Bonita and Barefoot Beaches

Bonita Springs, FL – October, 2016-February, 2017  We are loving our winter home here in Bonita Springs, Florida. It is a lovely community and the weather has been pretty spectacular. I don’t want to brag about the weather too much just yet. Winter is not yet over!

We haven’t spent as much time at the beach as we originally thought we would but we still try to get to a beach about once a week. The water got as cold as the mid 60’s in January but on hotter days we still enjoy a dip. It has started climbing and is almost 70 now.

The closest beach to our home is Bonita Beach just 6 miles from our door. There is a large parking lot there which charges $2 per hour. This lot is often full by noon.

You can drive past the lot and there are a dozen or so beach accesses with a few free parking spaces each scattered along the two mile length of the beach. They actually have some spaces large enough for our truck. We can usually find free parking on weekday mornings.

The first day we visited this beach was the day after our arrival in town and the day of the hurricane. There were a lot of dead fish washed up on the beach and not yet knowing much about local conditions my first impression was that the seas were so rough they had beached all these fish where they then died.

I later realized the red tide had killed them and the rough seas may have washed a larger number than usual up on the beach. It was sad but also really cool to be able to see so many different kinds of fish, like this ocean catfish…

and this needlefish.

But the coolest was a baby bonnethead shark.

We came back a few days later for another walk. The smell was so bad we only stayed a short while. We returned to our truck by way of the sidewalk where the smell wasn’t as strong. We enjoyed the greenery in front of the fancy beach houses.

 

And the many quirky mailboxes.

I imagine it would have smelled on our first visit except there was such a strong wind. We were grateful that there was no sign of the red tide when we visited Vanderbuilt Beach during our time in Naples. When we returned to Bonita Beach at the end of October the red tide had moved north and the beaches were again pleasant.

The beach we visit most often is only a couple miles further drive. The Barefoot Beach State Park Preserve is really an extension of Bonita Beach. But the name changes as you travel south and enter a different county and eventually, the protected lands of the preserve.

The primary reason we prefer Barefoot is the ample parking. It costs $8 per car to enter the park or I believe non-residents can buy a parking sticker that is good all over Collier County for around $60. We were lucky enough to have someone lend us their parking pass for the season. They had bought one for a week-long vacation in September and weren’t visiting again until spring.

Barefoot Beach is generally a little less crowded than Bonita Beach. If you are willing to traipse a little ways down the beach from the parking access point you can usually snag a good chunk of beach for yourself. And once you get away from the crowds it’s a nice fishing spot as well.

The preserve is home to the Gopher Tortoise and they are plentiful. We usually see them near the parking lot or from the boardwalk.

Collecting shells is very popular on both these beaches.

I prefer to collect pictures of shells.

And other interesting things we encounter on our beach walks. Like this jellyfish. Am I the only one that sees a tiny alien trapped inside?

Everglades Wonder Gardens

Bonita Springs, FL- January, 2017 There is an old roadside attraction located just down the street from our campground. In 1936 the Piper brothers opened The Reptile Garden beside the then new Tamiami Trail. This road is now called Old Highway 41 and the attraction was renamed the Everglades Wonder Gardens somewhere along the way. The Piper family closed the attraction in 2013 and a not for profit organization, with financial assistance from the city of Bonita Springs, purchased and reopened it.

We visited mid-day and mid-week so it wasn’t very crowded, maybe a dozen other guests were there. There were plenty of plants, some very pretty like this sea grape, but despite the name the gardens were not the highlight.

They have a lot of birds and the ones that talked were especially entertaining. Many were real hams.

They had plenty of beautiful birds as well, like this cute little duck.

One highlight of our visit was the flamingos. It was fun to watch the strange way they eat, turning their heads up-side down to swallow.

We watched that couple peacefully for a bit. But when another couple joined them the feathers really flew.

Four was definitely a crowd.

This pair wins the prize as the oddest couple. Apparently they’ve been roommates for many, many years.

There were many peacocks roaming the grounds.

There were a lot of reptile exhibits as well but it’s not always easy to get a picture of their guests under glass.

The stars are definitely the alligators. This baby is apparently adopted.

The alligators are generally in a large enclosure with a swinging bridge for visitors to walk over. We were a little disappointed that this exhibit was closed and is being rebuilt. But they don’t seem to mind their temporary digs.

They are all smiles.

We would definitely recommend anyone visiting this area to check out this Florida institution. The tickets are $12 per person but knowing that the money is going exclusively for the care of the animals and to make improvements to their habitats makes the price easier to swallow. We also highly recommend the Twisted Tangle Café next door. We stopped by for a snack after our visit and thoroughly enjoyed our appetizers and visiting with the owner.

Naples

Naples, FL – October, 2016 Soon after getting settled at our winter RV park it was time to pack up and head a whole 10 miles south to hang out with our friends. This was the third time we had rented the same beach house in North Naples. Our friend’s relatives own the property and we are grateful to benefit from the family discount.

We all adore the house and love the location in the well know neighborhood of Naples Park. The house is three bedrooms and two and a half baths. It is spacious, beautifully furnished, and best of all has a heated pool.

We enjoyed just over a week’s visit with one couple. Another couple that has joined us on previous visits said they couldn’t come but at the last minute they changed their minds and flew down for the weekend. We all had fun as always and got caught up on everything we had missed in the 3 months since we left Missouri.

The nearest beach to the house is called Vanderbilt Beach. It is a near perfect beach with soft sand and waste deep water for a long way out. This beach is close to neighborhoods, condos, and hotels so it is generally bustling.

The big event every day is sunset. They are just beautiful here. Since our visit was before the time change we often ate before 5:30 then made a beeline for the beach to catch the show.

Only a mile farther from the house was the Delnor-Wiggins Pass State Park. This beach gets a little narrow at high tide but it is a nice alternative to Vanderbilt and not quite as crowded. It’s always interesting to see what’s been washed up on the beach.

This state park is another good sunset spot.

There is a dead tree there that people have loaded with shells which looks pretty cool.

Jim and I don’t go to bars often but one notable exception is a dive near the Naples house that we simply must visit each time we are in town with our friends. Jim’s favorite T is from there and seems to sum up their outlook.

The bar is called the North Naples Country Club. The name is meant in jest as it is far from sophisticated. Just our kind of place!

The best part is it’s within walking distance of the rental house. It’s a fun, friendly place if you are ever in the vicinity. And the food ain’t bad either.

One of our favorite places to visit is in downtown Naples. The Naples Pier is an enjoyable, free place to kill an hour or two.

It is a free fishing pier so with or without a fishing license you can fish here to your heart’s content. If you hang around a little while you will likely encounter your fair share of interesting characters. You may overhear some colorful language and you will almost definitely note some distinct regional and foreign accents.

Many people, primarily older gentlemen, come here almost daily to fish and maybe share a fish story or two. Most of the fishermen are more than happy to offer advice on techniques, bait, and such. There are a few that are tightlipped and maybe a little grouchy, but very few.

The pier is also a great place to observe nature. You are almost guaranteed to see dolphins.

There are usually schools of bait fish around the pylons and if you are lucky you might see tarpon working them into a frenzy. I have also seen ray and jellyfish and we once saw a fisherman pull in a little blacktip shark!

Naples Beach stretches as far as you can see on either side of the pier.

And if you get bored with all that there’s shopping, restaurants, and more shopping within a few blocks. If we are there on a Saturday we enjoy a stroll through the farmers’ market. It’s a little high end for us with lots of food vendors (who spends $15 on lunch at a farmers’ market?) but colorful and entertaining just the same.

My girlfriends and I were lucky enough to run into this guy out shopping with his friends.

He even let us hold this one who was quite a ham.

Naples is quite large and I know it has a whole lot more to offer. Since it’s so close to our home for this winter, we are looking forward to discovering more of this great town.

Winter Digs

Bonita Springs, FL – October, 2016 We are excited to be settled in Florida for the entire winter. Bonita Springs is a lovely area with tons going for it. It is about 30 miles north of the most southern point you can inhabit on the gulf side. This is the entrance to our park.

We have planned for some time to spend this winter in Florida. We started looking at campgrounds early last year and were a little concerned about the price and availability of sites, especially during December, January, and February. Our initial searches led us to believe we might not be able to afford this dream.

As early as last July RV sites in every state park we looked at in southern Florida were already booked solid through April 2017. We hadn’t found any campgrounds anywhere near where we wanted to be with a January rate below $1,200 and many were more than double that amount. We had hoped to tour the state spending about a month in each location.

We realized we better get serious about making reservations around July. We had made plans to meet some friends during their vacation to Naples, Florida at the end of October so we started by looking for a place to stay for a couple weeks around their visit where we felt safe leaving the camper while we hung out at their vacation home rental.

While researching all the local options Jim discovered Bonita Lakes RV Resort. Their monthly rate in October and November is just $568 plus metered electric. We inquired and they said they’d have no trouble accommodating us from October 15th to November 15th.

With that decision made we started looking for our second stop. We quickly felt overwhelmed and gave up for a while. In the meantime we read every bit of information we could find on Bonita Lakes and were looking forward to our visit.

While perusing their website we noticed that although their high season rates are $1,285 per month, if you commit to a 6 month rental it is only $676 per month plus electric. While that was a ways over our monthly budget for lot rent it was close enough that we could make some adjustments and pull it off.

We were not optimistic about them having sites still available during their peak season. We crossed our fingers and gave them a call. As luck would have it they had a cancellation just before we reached them and they were happy to give us that site.

As you know we arrived a little early, just ahead of the hurricane so we have been here exactly 30 days as of this posting. We have been incredibly happy with our choice. The park has exceeded our expectations in every regard.

I didn’t expect a fitness area but they have several nice machines and all of my favorites: an elliptical, a treadmill, and a recumbent bike. More often than not, I’ve been starting my days off in this room with a 30-50 minute workout.

The pool is our favorite spot. We can use it 24 hours a day and it’s heated to 85 degrees. Swimming and stretching in the pool is an amazing way to kick start your day. We have watched the sun come up from this spot on several occasions.

We have yet to share the pool with another soul before noon. I also haven’t seen anyone else use the fitness equipment so far. The park will get more crowded over the coming months and I’m sure that will change but it’s been just awesome so far.

There have been so many pleasant surprises since our arrival. They have pretty decent Wi-Fi throughout the park. They have easy, single stream recycling so all recyclables go in one dumpster. The park staff even picks up your trash and recyclables at your curb every morning. We don’t always use that service but it is really nice to know we can.

They also have two full kitchens at our disposal. They have several full size refrigerators we can use in a pinch. And the residents are welcome to take all the ice they make.

The park is a very nice size, just under 200 sites. A lot of people leave their trailers on their sites year round and just drive down for the winter. So it’s sometimes hard to tell if a site is occupied or not but I’m guessing at least half the sites are currently occupied and more people are arriving daily.

The park is a mix of travel trailers, park models, single wides, and even one double wide. But despite the close quarters everyone works hard at keeping it as neat and tidy as possible. Here is one of the older, more colorful residences with some newer rigs making up the rest of the row.

There is a nice lake at the back of the park with an island in the middle. They say there is normally an alligator or two roaming the lake and the canal that runs down one side of the park. Apparently no-one has sighted them yet this fall and they are generally very shy.

The management and staff here are just amazing. They are the nicest, most accommodating people we have ever met. We asked them for advice on where to find a certain tool to buy and they took us to their toolshed and loaned us what we needed.

They don’t have any activities during the summer but Halloween was the kickoff of their season and the beginning of their activities. They hosted a big Halloween BBQ potluck. We ate dinner at 4 and they had a live band from 5-7. These are our kind of hours!

The November activity calendar is packed. We’ve already joined the kayak club for their first weekly outing. We found a domino game on Wednesday nights. And we are looking forward to learning some new games. Apparently a bean bag toss league is one of the most popular events in the park.

We are looking forward to exploring the state from our new digs. There is plenty to keep us busy all winter within an hour of our door. But we plan to make several trips to other areas of the state. We can get to almost every place we hope to visit in 4 hours or less.

We probably won’t be taking the 5th wheel. It was a tight squeeze getting it into its current spot and it’s only going to get more snug as the park fills up. So we will have to get creative with our travel plans and budget. But we’ll figure it out and we’ll fill you in on it when we do.

Hurricane Matthew

Walterboro, SC to Bonita Springs, FL – October, 2016 Jim and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary on October 5th. We always imagined going somewhere extra special to mark this momentous accomplishment. As the date loomed closer we tossed around ideas but the timing wasn’t right for a trip. We finally realized that the way we’ve been living since we retired makes every day extra special and is a continuous celebration and we really didn’t need to do a lot different to make this one day stand out.

So to mark the occasion we decided we’d spend a few days in St. Augustine, Florida. It’s a town we’ve always wanted to visit and never managed to. And it was conveniently on the way to our next destination to visit family a little further south on the Atlantic coast.

We left South Carolina on Monday to make a two day trip of the 4 hour drive from Walterboro. We had heard about hurricane Matthew at this point but it didn’t look that threatening. We weren’t blind, just optimistic and figured we could always change direction if necessary.

I found a Passport America park half way to St. Augustine in Brunswick, Georgia with full hookups for only $22. The Golden Isles Vacation Park had very mixed reviews so I was not expecting much. We were very pleased to find a well maintained and laid out park with a nice pool and easy access to the interstate.

Later that day the storm forecast worsened. Jim was up watching hurricane coverage in the middle of the night and decided St. Augustine wasn’t such a great idea.  I found a Thousand Trails park that was in the middle of the state that we could go to the next day. We planned to spend our anniversary there and watch the storm to decide our next move.

The good news was that our Thousand Trails zone pass didn’t expire until the end of October so our reservation at Three Flags RV Resort in Wildwood Florida wouldn’t cost us a dime. This gave us the luxury of making a reservation for the full 5 days we had planned to stay in St. Augustine. We were able to cancel the somewhat expensive beach adjacent resort we planned to splurge on for our anniversary and since they were ordered to evacuate within the day they didn’t charge us a cancellation fee.

We moved to Wildwood on Tuesday and Matthew wasn’t forecast to hit until Friday so we put deciding our next move on hold for a couple days. We were optimistic we could ride out the storm in this camp 75 miles from the east coast. And we were hopeful that the whole mess might blow by so we could continue to our Sunday reservations on the Atlantic and visit my family.

In the reviews of this Wildwood, Florida campground everyone kept referring to something called the villages. Turns out The Villages is a massive retirement community that was planned around three town squares. Each square has its own personality but they all offer a variety of shopping, dining, and entertainment options and are open to the public. One of the coolest things The Villages offer is free live entertainment in all three squares every evening at 5.

We decided to visit one called Lake Sumter Landing and enjoy some shopping and a lunch out for our anniversary. We figured we’d visit the other squares over the following days and catch some of the evening concerts. Lake Sumter Landing had several blocks of unique shops. One gift shop had a gentleman playing an organ for its customers.

True to its name the area was situated lakeside.

The golf carts outnumbered cars here and many were very fancy. They had their own system of streets coming to and from their gated subdivisions.

We had plenty of options for lunch but chose Cody’s Original Roadhouse and enjoyed our anniversary meal very much. All anyone in the restaurant was talking about was the hurricane and it was interesting to hear about it from the residents’ point of view. We got back to camp to an unexpectedly sunny afternoon and were able to spend a couple hours at the campground’s pool with cocktails to top off our special day.

By this point we had gotten word that our family on the east coast was evacuating their homes. We also got a call from the campground we were scheduled to visit the next week informing us they were shutting down and didn’t know when they would reopen. The winds in Wildwood were forecast to be in the 40 mph range during the hurricane and although we felt confident we could ride that out we didn’t see the point if we wouldn’t be able to head east after the storm passed.

I was able to move up our reservations at the campground we planned to visit the following week. It was 7 miles from the gulf and the winds were forecast to only be in the 20’s. We left early on Thursday and hightailed it to Bonita Springs so we could get settled and batten down the hatches before the storm arrived.

Hurricane Matthew didn’t have much of an effect at all where we were. The winds stayed in the teens all day and we got some drizzle but no downpours. We drove to the beach for a walk midmorning and it was blustery with high waves but made for a nice outing. We were grateful to hear in the following days that our family returned to only minor damage on their east coast properties.

We are very excited about our winter plans. I’ll share more about that and our new campground next week.

Our Second Home

Walterboro, SC – September, 2016 After leaving Pennsylvania we made a beeline for our property in South Carolina. We were looking forward to taking it easy for a couple weeks, catching up on maintenance on our trailer and truck, and saving a little money.

We had enjoyed our 3,000 mile trek up north and had done a pretty good job of staying on budget. I had expected we might go over on fuel but despite the inclusion of $74 in tolls in this category (mostly in Ohio and Pennsylvania) we came in very close to our $400 per month allowance. Staying on our lot and close to home for a couple weeks would keep it that way.

We had gotten a break from those summer days in excess of 100 degrees and relished a few cool, fall like days. But the temps were higher than average up north for most of the trip and therefore higher than we expected. In general this was good news but it did keep us from taking advantage of boondocking opportunities. We rarely compromise on having air conditioning when night time temps are over 75 degrees. You really can’t put a price on a good night’s sleep and we need AC to get one.

It was pretty easy to find sites close to our budget in Wisconsin and Michigan but when we hit New York and Pennsylvania it was mayhem. So by the time we got to SC we were about $400 over budget on camping fees for the summer. A couple weeks on our own land would get us back on budget, well almost.

We were also excited to see how the lot had fared; how overgrown it had become and if our new plantings had survived. When we arrived it was a little overgrown but not nearly as bad as we had imagined it might be.

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There was some brush as high as our waists but it only took about 30 minutes to clear the drive so we could move back into the woods. And by the end of the day it was almost back to the way we had left it. The hostas I planted had all survived and about half of the azaleas did although none of them had grown significantly.

When I walked back into the woods to retrieve some tools I almost face planted smack into this fellow.

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He was the biggest, most terrifying looking spider I’ve ever seen with the exception of tarantulas. He was huge, as big as my hand. Thank god I stopped just short of running into him or you would be reading my obituary right now because I know I would have died!

Meanwhile Jim is wondering where his loppers are and I’m running for my camera. He was beautiful in his own disturbing way. We didn’t kill him, just skirted him the rest of the day. The next day he had moved which didn’t put me at ease. Where the heck was he now?!

Let’s just say I moved pretty carefully through any previously untraveled parts of the property after that. Good thing we hadn’t planned to do a lot of yard work ’cause I wouldn’t have been much help. I did see one more just like him during our stay but not nearly as large.

This seems like a good time to introduce you to the nearest town to the property, our adopted second home. Walterboro, South Carolina is the county seat of Colleton County. It is a charming place.

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The downtown is vibrant and active. I love this old bank that is now a café and a Christmas themed store all year. There are also many excellent antique stores.

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The courthouse was built in 1822.

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This was the town’s first jail. They built a water tower with three cells in the bottom.

It was replaced with this striking looking jail in 1855 which currently houses some county offices.

This is my favorite building in town, the county library. I was able to get a library card and have taken advantage of their extensive DVD collection, generally good wifi, and occasionally even borrowed a book. They also have many great tools I can access online like free Mango language lessons and, of course, eBooks I can download to my electronic devices.

When you are in a new area for any length of time it is always worth asking if you can get a library card. Like my momma was fond of saying “it never hurts to ask, all they can say is no.” Every library system has different requirements and some you can simply say you are new in town and give them the campground’s address as your own. I currently have 3 library cards and can use their on line tools and eBook collections no matter where I am in the country.

Walterboro has some nice hiking trails through a bayou they call the Walterboro Wildlife Sanctuary.

We enjoyed afternoon strolls along the boardwalks. We made the mistake of stopping by early one morning and were run out by the mosquitos. We always hoped to see an alligator but only saw lots and lots of lizards.

Walterboro is a great little town and well worth a visit. If you ever find yourself passing by on I-95 consider stopping for a couple hours or even a few days. Both the downtown and the wildlife sanctuary are a short drive from the highway and would make a nice break during a long drive. Or there is a good campground at exit 53 called New Green Acres that we stayed at several times before we were able to park on our property. They charge $28 for a full hookup site.

Hershey

Hershey, PA – September, 2016 When we started making tentative plans for this northeast loop many months ago Jim asked if America’s Largest RV Show could be on the itinerary. The show is hosted by the Pennsylvania RV and Camping Association and held in Hershey each September. A quick internet search for the show dates and a glance at the map and I assured him it could be done.

We planned to attend the show the first day, Wednesday. This also happened to be Senior Day. As is our M.O., we arrived 30 minutes before the gates opened. We parked in the huge lot which was free for this event and joined a long line waiting to get in.

Jim’s been 55 almost a year and we’ve only had a few occasions when we’ve benefited from a senior discount that was defined as 55+. For some reason Jim is not nearly as tickled as I am when we save money by being lumped in this category. Even though their website says the senior only qualifies for one half price ticket, they let him buy both our tickets so we got in for $5 each.

The day was forecast to be very hot so we chose to visit the outside exhibitors first. This included acres and acres of every conceivable type of RV, open for perusal. We spent hours checking out a sampling of all types of RVs, from tricked out motorhomes going for half a million to micro tow behinds for less than ten grand.

We thought about what changes we could make to our own home to make it more accommodating. We also seriously considered what type of rig we’d want next if it became necessary to replace ours. We mostly just enjoy poking around in open houses and this was a chance to do so on a micro scale mega times.

There are exciting ideas being incorporated into new RVs. Our favorites were in storage capacity. This Momentum 5th wheel by Grand Design had a feature that definitely made it our favorite even though at 41′ it was longer than we’d ever consider towing and more money than we would pay. It had a rear bedroom that was raised so that there was a small garage in the rear under the bed. This storage area would be large enough for our scooter and kayaks, or someone’s 4 wheeler or golf cart.

About noon we finally headed inside, hot and tired. The Giant Arena had displays all around the hallway at ground level and then filling up the entire court. There were plenty of interesting products and services available and we enjoyed checking them out for a couple hours.

I was prepared to be underwhelmed by this event as I had been somewhat disappointed by Quartzite’s RV show. Instead I was blown away. If I was planning to replace an RV within the year, I would try to make it to this show before making a decision on a model. The selection just couldn’t be beat and they were all ready to deal.

While we were in Hershey we had to visit Hershey’s Chocolate World. It was free so what they heck.

Mostly it was a large store with every product Hershey sells in one place. They had some free samples including products that weren’t yet for sale anywhere else. But the highlight was an animated ride taking you through their process of manufacturing products including talking farm animals.

We then visited downtown Hershey and walked around. It made for a nice stroll as there are plenty of cool old buildings. The street was lined with kiss-shaped street lights.

Jim really wanted to visit the Gettysburg battlefield an hour away. We looked into stopping there a night or two after leaving Hershey but couldn’t find a good, reasonably priced camping option. So I lobbied for a day trip instead.

The park was free but the museum and film were not. So we skipped them. We picked up a map at the visitor center and checked out the limited number of free exhibits they did have. Then we headed out on the self-guided driving tour.

The drive was pleasant and there was plenty to see. It was a lovely area.

And the cornfields and split rail fencing took you back in time.

There were numbered stops that corresponded to the map and took you through the 3 day battle. But primarily there were monuments, some 1,400 of them, scattered all over the place.

There were several larger ones, the most impressive being the Pennsylvania Memorial.

During our time in the area we chose to stay at PA Dutch Country RV Resort. It was 15 miles from Hershey but the closer ones were too expensive or booked. Dutch Country is a Thousand Trails property but our Thousand Trails pass does not cover this zone so we booked it through Passport America for $26 per day full hookups. It was a nice park except it was very poorly laid out and many sites were incredibly uneven front to back so I can’t say I’d go back.

Philly

Philadelphia, PA – September, 2016 During a whirlwind tour of the northeast in 2004 we drove right by Philadelphia and didn’t take the time to stop. I’ve always regretted that we didn’t squeeze in a visit to the Liberty Bell at least. So when we planned this trip I hoped that we might scoot over to Philly and check it out.

We had kept the schedule for this jaunt through the north and east rather fluid up to this point but we did have an event we wanted to attend and a reservation made at our final stop of this tour. Luck would have it that we ended up with an entire week to kill before those dates so I gladly planned a full seven days in and around Philly. We stayed outside the city in Hatfield at the Village Scene Mobile Home Park. We were given a lovely sight in the back of the park with full hookups for a weekly rate of $264.

Valley Forge was nearby so we made a visit there our first day out and about. I was surprised to learn that there were no civil war battles fought at Valley Forge. It was simply where George Washington and his troops spent a very rough winter. The soldiers built their own quarters so the construction varied.

There were several large monuments but the National Memorial Arch was the most impressive.

Washington’s Headquarters were the most interesting part of the park. The home that he rented and lived in with Mrs. Washington has been restored and furnished to look much as it would have during his stay. There was a ranger and a costumed volunteer there to answer questions.

Valley Forge had a great visitor center, an informative film, and made for a lovely drive. And it was all free. By the way, if you are a cyclist it was extremely bike friendly.

Jim requested a visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary, a once famous prison built in the 1820’s that is now a ruin and a museum. The prison was designed with a hub in the middle which the hallways radiate from so that all the cells could be monitored from the center.

The hallways are filled with tiny doors to small cells. A second story of cells were added to some of the hallways later to relieve overcrowding.

One of the most famous occupants of the prison, Al Capone, lived a bit differently than the average prisoner.

This museum was informative and entertaining. It was a pretty good value, $14 admission each and $10 for parking. We arrived an hour before the museum opened, parked, and walked a half mile to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. We walked around the building until we found what we were looking for, the Rocky statue.

Of course, I had to run up the steps that were featured in the movie.

We had left home at 7:30 to hopefully beat the rush hour traffic. We didn’t! We avoided the interstates on the way in as Google traffic showed they were at a standstill. Jim drove through heavy 6 lane traffic down Broad Street. When we left the prison I easily jumped on the interstate and made it home in no time. If we had it to do over we would have left even earlier, like 6 am, or waited until after 9.

For our second foray downtown we chose public transportation. There is a train stop a few miles from the campground where it costs less than $1 to park on weekdays or it’s free on weekends. We planned to catch the 7:30 train and were a little concerned when the ticket office wasn’t open until 8 a.m. and there were no automated ticketing options. But a fellow passenger assured us that we could buy our tickets on the train.

We hopped aboard and a conductor came through the car about 10 minutes later. We bought a day pass for $12 each that allowed us to ride all the trains and city busses we wanted. Then we relaxed and watched the city go by while we road in stress free comfort.

We love to use public transportation when it is reasonably priced. My research said that parking in downtown garages would have cost around $20, assuming our 7 foot tall truck would even fit. The train was definitely a better value.

We arrived at the Jefferson station within an hour. We walked outside and it took a few minutes to get our bearings but we soon figured out which way to head. We walked a half mile to the Independence National Historical Park enjoying the old buildings along the way.

We started at the visitor center. I knew we had to pick up a ticket but that it was free. I hoped our ticket time wouldn’t require us to wait too long. Instead they said if we hurried we could make the next tour time. We wanted to enjoy the visitor center for a bit so I requested a ticket time a half hour later. We checked out the exhibits there and decided to pass on the free films.

We then ambled across the street to see the Liberty Bell which is what I thought the ticket was for. But we walked right in, went through security, and no one asked for a ticket. The light wasn’t in my favor and we had to wait a bit for a 5 second window when no one was standing in the shot but I finally got a pic.

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We then moseyed across the street to Independence Hall and learned that our ticket was for a tour of it.

philly-indhall

Despite my confusion and lack of planning we happened to arrive just in time for our tour. It was definitely the highlight of our visit. Our tour guide had this booming voice that made you wonder if he would have a voice left at all by the end of the day. The tour was entertaining and very educational. It ended in the room where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and where our Constitution was drafted a decade later.

We walked a different street back toward the train station. We wanted to roam the Reading Terminal Market. It was filled with booths hawking food and assorted wares. We had philly cheese steaks for lunch and bought some sweet treats from a bakery for later.

The market was practically on top of the Jefferson station so after lunch we made our way down into it. This train station is huge so it was a little more complicated to find which train would take us home and where to catch it. But more helpful passengers pointed us in the right direction and we only waited 30 minutes for the train that ran approximately every hour.

We thoroughly enjoyed the area and I’m glad the oversight of our last trip through was righted.

Catskills

Accord, NY August-September, 2016 We briefly visited the Catskills in 2004 and longed to return. When I say briefly I mean it was one stop on a 5 day, 5 state whirlwind tour of the northeast that we dragged our youngest daughter, then 12, along on. It was a marvelous adventure and the only time we could spare from our busy lives at the time. We do things differently these days.

We chose to stay for a week this time and picked a home base in Accord from which to explore this vast park. At first it was hard to choose where would be best to launch our explorations from but after some research it started to become clearer pretty fast. We couldn’t afford to spend a whole week if we had to pay over $50 a night to camp. The only reasonably priced option we found that was close to where we hoped to be was SoHi Campground in Accord which offered a weekly Passport America rate of $225.

Minnewaska State Park had been our primary stop on that long ago trip and was high on our list of must sees. There the lovely Peter’s Kill (kill means creek in these parts) runs through the park. A hike takes you along the creek to the top of Awosting Falls.

Then it continues down to the bottom of the falls. The last time we visited in the spring so there was a lot more water. Here’s my baby in 2004.

Here is the falls on this visit. That’s Jim standing beside it.

You can see the falling water a little better from the side.

The rocky bed of the kill itself was just as fascinating as the waterfall.

There are other waterfalls if you continue downstream or you can head up to a gorgeous lake and hike all the way around it if you choose.

This park is only 10 miles off Interstate 87 and well worth a visit if you are passing through.

One of our favorite day trips this time around was to Kaaterskill Falls. It is the highest two tiered waterfall in New York state. The moderate 1.5 mile hike into it is accessed from a pretty small parking area and then a short walk down the highway. You should get there early if you want a space because the next best alternative is a hike of many miles.

We arrived around 8am on a drizzly weekday morning and were about the 4th vehicle there. We didn’t have to share the trail in with too many people but by the walk out the trail traffic had picked up considerably and the parking lot was almost full when we pulled out around 10am.

The view of the entirety of the falls is pretty.

You can then walk up around a hundred stairs to get a better view of the upper fall which is downright stunning. The stairs then continue to the top but we didn’t proceed.

Jim pointed out this fellow to me on the way in. I have an especially strong dislike of millipedes and was careful where I put my hands the rest of the hike. He was around 5 inches long!

Each day we explored another direction and enjoyed views like this one from the truck. This was because there were almost no scenic pullouts. We took turns driving so one of us could concentrate on keeping the truck safely on the narrow roads leaving the other free to rubberneck.

Jim tried his hand at fishing the famous local trout streams. The most disappointing part of this endeavor was just how limited the access was to these waters. It didn’t help that his back was bothering him and just about all of the limited accesses we did run across required scrambling down steep embankments which he was not up to. It wasn’t too big a deal since we didn’t see a single other fisherman (or fish for that matter) which is probably because the stocked streams are fished out by late summer.

Despite this fact we enjoyed a couple hours at the infamous Junction Pool where the Beaverkill and the Willowemoc Creek meet.

We wandered the main street of mountain towns like Phoenicia and Roscoe. Both were charming but didn’t take long to explore as many of the shops were closed on a weekday. Woodstock was the exception.

We stopped in after our hike to Kaaterskill Falls. We had lunch at the Catskill Mountain Pizza Company where they sell pizza by the slice for very reasonable prices. Jim’s sausage slices were bigger than his head and all three of our pieces came to just $10 (cash only).

This town has a lot going on and doesn’t slow down because it’s noon on a Wednesday. There are plenty of interesting shops offering everything from healing crystals, to funky clothing, to palm readings.

If you get tired of walking you can grab a seat and the people watching will keep you entertained while you rest. The folks here are all about self-expression. I’m certain we saw a few hippies that came to the area for the summer of love and loved it too much to ever leave.

When I heard that there are 5 old fire towers still standing throughout the park I wanted to climb at least one. There is an organization that maintains the trails to these gems and even opens them to visitors on summer weekends. We waited toward the end of our week when Jim’s back was better and headed to the Red Hill Fire Tower, the easiest one to reach.

The trail was 2.8 miles roundtrip but was still a bit of a struggle because it was rarely a clear trail. It was full of rough rocks and tree roots most of the way.

The elevation gain was around 1000 feet and was a pretty steady climb. You finally come out of the dark woods to a view of the sixty foot tower built in 1921.

We had come on a Friday so the top was not open but we climbed up to the top of the stairs and enjoyed some spectacular views of the mountains and forest to the east

and of the Rondout Reservoir to the south.

We thoroughly enjoyed our weeklong visit to the Catskills. It wasn’t exactly what we remembered or expected but was extraordinary all the same.

Niagara Falls

August, 2016 – Niagara Falls, New York & Ontario I have wanted to visit Niagara Falls for many, many years. I can’t claim I’ve never been as there is evidence to the contrary.

I’d guess I was around 2 in that picture so it must be circa 1971 or so. It only took me 45 years to return. I’m so glad I did.

We spent the first full day there seeing everything we could from the American side. Our first view of the falls from Prospect Point took my breath away. The enormity of it is just hard to wrap your head around.

Goat Island is between the American Falls and Horseshoe Falls. Here is the view from Goat Island of the American Falls …

…and Horseshoe Falls. There is a perpetual rainbow, often two, over the falls, because of the large amount of mist.

Everything I read said we would be paying $10 per day to park but we were pleasantly surprised to find free parking at the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center. We bought trolley tickets there for $3 each. We hoofed it most of the day but it was nice to be able to hop the trolley back to the truck at the end of the day. The trolley driver said that on slow days they also don’t charge for parking in lot #3.

Our first day at Niagara had really wet our appetite and we could not wait for the next day so we could visit the Canadian side. We had every intention of driving over until the very last minute when Jim suggested we walk. We went back to the free parking we had found the day before, grabbed our backpack, and set off.

It was just two miles from the parking lot, across the international Rainbow Bridge, and all the way to head of the falls. Getting through Canadian customs at 8:30 in the morning was a breeze. There were only a couple people in front of us.  The official  asked us just a few questions and didn’t search us.

Here is the view as soon as you get past customs. The Canadian side was very beautifully landscaped all along the edge of the gorge.

We bought WeGo shuttle passes at the first welcome center we came to so we knew whenever we got tired we could get a lift. The shuttle passes were $7.50 each Canadian so after the favorable exchange rate and with the finance charge my credit card charged for the conversion we paid $6 American.

We weren’t in any hurry to leave the walkway along the gorge for a while. The view of the falls from the Canadian side is so much more complete than the American side. The view across from a waterfall is always better than from the top of it which is basically what you get from the US.

Here some brave souls zip line in front of the American Falls.

The crowds gather early above Horseshoe Falls.

We walked another half mile past the falls up the river admiring the landscaping, river views, and cool buildings. Then we decided we needed a rest so we hopped on a shuttle and rode it the 8 miles that it traveled down river. We rode past neighborhoods, and through downtown, and past every conceivable tourist attraction.

We were actually surprised how crowded the bus was at that time of the day. There were times when it was standing room only and at another point we were the only people on it. The bus turned around at Queenston Heights Park and we continued to ride it back through all the same stops and finally got off when we got back to the first stop after Rainbow Bridge.

We had our lunch in a lovely shaded garden and now that we were rested and nourished we set off to see more sites on foot. A couple people had suggested we visit Clifton Hill, a popular street near the falls. One person even compared it to the Vegas Strip.

So off we went up Clifton Hill. I was surprised to find the main section of this strip was only about a quarter mile long. And we found it to be more comparable to Branson than to Vegas.

But it was entertaining to see and at least the walk back to the falls was downhill. We had seen everything we came to see but I requested a return walk along the falls as the afternoon lighting would make for better pictures.

So we made our way along the now incredibly crowded walkway and admired more of the Canadians’ gardening.

We gazed a final time at the entirety of the American Falls.

And we got more pictures from the bridge, the best place to get a good shot of both falls together.

We were surprised by the 50 cent toll the Canadians charge to get back on the bridge but grateful they provide both a Canadian and American change machine and we actually had a dollar on us. The pedestrian and car lines waiting to get in to Canada in the early afternoon were extremely long. The line of cars waiting on the bridge to get into the US was shorter but we walked back through customs with hardly any wait, answered a few questions, and were back at our truck in no time grateful we had chosen to walk.

Our campground was an easy 15 minute drive from the falls on nearby Grand Island. The bridges to the island charge a toll to get onto the island but not to get off. So we paid something like $3 to get the fifth wheel onto the island and then paid $1 every time we left and wanted to return home.

We camped at Cinderella Motel and Campground where we got an electric site. The sites were close but they were extremely dark and quiet tucked way back behind the hotel. Those are traits we treasure as so many campgrounds have a lot of traffic noise and security lighting.

The Passport America rate was $30 for the first two nights then they charged us their regular rate of $40 for the second two nights. That was almost half what most campgrounds in the area charged. The very best deal in the area is free boondocking at the casino right by the falls. But it was just too hot during our visit to consider going without AC.