I Can’t Believe I Almost Missed That!: On nearly skipping the Kennedy Space Center and why you shouldn’t

(c) ABR 2017

This December I took an epic road trip through Florida, during which I drove from Jacksonville, all the way down to Key West, and then back. I was focused on seeing the state’s national parks (and I saw all but two!), so the Kennedy Space Center was originally an extra attraction that I slapped into my itinerary at the end of one particularly long day of sightseeing.

When I found myself sitting on the beach in the Cape Canaveral National Seashore after waking up early, visiting two different forts maintained by the National Park Service, and walking around in the historic city of St. Augustine, I realized that I wouldn’t make it to the Space Center in time to see it. It didn’t help that tickets were $50 and parking was $10- if I’m paying $60, I’m going to take my sweet time. So, I gave up on the idea, feeling disappointed that I hadn’t managed to get it into my packed schedule.

(c) ABR 2017

At that point, I figured that I simply wouldn’t visit, and I didn’t think about it again until I was staying in a hotel outside of Orlando. I was planning on spending my last day in one of the Disney parks, but it ended up making me feel too sad, since it is a family tradition to visit Disney together. Dismayed that I was feeling unenthusiastic about one of my favorite places, I eventually came to the conclusion that I should spend the day at the Kennedy Center instead. It is unique to Florida, and I wouldn’t feel too guilty about visiting without my folks.

In retrospect, I am so grateful that I made this decision. I would not have known what I was missing, but it would have been very unfortunate to not visit here. When I first got into the park, I wasn’t sure how things worked, but it turns out that there are two main things to do on an average day here, take the bus tour, and explore the visitor’s center.

(c) ABR 2017

The bus tour takes you to see launch pads, the massive building where shuttles used to be built, and a museum that houses an Apollo ship as well as some very amazing relics. I have to say, this little tour was very emotional for me; getting to see so many places that I had seen in movies and read about in American history was amazing. There is also a recreated space ship launch experience, in which you get to sit in the old launch control room.

(c) ABR 2017

Once you get back to the main park, things are a bit more immersive, but no less amazing. The shuttle experience is extremely well done, from the movie covering the story of the shuttle program’s creation, to the reveal of the Atlantic, and the shuttle experience ride. Seeing the Atlantis may be one of my favorite memories from Florida; it is such a marvel of human ingenuity and imagination.

I would highly suggest visiting the Kennedy Space Center, whether you love history, space, or just a great time. It isn’t to be missed and it is nowhere else in the world.

(c) ABR 2017
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Utah’s Mighty Five Roadtrip Summary

Day 0

Waited in line for 1.5 hours in order to pick up a rental car. I was extremely angry, until they gave me this beauty…

(c) ABR 2017

Day 1

We hiked 3.9 miles in Natural Bridges National Monument. I really wanted to hike the loop that went through the canyon here, but we didn’t have time. We settled for hiking down to each of the bridges instead. We also had to convince a ranger that we didn’t have anything against National Monuments, and we forgot the name of our hotel for the night since I left our itinerary at home.

(c) ABR 2017

Day 2

It snowed over night, and while we were trying to drive up to the Moab area. Due to the weather, we skipped out on seeing the Needles sector of Canyonlands, and went up to Island in the Sky instead. It was windy and cold as heck, but we still managed to hike to the second overlook of Upheaval Dome, Whale Rock, Aztec Butte, Grand View, and Mesa Arch (7.3 miles). We dressed really warmly so that we could stay out in the weather, and people kept commenting on how prepared we were. When we got back into town, we met someone who had flipped their car in the storm that we had driven through. It was a sobering moment.

(c) ABR 2017

Day 3

Fearing crowds, we got into Arches early and hiked to Delicate Arch first thing. Luckily, the weather was much nicer this day. Nice enough that we actually managed to take our jackets off (unlike the day before), and enjoy our picnic lunch without freezing. After seeing the arch that is on most Utah license plates, we checked out many other arches, and managed to hike another 7.4 miles.

(c) ABR 2017

Day 4

Capitol Reef was probably the least developed park of the five, but we started the day off by visiting another arch. I wasn’t expecting to be super excited about it, after Arches, but it was actually really cool. We also climbed up to a view point of historic Fruita, where Fremont Native Americans and then Mormon farmers lived, and walked through Capitol Gorge (6.5 miles hiked this day). This park felt a little disorganized, but it was nice to escape the crowds, and I loved the variation.

(c) ABR 2017

Day 5

Bryce Canyon was… mindblowing. I had no idea that Thunder Mountain in Disneyland was based on a real place, but here it is! Hoodoos every where, and even though we had to slip down ice, and slog through mud, the hiking here was wonderful. We visited Tower Bridge (another arch, go figure), and then wandered through the Queen’s Garden (where the trail winds through the hoodoos) and by the end that day we had hiked 6.4 miles. It was beautiful, and blessedly not all that crowded.

(c) ABR 2017

Day 6

Our last day was a mix of proud and disappointing moments. We wanted to hike Angel’s Landing, but the ranger at the gate freaked us out about parking, and there were only nasty port-a-potties at the visitor center. So, the start to the day was awkward. But we did find parking, and we powered up the steep incline of Angel’s Landing to the saddle before the part of the trail that crosses the spine of the mountain. I was scared, there were cliffs on either side, but it was worth it! I was so proud of us for making if up the cliffside and facing our fears, and we finished the trail in nearly half the time that the park signs thought we would. After lunch, we also made it out to Emerald Pools. But that was it for us and Zion, because it was so busy. There was no parking and it definitely turned us off a little bit. 7 miles hiked!

(c) ABR 2017

The Nature of Florida

So, I’ve established two things about Florida so far (1) the Florida Keys can be a destination for hikers, and (2) this state has a lot of forts. As much as I love Disney, I didn’t see a single theme park while I was there. So, yes, there are a lot of off-the-beaten-path destinations in Florida, and there is hiking to be had for those us of that love seeing nature. But just what IS nature like in the home of Disney World? I imagined lots of swamps, with beaches on the edges, but it turns out (unsurprisingly), that nature in Florida is really complex, with a variety of ecosystems (or groups of plants and animals associated with certain environmental conditions) to enjoy. Here are some of the ecosystems that I got to explore in Florida.

Sea Island Flatwoods in Fort Caroline NM, Jacksonville

(c) ABR 2016
(c) ABR 2016

Palmetto Forests in Cape Canaveral National Seashore, Titusville

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(c) ABR 2016

Hardwook Hammock on Windly Key, Florida Keys

(c) ABR 2016
(c) ABR 2016

Sandy Beaches in the Dry Tortugas NP

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(c) ABR 2016

Cypress Forest in Big Cypress National Preserve

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(c) ABR 2016

Bay Head in a Grass River of the Everglades NP

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(c) ABR 2016

Pinelands of the Everglades NP

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(c) ABR 2016

Mangroves of the Everglades NP

(c) ABR 2016
(c) ABR 2016

Forts, Forts, Forts: Florida Has a Lot of Them

Fort Jefferson (c) ABR 2016
Fort Jefferson (c) ABR 2016

We all know that Florida is America’s crowning jewel of theme parks, and has some of the best beaches around, but what you may not know is that Florida is home to some serious icons of American and Caribbean history. So far I have visited Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico in the Caribbean, and so far, the one thing that I have found in all of them are forts. It was a mainstay of the Caribbean back in the day when Europe was fighting over who would control the “new” world. Turns out, you don’t need to leave the mainland in order to get a taste of this history, as Florida is home to some impressive French, Spanish, and American forts.

Fort Caroline

Fort Caroline (c) ABR 2016
Fort Caroline (c) ABR 2016

The first fort that I visited in Florida was Fort Caroline, located in Jacksonville in northern Florida. This is thought to be the site of one of the oldest colonies in the United States. It was the French who settled here in 1564 on the relatively high, dry ground of the area, and had good relations with the native Timucuan people for a time. Unfortunately, the Spanish weren’t too happy with the French setting up shop in the area, so they ended up massacring the people that tried to make Caroline their home only a year after the settlement had been established. The area is currently cared for by the US National Park Service, and it is free to visit. The fort itself has been recreated to some extent, and there is some really lovely hiking in the park as well.

Castillo de San Marcos

Castillo de san Marcos (c) ABR 2016
Castillo de san Marcos (c) ABR 2016

South of Jacksonville in the coastal city of St. Augustine, which claims to be the oldest, colonial city in the United States, is Castillo de San Marcos, another site protected by the National Park Service (sensing a theme here?). Unlike Fort Caroline, the Castillo de San Marcos was built by the Spanish in 1672, and as its relatively in-tact existence indicates, it was a far more successful settlement. The fort held St. Augustine’s bay from the British until 1763 when the area was given to the British by treaty. Any attempts to attack the fort before this, were unsuccessful, in part, due to the special stone that was used to build the fort. The fort provides insight into the colonial history of Florida, but also US history as well, since the fort was eventually used to incarcerate Native Americans. It isn’t all (or even mostly) a happy story, but it represents an important part of our past nonetheless. Once you’re done learning about the Castillo, head to nearby downtown St. Augustine, for a charming place to walk around, shop, and eat great food.

Fort Jefferson and Dry Tortugas

Fort Jefferson (c) ABR 2016
Fort Jefferson (c) ABR 2016

Fort Jefferson in my opinion, it is the most magnificent of the three (although Florida is home to more than just these). The fort is massive, and somehow located in the middle of the Caribbean ocean, about 70 miles away from Key West on the Dry Tortugas islands. It was built by the American people in order to protect the deep waters of this area, which are key to some of the busiest shipping lanes in the region. The building process itself carried on for almost thirty years (1846-1875), but the building was never actually finished. While the fort was never attacked, it did serve as a symbol of American power, and it also was a strategic location during the Civil War, when the Union used it to blockade Southern shipping and hold prisoners. Now, it is an enchanting spot to spend the day, exploring the past in the long, chambered halls of the fortress, and looking out onto the brilliant blue of the Caribbean sea.

Fort Caroline (c) ABR 2016
Fort Caroline (c) ABR 2016

Cautionary Tales for the Concerned Traveler: The Story of the Key Deer and Speeding

The Florida Keys have plenty of attractions to bring travelers from all over the globe – an otherworldly highway of bridges over the sea, a massive, empty fortress on the edge of American waters, and the sea-side town of Key West at the center of it all (all of which you can learn more about in my last post here).

Highway 1 (c) ABR 2016
Highway 1 (c) ABR 2016

These man-made wonders aren’t the only thing that makes the keys special. The keys are home to many different animals, all of which play a role in the systems that make this destination unique. Believe it or not, even things like poisonous plants and mosquito are essential building blocks for the nature that so enchants us. As travelers, it is our responsibility to protect  and respect these living beings (except the mosquito biting you, we all have permission to kill those rude ladies with a well-aimed slap), even if it means we don’t get that selfie we’d love to have, or get to hike through a cave or island with nesting animals.

Why is this our responsibility? As I mentioned before, each species plays a role in creating the environments that we travel so far to visit. If we value these places, it wouldn’t be right to leave it any lesser when we return home. Local people and future generations also deserve to have these environments and their inhabitants protected. Also, as many of us are animal lovers, and it is important to consider the consequences of anything that we do. The story of the key deer of the Florida Keys is a good example of why we must be careful, and the consequences of not doing so.

Key deer (c) Marc Averette (CC via Wikipedia)
Key deer (c) Marc Averette (CC via Wikipedia)

The key deer has the long and illustrious scientific name Odocoileus virginianus clavium – try saying THAT three times fast. For the uninitiated, the fact that this species has three components to its scientific name, means that it is a subspecies, which is basically a group of animals that has been isolated long enough to start to look like a new species, but isn’t quite there yet. The key deer is a subspecies of the more common white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), which most Americans have seen at one time or another. Unlike the white-tailed deer, however, the key deer is found in only one place in the entire world, the Florida Keys (specifically from Little Pine Key to Sugarloaf Key), and it is easily distinguished from white-tailed deer due to its tiny size.

Sadly, this special little creature has been on the brink of extinction since the 1950s, when hunting brought its population down to 50 animals. We tried to address this problem by using the Endangered Species Act to stop people from directly killing these tiny, island deer, and in 1957 the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge was established. The hope was, as it often is, that if we gave them some room, and kept the stressors of human activity away from them, that their numbers might start to grow. And they did! For a time.

key deer fawn (c) Ianaré Sévi (CC via Wikipedia)
key deer fawn (c) Ianaré Sévi (CC via Wikipedia)

The highway that makes the Florida Keys such a road trip destination isn’t innocent in this story. Since key deer have lived near ever increasing numbers of humans for decades, they have lost their fear of people and the roads that allow us to explore the keys with ease. However, even if they hadn’t lost that fear, Highway 1 cuts through their refuge, and this forces the deer to cross the road in order to find food and mates. Each crossing puts them in danger of cars that are move through the refuge, especially at night, when the deer are most active and people are the least able to make them out in time to slow down. So, altogether, this means that the popularity of Highway 1, as well as people’s mindset while they are travelling it, has created a continuing threat to the key deer (along with other issues that you can read more about here – https://www.nwf.org/News-and-Magazines/National-Wildlife/Animals/Archives/1997/Whats-Killing-the-Key-Deer.aspx).

So now you’re asking, how can I be part of the solution and not the problem? Well, if you ever find yourself driving through the keys, SLOW DOWN. There are plenty of signs informing you when you are entering their refuge area, and special speed limits imposed on the highway here as well. With a population of only around 300, a single deer killed on the road is a risk for the species. If you’re passengers complain, you can tell them to Google the key deer so they can look at their cute little faces and that they really should have gone to the bathroom earlier.

Travel and happiness go hand in hand for many of us, but often we don’t think about what impact we have on our journey. We should always respect the places we visit, and the people and animals that call those places home.

The beautiful Florida Keys (c) ABR 2016
The beautiful Florida Keys (c) ABR 2016

Beyond the Overseas Highway: Three Fabulous Places for Nature and History in the Florida Keys

Garden Key of the Dry Tortugas (c) ABR 2016
Garden Key of the Dry Tortugas (c) ABR 2016

For most, the Florida Keys is an alluring road trip destination due to the Overseas Highway, which takes drivers through the keys and over the ocean, as its name suggests. The sights and sounds of the Florida Keys may be a little bit disappointing to nature lovers when the ocean is out of sight, because human habitation here feels thick and unending. But as I always say, there is something for everyone in all destinations, and the Keys are no exception. So, fellow outdoorswomen and men, here are my top three activities for you in the Keys.

Dry Tortugas National Park

Inside of Fort Jefferson (c) ABR 2016
Inside of Fort Jefferson (c) ABR 2016

Seventy miles west of Key West lay the seven small islands of the Dry Tortugas, now home to the historic Fort Jefferson on Garden Key. Fort construction began in 1846 but even after 30 years of progress, it was never completed. This massive complex was meant to help the United States control the Caribbean Sea, its strategic position is pretty clear even to the casual onlooker. The fort itself offers at least an hour or more of thorough exploration, with three levels and the sandy trail that loops around its top and base. But aside from the fort, the Dry Tortugas are also a splendid place to snorkel, and in the right season, you can get some casual hiking in as well. Mid-October to mid-January is when the beaches of Bush Key are open – a unique ecosystem and an important nesting ground for several species of marine birds. The easiest way to get out here is with the Yankee Freedom, which can either take you out for the day, or deposit you on Garden Key for some camping.

Biscayne National Park

Biscayne National Park (c) ABR 2016
Biscayne National Park (c) ABR 2016

Arguably, Biscayne is more part of Miami than the Florida Keys, but the main part of this Floridian wonder is the tail end of the Keys, along the shore of the mainland. There is a visitor center on the mainland, but this is really just a gateway to the keys that are part of this protected area including Adams Key, Elliot Key, and Boca Chita Key. While they are close to Key, they aren’t accessible by land, so taking a day tour with one of the companies that works with the National Park Service is necessary if you want to snorkel, kayak or hike in the park.

Florida Key State Parks

Windly Key Fossil Reef Geological Area State Park (c) ABR 2016
Windly Key Fossil Reef Geological Area State Park (c) ABR 2016

So, we have nice nature stops at the base of the Keys, and far out to sea past Key West, but what about all those islands in the middle? Is there anything other than concrete bridges and strip malls? Well, of course! First of all, there are plenty of places to park at near the bridges where you can stop to fish or walk around. But more importantly, there are multiple state parks throughout the Keys that give you a glimpse into what these islands were like before humans started paving them. Florida Hikes has a great post about this that I referenced when driving through. You can give yourself a driving break AND support Florida’s protected areas, making checking out these parks a true travel perk.

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Sandstone, Sweet Sandstone: Red Rock Canyon and Zion National Park

I was in Las Vegas recently and though it has its many charms (and vices), I think it can get a liiiiittle overwhelming.

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I mean, what isn’t just INCREDIBLY charming about a large shoe?

If you’re looking to get away from the glitz and gambling (and TERRIFYING street performers) of Sin City, have no fear, nature is here to cradle you in its sweet, sandy arms.

Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area in Las Vegas, Nevada, the Valley of Fire State Park in Moapa Valley (which I sadly did NOT get to visit), Nevada and Zion National Park in Utah are all features that are under 3 hours away.

Some quick tips before you step foot into ANY of these places. If you aren’t keen on reading further, at least read this:

  • Bring lots of water – often at visitors centers or at the head of a trail their will be a water fountain or water refill station, but if you’re out on the trail, you’re probably out of luck
  • Which brings me to my next point, GO before you go (I stole this phrase from a Zion sign) – hit the bathroom before you hit the trail and scope out any other pit stops along the way
  • If a sign says DON’T do something – like don’t stray from the trail, don’t swim in the water, don’t feed the deer – then don’t do these things, it’s safer for you and the surrounding environment
  • Lastly, it’s never a bad idea to check the websites of these places for weather conditions or any other alerts like a trail or park closure – it would be a real bummer to drive all the way only to find out the trail you wanted to hike is closed

Now onto the good stuff!

Red Rock Canyon

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Much red. So rock. Wow.

Red Rock Canyon is a great place for hikers, bikers, climbers and it’s barely 30 minutes out from the Las Vegas Strip. If you’re one of those I’d-rather-admire-nature-from-the-car types (or your feet are hurting from walking up and down the Strip because you’re too cheap to pay for parking), they have a one-way scenic drive for some easy 40-minute cruisin’.

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Climbers gon’ climb.

There’s a fee per car, per bike or per pedestrian but these are really minimal – we paid $7 for our car – but check the website for fees if you’re really concerned.

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If you love rocks, this is the place to be. If you don’t love rocks, it’s still pretty cool.

Plenty of stops along the way of the drive for you to enjoy the activity you prefer. Ask for a map when you pay your fee or when you stop at the visitor center (or check it out online, which I would do before you arrive, because cell service in no bueno due to canyon). I did a little bit of exploring and photographing – I think I’d like to dedicate myself to an actual hike the next time I visit.

Zion National Park

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OOOOOOOOOH.

Zion National Park

Zion National Park in Utah is just a bit over two-and-a-half hours away from Las Vegas, so dedicating a day to it is pretty easy to do, not just because the drive, but because of how much there is to see.

There are nine designated stops inside of the park and they have a pretty nifty shuttle system that runs through Springdale (the town outside of Zion) and the rest of the canyon. It’s a great way to avoid any parking problems and it’s also FREE-NINETY-NINE (meaning, you know, free). It seems to run in early Spring – Late Fall/Early Winter. We were there during Thanksgiving weekend and that seemed to be the last shuttle run. Private vehicles are also allowed to drive along the same scenic drive.

Although the shuttle is free, there is a fee to get into the park. And be forewarned, if you go during a holiday/holiday weekend, it will be crowded as HECK.

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AHHHHHHH.

I could ramble on for days about the trails, camping and climbing available, the cute little Zion lodge you can stay at or just how beautiful it is, but my words and these few photos cannot do it justice. You simply have to see for yourself how vast and HUGE these formations are.

I’d like to boogie on back here some day soon (when it’s warmer, because I’m a big baby) to do some serious hiking and exploring. I encourage you, if you’re visiting to slow down and take some time, to not just only enjoy Zion but to check out the picturesque small towns on the way in.

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10/10 would canyon again.

If you were waffling about visiting either of these places, I hope this makes you decidedly un-waffled and that you take the plunge!

Until next time, safe travels!

xx
Katie