Airboat Adventure

Naples, FL – February, 2018 Once our guests started arriving in February we began looking for ways to entertain them. One thing on Jim’s bucket list was an airboat ride through the swamp. So when some of our guests showed an interest in this as well we took them to the nearest airboat company which also happened to have very good reviews.

Corey Billie’s Airboat Rides is barely off of Highway 41, the Tamiami Trail, just east of the turn to Goodland and the Seminole State Park. I called the afternoon before we wanted to go and their first available reservation for four was at 1 the next day. The tickets seemed a bit steep to me at $40 per person but Jim thought it sounded fair.

We arrived 30 minutes ahead of time as instructed, settled up the bill, and signed liability waivers.

Then we wandered the grounds where they had several chances to see alligators. Right behind their store was a large pond with this monster.

Nearby there was a gentleman handling a 3 foot gator.

Several people were getting their picture taken holding him. I didn’t ask if there was an additional cost for this as I had no desire to touch him.

They also had a tank full of 4 week old babies. He’d pull one or another of them out and pose them.

I bet mama is glad they don’t nurse.

The handler was very informative and entertaining. Soon it was time to make our way to the loading platform and wait for our boat to arrive. Boats were coming in pretty often making the last corner at high speed to give the passengers one last thrill.

We met our driver, Gary. We were given headsets to protect our hearing and a few instructions. Then we were off.

The ride was somewhat thrilling. It seemed pretty fast, around 30 mph we were told, and I did often wonder if our driver was going to pull off a turn without us careening into a tree or the grass. The headset insulated you from the noise and the ride was very smooth so it didn’t seem terribly exhilarating to me.

Considering it was a loud course with boats passing by often, I was surprised how many birds there were.

We stopped often and the driver entertained us with stories, information, and jokes. We spotted some gators but most were a good distance away.

It is, thankfully, against the law to feed alligators so there was no incentive for them to get closer to the boat. At the “swimming hole” we had several fish jump in our boat. Clearly beaching themselves on our raft was preferable to what was trying to eat them under it.

At one stop the driver offered to take pictures of our group with each passenger’s camera.

One of the most popular stops was in the middle of a mangrove where our driver stopped and called out. Soon this cuddly pair appeared.

They looked pretty young and well accustomed to handouts. Obviously there are no rules to protect them from being fed marshmallows.

The ride was around 45 minutes. It was a great way to entertain our guests for a couple hours. We may try it again someday with future guests. We’ll likely visit another vender just for variety.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park

Homosassa, FL – October, 2017 One place that was not even on our radar until we reached this area and bought our Florida State Park passes was Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. It is an easily overlooked gem of a park just 10 miles south of our weeklong home on Crystal River.

We arrived just after the park’s opening at 9 am on a Tuesday morning. We were lucky to have an incredibly mild morning in the midst of 90 degree days of sweltering humidity. It was almost chilly on this 70 degree morning and perfect weather for a long walk amongst the wildlife.

This wildlife park houses many animals that are native to Florida. Just about every animal that I might hope to see in the wild in Florida is here for my photographing pleasure. Of course it’s not the same as seeing them in the wild but much more likely that I can capture their image. They may not be as cooperative as these pictures suggest but with a little time you can usually get something out of them.

If you don’t want to climb over this fence and hug this cute brown bear you are not human. He/she finally took her snout outta the bushes and sorta looked at me so I could get a portrait.

It wouldn’t be a Florida wildlife exhibit without birds and this place had a ton of them. I have been infatuated with Roseate Spoonbills since another blogger featured them.

Until now I have only seen a flock of them in a far off field and a single bird stopped by our campground before we left Florida last year. This place had an aviary you could walk through with several of them. They did not seem to mind our presence.

When they did tire of us they could easily escape.

This fellow was sitting just inside the aviary demanding his share of attention.

Before my infatuation with the spoonbills I sorta had a thing for these guys. I could still watch them all day with their slinky necks and updside down eating habits.

I couldn’t leave this red fox alone even though it was clear I was interrupting his nap.

I’ve seen a few in the wild but they are usually so FAST. This mellow fellow never got very excited.

Another lightning fast character that was surprisingly cooperative was this otter.

It wouldn’t be a Florida zoo without some alligators.

We enjoyed a wildlife encounter with a lovely volunteer named Vicky who shared some interesting facts about baby alligators.

There was an awesome cougar in attendance. Like many of the animals she was a bit shy but if you spent enough time with her she would finally open up.

We couldn’t help but be impressed by these eagles.

The bald eagles were especially thrilling.

We also enjoyed the reptile house. It was a good place to practice our snake identification. For instance, based on our wildlife encounter at the previous day’s agenda, we correctly guessed that this was not a venomous snake but its look-alike the Scarlet King Snake.

From November to February this park is all about the manatee.

They house several manatees year-round but during the winter hundreds of manatee crowd in to Homosassa Springs to enjoy the then balmy 72 degree water. Their underwater observatory was pretty cool during the off season.

We enjoyed seeing sheep head and snook from within it.

It would be awesome to see manatee crowding around the observatory windows.

Our Florida Family Park Pass included unlimited admission for two to this amazing park. You might be interested to know that they never ID’d either of us. If you don’t possess a pass I believe the entry fee is $13 per person which is well worth the experience.

Mermaids!

Crystal River, FL – October, 2017 I have wanted to come to this area of Florida for many years. I certainly expected to make it part of our travel plans last season. When it didn’t work out that way, it shot to the top of the list of places to see this season.

The area is known for freshwater springs, manatee, and the famous and historic Weeki Wachee Mermaids. Since mermaids trump everything we made seeing them the number one priority our first full day there. They perform at what is now the Weeki Wachee Spring State Park, 28 miles south of our Crystal River campsite.

The attraction was created in 1947 by Newt Perry, a famous swimmer. He invented a method of breathing underwater from a free flowing air hose. He then trained pretty girls to perform underwater ballets.

Business was slow in the beginning but soon took off and in the 1950’s it became one of the country’s top tourist attractions. It was purchased by the American Broadcasting Company in 1959 and the business thrived for many years. It became a Florida State Park in 2008.

The entrance to the park is surrounded by statuary.

We arrived about an hour before the mermaid’s 11 am show and walked the entire park. Here is what the spring and underwater theater look like from above.

In the background are water slides which are open all summer and on weekends after school starts. There is also a swim lagoon which had half a dozen bathers during our visit. The theater doors opened about 10 minutes before show time and we wandered in and found a seat on the stadium like benches.

The performance began right on time.

I kept my expectations low. So I was pleasantly surprised what a great show they put on.

I wondered how they would tell the tale of The Little Mermaid in under an hour. But they did, quite effectively. Ariel meets a prince.

She innocently involves an evil sea witch in order to get some legs and join her beloved on land.

All seems well and the pair dance.

Then that darn sea witch actually demands payment, via the forfeiture of Ariel’s beautiful voice.

Everyone returns to the sea to fight this threat and save their world. The badly out-numbered witch is defeated and forced back to her underwater cave.

But not before she pops out of a trap door above the stage and scares the bajeezis out of everyone causing several youngsters to start wailing.

The show was something short of 45 minutes but they squeezed all the plot twists in quite effectively. I was very impressed with the performers’ swimming ability all while holding their breath for long periods between puffs on the air hoses that they sometimes held but were usually floating below them.

I loved how they used air bubbles for a curtain. They would release a massive amount of air below the glass and then when the scene was ready they would stop it and the “curtain” of air would rise on the next act.

It was a fun show but I can’t believe the performers get in that cold spring water for 2 shows a day (three on the weekends) every single day of the year. After the show we wandered to the back of the park for the animal show.

It was your basic talk about the local wildlife but the park ranger was engaging and funny. The park usually has a boat ride down the river included with your admission but that was shut down while we were there as they were waiting on their annual safety inspection.

This was our first Florida State Park this season and we chose to buy state park pass this year. They are $60 per person, or $120 for a family, so the same either way for us. It seemed a little steep but we can visit this attraction, and another I’ll tell you about next week, as often as we like. If we only visited them once, which is likely, we still have to visit almost 20 more state parks before the day use fees surpass the cost of the park pass. Challenge accepted!

While in Crystal River we stayed at Crystal Isle RV Resort. It is an Encore Resort, so it was pretty nice with a fitness room, pool, and hot tub. We got a sight for $25 per night through Passport America which is only available April through October.

Catching Up and WOW

Springfield, MO – Aug. to Oct., 2017 We had reservations for the last week of August at Glacier Basin Campground on the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). Our intention all summer was to wrap up our visit to Colorado there. But several things caused us to rethink that plan.

The 45 mile road across the RMNP between Grand Lake and Estes Park is not big rig friendly. It has MANY tight switchbacks. We saw some big rigs crossing it but the more Jim thought about it the less he wanted to attempt it. We even got mixed answers as to whether it was allowed. One park ranger said there was no length limit on the road, another said they had only recently enacted a 32 foot limit. The 150 mile trip around the park was doable but did put a damper on our enthusiasm.

We had visited Estes Park briefly and even checked out the campground. Glacier Basin was nothing to write home about. It was an open area with few trees. The roads through it were rather tight and lined with large rocks. The pull thru we had reserved was so awkward we were certain we’d have to pass it and back into it.

Then there were the crowds. Even on a Monday the eastern side of the RMNP had lines of traffic, congested parking lots, and the stores in the little town were packed. No thank you! We finally decided to cancel our reservation all together and head back to Missouri to get a head start on remodeling one of our rentals.

We hoped the remodel could be completed in as little as three weeks but allowed five weeks for good measure. Good thing we did. I left Jim for almost a week when I flew to Florida to help our daughter evacuate.

I was only home a couple days when I badly sprained my ankle. This laid me up completely for almost another week and slowed me down considerably for the remainder of the month. So Jim got stuck remodeling the house mostly by himself. It took the whole 5 weeks and we finally delegated a bit of the work and made our escape on October 2nd.

We kept our nose the grindstone most of the time we were there (or at least Jim did). But we did have plans to keep our granddaughter the last weekend in September. We were thrilled when we realized the much anticipated and long awaited Wonders of Wildlife (WOW) National Museum & Aquarium was opening just in time for our weekend with her. It is part of the Bass Pro complex in Springfield and has been closed for remodeling for many years.

We arranged to meet my cousins and enjoy the tour with them. They have a daughter almost the same age as our granddaughter. Here is our picture taken by our 7 year old granddaughter.

We started our tour on the museum side.

So obviously this included a LOT of stuffed animals.

Their dioramas were amazingly detailed and quite stunning.

There were also rooms full of artifacts and informative displays on everything from indians to conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt. It took us about 2 hours to tour the museum and then we proceeded to the aquarium.

This is when things got really interesting.

I’m talking 3 story circular tanks you can walk around on multiple levels. This picture gives you some idea what I am talking about. We were standing on the second level on the outside and you can clearly see the other side of the tank and people standing on the first level.

After traveling up and down and around this amazing display we thought we were about done. No. This was just the beginning. The aquarium went on, and on, and on!

One of mine and Jim’s favorite places was this bait ball display. Being able to see the fish’s reaction when a predator swam by was very entertaining.

We also really enjoyed the jelly fish display.

The kids were pretty much enthralled with everything in the aquarium.

They especially enjoyed the touch tanks. The first, smaller one is in the middle of the tour. Isn’t this the oddest looking shark ever?

The tour ends at a really big touch tank full of rays. The rays swim around in a pool that circles another massive tank. So the ray at the bottom of this picture is in the touch tank and everything else is swimming in an aquarium. There is so much reflection going on it is hard to tell where one tank ends and the other starts.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and were completely worn out by the end. It took us around 4 hours total and that was a bit rushed. The ticket is good for the entire day so if we had it to do over again we’d probably visit the aquarium first, then go have lunch (and maybe a nap), then return to visit the museum. If you are taking kids and are short on either time or money you might consider skipping the museum.

The one day admission tickets may seem steep to some. Compared to the aquariums we’ve visited throughout the country it was an average price for an above average experience. The adult aquarium tickets are $30, the museum tickets are $15, or the combo ticket to visit both in one day is $40. Children 4-11 are $20, $10, and $24 respectively.

If you live in the area I would highly recommend the annual membership. I like that it includes two adults and their designated children OR grandchildren under 18. It is $250 or for $300 it includes two guest passes. We may consider a membership as we definitely want to return.

Georgetown Loop RR and Silver Mine

Georgetown, CO – August, 2017 Jim is as much a fan of trains and mining as I am of fire towers and moose. So while exploring the mining communities west of Denver I read about a train ride to a mine tour. Well that was a no brainer!

The community of Georgetown, Colorado was once known as the “Silver Queen of the Rockies.” They had a narrow gauge railway that carried silver ore from the mines 2 miles uphill in Silver Plume. The railway and mines were shut down for 50 years but were reopened in the 1970’s by the Colorado Historical Society.

We stopped in historic downtown Georgetown for a quick bite before our scheduled departure. We couldn’t resist a café called the Happy Cooker and we were not disappointed. Jim’s French dip and my meatloaf sandwich were both exceptional.

We walked around the area admiring the many neat old buildings. Their firehouse is very distinctive and serves as the town’s historical symbol.

We then headed up the hill to the Georgetown Loop Railroad. We passed under a train trestle and Jim exclaimed “I hope we get to ride over that”. I was not as excited about the prospect. It soon became apparent that we would be traveling over it as a train came around the bend before heading to the station.

We picked up our prepaid tickets in the gift shop and headed for the platform to catch the train. We didn’t have to wait long until we were boarded and on our way.

The train ride is about 4 miles each way. Even though the stations are only 2 miles apart the tracks zigzag back and forth to keep the grade at an acceptable level, 6% or below. The path crosses the beautiful Clear Creek again and again.

In less than 30 minutes we pulled in to Silver Plume. The engine pulled away to take on water and then reattached itself to the other end of the train for the downhill return.

This took about 20 minutes and we had an opportunity to get off and visit their gift shop if we wanted. They also took on new passengers at this station as you can begin your tour at either Georgetown or Silver Plume. Finally we were back on the rails.

In about 10 minutes they stopped at a platform and those of us who had purchased a mine tour departed. Some people chose to just ride the train. The mine tour is optional or not an option for anyone with children under 5 or those who can’t handle the walk to and through the mines.

We had a brief safety talk and then the passengers broke in to separate groups for the 3 different tour options. We had chosen a tour that would take us 900 feet in to the Lebanon Mine. Everyone donned a hard hat and we headed underground.

The first part of the mine looked like this. The timbers were spaced close together until they got through the part of the hill with the smaller stones.

Once they reached bedrock they only shored up the ceiling where it was needed. The height of the cavern became much shorter and anyone over 5 ½ feet had to spend much of the walk hunched over.

Thankfully they had the hard hats so it wasn’t painful when one found a particularly short spot. I even bumped my hat on a couple low spots. When the tour stopped for a talk everyone was usually able to find a spot where they could stand upright and straighten their backs.

The tour was fascinating and incredibly informative! Much of the mine equipment had simply been abandoned when the mine closed. This scene is practically as they found it when they reopened the mine.

You see the ladder to the above tunnel but can’t see that there is hole in the floor to the lower tunnels. This winch was used to haul the ore from both to the ore carts. We were walking on the carts’ tracks now filled in with gravel.

In another side tunnel the hole down was closer and you can clearly see the ladder descending into the depths of the mine, now flooded.

Our tour was on the 3rd level of a 6 level mine. They are continually trying to open new tunnels to tours. They work over the winter when they are not giving tours. They expect this tour to be about 100 feet longer next season.

The mine didn’t close because they ran out of silver but because the price of silver dropped below an amount that made it profitable to mine. There was silver ore all over the place. The miners called this a dragon tongue.

It apparently means that there is another rich silver vein above it. Several of these have appeared since they reopened this mine. It’s not like you can just pick up the silver though. It is embedded in granite and has to processed to extract the silver.

They don’t anticipate the price of silver ever reaching a level that would make it lucrative to mine these veins in today’s economy. There are working silver mines in the area though. The tour operator said the Phoenix mine down the road does OK and supplements their mining profits with tours during summer.

After about an hour long tour filled with tons of information we were totally satisfied with our experience. We didn’t at all mind leaving the 40 degree mine and Jim especially appreciated being able to stand upright again. We were very happy with our choice of tours as the Extended Lebanon Mine Tour had only 10 participants. Each of the other available tours had at least double that amount which would have made it pretty crowded in the narrow tunnels.

We walked up the hill to the platform and stopped to visit their very gentle pet donkeys on the way.

Our train showed up very shortly and we boarded it for the brief 15 minute ride back to Georgetown. Of course, we had to cross the trestle for the second time but it wasn’t really bad as there were so many sights and sounds to distract you.

I highly recommend this tour if you are in the area and interested in trains and/or mines. I thought the prices were very reasonable. A train ride was about $26 and the mine tours were $11 to 14 more. You could upgrade any ticket to first class which let you ride in a covered car with windows for another $10.

The train ride was rather short but you got to experience all the facets of a train excursion without a serious commitment of time. When we took the Durango & Silverton train a couple years ago it took all day and we were a bit uncomfortable by the end of the trip. This train ride along with the mine tour took a little under 3 hours but we were plenty tuckered out by the end of the day.

We stayed at Dakota Ridge RV Park 35 miles away in Golden, Colorado. We paid $49 per night for a full hookup, back-in site with our Good Sam discount. It was an extremely nice park with a pool, which we never managed to get to, and a hot tub, which we finally visited our last evening there.

Rocky Mountain National Park

Grand Lake, CO – August, 2017 We treasured our time in the town of Grand Lake on the western edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP). It was so convenient to slip into the park for a quick visit or for an entire day.

One of the most popular hikes from Grand Lake is Adams Falls. It is an easy half mile walk from a parking lot on the edge of town.

Our first foray into RMNP proper we saw a heard of elk in a field beside the road. We stopped for some photos. A storm was brewing and the wind was fierce. I had to lean on a sign to steady my shot.

They were a group of females and young’uns. I believe there was one young buck among them. See his little horns on the right hand side of the photo? On that same day I stared into the forest as Jim drove and saw a large buck with huge horns. I swear they stood at least 3 feet straight up.

We ventured in on a weekend thinking we would visit one of the sites close to the western edge of the park but couldn’t even find a parking space. Traffic was crazy so we turned around the first chance we got and hightailed it outta there. We returned on Monday morning and crossed the park on Trail Ridge Road. The views along the road were breathtaking.

We visited the Alpine Visitor Center at almost 12,000 foot elevation just as it was opening at 9am. Here is the view from their patio.

There are several elk grazing below that glacial ice. We climbed the Alpine Ridge Trail for more astounding views.

It was drop dead gorgeous in every direction.

And we had it pretty much to ourselves at that hour of the day. It was a bit chilly, around 40 degrees.

We briefly visited the eastern side of the park and checked out Estes Park. Then we drove back via the incredibly scenic AND rustic Old Fall River Road. It was a gravel road with one switchback after another. We had to back up to make several of the sharp turns. Soooo worth it!

We enjoyed a stop at Chasm Falls.

And found a quiet place to enjoy our lunch.

We continued on to where the one-way gravel road brings you back to the Alpine Visitor Center. Here is a view of the center from below. It’s that tiny rectangle to the right of the snow.

We passed through the almost full parking lot of the visitor center. The trail up to the ridge was now crowded with hundreds of people. We were very glad we had braved the chill and had those moments alone with the views.

Of Moose and Men

Grand Lake, CO I don’t know exactly when I became fixated on moose. Somewhere around 20 years ago I suspect. I have no idea what started it but my love for these beasts is not waning.

Despite this my affection seems unrequited. They do not seem to be a fan of me. I have had very little contact with the creatures.

I was sure we would see lots of them when we vacationed in Alaska in 2006. We rented a class C and drove all over the state for a week. We saw a lot of amazing things but not one moose until our last night in the RV.

We stayed at a park on the outskirts of Anchorage. We were told we would almost certainly see a moose there. Sure enough at dusk a couple ladies made their way down the highway and bedded down near the entrance to the park.

This was my one and only moose encounter up to this summer. And it just wasn’t the kind I was hoping for. It was not the same as spotting a moose, preferably a male with a huge rack, in the wild.

So you can see why I was so excited when we had our run in with the moose near Flaming Gorge. Ok it wasn’t exactly up close and personal. But it was a bull and it was in the wild.

Our next stop seemed to promise more moose encounters. The town of Grand Lake sits on the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. We fell in love with this little place and ended up staying 2 weeks.

Our very first morning there we went for a drive in the nearby national forest. We spotted a bull moose in the trees on the side of the road. Jim turned the truck around and the moose had crossed the road and climbed way up a hill.

We also saw a large female nearby. After further driving we saw 3 more moose! A young male …

and two females.

They were pretty near the road so I was able to get several good pics.

Thank goodness we had such a positive early experience because we didn’t see any more moose the remainder of our stay. We know they were around, we saw moose tracks and moose poop. Jim was walking along a river and a fisherwoman said “did you see those two moose that just passed?” Nope, he did not. But that’s OK, because we saw 5 moose in one morning!

Despite not seeing more moose we did have a wonderful time. The town was just big enough with great restaurants and nice gift shops. We had pizza the day we arrived at Grand Pizza and it was so good we went back for more before we left.

We also went out to breakfast one Saturday morning. The Fat Cat had the most amazing breakfast buffet. The chef was English I think and every dish was outstanding. I know, 3 meals out in only two weeks, what were we thinking?!

I don’t think the calories hurt us though. We did plenty of hiking, mostly in the national park. I’ll share that with you in my next post.

The town of Grand Lake is on the shores of Grand Lake and Shadow Mountain Lake. It is not overly crowded and moves at the slower pace that Jim and I prefer. It had everything we wanted and we didn’t have to share everything with throngs of people.

One weekend while we were there they held a regatta. They had races for kayakers, SUPs, canoers, and rowers.

Another weekend they hosted a free corvette show. There were at least a hundred corvettes on Main Street.

We visited Shadow Mountain Lake and checked out the dam where they release the lake waters and they continue on for a few miles as the Colorado River before backing up and becoming another lake, Granby. What we saw there got my fisherman pretty excited. The trout and salmon were going crazy trying to jump up that dam and continue their trek upstream, impossible.

We returned to the spot several times and Jim enjoyed the fishing.

He had some luck and we have some trout in the freezer.

This was the perfect area for us because he was entertained and there was so much for me to explore. I hiked along the east side of Shadow Mountain Lake which is part of the 3,100 mile Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. This is a trail that, when complete, will travel along or near the continental divide from our northern border with Canada to its southern terminus at the Mexican border. It is currently only 72% complete and for now requires some travel on motorized roads.

The mile and a half hike beside the lake was a bit difficult because of the number of downed trees I had to go over, under, or around. There were about 20. I counted them on my return trip. But it was worth it. The lake views were outstanding and I ran across a deer and her fawn. They were a little skittish but in the end they decided I wasn’t a threat.

That trail continued on south of the dam and was less difficult. Jim joined me on it another day when the fishing was disappointing. He is so much better than me at spotting wildlife. He saw this osprey which was just a blob in a tree and I had time to get my telephoto lens out before he flew away.

I also walked many miles through the on-site campground, Green Ridge, chasing photo opportunities. The hummingbirds were plentiful but just won’t be still enough for a good shot. The chipmunks were a little more cooperative.

The lake was just gorgeous in the mornings.

We spent the first 10 days of our stay at Elk Creek Campground, an extremely nice, if a bit tight, RV park just outside the town of Grand Lake. We planned to stay 3 nights and then find a boondock in the national forest. But it was just so convenient there so when they said they had a cancellation and could accommodate us for another 7 days we decided to stay. Their daily rate for the full hookup site was $49 and the weekly rate was $309. It was definitely a splurge.

For our last three nights we moved over to our new happy place, Green Ridge Campground. We moved to the first come first served site early on a Friday morning. By early afternoon the place was packed. We paid $21 per night for a sight with zero amenities.