As a Midwesterner I have to say that the impression I got of Florida whilst growing up is so far afield from what one can easily find here as to be laughable. Our last trip here in early ’13 we spent primarily in the S. Florida Everglades and along the Gulf Coast at such places as “Ding” Darling NWR. On that occasion we saw a little of both ‘hidden’ Florida and popular Florida. This winter’s trip will end up being much more about the heart of Florida than the edges and we are finding a great many exceptions to the popular Florida mythology.
After recreation.gov gave me a hard time finding Ocala National Forest campgrounds I used my GPS to give me a route that would hopefully take me to a few of the same. The Rand McNally RV unit has a memory of 10’s of thousands of campgrounds including all the National Forests and National Parks. A few minutes picking campgrounds in Ocala, and the by using the auto-rerouting feature that selects the most efficient route for any trip with ten stops or fewer and we had a 162 mile trip that was supposed to take us to National Forest Campgrounds.
The first (in terms of importance) thing we learned is that the listing of National Forest campgrounds is not as accurate as the machine’s listings of other campgrounds. In several instances we arrived at our “destination” to find nothing at all. That includes driving down 8 miles of hard-pack on the road the USFS has signage promising a campground only to arrive to what surely looked like no signage, no campground and no more road. I should really stop at the Ranger Station and try to understand where they hid the campground. But I’m not sure I’m all that curious so that may not happen.
The Ocala National Forest is the Southern most protected forest in the U.S. For obvious reasons — namely the nearby population — it’s not a virgin forest. It has been managed by the USFS; logged and replanted. As a result it’s not a ’natural’ forest and any expectation that one will see vast swaths of randomly spaced trees is going to be disappointed. There are a lot of trees here but most of them have been farmed.
There are also significant stretches of ‘scrub’ forest, areas where no trees exist at all — which is to say that nothing over about 15’ exists. The soil and water conditions simply won’t support anything other than these stumpy shrubs and undergrowth. A lot of wildlife can exist in there but just not a lot of tall trees.
There are significant sections of forest that have been clear-cut here, just as we found in Oregon. What I was not seeing on this drive was any indication that these clearcut areas had been or were about to be replanted. I don’t think Florida has any state laws as does Oregon requiring the replanting of forest that has been harvested.
We found a couple of the forest campgrounds (they weren’t all missing per Rand McNally). My reasons for searching them out were to see a.) whether we would fit in them — yes they are primitive (no water, electric or no sewer hookups — but would the sites even be long enough for our 40’ coach, and b.) what about camp hosts? I have seen the Forest Service advertise for volunteers to man their primitive sites but wanted to see first hand how they handled things here.
It turns out that we — with our 40’ coach — would have to be pretty careful about using any of the campgrounds we found. For one thing there were overhead issues — plenty of places that we saw there a 13’ 6” clearance was not likely. Branches and such overhung the roads in several places. There were some campgrounds that had zero sites long enough for us — but the recreation.gov website would likely tell us which they were — on a day when it’s working correctly.
We saw a couple hardy souls in vintage RV’s who were making themselves quite comfortable in the forest. With no water or sewer hookups — and some of the campgrounds had no dump station — that meant that you could stay in place as long as you could contain your own fluids: fresh water to drink and soiled water in your tank. At some point you’re going to have to get UN-comfortable and go find a dump station. A couple of the campgrounds had fresh water but not all. Those with water you could fill your tank from the water hydrant; those without you’d have to find yourself a potable water supply.
The camp hosts had their own set ups. A couple of the campgrounds had a power post, and a telephone hookup. We saw several portable, potable water trailers — small trailers holding perhaps 40 gallons of fresh water that would easily be towed behind a pickup truck. Compared to the one similar situation at the Siuslaw forest where they had a 250 gallon tank that a forest service employee filled on demand that little 40 gallon tank looked like a kludgy solution but I suspect it’s small like that so that the volunteer can maintain his own water supply.
We got to talking between ourselves about the Forest Service campgrounds. When we considered moving up to a 40’ coach we knew we were sizing ourselves out of numerous camping options. I’ve talked a bit about this before. Many state parks were built long before the days of 40 foot RV’s and we simply can’t get into them. Several of the parks I’d most love to camp in, within Wisconsin, we are sized out of.
Many of the campground references will tell you the max length for a campground and the online services customarily identify each reservable campsite by length of unit — but it’s something you have to be careful about if you have a long RV.
Most of the Forest Service campgrounds were constructed — I’m quite sure — long before the days of long RV’s and at a time when there weren’t a lot of camping choices to begin with. And with the budget cuts the Forest Service has endured it certainly looks like developed recreation is not their highest priority. All of the campgrounds we saw — except the ones being operated by concessionaires were looking pretty peaked. Maintenance was needed and maintenance wasn’t getting done. I suppose that in a day and age when so many private campgrounds are available, and when private operators are spending more money and making more money on RV’ers that government provided facilities will continue lose the battle of competitive equality.
We did find Off Highway Vehicle parking and facilities here — as in Oregon — but they were much smaller and (in the ‘middle of winter’) there wasn’t as much usage. But we also saw a surprising number of jeeps and pickups equipped for off road use that were bouncing around the Forest Service roads right along with us. They were clearing having a blast — they are OUR forests and people use them for all manner of purposes. Just because the purpose is not MY purpose doesn’t mean they aren’t getting used.
It was a fun day. We saw more of the area. We didn’t see much sun. Well…. actually we didn’t see any sun. And the temps were only in the upper 50’s and lower 60’s. But that was better than up north.
We did find another RV park that might be a better fit for us. Wandering Oaks RV Resort isn’t much of a ‘resort.’ It’s more open than Ocala North, has fewer amenities (no pool or on-site laundry) but it’s less than 1/2 the distance from Ocala and services. But we won’t make any changes until we know were we stand on our lock repair and the possibility of replacing slide toppers. Phone calls are on the schedule for the next couple day.
We’re learning more about Florida, having a good time, enjoying life. Our stay here is turning out not to be anything like we expected — but that’s ok when your’e living a Life Unscripted. Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll talk with you tomorrow.