Florida: The USA’s Hidden Outdoor Adventure Gem

Here’s the thing: When I was a young adult living in Florida, I spent every weekend trying to get outside. And for some reason, I thought I had to cross state lines in order to achieve outdoor bliss. I’d spend up to 12 hours driving in a single weekend to go camp.

If only I knew then what I know now.

I went on a two-day camping trip to Ginnie Springs to film an outdoor video for VISIT FLORIDA, and it completely changed my perspective on getting outside in my home state. Spoiler alert: I’m already planning my next adventure down to Florida. It’s that good.

Here are five reasons why Florida is the USA’s untapped, entirely underrated gem for outdoor adventure:

Camping at Ginnie Springs.

 There’s an activity for every outdoorist.

At the Ginnie Springs welcome center, I saw folks hauling personal watercraft, inner tubes, scuba and snorkeling gear, hiking equipment, camping gear, BBQ supplies — the works. In just 24 hours, I managed to canoe up the river, chase fish while snorkeling in the springs, explore trails, eat steak around a campfire, hunt (unsuccessfully) for crawfish, attempt slack-lining, and get a full night’s sleep in my tent perched on a dewy peninsula overlooking the water.

If you look past the notion that Florida is nothing but beaches and retired folks, you’ll see that the Sunshine State is home to an abundance of outdoor opportunity. There are 3 National Parks, 161 State Parks, and more public recreation spaces than I can count. Bike paths stretch for miles, unique ecosystems beg to be explored, and a lack of mountains means you’ll always find a flat spot to pitch your tent.

The wildlife feels like you’re on another planet.

Lizards that can walk on water, birds waking you up with a cacophony of sound, manatees munching on sea grass, bejeweled beetles, and masked raccoons peeking out at you from the mangroves? Yes, please! I’m a sucker for creatures, and Florida knows how to deliver.

During my camping trip to Ginnie Springs, our crew was woken up in the middle of the night by two dueling owls who had taken up a battle of hoots in the trees directly above our tents. Sure, it interrupted my slumber–but it was worth it to get a front row seat to pure nature.

The water temperature in the springs stays at 72º all year.

Swimming at Ginnie Springs.Swimming at Ginnie Springs.

In the summertime, it’s the perfect way to seek relief from the heat–and in the winter, the water actually feels warm when the temperatures drop at night. I was expecting to jump into the spring and immediately want to bail, but I ended up snorkeling for hours.

And this isn’t just Ginnie Springs–I’m talking about every spring in Florida. Find the nearest one, load up your snorkel gear, and get psyched to make a splash off a rope swing–they’re everywhere.

You don’t have to be a hardcore adventurer to enjoy Florida’s outdoors.

Camping at Ginnie Springs.

I like to challenge myself outdoors, but I don’t always need every outing to be the kind of trip I need to train six months and buy $1,000 in technical equipment for. Florida’s outdoors is accessible to anyone who wants to experience it. Just want to car camp and spend a weekend under the stars with your family? Easy. Want to go on a multiday cycling and backpacking trip along the coast? Done deal.

When I lived in Colorado, we used to spend hours looking for an open campsite on the weekends–and once had to turn around and drive home after giving up on finding a spot. In Florida, you aren’t battling massive crowds to find your own slice of outdoor heaven, and many sites are easily reserved online.

This is what winter in Florida looks like. Seriously. Cue the mic drop.

Camping, swimming, and exploring at Ginnie Springs.Camping, swimming, and exploring at Ginnie Springs.Camping, swimming, and exploring at Ginnie Springs.

I’ve been around the USA block a few times, and I’ve experienced just about every type of seasonal weather from heat waves to blizzards–but nothing compares to a winter in Florida. While folks are waiting hours in lift lines and scraping ice off their windshields, you can be basking in sunshine and wearing sandals.

Disclaimer: If you’ve been following me on social media, you already know–VISIT FLORIDA sponsored this trip and provided compensation for me to get out and explore Florida’s outdoors. As usual, all thoughts, #LoveFL vibes, and opinions are my own.

This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of VISIT FLORIDA. The opinions and text are all mine.

Weeks 4 & 5 – Sunburnt: Winter in Miami

I used to love the long haul between Colorado and Florida. I’ve driven it over a dozen times, and it used to enchant me. These days, I’ve become a road trip curmudgeon. How do both Texas and Kansas stretch for so long? Why are southerners such awful drivers? And who the hell put KFC at every highway rest stop instead of the clearly superior Popeyes? 

The drive from Boulder to Miami wasn’t romantic. Mcgoo and I caravanned across the country, stopping only to pee or fuel up. We spent the night crammed in our driver’s seats as we attempted to sleep at a rest area right on the Kentucky/Tennessee border. This is what I looked like in the morning:

The reality of a nomadic lifestyle.

Not cute.

Ultimately, the decision to press through and just drive straight down to Miami was an excellent choice. I pulled into my familiar driveway just before midnight on Sunday evening, was greeted by hugs from my ma and a lit up (fake, ugh) Christmas tree, and quickly collapsed into my old bed.

Being in Miami for the holidays is a bit unconventional. The only white Christmas you’ll get is a sandy one, and on Christmas Eve I was out getting sunburnt while kayaking. One thing is universal though: the joy of being with family. My ‘people’ are a bunch of loud, borderline insane Cubans + Mexicans, so things tend to get a little rowdy when we’re all in the same room.

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In other news, if your pops ever asks you to wake up before the sunrise to go kayaking on the bay with him in hopes of catching a huge flock of birds waking up and taking flight–go with him.

I’ll let the photos speak for themselves, but hot damn, what an experience. I was groggy and slow dragging my kayak out to the water, but watching the sun crest the horizon and trigger a wave of seabirds to come flying overheard was one hell of a way to wake up.

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Just before New Years, I took a solo road trip up to Ginnie Springs to shoot a camping video–sponsored by Visit Florida (#LoveFL, y’all!), the state’s tourism board. They let me invite two lady friends along, and it ended up being the perfect two days of snorkeling in crystal clear springs, canoeing down a river, eating steak around a campfire, hunting for crawdads, and reconnecting with two friends I can’t believe I went so long without seeing. But there will be another blog post about this trip on the 14th–stay tuned!

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I made it back down to Miami just in time to head out to Coconut Grove for an Indian feast at Bombay Darbar before hitting the water to watch fireworks from the boat. I had a moment while the boat skimmed along the black sea–I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so present. It was one of those heart-swelling, body tingling, shit-eating grin kinda moments.

My peace was quickly interrupted by honking party boats and my attention quickly turned to whiskey gingers, but the good vibes remained. 2016 is going to be one for the books (or rather, one for the blogs?).

Eating local in Tallahassee is easier (and tastier) than it may seem

Call it ignorance or naivety, but I always carried a stigma that Tallahassee simply wasn’t the place to indulge in a locally-minded lifestyle. Places like Chattanooga and Boulder are rampant with the local mentality, but Florida just doesn’t seem to have hopped on that train yet.

After checking out the Locavore Index 2012, a chart that ranks states based on commitment to locally-sourced foods, I was disappointed to see that Florida not only ranked poorly – we were at the very bottom of the list. Not cool, Sunshine State. So, to further my adventures in local eating, I journeyed to three different places this week that showcased some of the best locally grown and owned destinations in town. Check ‘em out:

The Cool Cow

The vacant space next to Fat Sandwich on Railroad Avenue has seen many eatery ideas, but it wasn’t until an ice creamery popped up that the void was finally filled. Walking into this joint isn’t exactly impressive – but the simplicity is part of the experience.

The Cool Cow offers six flavors daily. Chocolate and vanilla are always on the menu, but the four other varieties are swapped out every two days – a total of 200 flavors rotate through the soft serve machines. On the day of our visit, we were offered Georgia orange, kiwi frozen yogurt, berry sorbet, and mocha hazelnut.

I went for the mocha hazelnut – and it was outrageous.

Topped with rainbow sprinkles and marshmallows, my cup teeming with creamy mocha ice cream was beyond tasty, but Niko’s treat took the cake. He ordered a banana split, and got everything on it – which was a solid decision. His chocolate, vanilla, and mocha hazelnut ice cream plops were layered thick with hot fudge, caramel drizzle, waffle cone bits, fat dollops of whipped cream, and even a cherry on top. It was pure perfection.

The mocha oreo milkshake my buddy ordered also deserved an honorable mention, but the part of our cool experience that deserves the biggest ovation is the service we received. Our ice cream guru was not only a wizard with a can of whipped cream, he handled everything with the best attitude I have ever encountered in the food industry. He was kind, courteous, and complimented Niko’s choices of toppings. He’s the kind of guy you leave a 40% tip for. Kudos, Cool Cow – we’ll be back.

The Tallahassee Farmers Market

I am a huge fan of produce markets – so much so that I am dedicating a portion of the 2013 trip to exploring as many as I can. Niko and I have made a few trips out to the Thomasville Farmers Market in Georgia, but we had never taken the quick trip to the convenient one located in Market Square.

After a few weeks of failed Saturday morning attempts, we finally made it out to explore the covered pavilion loaded with local goods. Some of my favorite farms were in attendance, including Turkey Hill and Orchard Pond Organics. The pavilion wasn’t huge, but it was certainly big enough to hold every bit of produce I needed.

We strolled around the stands before making our final selections, feasting our eyes on a huge assortment of goods. There were plump peaches, thickly husked corncobs, freshly cut sunflower stalks, ripe heirloom tomatoes, and more. My bounty was a harvest of ripe blueberries, Japanese eggplant, okra, lemon and lime, and more tomatoes than I know what to do with – plus a little rosemary plant!
 Hands down, this is the best fresh produce market in town, with friendly farmers, great edible offerings, and unbelievably reasonable prices. Whoever said eating healthy and local is expensive clearly never stopped by a farmers market. [Read more…]

My new GoPro Hero 2 takes its first adventure to Beer Can Island in Tampa

In preparation for the mysterious #ProjectZ trip with the OmniTen crew, Columbia Sportswear teamed up with GoPro to supply us each with the new Hero 2 HD camera – and naturally, I figured I ought to put my new toy to the test before taking it out to Sedona for an epic adventure.

While tagging along with Niko during a trip to visit family in Tampa, Florida, we made a trip out to the coast for a day spent at one of the neatest beaches I’ve ever experienced. The spot is called “Beer Can Island,” and while it may conjure up images of littered shoreline strewn with discarded aluminum, it’s actually a pristine slice of coastal wonderment unlike any other beach in the area.

Rather than the usual stretches of shadeless Floridian sand that line much of the Gulf Coast, Beer Can Island is home to a sprawling landscape of enormous driftwood pieces, including one upright tree that boasts a little wooden swing – and by swing, I mean a chunky, splintered log tied haphazardly to a suspiciously fraying rope. 

We set up our little beach camp a few yards away from the temptress swing, and it wasn’t long before I was lured towards the idea of swaying above crashing waves and creating my own little breeze on the particularly scorching day.

Initially, I hopped right on the swing with my feet planted on the wooden base, and my fingers clasped around a series of knots along the upper part of the rope. I attempted to swing myself back and forth – but quickly realized I wasn’t going to make any significant movement on my own. Niko lent a hand and sent me soaring through the sky (and a few times directly into the tree beside me).

While playing on the swing, we decided to sample a few of the many settings found on the GoPro Hero 2. We took still shots, video footage, and used a unique feature that takes ten photos in a one second burst.

While reviewing all my footage from the day, I had originally come across a short bit filmed by Niko while we were splashing around in the shallow sea. It started off great, with Niko swooping the camera in and out of the water like a leaping dolphin as he snagged footage of our group meandering in the saltwater. Suddenly, the clip became a no-go as someone decided to pull their pants down while the camera was peeking underwater. I figured it would be inhumane to subject my readers to the pale sight of that soggy behind, so instead, enjoy this clip of me fooling around on the swing. Enjoy!

[youtube clip_id=”zF7miEKu2T8″]

It ain’t too fancy, I’ll admit that much.

Stay tuned for way cooler clips, photos, and stories as I embark on a wild adventure this week in Sedona!

The foodie gods answer my edible prayers with Pho 7 and Latin Xpress in Tallahassee

Living in Denver introduced me to a lot of things, but the biggest culinary revolution I experienced was being exposed to the liquid paradise that is pho. A Vietnamese tradition, pho is arguably one of the best dishes of all time that combines broth and noodles. Returning to Tallahassee after indulging in the rich cultural offerings of Denver brought disdain to my tummy, until I happened upon a sign advertising for Pho 7.

I was instantly intrigued.

Niko and I vowed to try it out, but we weren’t fully committed or convinced until our foodie climbing friends Barbara and Andrew tested the waters. Their report on Pho 7? It was authentic, and it was delicious. Delighted by their positive feedback, I made a dinner date with some friends for the next day.

The first thing I noticed when I walked into Pho 7 is their walls; they’re painted my favorite shade of marigold. The casual seating is reminiscent of an adult cafeteria, and I appreciated the no-frills layout of the restaurant – plus, each table is adorned with enormous bottles of sriracha and hoisin sauce, my favorites. It took our group a few minutes to survey the menu, and then we ordered a true feast.

While my companions took their taste buds on an adventure with Vietnamese subs and meaty rice platters, I stuck with what I came here for: pho. I ordered a tofu pho, cheese and crab wontons, and vegetarian spring rolls.

Everything was amazing. 

The beefy pho broth was easily the best I have ever tasted. It was richer than any other broth I’ve tried, and offered the perfect balance of spices. My soup only came with one slice of lime, but the meaty pho hardly needed any fixings anyways. Our entire table was satisfied with their meals, and we all agreed to return soon.

 

While chatting over our scrumptious Vietnamese grub, my buddy Juan mentioned the Latin Xpress eatery that sat at the opposite corner of the strip mall. I had heard good things about the joint, and my input peaked Juan’s interest – so we decided to pop in to “just check out the menu” after pigging out at Pho 7.

Fast-forward about an hour, and you’d find our little crew slouching in another cafeteria-style booth. This time, we weren’t surrounded by chopsticks and bean sprouts. Our table was littered with tiny mugs that were once filled with sweet, strong Cuban espresso shots. We drank ten total, unable to resist continually ordering more rounds.

Displeasing my already bursting belly, I was unable to shake the temptation of Latin Xpress’s surprisingly affordable menu. Cafecito shots were just 60 cents, guava and cheese pastelitos ran under $2.00 each, and a dry-erase addition to the menu hanging over the counter lured me in with mamey shakes for only $2.50.

My stomach aches just thinking about it.

Needless to say, the strip mall that I previously knew solely as the place where Planned Parenthood resides has now taken on a new identity. Within a single visit, it was reborn as my go-to destination for cheap, tasty eats with unique cultural flair.

Tallahassee, you never cease to amaze me with your hidden gems.

Announcing a bittersweet shift from snowy Colorado mountaintops to humid Floridian flatlands

If you haven’t figured it out by now, my life is a constantly evolving adventure. It’s taken me from the shores of the Atlantic to the rocky cliffs of the Pacific, from lazy living in Tallahassee to a spontaneous move out to Denver, and on more whimsical outings that I can remember.

And along my journeys,
there is always an element of constant change.

As with many of my announcements, this may not come as a shock to those who chat with me frequently, but may come as a surprise to many of my readers. It is with a heavy, bittersweet heart that I announce:

I’m leaving Colorado next week.

But I just got here. After a very short six months of living, exploring, and adventuring in and around Denver, Colorado, I am packing up my meager belongings and preparing to return to the southeast.

But I just got here! I roughed out the frigid winter months, braved my first snow season, and here I am, gearing up to ditch the Rockies right before the spring sets in. The gorgeous warm months in Colorado are part of the reason I moved out here, and now I’m leaving before it even begins. Sigh.As my lady friend Gina Bégin discovered during her own unexpected move, part of being a full-time adventurer is rolling with the punches – whether you feel particularly fond towards those punches or not. A combination of losing some freelance markets while LivingSocial ‘rethinks’ their business strategy, and coming upon a project in South Florida that I feel truly passionate about influenced my decision to pack up and head ‘home.’

These next few weeks will be an absolutely whirlwind for me. In two short days, eight of my climbing buddies from Tallahassee will be visiting for their spring break – which means a lot of climbing, and not a lot of time to prepare for moving. If I survive the week, Niko and I will be driving from Denver to Florida on March 9th. I’ll then spend a few weeks in Tallahassee preparing for the annual Save the South competition at Tally Rock Gym before finally trekking down to Miami to unload my carload of junk.

So what comes next?

After my frantic move across the country, I’ll be alternating between bouts of working in Miami and traveling around the southeast for climbing. I’ve already got an April ladies’ trip in the works; a week or so of camping and climbing in Tennessee and Georgia, followed by a ‘writer’s retreat’ in Chattanooga while shacking up at The Crash Pad. Other than that, I plan on spending the rest of the year training for climbing.

And naturally, a few cross-country road trips for conferences, outdoor expos, and generally adventuring are also on the agenda – but you’ll just have to stay tuned for those.

Send good travel vibes, I’m certainly going to need them!

Help save the future of the historical Matheson Hammock in Miami, Florida

My childhood was built on bike rides through mangroves, picnics beneath an old limestone fort, sandy sunning along a coast inlet, and boating excursions – all enjoyed at Matheson Hammock Park & Marina. One of the outdoor staples residents of ritzy South Florida, this slice of nature offers an escape from the surrounding mansions and 5 o’clock traffic jams along Old Cutler. For now.

The sanctutary (for humans and wildlife alike) at Matheson Hammock is gravely endangered.

It recently came to light that Miami-Dade County awarded a private company the rights to construct an enormous 5-story boat warehouse in the park – and the folks who cherish Matheson simply won’t have it. Obviously thinking with their calculators instead of their souls, the county selfishly allowed for a potentially disastrous edifice to be built.

Why is this boat warehouse such a horrible idea? Well aside from the giant eyesore that will forever change the skyline, this facility will have a monstrous impact on the community and park. The once peaceful destination will become crowded with traffic to and from the storage warehouse, and if you’ve ever taken a drive down Old Cutler at rush hour, you know how torturous congestion is on those roads. Not to mention the noise pollution, the potential for run-off and introducing harmful chemicals into a delicate ecosystem.

As a park enthusiast, I am outraged by the idea of my beautiful mangrove landscapes becoming defaced by a looming structure, and I am livid at the thought of my favorite raccoon family slurping on water tainted by the extra pollution introduced by the warehouse and extra flock of boats within. As a boater, I can’t even fathom the idea of the marina becoming any more crowded than it already is on any given sunny morning. I have to wonder if those in favor of this storage facility have ever been to the park on a warm Saturday – do they really think there is capacity for more people/boats?

So what can you do to save Matheson Hammock Park?

First, and foremost, you can sign the petition against the boat warehouse. Then, you can share it with all your friends. While the City of Coral Gables is infamous for making any home renovation permits a nightmare, it’s also well-known for it’s excellent history of listening to the people. Unlike the county, the city is truly concerned for the welfare and well-being of its residents. Contact the City of Coral Gables, and let them know how you feel about the future of Matheson Hammock.

You can also ‘like’ “Save Our Matheson Hammock Park” on Facebook, so you can keep up with all the updates and happenings. Finally, you can watch and share this video, which provides an excellent view of the park, and illustrates why Matheson is such a vital lifeline for our community and environment:

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/35111675]

Still not convinced? Check out this blog for ten photographic reasons to save Matheson Hammock.

Take a bite out of this traditional Cuban Feast

How’s that for a Christmas Eve meal? Celebrating holidays with a bite of Cuban fare is my favorite family tradition. Tonight’s menu included my abuela’s famous black beans and rice, homemade pulled pork, fresh avocado salad, garlic yucca, sweet plantains coated with brown sugar, roasted chicken, and a platter of lime wedges.

Food like this will always keep me coming home for the holidays.

Happy Holidays from hot and humid Miami, Florida

Loyal readers, fellow bloggers, and travelers across the world – Happy Holidays to you and yours! I’m enjoying a little escape from the snowy streets of Denver, Colorado for a few weeks of sweet Floridian sunshine. My Christmas festivities involve a traditional Cuban noche buena feast, served beneath tall palm trees on my parents’ warm patio – I hope everyone is enjoying lots of warmth and family cheer where ever this holiday finds you.

[Read more…]

Join me for a month-long trip down to sunny Florida and the southeast – if I can figure out how to pack…

After two cross-country climbing trips, one epic seven-week solo trip, and countless excursions around the country, you’d think I’d be a seasoned expert when it comes to packing my bags and gearing up for traveling – but this upcoming trip has me stumped. I’ve grown so accustomed to road tripping that the idea of fitting everything I need in a small suitcase and backpack is befuddling. Not to mention that this will be the first time I’m traveling via airplane in over two years.

In less than 24 hours, I’ll be boarding at plane at Denver International Airport to head south like a migrating goose escaping the cold. My first stop will be a brief layover in Atlanta, then I’ll hop another flight that will leave me in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The plan from there is to scoop drinks on the bay with my dad, then make the short drive home to Miami – to do lots of this:

I’ll be spending the first ten days of my trip in my hometown of Miami, sipping cocktails while tanning by the pool, feasting on real Cuban cuisine, hiking through the Everglades, and catching up on all the sunshine I’ve been missing. After Christmas, Niko will be driving down from Tampa to spend a few nights in Miami before whisking me away to the panhandle. We’ll make a pitstop in Tampa for a night, then it’s off to Tallahassee for two weeks of hanging with hipsters – and copious amounts of time spent at Tally Rock Gym.

Somewhere in all that Floridian exploration, Niko and I hope to find time for a climbing trip somewhere in the southeast. Chattanooga, Alabama, Georgia, who knows.

Follow my travels in real time on Twitter @themorningfresh!
and stay tuned to The Morning Fresh for adventure updates, photos, and more. [Read more…]