Category Archives: Road Trip

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.

Big Cypress: Snakes, Swamps, and Staying the Night

a mall purple flower in the swamp at Big Cypress
Big Cypress is vast, but the beauty can be smaller than your pinky fingernail.
Photo via Cathy Salustri

At the start of this year, I said I wanted to take more Florida road trips in 2024. This worked out well, because for my birthday, El Cap arranged a swamp walk and two-night stay in Big Cypress. Specially, at Clyde Butcher’s place, where they not only offer swamp walks, but bungalows where you can stay.

A few weeks ago, we set out, cutting across Florida on US 41 (one of my favorite stretches), arriving later than we’d hoped. If you’ve driven across US 41 from Naples to Miami (or the other way around), you’ve passed Clyde Butcher’s gallery. It’s a relatively small outpost in a relatively vast expanse of swamp, and while I’ve often stopped to drool over his gorgeous black-and-white, better-than-anything-Ansel-Adams-ever-did landscapes, I had no idea that, right behind this gallery was a hidden place to stay in the middle of the swamp.

The Bungalows at Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery

A screened porch looking out Into Big Cypress Swamp
This is as civilized as it gets here, and that’s OK with me.
Photo via Cathy Salustri

But here we were, at one of three available places to stay inside Big Cypress at Clyde Butcher’s property. (They have two bungalows and a two-bedroom cottage for public lodging.) As the sun set and we lugged our stuff into the bungalow, the twilight gave way to black skies that reminded me we were utterly and completely in the wilderness.

Our bungalow was a one-bedroom mobile home, and it had everything we needed: full kitchen, screened porch (because, well, mosquitoes), comfortable furniture, and, in essence, all the comforts of home.

Except, of course, we weren’t at home. We were in the swamp.

The Swamp

As excited as I was to spend a couple of nights in Big Cypress, I also had a significant amount of fear about the swamp walk. My last swamp walk in Big Cypress, led by a National Park Service ranger, did not go as planned. I came way too close for comfort with a juvenile cottonmouth — as in, I was about to put my foot down on it when the ranger stopped me. I appreciated that ranger immensely in that moment, but honestly, only for that moment, because after a spell it became apparent he couldn’t find his way out of the swamp.

Our two-hour hike lasted about an hour longer than it should have, and ended with us trudging through neck-deep water in a canal to get back to the road. For those of you who drive US 41 in this area and, as I do, play “count the gators in the canal”, well, I think that gives you a sense of why this was not the ideal exit.

a dry cypress swamp with greenery on the ground. It's almost completely hidden, but at the lower left there's a juvenile cottonmouth moccasin.
While it looks like one of those Magic Eye pictures from the ’90s, there is, indeed, a juvenile cottonmouth moccasin in this photo.
Photo by an incredibly shaken Cathy Salustri

But this was different. It was the middle of winter and would be super-dry, right?

Turns out Florida’s having a pretty wet winter.

The Swamp Walk at Clyde Butcher’s Big Cypress Gallery

Our guide, Scott, told us the swamp walk would take us through waist-high water.  I asked about snakes and explained I’d had a less-than-favorable experience on my last swamp walk. He assured me that the snakes don’t love to hang out in the water, and as long as we paid attention near the banks, we should be fine.

I didn’t sleep much that night. The next morning, I walked around the edge of one paved road that circled the inside of the compound. Leggy birds picked through the swamp in the middle of the road; sunlight and dew illuminated the bromeliads and spider webs in the trees. A smaller gator basked in the sun on the banks near the cottage.

a female gator on the banks of a swamp in Big Cypress
You know the saying: “If mama gator ain’t happy…”
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Right. Scott told me she kept to herself and didn’t present a problem. She’d raised a clutch of hatchlings, and all but one — Crouton — had left the area. He mused that perhaps Crouton would one day be the bull gator who took the place of the gator he called Loose Screw, or Snaggle Tooth.

I didn’t think too much about that except to take him at his word, because we were about to step off the road and into the swamp. Despite my fear — which at this point was growing — I wanted to do this. You can’t write about Florida from the paved road, I reminded myself. 

And so we waded into the wilderness.

For the next two hours, it was wild and glorious and mesmerizing. Scott pointed out tiny plants, their medicinal uses, and what purpose they serve. He showed us fish-eating spiders and talked about how he had to work to keep invasive plants out of the area. We saw cypress and pop ash and more plants than I’ll ever hope to remember. My hiking shoes lost their soles halfway through the walk, and I was so mesmerized I didn’t realize it until I went to take them off after the walk (fortunately, we’d seen two soles floating and Scott grabbed them up to throw them out, so we didn’t add any trash to the swamp.)

Somewhere during the walk, I forgot to be afraid. I forgot that, but I remembered why I am most myself when I am out in the wild, be it on water or in a swamp or near a beach. When we left the next day, I was already thinking about the next adventure.

Which is as it should be.

If You Go: Big Cypress Swamp Walks and Lodging

Clyde Butcher no longer leads the tours, but they’re amazing. I highly suggest it for anyone who wants to explore the Everglades on a visceral level.

Swamp Eco-Tour at Clyde Butcher Gallery 52388 East Tamiami Trail, Ochopee. $125. Reservations required.  239-695-2428; explorebigcypress.com.

Lodging at Clyde Butcher Gallery 52388 East Tamiami Trail, Ochopee. Bungalows start at $425/night; cottage starts at $550. Each have a two-night minimum.  239-695-2428; explorebigcypress.com.

a man in a woman standing in waist-deep water in a swamp.
10/10, highly recommend.
Photo via Cathy Salustri

Oh, and About Loose Screw/Snaggletooth at Big Cypress

I should mention that Loose Screw (aka Snaggletooth) is something of a unique alligator — as far as we know. Scott explained Loose Screw kept the area free from other gators. I didn’t ask how. But Scott lives there, has lived there for more than a decade, and, when he showed me this video he’d taken of the Loose Screw, I could see why other gators might not want to infringe on his territory.

Yeah.

But that’s what’s amazing about this gator: That’s a hand-held camera, and it’s not the only video of the gator approaching Scott. He told us the gator seems to find him when he’s working in the swamp. He doesn’t feed the gator, doesn’t touch the gator, but the gator, nonetheless, finds him. Sometimes he stretches out and suns himself next to Scott as he works. Other times he finds him and leaves.

Contact Cathy Salustri

You can reach me at cathysalustri@gmail.com, on Instagram (@cathysalustri) or Facebook (@salustricathy), or Twitter (@cathysalustri). You can also subscribe to my monthly (well, monthly-ish) newsletter, The Florida Spectacular.

Hidden Sarasota: Things To Do There

a field of marsh grass with a cabbage palm on the left side of the frame, and a blue sky with clouds
Hidden Sarasota? Yup, Myakka River State Park’s a far cry from the Van Wezel.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

A couple of weeks ago, my Florida Spectacular cohost Rick Kilby and I talked about Sarasota and things to do there. Sure, everyone knows about the Ringling, the St. Armand’s Circle, and camping at Myakka River State Park, but these hidden Sarasota gems are a don’t-miss for your next Florida road trip.

Here’s a few of our favorites from the show, and why we like them.

Hidden Sarasota: Places to Eat

a plate of boiled peanuts at Owen's Fish Camp in Sarasota
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Owen’s Fish Camp is a rustic yet elegant restaurant that’s always packed, so it’s not hidden at all if you’re local to Sarasota. The boil on the menu’s amazing, but don’t sleep on two of my favorites there: boiled peanuts and deviled eggs.

Rick raved about the Bali Hut Tiki Hut, because, well, all things Tiki. Not many of these left, so stop in when you can.

Hidden Sarasota: Outdoors and Nature Experiences

a field of marsh grass with a cabbage palm on the left side of the frame, and a blue sky with clouds
Hidden in plain sight: Take a hike through Sarasota’s Myakka River State Park.
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Myakka River State Park is one of Florida’s first state parks, built during the Great Depression by the CCC. It’s a popular park for the boat ride and camping, but fewer people take the time to hike the trails. Watch out for wild hog. Seriously.

Although it took a hit from Hurricane Ian, Warm Mineral Springs is once again welcoming people to soak in its allegedly healing waters.

Selby Botanical Gardens has some beautiful specimens, but unless you were around when it happened, you may not know it’s also the sight of a sexy orchid scandal.

Mote Marine Aquarium isn’t simply a place to go to look at sea turtles; they offer some amazing kayaking trips, and in February they offer their Farm to Fillet fundraiser.

Looking for a beach day? Head to nearby Venice Beach, where you can find fossilized shark’s teeth near the shoreline and in the water.

Sarasota’s Best Roadside Attraction

A pink flamingo profiled in the frame, with a gazebo in the background. Pink flamingos abound at Sarasota Jungle Gardens, one of many things to do in Sarasota
Photo by Cathy Salustri

Sarasota Jungle Gardens remains a classic roadside attraction. Want to see a bird on a bicycle or feed a flamingo? This is the place for you. 

Hidden Sarasota:  Arts Worth a Closer Look

Urbanite Theatre offers a more intimate experience than Asolo or the Van Wezel, but moment for moment, their shows pack a more powerful punch than many Sarasota and Tampa Bay theaters.

Finally, it’s worth a trip to the Sarasota Art Museum for the architecture of the building — a former high school — alone.

Want more Sarasota travel suggestions? Take a listen to this episode of the Florida Spectacular podcast.


Looking for other Florida road trip ideas? I have plenty; check out a few of my favorites!