For several months leading up to our kids’ week off from school for Spring Break, we planned to camp for a week at Fort Clinch, which is a beautiful park on Amelia Island, nestled on the Florida/Georgia border on the east coast. Sounds idyllic, right? Well, it could have been, but since we booked early, the weather forecast turned sour, calling for temps in the 60s lots of rain. In the future I think we’ll book campsites 300 miles apart, and go to the best weather.
Time for Plan B
Just a week before our trip, a quick search for campgrounds within a tank-full revealed what we expected: everything was booked. State parks, county parks, you name it… all the good stuff was gone. Florida is known for great weather, but the window for good camping weather is preciously short when you overlay the school schedule with the mosquito schedule. When are they going to have a mosquito forecast? Seriously? The females in our house would attract a mosquito on the South Pole. Don’t give me the barometric pressure, I want to know if it’s “buggy”. I’m betting that the number of campsites available in the Everglades has a direct correlation to the severity of biting insects, and we found lots of sites available in Florida’s swamps.
Complicating our search is the fact that an internet search for “camping” in Florida will return a long list of RV Resorts for active seniors. These are giant fields of RVers who stay all winter in tour-bus size rolling homes with names like Bounder and Diplomat emblazoned on the back. I’m pretty sure these communities have HOA style rules banning tents, children, campfires and anything else resembling “camping.” And there are the KOAs, which my father – in his RVing days – discovered sometimes evolve into semipermanent homes of migratory construction workers who were somehow banned from the RV parks. I know some KOAs are great, so I don’t want to paint them with a broad brush, but I’m not risking my Spring Break on it.
We’re savvy Florida travelers – my wife has a Master’s degree in Florida Studies, so we put together a solid plan. Without revealing too much, because I wouldn’t want the entire world to know how to book a great spot on short notice, I’ll pass along this piece of advice: Be flexible and keep trying. With a little persistence, we found ourselves on a 7 night romp through some of Florida’s best parks.
Before we get to that, let me take a moment and give some advice to our visitors from out of state:
I briefly lived in the Midwest, where good people watched sports, ate at Applebee’s, and saved all year to visit the sunshine state. I remember university kids taking charter flights to Panama City for Spring Break, only to learn that it’s almost always COLD in Panama City in March. I’ve met people who booked a week on some of the best beaches in the country, only to have it rain the entire time. I’ve seen families drop ten grand to wait in line at Disney when they could have spent a week in Swiss Alps for half the price. Be flexible when mother nature doesn’t cooperate. And please, tip your servers well. We have lousy wages, lousy schools and a crooked government down here in paradise where factory jobs and pensions don’t exist. Our main industry is you, my kind, cornfed, god-fearing, sunburned friend.
Okay, welcome back. The first leg of our trip had us a few minutes from home at Fort De Soto, a pristine oasis on the southern tip of Pinellas County. The campground is always booked up. As Pinellas County residents, we can book in advance of the rest of the world, but since it was last minute, I had to cobble together 2 nights by booking 1 night at a time. The downside: we had to switch camps – that’s 2 setups and 2 takedowns, plus all the loading and unloading of the van. On the upside, we lucked out with coveted waterfront sites both nights.
Even on a busy day, you can find empty stretches of beach like this; the deserted island theme completed by Monica’s ‘Mary Ann/Gilligan’s Island inspired bikini.
If you’ve never been to Ft. Desoto, it is hands-down some of the best beach camping around, with comfortable space between each site, lots of shade, and many waterfront options. (Hint: if a campground asks if your camper has slide-outs, you’ll be parking 4 feet from your neighbor.) Ft. De Soto’s beaches have been named the “Top Beach” by Dr. Beach more than once (see the story about our visit in February). The camp stores and concessions are well stocked and well run. And there are enough activities to fill a month: beach, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, boating, birding, hiking, and biking. And there is plenty of parking for day visitors.
Both sites backed up to waterside mangroves with water access. I made a perfect pot of chicken with mushrooms in the Dutch oven. We tried out some yard-sale cots because they are well within my lifting restrictions. While they looked great, and allowed for storing items underneath, they were not the most comfortable and took up too much space in the van. And don’t be fooled by Monica’s “come hither” gaze – the blankets hide an aluminum bar that kept me to my side of the tent.
This is not the typical beach hidden behind the Tastee Freeze and the Poseidon Motel. Even on a busy weekend, there are miles of shoreline to spread out on.
And then there was this happy guy strolling behind Monica. Ahhh, Florida Man:
When a squirrel invaded the van I initiated Rodent Protocol by grabbing an umbrella and waving wildly.
If you go:
- Arrive early on busy weekends. There can be a line getting into the park. Current park fee is $5 per car (waived if you’re camping), plus a couple of small tolls to reach the entrance.
- Alcohol is prohibited throughout. If you plan to have a beer by the campfire, be subtle, be quiet.
- Raccoons and squirrels are abundant and happy to relieve you of any food not securely stored.
- Each site has a grill, and ground fires are not allowed. Bring your own fire ring if you must have the full campfire experience.
- All sites have electric and water, some sites are tent-only, showers are clean and hot, there are coin laundry machines, and they have a dump station for RVers.
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“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Check out Jon’s periodic column, “So How’s That New Book Coming?” at Creative Loafing – Tampa. His 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at email@example.com. Monica is a freelance grant writer, non-profit consultant, tour guide, and connoisseur of 70s rock lyrics.