Surprisingly, despite more than six years of full time RVing and hundreds of different campgrounds, until this February we had never stayed in a Corps of Engineers park. For a while I had it in my head that Midway Campground along Tamiami Trail in the Everglades was a COE place, but no, it’s run by the National Park Service. And now, after having actually stayed in a COE park, the differences between the two are stark. While Midway’s location is convenient and the surroundings quite natural, the reservation system, quality of sites, available services, and condition of facilities are well below that of a COE campground, particularly since, in this “compare and contrast” example, they are the same price.
First, a quick review of why we are camping in the area at all: it’s winter and this is Florida, our tow vehicle is still in the shop, Key West Naval Air Station Campground at Sigsbee remains closed, and there is an ongoing (and still raging) global pandemic so we won’t go to our crowded destinations for craft and farmers markets. With our desired region for this time period defined as a rough triangle between Lake Okeechobee, Port Charlotte, and Naples, we used AllStays.com, cross referenced to user review sites, to develop an expanded list of local RV park options, some of which had never previously appeared on our proposed campground radar. Normally we would also use Passport-America for this research, but these months are almost universally blacked out for the PA discount for participating parks in Florida.
Our efforts, loosely begun during the last weeks of our tenure at Periwinkle Park in Sanibel, intensified while at South Bay. Within our target triangle there were about 50 private RV resorts, most of which we dismissed as overly expensive, poorly reviewed, or inconveniently located, though we kept a few as part of our back up plan. Instead we focused on the handful of state parks, a couple of county options, and two COE properties: W.P. Franklin North and Ortona South, both on the Caloosahatchee River.
From this list we sought to secure sites using the appropriate online or phone systems, aiming for a minimum of three day stays, a week if possible. We are old hands at the Reserve America website, which handles reservations for thousands of federal, state, provincial and local government owned parks in North America, including all Florida State Parks. Though we have less exposure to the Recreation.gov system, which operates many federal properties including COE parks, we definitely gained experience and appreciation for it during this month’s reservation efforts. It has similar functionality and appearance to Reserve America’s website, but with a few features we found more convenient. The best aspect of the COE system over RA’s is the clear and unadulterated pricing: the final cost is “as listed,” with no extra reservation fees or taxes popping up during checkout.
After checking for cancellation generated availability multiple times every day at various state and COE spots, we managed to secure six days at W.P. Franklin, divided between two sites. What a fantastic park. The COE property straddles the Caloosahatchee River, the main westward outflow from Lake Okeechobee. W.P. Franklin exists due to a century old effort to make the Caloosahatchee navigable by commercial shipping from The Gulf to The Big Lake, back well before environmental concerns might constrain such a large scale engineering project. This meant not only dredging and straightening the winding river, but also putting in locks to control the lake level and freshwater flow due to the limited but discernable elevation change from Central Florida to the coast.
The COE property includes the southern shore day use area and lock, the northern shore campground and boat ramp, and a controlled flow damn between them. There is no public bridge to get across the river, even on foot, without going about five miles west, so plan your route accordingly. The northern section and campground is on an old river oxbow a dozen miles northeast of Fort Myers. It is a small park with only 30 sites, all electric and water only, but nearly all of them are waterfront. The low Florida elevation, proximity to The Gulf Coast, and lack of nearby vertical construction results in excellent sunset views for all.
Though close to Fort Myers, without a tow vehicle this place felt quite isolated, much more so than South Bay, for example. At the latter the bodegas and fast casual dining where but an easy one mile bike ride away. Here it was five miles just to get to a Shell gas station. We didn’t worry about that, because we didn’t worry about leaving the property, other than for evening walks. We satisfied ourselves with the abundant wildlife, fantastic sunsets, and peaceful mood generated by proximity to a quite, slow running river. We watched the gators and turtles, pier fishers and boaters, and herons and osprey. Rosemarie dared to even rise before dawn one morning to take in a sunrise, though it was obscured by heavy cloud cover.
As a result of our excellent experience at W.P. Franklin, we are absolutely sold on COE parks, and will include them as high priorities in our future travel planning, especially when back in Southwest Florida.