Fun and Interesting Places

Visiting Friends in CA Wine Country

My friend Holly flew out from Florida to spend a few days with us in California Wine Country. We stayed in Napa Valley, but didn’t actually go to any wineries there. Instead we visited some amazing wineries in Sonoma thanks to my friend Sue. More on that later.

First we picked up Holly at the Oakland airport and since San Francisco was “sort of” on the way back to our campground in Napa I thought we should really go see the Golden Gate Bridge. If you know us, we avoid large cities like the plague! Since our mode of transportation is a large dually truck we prefer wide open spaces and San Francisco would be the exact opposite of that. I would love to visit that city, but until we are traveling in a smaller car I’m not sure how that’s going to happen.

Anyway, San Francisco being “sort of” on our way back to the campground means about a 2 hour detour if you are at all familiar with California traffic. 🙂

I think it was worth it to see this awesome bridge!

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The next day it was time to visit some wineries! My friend Sue who used to live in Fernandina Beach now lives in CA. I kept telling her we would meet up with her eventually in our travels and it finally happened. She knew I wanted to visit some wineries and she knew of some great ones to take us to in Sonoma. What a blessing Sue was to us that day! I like wine, but I’m not at all familiar with what is good. I mean I typically have wine out of a box in my RV fridge if that tells you anything. Sue took us to 3 great wineries and I have never tasted wine so good before. What a great day we had with her and her daughter and grandson! My kids enjoyed playing with her grandson all day which made it not so boring for them to spend the day visiting wineries. 😉

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Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards

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Jacuzzi Family Vineyards

The next day the kids got to have their fun. We participated in the Six Flags Read-to-Succeed program this year and got free tickets for the kids to go to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vellajo, CA. Strangely I realized I hardly took any pictures and I have no pictures of the kids! I guess that’s what happens when I’m hanging out with my friend.

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Chris likes to call everyone a “joker” so this was perfect for him. It happened to be one of our favorite rides that day too!

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The next day we went to the Jelly Belly Factory Tour which was so cool! This was on my bucket list of things to do in CA.

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It’s a self-guided free tour that is very informative. You walk around the entire factory viewing the different stages in the process of creating a Jelly Belly jellybean. At each area there are videos and information plaques to explain what is going on.

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Look at all those jellybeans resting!

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This is where they made assorted bags.

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The pictures in the background are made of Jelly Bellies.

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Sue and her grandson joined us for this also.

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In the gift shop you can sample as many different flavors as you want. They also have really gross flavors like rotten eggs, dirty socks, vomit and some others. Eww! You can buy a game with those flavors mixed in with normal “good” flavors and dare people to try one and they hope they try the right one. This game is called “Bean Boozled” and you just have to hope you’re not the one to pick the wrong flavor. My kids bought a bag of those and have been having fun with it, but I refuse to participate. I do not want to take a chance on eating a jelly bean that tastes like boogers, gross!

On our last day with Holly we went to Point Reyes National Seashore. We didn’t get to explore much of the park because we didn’t realize it would take so long to get there. Again… California! I should know it takes a long time to get anywhere in that state.

There is a lighthouse there that I really wanted to see, but they told us at the Visitor Center that it was a 45 minute drive to get there, which would mean another 45 minutes back to the entrance afterward. Nobody felt like driving that far after the drive we just had so we ended up just going to one of the beach accesses which was beautiful!

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And we got Junior Ranger badges while we were there! The Junior Ranger book is quite long and we didn’t finish it while we were there, but the rangers were kind enough to swear them in as new junior rangers on the honor system that we would complete the book on our own which we did.

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We had so much fun hanging out with Holly and Sue that week! As with all visits with friends, the time went by way too quickly. It was time for Holly to head back home and we moved on to the Redwoods in Northern California. Stay tuned for a post about that later.

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Pacific Coast Highway – Day II

If you missed my post about Day 1 you can see it here: Pacific Coast Highway – Day I.  The next day we headed north of Santa Cruz. Everything we did this day was thanks to the advice of my blogger friend at Weekend Campervanning, and it turned out to be such a fun day!

Our first stop was at Ano Nuevo State Park to see the elephant seals. Wow! So many seals and they make such interesting sounds. Check out my YouTube video below to hear them yourself.

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Beginning of hike to go see the elephant seals; beautiful views along the way!

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So many elephant seals all in one place!

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These seals migrate to this beach twice a year to breed and to molt. At this time of the year they are there to molt or shed their first layer of skin. I found it so interesting that they migrate thousands of miles each year. How do they know to keep coming back to this exact location? Fascinating! I could have literally sat there and watched these animals all day long, but after about an hour or so my people were getting anxious to move on to something else.

Our next stop was at Bean Hollow State Beach to check out the tide pools which were very cool!

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On the way back down towards Santa Cruz we stopped at a couple of beautiful view points. Notice how some pictures have clear, blue skies while others are foggy? It’s very strange how we can drive just a few miles down the road and the skies go from completely foggy to clear!

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Our last stop was at Swanton Berry Farm to pick fresh, organic strawberries. Yummy!

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While we were in this area we stayed at the Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay KOA campground. This was a very expensive campground and not what we normally spend, but it seems everything in this part of California is expensive so we had to splurge. This KOA though is one of the nicest we have ever been to. Our campsite had a deck/patio in back, a great place to relax! The activities for kids at this place were awesome! The kids loved the bounce pad the best.

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The pool was under construction, but it was too cold when we were there anyway so we didn’t mind that it wasn’t open yet. They had a very nice playground, mini golf, a climbing wall and scheduled activities each day including bingo which we loved.

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One of the scheduled activities included a hole-in-one contest at mini golf that Jesse won. His prize was a free bike rental so we tried out the four-seater bike to ride around the park.

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We enjoyed our stay at that KOA so much and really enjoyed visiting the nearby areas along the Pacific Coast. After we left there we went to stay at a Thousand Trails park for free for 2 weeks to offset the cost. 😉 I know, it’s not technically free since we had to buy the membership to Thousand Trails, but if we stay at enough of those parks throughout the year it really makes camping cheap, and helps to offset the more expensive places we go.

 

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Pacific Coast Highway – Day I

If you read my last post about Yosemite, you might remember I mentioned our unfortunate truck incident that turned out to be a blessing because of the rental car we were able to use to drive the scenic Pacific Coast Highway. After Yosemite we headed to the coast to visit the areas of Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz. These areas are pretty congested with lots of traffic and tight parking spaces so we were pretty happy to have a smaller car for this!

On day 1 we explored from Monterey south on Highway 1 until we couldn’t go any further due to road closures.

Our first stop was at the Dennis the Menace park in Monterey. The boys loved this! What a unique and fun playground!

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Then we headed on down to the 17-mile drive through Pebble Beach. It costs $10 to drive this scenic drive, but if you stop and eat at a restaurant along the way you will get that back. We didn’t stop though because as you can imagine restaurants in this area are quite pricey. $10 off wouldn’t have made much difference.

The first part of the drive was very foggy! It was hard to see much of the ocean. There are several viewpoints along the drive to stop and take pictures.

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One area had some nice tide pools to explore.

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Once we got to the Lone Cypress tree viewpoint, the fog cleared a little bit so we could see the beautiful blue water of the Pacific. This was definitely the prettiest stop along the drive.

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Our next stop was at Carmel-by-the-Sea, a cute little town with lots of shops and restaurants. We had planned to find a place to eat lunch there. We walked around for over an hour checking out restaurants and could not find a single place with reasonable prices for lunch so we ended up just getting some sandwiches at a market/deli and continuing on our way.

Then we drove down Hwy 1 and stopped at many vista points to admire the view and take pictures. The fog would come and go along the way, and in some ways the fog made things look more mysterious.

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Looking down over the ocean covered in a thick layer of fog was a really cool site to see. It was kind of like being in an airplane looking down at the clouds below you. The fog just hovered over the water.

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Our last stop was Point Lobos State Park. The fog cover was so thick there we weren’t able to see much.

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Pretty eerie look with all the fog, don’t you think?

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The next day we drove north to Santa Cruz and beyond to see elephant seals and more. Stay tuned…

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Sand Hollow and Snow Canyon State Parks

While visiting Zion National Park we stayed at Sand Hollow State Park in Hurricane, UT. This was an absolutely beautiful state park and our campsite was huge with gorgeous views all around!

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The Sand Hollow Reservoir was right behind our site.

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This campsite was so big that the kids decided to design their own national park in our back yard. They named it Red Sands National Park. They made a map with trail information and junior ranger books for Chris and me to fill out. They used an app on my phone to map how long each trail was and then led us on some trail hikes.

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I love to watch their creativity blossom at places like this!

We also visited Snow Canyon State Park in nearby St. George. This was a gorgeous state park with lots of fun hiking trails.

First we hiked a short trail to Jenny Canyon which is a slot canyon.

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Then we hiked the Lava Tube trail which was a new experience for us and something the boys really enjoyed. We were able to walk around in the lava tubes which are like underground caves. These lava tubes were formed during a volcano eruption many years ago.

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Then we climbed up this slick rock to an amazing view point.

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See the black hole in the ground below? That was one of the lava tubes we explored. I’ll admit it’s kind of creepy down there. It’s very dark and we only had our cell phone flashlights which don’t shine very far into the dark.

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There is so much to see and do in Utah which is why we keep returning. It was time to move on to more adventures but I sure hated to leave the incredibly spacious campsite at Sand Hollow. Wait until you see the site we moved to next. I’ll give you a hint, it was NOT spacious!

 

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Lower Antelope Canyon

While we were in Page, AZ we heard that Antelope Canyon is a “must see”. So I researched it and found out that we can’t just go and tour the canyon on our own, we have to go as part of a paid tour group. Since we prefer to do our own thing and not have to follow a crowd we were not all that interested in doing that. Besides the fact that it’s a little pricey. I know I say this often but we are not on vacation. We can’t do every fun activity available at every location we visit; we have to carefully pick and choose what we all want to do as a family. If it costs money we have to decide if it’s really worth it.

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There are actually 2 tours: Lower and Upper Antelope Canyon. We chose to do the lower canyon tour. I had a hard time finding much information online about this tour and how much it costs. I incorrectly learned that it would be approximately $80 for our family, and after seeing some pictures we decided we should do it.

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It turns out it was $116 for our family of 4. The ticket prices added up to $84 ($25/adult and $17/child), but this canyon is on Navajo land and we also had to pay a tribal fee of $8 each. Anyway, this ended up being a pretty expensive tour. It was also very crowded and we were really having second thoughts about our decision to do this.

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Well, I am happy to report that it was very much worth our time and money! This place was so incredible! I usually say pictures don’t do it justice, but I think these pictures actually turned out really great.

We did this tour with Ken’s Guided Tours of Lower Antelope Canyon. Our tour guide, Brook, was amazingly helpful. He helped me with my phone camera settings, he showed me the best angles to get the best pictures, and he even took my phone from me several times and took the best pictures. He was an awesome tour guide and I was so glad we got assigned to him.

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He took pictures that he said had been used as Apple and Microsoft screen savers, and he showed us some shots that famous photographers took that sold for millions of dollars!

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The waves and layers in these rocks were such an incredible site!

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The tour lasted for maybe an hour or two (I don’t really remember), but the crowd really thinned out as we started through the canyon. Around every corner we would find new angles and interesting rock formations. Being a slot canyon, there were many areas with narrow passageways to walk through.

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Brook took many pictures of the 4 of us together which was wonderful!

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He was even very creative with some pictures like this one where he made a sand waterfall.

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This last picture was right after we came up out of the canyon. We were down there in that tiny slot! It’s amazing to look back across the top and realize how much incredible scenery is down there below.

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Like I said earlier, we don’t usually splurge on tours like this, but I am so happy we decided to do this one. Touring Antelope Canyon is such a unique experience and I would highly recommend it if you’re in the area.

 

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Lake Powell and Glen Canyon

Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area are in both Arizona and Utah. We stayed at the Wahweap Campground in Page, AZ. We actually stayed here in the summer of 2015 but left after only a couple of days because it was 105 degrees during the day. We loved the area and wanted to come back again and see more of it when it wasn’t so hot. March turned out to be a great time to visit. The weather was much nicer and it’s still the off-season at that time so it wasn’t very crowded at all.

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View from our campsite at Wahweap Campground

There is so much to do in this area! For starters, Lake Powell itself is absolutely gorgeous with the sky blue water and colorful rocks and cliffs in the background. It’s stunning!

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Lake Powell at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

The Glen Canyon dam and visitor center are close by so we went there to check out the dam and pick up Junior Ranger booklets. The dam is incredible to look at! You can walk across the bridge to get an amazing view looking down at the Colorado River. The visitor center also has great views of the dam and bridge and is very educational as well. The visitor center and bridge are free, but you can also take a paid tour of the dam which we did not do.

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View from inside the visitor center

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View of dam from bridge

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View of Colorado River from other side of bridge

New Junior Ranger badges. Their vests have gotten too heavy to wear for long and we now need to add badges to the back of their vests.

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Horseshoe Bend is another place that is a must-see in this area and it’s free! It is a section of the Colorado River that bends through the canyon. It is incredible, but also a little scary. There are no railings or anything to prevent people from falling off this cliff. I would be very hesitant to take small children here. Chris is afraid of heights and he didn’t like this very much, but I thought it was awesome! He was happy when I finished taking pictures and said we could go. 😉

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Horseshoe Bend

Notice the people laying down at the edge to the right of us in the picture below. That was a good way to look over the edge and see the river below. It was very scary to stand at the edge!

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Another fantastic place to visit in Page is Antelope Canyon, but that deserves a post of its own so stay tuned for that next.

Categories: Fun and Interesting Places, National Parks | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Boondocking at the City of Rocks

Well we finally did it! We bought a generator and tried boondocking for the first time. Boondocking or dry camping is camping with no hookups, meaning no electricity, no water and no sewer. We have done no sewer many times, and even went without water a couple of times where we just had to fill our water tank before we got to the campsite, but this was the first time camping without electric. We quickly learned what we could and could not do with the generator. For instance, we learned we can’t use the A/C at all, and we can use the microwave oven briefly (like maybe 30 seconds). The coffee maker works, but you can hear the strain on the generator. Most campgrounds don’t want you running a generator all night, and we wouldn’t really want to run it that long anyway, so the nights are very dark and quiet.

All in all our first attempt at boondocking went very well. We had beautiful weather, and we couldn’t have picked a better place to try this out.

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Campsite among the rocks.

One of the benefits of boondocking is being able to camp in some pretty amazing spots out in the middle of nowhere.

City of Rocks State Park is in Faywood, New Mexico. We stayed at this park a couple of years ago in an electric and water hookup site, but these sites tucked in among the rocks are so much better! At night the skies were so dark we were able to see so many stars!

We had an interesting experience when we first pulled up to our site. A minivan was already parked there. I figured someone just stopped for a few minutes to take pictures or something so I got out of the truck to let them know we needed to pull into that site. The guy that was already there barely spoke English so I had a hard time communicating with him, but he basically said he was staying in that site and we were welcome to join him if we wanted to. Okay, that’s never happened before. This site was a reservation only site and I knew we had reserved it and there weren’t really that many sites in the park that we could fit in with our big rig. So I called the Visitor Center where I had just checked in and let the ranger know about this awkward situation. She sent some park rangers out to deal with it. They let us know that the guy just didn’t understand he couldn’t take reserved sites, so he went to find another one. Still, it made us feel really uncomfortable because it was like we had him kicked out of that spot, but what else were we supposed to do? He was only in a minivan and could basically fit in any site, and we didn’t really have any other options.

After that uncomfortable start, it took us FOREVER to get leveled in this site because it was on a slope. Finally we got set up and learned how to use the generator. Then we had a nice surprise! Our good friends from Ditching Suburbia just happened to be passing through this area on their way back to Texas and stopped in to spend the night with us.

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Hanging out with Mike & Crissa Boyink of Ditching Suburbia

We enjoyed beautiful sunsets and wide open spaces at this campground.

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Our campsite had a cute little nook tucked in the rocks with a picnic table and fire pit.

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Fat Cat liked climbing on the rocks.

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This park has a whole bunch of rocks to climb on, it’s like a playground of rocks!

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Our campsite is way back there in a cluster of rocks

City of Rocks was such a fun place to try out our first time dry camping. Now I guess we’ll have to get more adventurous and seek out some free BLM lands to camp on.

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Texas State Parks Part 2

This post covers the next two state parks we visited in Texas. If you missed part 1 you can view it here: Texas State Parks Part 1.

Monahans Sandhills State Park (my personal favorite of the 4)

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This park was all about sledding on sand dunes in the middle of west Texas, and it was so much fun! Our campsite was right at the dunes and we were able to head out and go sledding from our site.

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Notice Fat Cat on the sled with Jake. 🙂

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The dunes were so pretty, they looked like snow.

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Resting… climbing up those hills is exhausting!

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The boys made their own water slide at our site.

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I loved the look of the ripples in the sand!

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The sunsets were amazing!

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Along with the almost full moon on the other side…

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Not to be outdone, the sunrise was pretty spectacular too!

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In the morning the moon was on the other side.

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Fat Cat came out to wander around with us while we were out in the early morning watching the sunrise.

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I hated to leave Monahans (I loved that park!), but it was time to move on.

Balmorhea State Park

Next we went to Balmorhea State Park. You can swim in the San Solomon Springs pool at this park. The spring-fed pool is a constant 72-76 degrees year-round, but if the outdoor temperature had not been so warm I doubt we would have been brave enough to go for a swim. Thankfully the weather was really hot while we were there so the pool was very refreshing.

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Jake jumping off the high dive.

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I loved swimming under water and looking at all the fish. Some parts of this pool go as far as 25 feet deep!

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This was my FAVORITE underwater picture I got! Jake and I tried so many times to get a good picture of him under water, and we finally got this one. I love it!

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There was a little wetlands area over near our campsite where we could watch turtles, fish and ducks, and a beautiful sunset.

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We loved visiting some of the Texas State Parks and hope to come back and visit some more another time. If you plan to camp for more than a night or two at any of these parks it is recommended that you purchase a Texas State Parks annual pass for $70. Otherwise you have to pay a daily entrance fee for each person in your party. That would add up quickly after just a few days.

 

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USS Alabama Battleship

The last 2 times we passed through Alabama we stayed in Gulf Shores. I had wanted to visit the USS Alabama battleship but we didn’t make it either time. So this time through Alabama we stayed right in Mobile, only 5 minutes away from the battleship which made it easier to make sure we got around to touring it.

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Our good friends from Fernandina Beach, the Norstrem family came to join us for the weekend and we all toured the ship together.

USS Alabama Battleship Memorial Park is a really neat place to visit for the whole family. You can tour almost the entire ship and climb on everything which is lots of fun for the kids. They also have a naval aircraft museum and a submarine to tour. It costs $15 for each person aged 12 and up, $6 for ages 6-11 and 5 and under are free. Although we all enjoyed our time there, we weren’t excited to have to pay for 3 adults now that Jake is 12. It would be more affordable for families if the children’s prices applied to all children, not just under 12.

Anyway, we still enjoyed our time there exploring this ship which served in World War II.

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Charlie got the award for the most excited of the day, he is really interested in battleships!

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The interior was really cool to walk through. We saw living quarters, kitchens, laundry facilities and even an ice cream parlor! It was hard to imagine what it must have been like for those living on this ship during such an important time in our nation’s history.

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They have rooms like this for scouting troups to spend the night on the ship. That would be quite an adventure!

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After touring the battleship we walked through the naval aircraft museum.

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And then toured the submarine.

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I have to say, if I was in the military I think I would prefer living on the battleship over the submarine. I can’t imagine being underwater for so many months in such cramped quarters!

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We stayed at Meaher State Park right on Mobile Bay which was so beautiful, and enjoyed gorgeous sunsets most evenings. Chris & Ken wasted no time in getting into a cribbage game as soon as they got there.

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It was a nice surprise to meet my friend Doug’s brother and sister-in-law Ron and Brenda who were also staying there that week. We had fun playing dominoes with them one night and Ron is very good at entertaining kids with trick questions!

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One other fun thing we did that week was to visit the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center. We were able to get in free with our reciprocal zoo and science center membership. We met up with another family there that we had met 2 years ago at a Jellystone Park.

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After a great time in Mobile we spent a few days in Louisiana and then headed to Texas.

Categories: Fun and Interesting Places, Roadschooling | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

St. Andrew’s State Park – Take 2

Last year I wrote a post about the not-so-great experience we had at St. Andrew’s State Park in Panama City Beach, FL. The manager offered us 3 free nights if we would come back again sometime, so we took him up on that and I am so glad we did! This time we ended up with the best site in the park and it was amazing! Our site was on the end so we didn’t have a neighbor on one side which gave us so much space, and it was right on the water. I was up early our first morning there and was rewarded with the most beautiful sunrise. It was like God was painting the sky before my eyes that morning for about 30 minutes. The colors and reflections in the sky constantly changed while I watched the Master Artist at work.

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Our campsite was on the lagoon side, but the state park is also on the Gulf of Mexico so in the evenings we went over to the ocean side to watch the sunset and play on the beach.

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We were surprised to find out that our friends Kym and Galen from Fernandina Beach were in Panama City at the same time as we were. We kept missing them in Fernandina so it was so nice to finally catch up with them somewhere else.

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My parents came to visit us there too which was lots of fun. The boys got Grampa out playing football on the beach with them. These pictures mean so much to me because my dad is 72 years old, and it’s so awesome to see him so energetic and playing on the beach with his grandkids. Just before Jake was born (over 12 years ago) my dad had quintuple bypass heart surgery. Every time I am reminded of that time, I am so thankful that he is still around to play with his grandkids. He is such a blessing to them!

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Jake and Grampa walked way out almost to the end of this jetty before they had to turn around because it was getting dark.

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I stayed behind on the rocks and watched the boats and birds.

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We went on a short hike at the campground on Gator Lake, but we didn’t see any gators.

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My sister always likes to pose my kids in front of signs like this to make it look like they’re breaking the rules, so we took this one for her. 🙂

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Chris got to do some fishing while we were there too, but it was all catch-and-release since every fish he caught was so small.

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We had a great time at St. Andrews and I’m so glad we came back to give it another try. Next up another Fulltime Families rally in Tallahassee!

 

Categories: Fun and Interesting Places, Our Travels | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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