Bahia Honda: Camping in the Florida Keys

The journey from Miami to the Keys will forever be one of my favorite road trips. My little car, windows down, skipping across tiny islands like a river rock hopping across flat water. Salty air rustling my hair into a knotted mess, sunshine warming my skin, and the temptation of Cuban espresso from roadside cafes dotting the highway. The drive feels like an old friend now, but I’ve always cruised straight through to Key West with minimal stops along the way. Until now.

Photo: Pat (@outsidethebun) and Spark Brand

Photo: Pat (@outsidethebun) and Spark Brand

Bahia Honda is a state park perched along mile marker 37. A mellow entry gate hides the stretches of coastal camping sitting on over 500 acres of island–and that doesn’t count the offshore island where you can snorkel and hunt for seashells. Despite living only a few hours from Bahia Honda for nearly two decades, I had never taken the left turn into the park–I didn’t even know it existed. Cue the squeals and smiling-so-hard-my-face-hurt as we drove under a bridge, past beachgoers, and all the way to the very last campsite at the park.

Camping at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys. Camping at Bahia Honda State Park in Florida.

Did I mention this campsite was sitting directly on the water, tucked away in a perfect mess of mangroves, limestone, and washed up sea grass? Because, it was. It still is, if you want to go see it yourself. Campsite 80, trust me.

I camp, a lot. There was that one time I spent a year living on public lands, and last summer I spent four months traveling solo while camping nearly every night on public lands–but I’ve never spent an evening snoozing with the shoreline nearly within arm’s reach. It was one of those life scenes that made me seriously reconsider how I ever moved away from the ocean.

Setting up my tent was difficult to focus on–snapping poles together suddenly felt laborious when a sun-kissed jetty was begging to be explored a few yards away. With a rocky limestone landing, tent stakes were useless. Tip: Keep your tent weighed down by tucking your heavy packs, water bottles, or even rocks into the corners. Florida gets breezy, and no one wants to watch their tent get blown out to sea.

Camping at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.

Once we got camp settled, my old friend Alex and I cruised back to the front of the park to dig our toes into the sand for a little underwater exploration. For outdoorists who spend most adventures climbing up toward the sky, taking a dive beneath the sea’s surface is a refreshing perspective. I spend so much time going up, it felt healing to sink downward for a change. Tiny fish darted back and forth, tufts of sea plants tickled my legs, and my skin eagerly drank in all the salty satisfaction.

Camping at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.Camping at Bahia Honda State Park in the Florida Keys.

As I crawled into my sleeping bag, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to snooze soundly with another warm body only inches away, but within moments, I zonked out. That night, I slept more deeply than I have in months. It was my first night in my new tent, and the first night I had slept in a tent with someone else next to me in over a year. The wind stirring leaves, water lapping against the shore, and buzzing bugs just on the other side of my tent wall were the perfect lullaby.

In the morning, I rose with the sun, but stayed curled up in my bag for a few hours to soak in my surroundings before it was time to take down camp. The easy location and accessible site made it simple to pack up the car, cook a quick breakfast, and then cruise back up the Keys toward home–with a pit stop for cafecitos and empanadas on the way, of course.

I could keep telling you about the bliss of seaside camping and going snorkeling before sleeping under the stars–but it’s better to show than tell, right? Check out the video produced by VISIT FLORIDA from the trip, and see for yourself:

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

Trail Running Florida: The Overseas Highway Heritage Trail

“North, or south?” Alex asked as we neared the end of the dirt road stretch. I took a deep gulp of humid air, trying to keep my breath while surveying the options ahead. We had just pulled over after finding a dirt road on Long Point Key. Our detour yielded stretches of dirt trails in multiple directions, but most abruptly ended in heaps of limestone or thickets of vine. We refocused on our true objective: running on the Overseas Highway Heritage Trail.

“Left!”

Trail Running on the Overseas Highway Heritage Trail in the Florida Keys.

Trail Running on the Overseas Highway Heritage Trail in the Florida Keys.

We ran in that direction for only a few hundred yards before being once again lured toward a new route – this time a mile-long detour off the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail and into Curry Hammock State Park. We waved to the rangers as we jogged past the entrance station, stopping only once we reached the lapping waterfront.

The Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail is a multi-use path that runs the length of the Keys across islands and bridges until reaching its terminus at Key West. It officially begins at Mile Marker 106 in Key Largo, and ends at MM 0. The trail itself has been a work in progress for more than a decade as Florida slowly stitched together portions of existing bike paths to create a continuous, safe route for those who prefer to experience travel though the Keys at a human-powered pace.

Trail Running on the Overseas Highway Heritage Trail in the Florida Keys.

Trail Running on the Overseas Highway Heritage Trail in the Florida Keys.

I didn’t find trail running until many years after I moved away from the Sunshine State. I used to live by a strict motto: “I ain’t running unless something is chasing me.” Somewhere between my native state and my new home in Utah, my anti-running resolve weakened and I kept finding myself lacing up shoes to hit the trails. Returning to my home state to bring together my native environment (read: humidity, sunshine, sea-level elevation, and salty air) with my newfound love for running was a treat.

I like running because it’s pure. You don’t need fancy gear or technical skills – it’s simply one foot in front of the other, until your legs feel like Jell-O. Left foot, right foot, repeat.

Trail Running on the Overseas Highway Heritage Trail in the Florida Keys.

With more than 100 miles of trail to choose from, you can make your experience on the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail all your own. Here are some tips from my experience:

  • My favorite parts of the trail are the stretches between numerous smaller islands. There’s a certain sense of satisfaction you feel after running an island tip-to-tip, even if it’s less than a mile long.
  • Ultra runners can camp out at Bahia Honda State Park, then go big and run the trail’s final 32 miles from the park to Key West. Celebratory rumrunners, anyone?
  • Note: It is not advised to tackle the Seven Mile Bridge by foot. Heavy vehicle traffic and small shoulders make this portion of the trail less than appealing for the average runner. I would personally run it only if specifically attempting to complete the trail in its entirety. Plan your run around it or hitchhike your way across.

So, what gear do you need to run on the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail?

  • Running shoes: The path is mostly paved and very well maintained throughout, so technical trail running shoes are not required.
  • Water (hydration pack or belt): Locals with a higher tolerance for South Florida’s hot, wet climate may be able to skip carrying water on shorter distances, but I found myself eager to hydrate often.
  • Sun protection: After just a single bridge crossing, I knew sunscreen would be at the top of my list for recommended gear. Many stretches of the trail provide little to no shade, so it’s key to come prepared with a liberal layer of sunscreen and I’d suggest a hat, too. If you’re bringing a hydration pack, toss in a tube of sunblock to reapply throughout the day.
  • Bathing suit: Okay, so this one you can leave in the car – I wore my bikini top as a sports bra – but the point is: be prepared to go for a dip after your run. Trust me, the après-run swim is almost as good as the actual running.
  • Bonus Points: If you’re running across a popular key, bring some cash for pit stops at Cuban sandwich shops and seafood joints.

All photos of me in this post taken by Alex Uribe. Thanks, Alex!

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

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?).