Final Winter 2021 stays: Wekiva, Gainesville, and Snellville

Down to our last eleven days in Florida, we again benefitted from Dad and Marcia’s official retirement from full time RVing by inheriting their back to back reservations at one of our favorite Central Florida campgrounds, Wekiva Springs State Park. As late in the game as we began looking for openings, we would have been incredibly lucky to find such availability, and only if someone made a late cancellation and we happened to be the first to discover it online. Folks, that’s three separate italicized words for emphasis, so I can’t be any more emphatic.

Bundled up for the notorious Florida winter.

Don’t get me wrong, cancellation hunting has been our go to strategy throughout most of Florida since we started this RV adventure. It generally works as long as you are persistent, i.e., query online at least daily, and a bit flexible on the specific park and dates, e.g. checking three or four properties within your target region and accepting that you might have to move sites or even campgrounds to string together a week or more stay. For the CFL area we generally check Wekiva, Blue Springs, Trimble, and (last resort) Lake Monroe. Regardless, a ten day opening would have been quite unlikely, so Dad and Marcia really hooked us up.

Many of us embraced new hobbies during the pandemic. I hope to keep the bread making going. The machine: free, the ingredients: cheap, the effort: minimal, and the results: superb.

We had a full hook up site for three days, and then switched to an electric and water only site for the remaining seven. For those considering a Wekiva Springs State Park stay (which should not be confused with the private Wekiva Fall RV Resort a little further north) there are 60 sites in two loops within the main campground area (there is a separate group camping section). The 30 lower numbered sites are all 50 amp full hook ups, whereas only about half of the spots in the higher numbered loop have full services; the rest are 30 amp power and water only. For a short stay we tend to prefer the higher numbered loop because it has significantly better tree canopy than the lower loop. For those hoping for satellite TV coverage, the lower numbers will give you a better chance.

Our second site at Wekiva Springs: we saw deer, snakes, gopher turtles, and wild turkeys.

For our last week and a half in Florida, we made sure to visit with more relatives, particularly since Florida was haphazardly rolling out the COVID vaccination campaign, and some of our people had already managed to get at least their first shot. Son Jackson and DIL Andrea visited with us in the park, bringing with them their latest toy, a camera equipped, compact, quad copter drone. Man, these things have become so capable. Operated in conjunction with any smart phone, the thing is largely self flying and has a number of automatic modes for ease of use. It is exactly the sort of toy I could see myself doing hours of research on, agonizing about which specific model to purchase, and then wrecking it within the first hour of use. Regardless, it’s on our short list of wanted items.

Drone demo about to commence.

We also visited Aunt Judy and Bill and cousin Brian for an excellent dinner, and somehow managed not to take any pictures, which, I suppose, counterbalances the agonizing hours of holiday photo sessions that mom and Judy orchestrated throughout my youth.

Still reeling from our Geo Tracker engine rebuild costs, we kept things quite cheap during this period. Aside from the necessary supply restocking in preparation for our spring travel and work plans, we occupied ourselves with the critical (and mostly free!) activities of relaxing, restowing the RV for travel, watching shows and movies downloaded from public wifi sources, and, of course, geocaching. Because we have been coming to this area for years, we have a good number of caches logged here, and added to those via multiple outings this visit.

This is a typical geocaching display map. Green circles are caches we have not found, yellow smiley faces we found, and blue frowny faces we looked for but could not locate.

Despite repeated stays at Wekiva Springs, we had never managed to get up to Sand Lake and the handful of caches available on the hiking trails there. We partially remedied that with this time with a couple of strolls along the heavily wooded paths that parallel streams leading to the lake or main river. Mosquitos drove us out before we could get the last two, but we enjoyed the hikes, and the deer, turtles, and other wildlife, we saw during our successful hunt for four of the Sand Lake hides.

After ten days at Wekiva we broke camp and headed north for our final Florida stop: Cousin Robb’s and family in Gainesville. We have been visiting them during our entries and exits from the state for years, though we usually try to arrange a weekend stay at Gilchrist Blue Spring State Park so they can camp with us. There were no openings this time, but Robb and Colleen always welcome us to driveway camp at their place, so that’s what we did, and enjoyed a great spaghetti and garlic bread feast in their home. With the Gilchrist Blue Spring campground scheduled for major renovations, we look forward to a joint camping experience there down the road.

From Gainesville we made the run up to Snellville, on the outskirts of Atlanta, for what has become another traditional “visit cousins when leaving or entering Florida” routine. While there we see four generations of Rose’s relatives: (grand aunt) Titi Clarivel, her daughter (first cousin once removed) Betsy, her children (second cousins) Marissa, Daniella, and Gammi, and Marissa and Rey’s kids Annalise, Sarah, and Elisha. We stay in Rey and Marissa’s driveway, hooked up to one of their exterior 20 amp electrical sockets.

Since our first visit three years ago, we have watched their family grow: Annalise is now five, Sarah is two, and the newest baby, Elisha, a few months old now. During that time both Rey and Marissa have earned their college bachelor degrees, and upgraded to a larger house in a quite suburb which, it should be noted, has much better RV street parking arrangements than their last home.

Rey has switched jobs to a tech company, and has the flexibility to work from home, at least during the COVID pandemic year. Marissa has expanded her part time, Cricut-based, party decoration business into a full time money maker. Balloons figure prominently.

Next up: Asheville and our spring plans.

Having subdued Pennywise, Kitty Meow Meow emerges from the storm drain.

74 Months Full Time RVing: February 2021 Report

The Distance: 552 Miles as we meandered from South West Florida to Central West Florida, with extra mileage along the way due to moving the tow vehicle from one mechanic to another to finish the engine rebuild installation process. Total for 2021 is up to 651 miles.

Route would have been 200 miles shorter if not for moving Loki around for repairs.

The Places: Despite late developing plans we were able to find several excellent and even reasonably affordable places to stay during February. We started the month at South Bay Campground on the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee, stayed at our first Corps of Engineers campground (W.P Franklin North,) and then hit one new (Lake Manatee) and one old (Oscar Scherer) state park. As we finalized our Geo Tracker repairs, we stayed one night at MacDill Air Force Base, two nights in a Cracker Barrel, and close out the month with stays at Hillsborough River and Lake Louisa State Parks.

WP Franklin North has boat slips to rent as well as RV site.

We stayed 1 night at a military campground, 2 at a Cracker Barrel, and 25 in public parks (5 county, 6 COE, 14 state.) We had full hook services for 7 days, partial (electric/water) for 18, and dry camped for 3.

Hillsborough River

The Money: Making the final payments on the Tracker engine rebuild along with having to fill up the big rigs gas tank for the first time in a few months put us 39% over budget. Without any offsetting income options, we have started off 2021 in the hole. Fortunately, we have some plans to get back on track.

When you are over budget, its good to have a mostly free hobby (and despite the ripped jeans look, the hobby in question is “geocaching” not “looking homeless.”

The Drama & Improvements: As we wrote up in the post before last, Loki continued to be a source of drama this month, but with the rebuild complete, hopefully better and reliable automotive days are ahead of us. After all, we now have a 24 year old truck with 183K odometer miles sporting a zero miles engine.

Nearing the end of our Florida Winter: Hillsborough River and Lake Louisa State Parks

With the fully operational Geo Tracker back in our possession after more than eight weeks for the engine rebuild, you might think we would immediately head out for our 2021 adventure plans, but even this late in the winter we still had time to kill before our early spring commitments began. The Tracker fiasco did not really delay our Florida exit so much as destroy our intended late winter Florida exploration: given more time we would have bounced around the state hitting a few favorite and a couple of new spots. As it was, we contented ourselves with two weeks in three Florida State Parks for our final Florida 2021 hurrahs.

The uncertainty of the Tracker repair completion date had not only forced us to cancel some reservations, but also precluded us from making anything more than tenuous new ones. Once Xtreme Zukes Offroad had the truck in their shop for final repairs, we were comfortable making a few reservations, but this late in the game, in Florida, during the peak snowbird season, options were limited, despite the ongoing COVID pandemic.

Regarding that: I only have anecdotes and subjective personal observations, but it really seems like whatever loss in business Florida RV parks experienced due to state/local restrictions, the Canadian border closure and other snowbird travel reticence has been largely made up for by the otherwise booming RV industry, with families of all types itching for some form of vacation but without pandemic risks and limitations. It will be interesting to see what happens to the RV industry as vaccination rates climb, restrictions disappear, and all of those people who bought RVs during the pandemic start back to traditional travel and vacation patterns. I’m predicting a used market glut and an associated drop in prices for both new and used.

Anyway, we expanded our search area and loosened our criteria, which finally exposed a five day opening at Hillsborough River State Park, a new place for us. While we would have preferred one of the fantastic campgrounds located at a major spring or right on the water, Hillsborough River was still quite nice. It was another typical Central/South Florida State Park with swaths of scrub oak and pine forest surrounding widely spaced campsites under a moderate canopy. At $29 a night for an electric and water only back in site is not the best deal going in Florida State Pak campgrounds, but its solid compared to the private short stay options, and it’s hard to complain about a last minute winter reservation anywhere in Florida.

Having spent an unexpected five grand on vehicle repairs on top of completing a multi month stay at one of our most expensive RV parks, we kept things pretty tight: other than groceries and topping off our big propane tank we satisfied ourselves with mostly free activities during our stay. That meant evening walks to the nearby lake and several geocaching outings.

In significant family and related RV news: Dad and Stepmom Marcia have hung up their full time RV lifestyle. After nearly six years on the road, the last couple of which involved increasingly focused house hunting, they bought a place in Central Florida and promptly sold their fifth wheel. Though we will miss family joint camping events, especially the accidental ones, they spent a lot of time travelling and were quite ready to have a permanent home, especially one that ticked so many of their lifestyle requirements.

Once they finalized their move in date they offered us their two remaining and unneeded RV park reservations, beginning with the nearly next door Lake Louisa State Park. Given the Central Florida location, size of the campground, and somewhat more available reservations compared to other nearby public parks, it is surprising that we have never stayed there before. Having now experienced it, and with its close proximity to Dad and Marcia, we are certain to use it again down the road.

The park contains the region typical scrub oak, pine, and palm forests, but adds atypical rolling hills and meadows throughout the extensive, lake dotted acreage. Dad and Marcia had snagged one of the full hook up, pull through sites, making our stop that much more convenient. $28 a night for a site with these amenities is a good deal particularly considering the beauty of the surroundings and the price you would pay at a comparable private RV resort in the region.

Digressing a bit: Rosemarie and I do not make pull through sites a priority, though we know plenty of RVers who do. We generally chose the greater site availability afforded by back in sites over the ease of parking provided by a pull through spot. If I were pulling a big travel trailer or fifth wheel, I would be looking for pull throughs as well, especially for short stays. But with our quick disconnect Blue Ox flat tow system, I can have Loki parked out of the way in under two minutes, and Rosemarie is quite the expert at guiding me back into even tight sites.

Having said that, there really is something nice about just pulling right in and being able to get right to setting up camp, and we are grateful for those times we get to experience this minor luxury. So thanks to Dad and Marcia for this campsite and the next, and for the great-though-too-short visit.

Next: A monthly report and then our last eleven days in Florida for some time.