Heat up/cool down road trips
When it’s too hot here, cool down in the mountains. When it’s too cold, heat up in Florida.
Story + photos by Michele Roldán-Shaw
A good road trip liberates you — temporarily at least — from whatever’s bogging you down at home. Fresh eyes, fresh scenes, fresh outlook; a literal
change of air. When it’s too hot here, cool down in the mountains. When it’s too cold, heat up in Florida. That’s the protocol for me.
I’ve made a lot of cool trips on a slim budget, often just change from my change jar rolled out and exchanged for crisp new notes at the bank. Tack on a gas card someone gave me, and I’m ready to fly. I put an air mattress in the back of my truck (pink flamingo sheets if I’m headed to Florida, starry-night sheets if I’m mountain-bound), then I throw some camping gear in a milk crate, strap my kayak to the roof rack, load up the cooler and take plenty of fresh clean clothes in my signature blue duffel. I always have tea and one of my giant Buddha books for afternoons at camp. Rations are spare —maybe some leftovers to heat up on my camp stove, instant miso soup packets with seaweed and bean thread noodles, oatmeal, fruit bars, sweet potatoes to roast over the fire, and whatever heaps of fresh pickins I might find at a roadside stand or U-pick farm along the way. But you can count on me to go to town and treat myself to at least one hot meal after the wilderness, preferably Asian or Southern home cooking.
Now add in the maximum of nature adventures — from waterfall hikes and quickie overnight backpacking side-trips to spring run paddles and early morning skinny-dips in out-of-the-way lakes — and you have my patent formula for doing the most with the least. Locations in the pages to follow range from cheap to free, but the sad fact is you will have to have reservations for most of them. (The ideal road trip is so scrupulously planned as to seem carefree, with room for spontaneity, but devoid of logistical hassles.) The itineraries sketched out here are ambitious, and if making the trip myself, I would probably cut the number of stops in half just to have time to sink into each, but I’ll leave that to the reader and adventurer herself.
The birds (and the snowbirds) head south at the onset of winter; but I wait till the end, when I’m just sick of it and I can circumvent most of the RVers as they begin to make their spring exodus back to Yankee-land. The sweet-spot is early to mid-March, carefully avoiding peak spring-break traffic as well.
1. OLD STAND-BY We begin at lovely St. Augustine, a city of cobblestones and bougainvillea, like Savannah dipped in the Spanish Caribbean. Take in the old quarter and Castillo de San Marcos, a 17th-century stone fort that’s actually as cool as the hype. Across Matanzas Bay is Anastasia State Park, where you can camp in a magical maritime forest with miles of white sand barrier island beach as your personal playground. Be sure and hit Nalu’s Tropical Takeout — the city’s oldest food truck serving fish tacos and poke bowls with fresh wild-caught seafood — conveniently parked outside the Surf Station where you turn off Highway A1A to enter the park.
2. SPRING BREAK That sojourn will seem civilized compared to your next stop in the Ocala National Forest. With 387,000 acres of mostly piney woods, the Ocala belies Florida’s reputation for being paved over. There’s plenty of hiking (the long-distance Florida Scenic Trail runs right through it), but the novelty here are the springs. If you’ve never experienced a Florida spring — those tropical blue holes appearing absurdly in ferny, gator-filled swamps; those optical illusions of crystal water so pure it seems shallow even when deep; those mysterious portals to subterranean limestone cave systems that even funded scientist can’t get to the bottom of — you simply must go. They are arguably the best thing about the whole state. The Ocala has four major springs with recreation areas: Alexander, Silver Glen, Juniper and Salt Springs. The first two are best for swimming. The last two are best for paddling the spring runs, which is like floating through a Jurassic jungle tunnel on a sheet of jewel-
colored water. There are several developed campgrounds in the Ocala, as well as primitive camping scattered throughout the forest; but I recommend a middle path of Hopkins Prairie, which is for tent campers only and costs just $10 a night.
3. TAKE REFUGE Head west from there to the Chassahowitzka, a national wildlife refuge that offers the ultimate in Old Florida adventure. This 5-mile-long protected river, which is fed by numerous springs and empties into the Gulf of Mexico, forms a system of swamps and estuaries that are home to manatees, otters, gators, dolphins and about a billion birds. Stay at the Chassahowitzka River Campground and ask how to get to Seven Sisters and the Crack, two springs you need to experience. The first is a series of blue holes where you can dive into one and pop out the next; the second is a secret spot in the jungle with a rope swing that will make you feel like you’ve found the Fountain of Youth.
4. ORANGE YOU SWEET Everything starts early in Florida so you may be able to find a U-pick strawberry place if it’s March or a blueberry farm in April; but if it’s still midwinter go for the citrus. On one trip I bought a five-pound bag of honeybells (an exquisite cross between a tangerine and a grapefruit) which I devoured throughout the trip only to buy another five-pound bag at the same stop heading home.
5. TAMPA STAMP Tracking south to the Tampa area you can get your city-fix if you need that, or camp at Lithia Springs Park where you’ll at least have a hot shower. I fondly recall my site with the truck backed right up to a high bank over the Alafia River, where I could lie on my pink flamingo sheets with only my toes blocking a view of the steaming, vine-draped jungle below. I dragged my kayak down the bank for a Huck Finn float on this lazy tea-colored stream, which was less wilderness and more summer dog-day fish camp in Tampa’s backyard. Lithia Springs itself is a big all-natural 72-degree swimming pool constantly fed by 25 million gallons of pristine water daily, and cavorting around in it with the locals is a little slice of Florida life.
6. GO REMOTE If you can swing it, book a sleepout on Cayo Costa, a remote barrier island that was once the fishing ground of Calusa Indians but is now a state park. Accessible only by boat, you will have to reserve a spot on the ferry and take all necessary provisions. But it will be worth it for the experience of being marooned on a gorgeous island with nine miles of unspoiled white-sand and blue-water beaches, your little tent pitched perfectly among the palms.
7. EVER YOURS From there you head into the legendary Everglades, making a resupply stop at Everglades City with its rustling tradewinds, scent of shrimp and mangrove mud, and sleepy renegade charm. Get a slice of key lime pie. Your next location is going to be down an extremely long gravel road that will make you feel like a rugged Gladesman or Seminole of yore, and at the end you’ll find Bear Island Campground in the Big Cypress Preserve. There’s pretty much nothing there except panthers, gators, rattlesnakes and wild orchids, and some of the best stargazing on the East Coast. When you’ve exhausted those pleasures, be sure to check out the nearby studio gallery of photographer Clyde Butcher, whose haunting black-and-white images of the Florida wilds are made by him with a large-format camera as he stands up to his chest in the swamp.
8. GLAM ROCK Your Florida ramble swings north again to complete an epic loop in none other than Orlando, which is so much more than its theme parks. Stroll through College Park and visit the Jack Kerouac House to pay homage to the great literary road tripper himself, then get a pancake breakfast at Christo’s or a hot cup at CREDO Coffee, which is set up on the donation system. You also can fan out into the city for your pick of international fare, notably Vietnamese in the Little Saigon district. Then hitch up the wagon and head north again to Kelly Park in Apopka, where you will find what has to be one of the prettiest spots in Florida: Rock Springs, a deep blue pool issuing from a mysterious fern-clad cavern crowned with palms. Bring a float, and tube down from the head springs, then hike back to the top and do it again.
9. INTO THE WILD As you finally make for home, and assuming you aren’t completely tuckered out, stop at one of the wildest beaches on the Eastern seaboard in Guana Tolomato Matanzas Estuarine Preserve. Correct, you’ve never heard of it; no one has. Park at one of the pull-outs off Highway A1A along several miles of startlingly empty coastline. You’ll likely have the place to yourself for a final, unsupervised thrill before arriving home with a new appreciation of Florida.
10. SKIP IT Oh, and one last tip: hit Skipper’s Fish Camp in Darien, Georgia, on your way back up I-95. After dining dockside on crab cakes, fried oyster po-boys, collard greens and hush puppies, you’ll declare it’s your new favorite place.
To long for green shade, cool streams and mountain breezes in the dead of summer is not human — it’s divine. Search for your secret sylvan spot amongst the hills and hollers of Appalachia and return there every year. Personally, I wait till after Labor Day to cut down on the crowds; September is still plenty hot enough in the Lowcountry to warrant an escape.
1. Speak of the devil Our own South Carolina corner of the Blue Ridges has some worthy spots, among them Devil’s Fork State Park. It borders the Sumter National Forest and sits on the pristine and mostly undeveloped Lake Jocassee, a 7,500-acre reservoir created by Duke Power in 1973 when it flooded a mountain gorge. The rivers feeding it not only keep the water cool and clean, they also create a number of beautiful cascades crashing directly into the lake; this is the only place I’ve ever kayaked right up to the bottom of a waterfall. The scenery is spectacular with rolling blue hills around a deep teal body of water that reaches its cold fingers into all sorts of little nooks and coves just waiting to be discovered.
2. Legend of the falls As you cross into North Carolina, take a little side trip to Upper Whitewater Falls, the tallest cascade East of the Rockies. Its dramatic 811-foot plunge can only be witnessed from afar, at an overlook reached via a short, easy hike.
3. HIDDEN GEM Continuing from there into the highlands, your agenda is simple: make a big strike at a gem mine. There are dozens of mines scattered throughout this famously mineral-rich region; do a quick internet search or go into the chamber of commerce at any little town and ask which ones aren’t “salted.” (That means they don’t deliberately place worthless non-native stones in the dirt to give tourists a cheap thrill.) If you pursue the right acquaintances, you might even find yourself turning over rocks at a backcountry site known only to the locals (ask around about “Chunky Gal.”) I tried my luck at Mason’s Ruby and Sapphire Mine in Franklin, North Carolina, where I found a bunch of pretty purple stones and made a nomad gem-miner friend I’m still in touch with today.
4. BLUE HEAVEN You’ll need to come down after the exhilarating experience of getting rich at the mines, so what’s called for now is a pilgrimage into the quiet peace of the high country. Make for the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is worthy of its fame in stretches of blooming mountain laurel and misty stone tunnels that look like a troll should come out of them. Where I’ll send you next is the wild blueberry abundance of Graveyard Fields. Park at the pull-out and get your things together for a mini-sleepout, carrying whatever you need for the night plus berry receptacles down a winding trail through the rhododendron thickets. Their twisted branches mat overhead, while gurgling brooks run alongside you and cool the air. Every so often, little side paths lead to meadow clearings, and it is in one of these that you will establish your seasonal blueberry camp. Speak little and tarry until your fingers turn purple.
5. BALD IS BEAUTIFUL Above Graveyard Fields but accessed from a different point (Black Balsam Knob Road near milepost 420 just south on the Parkway) are the famous balds. These oddly treeless summits in an otherwise densely forested mountain range not only offer breathtaking views, they also give a convincing impression of alpine country. As you hike the thin dirt track running crookedly through windswept fields of golden grass, gazing at cloud-shadows as they change and pass over the landscape with surprising speed, and feeling a little chill whenever you stop, you’ll swear you are in New England or the Rockies rather than the steamy South, which is just the change of air you came for.
6. SLIDE BY To complete your cool-down, descend from the balds into Pisgah National Forest near Brevard and visit the best attraction around for kids-at-heart: Sliding Rock. This natural water slide consists of a 60-foot gently sloping boulder face in Looking Glass Creek with an 8-foot pool at the bottom. Everyone forms a line at the top, then bumps and crashes down on a thin sheet of 55-degree water to land with a splash below. It’s amazing! You’ll want to climb back up and do it again repeatedly. Camp in the Pisgah and explore many miles of hiking trails, or set up shop in Brevard, which is a waterfall-lover’s paradise that claims over 250 cascades in its vicinity.
7. REACH FOR THE SKY Apples are a fall crop, but many varieties start in August (September and October are peak season) so if it times right with your trip, hit up a U-pick orchard. I recently visited Sky Top near Flat Rock, North Carolina, where in addition to picking beloved varieties like Pink Lady straight off the tree, I also discovered a new favorite: Arkansas Black, which kept in the fridge for months. And yes, I bought a half-dozen fried apple pies fresh and hot out of the grease; but I exercised more restraint with the apple cider doughnuts.
8. BRIDGE THE GAP Don’t worry if you binge out; just work it off hiking in the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. Camp at Jones Gap State Park, which lies in a remote cove with no cell service and has a beautiful log cabin visitor center that will close its doors at quittin’ time and leave you alone in the wilderness. There is no RV or car-camping at Jones Gap, but you can pack in to a number of backcountry sites, several of which are just a few hundred yards down the trail. For those who enjoy a challenge, there are multi-day backpacking routes clear to Caesars Head State Park and other mountain attractions. But even day-use visitors will find themselves immersed in the singularly restorative peace of these gentle ranges; they’ll listen quietly to rustling leaves and perhaps visit Rainbow Falls, which takes its name from a colorful prism effect that happens in certain lights.
The trip could go on; in their folds these mountains offer endless hidden areas to explore. But all journeys have end-points, and we must ultimately thread back down into the heated lowlands from whence we came. Cut a cold apple and conjure those distant memories of mountain breezes until you can make the trek again.