Updated: Oct 18, 2020
My 36th birthday was supposed to be spent touring historic sites in Philedelphia, PA. Due to Covid, we decided to stay in Florida. However, with such little notice many state parks were already full. That is when my family and I discovered the world of Florida State Forest Campgrounds. Overall, it was pretty perfect.
Just three hours from home, North Central Florida is full of trees for shade. Interestingly, it was at least 10 degrees cooler than our town! We took our time to setup and enjoy our frozen drinks while we worked. Perhaps it was because my birthday loomed, or maybe it was the fact we were staying an extra two days. Whatever the reason, it was clear each of us were happy to be there and enjoyed the work of creating our glamping setup while listening to music and sipping away. After finalizing our site, we loaded up in the truck to explore. First stop, find the boat ramp. Not sure we have ever seen a longer boat ramp. This thing was crazy in length!
Now, the State Forest here offered up three campgrounds to choose from. The forest itself covered nearly 160,000 acres; the place is huge! The Silver Lake Campground was a perfect fit for us as was our campsite with a nice lot beside us for extra privacy and views of the lake. We did notice, there was not any washer or dryer facilities; however, we had plenty of clothesline to hang wet clothes from. This campground seemed more spacious than the other two, especially with our boat.
Our advice, be sure to look at pictures and amenities at each site so you know what you are getting into. Keep in mind, many of the sites do not divulge the actual substrate such as dirt or gravel. So come prepared for both is our motto. That is also why we now own rolled "turf."
It will serve as the outdoor friendly barrier between our glampin' tent and the pointy gravel rocks moving forward.
After a bit of sightseeing, hula hooping and tidying up after a sudden rain storm; our first night was simple.
For dinner, we grilled our hotdogs over an open flame and played games. The goal was to hit the bed at a reasonable time to ensure we were fresh for three full days of the river. Glad we did because we had lots to look forward to.
Our first full day was awesome! Withlacoochee is an Indian word meaning "crooked river," which is spot on for describing this amazing river which flows 70 miles total with 13 of them through forest. More impressively, the area was named one of the "10 Coolest Places You've Never Been in North America" by the World Wildlife Fund. Without a doubt, our group can see why;it really is so interesting!
Once we set out across the Silver Lake, it was mind blowing how many twists and turns the river produced as we headed south that day. Did you know the Withlacoochee and the St. John's are the only two rivers in Florida that flow from South to North? Fun fact!
Another item to mention, is that we saw virtually no gators during our three days on the water. In the Silver Lake area, jet skis, boats and air boats are able to play at much higher than "no wake" speeds. It is our thought, this type of activity keeps the gators at bay. In fact, families were tubing and even sun bathing on the waters edge that first day that was full of sunshine. We were in awe of that for sure because gators love fresh water.
One more interesting aspect was that there were several sandy "beach" areas along the windy river. Whole spaces, pristine and sprinkled with wild flowers ideal for lounging or using a spot to let out a dog and do a bit of exploring. Yes, if you were wondering, my boys made me a bouquet and they lasted all day inside an empty green can; it was very sweet. Still the beachy areas is different from rivers thus far with the River Roamin' pontoon though similar to what we witnessed once in the Suwanee River. Worth seeing first hand 100%!
As you can see from the montage, we had a great day. Caught some fish (including a sunfish that was terrific to see up close but it got away before I could snap the picture), I got to put a big dent in a great book (The Aviator's Wife), found a rope swing and took in amazing sites. That evening we wrapped up with a delicious meal on the grill of chicken with a German potato salad. Best part, our son set to task to create a wooden step for the rope swing we found during the day's journey. It already was a fun swing, in a great location but you had to use full upper body strength to execute. With the wooden step, one could step and swing simultaneously. A worthy task for a teenager driven to enhance a hidden gem he had found.
Next day, we slept in a tad and hit the water by 10am. This time, the goal was to head at least three hours north on the Withlacoochee River as we had done the day before going south. Totally different experience folks!
As we set off in the direction of River Ratz, a local favorite closed that day for business, it at least gave us a destination. Yes, many cool curves were there to be conquered but there were also big boulders in the water and the water seemed more shallow in many spots. But the real lesson was we shouldn't have had our Bimini top up. Why you ask? Because it brushed against a low branch along a big cypress outside Hog Island and thousands of silver backed spiders joined us for a ride. Talk about frantic! Once Charlie was able to dump buckets onboard to wash them out and I was able to shake them all from my towels and blankets, we all got a good laugh at my devastation. Honestly, I am pretty sure I have a few more "sparkles" in my hair as a result.
Beyond that, the other real difference were how many residences we saw; all had character, many flying flags, full of that back river roads charm. We made it to our destination just as the storm was setting it. Luckily for us, the rain made for some good fishing and we got back to site having caught a couple bass that day.
Once back at our glamping setup, we discovered there was no power due to a lightning storm. Good news, our glampin' dad is beyond handy and knowledgeable. Once we were able to find the power source and flip the switch, one might have thought he was a hero for the other tent campers. Truth be told, it certainly adds to the excitement of that day and we finished our night humbly. Made a great dinner of country style ribs and grilled green beans, completed our wooden rope swing step that would be hung the next day and went to bed while the rain continued to lull us to sleep.
Final full day was my birthday! Of course, we woke up to a pretty wet campground so there was no real rush to the day. After a casual breakfast of English muffins and peanut butter
ps don't let your toaster get too close to the tent if you setup your glampin' kitchen by the wall. I caught it in time, but wow that fabric sure was warm...
Anyhow, we set off to put our bikes to use. The coolest part of the long morning bike ride, more than 80% of the journey was covered in shade from the canopy of the trees! From there, we all loaded up to drive thirty minutes into town to get some live bait. Glad we did because the bait shop was one of a kind and we all got random $2 grab bags. What did our son say? "You can just never go wrong with a grab bag from a bait and tackle store," as if he'd had one before. Anyhow, he was right. We made out with all sorts of cool items!
As we headed back to the site, we took a short detour to check out a sign offering up forest food and fresh bread. Sadly, we got there too late and our delightful hippie hostess was sold out but I was able to purchase a bottle of kambucha as a souvenir. Interestingly, this route also took us on the roads of the houses we saw from the river the day before. If you are wondering if it was a different view, I assure you it was. Once back at the forest, we set out to explore south down the river again.
We stopped right at the rope swing we had in mind to enjoy the fruits of our son's labor; however, as soon as Charlie stepped onto the first Cypress root shaped like a spike set to impale whoever dares makes a false move, he spotted a giant water moccasin snake. One of only four venomous snakes in North America, common in the southeast. Be still our hearts.
Needless to say, we didn't use that rope swing at the moment. So, as we continued our adventure we happened to spot another. Better still, this one lacked poisonous snakes and dagger looking cypress roots; score! After a few more hours of fishing and reading, we went to that new found rope swing and enjoyed some good splashes and contests prior to the giant thunderstorm and rains.
In that storm, the temperature dropped a bit and being so wet, I was chilly. Good thing I had my thin blanket, a boatin' bag must have, to help keep me warm as my boys set to task using the last of our bait before heading in. Prior to calling it a wrap, Charlie was able to check a mud fish and a gator gar; what a thrill!
Better still, we had plans to enjoy a local Mexican restaurant, Enchiladas in town. Yes, during a time of covid, we still found an open restaurant and it was so good! 36 was off to a great start.
Next day, it was time to break down camp and head home. As you can tell, weather wasn't in our favor much of the time and the drive wasn't much better. Still, we felt lucky to have been able to sleep in until 9am and take our time dissembling it all. It was at this moment we discovered the pesky little ants that thrive in the forest along with the flying cockroaches. Lets just say, four days was plenty and it was going to be good to get home.
With the bikes and boat in tow, we took the back roads home as we had done to arrive at our forest campsite. Keeping with traditio, we stopped in at a cool pizzeria in Lake Wales. Since it was next door to an abandoned gas station, we were able to pull in there and simply brought out our pizza to enjoy in the truck before driving our final hour and change home. Because honesty is a requirement and because I never lie about pizza, this Abriana's Pizza was spot on. Plus, they had root beer which made for a perfect pairing after our treacherous drive leaving the Brookesville area.
Overall, we had a terrific trip! We saw a venomous snake, witnessed fresh water with few gators , caught five types of fish, enjoyed amazing scenery, ate and drank well, read some great books and made many memories that will likely last our lifetime and then some. Though, I feel we all preferred many of the state parks experiences, there was something about this forest that offered more. We now have more items to bring with us on adventures moving forward. Though, that is hardly the take away. Rather, it felt a bit more rugged and I am so glad we went! Happy glampin' and river roamin ya'll!