Recently we found ourselves in Key West for our best friends' wedding. Since all of Florida's National Parks are in South Florida, we extended our trip to explore them. This trip was a little different for a few reasons: We didn't have the pets, we were staying in hotels instead of camping and all 3 of the parks are mostly water. We traded our typical hikes for boat rides and guided tours.
Florida is home to Dry Tortugas National Park, Biscayne National Park and Everglades National Park. Everglades is one of the oldest and most popular parks in the country, while Dry Tortugas is one of the most secluded.
Dry Tortugas National Park
Dry Tortugas is 70 miles away from Key West in the Gulf of Mexico. To get there, you have to take a ferry, private or charter boat or a seaplane. We opted to take the Yankee Freedom Ferry because it was the cheapest option at $180 per person. It is a full day trip and includes breakfast, lunch, an hour tour of Fort Jefferson, snorkel equipment and the park entrance fee. For reference, the seaplane is $361 per person for a half day, $634 per person for a full day.
Dry Tortugas is a very strange and interesting place. On the island is Fort Jefferson, the largest all-masonry fort in the United States built in the 1800's. It was built to protect the southern coastline of the United States and the valuable shipping line into the Gulf of Mexico. Building the fort was a major undertaking, it was built to be impenetrable with 3 tiers and 6 sides with over 400 heavy guns/cannons. They used 16 million handmade bricks. But after working on it for 30 years, the fort was abandoned. Never finished and never used, what a waste!
Tortugas looks so out of place in the middle of the ocean with nothing but miles and miles of water around it. The fort is in remarkable condition and the brickwork, wide archways and windows overlooking the water were beautiful. We walked the seawall before taking the guided tour. Our guide was terrific and really helped give us some insight into why the fort was built, different transitions and uses it underwent, some notable prisoners it housed and why it was eventually abandoned.
Fun Fact: Ever heard the phrase "Your name is mud"? It's a reference to Dr. Sam Mudd who was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison at Fort Jefferson for setting the broken leg of John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of President Lincoln. There is a LOT of debate on whether Dr. Mudd even knew who Booth was when he treated him. While he was eventually released and pardoned, his good name had been "dragged through the mud".
On the island, there are also two small beaches where you can snorkel, on one side you are able to swim through the ruins of the South Coaling Docks. You can swim through the pilings and maybe even see a barracuda (Kevin is convinced he saw a big scary one, but we've seen the video and it sure looks like a regular old fish). What's your vote?
Biscayne National Park
Before researching all of the NP's and hitting the road, I had honestly never heard of this one. This park is closer to Miami and 95% underwater. The park protects the northernmost living coral reefs in the US. To take advantage of this park, you need a boat! There are a few different boat tours offered by the Biscayne National Park Institute. We chose the Boca Chita Island boat tour which took us to Boca Chita where you can climb a lighthouse and have a beautiful view of the water. While driving over, our tour guide told us some interesting stories about who used to live out there and the lavish parties they used to throw. There is a lot of wildlife to see from a variety of beautiful birds, dolphins, fish, sea turtles, manatees. While we didn't opt for a snorkel tour, we would recommend trying it, you will probably have a greater appreciation for the park and get to see the unique and beautiful coral reefs.
Everglades National Park
Home of the alligators, crocodiles, pythons and panthers. The park spans over 1.5 million acres of wetland with four different visitor centers and entrances. Since the park is so large, we spent two days exploring. The first day we went to Flamingo (South Entrance) which provides access to mangroves and Florida Bay. We rented a kayak and paddled for a few hours and spotted tons of crocodiles, alligators, manatees and birds. It was a beautiful and peaceful day.
On our second day we went to Shark Valley (North Entrance), to experience the swampy everglades. We took an air boat tour and road the trolley. There are no vendors within the main National Park area that do air boat tours so you have to go outside. They are all pretty much tourist traps, but at Kevin's request we went. We did do our research and tried to find a company that didn't engage in feeding the gators, bringing them up on the boat and putting on an alligator wrestling show. We enjoyed the ride and were pleasantly surprised that our eardrums didn't get blown out, it really wasn't too loud at all. Next up in the park, we took the tram tour. The tram follows a 15 mile loop which you can also bike. If you haven't seen many gators and crocodiles we definitely recommend taking this loop, we saw over 30 along our ride.
For Dry Tortugas, our launching point was Key West. For Biscayne and Everglades we decided to stay in Homestead. While there really isn't anything to do and very few restaurants there it was a great mid point between these two parks, with decent hotel options and overall was just convenient.
If you visit the Everglades, make sure to stop at Robert is Here. What started out as a local farm stand is now a real tourist destination. The selection of fresh fruits and veggies is impressive and the smoothies are delicious
By: Ashley Quiambao
Looking for road trip ideas for Colorado? We got you covered. We spent about a month making our way through Colorful Colorado, hitting all 4 National Parks, Colorado Springs and Denver. Colorado is by far the most beautiful state we have visited. There is not a road you can drive down or a direction you can look in where you won’t see gorgeous views.
We came to Colorado via New Mexico so we began our route in southwest Colorado making our first stop:
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde is home to extremely well preserved archaeological sites and Ancestral Pueblo cliff dwellings.
We spent half a day here and got in a great short hike on Petroglyph Point Trail (2.4 mile loop), which provides views of the canyons and leads you to a big petroglyph panel in the rock wall. We also drove along Mesa Top Loop Road stopping at several overlooks to see the cliff dwellings, Square Tower House, Sun Point, and an awesome view of Cliff Palace.
There are several ranger guided tour options including Cliff Palace, Balcony House and Long House, but the tours are very popular with limited spots. You have to purchase the tickets in person but can get them up to two days in advance. We recommend getting them ahead of time if you can, we tried to get them the day of and had no luck.
Where We Stayed:
La Mesa RV Park in Cortez, Colorado $25 a night with Passport America rate. This was a small RV park not far from Mesa Verde, in town near a bunch of stores, was quiet and had everything we needed for a quick overnight stop.
Great Sand Dunes National Park
Great Sand Dunes National Park is home to the tallest dunes in North America.
Hike to High Dunes which is about 699 feet tall, it's not the highest dune in the park but looks like it from the parking lot. It is about 2.2 miles round trip but be warned this isn't easy, hiking up steep, soft and deep sand is definitely a workout (which we questioned the intelligence of doing several times during our hike). But the views of the entire dune field from the top are pretty spectacular.
If sand hiking isn't your thing, there are several trails through the forest in this park as well. Be sure to also try sand sledding or sand boarding down the dunes. You can rent them outside the park.
Make sure you have a wooden sled or board- regular plastic sled do NOT work.
Where We Stayed:
We boondocked about 15 miles away from the park at San Luis State Wildlife Area. This spot is free if you have a Colorado State Wildlife Area Annual Pass which costs $36 (we picked ours up at the gas station in Mosca on the way in). Sites have electric, there is a dumpster and dump station but you will need to go in with water. The views across the lake of the dunes and mountains are hard to beat, it was quiet, peaceful and we had pretty good reception.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Black Canyon is a very dramatic, dark, and imposing park which showcases some incredibly steep cliffs and spires.
There are not really many hiking trails here, but we enjoyed stopping at all 12 of the different overlook points along South Rim Drive which feature stunning views. The views from Chasm View and the Painted Wall Overlook are particularly impressive.
From June 1- August 10 dogs are not allowed to be walked or carried in the campground or walked on the southern portion of the Rim Rock Trail because female mule deer get aggressive about protecting their new fawns. While we were there in May, we experienced this as a deer started following and chasing me and Hayley when we were out on a walk. So be aware.
Where We Stayed:
We stayed at the South Rim Campground. Since it was off-season it only cost $8 a night. We stayed on A loop which had no hookups, but if you need electric, head to B loop.
Pike National Forest- Lake George
We spent a few slow days here catching up on work, taking the dogs on long walks and enjoying the quiet. Throughout Pike National Forest you can find plenty of hiking trails and ATV trails which are very popular on the weekends.
Where we Stayed:
We boondocked, so it was free! Upon entering the area there are a couple of nice spots for bigger rigs/Class A's. But if you have a car or van you can go much further down the road which gets pretty rutted for some pretty secluded and beautiful spots.
Garden of the Gods Park: The park is very appropriately named with so many cool rock formations that rise seemingly out of nowhere. We took the dogs and hiked a couple of the short trails here. It’s a great place to spend an afternoon and there are no entrance fees.
Red Rock Canyon Open Space: another free park with plenty of hiking/biking paths and an off-leash dog trail which our girls loved.
We regret not allotting more time here. There is so much to do and see in the the Colorado Springs area like Pikes Peak, the Manitou Springs Incline, and Seven Falls, so be sure to give yourself a few days to explore.
Where we Stayed:
Mountaindale Cabin & RV Park - not the most conveniently located, it’s a good 25 minutes to the main attractions in Colorado Springs but it’s a really nice campground, very well maintained, big open sites with plenty of room between you and your neighbors and cost $28.46 per night with our Passport America membership.
Rino Art Walk (street graffiti art) and grab lunch nearby at Denver’s Central Market; check out one of Denver’s awesome farmers markets; Hike at Red Rock Park and Amphitheater; and explore Downtown Golden.
Where we stayed:
Airbnb. Kevin’s parents were visiting us so we rented a house, not much help as far as campgrounds go but they are most likely on the outskirts of the city.
Rocky Mountain National Park / Estes Park
Top hiking trail pics for Rocky Mountains: Emerald Lake Trail which will take you past Nymph Lake, Dream Lake and finally Emerald (3.6 miles) and is probably up there with our all time favorite hikes; Cub Lake Trail to the Pool and back via Fern Lake Trail (7.15 miles), and Ouzel Falls Trail (5.5 miles) which takes you past Copeland Falls, Calypso Cascades and ends at Ouzel.
We also spent some time exploring Estes Park, a cute little town with a lot of shops and a historic old movie theater.
Where We Stayed:
We were in the Rockies during Memorial Day Weekend, which we did not plan in advance so we had to move around a bit. The NPS Moraine Lake Campground cost $26, was in a great location, nice big backyards, plenty of wildlife in the area and the views were incredible, especially from C loop.
We also spent one night at the Estes Park KOA at a rate of $89.47, which is expensive and it was small & cramped so it would not have been our first choice. The last two nights we spent at Manor RV Park, also expensive at $81.92 per night but we got a site on the river and the staff could not have been more helpful or friendlier so we enjoyed our stay here.
That wraps up the Colorado portion of our road trip. Did we miss anything? Let us know if the comments below, we would love an excuse to go back!
By: Ashley Quiambao
If you are looking for some cheap camping spots or are RVing on a budget, New Mexico is the place to be. There are a ton of free BLM and dispersed camping spots throughout the state and the State Parks are very reasonable at $14 a night for w/e. If you are spending a significant amount of time in New Mexico, look into the annual park pass which is around $200 and cuts the nightly cost of state parks to $4 for w/e.
On average in the past 6 months, we have spent $23.51 a night on accommodation, which we think is pretty good. We spent 3 weeks traveling through New Mexico, so doing the math, that would typically cost around 500 bucks ($493.71 to be exact). But we managed to significantly cut that by more than half!!!! 21 nights cost us a total of $199.19, about $9.48 a night. AND we could have done it cheaper but we had to bail on 2 BLM sites that we had planned. Having a 30 foot class A is not the most convenient for boondocking, most of the roads are rough and rutted and sometimes the sites are too small or we just can’t get Wanda level so we have to bail.
So here is the rundown on where we camped:
1. Brantley Lake State Park, Carlsbad: $14 per night w/e
After a day at Carlsbad Caverns National Park we camped here for a couple of nights. No one mans the front entrance, you just drive through, find an open spot and pay at the self pay station. You can also reserve sites ahead of time for an extra fee. This park is kind of in the middle of the desert with not much around, but it was pretty and peaceful with a nice Lake Loop trail to take the dogs. It has the typical state park amenities: bathrooms, showers and a dump station.
2. Holloman Lake, Holloman Air Force Base: Free
This was our home base for our visit to White Sands National Monument, which was only about 10 minutes away. It was a beautiful spot to watch the sunset and while we were there we only saw a couple of other campers. For your safety, the lake water is contaminated and not safe to drink or swim in. We knew this going in and just kept ourselves and the dogs away from it and had no problem. We did hear recently that public access to the area may be prohibited in the future due to the contamination, so check before heading in.
3. Leasburg Dam State Park, Las Cruces: $14 a night w/e
This is a nice well maintained state park not too far from the main attractions in Las Cruces. We ended up here by default after a BLM spot didn’t work out. There are a couple of different loops to choose from with different levels of amenities. Our loop had w/e hookup and pit toilets, but there were showers by the park office on the other side of the park. Each site has a picnic table under a covered patio and there are several trails to walk here. One odd thing we did notice on our walk to the Dam was that there was no water in it! That was pretty strange.
4. Elephant Butte State Park, Truth or Consequences: $8 per night primitive camping
This state park is very big with several developed campgrounds, but you can also dry camp on the beach or anywhere else in the park where you can find a spot. We decided to dry camp because we wanted to stay on the beach….that did not go so well as Wanda got stuck in some deep soft sand and we needed to get towed out. But after all the drama, we ended up finding an awesome secluded spot which worked our better for us anyway.
5. Cracker Barrel, Albuquerque: Free
Good old Cracker Barrel. We really appreciate that Cracker Barrels allow RVers to stay overnight. It is always good in a pinch and we usually find that they are quieter and less crowded than Walmart parking lots.
6. Enchanted Trails RV Park and Trading Post, Albuquerque: Passport America Rate $18 per night full hookup
Free camping spots in Albuquerque are hard to come by. There is nothing really convenient or nearby, so after the first night we found this RV park through Passport America. Before we set out on this trip we joined several membership programs for discounts on camp sites. Passport America was the cheapest at $44 a year and it is by far the one that has been most helpful to us. We use it quite frequently and it saves us a lot of money as you typically get 50% off a nightly rate at participating campgrounds. We highly recommend it if you don't already have it!
Enchanted trails is a nice medium sized campground on historic Route 66 and a convenient place to stay while exploring Albuquerque.
7. Caja Del Rio, Sante Fe National Forest: Free
This was a great BLM spot we found in Sante Fe National Forest. Just be sure to take the long way to get there, the GPS wanted us to take a shortcut down a steep rutted dirt road and across the Sante Fe River. No way Wanda could have handled that, so we had to drive the long way on Highway 599 and double back.
This was probably the most popular BLM spot we have stayed in and there were a bunch of other RVers, campers, and vans but there is plenty of space and everyone kept to themselves. The Railyard and Canyon Road, popular tourist spots in Sante Fe, was about a half hour away. And while there are pit toilets located here, I wouldn’t plan on using them.
8. Coronado Campground, Bernalillo: $25 per night w/e 3 nights
This is a small campground is located right off Highway 550. We ended up here for a few days while we waited for some packages to catch up with us. There is not much to do around here but there are plenty of stores if you need to restock or have any projects you need to work on. Our biggest complaint here was that their WiFi signal was terrible and we didn't have great reception on our phones or with our Verizon MiFi.
9. Walmart, Farmington: Free 1 night
We intended on visiting the Bisti Badlands/De-Na-Zin Wilderness area and almost made it, but the last leg of the trip is 20 miles on a terrible bumpy dirt road. We decided to turn around and not risk breaking something. Without a real plan of where to go we stopped at the Walmart in Farmington. They have a huge lot just past their auto center in the back and away from the highway where RVs can park. It was definitely the quietest Walmart we have slept in.
We enjoyed our time in New Mexico and were happy to take advantage of the free campsites to not only save some money but to camp the way we like, out in the wilderness on our own.
Do you prefer boondocking or full hookups at an RV park? Let us know in the comments below.
By: Ashley Quiambao
We haven’t hit a National Park in months and in the past couple weeks we managed to check 3 more off our list. First was a big trip to Big Bend and then we made our way north to Guadalupe Mountains National Park in west Texas. Guadalupe is only about a 30 minute drive to Carlsbad Caverns National Park which is in New Mexico. We hit both parks over a few days and think it would be a great long weekend trip for anyone. So here’s the lowdown:
What it Cost:
We have the America the Beautiful Annual Pass so daily entry into both parks was free. Otherwise its $7 per person for Guadalupe and $15 per person for Carlsbad (plus the cost of any additional tours you do). Honestly, the parks pass is amazing and we HIGHLY recommend it. If you plan on hitting a couple parks in a year it will save you a bunch of money and it supports the parks so WIN WIN. It’s $80 per pass which can cover up to 4 adults (passholder and passengers) and gets you in to all the NPS sites for free. If you are a senior it’s $20 per year (or you can get a lifetime pass for $80) and if you are a veteran or disabled you can get a free pass.
Where to Stay:
If you have ever driven in west Texas you know there is nothing there. For miles and miles its just the highway and flat open fields. So your options are pretty limited for where to stay. We stayed at the NPS campground at Guadalupe, which is really just a big parking lot by the trail heads. Certainly not glamorous but easy and convenient. There are no hookups available and it’s $15 a night. But they do have bathrooms (no showers) and potable water. Keep in mind if you are heading there to make sure you are fully stocked - food, gas etc because there are no close amenities.
We arrived mid morning and had no problem claiming a spot, there were about 20 RV spots with some smaller van or car spots available. We parked in the middle row and got plenty of sun for our solar panels. One thing to note, be mindful of the weather forecast. They get a fair amount of wind there, in fact we stayed a day longer because of 60-70 mile an hour gusts that we opted not to drive through. When the wind kicks up like that, visibility on the mountains is tough and it makes hiking some of the trails pretty miserable.
We stayed at Guadalupe for a few nights so we could do a couple of hikes and then drove Wanda to Carlsbad Caverns for our visit and then stayed in Brantley Lake State Park after. The state park is not too far from the caverns and it’s a cool spot in the middle of the desert. It was really quiet and only $14 a night for a w/e spot. But I will say the showers left much to be desired, they were freezing.
What to Do:
At Guadalupe, we hiked 2 trails. The first day we set off on the Devil’s Hall Trail (3.8 miles) which was a very unique hike. After the first half mile or so you are dumped into a rocky wash where you have to pick your own path, moving and jumping on and over boulders. It feels like it goes on for a lot longer than it does but you eventually reach the Hikers Staircase which you have to scramble up. Here the terrain changes pretty dramatically and you head through a pretty slanted section with more rock stairs...kinda feels like you are a bit tipsy walking through. At the end is Devils Hall. It is really pretty and beautiful and not at all what we were expecting, a happy surprise. Overall, it’s an easy trail just be mindful of your footwear choice because the boulders are a little rough on your feet/ankles/knees.
The second trail we tackled was Guadalupe Peak which is the highest peak in Texas rising to 8,751 feet. The trail is about 8.4 miles long and rated as strenuous, which it is. It was really quite a tough hike up. It’s pretty much straight up 3,000 feet with not many sections of plateaus or flats. The trail also tricks you a bit, we thought we were close to the top several times only to turn a corner and see in the distance another ridge and another taller mountain to climb. The view from the top is worth the climb and you have to sign the register at the top proving you made it! If you take this hike on we would recommend packing light, taking plenty of water/snacks and head up early before the heat.
There is a primitive campground about a mile from the top that you can stay overnight in but we went up and down in one day. We spoke to a couple hikers who stayed up there who said it was absolutely awful up there with the heavy winds.
We have been in a couple caverns in the past month or so and we decided to do something a little different, to try an adventure cave tour at Carlsbad. They offer several options at different times and different days. Our only option was the Lower Cave Tour. It was a 3 hour tour. Armed with headlamps and hard hats you use a rope to climb down and then descend approximately 60 feet of ladders into a section of the cave beneath the main "Big Room". It was a fun way to explore and we really liked viewing the cave in its natural state. After the tour we walked the Big Room which is very appropriately named. It is massive, the size and depth of it blows any other cave we have seen out of the water. There is a nice path which loops around the whole room highlighting different formations along the way.
It was awesome to be able to explore 2 National Parks back to back like this. It is such a quick easy drive between the two and the parks are so different from each other. You get to experience two unique environments and terrains.
Have you ever been to Guadalupe or Carlsbad? Let us know in the comments below.
The chance to hike through and see all our beautiful National Parks is one of the main reasons we chose to head off on this adventure. Since we haven’t had great luck getting to the parks so far we were so excited to finally make it to Big Bend. We were counting down until we got there and wanted to make sure we made the most of our 5 days as we could. We managed to squeeze in 8 hikes, some scenic drives, a dip in the hot springs, and we caught every sunrise and sunset so i’d say we did a pretty good job!
I will say the biggest advice we can give is be prepared for the heat. We stayed in the park at the Rio Grande Village campground for 3 nights and 1 night in Cottonwood campground. There are no hookups so no electric (aka no A/C) but considering how massive the park is, we didn’t want to waste any more time driving back and forth from outside the park. We found that it was cool in the early mornings so we began hiking everyday just before sunrise. We would hike for a few hours and be back at Wanda by lunch time when the sun really started blazing. Even with that schedule, some of the hikes (in the full sun) like the return of the window trail and Boquillas canyon were pretty brutal
We opted to do some shorter 4-6 mile trails so we could hike more of them and see more of the park versus some of the longer hikes like the South Rim Trail (12-15 miles). And we were happy with that decision. We were able to hike several trails in each area of the park Rio Grande, Chisos Mountains and Castollon. If we had done the longer trails, we would have had to sacrifice some of those trails. But if you have more time go for it, we hear it's an awesome, (but strenuous) hike.
Grapevine Hills Trail (2.2 Miles)
The Grapevine Hills Trail to Balanced Rock was our first desert hike. It is down a pretty rough, bumpy dirt and rock road, so we were certainly happy to have Walter (our Jeep). The actual trail is a quick and easy 2.2 mile hike but the last bit up does involve a bit of a rock scramble. The Balanced Rock at the end is quite a showpiece. It is amazing to us how a boulder that size could tumble down the mountain, land in the middle of two other rocks and come to a rest. I mean what are the chances?? And the fact that it manages to stay fully supported there is kind of wild. It is a very cool spot, has a great view through the arch underneath and a fun spot for photos.
Lost Mine Trail (4.8 Miles)
This was one of the highest ranked hikes (according to our research, the REI app and the Alltrails app). It is a 4.8 mile roundtrip hike in the Chisos Mountains. We really enjoyed this hike, it was moderate with a good ascent and a bunch of switchbacks. If you can’t make it to the top there is a good lookout spot about 1 mile up, but it is really well worth the trek to the top. The view is amazing. With good visibility you can see quite far, to mountain ranges in Mexico. Our timing was spot on (we are all about sunrise hikes now), we were the only ones on the trail and had a good 45 minutes to ourselves at the top to enjoy some breakfast and take in the views. It’s one of those vantage points that you kind of just sit in silence, slow down and in stare in awe at how absolutely beautiful nature is sometimes and really appreciate having the chance to see it.
On our return trip down, we passed a few people who alerted us to a bear sighting off the trail (the Chisos is home to bears and plenty of mountain lions). But unfortunately several large groups were also making their way up the trail, so it seemed the noise scared him off much to our disappointment!
To get on this trail there is a really tiny parking area, not too many spots and it fills up pretty quick so again...plan to get there early because the only other area to park is a bit further down the road, adding quite a big uphill climb before even starting the trail.
The Window Trail (5.6 Miles)
This hike is also in the Chisos and the trail head is right by the visitor center. The morning we headed out to drive to this trail, we managed to catch some Javelinas still hanging around our campground, they are really pretty funny looking and on our drive we caught a coyote running across the road. Despite the amount of wildlife in the park, besides roadrunners and some bunnies these are the only bigger animals we managed to see, although you could hear plenty at night.
This hike is 5.6 miles with a descent first and the return trip is up, not really our preferred type of trail we usually like to get the uphill climb over with first. But sometimes that is not an option so we suck it up. The first portion of the hike is a pleasant walk before the landscape kind of changes as you go into the canyon with huge rocks walls and Oak Creek. Before coming to the window pour off, you will go up and down and across several passes of the creek which is really pretty. And then the main attraction, the window. It is beautiful.
The name is obviously quite appropriate as it is just a 3 sided square open in the middle of the two walls which allows you to see through to other mountains in the distance and a great view of the horizon. We were very impressed. PLEASE BE CAREFUL though, the rocks are pretty smooth and slippery and it is just a sheer drop off just past the window.
Once again our timing was impeccable, we had the place to ourselves. There is something so amazingly special about being in these spectacular places in a National Park by yourselves. Gives you more time to take it in and reflect. The whole park makes you realize just how small you really are in the grand scheme of things, which always helps put things in perspective for me.
On the return of this hike, the temperature spiked and even though it was still only around 9 am it was full sun beating down on us for most of the ascent so plenty of water is a must.
Boquillas Canyon Trail (1.4 Miles)
So you want to hop on over to Mexico? This is the spot. Boquillas crossing is the border patrol area where you can hop on a canoe and make your way across the Rio Grande (takes about 5 minutes) for a beer and some tacos in Mexico. If you don’t have your passport, or are short on time you can hike the canyon trail which gives you a clear view across the river to Mexico. The trail is short, only 1.4 but it in full sun so it gets very hot by midday. Pretty cool to see, and always love a good canyon trail, how the walls rise so high on the sides of you but part for the water. But I will say, the water is pretty gross looking here, so I wouldn’t necessarily want to take a dip in it, seemed very muddy.
Rio Grande Nature Trail (.75 Miles)
This is not exactly a hike, its short .75 mile walk and picks up right at the Rio Grande campground but it is the BEST spot in the park for a sunset. The overlook is absolutely perfect for catching the sun set over the Rio Grande River….probably one of the best sunsets we have ever seen. Kev went up one night on his own and I went up another night. We couldn’t leave the girls in Wanda because it was way too hot. So strange to us how like the hottest time of day is late afternoon and night. Even when the sun sets it does not cool off for hours.
Anyway, make sure you hang around a bit after the sun disappears because it takes a little for the colors to really come out. The pinks and oranges that paint the sky are incredible. Just bring a flashlight for the walk back.
You have to take a dip in the hot springs! The trail is not far from the Rio campground and is short. The pool is kind of small and a bit slimy but it is set right on the river and is a great spot to catch the sunrise. The morning temperatures make it a lot more comfortable to get into the water, I cannot imagine forcing myself in once the sun was overhead and temps reached the 90's. It is also pretty quiet and relaxing in the morning.
Santa Elena Canyon Trail (1.7 Miles)
This is another highly ranked trail but is on the Castolon side of the park (completely opposite from Rio Grande). So, we decided to move to the Cottonwood campground for easier access. The drive in to the campground and hikes, the Ross Maxwell drive is gorgeous, it’s a popular scenic drive and for good reason.
The Santa Elena trail is 1.7 miles roundtrip and at sunrise the sun peaks in through the canyon walls and is really beautiful. I preferred this canyon to Boquillas, I thought it was much prettier and seemed more dramatic. You do have to cross the river to get to the trail, and although the wash is usually dry it wasn’t when we were there. So, we had to detour a bit further up to find a good spot to cross and make our way back to the trail.
I’d say if you only do one trail over on this side of the park, this is the one to do.
Mule Ears Spring Trail (3.8 Miles)
This is a desert hike off Castolon road and to be honest it was very underwhelming for us. We were disappointed. Its a 3.8 mile out and back hike through the desert, no shade and nothing that nice to look at, The path actually takes you away from the Mule Ears namesake and to the Mule Ears Springs, which is dried out and overgrown. The other chimney trail nearby looked like a similar walk straight into the desert and we decided to skip it after we weren’t really thrilled with this trail. Maybe it’s us and maybe we just don’t like desert hikes that much considering the heat and how bare they are (besides flowers and cacti) but if you are at all limited on time during your visit Id consider skipping this.
There you have it, our experience trekking through Big Bend. Really hard for us to pick favorites but if we have to I’d go with Lost Mine and Santa Elena and Kev’s vote is the Window Trail. AND we both agree the sunset on the Rio Grande Nature Trail Overlook was a top pick….so I guess it doesn’t seem we are that great at narrowing things down at all.
Have you been to Big Bend? What were your favorite trails? Let us know in the comments below.
By: Ashley Quiambao
Big Bend is only our second National Park since we left home in October 2018 and we were extremely excited to get here. It is in a pretty remote spot and while we researched quite a bit ahead of time, we were a little unsure of what to expect. We planned to stay at one of the campgrounds inside the park rather that an RV park outside, because we wanted the full Big Bend experience. However, the campgrounds have no hookups and most of the sites are first come first serve, so we went in kind of just hoping for the best. We ended up having an amazing experience camping and exploring Big Bend, it really is a such a unique park.
Here is our best advice and some helpful tips for your visit to Big Bend:
This max speed limit in the park is 45 miles an hour. The roads are windy, narrow and sections are really wavy causing your RV to sway like crazy. Take it slow and appreciate the views. The contrast from desert to mountains is incredibly beautiful. We went in the beginning of April, which was perfect timing for the bloom of the bluebonnet wildflowers along the roadside. Every few miles on the main road there are small pull offs to park and plenty of exhibits to see along the drive.
There are 4 visitors centers throughout the park: Panther Junction (HQ), Rio Grande Village, Chisos Basin, Castolon. Each visitor center has information, food, water, bathrooms, 2 had gas (Panther Junction and Rio Grande Village) and WiFi
RV Camping in Big Bend
While Big Bend has some availability for online reservation through Recreation.gov for Rio Grande Campground and Chisos Basin, its only between November 15 to April 15 and most of the campsites are first come first serve. Our original plan was to get a permit for a backcountry campsite but there are a limited number of them which can accommodate RVs. Our back up plan was to stay in the Rio Grande village Campground. Since we were quite nervous about getting a spot, we made sure to get there as early as possible. A visit to Panther Junction sent us to the Rio campground because there were no backcountry spots open. So, we spent three nights at Rio Grande Campground and one night at Cottonwood. From what we saw there was a lot of turnover at each campsite. If you are there early enough, you should be able to find a site but each night they were all filled up.
Here’s our Recommendations
If your rig is 30 feet or over:
Automatically work your way toward Rio Grande Village. There are not many other options. There are few backcountry sites that can accommodate larger RVs, and Chisos campground does not allow any RV's longer than 24 feet. Even in Rio Grande, rigs over 37 feet had to park sideways in the site to fit. At Rio, there are two sections of the campground a generator area and a generator free zone. We stayed in the generator section because the sites were bigger and more open for sun to power our solar panels.
If you're looking for full hook ups:
You only have 1 option in Big Bend. Head towards Rio Grande Village RV campground (next to Rio Grande Village campground- confusing I know). They have reservations sites and first come first serve spots, but only about 25 in total. It is not run by NPS, no view, and is basically a glorified parking lot that looked full every night we were there.
If you are in a tent/ pop up camper/B Class/ Truck Camper:
Stay in the Chisos Basin camground. This campground is centralized to the park and a lot of the hiking trails take off from here. There are steep windy and narrow roads leading into the campground so RV's have to be under 24 feet and trailers have to be under 20. Sites are small but your really close to some great trail heads and in the middle of most of the other popular destinations within the park. (Read more on Big Bend Trails Here)
If your smaller than 30 feet and don’t need generators:
You can also stay at the Cottonwood campground. We stayed here for one night as it was more convenient to a few of our planned hikes. A lot of the sites are really small and meant for tenters and pop ups. There are a couple of larger sites though, we were the only Class A there along with one other travel trailer. The rest of the sites were full of tenters, vanlifers, and pop ups. It is also a much smaller and more undeveloped campground than Rio so get there early.
If you want to back-country:
Get to Panther Junction as early as possible. Backcountry is first come first serve. We got there an hour after opening and we had no luck. All the sites that were able to accommodate our size and RV capabilities were booked for the week. But if you are in something smaller like vanners or truck camper or anything with high clearance and 4x4 wheel drive there were many options for you.
Campsites and Water
Each campsites vary in amenities and size but almost all of them had a bear/javelina boxes. Potable water that can be easily added to your RV can be found by the dump station at Rio Grande Village. Just make sure to use a water regulator as the spigot had really powerful water pressure. At all the visitors centers and in a couple of places within the Rio campground there were also potable water spouts to fill your water jugs for drinking. At Cottonwood, in the front of the campsite there was a building where you could get potable water (no dump station at Cottonwood though).
There are two gas stations in Big Bend. One in Panther Junction and the other in Rio Grande Village. The gas prices are obviously higher than outside the park. We got gas in Alpine before we came in at 2.79. At Rio Grande Village, the gas was $3.09. You should expect to be driving a lot while inside the park. We had to fill up the RV and the Jeep during our visit. They ask you to leave a deposit or card on file and then you are allowed to pump.
We went in April. The climate fluctuated dramatically each day. In the morning it would be in the mid 40s but would quickly heat up during the day to over 100 degrees. The hottest part of the day was in early evenings. Since we camped in Rio Grande Campground we didn’t have any hook ups. The temperature inside our RV reached the high 90s everyday even with the vent fans on and windows open. Since we travel with our two dogs and cat, we needed to make sure we finished all our hikes by noon. We spent the afternoons and evenings outside in the shade with the dogs and cat where it was cooler.
Despite the temperatures and somewhat primitive conditions, we had an incredible time RV camping in Big Bend. We are so happy we made the long drive to visit. Hopefully, this answered some of your questions and provided you with some direction for planning your Big Bend adventure.
Let us know if you have any other questions in the comments below.
By: Kevin Quiambao
We have an unspoken rule about eating out. Since we are watching our budget we don't eat out often and when we do its a very calculated and researched decision. We want to capitalize on the best of the best and go to places that are recommended to us by locals. We also need to plan ahead because Ashley is vegetarian, gluten free and has ton of allergies so it's always a challenge to find a place with decent choices which fit her dietary restrictions. Me on the other hand, will eat everything and anything. I come from a family of good eaters. Growing up in my house my Mom always preached. “Don't knock it till you try it" and "You don’t know you don’t like it until you've tasted it". I live by those rules and will try anything you offer me.
One of the best parts about RVing is getting to try out the local cuisine. We try to avoid big chain restaurants and tourist traps and seek out places where locals eat. Each state has their own specialties and dishes that they are known for. When we are in a new place, I always like to ask the server to pick the best meal for me. Servers know which is food tastes the best and is popular.
While there were so many memorable meals and dishes, here is a list of top 5 things Kevin ate and Top 5 things Ashley ate (so far)
Kevin’s Top 5 Things I Ate (In Order of When I Ate Them)
910 S Alamo St.
San Antonio, TX 782205
This restaurant is a short walk from the Tower of Americas in Downtown San Antonio. This Mexican Restaurant lives up to all their accolades. Their fresh guacamole, salsa, and endless chips can surely fill you up before your meals even arrive but take my advice and save some room for dinner. Our waiter explained to us that the way you judge a Mexican Restaurant is by their Chile Relleno and that their version was simply the best. How can you not order it? This poblano pepper stuffed with spiced beef, potato & raisin topped with their ranchero sauce and white cheese was extremely hearty and flavorful. I wasn’t disappointed and would highly recommend.
Ashley's Top 5 Things I Ate (In Order of When I Ate Them)
185 East Bay Street
Charleston, SC 29401
Magnolias was our favorite meal in Charleston. Our waiter suggested we start with the boiled peanut hummus which sounds pretty weird but was delicious. I eat any kind of hummus, its a fave snack of mine. Boiled peanuts are so popular down here that I guess it makes sense to substitute them for chickpeas. It comes with an okra, corn, and hot pepper relish and chips and it really works. I also twisted Kevin's arm into ordering a grilled cornbread side which I tasted and then tasted again. It was one of those really depressing moments when being gluten free makes me want to cry. It was so cakey and warm and perfect and I could have eaten 10 pieces. Sigh, at least i got to try it.
Alligator Soul Restaurant
114 Barnard Street
Savannah, GA 31401
I have to say I was a little reserved about going to this restaurant for dinner considering their somewhat exotic options on the menu. But they also do a great job offering vegan/vegetarian/gluten free options. The choice depends on whats in season as they use market fresh ingredients but when we were there I had Sweet Potato Pasta with mushrooms in a pesto sauce which was delicious. I don't know how they made the noodles, but I really could not tell they were gluten free (and they weren't zoodles). It was a really interesting and unique dish in comparison to what I normally end up eating at restaurants that are not so veg/glutie friendly a/k/a a side salad and french fries.
By Kevin and Ashley Quiambao
We have been in Texas for a month and it is really just so big. There are so many places to visit and so many state parks (over 90) to stay in. Recently we have visited and/or stayed in 6 state parks as part of our "Hill County Tour". Before I review these parks though, I have to recommend getting the Texas State Park Pass to anyone who is planning to camp or spend time traveling through Texas. All of the parks have daily use fees from around $5-$10 per person (which you have to pay even if you have a reservation to camp in the park). With the pass, all of your day use fees are waived PLUS the second consecutive night camping in any state park is discounted 50% (Nightly rates are $20 so the 2nd night is $10). The pass is only $70 dollars a year and it more than paid for itself within the first week using it and it just continues to save us money.
Based on our experience, reservations need to be made for all the parks and you are better off making them a little ahead of time. We did not really plan ahead (shocking I know) and two weeks of spring break in March made it very difficult to get into some of the parks we wanted to overnight in. Spring break is over now but since the weather is beautiful and flowers are blooming, people are out on the weekends so for more popular parks (like Mckinney Falls in Austin) getting a weekend reservation is still difficult.
1. Colorado Bend State Park
This was our first park in the Hill Country and we weren't able to get a reservation here but still wanted to go so we ended up at an RV park about 10 miles away. And so began the saga of the horrible RV park and breaking Wanda's slide.
WORD OF WARNING: Do NOT stay in Sulphur Springs RV park. Especially if you have a class A Motorhome. The roads getting into the park are treacherous: hilly, steep, full of potholes, completely unlevel dirt roads with loose rocks...it was terrible, we were both so stressed out, the dogs were so scared, the cabinets were flying open, dishes were breaking (you get the picture). Not to mention while it has pretty view the campground has zero amenities. No garbages, no showers, the "bathroom" is a shack with toilets but no stalls...yes just open toilets. The owner was nasty. All in all (putting aside it was the reason Wanda broke) it was just a terrible place to stay. While we try not to be too negative about places, we feel we have to warn you about this one.
Anyhow, back to Colorado Bend. This park tends to get crowded and they often close when it gets to capacity. So even for a day pass, you generally should make a reservation ($5 pp or free with the park pass day use is free). We headed there in the late morning but the park had reached capacity so we were told to make a reservation and come back for the afternoon entrance. I think they limit this due to parking, a smaller campground and to prevent overcrowding of the day use areas. While it's annoying if you don't plan ahead, it's nice that they don't let the parks get too crowded so you can still enjoy your time there.
We only did one hike, the most popular, to Gorman Falls. It was our first hike in real Texas terrain, rocky, arid with plenty of cacti (Sophie learned her lesson quick to stay away from these). It's about a 3 mile round trip hike and right before the falls it gets pretty steep and slippery. It's a bit of a rock scramble. While we knew Hayley could handle this no problem, it was Sophie's first time on a hike like this, but we're happy to report she did great too. Despite being pretty clumsy and goofy she pulls it together on a hike! The falls were very pretty, kinda almost looks like spanish moss in the pictures. There was a decent amount of traffic on the trail but since its a popular spot, that was to be expected.
We did drive around the campground area which made us sad that we weren't staying. Not too many sites but most of them are backed up to the Colorado River, so if you can get a spot take it.
2. Longhorn Caverns State Park
Longhorn Caverns is a day use only park which is right near Inks Lake State Park. Entry to the park is free but you have to pay for the walking tour. They do guided tours of the cavern through out the day which cost $18.00 for an adult and are about 90 minutes long. There are a few different areas or rooms that are highlighted along the tour, we liked Crystal City, the Hall of Marble and the Hall of Diamonds. We actually really like doing cave tours and really enjoyed this one. Pretty cool formations and the marble and crystal were unique elements which we haven't seen before.
3. Inks Lake State Park
Inks Lake is down the road from Longhorn Caverns and has campsites so if you are in that area make this your home base. There is a fishing pier, a huge lake, hiking trails and the RV sites are nice and big, it's seems like a great campground. Unfortunately we couldn't get a site because of spring break, so we just spent the day there. We took the longer trail to Devil's Waterhole, which is along the river and has no clear trail. There are tons of boulders and rocks to traverse so you have to kind of pick your own route, which was a fun challenge.
4. Enchanted Rock State Natural Area
Several people recommended that we visit this park and we can see why. It was another day trip for us because while the park has tent camping, it doesn't have RV sites. We had to make a reservation and we had a two hour window in the morning from 1030 a.m.-1230 p.m. to enter ($7 pp day use or parks pass). I think this may be because it was spring break but reservations are really never a bad idea. We hiked the loop trail which is about 4.25 miles around the centerpiece of the park, the Enchanted Rock. It was a nice hike, not very challenging but pretty landscapes and views, it is also the only hike that dogs are allowed on. Kevin also did the Summit Trail which was a pretty steep .67 mile up trail, me and the dogs opted to head back to Wanda.
5. Mckinney Falls State Park
Mckinney Falls is a perfect location to stay while exploring Austin. Not far from the cities main attractions like SoCo, Congress Avenue Bridge or Barton Springs pool yet you are in nature, in a quiet park with plenty of hikes and big sites to relax in. We spent 5 nights here (one of our longer stays) and really enjoyed it. The wildflowers are blooming like crazy now so between the blue bonnets and the waterfalls it was beautiful.
What was not so beautiful however was the mosquitoes which are legitimately the size of dinosaurs. Biggest things I've ever seen and they are ALL over. They don't really bite but they are really pretty gross.
We did a couple of hikes while we were here and saw both the upper and lower falls. We thought the lower falls were prettier. There are about 5 hiking trails throughout the park to keep you occupied when you are not exploring the city.
6. South Llano River State Park
This was a quick overnight stop for us on our way from Austin to Big Bend and we were pleasantly surprised. It a nice smaller campground and has several hiking trails and meadows of wildflowers all around. We hiked the west canyon loop and the overlook trail. There are turkey roost areas (although we didn't see any) and it is a popular birding park. There is also plenty of river to tube down. I wouldn't have minded staying there a bit longer.
While we are done with Texas hill country, I think we'll be staying in some more state parks before we leave Texas. With the locations, awesome hiking trails and the parks pass, you really can't beat it.
What is your favorite Texas State Park?
By: Ashley Quiambao
For most of our trip so far, we have stuck mostly to the coast, some of it due to weather, some of it convenience and I think in a way it’s just more familiar to us. Growing up on Long Island the beaches and water feels a little more like home. We have never seen the Gulf so Kevin was really excited to explore the Gulf Coast beaches so we stayed at a bunch of different sites along the coast in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
Camp Gulf- Miramar Beach, Florida
This resort was very nice but silly expensive. It cost $118 a night (full h/u) and you are packed in like sardines. There are a lot of amenities, 2 pools, a recreation center, laundry, modern individual private bathrooms and showers. The biggest attraction though is that they are right on the beach. They do have one row of RV sites on the sand for a beachfront view. BUT they do not allow dogs on these sites, so our site was a few rows back.
The sand was white and sugary and it was a beautiful and clean beach which made for some good walks. It was close to a ton of stores, Destin and a lot of shopping. While the location, bathrooms/facilities were nice and it was steps to the beach, I personally don’t feel that the cost was worth it since we we didn’t have a beach view and could not park on the sand.
Topsail State Park- Santa Rosa Beach, Florida
This was about 10 minutes away from Camp Gulf. Since my brother was visiting we wanted to give him the experience of moving sites, staying in an rv resort and our preferred state parks. The sites were large, paved and you had plenty of space between you and your neighbor. While they do have a beach, it is a long walk so they offer trams to take you to and from. We chose to just ride our bikes. The beach here was so pretty and quiet...much less commercial and no huge buildings or developments around.
There are several hiking and biking trails to keep you occupied, a couple of lakes and a community fire pit. The only downside was the bathroom/showers. They were very run down, pretty gross and a far walk from our site.
This cost $50 a night (full h/u), so definitely a more expensive state park but around the Destin area, it’s one of your best options.
Gulf State Park - Gulf Shores, Alabama
I think this was our favorite state park we have stayed at. It is HUGE….there are over 500 campsites in all different directions. The actual sites are big and very spaced out. There are so many hiking and biking trails. Everyone bikes there, we took a long ride and really enjoyed the views. There’s also a fishing pier, beach passes are included, and they even have restaurants on site (like I said the place is huge).
It also cost $50 a night (full h/u). What we noticed about Gulf Shores in general which was nicer than in Florida, there are huge areas of the coastline that are undeveloped so even driving along you have a nice unobstructed view of the water.
Davis Bayou Campground Gulf Islands National Seashore- Ocean Springs, Mississippi
We really liked our stay at Assateague so we were happy to visit another National Seashore. The cost was very reasonable, $22 a night (w/e). It was a smaller campground but nicely maintained and the park host was very friendly. Kevin got in some good fishing by the boat launch and docks and even managed to get his grand slam (speckled trout, flounder and red drum in one day). There are a couple of short hiking trails and you can catch a couple of alligators in the marshy areas.
Rutherford Beach- Creole, Louisiana
This was our first boondocking experience on the beach. We found the site on Campendium (awesome resource to find campsites, read reviews etc). There were a lot of other rvs/vans/buses boondocking near us. It’s a pretty remote spot but we did have cell service.
There is a parking lot with dumpsters and porta potties which some RV’s parked in, there is also a beach road behind the dunes which is where we set up. Sand is hard packed so we had no issue. It was quiet and peaceful. We had pretty lousy weather (what else is new??) when we were there but still enjoyed it. And best of all IT’S FREE!
Bolivar Flats- Bolivar Peninsula Texas
This beach was amazing. We were able to drive right out onto the sand with no problem. We didn’t even unhook the Jeep before going out, the sand is so hard packed. We went down a way watching the high tide water line and parked with a perfect view of the water. Relaxing with the door open and just soaking in the salty air. The dogs had a blast here and as you can see, they were partial to the view too. While the beach did get a lot of visitors in the afternoon on the weekend, at night it was just us with one or two other RVers, so it was like having the place to ourselves. Listening to the waves made for an awesome nights sleep. We loved beach camping although the amount of sand that got tracked into Wanda was enough to make us crazy!
To stay on this beach you do need to purchase a permit which is $10 for the year (although since we went off season it was only $5). We picked up the permit at the Big Store on the way in. And we did take the Cameron Ferry for $1 to get there. I was a little concerned about how Wanda would handle that but it was so simple just drive on and drive straight off.
I think we have officially had our fill of beaches for a little while and are looking forward to a change of scenery to mountains and deserts.
What are your favorite Gulf Beaches to camp at?
By Ashley Quiambao
As we headed toward the panhandle, there were 3 stops along Florida's Nature Coast that we really wanted to see. Luckily, they are all pretty close to each other so we planned our route to stop at each one where we got to a experience a slightly different side of Florida.
Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River
First up on our list and what I was most excited about was Snorkeling with Manatees in Crystal River. While we couldn’t find an open RV site in Crystal River, (a common problem we have experienced in FL in January...I would complain about all the snowbirds but pot calling kettle and all that) we managed to get a spot at B’s Marina and Campground in Yankeetown, about 30 minutes away. B’s is a strange little place. The owners are very nice, the bathrooms are updated, clean, private and what almost brought us to tears (happy tears) was the BLAZING fast WiFi, seriously it's hands down the best internet we have had this trip. The sites are close together, there is absolutely nothing to do in Yankeetown, and our neighbors were kinda rowdy but it was available and we’d sacrifice a lot for good internet.
Anyway, we were very excited to add Manatees to our list of animals we've snorkeled with: Great White Sharks in South Africa ( we were in a cage off a boat and to be honest it was slightly terrifying), Dolpins in the Keys, Stingrays in the Caribbean.
So, after some research on different outfitters in the area, we decided to book a snorkel tour with Riverventures. They offer tours in the mornings starting at dawn through 1015 a.m. and again in the evening. Because of the cold snap we were experiencing, we decided to go with 915 tour, hoping it would be slightly more bearable in the water. The 915 was better than the 6am (when it was in the 30's), but it was still only in the 40’s, which generally does not encourage me to jump in the water. But when in Crystal River and all. The staff also told us that the colder temperatures would make our experience better as manatees are more likely to congregate and be active in the springs when it’s cooler out, there would be less people out braving the chilly weather and better news, the water is always between 72-74. It felt better in the water than it did on the boat.
The winter is the best time of the year to go snorkeling because a large population of manatees all come back to the springs for protection and warmth. During other seasons you might be able to catch one or two, but are much more likely to see more of them in colder temperatures.
After a really quick boat ride, we hopped into the water and saw a couple of manatees snoozing at the bottom of the spring. It was a good first introduction, because they really are quite large and it takes a few minute to get used to. They come up for air every so often and swam past us a couple times looking for a comfier place to nap. We hung out with 4 of them for a bit hoping they would wake up but it seemed they were more interested in sleep so we moved on to a different spot.
The second area had a bunch of Manatees who were much more active, they were eating, swimming around, spinning onto their backs and several came up to us to say hi. These ones were for some reason also MUCH larger than the first group. Manatees average about 1500+ lbs and can be bigger. We saw a female who was super pregnant, she was pretty intimidating because of her size. They are so sweet, friendly and gentle but let me tell you it’s kinda hard not to panic a bit when they swim right at you to you to say hello. They are pretty funny looking but they have what I think is a sweet puppy dog face. Not sure why they are called sea cows, they remind me much more of Elephants.
We really enjoyed our time swimming with these guys and thought Riverventures was great. The staff really friendly and clearly enjoy what they do. The wetsuits, snorkels and masks they provided were clean and in great condition. The tour cost $64 a person. We have already recommended this experience to a few people we know are passing through the area. The only thing I will say is we were told that the tours at dawn have the most active and interactive manatees and there are rarely any other people out in the water so it’s very quiet. So, if the temperature isn’t too chilly, waking up earlier is something I would consider.
Rainbow Springs State Park
This state park was a recommendation and we tried to reserve a campsite there, but it is a very popular camping spot. After exploring it, we can understand why. We spent an afternoon there with our dogs. It’s $2 a person to get in and all the trails are dog friendly (but they aren’t allowed on the docks or in the water). We first took a walk around the gardens, stopping at the waterfalls and then took the Yellow hiking trail which is a short 1.75 mile loop. There are a couple other trails as well but nothing over 2 miles. Kevin was disappointed that we didn’t come across any bears on our walk through the woods but I was relieved. It was a nice walk but nothing special to see.
The beauty and standout in the park is definitely the head spring, which is roped off with a dock and you can jump right in for a swim. The water is always about 72 degrees. You can also rent a kayak/canoe, snorkel or go tubing down the river. We had planned to come back another day so we asked about pricing for the kayaks which are $22 an hour. Unfortunately we weren’t in the area long enough and the weather didn’t cooperate so we couldn’t go back.
If you can get a campsite there, I would definitely jump at the opportunity, it’s quite beautiful and very different from some of the other Fl state parks we have stayed in.
Devil’s Den Prehistoric Spring
Devil’s Den is in Williston Florida. It is essentially a huge sinkhole that is fed by underground springs. It is a private scuba diving training facility but you can also go into the Den to snorkel. We were also happy to find out that they have a small campground area for RVs with full hookups for very reasonable rates.
Devil’s Den is kinda in the middle of nowhere, so besides the Den, there is not much around to do (there is a Botanical Garden next door that we went to, but we were disappointed as the whole lower level was flooded out and there was nothing really to see. We both felt it was a waste of money) Their campground is on the smaller side, so it wasn’t packed with RV’s which was nice and we had a little more room outdoors than we normally do at an RV park. But there was no bathhouse/showers near the RV’s and our internet (their Wifi and our own Verizon JetPack)/cell reception (T-Mobile) was really lousy so it had its pros and cons.
We stayed Thurs-Mon and we decided to snorkel on Friday. It is cheaper M-F than it is on the weekends. It is $15 per person to snorkel and an additional $10 per person if you are renting a snorkel, mask and fins. On Sat & Sun its $20 per person to snorkel and as we saw, the weekends are very crowded.
The experience of snorkeling is very strange (in a good way). There is normal ground that you are walking on in the main park area and then there is just a hole in the ground with a staircase leading down into the cavern, it really looks so out of place. We went down at about 230 p.m. and for a while we were the only ones down there, which was kinda eerie. It is about 50 feet down normally but there was about an extra 7 or so feet of water down there because of all the rain so even the main platform and stairs were all underwater. It’s about 72 degrees which is pretty chilly in a cold dark cavern without a wet suit. You just have to psych yourself up, jump in and let your body adjust.
Once you are in the water, you can see all these cool shapes and formations that the cavern walls and floors have and how it mushrooms out at the bottom. The main opening (not where the staircase is but deeper in) is beautifully draped with ferns and lets some rays of sunshine in which helps as it is pretty dark down there. I wouldn’t say it is a very exciting place to snorkel, besides a couple of fish and one turtle, there wasn’t really any marine life or anything to see and we enjoyed just swimming around exploring with our snorkels off more. Unfortunately we were having some technical issues with our GoPro so we didn’t get great photos. Overall, Devils Den is a unique and in a way other worldly place to take a swim, so it’s worth checking out if you are in the area.
We had a fun and adventure filled few days exploring some unique places on the Nature Coast. All 3 of these places are within an hour of each other and definitely worth a detour if you are passing through.
By Ashley Quiambao
Savannah, so many people recommended that we visit it on our travels and we were excited to see what all the buzz was about. My parents came for a visit and we got to spend a long weekend in an airbnb, which was a nice break from Wanda’s close quarters. Continuing our trend of bad luck with the weather, we had some wind, rain and cooler temps to contend with but we still had a great time.
We explored the town, did several tours and ate at several restaurants and came up with a list of our top picks of things to do and places to eat (all while I sang Savannah oh na-na, half of my heart is in Savannah oh na-na on a continuous loop in my head for our entire trip, totally wrong place but hey the song still works)
Anyway, here’s are our top 5:
Hop on Hop off Tour with Old Town Trolley Tours
As is our pattern, the first day we arrived in Savannah we took a hop on hop off tour to give us an overview of the city.
The historic district is made up of 22 squares and parks and the trolley tour goes around most of them. We got to hear stories of who the squares were named for, the war heroes memorialized in many of them and some interesting background on how the city was originally laid out.
Stops include: Forsyth Park, City Market, River Street, Ellis Square, Bull Street Corridor, Massie Heritage Museum, Davenport House, Bay Street, Ships of the Sea Museum, Madison Square, Cathedral of St John, Pirates House and the Exchange Bell. Check out a map here.
We got off at Forsyth to stroll through the park. The trees, the grounds, the statutes and the fountain are just beautiful...it’s a great spot to snap some pictures.
Our next hop off was at River Street. River Street is a row of of little boutiques, restaurants, candy shops and bars in
what used to be cotton warehouses along the Savannah River. We spent a while eating our way through the peanut
shop, Savannah’s Candy Kitchen and River Street Sweets. All this sugar obviously made us quite thirsty, so we had to
stop off for a cocktail at Vic’s on the River.
The tour is $33 for a 1 day tour but if you purchase online, you can get tickets for $29.70.
Bonaventure Cemetery Tour with Don
If you do only do one tour during your time in Savannah, I would hands down choose this one. While you can wander through the cemetery on your own, you will lose out on so much of Bonaventure’s interesting history, how it used to be a plantation but was later transformed into a cemetery, the interesting “marketing” tactics the original owner of the cemetery engaged in to get the upperclass residents of Savannah to purchase plots there and bios on its most notable residents.
All four of us enjoyed this tour so much and agreed it was the best thing we did in Savannah. A lot of that is due to Don. Don has a unique connection with the cemetery as his family is buried in it and he is a member of the Bonaventure Historical Society. He is a terrific storyteller and keeps your attention while giving you so much history and information. He doesn’t simply recite a script. He gives you accurate descriptions instead of the somewhat fanciful tales you may here on other tours (we passed another tour group, and I listened to the guide for a few minutes to compare and found it to be over the top in an effort to be more dramatic and spooky).
A really smart business tactic Don uses is that it’s a name your own price tour. After wandering through the beautiful cemetery (although it’s strange to call a cemetery beautiful, it truly is) for several hours with him listening to his lively dialogue, he allows you to choose the amount you pay. He leaves it up to the customer as to how much they can afford and what they think he deserves. I imagine he does very well this way. We were so impressed with him that we paid more than we had originally planned on. (And if our testimonial isn’t enough to convince you, he has plenty of outstanding reviews on tripadvisor)
You can find more information on Don and book his tour here
Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters
There are several house tours that you can take in Savannah but unfortunately there isn’t really a great package deal for them like we found in Charleston. But we knew we wanted to see the Owens-Thomas House and if you purchase that ticket for $20, the Telfair Academy and Jepsen Center are included.
The Owens-Thomas House is very unique. During the tour, you go through the mansion, gardens, carriage house and slave quarters. It was the only house tour we have done where we got to see preserved slave quarters, which definitely gives you a different perspective on what life must have been like back then. We were also all pretty shocked to find out that the Owens-Thomas house had indoor plumbing. It was built in 1819 and had two toilets, multiple sinks, 3 bathtubs and at least one shower. That was pretty wild for that time, the White House didn’t even have running water for drinking and bathing until 1833, that's 14 years later! Another interesting element is the bridge staircase, pretty fancy to have a bridge connecting the front and rear hallways of the second floor.
Tybee Boat Tour
Since we grew up on Long Island being near or on the water is always appealing to us. We took a 3 hour private boat tour with Sundial Charters called Little Tybee Unplugged. Our captain was Rene who was very knowledgeable about the area and accommodating. We had booked the boat trip and within 10 minutes of departing it was raining and pretty miserable so she took us back free of charge and we rescheduled for the following day. The boat trip works with the high tide to take you deep into the preserve, creeks and beaches. We saw pods of dolphins and all kinds of birds. We then landed on a beach and took a stroll along the water collecting shells and sand dollars. We had a really great time, even though it certainly was a bit chilly.
This tour cost $295.00. They also offer several other tours.
Alligator Soul Restaurant
This restaurant was a recommendation for us and we can understand why, our meal was outstanding! It's downtown near Telfair Square in what was once a grain warehouse so it’s a beautiful rustic setting. It is a farm to table fine dining restaurant. Our drinks, dinners and desserts were delicious. We had frog legs shrimp and grits, scallops, gumbo and a sweet potato pasta dish. There is a pretty large menu of traditional southern dishes as well as some eclectic and adventurous choices but they also cater to those who are gluten free and vegetarian/vegan. Check out their menu.
Green Truck Neighborhood Pub
This is a small casual pub with excellent burgers and delicious salads. Be prepared for a wait, it is a popular place and doesn't have too many tables but it's worth it.
So, that’s our roundup of must see and eats in Savannah, how did we do? Did we miss anything? Let us know.
By: Ashley Quiambao
We had been looking forward to our stop in Charleston, SC since we left NY, and it did not disappoint. It was the first stop we really felt the history and charm of the South. Despite two days of rain, we packed as much as we could into our long weekend.
So many people gave us great recommendations we didn't know where to start! One thing we like to do when getting to a new city with a lot of things to see is to take a walking tour to get our bearings. We knew Charleston would be a more expensive stop for us, so we tried to save $$ where we could and opted for a self-guided walking tour we found online by Free Tours by Foot (the audio tour for Charleston is only $1.99) So, we set out with our headphones and visited the 17 stops, while getting a great overview of Charleston's history. It helped orient us and we saw a lot of the popular destinations like Rainbow Row, the Four Corners of the Law, the Old Slave Mart Museum, and the Dock Street Theater.
Walking around the cobblestone streets, seeing the beautiful old architecture and colorful houses, the historic buildings and the battery waterfront had us quickly throwing around the idea of moving to Charleston.
There are so many houses, plantations and museums in Charleston to tour, and it can get pretty pricey. In doing our research we came across The Heritage Passport. Purchasing a passport gets you into: Middleton Place, Drayton Hall, the Edmondston-Alston House, Nathaniel Russell House, Aiken Rhett House, Joseph Manigault House, Heyward-Washington House, Gibbes Museum of Art and Charleston Museum. You can get a 2 day pass, 3 day pass or 7 day, we went with the 2 day for $62.95. Considering how costly each of these are individually (Middleton Place is $29, house tours are $12 each) if you plan on visiting a few, buying the passport is your best option.
As far as plantations, we went to Magnolia Plantation and Gardens (not part of the passport) and Middleton Place, both of which were so beautiful, even in the winter. Magnolia plantation has a romantic style garden, meaning it cooperates with nature and there is a relaxed flow to it, where Middleton place has more formal and shaped garden and "controls" nature. We can only imagine what they looks like in full bloom in the spring.
We walked the Magnolia Gardens on our own but at Middleton Place, they offer free walking tours at different times of the day which was great. Our guide explained all of the different types of flowers and trees like the camelias, crepe myrtles and azaleas; highlighted some of the different focal points of the gardens such as the lakes shaped like butterfly wings; and explained the reasoning and purpose behind the different designs in the gardens. The stable yards are also open and if you walk through you can get blacksmith and carpenter demonstrations.
We toured the Nathaniel Rogers House, Edmonston-Alston House, and the Joseph Manigault House. We like learning about the history and people much better with these types of tours rather than museums (We both tend to struggle a bit with museums, we get bored easily since there's no interaction and its harder to get a feel how life really was. So, we weren't impressed with the Charleston Museum). We found that the tour guides were very knowledgeable and were excellent story tellers. We were impressed with the free standing staircase at the Rogers house, the harbor view from the 2nd floor piazza of the Alston House and the spiral staircase and beautiful entrance way of the Manigault house. All three houses were slightly different styles of architecture and we were shocked by the detailed plaster work in each, it must have taken forever to do by hand.
The only other tour we did was the Haunted Old City Jail Tour with Bulldog Tours ($28 a person), which we recommend. It isn't any crazy haunted house stuff, but is a very interesting walk through a jail built in 1802, tales about some infamous criminals who were incarcerated there, a bit of history about the conditions and punishments prisoners experienced all in a pretty creepy environment.
We stopped in at Gin Joint for a drink. It's a bit hard to find, as its a small place and pretty tucked away on E. Bay Street. But if you are looking for a good old fashion or a unique cocktail, this is the spot. It has a 1920's vibe, and the bartenders take a lot of pride in what they create and whip up some pretty crazy drinks. Kevin opted for "The Corner Store", a seasonal take on an old fashion, and I went with Bartenders choice (I got a Haitian Divorce), both were delicious.
We splurged on two dinners, one at Magnolias and the other at Husk. Magnolias was our favorite, it was so good, true Southern comfort food at its finest. We started with boiled peanut hummus and for our entrees Kevin tried catfish and I had a roasted brussel sprout salad. We also had cornbread and an amazing pecan pie (we have eaten so many pecans since arriving in the south, it is becoming a problem). Husk was more of a fine dining experience, so it was pricier than Magnolias. We both really enjoyed our meals, I got a vegetarian platter and Kevin had shrimp and grits and a strip steak. Definitely expect to pay decent money for your meals in Charleston but the food is outstanding and definitely worth it.
Between the history, the tours, the beauty of the gardens, the grand old buildings, and the food, we really enjoyed our time in Charleston and would love to go back someday in the spring to see all of the gardens in bloom.
Have you been to Charleston, SC? Let us know your favorite parts!
By Ashley Quiambao
Traveling during the holidays can be tough. We miss our family, our friends and our traditions a little more. But we have discovered that it has also allowed us to experience the Christmas season in so many new ways. In fact, I think we may be a little more merry and bright since we are getting to see how so many other families, towns and places get into the holiday spirit. We have been able to slow down and focus more on the feeling of Christmas instead of being distracted running around shopping for presents.
One of the greatest celebrations, and probably the most amazing thing we have seen so far on our journey is The Night of A Thousand Candles at Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet, SC. I stumbled upon the event while researching stuff to do and Christmas events near our route. The event runs every Thursday through Sunday in December and tickets are $25. The pictures from prior years were really pretty and It seemed like a fun way to spend an evening but we weren't quite sure what to expect.
Simply put, it was spectacular, whoever designs the displays hats off, you did an amazing job. We walked around staring in wonder with huge smiles on our faces, a feeling quite obviously shared by everyone else there. Every direction you looked there are twinkling lights and soft glowing candles. Different areas had different themes from floating candles and wrapped live oak trees, to a rainfall of string lights, to a tent like display over a fountain, to a colorful and whimsical section, to hanging mason jars and Edison bulbs, to an enormous Christmas tree. We spent several hours walking around and even went through twice to make sure we didn't miss any of it.
Before they lit the big Christmas tree, they told us just how many candles and lights were on display. A whopping 4,442 handlit candles and over 1 million LED christmas lights. We can't even imagine how long it must have taken to set up or how long it takes the volunteers to light all the candles!!
"Christmas isn't a season, its a feeling"- that really rang so true for us walking around that wonderland. It gave you the same feeling you used to get as a kid on Christmas morning. So, if you are near Murrells Inlet or can make your way there for the holidays next year, please do yourself a favor and talk a stroll under the twinkling lights and experience some of the magic of Christmas.
By Ashley Quiambao
Our first stop was the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, which was about an hour drive from where we were staying. Unfortunately, the lighthouse was closed for climbing (it is off-season), so if you are visiting, make sure you check ahead of time. But we still enjoyed the drive along the Outer Banks National Scenic Byway. Since it's November, the drive was nice and quiet, and we got to take our time and enjoy the views of the coast, the beaches and all of the cute towns along the way. We even drove around some of the neighborhoods and did some house hunting.
We then took the girls on a short hike in Nags Head Wood Preserve. We chose the Roanoke trail, which is an easy 1.5 mile out and back trail. It starts off as a pretty typical walk through the preserve but then opens up onto a beautiful small beach with an awesome view of the Roanoke Sound. It was a really nice surprise. There were so many trees reaching out of the water and turned over on the sand and the roots were all entwined in crazy formations. It was moody and unexpected and led to an impromptu photo shoot. We just had to take advantage of the scenery!
Our last destination was Jockey's Ridge State Park. From our research we knew to time it so that we would be at the park on the dunes for sunset. What a unique landscape. Just a few steps from the parking lot and all of a sudden you are surrounded by huge dunes in every direction. It felt like we dropped into the middle of a desert. It really is a perfect place to watch the sunset and we lucked out with a gorgeous one! It's a popular place at that time of day, with good reason, so get there a little early to stake out a good spot.
We made the best of our short visit to OBX and discovered some pretty awesome places. So, whether you're passing through or spending some time there, make sure to drive out to the lighthouse, walk one of the trails at Nags Head Preserve and catch an amazing sunset on Jockey's Ridge.
By Ashley Quiambao
Our road trip through New Zealand was a bucket list trip for us. New Zealand has a ton of unique scenery, a lot of hiking, and plenty of outdoor activities, so it seemed like a perfect fit. But we were aware from the beginning that it was not going to be cheap, in fact it was one of our more expensive trips. With that in mind, we started to discuss planning the trip ourselves.
In the past, we have planned our own trips (albeit shorter and less complicated ones), worked with travel companies and worked with a travel agent for our South African wedding/honeymoon. Our experience using a travel agent was great, we were thrilled with the package she came up with and had an absolutely amazing trip. The downside of course, was the cost. Sometimes it is worth the splurge to have someone else plan and book everything, but we could not afford that luxury for our New Zealand vacation.
Now, planning a multi-stop international trip when you have no familiarity with the country or locations is a daunting task. Planning our trip to include both North and South Island and approximately 10 locations was extremely time consuming and a bit overwhelming. I spent hours and hours researching places to visit, where to stay, things to do and how to get there. In the end, I came up with a pretty good process for planning and organizing the trip, a method I will definitely use for future adventures. Hopefully, it will help save you some time and $$ as well!
Step 1: Research! Spend a lot of time researching the location, the best time of the year to travel, the weather, different areas you want to visit, the culture of the country, the conversion rate (this is SO important, you need to know how far your money will go) and search for activities that suit you and your travel style.
Step 2: Make a list of all of the places you want to visit/stay and what activities you want to do. Now, this may be quite a lengthy list, so consider how many days you have and how much traveling you want to do. Depending on whether you want a more adventurous trip or more relaxing trip, you will probably need to trim this list down to what is an absolute must for you.
Our list was very long and we did not do such a great job trimming it down, but our travel style is pretty much GO GO GO, see everything and do everything. We usually come home more exhausted than when we left, but that’s what we love.
Step 3: Get a map and pin every location you plan to stop at. This will help you determine if there are any outliers or out of the way stops that need to be eliminated. This will also give you an idea of where to start the trip and the most convenient order to follow to get to the rest of the destinations.
This visual was so helpful for me! I was not sure where we should fly into and what direction everything was. By looking at the map of New Zealand I was able to orient myself to where things were and decide that we should fly into Auckland first (the northernmost location we were stopping at) and then drive south through the country all the way to our last stop in Queenstown. I was also able to plan the best driving routes and minimize our time in the car by assuring there was no doubling back or driving out of the way.
Step 4: Determine how many days and nights in each location. Search for and make reservations for places to stay. Be creative with this! We’ve stayed at everything from a working farm to a tiny house. Vacation is the perfect time to experience new things, so don’t be afraid to trade in the typical hotel room for some out of the box accommodations.
A huge way we saved money was by renting apartments, baches, and even tiny houses through Airbnb and New Zealand’s own rental sites like bookabach.com (interesting tidbit, the word “bach” means a small holiday home or beach house in New Zealand). I had a budget in mind for each night and limited my search parameters to that price range. I was pleasantly surprised at the availability of rentals in each location. Word of advice here, beyond looking at availability, price and the condition of the places, make sure you carefully review the listings for any musts as far as amenities (our Auckland apartment had no A/C and the windows did not open, which was an uncomfortable mistake to make in the middle of the summer).
Before booking the rentals, I checked local hotel rates to make sure renting through private owners was the best way to go. I couldn’t find many options in our price range that weren’t dated or in inconvenient locations. When I compared hotels that were of the same quality of the apartments and houses I found, I was honestly shocked at how much we would be saving. Plus, the ability to have a kitchen and cook some of our own meals was definitely another cost saving bonus.
Step 5: Book and plan specific activities you want to do.
One of our favorite things to do is hike, which luckily is a relatively cheap hobby. In New Zealand, there are a lot of beautiful hikes and other activities you can do for free as there are no fees for most of the trails, parks, and beaches. But, New Zealand is also the adventure capital of the world, so there are also plenty of unique and expensive activities too. We chose plenty of free activities and some more expensive tours such as a heli-hike, a scenic flight and boat tour to an active volcano. For us, these tours were absolutely worth the extra cost and mixing and matching these activities helped keep our budget on track.
Step 6: Celebrate because you just saved yourself a ton of money!
Even after all our stops, activities and tours, planning the NZ trip on our own saved us around FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS!! I know this because during my planning I started to wonder if all of the time and effort was worth it. So, I contacted several travel agents and asked for proposed itineraries, which included every location and activity on our list. The proposals that I got back were outrageous! We would have had to cut out several stops and tours to stay within our budget. While every country and trip is different, it was clearly in our best interest financially to plan our New Zealand trip on our own. The time sacrificed in the planning process paid us back tenfold because we we were able to stay everywhere we wanted and had the flexibility to do more activities.
I hope I inspired some of you to act as your own travel agent and use the above roadmap next time you have multiples stops on your itinerary or are looking for ways to save some money on vacation. I am sure that your wallet will thank you!
By Ashley Quiambao