When I told my friends I was going to take a trip to Anchorage, Alaska just before Christmas they thought I was insane. The prevailing thought was why go when its so cold and dreary when you can go in the spring or summer and have some manner of warmth and plenty of sun. Well, I have never been one for taking the easy route to anything and travel usually takes me on the road less taken, and as Robert Frost rightly stated, that has made all the difference.
Lets get one thing straight, I am not a glutton for punishment so I did do my share of homework for this trip and acquired a friend or two in the area over the years so my trip was thought out carefully. Here is what I discovered. Firstly the flight from my home in South Florida, despite being as geographically unpleasant as you can get, (figure anywhere from 12-16 hours for the entire trip) was not as bad as I had thought. I was able to cash in some frequent flyer miles and actually got a flight that was cheaper than my usual flights for hunting and fishing in Minnesota and Wisconsin. I also realized that Wisconsin seemed to be a heck of a lot colder to me than Anchorage, but I’m sure that can change at anytime, but I feel its close, and preparing one is the same as preparing for the other. I was also able to track down decent arrival and departure times at both ends so I wouldn’t be asking friends to pick up and deliver at the airports in the wee hours of the night. Rental cars are always an option but I was doing this on the cheap as a scouting mission and had my friend play tour guide. Always try to get a local to show you around as it can make a great deal of difference in what and how you see the sights. Being a member of a hotel rewards club is a big plus too as I had a VIP room at the Sheraton in Anchorage for the cost of much less expensive hotel.
In the winter you must remember that you are limited to about 5 hours of daylight and much of the time it is fairly gray. This did not stop me in the slightest as I made the most of what light I had for hiking and sightseeing and used the darker hours for enjoying some of Alaska’s fine dinning and local flavor. I did find Anchorage to be a bit dreary this time of year but I did not travel 4000 miles to go to a mall or sit around the hotel bar. I will say that waking up every morning at 3am thinking I was on Miami time and then sitting near the window from 8am till about 11am wondering why the sun wasn’t coming up was not a great use of my time.
There are some great places within 45 minutes to an hour of Anchorage that are incredibly pretty and worth the trip evening in the dark days of winter. Taking a run along the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail is great anytime of the year and aside from the views of Cook Inlet there is some amazing tidal action pushing ice around is worth the effort. If you are on your own without the benefit of a local these are all places that are easy to find. On the old Seward Highway on the way for cocktails at the Ski Resort of Alyeska there are some incredible views from Beluga Point, even when there are no whales passing by it is a great spot to just take in the beauty that is Alaska. This is about 7 miles south of Anchorage. Keep your eyes peeled to the rocks along the highway, as I was lucky enough to see 5 Dall sheep just foraging around about 150 yards away. Again, this is just a short trip from downtown Anchorage and beautiful even in the winter.
Also not far from Anchorage is a great hiking area known as Flattop Mountain located in Chugach state park and featuring panoramic views of Anchorage, and the surround areas. Although it may be a great spring and summer hike, it loses none of its beauty in the winter and is among Alaska’s most climbed mountains. If you don’t mind driving a bit further you can venture to an area know as Hatcher Pass, found close to the cities of Palmer and Wasilla. Hatcher Pass is know for at one time and to an extent currently active gold mining area, but during my trip the snow covered most of those sites and was taken over by skiers, snowboards and other using this are for winter recreation when I was there. Snow shoes or cross country skis were definitely the order of the day for my trip Also in the area is the Matanuska Valley Moose Range, so keep your eyes open for Moose and other views of incredible wildlife.
During the darker periods of the day I concentrated on enjoying some of the local cuisine and was able to add some much needed calories by means of Pizza at the Moose’s Tooth Brewery, See a movie after dinner at the Bear’s Tooth theater pub and grill, and when a vehicle wasn’t available I took the 7 block walk from my hotel (Sheraton) to enjoy some food and music at Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse. The bottom line is that if you account for potential weather conditions and have an idea of the things you want to see and do, you can do it, and I did this in just 6 days!
It should also be noted that just because the lakes have iced over, it doesn’t mean that fishing is out of the question. Ice fishing with a friend or a guide that lives in the area year round would be happy to take you on to the frozen water for some incredible angling experiences. I met some wonderful people via Face Book and the Alaska Fishing Club where you can meet guides and just others who won’t let the dropping temperatures and a bit of snow stop them from pursuing their passions. Alaska in the winter isn’t just for the locals anymore!
There is great hiking across the entire USA in every type of terrain one could imagine, but as fall turns to winter many of us are either not up to the challenge of winter hikes or just plain old do not relish the idea of “snotsicles” hanging from our noses and sticking hand warmers in places that hand warmers were not meant to be. For those who prefer winter hikes in temperatures that rarely drop below “oh god its cold level” consider the Florida Trail. The Florida National Scenic Trail is approximately 1,400 miles long and is easily accessible from most parts of the state. This popular trail system is perfect for those who like to indulge in some fun day hikes and loops and also for those who want something a bit longer or more demanding. The Florida Trail passes through or near some incredible State Parks and other scenic ecosystems and parks. We will break down the Florida Trail into regions and mention a few of our favorite hikes or Wildlife Management Areas, but there are many, many more. This is just to wet your appetite.
In the South Florida Region where I live, theBig Cypress National Park holds some of the best hiking and most incredible habitats in the state. Depending on small changes in elevation you will come across a variety of different environments includingCypressstrands, hammocks, sawgrass prairies and of course the vast swamp known as theEvergladesencompassing it all. The trails are all quite passable during the dry season and go through many WMA’s (Wildlife Management Areas) as well as utilizing the tops of levees used to control water flow. The open prairies give way to dense tropical foliage and then back to prairies and swamp depending on the elevation of the area.
You can easily access some of the best parts of the Florida Trail from Miami and Fort Lauderdale merely by heading about 45 mins west on either I-75 or US 41, this should take you to the North or South Section of the Big Cypress National Preserve which boarders the northern part of Everglades National Park. My Favorite part of the Trail can be accessed off of I-75. This part of Big Cypress has an abundant amount of wildlife that includes Whitetail Deer, Black Bear, Various Bird life, many American alligators and even the endangered Florida Panther. Big Cypressis in fact BIG! With over 730,000 acres of subtropical terrain including hardwood hammocks, sloughs and cypress swamp to name a few of the types of terrain possibly encountered. You need to determine what you are seeking to determine what time of the year would be best for your hike. If it’s in the wet season, bring plenty of insect repellent.
Central Florida Hikes also offer a great deal of variety in habitats from the vast prairies inhabited by the generations of Cattleman and Ranchers that have worked this part of the state to the hardwood hammocks and the rivers such as the St. John that cross the state. One of my favorite hikes along the Florida Trail is found in the WMA of Three Lakes, found about 45 minutes fromOrlando, Get off at Yeehaw Junction on the Florida Turnpike and you are just about there!
This area is surrounded by many lakes such as Lake Kissimmee and during the wet season can make for a very interesting slog through parts of the trail. This part of the Florida Trail passes through many palmetto prairies and pine flat woods transition frequently into open scrub, a favorite area of the feral hog. The marshy areas in this region are also an incredible area for bird watching hikes as it is a vital wintering spot for both Sand hill Cranes and Whooping Cranes. The three lakes WMA is a great place for a quick overnight or weekend hike and has quite a few sections that will loop around so you won’t need to double back. Each loop is about 5.5 to 6 miles in length and maps can be had from each of the trailheads. The North and South loop trails are found within the adjacent Prairie Lakes Unit. Wildlife consists of feral hogs, Whitetail deer, Wild Turkey and birds of prey such as the Bald Eagle and the elusive Caracara.
As you move more towards the Northern regions of the state the flat prairies begin to turn into more hilly terrain and Pine forests become more of the norm. The hills may hide numerous ponds and lakes with small rivers cutting gullies and ravines into the landscape. This part of Florida is well known for its underground rivers and aquifer. Sand dunes and scrub are abundant in this area. The Ocala National Forest has abundant rolling hills featuring open forests of longleaf pines and oak trees and many areas of scrub, sand dunes and wiregrass. This is perfect habitat for the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, indigo snake and gopher tortoises as well as deer, hog, black bears and armadillos. If you are hiking this area during the hunting season be sure to wear blaze orange for safety.
Use the numerous signs to figure out where you are as this part of the Florida Trail is well maintained, but remember you may be passing through floodplain forests, which could make following the trail a bit more difficult. Towards the extreme North section of the Florida Trail, it will go along Cross Florida Greenway through the Rodman Campground and along the Cross Florida Barge Canal, which was originally a project to connect the Gulf of Mexico to theAtlantic Ocean before it was cancelled for environmental reasons.
The section of the Florida Trail that cuts into the Florida Panhandle (upper northwest part of the state) offers some of the highest elevations inFloridaand allows hikers to roam along the edges of theGulf of Mexico. The estuaries and frequent transition from high forest and woods to low marshy areas make this a great area to view wildflowers and many other types of incredible Florida plant life. The parts of the Florida Trail in and around Apalachicola are perfect for shorter day hikes and passes through some astonishing terrain. The St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge is worth the effort but permits are required for overnight camping.
Just a bit north of the Wildlife Refuge is the Sopchoppy River. This river flows through the Apalachicola National Forrest and the Bradwell Bay Wilderness through the town of Sopchoppy. Bradwell Bay is not a “Bay” in the common sense; it is more of a recess land surrounded by hills and is mostly swampland. This is a beautiful area but keep an eye on water levels or it can be a very wet hike.
A lot of you who have been following my articles are probably wondering how someone who lives in Miami, Florida can be writing articles about hunting, fishing and travel across the globe. Well, the plain truth is that I accrued a ridiculous amount of frequent flyer miles over the years and am lucky enough to have friends in strange and remote places that really like me, go figure. One of my best realizations lately though is that most of the places I am enjoying are within a 2-3 hour flight or drive of where I live, which brings us to a place I had never been before, other than driving through it. Today we talk about the Texas Hill Country.
If you’ve ever driven between Austin and San Antonio in Central Texas you have undoubtedly passed some high rugged hills, gorgeous canyons and several rivers while going through some of the most charming and picturesque towns Texas has to offer. I flew into San Antonio and after a quick stop at Bass Pro Shops, (c’mon, did ya think I wouldn’t stop at one of my happy places first?) I began heading north along US 27 and passed towns and cities such as Kerrville, Bandera, Fredericksburg and finally my destination of Mason. A good friend worked it out so I could spend time at a beautiful ranch just outside of Mason, complete with pool, tennis court and cabins with breathtaking views, and enough Deer,Turkey and Hogs to make even me drool with envy. Due to the unusual 105-degree summer heat wave, I spent a good portion of the middle of the day in a nice air conditioned truck traveling to some of these quaint towns and was amazed at what they had to offer, and the incredible friendliness of the people.
Bandera, known as “cowboy capital of the world” was great, it reminded me of what I had always imagined Texas to be when I was young, but had only experienced Houston and Dallas. Main Street was store after store of the old west, with Arkey Blues Silver Dollar saloon becoming my favorite watering hole. From Bandera we move up towards Fredericksburg with its rich German heritage that can be felt at the many Bistros and restaurants that line its main drag. When in Fredericksburg Brats and Beer are a must. Fredericksburg is also the birthplace of World War II hero of the Pacific Admiral Chester Nimitz as well as the National War of thePacific Museum. Just about 15 miles north of this city is Enchanted Rock, a large granite dome that is visible for miles around and a favorite spot for hikers and rock climbers. But the little town of Mason soon became one of my favorites.
Mason, Texas, as many of the other towns in the hill country has a rich history and storied past. A drive along any roads in this area will eventually bring you by some historic marker signifying and event or place of interest such as an original homestead or the site of an Indian massacre. If you pass any of these markers and have the time it would be well worth the effort to get out of the car and think about what you are looking at. Keep yours eyes peeled if you are hiking a bit off the road as I have found several Native American arrowheads in this area. If you are taking this drive near dusk or dawn have someone on Deer patrol as I have literally seen hundreds of deer in just a day or two in Mason County.
The town of Mason itself is not huge but it is the county seat and has several stores and restaurants that are well worth the visit. If you are looking for a great breakfast (or any meal for that matter) a stop at the Willow Creek Café is a must. I highly recommend anything on this menu and you are also sure to get a bit of the local flavor as it seemed to me this was the local’s place of choice. For lunch you can always get your fill of genuine Texas BBQ at Coopers. The food is great and served on a piece of paper, by the pound and carved as needed. I seriously over ate here. I hope to try out some of the other fine restaurants on my next trip to Mason.
Two more must see’s in and around Mason Texas are Country Collectibles and the Eckert James River Bat cave. When I stepped into Country Collectibles I felt like I was transported into a different dimension. There were artifacts such as Indian Arrowheads, and many, many links to the old west, however my favorite was a stuffed Baboon that leered down on me from high perch. There were just so many things to see that I knew I’d have to return. The also have a fine collection of Hill Country Topaz in this shop, and the proprietors were more than gracious enough to give me a brief explanation of how these gems came to be in this part of Texas and the special Lone star cut that is found at the bottom of them. A must see if you are passing through or in the area for some of the finest hunting inTexas.
The Eckert James River Bat Cave is an amazing sight, but make sure you get there before dusk or you may miss the excitement. This cave is home to a very large population of Mexican free tail bats which exit the cave every evening to forage for insects and mosquitoes. It is certainly a sight to see as wave after wave of these critters swarm out of the cave to feed. From mid-May to mid-October the Bat cave is open to the public Thursday through Sunday evenings from 6-9pm. There may be a small fee and there are benches as you await the bats.
The more time I spend in the Hill Country of centralTexas, the more I learn that each and every area of this great country has something special to offer. Mason, Kerrville, Bandera and Fredericksburg were once just places I would pass through to get to somewhere else, the have now become my destinations. Since these areas are largely based on hunting economies, many of the ranches in this region are opening resort like amenities to hunters and adventure seekers, and I hope to be able to tell you more about them in the coming months. For now, when you are passing small towns on your way to another destination, stop and enjoy the local flavor and meet the people. You never know what wonderful things you may encounter along the way!
Having lived in South Florida for the past 30 years I am constantly questioned as to what time of the year is the best to visit the many national parks and wildlife management areas that have become so popular with visitors from all over the world. Normally my answer would be anytime you can get here is a great time to visit but then I have to question them on what activities they are coming for. Between the coral reefs, the Florida Everglades and a host of other venues your activities can range from incredible wildlife photography safaris to scuba diving or snorkeling in the fabulous Florida Keys or hunting and camping trips in areas rich with wildlife. If you know what you want to do once you get here it will be a lot easy to decide on what time of year you should come. Floridians claim to have two seasons, the wet season and the dry season, and each has its own unique activities to offer.
The rainy season in South Florida usually starts around the end of May and continues for 5-6 months until the around end of November, and you can take it from me, its not always fund to have to chew the air before you swallow it! The air is hot, thick and very humid. During this period Florida accumulates close to 70% of its total rainfall that can be between 35-45 inches of rainfall. This is the perfect time for those who love the ocean to visit some of the parks catering to snorkeling and undersea adventures. John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park located at Mile Marker 102 of the Overseas Highway in Key Largo; one of the upper Keys is only about an hour south of Miami and a favorite destination of those who want to jump on one of the many snorkeling and Scuba Diving boats for a visit to the warm colorful reefs. Biscayne National Park that is closer to Miami, and the Dry Tortugas, accessible from Key West are also great for those inclined to a water adventure. With the Summer months, the water tends to be a bit clearer, the seas a bit calmer and a bit warmer averaging in the low to mid 80’s. During the rainy season ocean activities are a bit more comfortable as you can minimize your encounters with roving bands of mosquitoes. Boat tours of the Everglades at Everglades National Park and Flamingo are also very enjoyable and a great way for the family to stay cool and not venture too far away from Miami or Fort Lauderdale.
Substantial amounts of rainfall have a profound effect on the wildlife in areas of the Everglades such as Big Cypress National Park located west of Miami and Fort Lauderdale. The high rainfall in turn causes higher water levels that allow wildlife such as the American Alligator, various Turtles and other species of fish that they feed on, to scatter over an increasing larger area of the great swamp. For this reason those interest in Photography may have to cover more ground and have a slightly more difficult time getting pictures of wading birds, Deer, Turkey, Black Bear and other wildlife common in the Florida Everglades. For those that are interested in Hiking and camping, the heat and swarms of Mosquitoes can make this time of year a bit more difficult and uncomfortable, and afternoon thunderstorms are almost a guarantee, but provide for a very green landscape with a countless number of plants and flowers. Did we mention the Mosquitoes could be unbearable this time of year?
The Dry season in South Florida is by far the busiest time of the year, as not only the Snow Birds (as the season residents of Florida are often called) return but the migrating hordes of birds making their way to their wintering grounds brings bird watching enthusiasts from all over the world to Florida’s National Parks. Birders and wildlife photographers take advantage of decreasing water levels, which have the opposite effect from the rainy season. Less available water tends to cause birds, animals and fish to congregate in specific areas where the water levels are higher such as canals used for Florida’s water management system or ponds caused by the falling water levels. It is in these areas that wildlife will be the most plentiful and provide an outstanding opportunity for wildlife photography and Bird watching. It is no wonder that Florida’s dry season between December and March brings with it the majority of visitors to the Florida Everglades and Big Cypress National Park. It should be noted that it is at this time that hotels, motels and campgrounds are also the busiest and can command some high fees. Advance reservations are definitely suggested.
Most of the same activities that are available during the rainy season are also available during the dryer months however the swarms of Mosquitoes will be more tolerable. The cooler temperatures make it easier to navigate the many trails in South Florida’s parks and one of my personal favorites is an area known as Shark Valley, Located about 70 miles east of Naples on US 41 if traveling from the west coast or about 25 miles west of the Florida Turnpike to the east. This 15 miles looped road is a favorite of bike riding enthusiasts and wildlife photographers as the paved loop is easy to navigate with birds and wildlife lining the bordering canals within feet of the road. It is very common to see large American Alligators sunning themselves as if posing for a great picture. The park also has a wonderful guided tour via tram complete with guide pointing out the many things that an untrained eye may miss.
Whether the rainy season or dry season is the right time of year to visit South Florida’s incredible parks depends entirely what your goals are. Anything you might require such as boats, kayaks, bicycles or snorkeling equipment are easily rented at any time of the year, but if you take from a 30 year resident of the area who loves both seasons, I feel the rainy season might be better for water sports and snorkeling, and the dry season for wildlife photography and hiking. But the best time of year to visit is any time you can get away and leave your troubles behind!