Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Trip 15: Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve and Yellow Bluff Fort Historic State Parks

State Parks visited: 14

Chris is back!  Chris is back!  He is mostly recovered from his injury and is finally able to hit the trails with us again!  We were so happy for Chris and excited to have him back with us, that we decided to go for a hike.  Our adventure, on Sunday, led us (Rob, me, Olivia, Chris, andRandy) to the great city of Jacksonville and two of the 7 or so state parks that exist there.

Our first stop was Pumpkin Hill Creek Preserve State Park.  Whew!  They sure know how to name them, huh?  Anyway, Pumpkin Hill was once used in the turpentine industry, but now has 5 miles of trails and the namesake creek available for interested visitors.  We opted to take a short hike, the 1.3 mile blue trail, and added an additional .75 mile to it by taking the green trail to the creek.  Let me tell you, without much tree cover, it was hot!!  We also had sugar sand to deal with.

A few other trail highlights:

Not too long afterward, we neared the creek.  The sugar sand was replaced with marsh grass, which was just about knee high:

The struggle to get through it was rewarded with a big pay-off once we got to the creek.  It was beautiful!!

We even got to see hundreds of cute little marsh crabs, which were no bigger than my thumbprint:

Soon afterward we began the return trip down the trail.  Pumpkin Hill has an extensive trail system, yet I got the feeling we only scratched the surface.  This park did not take on a personal tone for me, and I'm not sure if it was from the heat or something else.  Maybe it was this guy:

Nah, golden orb weavers don't bother me. 

From here we made it back to the car, and then we headed to Little Talbot Island State Park.  Not to visit, honestly, but to get the stamps for our books.  We didn't even pay gate admission; We told the ranger what we were there for, and he handed me his stamps and told me to go to town.  Afterwards we went to Yellow Bluff Fort Historic State Park.

I can't even show you a picture of the official state park sign, because there was none.  This has to be the oddest little state park I've ever been to.  It is in the middle of a run-down residential area, and if you aren't careful you'll park in the driveway of a private residence.  Still, it's a state park!  In fact, Yellow Bluff Fort was never actually a fort, but a fortified encampment used by both the Union and Confederate troops during the Civil War.  I'm not exactly sure what differentiates between a fort and a fortified encampment, really.  All I know is, we went there and had a great picnic lunch!

This park is small, only 1.3 acres.  There are several cannon on display, a few picnic tables, a memorial, and not much else.  And that's okay, really.  We wandered around and took in the beautiful trees and clear sky.

And that was pretty much it.  After lunch and wandering we made a stop at Gander Mountain.  And then...home.  Like I mentioned earlier, these parks didn't really leave me with special memories.  Don't get me wrong...we spent a lovely, albeit hot, day with our great friends.  And Chris being better made it even sweeter.  Still, these weren't my favorite parks to visit.  And the great thing about that is, that's all part of the adventure.  Sometimes you get a dud.  But we're still going to get out there and see what else this great state has to offer us.

And maybe then....

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Trip 14: Big Lagoon, Perdido Key, and Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Parks

State Parks visited: 12

A couple of months ago we started discussing branching out and visiting state parks that are further away.  Chris had already visited the southernmost parks, the northernmost are only a couple of hours from here, and the westernmost seemed like the best place to start.  Rob and Chris's work schedules would be easing up after the July races, and we decided mid-July would be the best time for our visit.  I scheduled a vacation day from work and began planning the details of our Friday-Sunday visit.

We decided to camp at Big Lagoon State Park in Pensacola.  It is close to two other state parks, Perdido Key and Tarkiln Bayou Preserve, and we thought it would be a great central location.  Our plan was to try and find some way to assist with the oil cleanup efforts in the Panhandle while also visiting the state parks.  We wanted to show Olivia how important it is to protect our environment and its beauty.  Unfortunately, 6-year-olds aren't allowed to get the proper certifications for oil cleanup, and we had other difficulties trying to...of all things...volunteer.  Plus, Chris was still on the injured reserve and ended up not being able to make the trip with us.  Xandra, who had paddled the Alexander Springs run with us not too long ago (tantrum, anyone?), wanted to join us instead, and so we began what is now known as Camp XPOR TedKroh.

Our first actual stop was the city of Orange Beach, Alabama, and Gulf State Park.  The first two beach pictures are from there.  We completed the requirements for an earthcache while waiting to be able to check in to our campsite.  This is where we got our first glimpse at the effects of the oil spill.  Tar balls were very present at the beach, and I could smell something in the air.  Although the beach was closed to swimming, families (with small children!!) were still playing in the water.  It made me sick.

Pretty soon it was time to leave Alabama behind and check in.  Big Lagoon is just that...on a lagoon, protected by a barrier island.  It is mostly scrub and still manages to get an ocean breeze.  Our campsite was quiet and had afternoon shade, so we weren't complaining.  We set up our tents, grilled up some veggie burgers and chicken dawgs, and even had a visitor:

Man, the locals sure are friendly!  He even came back in the middle of the night to give Xandra a goodnight kiss!

Saturday morning came with my own personal victory:  I finally succeeded in making campsite pancakes!  My first attempt, on our first camping trip, were not edible.  Now I have some good Lodge cast iron and a great set-up:

After visitor-proofing our site we made our way to Perdido Key State Park.  It is not much more than a stretch of beach, boardwalk, and restroom facility, but it is still beautiful.  And yet, we still couldn't go in the water.  A few photo highlights:

We left Perdido Key and made a quick trip back into Alabama for provisions.  From there we went to Tarkiln Bayou Preserve State Park.  It has a couple of walking trails, a few geocaches, and is home to a rare type of pitcher plant.

After finding a geocache near the parking area...and many thanks to Xandra for getting it loose of its hiding spot...we hit the trail.  A little ways down the trail is a geocache geared toward kids, so we let Olivia go find it:

A few other highlights:

After Tarkiln Bayou we went back to camp.  Bathing suits were donned and eventually we made our way to the Big Lagoon beach.  First we made a stop at the observation tower:

The beach spot we chose was quiet.  There were a few families around, but we were spread out and had our own area to play in.  The water was only about calf-deep and very warm, so it was a little weird to us.  It was also full of hermit crabs, which we had great fun playing with:

And then Rob found a tar ball in the water.  The park ranger, when we checked in, was adamant that the Big Lagoon beach was free from danger since it has a barrier island, but I'm afraid she was wrong.  *sigh*

Back to Camp XPOR TedKroh and dinner: shepherd's pie, made in my Dutch oven with just some hot coals.  It was great!  After dinner we took a walk down a trail near our site.  A few photos from that walk:

Sunday.  Homeward bound.

And finally, what would visit to three state parks be without stamps?

Three days. Three parks.  Three different experiences.  No, a lifetime of experiences, really.  We relaxed, joked around, frolicked, and let go.  But also, we saw an environmental catastrophe that left us saddened. It also left us with a sense of hope.  The next generation cares, I've discovered. 

She told me so.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Trip 13: Lake Louisa State Park

State Parks visited: 9

Have you ever felt a true sense of accomplishment?  Coupled with adventure, intrigue...and pirates?  I won't divulge too many details of the pirate adventure I am speaking of, since we plan on taking part in it again at a later time.  However, I will tell you this:  It led us to Lake Louisa State Park on Saturday.  And while we achieved our goals of being out of the house and getting a stamp in our book, we achieved far more than that. 

Lake Louisa is the largest of 6 lakes in the park, which is located in Clermont.  Some of you may remember our last trip, in which I took Olivia to pick blueberries in Clermont.  Same city, just several miles...and a whole world...apart. Just driving through the gates  and down the winding roads was breathtaking.  Florida is mostly flat, right?  Well, in Clermont, we're treated to rolling hills and stunning vistas.  It is the closest thing Floridians have to mountains, if you don't count Space, Splash, and Thunder.

Our first stop on the adventure was the shoreline.  Here we completed the requirements for an earthcache.  We wandered around as well, assessing the picnic areas and water recreations.  There are different types of camping available at the park, and coming back for a stay is now a definite consideration of ours.  And for a Saturday afternoon in the hot Florida summer, the lake wasn't crowded at all.

Pretty soon we were ready to get down to the business of our visit....arrggh, matey!  We loaded up our gear and hit the trail for a hike.  We did some geocaching as well, and ran into the 'locals' quite often:

A few other trail highlights:

That last picture did not appear to be a victim of any nefarious tortoise-cide.  In fact, we came across 5 or 6 sets of bones while hiking, and even more burrows.  It appears the park is quite popular with gopher tortoises, however, the only wildlife we saw was a squirrel.

So, again without getting into specifics, we came to the point where we attempted to reap great rewards in a pirate adventure.  The solution to the grand puzzle was solved, and you would have thought Rob and I won the lottery, we were so giddy.  Our excitement was short-lived, since we were unfortunately not the first to reach the solution, but it was also not replaced with sadness.  In fact, we came away with a great sense of pride.  We did it, and on our own merits.  And that, to me, is extremely exciting as well.

Confused yet?  Moving on....

And so after our adventure we did some more geocaching and hiking:

That last picture falls into the category of taking pictures of people who aren't there.  In this case, Rob has his arm around an imaginary Chris, who was unable to join us due to a recent injury.  It was weird not having him there, for sure.  We did keep him updated on our mission, though, and it was great knowing we had someone we could trust and share our excitement with.

Pretty soon we were back at the car and ready to call it a day.  The sun was getting low on the horizon and we were all hungry.  Before leaving, though, we made a tour of the park grounds and saw the different camping areas.  There are some new cabins with a gorgeous view of Dixie Lake, and I'd consider spending a relaxing weekend hanging out there.

Lake Louisa State Park is now so many things to me, and foremost it is a place to return to.  We had a great adventure there.  And while we did not reach the goal we were aiming for, I think we veered off course and reached one much higher.  We had fun together as a family.  We shared an experience that brought a twinkle to our eyes and laughter to the quiet surrounding us.  We didn't fail...we just succeeded at something else.