From Signal Mountain, Tennessee to Key West Florida- 12 days, 2233 miles, 3 private RV resorts, 3 state parks- what an adventure! Kayaking canals, mangroves and springs; manatee, dolphins, sea turtles, sea urchins, star fish, snorkeling, ferry rides to private islands, coral reefs, feeding tarpon, the best seafood, delish key lime pie, street performers, “Catman”, long bike rides, beautiful beaches, sunrises and sunsets! Oh the memories we made!
This was the first of many long road trips. While most people wait until they retire to explore our beautiful nation, we decided to just do it. We set a budget and I set to work planning when and where we will go. Please know that if camping is not for you, there are always hotels, condos, and other rentals available. We just prefer camping. We love to be outside, to explore the trails available at State and National Parks. Although it is a little more work, there is a beautiful simplicity to camping. On this trip we moved campsites every two nights, so we mastered a quick set up and tear down routine, with each of us assigned a specific task.
The first part of planning a trip like this is deciding the main destination- which was the Florida Keys, specifically Key West. Since there are so many wonderful places to visit in Florida I researched the east and west coast to determine where we would stop every two nights, except the first stop in Valdosta. This allowed enough time in each stop to do some exploring and relax a little too.
- Valdosta, GA- Just an over night stay at a roadside RV park with easy access from I-75
- Crystal Isles RV Resort, near Kings Bay in Florida- $84 per night for full hookups- I chose this location so we could kayak the canal to Crystal River in hopes of seeing manatee. We did kayak the canal to the Crystal River but the boat traffic in the River seemed risky in our kayaks with the kids so we just explored the main entrance and the little canal along the campground. The resort is also close to Kings Bay where several other springs are located, including the Three Sisters Spring. The only way to see Three Sisters Spring is by kayak or by private boat (which can only take you to the entrance where you will have to swim the remaining distance). Out of all the Florida Springs I have visited only 7 and Three Sisters Spring is my favorite. It was quite an adventure getting there because we just put our kayaks in at Kings Bay and used our GPS to direct us as we Kayaked our way there. It ended up being a long paddle to get there but it was so worth it. We saw so many manatee on the way in! There were lots of tour boats in the canals but we were able to get into places they couldn’t and even had some manatee surface right beside our kayaks! There is a sign at the entrance to the spring from the canal and a gate to ensure no motor boats can get through. The water became more and more crystal clear as we approached the 3 spring heads. Snorkeling is highly recommended here because the water is so beautiful. Tall, lush trees and vegetation surround the border of the spring. It was a remarkable experience- one I hope to repeat sometime soon! I will say there is a much better location to launch from: Hunter Springs Park or Pete’s Pier Marina. We found these on a return visit a couple of years ago. There are two more springs close to those launch sites that are great to visit. I will share more about those in another post. The final recommendation for this two day stay is Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. I visited this place when I was a child and it is such a special place! I highly recommend it because it is family friendly and a very quaint, natural way to experience manatee. Try to stay for a manatee feeding where you can go inside the stationary submarine and watch the manatee eat underwater. Such a wonderful little park! Follow the link below to learn more. Here are some photos from the Spring!
- 3. Pine Island KOA Resort- This resort is not a destination ya’ll! It was the best I could find close enough to take a day trip to Cayo Costa State Park. I prefer to stay in state or National Parks because they usually have trails and something special they are trying to preserve by having the park in that particular location. While researching for this trip I found Cayo Costa and knew I HAD to see it for myself! You have to take a ferry to the park, as it is located on a barrier island in the Gulf of Mexico. There are campsites and cabins available but they are dry camps. I do plan to go there to stay at some point but for this particular trip we just made it a day at the beach to explore this remarkably beautiful place. It is so pristine! The ferry over was fun and informative- we really enjoyed talking to the captain about the history of the area. When we disembarked the ferry, we immediately hit the trail to take us to the gulf side of the beach. There is a little camp store and bathrooms are available on the island. The bathrooms are located in the camp area. If you plan to stay there all the information you need is located on the Florida State Parks website. There were so many shells and sea urchins everywhere! The kids loved it! Madison found live starfish, sea urchins and sand dollars. Stop #3 was a hit! Here is the link for more information:
4. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, Key Largo, Florida- The drive from Pine Island to Key Largo is 4 to 4 1/2 hours. We chose to drive the longer route to see the Everglades National Park. I don’t regret the drive but I wouldn’t do it again. There is nothing to see. Seriously. The neatest thing along this route is the old Post office. There is an information/ rest area along the way that has some alligators onsite. It was just a very long, boring drive. The billboard ads for Airboat Tours definitely influenced our spontaneous stop to see the Everglades Alligator Farm where you can watch educational shows exhibiting some of Florida’s best known reptiles. The admission to the park includes an airboat tour of the Everglades National Park. There’s nothing quite like an exhilarating ride through alligator infested waters! I had no idea how fast those airboats can go! If you are in the area I highly recommend it. We were so happy we stopped to check this out! Here is the link to the one we visited https://everglades.com. They did have room to park our RV in the parking lot, which was important since we just stopped on our way to Key Largo. We arrived at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park (www.pennekamppark.com) to set up camp before dark. We immediately went to the beach area to check it out, finding that the beach is very rocky. It is actually made up mostly of dead coral. This park was easily accessible and best known for snorkeling/diving. I’m always amazed that the best snorkeling areas really don’t look like much from the surface. Even with the dead coral at the beach, it was a beautiful place to snorkel. We saw lots of fish and coral formations. We also booked a snorkel tour to take us to the only underwater National Park in the United States. Unfortunately, the current was too much for Noah that day so I stayed on the boat with him. The seas were rough that day too, so we were actually the last group they took out that morning. It was a beautiful place! We saw so many fish- even from aboard the boat! The next day we explored the mangroves in the canals around the park. There are endless places to explore in your kayak. We visited a local dive for dinner and to sample their famous Key Lime Pie. If you are ever in Key Largo you must stop at Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen! Try the alligator tenders and don’t miss out on the Key Lime Pie- it was the best I have ever tasted! Such a unique place!
5. Long Key State Park- http://www.floridastateparks.org – They were not kidding about ocean front campsites! This place was so beautiful! Views of the Sunrise on the beach were stunning! The only downside was that we couldn’t swim or kayak here. It was so shallow and rocky. We waded a little in our swim shoes but it was shallow for a long way out so we just enjoyed walking along the beach and enjoying the view. A friend had recommended we visit Robbie’s of Islamorada to feed the Tarpon fish and eat fresh seafood. This place https://www.robbies.com was awesome! The food and atmosphere were great, but feeding the Tarpon fish is something I will never forget! I think this is a MUST if you are ever in the area!
6. From Long Key State Park we had a day trip to Dry Tortugas National Park booked with a private airplane. The day before our trip they cancelled due to engine problems. We were so disappointed! Refusing to let that ruin our day, we headed to Key West. We took our bikes and rode the streets of Key West, exploring to our hearts content. What a charming little city! With a rich history, and unique architecture that has endured many hurricanes, we thoroughly enjoyed our day here. Noah said it was his favorite part of the whole trip! We visited the FREE aquarium and even went on a glass bottom boat tour. At the end of the day we headed to Mallory Square where street performers celebrate each night at sunset. We had heard about the Cat Man so we waited anxiously to watch the cats perform. After a lovely sunset, we headed back to Long Key State Park to rest. Key West was a day packed full of adventure!
7. Anastasia State Park- http://www.floridastateparks.org – St. Augustine, Fl was our last stop on our way north. A 6 1/2 hour drive north on the east coast of Florida, we traveled through Miami which proved to be quite the traffic jam. We were so happy to arrive at Anastasia State park! It was a bit challenging to park our 36 ft. travel trailer, not because the site wasn’t long enough, but because the campground road is a loop and the large oak trees that provide such wonderful shade also get in the way of maneuvering the rv into the campsite. After setting up camp, we were all exhausted! We enjoyed a lovely day at the beach the next day. The kids loved that the sand was soft. It was their favorite beach of the entire trip! We only wished we had more time to spend in this beautiful spot.
It is quite the task to plan a trip like this. I’m thankful for all the people who wrote blogs and recommendations so I would know great places to stay, eat and visit! I encourage you to go for it! It’s worth the time and effort! This was an amazing family experience! Get out there and make some memories!
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