Tag Archives: Camping 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.

Submarines, Sand, and Sandpipers

The best state park ever? Maybe.

My fascination with Fort Clinch – which I started to write about when I sang the praises of the maligned sandspur – has to do with many things, probably too long for a single blog post, but I’m going to try.

In September, we did a cross-Florida road trip, which we completely did not plan in advance. Instead, we looked for last-minute campsites a day or three in advance (I freely admit this is not for everyone.) We lucked out toward the end of our trip and scored a few nights at Fort Clinch State Park.

Sign for Fort Clinch State Park, which reads "Fort Clinch Reconstruction  and construction of roads buildings and grounds was performed by Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1420, 1937-1042."
Built by Roosevelt’s Tree Army.
Cathy Salustri

I’d traveled through Fort Clinch while working on “Backroads of Paradise“, but I’d never spent the night. My friend, Jon Kile (who has a pretty nifty website where he writes about his own travels), married a woman from the area, so they’ve been there a time or two, and his rhapsodizing about the park made me think we needed to visit.

Fort Clinch, one of Florida’s first state parks, started life as – big shock here – fort. In the 1730s – when Florida belonged to Spain – the earliest work on a fort started, but only a century or so later, shortly after Florida joined the US, did construction begin on the fort as we see it today. After the Civil War – I’m shortcutting a lot of history here because I assume that’s not exactly why you’re here, but if you have more history questions, check out Fort Clinch’s abbreviated history on the park’s website – the US abandoned the fort, sealing an almost-certain fate of demolition by neglect.

In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s tree army – the Civilian Conservation Corps – set to work turning the empty fort into one of our state’s first state parks. CCC workers performed backbreaking work – including removing wheelbarrows filled with random debris from inside the fort.

At the edge of Florida (you can see Georgia from the campsites on the beach), the park represents some of the best of Florida’s state parks.

The view from our campsite – and this wasn’t even close to the best view.
Cathy Salustri

When we camped, we scored a beachside campground, so as soon as we settled in, I headed to the beach to check it out. I’ve seen lots of stuff on Florida beaches, but I was not prepared for this:

Yes, that’s a submarine. Surfacing.
Cathy Salustri

At first, I wasn’t sure I wasn’t seeing a whale, but right whales don’t have a fin on top of them. Also, they’re large, but not that large. Apparently, subs surface in this area to get to the naval base, and I’d happened along one. (Note to self: bring telephoto lens and camera on beach strolls)

After that, the deer and the gopher tortoises and sandpipers… well, OK, they were all still pretty cool. I found a gopher tortoise strolling through the dunes…

Out for a morning stroll.
Cathy Salustri

…and even saw a baby one (I know I’m supposed to write “juvenile” but they’re so damn cute) at the Fort.

Of course, the fort itself has some pretty amazing sights, not the least of which is its architecture. We had a great talk about the history of the fort – and the suspicion that, at least for a time, one of Florida’s Black CCC companies (Jim Crow Florida and all, the Black men who worked for the CCC all had to go to the Myakka location) may have visited the park and worked there – with historian Frank Ofeldt, who wore a period military uniform but thankfully didn’t do that dreadful thing where he pretended it was 1860 (pet peeve: historians who like to pretend to be from the time they study.)

I took about 500 photos of the fort’s interior, but this one’s my favorite.
Cathy Salustri

Back on the beach, we found we had a friend at sunset for a couple of nights. Of course, I have no way of knowing if it was the same bird every night – they could have all talked about the weird lady with blue toes and come by, one by one, to see aforementioned toes. Other than that, though, the beach was pretty much deserted.

If there’s a better place in Florida, I haven’t found it yet.

Of course, I say that at almost every beach, and I’m determined to keep looking.