walk Abby on the roads and trails around the campground.

Mid-afternoon, the sun was out in full force and we decided to launch from the Bay Picnic area.  What appeared to be a muddy launching beach turned out to be firm sand with no drop off and a few inches of water.  It was probably the easiest launch ever for us!

St Joe SP_098.NEFKayaking the bay was perfect, with glassy water much of the time, and now and then a slight breeze bringing up a few gorgeous ripples reflecting on the sandy bottom.  After a mile or so, we passed the rental cabins in the preserve, and the sand dunes and scrub forest were empty of anything but birds and an occasional hiker. (Judy, this photo is for you!   Abby rides in front of Mo and her life jacket is orange, so that is why you may not see her in the photos all the time, but she is there.)

who are you and why are you here?The water was never more than a few feet deep, and several times we saw huge conch shells.  At first, thinking it was a great find, I tried to pick the heavy shell up with my paddle.  Even with two of us trying to get to the shell, we couldn’t get it up.  A bit later, I found another one and managed to pick it up, only to discover a very disgruntled black critter inside.  We saw several more, and figured out that it wasn’t worth trying to get one because they were probably all inhabited.

little snowy egretCape San Blas curves back around St Joseph Bay to the north and east, with the tip of the cape very close to the mainland.  We wanted a simple kayak, not a marathon, so we spent about two hours on the water and traveled only halfway toward the end of the cape before turning back.

St Joe SP_054After supper, I decided to take another walk over the boardwalk to the beach to catch the sunset.  I think about half the campground population was out there, many of them with a drink in their hands and their beach chairs, ready to toast the sunset.  The previous night had been beautiful as well, but with some clouds and cool winds there hadn’t been nearly as many people.

The night skies were dark and brilliant with stars after the quarter moon went down.  There were cardinals and mockingbirds everywhere, egrets and herons in the pond behind our site, pelicans and stilts on the beach, and even a bald eagle just east of the campground.  This is the Florida I wanted, the Florida I imagined when I said to Mo, “Let’s spend a winter in Florida!”.  I think the sunny day kayaking on St Joseph Bay may have won her over.

There are many many photos in my google photo albums, and in the interest of bandwidth I have only put a few of them here.  If you have the time, check them out hereSt Joe SP_049


East to the Desert


In spite of the fact that we could have continued traveling south along 101, we decided to take the quickest route to the desert.  From our overnight at Camp Roberts we turned east at Paso Robles toward the dreaded Interstate 5.  For the first time, the central coast was thick with dirty air, something I had never seen in this area, and as we continued east toward the Great Valley, the pollution got worse. 

gray brown dull hills of California east of Paso RoblesHighway 46 was busy with traffic, and a surprising number of RV’s were headed west. The landscape was dramatic in it’s lack of drama.  The annual grasses of the California grassland zone were shades of tan and gray, with nothing to punctuate the hills except a few cattle here and there.  With the brown tinge to the air, it made the grasslands all the more drab.

Travelin south_162Ugly is relative, however, and when we reached the Lost Hills area just west of the I-5 onramp, we saw landscapes that were impressive in their ugliness.  The alkali flats west of Bakersfield would be bad enough without man’s intervention, but the forest of oil wells made it breathtakingly ugly.  I felt a bit guilty complaining about the ugliness while I rolled through it in an RV sucking gasoline.  How to reconcile that disconnect?  I haven’t a clue.  I hate what oil does to our country, the wars fought over it, the landscapes destroyed by it, but I love my RV and the freedom to travel.  Hypocritical as heck, but I probably won’t stop traveling!

the smog is thinning as we begin the climb up the famous GrapevineOnce on the five, the pavement again deteriorated while the air pollution got worse as we approached the Grapevine.  I reminisced with Mo about the days back in the 50’s when my family would leave Duarte at 2 am to drive the Grapevine when it was truly a grapevine of curves and steep hills, traveling north on Highway 99 for our annual camping trip to Yosemite.  Good memories!  I also remember driving the “new” Grapevine in my Volkswagen bus as a brand new driver scared to death and surrounded on all sides by semis.  It was the same today, semis on all sides.

California landscapes aren't always gorgeousWe took a quick exit off the highway for signs claiming “fresh sweet oranges” and the small family farm store and petting zoo.  The Murray Farm had 20 varieties of citrus, all from their own groves, and the navels were just in.  The owner said that they were six weeks late this year. There was a cooler with samples for all varieties including Meyer lemons and a very strange looking fruit called Buddha’s Hand, actually citron.  I had no clue that the stuff in fruit cakes came from something that was this strange.  I settled for a six buck bag of incredibly sweet navel oranges and we were again on our way.

truck traffic on the GrapefineAs we climbed the grade, the smog began to thin a bit, and we were spared the worst of it by turning east on Highway 138, a direct road to the desert and the town of Lancaster.  I lived in Lancaster in the 60’s, for just a few months, and for the life of me I couldn’t find a single thing that looked familiar.  This sleepy town that once was barely 50,000 has now exploded to a strip mall metropolis of more than 150,000 people.

In the Desert_007We thought about boondocking somewhere, but the landscape was broken up by private “ranchette’s”, and we didn’t have a BLM map with us.  I pulled up the AllStays web site and began searching for campgrounds.  There are surprisingly few places to camp in this area, but we found a state park due east about 17 miles from town and decided that 18 bucks for a dry campsite would be a close second to camping for free somewhere in the desert, and probably safer.

see Mo at the base of that tree?  That is one big Joshua Tree!!It was a great choice.  Saddleback Butte State Park campground was completely empty except for a camp host.  The park had shelters for the picnic tables, fire pits, water available, and even a dump station. We chose a spot near the northern part of the park, farthest from the camp host ( whom we never saw) and settled in.

time for a walk before the sun setsAn evening walk before sunset was perfectly quiet and we found beautiful Joshua Trees bigger than any we have seen.  The park is a haven for desert wildlife, including the desert tortoise, various snakes and rodents, coyotes and even mountain lions. As night fell, the silence was  perfect, the skies dark with a new moon, and the stars were brilliant.  I brought some soup from home that made a perfectly simple supper and we settled into to complete darkness and silence for our first night in the desert.

For the rest of the photos, including several shots of the Saddleback Butte campground, click here.