Our last Florida stop: Gilchrist Blue Springs west of Gainesville, Florida’s newest state park, and one of our favorites. It is a popular place for campers, but especially for day users, for whom the park limits vehicle access to a certain number, then closes the gates for a few hours, reopening sporadically to allow in new cars if space permits. I want to reiterate that this is not like Wekiwa Springs State Park’s policy of closing once the parking lot is full, and then reopening for five new vehicles as soon as five exit; at Gilchrist it can quite literally take hours to get in if you were not in the first group. Thus, on weekends and during the summer months, day users are well advised to arrive quite early, i.e., before opening time, and wait in the likely already formed line.
For us campers, the hard part is getting reservations. The campground only has 18 hook up sites, which means that availability is limited, particularly on weekends. We felt lucky to secure a five day run, Sunday through Thursday, on relatively short notice, particularly since schools are closed and the locals are filling the parks with their travel trailers. One of the volunteer rangers seemed to believe that the park was well into planning major improvements that would see the entire RV section moved up the hill to the more spacious area closer to the entry road. We will monitor that process during our twice a year visits.
I screwed up a bit on day one of our stay: while making the reservation I got it in my head that our spot, #11, was the same one at which we stayed last visit; the site with the moderate oak tree nearly centered on the entrance, which complicated the back in process. Upon arrival and check in my assumptions appeared confirmed by the ranger’s remarks, something about the challenge of getting into out reserved site. So we headed on down, unhooked the tracker, and after a bit of maneuvering got backed in and fully set up.
An hour or two later another camper arrived, couldn’t find their spot, consulted the ranger, who knocked on our door. That’s right, I had parked in the completely wrong spot, #5, due to following my assumptions rather than looking at the actual map and signs. I apologized to both the ranger and the arriving camper profusely, during which I learned that the new arrivals had the exact same days reserved as us.
I offered them the choice of using our actually reserved site, or waiting the half hour it would take for us to disconnect, pull in slides, levels, and awning, and then vacate. No pressure, we would be happy to do either, but they elected to just take our site. I did feel bad, because it took them a long time to get their trailer backed in properly, though the oak tree in “our” site would likely have made it just as problematic had we switched back. Lesson learned #1 from this post: check your damn site number!
Anyway, cousin Robb and the twins, Nola and Maeve, joined us that first day, though they could not stay the night due to previous commitments. They had been at the park for hours before we arrived, having utilized the previously mentioned “arrive early and wait in line” strategy to secure entry. The girls actually spotted us drive the rig by while they were all on a lunch break back in town. They helped us complete our set up and then it was spring time!
Having purchased the park from private owners a couple of years back, the state has made some limited “improvements,” by which I mean they have removed things they found unsafe, or rather, liability issues. The boardwalk, which previously extended the full 1/4 mile out to the Sante Fe river, now only goes a couple of hundred feet, well short of the old jumping off point for rowdy teenagers. The jumping platform, previously positioned directly over the main spring boil, has likewise been removed; which means no more fun of jumping and flipping off the roughly 10′ high structure, but also the spring itself is now safe to free dive.
The latest change, a real heart breaker for me, is the closure of the secondary spring head to swimmers. Located a couple of hundred yards from the main spring, the secondary spring was barely known to the majority of the day use crowd, and provided a near private natural swimming pool to those of us in the know. I suspect they closed it for more liability concerns as it had no easy ramp entry point, but nature preservation is apparently the stated reason. Ah well, it was good while it lasted.
Here’s another bit of drama (fortunately not ours) with an obvious lesson that occurred during our stay. While hanging out with the cousins that first afternoon, we noted a huge dust cloud trailing a pickup truck and travel trailer combo screaming along the main entry road. This is a road that, even once beyond the lengthy washboard section, I still drive at perhaps 15 mph or less in our rig. This truck was easily doing 40. An hour later as we were all walking towards the spring, this same rig maneuvered aggressively around the campground loop, apparently to better position for her site, doing at least 20, probably more like 25 mph. Keep in mind this is a narrow loop with tight turns and numerous trees that most parks would have long ago pared back. 10 mph would be a safe maximum speed. She rounds a left hand bend behind us and comes to a sudden, crunching stop when the trailer’s extended wheel and fender creamed into an oak tree. She failed to take into account two things: the trailer is wider than her truck, and the trailer does not follow in the tracks of your truck, but rather cuts the corner as you turn. Thus: tree.
At first it looked like minor cosmetic damage to the fender, but as another camper and I worked to maneuver her out without causing further damage, we noticed that the front left wheel of the two axle trailer was way out of alignment, i.e., pigeon toed inward 10-15 degrees, indicating to our amateur eyes a broken axle. We got her out from the tree, convinced her to stay at least one night (she was, as most would be, very upset and thinking about just leaving immediately,) and advised her to call her manufacturer and discuss options for perhaps removing the front wheels to make a slow and steady single axle drive to her home 60 miles away. She did stay a couple of nights, but as I understand it, blew off our recommendations about making calls, and elected to just pray that she could make it home in “as is” condition, broken axle and all. Lesson learned #2 from this post: drive slow in campgrounds people, for many reasons!
Pre-COVID we would have done what we usually do in small but quaint towns: hit the local shops, thrift stores, breweries, Moose Lodge, and a couple of restaurants. We skipped nearly all of that, though we did make a return to High Springs Brewery for a fantastic couple of beers, served in their spacious outdoor sitting area with almost no contact with the staff, much less any other customers. Even their indoor seating is basically open air, with masks and distancing we felt pretty safe.
On our last full day the cousins returned, this time for an overnight tenting experience. Like most kids, the twins love a campfire and smores, and Robb delivered with a rousing fire. The evenings are quite warm as you can imagine July in Florida always is, but one of our fans hooked up to our outdoor socket helped make their large tent a bit more comfortable. What a great visit, we always enjoy our time with cousin Robb and family, and hope that our next visit Colleen can join us as well.
As mentioned in the last couple of posts, we are on our way out of Florida, but we have not mentioned any particular plans for the rest of the summer and fall (or winter and spring, for that matter.) Lacking a coherent itinerary like our pre-COVID intention of making a counter-clockwise tour of the Western US and Canada, plans now long abandoned, we do have three motivations driving us: get out of the raging COVID hot spot formerly known as Florida, get out of the heat-ravaged-and-it’s-only-going-to-get-worse oven (also known as Florida,) and satisfy as best we can our wanderlust with some travel. For now that means heading generally towards the Carolina mountains. Over the course of the next three weeks, things firm up considerably.
Next up: June report, then more cousins, this time outside Atlanta.