Birds and Blossoms: Two Gems in California’s Central Valley

Snow Geese in flight at Llano Seco Wildlife Refuge – February 2019

As I write this post, we are preparing to leave California tomorrow for Arizona with Tucson as our destination. We had originally hoped to get there several weeks earlier, but Mark’s dental appointments kept us longer. We now leave at a stressful time with all the life changes and uncertainty this country and of course the world is facing over the Coronavirus. We had hoped to travel to Southern California first to visit with our son/daughter-in-law and see some other relatives as well, but had to put that off for later when things are more stable. While in Tucson we will be staying at the same mega RV park (even the same space) as last year. We really liked the park a lot because they have an abundance of activities, clubs and events. In addition, we really enjoy the desert scenery. We are going to look into buying what is called a “park model” which is stationary and bigger than an RV but smaller than a mobile home. We could be “snow birds” and stay during the winter months and then continue to travel around the U.S. with our trailer when it warms up. We will see what awaits us when we reach Tucson, as the situation with this virus changes daily as new requirements are put into place.

Luke and Levi looking for birds on the boardwalk at Cosumnes River Preserve

In this post I thought I would share some thoughts and photos on two bright spots in California’s Central Valley. Hopefully this will give a bit of a break from all the virus news and bring some cheer to our readers. Since I have written a number of other posts about my interest in birding, it should not be a surprise that I have more to share today. Each November they come along the Pacific Flyway as wildlife refuges and wetlands fill with geese, ducks, shorebirds and sand hill cranes. Going out to see the birds was a winter ritual for me every year when we were living in California. On our recent stay we hit a few of our favorites to see how the birds were doing.

Levi tries on some antlers at the Cosumnes River Preserve Visitor Center

It is always fun to help the younger generation learn about birding and our two grandsons Luke and Levi seemed to enjoy a few trips to Cosumnes River Preserve near the town of Galt. We checked out the small visitor center and then took to the trail wandering through an oak forest and by wetlands before ending up at the largest marsh full of ducks and white fronted geese. Luke and Levi did great learning how to use the binoculars and identify some birds they had not seen before. They also diligently marked off our finds on a list.

Checking off the bird list
Greater white-fronted Geese
Black-necked Stilt in flight
Green-winged Teal

We stayed for the sunset and to watch the sand hill cranes fly in, one of the most exciting birding sights. Unfortunately, I had left my long camera lens at home during our sunset visit, so missed getting a shot of them landing.

Shannon, Luke and Levi enjoying a rest on the boardwalk before sunset
Watching for the sand hill cranes

One afternoon Mark and I headed south to the Merced Wildlife Refuge to drive the auto tour route. We saw a variety of shorebirds, ducks and the highlight – hundreds of snow geese blanketing the water. For us, this has been the best place in the Valley to see these geese.

Mark on the observation platform at Merced Wildlife Refuge

When the sun was setting they lifted from the water to a neighboring field for the night.

Snow geese filling the sky at sunset

One of my favorite ducks is the Northern Pintail which was in great abundance when I visited Llano Seco Refuge near Chico with my parents the day after Christmas. We had also hoped to see snow geese as they are frequent visitors but on this day there were none around.

Northern Pintail – the most elegant duck

It almost never snows in the Central Valley, but there is a snow like quality here each February when thousands of almond trees burst into bloom. It is quite a sight driving the roads and seeing all these orchards of white. Blossom time was one of my favorite “seasons” when we used to live here. Sometimes when I was still working I would take my lunch break by driving the nearby country roads, pulling off at a good spot to admire the beautiful trees.

Miles and miles of orchards like this one fill the Valley with “snowy” blossoms

Almonds are one of the biggest crops in this part of California which still relies heavily on agriculture. Blue Diamond Almonds is a name most people recognize and they have a large plant here.

As I close, wishing all of you the best of health and stability in the weeks ahead! We will be thinking and praying for you as our world heals.

A Magical Day on Steep Ravine Trail and Dining in Sausalito

One of my favorite things to do when traveling is finding trails or pathways to walk or hike. I have a reason to believe my friend Arlene feels the same and together over the years we have done a variety of hiking and walking trips around California. We have hiked the high country of Yosemite National Park, enjoyed a number of San Francisco stairway walks and several years ago set ourselves the challenge of doing 10km walks created by the California Volkssport Association in each of California’s counties. Out of 58 counties, we were able to complete about 40 walks and along the way learned a lot about the history and attributes of this great state. The Steep Ravine hike was a trek Arlene introduced me to some years ago and while recently spending time back in Northern California, we decided to walk this trail again towards the end of January.

Me at the beginning of the trail
Arlene walking amongst the redwoods

The Steep Ravine Trail is located in Mt. Tamalpais State Park, in a hilly area of Marin County north of San Francisco. As my title suggests, the walk is magical as it enters a lush redwood canyon amass with ferns and a rushing stream. We were fortunate to go at just the right time after the area had received some significant rainfall, meaning there would be water in the canyon. In addition, we had a sunny, fairly warm day so the conditions could not have been better.

Lots of little waterfalls along the Steep Ravine Trail

The narrow rocky trail descends (sometimes rather steeply) almost the entire way through the canyon with lots of steps to navigate. That meant of course a steep climb back up. But not for us as we had other plans in mind you will see later in this post.

I love hiking among redwoods, in a rainforest environment with moss covered trees and ferns dripping with water. Steep Ravine offered us all of that and it was a picture perfect walk. The bonus was all the little waterfalls along the way with the biggest next to the fun part: A ladder propped next to a rock for us to descend before continuing along the trail.

We had our only mishap of the hike when Arlene threw her walking sticks down before climbing the ladder. She had meant for them to hit the trail, but one of them splashed into the pool in front of the waterfall. While I contemplated whether to wade in and retrieve it, a “knight in shining armor” came to our rescue. A young man arrived who had better balance than us and bracing himself against a tree next to the pool, was able to grab it from the water.

It was easy to dawdle in this forest, taking in all the beauty and sounds of water burbling over rocks and logs. We crossed so many bridges I quickly lost count. When hiking I am always so grateful when bridges are securely in place and no fording or rock hopping is needed!

Our dawdling though meant that we might miss our plan to be at the town of Stinson Beach before 3:00. The Steep Ravine Trail leads out of the forest with expansive views to the ocean below. Even though we had been here before, we were still surprised once we got out to the open how far away it looked, so we needed to start power walking down the hillside. We also had one more lush green forest (this time oaks) to traverse before hitting the town.

View of Stinson Beach

Our goal was the bus stop with a 3:00 pickup and we got there with just a minute to spare. The whole walk down we were hoping the bus would be running late. It came right on time so luckily we were there because we did not want to walk back up the ravine. For just $2.00, the bus took us back up to the parking lot where we left our vehicle – what a great deal!

View from one corner of the Spinnaker Restaurant
View of the Bay from our table
The San Francisco skyline

Our next plan of action was driving to the little town of Sausalito and a great dining spot called the “Spinnaker.” Just eating here for the views is worth it because the restaurant sits right on San Francisco Bay with lots of windows on three sides. In addition, the food and service is very good. When we arrived we were treated to skyline views lit by beautiful late afternoon light.

Outside view of the City next to the restaurant

We dined on wonderfully prepared scallops while watching the sunset and lights come on in the City.

City view with part of the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge on the left

It was indeed a magical day in the San Francisco Bay Area. Thanks for checking in – next time a post on two California Central Valley treasures!

Exploring Stephen Foster Folk Culture State Park, Florida

🎶 🎹 Way down upon the Suwannee River, far far away 🎹 There’s where my heart is turning ever, there’s where the old folks stay 🎶. I grew up learning Stephen Foster songs and remember playing a few of them on the piano. Foster was a famous American composer who lived from 1826 – 1864. In his short life time, he wrote the music and words to over 200 songs including “Oh Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “Old Folks at Home,” which is also known as “Way Down Upon the Suwannee River.”

The Suwannee River is located at this state park which pays tribute to Stephen Foster and one of his most famous songs. One would think that a Florida state park dedicated to him would mean that Foster was a Florida native, resident or had been a regular visitor, but in traveling we have find out some things are not what they seem. Foster never visited Florida or even saw the Suwannee River. So the question is, why would he use it in a song?

Suwannee River

Stephen Foster was born and lived outside of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. Since many of his songs had southern themes, I assumed that he was from the South, yet he never lived there. One day in 1851 while writing “Old Folks at Home,” he went to the office of his older brother named Morrison who worked at a cotton mill in Pittsburg. He asked him if he knew a good two syllable river name in the South that would fit in his song. His brother suggested two which Stephen rejected and they got down an atlas to look for another one. Morrison’s finger fell on the Suwannee River in Florida and Stephen knew he had found the right one. He changed the spelling to “Swanee” to better fit the verse. This once obscure river was soon to become famous around the world.

The Suwannee River begins in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and meanders south through the Florida panhandle before emptying into the Gulf

In 1935, the Florida legislature designated “Old Folks at Home” the official state song. Due to concerns that the song romanticized slavery, some of the words were altered before it was adopted. In 1950 this state park was created to honor not only Stephen Foster, but also to promote folk culture. In 1953, the Florida Folk Festival was first held here and has continued each year on Memorial Day weekends with music and crafts. The park reports it is the longest running state folk festival in the nation.

Front entrance of the state park museum building

During our visit to Florida in February 2018, one of my favorite places to explore were the state parks. We visited a number of them located on the Gulf of Mexico, but this was the only one we visited in the far northern part of the state away from the Gulf. When I found out about this park and that it was “sort of” on our way to St. Augustine, I knew I wanted to visit and learn more about Stephen Foster. The park has exhibits and artifacts in a museum housed in a beautiful building with antebellum architecture built in 1948.

Inside, one of the major displays we found was made up of dioramas with scenes, moving figures and music inspired by Foster’s songs. Lots of work and painstaking detail went into them with 14 artists spending nearly two years creating the first eight. One person worked full time for nearly eight years. Everything was handmade especially for the diorama – for example the piano in “Jeanie” was hard carved from solid black walnut. The first rows of cotton in “Way Down” have hand formed stems, leaves and cotton bolls attached.

Foster wrote this song about his wife
This song became the state song of Kentucky in 1928.

One of the most beautiful parts of the museum were the two large decorated rooms with rare and historic pianos. There is even a piano that Stephen Foster once played donated to the state park by a great-granddaughter.

Stephen Foster’s piano
Antique piano with mother of pearl keys
The decorated Museum features historic pianos

Another piece of Foster furniture can also be found here. His niece, daughter of Stephen’s brother Morrison wrote a letter regarding how the song came about and the importance of the desk to the family: “This desk was always in our home and I can attest that on many occasions I have heard my father caution me and my brother never to let anything happen to this old desk for it was the one on which your uncle Stephen wrote the song Way Down Upon de Swanee Ribber.”

Stephen Foster’s note for “Old Folks at Home”

During his musical career, Stephen partnered with Christy’s Minstrels, a musical troupe who performed his songs. He sold the rights of his “Old Folks at Home” song to Christy for $15.00 and it became very successful and popular. Foster never received any credit for writing it until after his death. He was only 37 years old when he passed away from complications after a fall in New York City. When he died on January 13, 1864, he was almost penniless with a mere 38 cents found in his pocket.

Located in the park is a 97 bell carillon in a 200 foot tower that plays Stephen Foster songs throughout the day. It is considered the world’s largest tubular bell carillon. Well, songs usually play but unfortunately when we visited, the tower was needing renovation and all was silent 😔. Inside the building we did find other music to listen to. A park volunteer gave us our own private concert playing the dulcimer as well as the piano. Other exhibits regarding the carillon and Foster can be found here.

Carillon Bell Tower

Since the park also supports folk art and culture, there is an area of small buildings devoted to artisans, called the “Craft Square.” We visited a few of them although some were closed up for the day.

The Craft Square

We ended our day with an evening jam session held in a community room. This Friday night bluegrass jam was open to anyone who wanted to bring their instrument or just listen, which is what we did. Mark and I have always enjoyed these jam sessions during our travels and this one was enjoyable as well.

I think that is it for catching up on our Florida travels from two years ago. Until next time!

Exploring Wakulla Springs State Park and St. Marks Wildlife Refuge

Wakulla Springs State Park

The State of Florida boasts the largest number of fresh water springs in the United States as well as the world. In 2001, the Florida Geological Survey reported there were at least 700 springs. One is located at Wakulla Springs State Park and while staying in Tallahassee for several days, we made a trip to the park to see the largest and deepest freshwater springs in Florida and perhaps the world. The opening to the springs goes down 180 feet and the area is filled with sinkholes and submerged cave systems formed by dissolving limestone. The extensive cave system beneath the springs extends more than 32 miles and serves as a network of channels that supply the more than 250 million gallons of water per day that flows from the springs. The name “Wakulla” could be from the Timucuan Indian word for “spring of water” or “mysterious water.”

View from the diving platform of the park’s swimming area and boat dock in the distance
The springs are home to manatees

It has been two years since we explored Wakulla and I hadn’t taken the time to write about it until now. It has been nice to reminisce and check out the photos again. At the time, the main draws for me were the guided boat tours and the chance to see manatees, an animal we had never seen before. Located above the very large springs are a platform where we first viewed these creatures. Underwater their bodies looked like a long, shapeless blob. It was exciting to see several of them swimming around together.

Manatees gather at Wakulla in the winter months when they are searching for warmer water which stays 70 degrees here year around. Also known as “sea cows,” they are related to the elephant with grayish thick, leathery, wrinkled skin. They are propelled by huge powerful tails but are actually slow swimmers. They are heavyweights, weighing between 1,000 – 3,500 pounds!

That’s me in the orange shirt and hat waving
Bald Cypress trees along the Wakulla River

The ranger guided boat tour was a relaxing journey down the Wakulla River which is bordered by a swamp. We viewed majestic bald cypress trees, alligators and a variety of bird life like anhingas, white ibis and hooded mergansers. I thought it was interesting that the great egret in photo did not seem fearful to be hanging out right next to a very large alligator.

Hopefully a sleeping alligator and an alert egret?
Pied-billed Grebe

Archaeological field work has been conducted here since 1850 when the first mastodon bones were discovered in the springs. More bones were found including a complete mastodon skeleton in 1930, now on display at the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee. Since I like visiting state museums, I ventured there another day and saw the skeleton pictured below. As recent as January 2019, another mastodon skeleton was found covered in sediment eight feet below the Wakulla River.

Mastodon skeleton from Wakulla Springs

Hollywood has also found the park to be appealing as a number of movies have been filmed here including a few Tarzan films like “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure” (1941) and the popular “Creature From the Black Lagoon” (1954). Most scenes from the “Black Lagoon” were filmed in California at the Universal Studios Backlot, but the underwater sequences were filmed at Wakulla. If you want to be amused check out You Tube of the cheesy “creature” swimming below the female star. I had never seen the flick, so got a kick out of watching a few of the watery scenes. Movie special effects have come a long way. Film crew from the movie “Airport 77” placed a 70-foot mockup of the 747 into the basin of the springs for the underwater sequences.

Wakulla Springs State Park Lodge

In 1937 a grand Spanish style lodge was constructed and continues to provide rooms and a restaurant. The interior has lots of special touches including a great deal of marble work with the world’s longest known marble bar (70 ft.) in the soda fountain/gift shop. The ceiling in the lobby is beautifully covered with decorative hand painting.

Hotel lobby with hand painted ceiling

After our visit to Wakulla we drove down to St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge (1931) which is one of the oldest in the National Wildlife Refuge System. It was established to provide wintering habitat for migratory birds. It features coastal marshes, estuaries and is situated along the Gulf Coast of Northwest Florida.

Mark getting some shots with his long lens
Tricolored Heron
American White Pelican

Before our trip we were given a tip that a bald eagle nest with babies could be seen at the refuge (thanks to Anette) and we were able to locate it. Although it was far off, with our binoculars we could watch one eagle feeding a youngster while another parent sat in the treetop above the nest. Mark was able to catch the scene with his camera.

The other birding highlight was the large flock of Redheads. I hadn’t seen this duck in some years, so it was neat to see so many here.

A pair of Redhead males

St. Mark’s Lighthouse can also be found here. The present tower was built in 1842 and is still used today. When we visited, we found the tower and light keeper’s dwelling were being renovated.

St. Mark’s Lighthouse

We were treated to a great sunset at the refuge. I was very glad we arrived before the show!

Sunset on the Gulf Coast

Thanks for checking in – until next time!

Grand Buildings and Pirates in St. Augustine

View of Flagler College from across the street

I wanted to do one last post on St. Augustine because there are some pretty neat buildings I have not yet shared. St. Augustine is a lot about Spanish architecture and several buildings showcase this very well and definitely deserve a look. Perhaps the most well known is Flagler College, a place that would be great to attend just to be surrounded by such elegance. Built in 1887 by Henry Flagler the founder of Standard Oil, students live in a building designed to be an exclusive resort once known as the Ponce de Leon Hotel.

Entrance to Flagler College courtyard

It became a private liberal arts college in 1968 and today students actually give architectural tours of the building which I joined one morning. We toured the courtyard, lobby, dining room and Flagler Room which was formerly called the Grand Parlor. Below is a photo of the lobby and rotunda which has fancy carved woodwork, a mosaic tile floor, murals and a domed ceiling.

View of the lobby
Domed ceiling in the rotunda

The dining room was the most interesting as the design led me to feel I had been transported to Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School. The heavy looking wooden chairs were hand carved with cherubs. Supposedly the seats were originally padded with Spanish moss but chiggers would bite the dining guests (yikes 😳), so Flager had the chairs stuffed instead with horse hair. The high ceilinged walls are adorned with many murals, but the most remarkable sight are the 79 original Louis Tiffany windows. Tiffany was given the task of designing the interior spaces in the hotel.

View of the dining room
Dining area with original Tiffany stained glass windows

The Flagler Room looked to me like a fancy ballroom with Austrian crystal chandeliers and a fire place with an original Thomas Edison clock inlaid into the largest piece of white onyx in the Western Hemisphere. Edison wired the hotel for electricity, one of the first buildings in the U.S. to have it. Hotel staff would turn the lights on and off in the rooms because guests were often afraid to flip the switches themselves.

Flagler Room
Original Thomas Edison clock

Across the street from the College, Mr. Flagler designed another former hotel built in 1888 called the “Alcazar.” The building closed during the depression and in 1948 it was purchased by Otto Lightner, a Chicago magazine publisher who converted it into a museum for his large collection of fine art. The building also now houses city government offices. There is so much to see and do in St. Augustine that I didn’t get around to touring this museum, but I did spend some time walking around the inner courtyard of the magnificent building which once held the world’s largest indoor swimming pool, now dry.

When I visited it was the 498th birthday of St. Augustine’s founder Pedro Menendez de Avila, so a wreath of fresh flowers had been placed in front of his statue.
The courtyard of the former Alcazar Hotel

I did take a tour of another grand building called the Villa Zorayda Museum which was built in 1883 as a winter residence for Franklin Webster Smith. In his design, he replicated the architectural details of the Alhambra Palace in Granada, Spain. The subsequent owner opened the building as a museum in 1933 with a collection of many historic pieces of furniture, antiques and art collected by both owners from around the world. The most well known piece is the sacred cat rug which is reported to be over 2400 years old and made from the hairs of ancient cats that roamed the Nile River.

Unfortunately, photography was not allowed inside the museum which was a shame as the interior was beautifully designed and made me feel like I had stepped inside a moorish castle. The tour involved using an audio wand that explained all the different exhibits as I walked the two floors of the building.

Entrance to the Villa Zorayda Museum

Ahoy Matey! I visited the first pirate museum of our travels here in St. Augustine. Although it is not housed in a grand building like the three others above, it had interesting displays and information and is reported to have one of the largest collections of pirate artifacts in the world. Historically, pirates were alleged to have hung out in St. Augustine and the Castillo de San Marcos fort located across the street from the museum.

The museum has information about famous pirates and the laws and punishments against piracy. There is a replica gun deck of a pirate ship and a variety of artifacts including gold and silver bars, gold coins owned by the pirate Blackbeard, sunken treasure, weapons and personal effects like Captain Kidd’s family bible. There are also interactive exhibits and animatronic pirates. Below is a photo of an original Jolly Roger flag, one of only two remaining pirate flags in the world. Although it is called “jolly,” the flag actually was designed to strike terror in the hearts of people.

The museum features the only known authentic pirate treasure chest that is 400 years old and made of metal. It was owned by Thomas Tew who made an enormous fortune raiding ships in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea.

Thomas Tew’s Chest

The treasure in the next photo is called the “Taj Mahal Sunken Treasure” as the son of the builder of this great mausoleum ordered these coins to be minted. Bound for the orient several hundred years ago, the ship was caught by a typhoon and sunk. The shipwreck was discovered in 1963 during an underwater movie scouting expedition and the coin clump removed.

I thought I would close with a photo of a quiet street in the old part of St. Augustine, a city that certainly captured my heart. In the next blog I journey back in time to our visit to Wakulla Springs State Park in Florida.

St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park

It is fun finding specialty zoos while traveling and St. Augustine has a rather unusual one devoted to alligators. The zoo was founded in 1893, starting off as a small exhibition of Florida reptiles. It continued to grow and has been at its current site on Anastasia Island since 1920. Anastasia is actually a barrier island off the Atlantic Ocean east of St. Augustine. Besides alligators, the zoo also has all the crocodile species (24) from around the world, a bird rookery and exhibits of African birds and other reptiles.

I enjoy visiting zoos and thought this one was well laid out and interesting to visit – plus I do really like seeing alligators, both in the wild and in captivity. The zoo has several shows during the day including ones where visitors can learn interesting facts and observe alligators being trained and fed. When it was feeding time at “Alligator Lagoon,” the gators came charging through the water to get their share, quite a spectacle of huge open mouths and snapping jaws.

Alligator training demonstration
Feeding demonstration

On a series of wooden platforms I walked through the native swamp filled with alligators and crocodiles swimming and lounging. Near the pools is also the wading bird rookery which was for me a highlight. The birds are completely wild and are not fed or interacted with by zoo staff. They are free to come and go as they wish. Since there were so many birds it appears they find this zoo appealing, even though there is a throng of alligators lurking below their tree habitat.

Native swamp with bird rookery
Wood Stork
Wood Stork in flight

Most of the birds I saw were Herons, Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks. Some of them seemed to be busy building nests as they were carrying branches and twigs.

Great Egret carrying a branch
Great Egrets and a Wood Stork on the tree top
Great Egrets and Wood Storks high in the tree tops
Roseate Spoonbill – An interesting fact is these birds get their pink coloring from the food they eat

Another interesting bird area was “Birds of Africa,” which are not free to come and go. Below is a photo of the Marabou Stork, one of the largest flying birds in the world with a nine foot wing span. It has a long pink air sac hanging from its throat which can be inflated or deflated like a balloon. It is used for display to either attract a mate or defend their territory.

Marabou Stork

Cape Griffon Vultures are one of the largest vultures in Africa and feed solely on dead animals the size of an antelope or larger. These vultures are hunted because locals believe if they eat their eyes they will obtain the bird’s clairvoyant abilities and become successful in gambling. When I visited, two adults were taking turns sitting on a nest with eggs.

Cape Griffon Vulture on nest

The zoo has a collection of albino alligators that come from the Louisiana Bayou. These alligators wouldn’t last long in the wild because their coloring would not allow them to blend into the surroundings. Being pale also means they are in danger of skin and eye damage from the sun. Apparently it is a good idea to take a long look at these unusual gators 😊. Legend says those who gaze upon these beautiful reptiles will receive good fortune.

Albino Alligators
Baby Albino

One of the largest crocodiles to have ever lived at a zoo has been preserved here. Gomek once lived in the waters of New Guinea where he terrorized and killed local villagers. After being captured, he eventually came to live at the St. Augustine Zoo where he died in 1997 at about 80 years of age. He is now displayed in a room surrounded by beautiful hand carved Papua New Guinea art.

Gomek – He was almost 18 feet long and nearly 2,000 pounds – amazing to think of a crocodile weighing close to a ton!

Since the St. Augustine Light Station is also located on Anastasia Island and near the Alligator Farm I thought I would include a few photos. Visitors can tour the museum there and go to the top of the tower.

Built in 1874 the light from the 165 foot tower still shines

Thanks for checking in – more to come, stay tuned!

Exploring History in St. Augustine, Florida

A beautiful avenue of oak trees near the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park

St. Augustine is all about history and very old buildings which suits me well since I love both of those things. In this blog I wanted to talk about several historical sites I explored beginning with the spot where the city first began, the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. It was on this site that Don Pedro Mendez de Aviles came ashore in 1565 to claim Florida for Spain and establish the St. Augustine settlement. At the time, the Timucuan Indians had lived here for generations. Archaeological discoveries have been ongoing in this park for years with artifacts from Native Americans as well as early European settlers.

Recreated home from the Timucuan tribe

Many people have heard about the legend of Ponce de Leon searching for the “fountain of youth.” Although it hasn’t been proven for certain that he actually searched for or drank these waters, the spring has been flowing in this park since the days when he arrived in 1513 leading the first official European expedition to Florida. If he did drink the water, it didn’t seem to help his longevity as he died at the age of 46. In the early 1900’s, the landowners created a roadside attraction selling the magical water for ten cents a glass. The park considers this to be Florida’s oldest attraction based on guest books signed from 1868 (everywhere seems to claim they have the oldest something 😊). Visitors can still take a sip in the 60 year old spring house, drinking water that supposedly contains over 30 minerals.

Entrance to the spring house

I did my duty and had a cup. I found it amusing that a day or two after my visit, I came down with one of the worst upper respiratory viruses of our RV traveling. We had left St. Augustine for our next location at Jekyll Island, Georgia. We were too sick to do the activities I had hoped like biking the island, visiting the turtle hospital, etc. So, the healing water didn’t do me much good although I had little expectation in the first place 😊 .

The park has a variety of other activities including a planetarium, excavation and other historical sites, a Native American village and weapon demonstrations.

Demonstration of a Spanish cannon
Lots of old cannons lying about

St. Augustine has the oldest and largest masonry fort in the United States – Castillo de San Marcos located on the shore of Matanzas Bay. It is operated by the National Park Service and visitors are welcome to walk all around the inside courtyard as well as on top of the walls. Some of the rooms can be viewed including storerooms, a chapel, and barracks set up with furnishings and artifacts. It is really a beautiful fort in amazing condition, although not my favorite of our travels. That goes to Fort Morgan located at the end of a peninsula near Gulf Shores, Alabama. Fort Morgan was so atmospheric and fun to explore with lots of rooms and passageways. The Castillo had so many visitors and a less mysterious and adventurous feel about it.

Looking down at visitors walking to the Fort’s entrance
Looking back at the entrance to the Fort

The Fort is built in a star shaped design called “bastion” and has thick walls, battlements, towers and a moat. The star design made it effective for mounting cannons and to withstand attacks from cannon projectiles. The Fort has stood for so many years thanks to the material it was made from – a rare type of limestone called “Coquina” which is found in the area. Because the rock is porous and light it doesn’t shatter like granite or brick and therefore cannon balls would just lodge in the walls.

The Fort sits on a beautiful location next to the Bay
Looking down on the courtyard

The main part of the Fort was completed in 1695 and it remained in military service for 251 years before being deactivated in 1933 and turned over to the National Park Service. Possession of the Fort changed six times among four different governments: Spain, Great Britain, the Confederate States and the United States.

Weapons demonstration
Entrance to the chapel

St. Augustine claims to have the oldest wooden schoolhouse in the United States. It was built before 1763 during the first Spanish occupation and has never been reconstructed. It was handmade from bald cypress and red cedar logs bound with wooden pins and iron spikes. The first students were immigrants from Minorca, an island owned by Spain located in the Mediterranean Sea. They came to the school to learn English and it cost 12-1/2 cents a day to attend. If they had no money, they paid by bringing food or wood for the teacher. The schoolmaster lived with his family upstairs from the classroom. A kitchen was located in a separate building out in the courtyard.

Inside the building, a photograph and news clipping shows the class of 1864 having a reunion in 1931. There were nine students present and their combined ages totaled 708 years! At the reunion, the former students arranged the classroom as they remembered and this is the way visitors continue to see it today.

Visitors listen to a recording from the animatronic teacher and a student

Some times misbehaving students got sent to the dungeon located under the stairwell. Life was a little harsher for students during those days.

My favorite part of the school building was the floor. It was made from “tabby,” a type of concrete popular during the time period. The concrete was made by combining water, sand, ash and broken oyster shells. I thought it was neat to see a floor filled with shells.

The tabby floor

Since St. Augustine has so much old, there has to be the oldest house to visit. It is called the Gonzalez-Alvarez House and was built about 1723. The house really did look and feel old when I stepped inside and toured the rooms. Many different families lived here until 1918, when it was turned over to the St. Augustine Historical Society who did some renovations and made it into a museum.

Gonzalez – Alvarez House with flags from Great Britain, Spain and the U.S.
A view of the back of the house

I loved all the old walls around St. Augustine and most are made from Coquina – a type of rock filled with shell fragments. I will close with a photo of one of the walls.

Stay tuned for more exploring in St. Augustine, the oldest city in the U.S.

Camping at St. Augustine – Birds, Beaches and Shells

Entrance road at North Beach Camp Resort
Our site at North Beach Camp Resort

Camping at North Beach Camp Resort in St. Augustine was definitely a plus. This turned out to be one of my favorite campgrounds of our RV travels. The location was perfect – sandwiched between the beach and the intracoastal waterway. It was also close (about 5 miles) to the historic old town of St. Augustine. We stayed here for two weeks in February of 2018. I wrote in my previous blog that I was going back in time to write about a place I hadn’t had time to cover. I have lots more to say about the town itself, but for this blog I wanted to write about our time enjoying our campsite and nature.

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Northern Cardinal

Our site was surrounded by live oaks with hanging moss and palmettos. We had lots of bird visitors with about twelve different species coming to our feeders. At that time in our travels, this was the first place where we had birds coming to our site. Since I love to sightsee, I usually wanted to go exploring some where each day. But here, I was content for a few days to just sit outside and watch the parade of birds coming to visit.

Blue Jay
Tufted Titmouse

Besides birds, my other favorite interest was collecting shells. The first time I went to see the Atlantic Ocean and beach across the road from our campground I was a little disappointed by all the brown sand. I was used to seeing the bright white sand and turquoise waters of the Gulf of Mexico and this was a definite change. But the masses of seashells all over the beach made up for it. I had a great time collecting and learning about them such as cockle, coquina, calico scallop, whelk and auger.

Masses of seashells covered the beach
My seashell collection

While the beach was a great place to take walks and collect seashells, the Tolomoto River which is also the intracoastal waterway was the best place to watch the sunset. The waterway was just a few steps from our campsite and featured a small dock/pier and Aunt Kate’s Restaurant where we ate dinner one night. From the dock we watched boats go by and pelicans darting around looking for a bite to eat.

Mark enjoying the sunset on the pier. To his right is Kate’s Restaurant

During our travels, Mark and I have enjoyed visiting area wildlife refuges to see the local plant, bird and animal life. We were fortunate to be fairly close to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas (GTM) Reserve that has a variety of trails. It is located north of St. Augustine and south of Jacksonville. We went there a few times for exploring and really enjoyed the scenery. We hiked through forests of live oaks and saw palmettos; on boardwalks and bridges over salt marshes and through savanna grassland. The most exciting animal sighting was an armadillo digging in the dirt with his snout near the trail.

Although not blind, armadillos have very poor eyesight and rely on their strong sense of smell to hunt.

I had never had a good look at one before and this guy was in no hurry to leave as we approached. Armadillos are the only living mammals that have armor – bony plates covering the back, head, legs and tail. Armadillo is a Spanish word meaning “little armored one.” Here is an interesting fact about armadillos that I just recently learned. They are the only animal that carries leprosy and so it is recommended that people don’t touch them or eat their meat 🤢.

We also spotted an alligator or two!

Here are some photos from our treks through the preserve, one of our favorite walking and nature experiences during our time in Florida.

Great Egret in flight

Thanks for checking in and hope you enjoyed a look at some nature around St. Augustine. In this post I am also including a gallery with more bird photos. Until next time!

Looking Back: Exploring St. Augustine, Florida in February 2018

While planning our travels through the Florida Panhandle in the winter of 2018, I knew I wanted to spend time in St. Augustine which is located on the Atlantic Coast of Northern Florida. The draw was visiting the oldest city in the United States with many sights to see and learn about. We were able to find a great RV park near the coast and booked a stay for two weeks. I am glad we stayed for that long as there was enough to keep us busy. St. Augustine definitely won my heart, becoming one of my all time favorite cities during our RV travels.

So you might wonder why I am writing about our time in St. Augustine two years after our visit. At the time, I was trying to catch up on my blogs and make them more current, so I made the decision to write about this city later. Especially since there was so much to write about! Now seems to be a good time as we are staying a little longer in California before continuing our travels. It will be fun to revisit our time there and hope you enjoy the journey as well.

Old Town Trolley Tour passing the famous Flagler College building

St. Augustine has many facets. It is a city with a lot of tourist attractions that draw a crowd and also full of historical buildings and artifacts. In this post I thought I would write about three great ways to explore: 1) trolley, 2) cruise boat and 3) on foot. We decided to start out with the Old Town Trolley tour that gave a general overview with 23 stops along the way. Since it is one of those hop on hop off trams, it was easy to spend time in various locations and then catch another one and move on. The trolley went past a number of historic buildings including Castillo de San Marcos, the oldest masonry fort in the continental United States. (More to come on this fort in a future blog post).

Castillo de San Marcos

We also passed several historic churches with my favorite the Memorial Presbyterian Church, one of the most stunning churches I have seen on our travels. The building was completed in 1830 and worship services have been held here ever since except when the Union Army occupied it during the Civil War using it for military purposes. One afternoon I attended an organ concert here and it was magnificent.

Memorial Presbyterian Church
Memorial Presbyterian Church entrance
Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine – The building was completed in 1797 but the congregation began in 1565 making it the oldest Christian congregation in the U.S.

The trolley took us along the historic sea wall next to Matanzas Bay. St. Augustine is known for beautiful water views. Two marble lions, copies of the Medici lions in Florence Italy guard the Bridge of Lions 🦁 that crosses the bay and intracoastal waterway.

When the Spanish occupied St. Augustine they built a stone wall around the city to fend off attacks by English invaders in 1702. A reminder from this time period is the City Gate which we drove past. It opened in 1739 as the only access through the defense line in the north side of the city.

Historic City Gate with stone pillars from 1808

As the trolley wound its way through the city making its stops, Mark and I had to chuckle when we arrived at the St. Augustine Distillery and everyone emptied the tram! The Distillery offers an excellent free tour and we decided to be part of the mass exodus. Although I don’t favor hard liquor and Mark has minimal interest, we liked learning about the Distillery’s history and seeing the big copper stills where they make their spirits. In the tasting room, our tour guide also concocted two different drinks of the day, the “Florida Mule” and “Rum Tiki Cocktail” and then gave everyone a taste of each. Then it was on to the gift shop with more tastings available prepared by several staff members.

Back on the trolley we stopped for another tour at the Whetstone Chocolate Company where we donned hair nets and for Mark, a beard net.

Mark all ready for the chocolate tour

As a chocoholic, it is hard to pass up this kind of tour and it was a fun journey to learn about the history and process of making chocolate. We had tastings of different kinds of bars as well as cocoa nibs. We walked through the factory watching chocolates being processed like the hearts wrapped in red paper pictured below.

St. Augustine is one of the nicest cities for walking and I spent several days exploring historic streets, buildings and museums. We found the best breakfast place to fuel up for some exploring – Maple Street Biscuit Company. They specialize in freshly baked buttery biscuits crafted into all kinds of sandwiches. My favorite was the “Sticky Maple” which consisted of a fried chicken breast with smoked bacon sitting in a pool of real maple syrup. Oh my, I thought about that biscuit meal for a long time after, it was that good.

The cafe has a unique way of identifying your order which is taken at the counter. Each day they have a different question on the board and your answer is what they will call out when your meal is ready.

“A book, your biscuit is ready!”

The main thoroughfare in the historic district is the narrow, pedestrian St. George Street that is filled with boutiques, bistros, gift shops, galleries and historic homes. It is quaint and atmospheric and gave me a feeling of being transported to a different time and place. Side streets off the main thoroughfare lead to interesting shops like the Casual Warrior’s Kimono-Ya which carried kimonos and accessories for women and men. For those that want to dress up like a pirate, clothing and accessories could be found at the Skull and Crossbones Pirate Store. Then there was the St. Augustine Textiles which specialized in colonial clothing for reenactments.

Shiver me timbers, it’s a pirate store

In one shop we found a cigar maker busily rolling tobacco leaves. Mark bought a cigar but now is unsure whatever happened to it. I think I remember him smoking it at our campsite, but it might have been his intention that never really happened. Perhaps one day the cigar will turn up in some hidden location in our tiny abode.

JC – the Cuban Roller of Cigars

Cobblestoned Aviles Street is considered the oldest street in the U.S. and also has shops, restaurants, galleries and several museums like the 18th century Spanish Military Hospital Museum. I took a tour to learn about colonial herbs used in medicines and observed demonstrations of some scary looking medical equipment.

Entrance to the oldest street in the U.S.
Aviles Street with the Spanish Military Hospital Museum
Touring Aviles Street in style

One afternoon I took the St. Augustine Scenic Cruise on Matanzas Bay to see the city from a different vantage point. I have said this before during our travels that when some kind of boat tour is available I will definitely be on board. This was a relaxing and lovely time on the water.

Cruising under the Bridge of Lions

We passed the Castillo de San Marcos fort as well as other landmarks like the St. Augustine Lighthouse.

View of Castillo de San Marcos from the boat

I hope you enjoyed a look at a little of what St. Augustine offers. Stay tuned for more on exploring this magical place!

Two Years on the Road – Notable RV Parks, Part II

Our small trailer is dwarfed by a huge oak at Bay Breeze RV Park in Alabama.

In my last blog, I wrote about RV parks that have stood out in some unique way. I wanted to continue this time with a few more of our notable stays.

Camping Next to a Famous Road:

Exploring the Blue Ridge Parkway was one of our favorite experiences during our RV travels in 2018. This road stretches for 469 miles along the Appalachian Mountains through Virginia and North Carolina. It features a number of historical sites, beautiful scenery and amazing views. It is one of the most famous roads or drives in America and is overseen by the National Park Service. When I was trying to find a place to stay in Virginia so we could spend time driving this road, I was pleased to see that Fancy Gap Campground sat right beside the parkway. We would have easy access for exploring in either direction.

A section of the Blue Ridge Parkway near our campground

When we arrived to Fancy Gap the campground was almost empty since we came in the fall season. But we soon had a visitor at the site next to us when a Canadian couple arrived. Unfortunately we don’t remember their names, but we do remember their dog who was called D’Artagnan after one of the Three Musketeers. As they were setting up, the gentleman warned us that D’Artagnan would want to come inside our trailer, as he loved to check out new places. Right away, D’Artagnan headed up our steps and nosed the door to get in. Mark opened up to see what was going on, but the poor pooch was not allowed to come in.

One of our all time favorite furry visitors

There is so little space in our 21-foot travel trailer, especially for a good sized, furry dog. But we did make friends with D’Artagnan and I tried to make amends by giving him carrot pieces for a treat. Sometimes I would glance over at their campsite and see him looking longingly over our way, still hoping for an invitation. They only stayed a night or two as they were headed to the North Carolina coast. Soon after they left, I read about a hurricane approaching the coast where they were headed and I hoped that D’Artagnan and his “people” were staying safe.

Best RV Park Transportation:

While exploring Oklahoma City (OKC) in the fall of 2018, we stayed at Twin Fountains RV Park and found something unique. This was the first park that offered transportation from two onsite limousines. A larger one was for groups or parties with the “smaller” one for families. The park would take you wherever you desired within about three miles. OKC has some great museums and one day I asked to be chauffeured to the wonderful National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum which took me much of the day to explore. When I was done I called for a pickup and they were very accommodating. It was the only time of our travels when I was chauffeured any where. Oh, I did forget that I have my own built in chauffeur with Mark as he likes to be known as Beth’s Driver (hee, hee), but it was my first limousine ride of the trip.

An RV Park With the Cutest Decorations:

Bandon By the Sea RV Park is a pleasant place in a good location as it is located just a few miles from the beach and Old Town Bandon, Oregon. Their decorations are what caught my eye as many of their fences are adorned with colorful tea pots. I love tea pots, tea cups and drinking tea, so I thought this decorating idea was really unique and clever and the teapots seemed to be holding up well in the coastal environment. Apparently the owner had a good sized collection of tea ware and wanted to make use of them. If I still had a home I would be looking at getting some thrift store tea pots to decorate my fences!

RV Park With the Best View:

View from our trailer of the surf crashing below

We were hoping for a great view before arriving to Seal Rocks RV Cove in Oregon and were not disappointed. Situated on a bluff above the rocky coastline, we could watch the surf come in and see the sunset at night. We liked it well enough that we decided to stay an extra few days, even though I was eager to see other places along the Oregon Coast. Our site was quite large with a private grassy area to ourselves. For our Oregon exploring, we did have the rainiest weather here, but it was still a lovely stay and the mist and rain added some to the ambience. Yes, Seal Rocks RV Cove would definitely qualify for a repeat visit. We wouldn’t mind more of that ocean view.

A Campground With the Best Forest Trail:

Mark relaxing at our campsite at Lum’s Pond State Park, Delaware

I really enjoy staying at RV parks with onsite forest trails. We enjoyed this amenity at Blowing Springs RV Park in Bella Vista, Arkansas which had a network of trails in a beautiful forest, one of my favorite places for walking. Other places included Abel Mountain Campground in Braintree, Vermont with a trail along a branch of the White River and Timberland Campground in the White Mountains of New Hampshire with a walking path next to the Androscoggin River. Then there was the nature trail at American Heritage RV Park in Williamsburg, Virginia where I had a close encounter with a black snake. My favorite though was Lum’s Pond State Park in Northern Delaware. We really enjoyed this park with spacious, grassy campsites, but I was most pleased with the six mile hiking trail that looped around the shore of the pond/lake through a lush, hardwood forest.

The hiking trail went all around the lake at Lum’s Pond

Lum’s Pond was also unique because it was the only state park we have ever stayed in. Mark is happy to travel in any state or area, but he likes to have full hookup campsites which means electricity, sewer and water. Many state parks don’t have full hookups, especially for sewer but Lum’s Pond was an exception.

A lush forest floor covered with ferns at Lum’s Pond State Park

Camping Next to a Railroad Track:

Walking the track from our RV park to visit the train depot museum

Most RVers don’t like parks within hearing distance of railroads. They gripe about train whistles at night and being unable to sleep. So, I had a little trepidation when I booked us at the Campus RV Park in Independence, Missouri. It turned out that our site was right next to the road and just on the other side was the train track. In our RV travels, this was our closest encounter with a train which did come by regularly sounding its horn. But Mark and I decided it was not that bad. We are actually pretty fond of railroads and often seek out “train stuff” in our travels. Although the campground itself had no appeal, the location turned out to be great. It was not far to walk to the old downtown of Independence which is full of historical attractions. From Independence, the Santa Fe, California and Oregon Trails left to go west in the mid 1800’s. This is also the former home of President Harry Truman and his library/museum. It was worth it to stay near those tracks and get to explore the very interesting town of Independence.

The Most Musical RV Park:

We love visiting places with music, so while exploring Arkansas we had to spend some time in the small town of Mountain View. This town prides itself on being the folk music capital of the world as they are known for their festivals throughout the year. The town takes their music seriously and local citizens gather regularly for jam sessions in front of the courthouse or a local downtown park. We stayed at Ozark RV Park which has their own morning jam sessions in a little building on the property.

Ozark RV Park jamming room

In addition, when the right people drop by the park’s office, a jam session is bound to occur. The park is located right next to the Ozark Folk Center State Park which features music shows in their auditorium as well as the opportunity to see old time mountain crafts being made. It was only a short walk through a gate and we were on the folk center property where we watched some great musicians perform in the evenings.

The Quirkiest RV Park:

Beautiful mountain scenery at Pegasus Farm RV Park

While visiting West Virginia we stayed at Pegasus Farm RV Park, which turned out to be the quirkiest of our travels. It started at the entrance where the owner had a sign noting the park was closed. He had warned us stating that the sign was to discourage pipeline workers from coming into the park and asking if they could stay. At our arrival we found there was no office to check in. Luckily we encountered the owner on the way in and after introducing ourselves he pointed out our site “over there.” This was the first RV park with no office and no paperwork to provide information and a map. For the first few days we had no idea where the trash bins were located. The long driveway into the park was another mystery. It was approximately 1/4 mile long and so narrow that only one vehicle could drive up and down at a time. If two vehicles happened to meet, someone would have to back up and some of the RV’s staying at this park were very large. We had this happen to us once at night with two vehicles coming in and another going out. There was a time of confusion before everyone could continue on.

A long, narrow driveway with a blind hill awaited us at Pegasus Farm RV Park

Then there were the spreading of ashes. As we were settling in our first day, I took a walk on the expansive property which used to be a farm and Mark stayed behind to relax outside our trailer. From the site next to us, the owner came over ahead of a group warning Mark that they were there to spread the ashes of a deceased former camper on his “favorite” spot. Although the campground was a bit quirky, we loved exploring this part of West Virginia, with some of the most beautiful scenery of our RV travels.

The Best Laid Out RV Park:

Deer Creek Valley RV Park

Usually I like RV parks with an outdoorsy, nature feel. But Mark and I were quite impressed with Deer Creek Valley RV Park in Topeka, Kansas. It was the best laid out park we visited with large concrete sites nicely spaced and separated with lots of green grass. We found out that the owner had a concrete business which explained why the park looked so good. It was a beautiful place that was a pleasure to stay in. Outside the park gate was also one of our favorite eating experiences at Lonnie’s BBQ, one of the top restaurants in Topeka and only open a few days a week. Luckily we were there at a time when we could enjoy dinner and meet the very friendly owner who walked back with us to the park after we finished our meal. Our stay here also meant the realization that tornadoes are a fact of life in Kansas, so the park provided a storm shelter if needed, the first one we encountered on our travels.

Luckily no storm shelter needed during our Topeka, Kansas stay

Best RV Park at a Coastal Destination:

Sea Lions enjoying the Mosslanding Harbor

We have enjoyed several coastal retreats in our recent travels, but our all time favorite is at Mosslanding KOA located on the California coast south of Santa Cruz and north of Monterey. It is a small, unassuming park with few amenities that comes at a hefty price for the night. But this is okay because as you know, location is everything. It sits right next to the harbor where fishing boats come and go and sea lions can be heard barking at all times of the day and night. I really enjoyed seeing all the wildlife, especially the otters, my favorite sea animal.

Sea otter playing near the harbor

From our site I walked through a gate and was at the parking area and launching spot for whale watching trips. Monterey Bay is known for whale watching and great sightings can be found a close distance from Mosslanding.

Whale tail during one of my whale watch cruises

The small village of Mosslanding has a number of restaurants within walking distance and our go to place has always been Phil’s Fish Market, my all time favorite seafood restaurant with lots of delicious dishes. I usually can’t pass up the Cioppino, one of their signature dishes. Mosslanding Beach is also a close walk, a great place for a stroll and the opportunity to see more wildlife like shorebirds and the snowy egret in photo below, who was catching his own fishy meal from the surf.

Thanks for following along with us and stay tuned for more to come!