Category Archives: Explore Florida

Camping at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park

Two signs. One large one reading Marjorie Kinna, and a smaller one in front of it that reads Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park 13 miles, with an arrow pointing to the right of the frame. Both are by the camping at Marjorie Kinna Rawlings State Park
I found these two unused signs at the camping area at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park. No, I did not steal them. Yes, that was a challenge.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Want to know a secret way to go camping at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park? Well, it’s not actually a secret, but so few people take advantage of it that it may as well be one.

a trail in the woods by the camping at Marjorie Kinna Rawlings State Park
Banyan has no need to obey human signs. 
Photo by Cathy Salustri

I love camping in Florida, but I love it even more when I don’t have to share the campground with too many people. And Florida campgrounds — especially since COVID-19 — have a lot of people. So much so, it’s ridiculously tough to get a campsite, especially if you don’t plan almost a year ahead.

That’s not hyperbole; Floridians know you need to plan 11 months ahead to get a campsite, and, if it’s popular, be logged in to the Florida State Parks online reservation system before 8 a.m. (when new spots come available every morning), and not spend time choosing a site (rookie mistake — do that well before!). And still… sites can still sell out. Don’t refresh; don’t dally — know what you want, get in there, and get your site by 8:01 a.m. or don’t get it at all. It’s like a Gladiator movie.

There are a few other ways to camp at Florida State Parks, though.

Barry and I have often talked about volunteering as camp hosts, in part to get a longer stay at a preferred campground, and in part because it is, technically, free, to camp as a camp host. But — and this, for us, is a big “but” — most places with camp hosts  require those camp hosts to clean bathrooms and showers. Now, I’m not above cleaning a bathroom, especially when it’s mine, but I’ve seen these campground bathrooms. People are pigs. I’ll pay my $32 a night, thank you very much.

But late last year, the folks at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park asked me to give a writer’s talk, and I readily agreed. While I could, technically, have made the drive there and back in one day, it would have made for a long day… and it wouldn’t have been much fun. Also, I hate the stress of traffic and “will I be late or won’t I?” (as  I have a chronic time problem, this comes up a lot), and traffic through Tampa and Ocala is never a good time. If you’ve visited the park, you know it’s not near any hotels. Any. As in, none.

Florida State Parks had no campgrounds available… well, essentially anywhere, much less anywhere close enough to camp near Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park. I asked the ranger who asked me to give a writer’s talk — Geoff — for suggestions for other campgrounds, going against my longstanding aversion to private campgrounds. Alas, the commercial campgrounds didn’t have anything, either (and, honestly, compared to Florida’s state parks, they looked awful).

Geoff had one other idea: Since I wasn’t getting paid for the talk, I was technically a volunteer, and, if they had a vacancy, Barry and I could camp at the park. The park, you see, has no campground (and thus no showers), so most people can’t camp there. But volunteers can, and take advantage of one of the two campsites with full hookups. If you RV camp, this phrase — full hookups — is music to your ears. And your grey water tank.

Volunteering and Camping at Camping Marjorie Rawlings Park

So, while I wasn’t a typical volunteer, I was volunteering. We happily took advantage of one of the two campsites, and friends, I will be back.

Camping at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings State Park means one of two campsites, shielded from public view. To get to the public areas of the park, you walk a short trail. It’s an ideal commute, really.

What does volunteering entail at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park?

Marjorie Kinnan Rawling's cottage, located near the camping at Marjorie Kinna Rawlings State Park
The barn looked lovely and smelled even lovelier after the volunteers applied linseed oil.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Gardening. Tending the chickens and ducks. Picking citrus. The weekend we were there, a group gathered to maintain the barn (the smell of linseed oil was heavenly). In short, light work. No bathrooms (the County owns and operates those, slightly outside park boundaries), no showers, and — this was the best part — after the park closes, no people.

a hand holding a small orange and a large orange in the woods
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park: Citrus everywhere. People? Not so much.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

OK, not “no” people — two other people, the other campers volunteering with us. We visited in late February, and they planned to stay through April. This, I should note, is much longer than the traditional Florida camper can occupy a spot in the parks.

There’s also something magical about being at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ homestead at twilight. One night, as the park shut down to day visitors, I walked the citrus-lined path between our RV and her home, and it was glorious.

During the day, a pileated woodpecker pecked at an aging tree, birds flitted through the now-mostly wild groves, and the vibration of visitors hummed through the property. But at dusk, the sun cast a warm orange glow, the sky turned a pinkish purple, and the sound of the wilderness overtook everything else.

The ducks and chickens were settled in their pens, and as the staff cleared out, I had the freeing feeling of being wholly abandoned to nature.

It was a wonderful feeling, and one I can’t get so many places in Florida. A peace settled over me, and took my time picking my way back through the darkness, where my RV waited.

I should mention the citrus, because that was amazing.

In all my visits to the park, I didn’t realize you could pick the citrus; I thought, like with any state park, you should “take only pictures, leave only footprints.” This is not the case at Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park: Anyone can pick the copious amounts of citrus (winter, of course, is the best time for this.) Volunteers also can harvest what’s in the garden.

A hand holding a grapefruit in the woods
Ever had feral Duncan grapefruit? I’d call it wild grapefruit but it started out domestic…
Photo by Cathy Salustri

I found and picked Duncan grapefruits as big as my head. Well, almost as big as my head. And yes, when we got them home and I stuck my spoon into them, they tasted amazing.

The writer’s talk went amazingly well. The audience was wonderful, the questions thoughtful, and the entire afternoon well done. I’m pleased we camped instead of attempting to drive home, because the talk exhausted me (but in a good way.)

Then we could disappear into the wilderness.

Talk aside, I can’t say enough good things about the park. I loved the almost-complete solitude of camping. The hiking trails, although short, reminded me that wild Florida isn’t as far away as we think it is. Walking the trails through the overgrown citrus groves gave me a sense of appreciation for what Marjorie sought and found here.

Within about two hours of arriving, we’d started talking, mostly hypothetically, about buying the 40 acres for sale across from the park.

After spending not only the day but a night there, I can wholly and completely see why Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings decided to chuck it all and move to what was then the edge of Florida’s wilderness.

Want to volunteer? Sign up with Florida State Parks.

Introducing the Florida Keys Spectacular: A Podcast for Keys Fans

a pickup truck that's been bedazzled, Florida-keys style.
Introducing the Florida Keys Spectacular — bonus podcast content for Florida Keys fans!
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Do you love podcasts? Do you love the Florida Keys? Do you already listen to the Florida Spectacular podcast, co-hosted by me and Rick Kilby?

Well, then, this is your lucky Thursday. Why? Because, as of today, Florida Keys historian Brad Bertelli and I have a biweekly podcast about the Florida Keys.

Introducing the Florida Keys Spectacular podcast.

It’s no secret I love the Florida Keys.

One of the things I struggled with when I started visiting the Florida Keys regularly? Finding non-touristy things to do. Oh, yes, I swam with a sea lion (something I loved, but feel bad about now) and yes, I’ve eaten at Margaritaville. But… those things aren’t really the Florida Keys I love.

The Florida Keys really opened up to me after I met Brad Bertelli in 2015, when a stroke of serendipity sent me to the Florida Keys to get interviewed by a Canadian television station. At the time, Brad worked for a Florida Keys museum, I didn’t have this website, and my book was not-yet published. Brad, already a published author, was really nice to an unknown Florida writer. Throughout the years, we became friends as well as colleagues. (When my book, Florida Spectacular, comes out later this year, you’ll read one of my favorite Brad stories in the introduction.) During the pandemic, Brad and I had virtual cocktails for people playing the Florida Keys home game (which was everyone, really).

Photo of Brad Bertelli, co-host of Florida Keys Spectacular podcast. A bald-ish man with black frame glasses, smiling at the camera. Man is wearing a white tee.
There’s no better co-host for the Florida Keys Spectacular podcast than Brad Bertelli.
Photo courtesy Brad Bertelli.

Today, Brad has a few more books, a column about Florida Keys history in Keys Weekly, and a Facebook group about Florida Keys history that has more followers than a small town.

A few years back, I started the Florida Spectacular podcast.

The show has gone through several iterations. Right now we hit a sweet spot. Rick Kilby (another amazing Florida author) co-hosts. Rick and I have a lot of fun taking listeners across Florida every week. We talk about history, environment, and, of course, things to do in each part of Florida.

While Rick spends a lot of time traveling the state, he doesn’t spend nearly as much time in the Florida Keys as I do. And, honestly, there’s a lot more to the Sunshine State than Key West, Florida Bay, and the upper and middle keys. It’s a different world, honestly.

Which is why it makes sense to have a different podcast. Every Thursday, Brad holds court at Robbie’s in Islamorada. Anyone who wants to talk Florida Keys history can hang out with him, ask history questions, or share memories. I found myself, as I so often do, in the Florida Keys recently, so I found Brad at Robbie’s, bought him a beer, and told him I had a proposition. Why not take his knowledge about the Florida Keys and create an off-shoot of the Florida Spectacular podcast? This one would be only for Keys fans, and we’d cover everything from where to buy sandwiches for a picnic lunch at Windley Key (Episode 1) to the original route of the Oversea Highway (Episode 2).

Brad was all in immediately. While I plowed my way through a piece of fish at the Hungry Tarpon, we planned. Back home, the planning continued. Brad taped a commercial. Brad drafted some scripts. We chose topics. And, finally, today, the Florida Keys Spectacular podcast goes live.

Subscribe to Florida Keys Spectacular today and support us!

Florida Keys Spectacular is bonus content, available to anyone who supports the podcast at the $5/month level. For that $5, you get two episodes a month. Each one will take a deep dive into the Florida Keys. We’ll give you Florida Keys history, suggestions on things to do, and the ability to see the Florida Keys like a local does. No podcast explores the Florida Keys like we do. Take a listen — you won’t be disappointed!

I’d love to do the Sally Struthers thing and say, “for the cost of a cup of coffee” but, well, inflation. Also, aside from Joffrey’s, some of my favorite coffee in Florida is Baby’s Coffee, and since it’s a bit of a drive to Baby’s, it costs me a whole lot more than $5 to get a cup (but so worth it!).

Dog-Friendly Kayaking Adventures in Florida

A woman in a yellow bikini with a black-and-tan dachshund, both in a green kayak. Dog-friendly kayaking adventures in Florida on the horizon!
Calypso learned early how to kayak and we’ve had almost 18 years of dog-friendly kayaking adventures in Florida!
Photo by Barry Loper

One of the first things I did when I brought home Calypso some 15 years ago was take her kayaking on the Weeki Wachee. Still puppy-sized, she curled up on the bow of my kayak and took a nap. That is, until she saw a mullet swim past the kayak – then she jumped in and tried to catch it. When she realized she couldn’t, she swam to the side of my kayak and put her paw on it, asking to get back in the boat.

Thus began the start of a great adventure for her – and for me. I didn’t take my last dog, a wonderful liver-spot Dalmatian named Madison, kayaking with me, for a couple of reasons. One, she was exceptionally high strung, and two, I didn’t get a kayak until she was seven, and I didn’t think she’d easily take to it.

I didn’t make that same mistake with Calypso: From day one, she’s gone pretty much everywhere with me, including kayaking and boating. That whole “paw on the side of the ‘yak to get back in” thing? Yeah, she mastered that. One of my many part-time jobs was as a kayak guide, and one day, my boss and I were scouting different locations on our paddle boards. Calypso got bored with me, jumped off, swam over to him, and put her paw on his board. I guess she wanted a change of pace.

Dog-Friendly Kayaking Adventures: Mostly Salt

We have paddling rules: After a near-disaster on the Hillsborough (she saw gator hatchlings and tried to go after them, which resulted in my yanking her back in the kayak by her tail and stuffing her under the bow), Calypso doesn’t kayak on many freshwater rivers unless they’re crystal-clear (Chassahowitzka, yes; Hillsborough, no). She doesn’t sleep on the bow anymore. And, if we’re in saltwater, I always let her jump out and swim the last 15 feet to shore – and then roll in the sand. It’s tradition.

Dog-Friendly Kayaking Adventures in Florida: Bigger Dogs

When we adopted Banyan, neither Barry nor I knew how a 2-year-old dog who had spent almost the whole of her life in a shelter would handle being on the water, so we didn’t push her – it took enough effort to get her to not get physically ill when we had people over for dinner.

But during the pandemic, we tried her on a kayak while holed up in a cottage in Islamorada. Turns out, as long as her person – that’d be Barry, not me – goes with, she’s fine.

a man in a sit-on-top kayak, with a coonhound also in the kayak. The kayak is green.
Banyan wasn’t sure at first, but in no time at all she got the hang of letting Barry do all the work while she enjoyed the ride!
Cathy Salustri

For Banyan’s first paddle, we used a resort sit-on-top, so when we tried her in our cockpit-style kayak, we weren’t sure how it would work.

Turns out it worked just fine. Fine, that is, as long as Barry is there with her. She climbs in, waits for him, and off they go, like she was born for it. She’s living her best life.

A dog sleeping in an orange kayak. A man is at the helm
Banyan and Barry paddle the Chassahowitzka. Well, Barry paddles. Banyan naps and soaks up some sun.
Cathy Salustri

Dog-Friendly Kayaking Adventures in Florida: Not These Places

Bottom line? There are some places you don’t bring a dog in Florida: gator-infested waters, Mar-a-Lago, beaches with active seabird nests. But there are plenty of places where your furry BFF will love to go: Saltwater paddles, beaches without specific dog exclusions (be reasonable and don’t let them trounce nests, please), bike rides… you get the idea.

My point is, don’t assume that your dog won’t love it just because she’s never done it. In my experience, the important thing to your dog is that she gets to do it with you.

Want To Learn More about Traveling Dogs in Florida?

Find Cathy  on Instagram (@cathysalustri) or Facebook (@salustricathy), or Twitter (@cathysalustri). You can also subscribe Cathy Salustri’s monthly (well, monthly-ish) newsletter, The Florida Spectacular.