sunset in crystal river

State Sign Challenge: Florida

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It’s that time again.  Time for another state sign challenge.  Annie and I reused our Halloween costume of a SCUBA diver and shark.  Only this time we were at least near sea level rather than in the mountains and seems appropriate for the State of Florida.

Florida is known as the shark attack capital of the world and accounts for more than half of the total shark attacks in the USA each year.  But please don’t let that statistic scare you given, the percentage of people swimming in Florida waters year-round probably far outweighs most other states.  Not to mention, I’m a firm believer that most animals, including sharks, don’t hunt humans for the heck of it like the media portrays.

Anyway, we found the sign near Gulf Shores, Alabama, which I visited on my way back to Texas, so stay tuned for that post. Let’s see your state sign photos (taken safely)!

florida state sign

Visiting Florida

Upon leaving Texas for my three month journey through the southeast, I planned on spending a month in Florida, a month in Alabama, and a month in Mississippi.  Boy how that changed!! More on that in the trials and tribulations section.

I ended up spending seven weeks in Florida and driving 3,060.9 miles within its borders while diesel prices soared.  At least I was paying conservative state prices rather than liberal state prices.  Though we are still the lucky ones, not having to flee our homes due to war.

Of my seven weeks in Florida, I only spent four of them exploring (some of that was due to my trials and tribulations and some was due to the chance to show a horse). I went with the goal of checking out small towns in the South and visited the following places: Ocala, Mount Dora, Jupiter, Wellington, Naples, Fort Myers, Pine Island, and Cape Coral, Sanibel Island, Venice, Dunedin, White Springs, and Seaside. Most of the time, I only spent a day or two in each location which was a little fast for my liking.  This situation was my own doing, as I could have slowed things down, but I had a timeline which avoided spring break in Florida.

Camping in Florida

That said, camping in Florida requires a plan.  Many of the campgrounds and RV locations are reserved a year in advance, and boondocking is hard to come by.  As a result, I spent several nights in Walmart and Cracker Barrel parking lots.  I also stayed at a few Harvest Hosts locations, a few city lots, the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, as well as a couple of trailheads.  None of these places were terribly conducive to my outdoor shower set up!  Fortunately, many Florida beaches have showers, albeit cold.

While I have stayed many times at Walmart, it was my first time to try Cracker Barrel.  I have to give them props for their shaded areas made specifically for RVs.  I learned to park away from the trash bins with midnight pickups, and the sprinklers that go off around 5am.  The remarkably aggressive spray cleaned off VANgo but woke up Annie!

Of the above, I really liked the trailhead locations, as they were at least located in nature.  I stayed at the 7 Mile Loop trailhead in Crystal River as well as the Florida Trailhead near Medart off a sandy road named Carraway Cutoff.  These were nice because we could walk the trail early and let Annie off leash without folks around. 

florida trail

Dog Beaches in Florida

In fact, there were very few places in Florida where dogs could be off leash.  Most were dog beaches, small in area.  They work great for dogs who like chasing balls into the waves.  Unfortunately, Annie didn’t fit that bill and had limited room to run. 

The best dog beach we visited by far was on Jupiter Island.  Dogs can be on or off leash on this 2.5 mile stretch of white sand which is great as long as off leash dogs respond well to voice recall. Otherwise off leash and on leash dogs don’t always mix well. Other places we tried were in Venice and Bonita Beach Dog Park north of Naples.

Annie on jupiter beach

Hikes in Florida

While traveling in the west last summer (Idaho, Washington, Colorado, and New Mexico), I reported on my favorite hikes.  Florida’s hikes didn’t compare, but I did enjoy Highlands Hammock State Park as well as Big Shoals State Park.

Annie at Big Shoals State Park

Wildlife Spottings in Florida

In Highlands Hammock State Park I spotted two deer and a turkey and was otherwise skunked.  Perhaps I didn’t get up early enough.  But if you put marine life under wildlife spottings, swimming with the manatees in Crystal River was a spectacular experience. That was my most favorite thing I did in Florida when I wasn’t reigniting my love for horses (most of the other three weeks in Florida).

swimming with the manatees in crystal river

Towns in Florida

As I previously mentioned, I visited Florida with the intent to see small towns.  Clearly, I saw many.  I often get questions, like which was your favorite.  And the answer is, it is hard to say because they are different.  But below I have picked my favorites for different reasons.

  1.  Best Overall TownMount Dora:  Mount Dora came as a surprise to me, so any place exceeding my expectations gets high marks.  There is a good mix of outdoor activities on the lake along with shops and restaurants which line a quaint downtown.  I really like this setting.
  2. Best IslandSanibel:  Who wouldn’t like Sanibel Island?  While I didn’t find a cute downtown area I had hoped for like Mount Dora, the bike paths, hiking trails and beaches are perfect for a weekend getaway.
  3. Best Old Florida – White Springs:  White Springs is tiny, and people looking for a resort town would not like it.  But those who like hiking, kayaking, and want a weekend in the woods, this northern Florida town is a great place to see.
  4. Best Resort TownSeaside:  Seaside really looks like movie set, and if I were going on a weekend getaway with girlfriends, Seaside would rank high on my list with a beautiful beach, cute houses, and tons of restaurants.
  5. Need to Visit Again – The Clearwater Area:  I didn’t go to Clearwater, but bounced around Dunedin, Safety Harbor and even tried visiting the Dali Museum but a race car even made that difficult.  I didn’t really scratch the surface is this area, and they deserve better.
lighthouse in mount dora florida

Trials and Tribulations in Florida

Part of the reason some towns didn’t get my full attention was due to my trials and tribulations of van life.  It all happened on one day and would sound like a page long complaint if I went into all the details.  But when I shared the story with my mom, she started laughing.  That’s how ridiculous my 24 hours were.  Stuck in the sand, grey water tank overflow, mosquito invasion, broken toe and ripped off toenail, and a failing electrical system!

Horseback Riding

The bright side of my 24 hours of misery is that I have a wonderful friend in Wellington who let me stay at her horse property.  It took a week to get someone out to fix VANgo (poorly), and I couldn’t stay in Wellington without riding a horse and seeing many of my horse peeps from 30 years ago at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.

Somehow, this turned into returning to Wellington to show my friend’s horse two weeks later after a 30 year hiatus.  I was so nervous, but got hooked again, and aborted the rest of my southeastern travels in exchange of horseback riding.  As much as I love traveling, horses are my happy place!  So now, I’m looking for a house in Dallas and a horse!  Funny how life can throw you a curve ball, in a good way.

show jumping in wellington, Florida


On a sad note, in the trials and tribulations category, I also needed to fly home for a funeral for a dear friend to me and my family.  Consequently, my Florida visit was rather disjointed.  The positive which came from this was reconnecting with a family that moved to Orlando that I hadn’t seen since I was probably seven years old.  They hosted me and helped me get to the Orlando airport.

Visiting Relatives in Florida

While in Florida, I also got visit some relatives in Boyton Beach and Naples which was very nice.  But in all, I learned what I am not going to do in VANgo.  That is sleep in parking lots for a month without a place for Annie to roam!  I think I will save my van living for the mountains in the summer and some horseshows in the spring and fall.


Musings From the Road

  1.  How do people live in Florida during the summer? It’s hot in the winter!
  2. Can Annie outrun the alligators? 
  3. How do people own a dog in Florida with such strict leash laws?
  4. A recurring musing: why does it rain as soon as I clean VANgo?
  5. The tolls were not as bad as I remembered from 11 years ago.
  6. I can’t believe I went to Florida and didn’t SCUBA dive at least once.
  7. Wish I would see a panther!
  8. Florida is for weekend visits to a resort with no dog in tow.
  9. According to reviews on AllTrails, lots of people think a paved path by a highway is an awesome hike?!?
  10. I refuse to wear a parka this cold morning, while I melted in the sweltering heat the last two days!

Fun Florida Facts

  1. Whenever you are in Florida, you are never farther than 60 miles from the nearest body of water.
  2. The world’s first scheduled passenger flight flew from St. Peterburg to Tampa in 1914.
  3. St. Augustine is the oldest city in the USA.  (I visited here 11 years ago. It is a nice town.)
  4. Both mechanical refrigeration and suntan lotion were invented in Florida.

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Beth Bankhead

Former public finance professional turned award winning travel blogger and photographer sharing the earth's beauty one word and image at a time.

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