HipCamp, the Suwannee, and World Class Horses

Over the past ten days we’ve been bopping around north central Florida. There’ve been no major adventures, but we have had some fun. Here’s a quick recap.

After leaving Cape Canaveral we headed inland to just outside of Ocala. We tried out a new booking option called Hipcamp, which is an app that’s kind of like Airbnb for camping. Landowners list their spaces, specify the services they can offer, and travelers like us can book right on the app.

We were lucky to find The Homestead in Anthony, FL and the ranch of Allison Cumley. Allison welcomes RVers with full-hookups located on her 25 acre ranch that is home to cows, horses, a donkey, and numerous dogs. We loved the beautiful setting which gave us an opportunity to explore the nearby Ocala countryside. We hit the farmer’s markets but spent most of the time indoors to stay away from the rain. 

The rain persisted off and on throughout our next stop: Suwannee River State Park. Another great Florida state park, this campground was a beautiful setting right along the river, and we enjoyed a few nice hikes.

We learned that we were a little too far north to avoid the terrible winter weather that hit most of the country last week. In fact, we experienced tornado warnings one night and received about two inches of rain on another night. It was pretty chilly too! Still we were grateful to be out of the path of the worst weather unlike our family in the midwest. 

From Suwannee River we headed south again to the cute little town of Williston. We were really impressed with Williston Crossing RV Resort and the very warm welcome we received. Upon arrival we were invited to join others around the roaring fire that night. Everyday the resort has activities and events (pickle ball, poker, live music, etc.) and the people were super friendly. 

As the weather turned beautiful again we were able to get out and enjoy some new adventures. For me the biggest highlight was exploring the newly opened World Equestrian Center in Ocala. Having grown up showing horses, this place was like Disneyland.

Billed as the largest equestrian complex in the United States, the over 300-acre facility has 22 outdoor arenas, four climate-controlled indoor arenas, and a world-class stadium, all surrounded by barns with over 2000 stalls, a hotel, an RV resort, and more to features to come. 

We walked the barns, checked out the RV resort for a future stay, and watched several jumping competitions in various arenas. We then returned on Saturday evening to see the $75,000 Grand Prix, a show jumping competition with the world’s top horses and riders. This was Olympic-level competition and beyond impressive.

Also while in Williston we checked out the Cedar Lake Woods and Gardens, a botanical garden set in a 110 year old abandoned lime quarry. Dr. Raymond Webber purchased the property for his own private use, initially intending to use the quarry as a fishing pond.  

He dug out what was left behind, including old mining remnants, and began to transform the old, polluted, swampy quarry. Now, almost 30 years later it is a multi-level botanical garden with three waterfalls, gazebos, and lots of koi fish.

We visited Cedar Lake at the same time they were hosting a large radio-controlled truck “rally.” Having never seen anything like this, it was just as fascinating as the gardens. Ten custom courses had been carved into the woods, and “drivers” guided their custom trucks through natural obstacles like roots, rocks, and embankments.

We also walked through their expo where vendors were selling components, parts, and accessories for every kind of radio-controlled vehicle you could imagine. We particularly liked the radio-controlled Winnebago motorhome, which Steve said looked like one his brother Brian had back in the day. Only you had to push Brian’s Winnebago!

Despite some wet weather, we enjoyed our time in the north central part of Florida and will likely return, but probably a bit later in the season next time.

The Space Coast

Jetty Park Campground is THE place to stay when visiting Florida’s Space Coast. The park is run by Port Canaveral and is set right on the tip of the cape, with direct access to sweeping white sand beaches, views of the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and its launch pads, and the now quiet cruise ship terminal. We could have stayed for weeks but it’s tough to get in here. We’ve already booked for next year and could only get five days at that.

Jetty Park is a perfect jumping off point for exploring the Space Coast, named for the presence of NASA’s activities throughout the area. Our primary goal was to fully explore KSC and we are confident that we did it!

Over three days we strolled the theme park-like complex watching movies, viewing exhibits, and riding simulators. We learned about the history of the US space program, saw the Atlantis Space Shuttle, reviewed our progress on Mars exploration, and tried out various space capsules.

Due to the pandemic, the bus tours of the launch areas and vehicle assembly building were not available. We are already planning a return trip in late 2021 with hopes of experiencing these highlights at that time. 

While visiting the Space Coast we also explored the Canaveral National Seashore. The land was preserved shortly after NASA began launching rockets in the area. It provides a buffer for the Space Center activities, but creates a quiet, natural environment for birds, alligators, and nudists. Yes, two of the beach areas are designated as clothing-free, and no, we didn’t participate and no, there are no photos.

During our picnic stop Bob met his first armadillo. He was ready to take the little armored guy on, but the armadillo didn’t have any interest in taking on a toy poodle.  

Within the boundaries of the National Seashore there are also a few short hikes that feature the history of the area. In particular, we did the short Castle Windy Trail which led us across the peninsula to the Mosquito Lagoon where we found a couple fly fishing amidst curious dolphins. No good photos of this but it was cool.

Another trail led us to the top of ancient Indian midden, which is a huge pile of shells, seven stories tall, created by some of the original inhabitants of the area. We followed the boardwalk up, up, up which ended with sweeping views of the lagoon to the west and Atlantic ocean to the east. 

One thing we try to do as often as possible is give blood. It’s our way of giving to the community, and we also get helpful health information in the process. We visited the bloodmobile in Cape Canaveral and as a result learned we are both negative for the COVID-19 antibodies.

We are extra careful with masks and hand sanitizer, avoiding large crowds as much as possible. It’s reassuring, but sometimes surprising to know we’ve avoided infection with all of our travels. While we stayed very busy on the Space Coast, we barely scratched the surface and look forward to returning.

Visiting Florida’s Incredible Springs

This week we visited two Florida State Parks that feature natural springs. Did you know Florida has over 700 springs, the largest collection on earth? Wekiwa Springs State Park and Blue Spring State Park both feature well-appointed campgrounds, which were a great base from which to explore Florida’s natural side.

Wekiwa Springs State Park, about 16 miles north of Orlando, features crystal clear water that stays a refreshing 72 degrees year-round. We were there on some cool days, so we skipped the dip.

However, we did enjoy the hiking trails, and I got in my longest hike since last year’s foot surgeries—almost 3.5 miles! 

One afternoon we rented a canoe and paddled down the Wekiwa River. Along the way we saw all kinds of birds, turtles, and a few alligators. 

Our destination was Wekiva Island, otherwise known as “Beer Island.” The riverside bar has seating right along the water where we relaxed and watched other paddlers float along. We could imagine that on a warm holiday weekend the place would be packed. On the day we visited, we had the place almost to ourselves as it was still a little chilly.

We are usually kayakers, but the canoe sounded like a good idea…until we had to get back into it after our stop. Well, there are no photos, but we did get wet and it wasn’t Steve’s fault. It was a wet paddle back up the river. Next time we’ll stick with the kayak.

From Wekiwa we travelled about 30 miles north to Blue Spring State Park for a two night stay. Blue Spring is the winter home of the manatee. These gentle giants come in from the St. Johns River when the temperature drops. Manatee are cold-sensitive and in the spring the temperature is a constant 72 degrees. The spring ensures their survival when the weather turns. 

In 1970 researchers tracked 14 manatees in the spring. After conservation efforts, wintering manatee numbers have increased substantially. We were lucky enough to be there on a record-breaking day. There were 624 manatee counted the day we were there!

Blue Spring State Park is so popular it reaches capacity most days. We felt lucky to be able to be on the inside and able to walk down to the viewing platform at any time, even before the public was allowed to enter. Having the boardwalk to ourselves early in the morning and watching 100s of manatee wake up and begin their day was beyond special. 

We took the socially distanced cruise along the St. Johns River to learn more about the area and its wildlife. The St. Johns is Florida’s longest river at 310 miles and is one of the few rivers in the U.S. that flows northward. Both fishing boats and pleasure boats ply along throughout the day.

Along our two hour journey we saw manatee feeding on the vegetation alongside alligators and birds galore. It was a pleasant way to learn about the area and spend a cloudy afternoon. Luckily the rain held off until we were off the river and back home.

Both parks are filled with wildlife. From our campsites we saw wild turkey, brightly colored birds, tons of squirrels, and deer. Steve even met an armadillo on one of his trail runs.

If you ever have a chance to visit one of Florida’s springs, we highly recommend it!