RV camping: Florida Everglades National Park

If visiting Florida was therapy for my unfounded fears, RV camping in the Florida Everglades National Park was to be my culminating coronation. The reoccurring theme in my Florida fear rehabilitation was that becoming familiar with something new is often the best antidote to overcoming a fear of it.

RV camping in the Florida Everglades National Park

Was this a bad idea?

While I’d failed to have a bad National Park experience thus far, I was open to the possibility that this might be my first. The rumors of mosquitoes, thick like clouds combined with the seemingly dangerous, if not deadly, animal population was enough to make me second guess our sanity.

Thankfully, once again, I was shown the error in my thinking and my preconceived notions were corrected and realigned. What I’d previously overlooked or even discounted as irrelevant swampland, I now understand to be a unique and vital part of our country’s ecosystem. Perhaps you are curious to know what it’s like to visit the Florida Everglades National Park in your RV. Here is my quick rundown:

The everglades wildlife

In my opinion, seeing wildlife in its natural habitat is always far superior to a view in a zoo. While in Florida, our family had already felt blessed to be able to see alligators, stingrays and sea turtles in the wild. Our hopes were high but our expectations of viewing an American crocodile, manatee or dolphin while in the Florida Everglades National Park was pretty low.

We were therefore overjoyed to view multiple crocodiles sunning themselves in plain view just a short walk from to the visitor center. We also saw both alligators and crocodiles on our ranger led canoe trip (more on that below). Two days later we were treated to an up close and personal view of several manatee in the marina near the visitor center. The following day, several bottlenose dolphins were swimming in the bay and we could easily see them cresting as they made their way across the Gulf. In addition to these new-to-us viewings we also enjoyed sightings of many bird species including Coots, Pelicans, Osprey, Turkey Vultures, Egrets and the Great Blue Heron.

Everglades Ranger led talks & activities

One of my favorite aspects of the National Park system are the ranger led activities. The number of talks, walks and tours available in the Florida Everglades National Park amazed us. During our stay they offered a free 3.5-hour morning guided canoe trip, daily 30-minute afternoon talks and a one-hour program every other evening. They also offered bird walks, tropical tree walks as well as a ranger led car caravan.

We attended many of the 30-minute talks with subjects ranging from the American crocodile to manatees, hurricanes and pythons (which, not to freak you out, have basically exploded in number to such a degree that authorities are now simply hoping to contain them from spreading throughout the entire Southeastern United States). . .

On a lighter note, we also participated in the morning canoe trip as well as an evening program.

While on our morning canoe trip we were able to silently paddle past a handful of lazy alligators and crocodiles (did you know this is the only place in the world where the two co-exist in the same habitat?) while navigating around and under the low laying branches of the red mangrove trees. I did my best to maintain a calm veneer as we proceeded through placid waters welcoming top-of-the-food-chain predators. I took my cue from the calm ranger and just kept paddling. . .

Stopping from time to time, the ranger pointed out various aspects of the vegetation or delicate eco-system around us. We marveled not only at the surrounding beauty, but the fact that this unique tour was offered free of charge.

I highly recommend taking advantage of as many of the ranger led activities as possible during your stay. You can click here for more details on their schedule. In addition, there are also paid boat tours available which can take you north deeper into the Everglades or south into the Gulf of Mexico. We didn’t participate in any of these tours, but the accessible availability was appealing to many visitors to the park.

Rv camping in the Florida Everglades

RV sites in the Flamingo campground within the Everglades Park were $30/night for the 41 electric hook-ups sites. A water and dump station is available on-site. The bathrooms were clean. Most of the showers are solar heated. We mistakenly choose the non-heated bathhouse and found the water temperature to be quite “refreshing”. Once we made a point to look for the buildings with the large solar panels (on the last day of our stay), we rejoiced in a very comfortable water temperature. There is an outdoor sink on one side of the bathrooms for dishes if needed.

If you can snag an RV site right next to the shower house and have an extra long water hose, you may be able to get water. However, the sites next to the bathrooms do not have electricity so you will be forced to choose between the two. Our RV is 41′ long and we could have comfortably fit into any of the sites offered (they were ALL pull-through)  which is a really wonderful plus for a National Park! Although, the quality of this photo is not high, it may give you a feel for the open ease of access.

rv camping florida everglades national park

If you are willing to boondock, there are many sites available but the number of electric sites are limited. We reserved our site online several months in advance because we were not sure how fast they would fill up. Initially we reserved two weeks. Later, we canceled one of those weeks in order to visit the Keys. In the end, we felt that one week was plenty of time for our family to enjoy the park at a laid-back pace. You can find more details about the Flamingo Campground here.

Everglades National Park Travel notes:

Tours and education

-The 3.5 hour ranger led canoe trip is free and for ages 10 and up. Ages 14 and up may paddle. Reservations are expected. You can reserve your spot in the visitor center. It was expected that both paddlers be from the same party/family. One underage (10-13) rider may sit between the two paddlers in the middle of the canoe. Surprisingly, mosquitoes were practically non-existent due to fish eating up the larvae. This made for an unexpectedly pleasant bug-free morning. I highly recommend this tour.

The Jr. Ranger program at the Florida Everglades National Park requires 4 pages to be completed regardless of age. You can ask for ranger packets at the visitor center, park entrance or even when checking in to your camping site. Or if you really want to be ahead of the curve, click here and print your own copy! Activities in the booklet are not difficult and there were many to choose from.

Transportation

-Bikes were a plus for our stay. We used them on several occasions to ride to the nearby visitor center (about 1.5 miles from the campground) or the beach (think clay, not sand) although we could have easily used the car.

The Flamingo RV campground is about 38 miles past the entrance of the park. Although the town of Homestead is just outside the Everglades Park, it will take you at least 45 minutes (one way) to drive there. We planned ahead and did our grocery shopping for the week before arriving so that we would not have to leave the park for food. Speaking of food, there is a small restaurant at the Flamingo visitor center (the one by the RV park). We never ate there but that is an option if you want to make use of it.

Communication

-We currently use Verizon and Wi-Fi within the park was non-existent for us. However, I’ve heard that people with AT&T were able to get service. There is free Wi-Fi at the visitor center. The visitor center closes at 4:30 each day but the doors remain unlocked and you can access the Wi-Fi both within the building our just outside of it. We took the opportunity to decompress from our devices and found our week without Internet to be a welcomed change.

Mosquitoes and other things that bite

-Mosquitoes were the main drawback to our stay in the Everglades. Come equipped with good bug spray. During the dry season (from December-April) you will find the mosquito numbers to be most favorable. Keep in mind that “favorable” is a loosely used term. Although our stay was technically during the dry season, we are told it has been wetter than normal this year, which meant more mosquitoes than average. We did our best to avoid being outdoors until mid-morning and then again retreated into our RV around sunset. During those early morning and late afternoon periods of time the number of mosquitoes felt laughable to this Idaho girl. However, even for my mid-west man, the levels were irksome. That said, from mid-morning until late afternoon most days quite pleasant. There was often a slight breeze and we could enjoy our time outside in the sun with little interaction with mosquitoes.

-Although personal safety due to wildlife was an initial concern, I can honestly say that I never felt we were in danger (even while gliding past alligators in our canoe). Having a ranger with us on our tour may have had a lot to do with that. However, I was reminded that although wildlife can be dangerous, as long as we give them adequate space and respect their young, it is possible to enjoy the same space without fear.

Outside perspective

-A friend and fellow full-time RVer wrote a good review of her time in the Everglades over at Barry Good Times. Her family only had time for a one day visit and they explored a different part of the Everglades than we did so I thought you might enjoy reading her take on the park as well.

How about you? Have you been to the Florida Everglades National Park? If so, what was your experience? If not, do you plan to go in the future? Why or why not?

The National Park Jr. Ranger Program

What is the Jr. Ranger Program?

The National Park Jr. Ranger program has been a fun way for our kids to go a little deeper into the history or science behind the National Parks we visit.

Participation involves completing a predetermined number of pages within a Jr. Ranger booklet (provided at the visitor center). Some activities may include watching a video, going on a hike, observing nature, drawing a picture or attending a Ranger led program. Upon completion of the booklets, Jr. Rangers raise their right hand and are sworn-in by promising to protect the National Park system, obey their parents or eat their vegetables (it all depends on the personality of the ranger on duty). Finally, a free badge and certificate of completion is awarded and there are smiles all around.

Our experience with the Jr. Ranger program

Our daughter (11) has been participating in the Jr. Ranger Program through the National Park system for a few years. Our younger two (5 and 7) have recently joined her. In our family, a green ranger vest is awarded once five badges have been earned. Now all three of them show up vested and ready for serious park business when we enter a new visitor center. Call me crazy but there is something seriously cute about seeing these three walk around all vested up with badges clinking.

National park Jr. Ranger pros:

  • With the exception of the Smoky Mountains National Park (which charged a few dollars per book), all ranger booklets have been free. Small pencils are typically provided as well, however this is not always the case (Mt. Rushmore did not), so it is good to keep a few extra in the car just in case.
  • Activities in the books often provide a great overview of the park. Details about what make the park unique are often presented in an age appropriate way.
  • The Park Rangers have been very kind, supportive and encouraging to our children at all of the parks we have visited.
  • Our older son almost opted to participate with the plan to sell his newly earned badges on eBay for a profit. We noticed that Jr. Ranger badges can sell for around $5-$8 so if you have a budding entrepreneur this might be the angle that intrigues them most!

national park Jr. Ranger cons:

  • Depending on the length of time we have to visit a park, we have occasionally felt almost enslaved to the completion of the booklets, especially if the required number of pages is on the upper end and our time in the park is on the lower end. I therefore really appreciate parks that say “complete as many pages as you like” in order to qualify.
  • Some of the pages are more along the lines of what I would consider to be “busy work”. For example, some children really enjoy word searches but I don’t consider them to be highly educational and yet they seem to be a very popular inclusion in the booklets.

national park Jr. Ranger tips:

  • If you have multiple children, try paring up youngers with olders to help work on the booklets. Most booklets are geared for ages 4-12 however all ages are welcome and even adults can participate. I recently heard from one mom who has been earning badges right along with her kids and said that made all the difference in their motivation.
  • I recently learned that the Jr. Ranger booklets are typically able to be accessed on the National Park’s website and printed off at home. This could prove to be very useful if our time in a park is going to be short and some activities could be completed ahead of time.
  • Keep in mind that if you don’t complete your booklets before you exit the park, you can mail them in. A ranger will review your child’s booklet and send their badge in return. We have not done this yet but have heard positive things from others who have–including a hand written note of congratulations from the ranger and some fun extras!
  • Ranger vests cost about $35.00 but we’ve found that this varies by a few dollars depending on the park. I’ve also noticed that not all parks carry every size on hand at all times. In addition to that, most parks don’t have sizes that accommodate children much older than 10. Therefore, if you are hoping to purchase a vest for an older child, keep your eye out at each visitor center gift shop and perhaps check on eBay for a used vest.
  • Purchasing an $80 America the Beautiful annual pass is a great value if you are going to be visiting several parks in a year. However, it might be worth researching ahead of time the entrance fee of parks you plan to visit. We’ve been surprised at how many parks have been free. In general it’s the larger National Parks that charge an entrance fee while a lot of the National Monuments and Landmarks that we have visited have been free.
  • If you have a 4th grader, be sure to take advantage of the Every Kid in a Park program. During your child’s 4th grade year your entire car load of family and friends can visit ANY participating National Park for free by simply filling out the form online and printing your pass ahead of time (homeschoolers are eligible as well)!

Still hungry for more?

  • In doing research for this post, I discovered a neat WebRanger program that allows your child to explore parks remotely and participate in a variety of activities in different degrees of difficulty.

How about you? Have your kids tried out the Jr. Ranger program? What has your experience with it been? What have been your favorite National Parks to visit?

The lavish lure of the Smoky Mountains

The stage is set. All of nature has been waiting with breath held for this, this moment in time, this blink of history. As the sun rises the show begins; grand in entrance, yet quietly dripping with elegance, she pierces through the curtain of foliage like a bugle sounding her battle cry.

smokeymountains
On the road to Clingmans Dome (highest spot in the Smokies)

Standing at attention with stately brilliance, row upon row of attentive trunks swell their breasts with pride as they lift their branches in unabashed arrogance against the backdrop of the pale sky. “Look here!” they cry. “Gaze upon me!” they plead.

smokey-mountains
The view from Clingmans Dome in the Smoky Mountains National Park

And we do, we cannot look away, our eyes are fixed, our faces set against the sky, pulling the view close, attempting to etch it into our memory with frail focus. For we know that this moment is fleeting. Like a whisper it will come and go. Like the Smoky mist, it will slowly become obscured, crowded out by more pressing persuasions. Perhaps that is part of the lavish lure of it all. So we cast our longing glances, capture, click and sigh knowing that when the curtain closes on the day, we didn’t miss the show–we were part of it.

2,200+ miles and still alive

In college I drove 279 miles from Spokane, WA to Seattle, WA alone. I remember turning up the music full blast, rolling down my window and eventually pulling over numerous times to jump around on the side of the road in an attempt to wake myself up. In our early years of marriage, there were a few times that I offered to drive on a long trip to relieve Trent when he was getting sleepy. I never lasted more than 30 minutes before he needed to take over again for fear that I would be the one to fall asleep. Therefore, you may understand when I say I had a legitimate concern about driving the van on this trip. “We may die or at the very least, we may arrive a week later than expected due to frequent stops to wake myself up,” I reasoned.

At the beginning of the trip, I did struggle. Montana worked out okay, partially because I was on an adrenaline high from beginning our adventure. However, South Dakota was harsh. My mind was turning to mush out there on the prairie and was threatening to blow away my focus like the tumbleweeds. By the time we arrived in Minnesota, Trent and I were having serious discussions about leaving the van at his parent’s house and simply continuing together as a family in the truck. This option would be doable, but not ideal. Having a second vehicle gives us freedom and flexibility. We can easily leave the truck and RV at the registration desk at a campground, jump in the van together and scout out the best RV site without having to navigate the truck and RV around the countless loops. Once we are parked at a campground, we can use the van for day-trips. Should the truck (or van) have issues, we are not without a second back-up vehicle . . . However, none of these options matter if I can’t stay awake.

Somehow a little miracle happened. This last Thursday I drove 256 miles, stopping just one time so Trent could gas up. I could have kept going! My driving muscles seem to have slowly strengthened with each passing mile. Is that possible? Perhaps more probable is that the landscape has grown increasingly more interesting as we’ve traveled. Thursday was no exception. We left Indiana in the morning and arrived in Virginia by mid-afternoon. It was slightly mind blowing to leave the mid-west and arrive in the east-coast in a matter of hours. Driving through the state of Kentucky was a treat. The distant hillsides were filled with tremendous texture as the hardwoods heralded their splendor, intermingling color and shape and size. Closer to the road we were treated to picturesque views of fenced green meadows with grazing horses. Who could possibly fall asleep while seeing this for the first time?

falltrees

As we arrived at our campground location in the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, we felt doubly blessed to be situated in such a lovely location for a portion of our trip designed for downtime.

cumberland-gap-campsite

After enjoying a slow start to our morning and completing our school goals, we ventured out to the ranger station for the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. After our three youngest finished their Junior Ranger booklets and received their new badges, we ventured up to the pinnacle overlook. From this location we were able to take in a breathtaking view of the Appalachian Mountains and see where the three states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia come together at the top of a nearby ridge. We could also locate the Cumberland Gap where between 1175-1810, 300,000 settlers traveled after Daniel Boone helped clear a trail for their travels. The kids hurled countless acorns over the side of the viewing platform, but no matter how hard they tried, the acorns kept landing in Virginia.

cumberland-gap

Fact: I’ve now driven over 2,200 miles.

Fact: I’ve been the only adult in the vehicle.

Fact: I have had at least 3 of the 4 kids with me at all times.

Fact: We are all still alive.

Let’s celebrate!

 

Travel details:

  • Cumberland Gap National Historic Park has no admissions fee.
  • Camping is $20 for a site with electricity and $10 without. There is no water or sewer. Camping is first come, first serve with no reservations.
  • They have a lot of sites but many of them are too uneven or too short to work for our 40-foot RV so this was a time in which we appreciated having our van along to help us scout out where we wanted to go.
  • Despite the fact that we arrived mid-week, nearly all the sites with electricity were full. We ended up staying at a non-electric site. The public bathroom and showers are very clean.
  • The camp hosts were friendly, quick to welcome us and fill us in on the details of the park.
  • We spent about 1 ½ hours at the ranger station. If we were not helping kids with their Jr. Ranger booklets we would likely have been there 45-60 minutes.
  • There are Gap cave tours available for $8/adult, $4/child (ages 4-12). These book up early so plan at least a day in advance. We opted not to do a tour here as we recently did a cave tour in South Dakota (Jewel Cave) and plan to visit one again in a few weeks (in the Mammoth Cave area).
  • There are many hiking trails in the area as well.