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Snapshots: Along the Wild Azalea Trail

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Snapshots: Along the Wild Azalea Trail

The Wild Azalea Trail runs for 31 miles through Kisatchie National Forest near Alexandria, Louisiana. It is accessible from several different trailheads in the area, and I hiked about a 3 mile section of it leaving from the Twin Bridges Trailhead on Route 488. It was a pleasant walk through the woods with some up and down to make it interesting, but not enough to make it difficult. The trail was quiet when I was there, but well marked and obviously well traveled. While the wildflowers were only just starting to bloom when I visited, they were still putting on quite a show. I really enjoyed this hike and only wish I had budgeted more time to have been able to do more of it. Either way it was a wonderful couple of hours in the woods and I would definitely recommend this trail if you are ever in the area. I hope you enjoy some of these photos from the Wild Azalea Trail in Central Louisiana.

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The Springs of Florida

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The Springs of Florida

Florida is home to over 700 natural springs which combine to produce more than 8 billion gallons of freshwater every day. That means Florida produces a gallon of water for every person on Earth every single day. That’s impressive. There are more natural springs in Florida than almost anywhere else on the planet. 33 of these springs are considered First Magnitude Springs, meaning they produce at least 64 million gallons of water a day. That is simply awesome.

Visiting some of the bigger springs in Florida has been one of the absolute highlights of my visit to the state. The water is often clear and beautiful and the springs are usually surrounded by lush vegetation and an abundance of wildlife. In particular, several of these springs provide a winter home for the amazing West Indian Manatee who would otherwise freeze to death in the cold ocean waters. The constant temperatures of the springs allow the manatee to stay warm enough to make it through the winter and then head back out to sea for the summertime.

During my six weeks in Florida, I only scratched the surface of all the wonderful springs the state has to offer, but I thought I would share some of my favorites with you here…

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This Week on the Road - February 7th-14th

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This Week on the Road - February 7th-14th

It’s been another great week out here on the road. This week I’ve made my way to a handful of Florida’s 700 natural freshwater springs, enjoying some swimming, kayaking, snorkeling and boat tours as I went. I also dipped into some real “Old Florida” towns, most notably at Cedar Key and Micanopy. This week I also visited the State Capitol in Tallahassee and enjoyed the Florida History Museum there as well. I ended off the week by dropping down to the “Forgotten Coast” and cruising along the Gulf of Mexico through hurricane ravaged towns. I’ve seen some really stunning places this week and learned a lot as I went. As I write this, I’m coming to the end of my time in Florida, and I must admit I will be sad to see it pass into my rear view mirror

My week started with a visit to Three Sister’s Spring National Wildlife Refuge in Crystal River for one more look at the manatees. Once again, as has been my experience throughout Florida, this proved to be a little too expensive to provide value for money. You have to park at City Hall and pay the $15 entrance fee and then hop on a shuttle for the five minute ride to the refuge. Once there, there is a nice boardwalk around the spring itself, which is beautiful, and some great spots to view the largest population of manatee in Florida. When I was there, it was a fairly warm morning, so there were only about 20 manatee around. They were amazing to see and photograph, and there were tons of volunteers around to help answer questions, but if it had only been $7-8 it would have been better. I hope the money went to preserving the habitat and keeping the manatee healthy…

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Swimming With Manatees

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Swimming With Manatees

If you’ve been following me through Florida, you know how much love and appreciation I have developed for manatees since I have been here. It has been amazing to see them so often in so many different places, especially knowing that not long ago they were on the endangered species list. These beautiful, big mammals are so peaceful that I find them relaxing just to watch. During the winter, the open ocean and Gulf of Mexico become too cold for the manatee, so they make their way upriver to natural fresh water springs, which have constant temperatures year-round. The manatee will spend their winters there, venturing out when the water is warmer to find food.

The only place you can legally get in the water to swim with manatees in Florida is in Crystal River, and I have been looking forward to doing this during my entire stay in the Sunshine State. I chose to do my trip with the company Fun 2 Dive, because they are established, family owned and got excellent reviews . Also, being Miles2Go myself, it seemed appropriate. I chose the 7 a.m. departure because the colder it is, the more likely you are to encounter the manatee near the springs (and thus in clearer water)…

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Snapshots: Myakka River State Park

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Snapshots: Myakka River State Park

Myakka River State Park surrounds Florida’s first designated Wild and Scenic River. The river winds through a vast expanse of wetlands, prairies, hammocks and pine forest, and is a welcome break from the Tampa-St. Petersburg corridor just a little over an hour north. The park showcases an amazing diversity of flora and fauna and it felt so unspoiled when I visited. I went with my friend Amber, who is a serious naturalist, and she showed me all kinds of wonderful things while we were there. We started our visit at the suspension bridge and observation tower which took us through and then above the canopy for a bird’s eye view of the park. It was amazing to look out across the park and not see a building in any direction. From there we went and hiked out to Mossy Hammock Campground along the Fox’s High Road and were surrounded by live oak draped in Spanish moss and beautiful birdsong. We emerged into the prairies for a while, where her dog could run at full speed. When we finished our hike, we spent some time by the lake, enjoying the magical reflections we saw there. In all, it was an amazing day out in the wild with good company and beautiful weather. It was a little wet on the trails, but we managed. This was a great park to visit, and I hope you enjoy my photos from Myakka River State Park.

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This Week on the Road - February 1st-7th

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This Week on the Road - February 1st-7th

February is upon us. Hard to believe, but it’s really here. I know I’m not the only one that thinks February is weird because it’s so short. Why don’t we take the two days from some of the months with 31 days and add them to February to balance it out a little bit? I don’t know and I’m not going to look it up. I guess I could use the same argument I make against the metric system - boring! But it is February, and that means spring is coming. It’s just about a month until Mardi Gras, and then it’s only 40 days until Easter. Before we both know it, it’ll be May and I’ll be back at home in D.C. and planning my next moves. I’m not going to lie, I am going to need a break. I’ll be going back to guiding this summer where I hope to do some planning, some real site maintenance, some catch-up, and figure out where Miles2Go goes from here. In all honesty, the loneliness is getting to me. While I have amazing friends who have been super supportive and amazing to catch up with around the country, my day to day is a little too isolating and a little too quiet. I don’t know what the answer is to that right now, but I will let you know.

It’s been a pretty good week out here in West Florida. My second Georgia podcast is finally done. This one took a while because the weather has been so great here, and my mind has been on other things, but it is up and published. You can find it at THIS link, or by searching “American Anthology” on iTunes, Stitcher or most podcasting apps. Other than that, I’ve been catching up with friends and trying to get out and enjoy this great weather in some of Florida’s beautiful parks.

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In Focus: Everglades National Park

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In Focus: Everglades National Park

species of birds, 300 species of fish, 50 species of reptiles and 40 mammal species. Included in these numbers are the endangered Florida panther, and the American crocodile, which is only found in the Everglades. In addition to its National Park status, the Everglades is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the International Biosphere Reserve. It’s a remarkable place.

I have visited the Everglades many times, and always enjoyed myself there. There are always alligators out and about and hundreds upon hundreds of birds. On this visit I went in the east entrance all the way to the beautiful boat harbor at Flamingo, across the Tamiami trail, and down to Everglades City and the 1000 Islands as well. I was hoping to do an overnight kayaking trip, but the weather was threatening, so that will have to wait until next time. While it was fairly dry during my visit, the area will get extremely wet during the frequent summer rainstorms. I prefer the less buggy winter months though. I love getting out and doing airboat rides in the Everglades, and my favorite place to do them from is Everglades Alligator Farm outside the east entrance. To be fair though, I’ve gone with half a dozen different companies in my life, and never had a bad airboat ride. Inside the park, I particularly liked the Anhinga and Gumbo Limbo Trails near the east entrance. They have lots of wildlife and some pretty awesome trees to check out as well. The trails were flat and pretty easily accessible as well.

I hope you enjoy these photos from the Everglades, and I hope you can get out and explore them for yourself…

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The Best of the Florida Keys

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The Best of the Florida Keys

I had an amazing week in the Florida Keys, exploring the parks, pubs and restaurants that make the Keys so great. I’ve been coming to the Keys since I was in high school and they’ve always held a special place in my heart. They’re America, but not. The Keys are like a little slice of the Caribbean, right over the bridge. While last week I wrote up my ultimate Keys Pub Crawl (which you can read HERE), some people have been asking for more ideas and suggestions on the Keys. So I thought I would jot down some of my favorites to help you navigate through the islands and find some really top spots along the way.

Beaches

Many people are surprised to find out there aren’t many great beaches in the Keys. The islands are generally surrounded by mangroves so the sand beaches are mostly man-made. That isn’t to say there aren’t some great beaches along the strand, but you do need to know where to find them…

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In Focus: Biscayne National Park

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In Focus: Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park is a remarkable area in far south Florida, protected for its “rare combination of terrestrial, marine and amphibious life in a tropical setting of great natural beauty”. It is remarkable among National Parks as 95% of the park is covered by water. The coral reef which is protected within these waters is part of the third longest barrier reef system in the world. A part of that reef became exposed long ago, forming the barrier islands on the outer edge of the park. These islands are a part of the Florida Keys, although since they were never connected by rail or highway, they have remained relatively isolated. This isolation does not mean they have not had visitors though. Both John James Audubon and Robert E. Lee visited these outer islands in the 19th century. In the 20th century, the upper keys hosted wealthy businessmen and 5 sitting or future U.S. presidents.

In the fifties, proposals were put forth to develop these upper keys, connect them with a highway to the mainland and build a city to be called Islandia. Thankfully (in my opinion), this development never took place, as a small but vocal group called for protection as a national park instead. Through their efforts,this area became a national monument in 1968, and a national park in 1980…

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This Week on the Road - January 1st-10th

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This Week on the Road - January 1st-10th

Hello and Happy New Year! It is great to be moving into 2019 with a full year on the road stretching out ahead of me. 2018 was an amazing year full of new places and new people and 2019 is poised to be even better. I’m starting this year in the great state of Florida, The Orange State, and a good start it has been.

I rang in the new year with my old friend Peter and his family in Largo, Florida, between Tampa and Clearwater. Peter’s uncle had a party for the occasion full of food, friends and music. There was a campfire by the canal and fireworks throughout the night. It was a great way to say goodbye to 2018 and hello to 2019.

On New Years Day, I had the wonderful opportunity to cheer on my Penn State Nittany Lions against the Kentucky Wildcats in the Citrus Bowl right there in Orlando. It was my first bowl game, and I really enjoyed it. The weather was beautiful, the stadium was pleasant enough, and it was great to be watching football in the Florida sun..

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Snapshots: The Manatees of Blue Springs State Park

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Snapshots: The Manatees of Blue Springs State Park

Blue Springs State Park near Orange City is one of several winter homes for the wonderful West Indian Manatee. Also sometimes called the “sea cow”, manatees can reach up to 13 feet in length and can weigh as much as 1300 lbs. Despite their size, manatees are quite graceful in the water, propelling themselves with their large tails, and can reach speeds up to 15 miles per hour. Manatees are mammals, so they need to breath air, but can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes at a time. They are vegetarians, and have no natural enemies, but are often wounded by the propellers of passing boats. In the 1970’s, manatees were placed on the Endangered Species List, but their population has rebounded and in 2017 they were downgraded to threatened status. They are sheer pleasure to watch, and the water of Blue Springs State Park is so clear it makes the experience even better. I enjoyed hiking to the source of the springs, which is also a scuba dive site when the manatees aren’t in for the winter. The park also offers boat tours and kayak and canoe rentals to explore the St. Johns River, but the manatee habitat is closed for the private use of the animals. Located only an hour or so from Orlando, this makes a great getaway from the crowds and noise of the amusement parks. I loved my visit to this park and happily just stood and watched the manatees for hours. I highly recommend Blue Springs State Park for anyone visiting Florida in the winter when the manatees are in their winter home.

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This week on the Road - December 13th-20th

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This week on the Road - December 13th-20th

Hello everyone. I hope y’all have had as good a week as I have. This week, I had a great time finishing out my visit to Georgia traveling to Jekyll Island, the Okefenokee Swamp and Cumberland Island National Seashore. From there, I crossed the border into Florida and have spent a wonderful few days in The Sunshine State, mostly just chilling out and hanging out with one of my best friends. I’m headed home to Washington D.C. for the holidays, and really looking forward to a few days off the road. It’s time to recharge my batteries, fill up on Christmas cookies and good cheer and catch up with my family and friends for a few days. I haven’t always been able to make it home for Christmas over the years, so I’m grateful to have that opportunity this year.

After we met last week, I spent Thursday on beautiful Jekyll Island, just south of Brunswick. One of my very good friends who I used to work with on St. Thomas, had lived and worked on Jekyll for a while, and gave me all kinds of great places to visit while I was there. I started with a walk out to somewhere she referred to as “bird pond”, although I don’t think it actually had a name. There were a ton of pretty birds there though, so I can see why she would call it that. The area I parked in to make the walk was beautiful as well, with amazing oak trees draped in Spanish moss. From there I made my way out to Driftwood Beach, stopping to see some cool old tabby ruins from some of the island’s earliest settlers on the way. Driftwood Beach was a beautiful beach on the north side of the island which was covered by massive dead trees and, obviously, driftwood. It was awesome and I had a wonderful walk up and down the beach, spotting tons of birds along the way…

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