Posts tagged boondocking

Bringing our New Home to our Old Home in Southern Ontario

Walking alongside the rapids of Niagara Falls before returning to our former home of Toronto, Ontario. All while squeezing in some TLC time for Clemie amid camping trips in Port Elgin and Kawartha Lakes, Ontario.

After border crossing #487354, we were home, sweet home and ready to catch up with friends and family all around southern Ontario (whoever’s keeping the border crossing tally might be a tad hyperbolic). We were stoked to spend some time with friends in Niagara Falls before heading to Toronto and were lucky enough to have a hookup with Niagara Parks for all kinds of complimentary passes to the good, non-cheesy attractions (shoutout to Brandon and Bev 😉). We spent a day being tourists doing the cable car over the whirlpool, walking behind the falls and indulging in some kids entertainment at The Fury.

Generic Van Life - Southern Ontario Niagara Gorge
View from the cable car going over the Niagara Gorge

The next day, we did the White Water Walk and got splashed by the most dangerous rapids in the world. That’s right, these are Class 6 rapids and are completely off-limits to rafters or paddlers because they’re that nuts. The limestone in the rocks give the water a beautiful, ultra-saturated teal colour that looks like a sea of cotton candy. If you find yourself in Niagara Falls, skip the wax museums of Clifton Hill and walk over to the gorge – in my opinion, it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the whole area. We didn’t bother with the Hornblower (the bigger, badder and crazier version of the Maid of the Mist, which is now the New York side’s attraction) because it was hot as hell out, the line was way too long and we had our share of plastic poncho-wearing for the day already.

Generic Van Life - Southern Ontario Niagara Falls Rapids
Getting up close and personal with Class 6 rapids

It had been 10 months since we left Toronto to move to Alberta and it felt a little surreal to be back – mainly because we brought our entire house with us. As always, it was great to spend time with friends and family and catch up on some work and van maintenance. We managed to cross quite a bit off of our list including rerouting our sink drainage, making a new table and sealing a couple chips in the windshield. It was nice to be parked at my parents’ house where tools and running water are plentiful. And of course, parents love to feed ya! With full bellies, we headed to MacGregor Point, an Ontario Provincial Park on Lake Huron, for a camping trip at our second paid campsite in 6 months. Yup, ever since we installed our solar system, we’ve only paid for two campsites since March. One in Tofino because we pretty much had no choice and this group camping trip that was planned months ago. How many people can say they’ve only paid one hundred and fifty odd bucks in rent in 6 months?? Fees aside, it was a really nice campground that felt like we were alone in the woods, which is generally preferable when camping as opposed to the all too common sardine can campgrounds where kids wake up super early and just scream all day. On our way out, we checked out the beach in Port Elgin where the crystal clear waters of Lake Huron make you feel like you’re somewhere tropical and do such a great job at making you forget just how damn cold it gets in the winter.

Generic Van Life - Southern Ontario Bandit
The best part of our MacGregor Point camping trip was getting to spend time with this handsome devil (sorry human friends)

Not long after we returned to the city to get back to work, we were headed off on another camping trip. This time, we headed east about 2 hours north of Peterborough to do some boondocking on some of Ontario’s mythical Crown Land (public land). If you’ve ever tried to locate Crown Land in Ontario (namely southern), you’ll know exactly what I mean. Sure, the government website provides a map but it’s complicated and not very user-friendly. Truthfully, I think that that’s their intention since it’s unclear whether many of the spots are even accessible – especially with a vehicle. Anyway, deciphering maps and finding camping spots has become a regular part of our daily lives so we were game to give it a whirl. We found an amazing spot called Cashel Lake where a few other campers had already set up shop to enjoy the peaceful woods and pristine lake. We spent the majority of the weekend floating in the water with friends while soaking in as much of the non-city air as we could before heading back to Toronto. I even dug out my childhood fishing rods that became our new favourite tools and even helped to catch us dinner one night. Not bad for city folk!

Generic Van Life - Southern Ontario Cashel Lake Fishing
Nothing like fishing from an inflatable pink donut
Generic Van Life - Southern Ontario Cashel Lake Shanty Town
And then eating the fish at our little shanty town

After returning home and tying up some loose ends with van repairs, we were ready to get back into “routine” and hit the road again. Saying goodbye is always bittersweet but our goodbyes are always more “until next times” than anything else. Leaving the city this time around was so much more relaxed than last time when we were about to fly across the country to move into our house that we hadn’t even seen before. We’re geared up and ready to hit the East Coast and can’t wait to cross some more provinces off our list!

Top 5 FREE Camping Spots in America

In no particular order, here are our top 5 favourite FREE camping spots in America (so far…)

BLACK CANYON – New River, Arizona

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

You’ve gotta love waking up in a movie-like desert with Saguaro cactuses taller than you at your doorstep. Lots of wide open space in this BLM area where you can stay a day or even a week.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/black-canyon/

EL MORRO – Tinaja, New Mexico

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

The only National Park Campground we’ve ever seen that’s completely free. Amazing views of El Morro National Monument and you’re only a short drive away from exploring the grounds in the morning.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/el-morro/

PADRE ISLAND – Corpus Christi, Texas

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

Beware of high tides when camping on Padre Island’s sandy beach. As long as you’re parked far enough back from the shore, this makes for an awesome spot to drive right on the beach and set up camp. Only catch here is that you will have to pay the entrance fee to the National Seashore, BUT it is free with an annual parks pass (which is definitely worth it, I might add).

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/padre-island/

LAKE CUSHMAN – Hoodsport, Washington

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

One spot nestled in the woods at the foot of Mt. Washington with an awesome view of Lake Cushman. Part of the Olympic National Forest and not far from Olympic National Park.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/lake-cushman-overlook/

DIXIE NATIONAL FOREST – Leeds, Utah

Generic Van Life - Top 5 free camping spots in America

Winding desert roads take you up to several campsites overlooking creeks and the nearby town of Leeds. Can’t beat rugged desert camping.

Everything you need to know here: http://www.genericvan.life/full-camping-directory/listing/dixie-national-forest/

We only just scratched the surface on the plethora of amazing BLM and National Forest land that America has to offer. Let us know your favourite spots in a comment so we can check ’em out!

Peaches on Peaches

Taking in our last days on the East Coast before heading back west. Georgia and the Carolinas sure did treat us good!

Anyone who’s taken the I-95 into Georgia has seen them: row after row of huge billboards that won’t let you forget exit 58 in Townsend, GA. And anyone who has seen these signs knows that that is the exit for none other than, Peach World. Falling almost too easily into their trap, we had to stop and see what all the hype was about. I mean, peach wine? Peach salsa? Peach cider? Yes please! Gotta say that we were quite surprised by how small and unassuming the place was but once they started hitting us with free samples, we had both feet in the door. With peaches not being in season, we stuck mostly to pralines but were determined to try the peach wine. If you like syrupy sweet wine that has the strangest aftertaste of oregano, then this is for you. I found it to be pretty much undrinkable unless mixed with soda water or something else to dilute it but Justin couldn’t get enough. He also loves Vienna sausages so make of that what you will. On the other hand, the praline pecan honey butter has got to be one of the best things to come out of Georgia. It sure is sweet but in the most heavenly way possible. Seriously, this stuff is dangerously good. And as far as dangerously good goes, we also had to make a stop at a Krystal after beginning our love affair with White Castle in Vegas. Seemingly the exact same mini square burgers, we’re still confused that they’re not actually just the same company. That being said, there was something about the Krystal burgers that took them one step further into the weird processed “why did I just eat 12 of these” world that they live in and for that, I have to pass the throne onto Krystal. Feel free to argue otherwise, I’m always up for a debate about important things in the world like burgers.

Generic Van Life - Georgia Peach Wine
Verdict: Questionable

After all this new food excitement, we headed into Savannah and were so bummed to see that the visitor’s centre no longer allows overnight parking. Some fellow vanners had just stayed there not long before us and recommended it but it seems that the change happened in response to people taking advantage of the great parking opportunity and treating it like it was their backyard. We’ve stayed at plenty of Walmarts where we’re continuously stunned by how at-home people in big RVs make themselves with their generators running, slides out and even having outdoor TVs or radios going. Just because the visitor centre was charging 10 or 15 bucks to allow the parking does not mean you’re entitled to treat it like an RV Park or even worse, leave trash around or damage the pavement with jacks and hitches. I’m going to save this rant for another post with some simple steps on how not to be a complete asshole when staying in a parking lot (especially when it’s FREE) and ruin it for the rest of us travellers that are just looking for an overnight stop. On that note, we were still able to park for a couple hours in the afternoon and explore Savannah but definitely not as much as we would have liked. It is such a pretty city! It just feels so quaint and cozy with Victorian-style houses shaded by mature trees wrapped in vines and colourful flowers.

Generic Van Life - Georgia Savannah II
Savannah was just the prettiest

It seemed like every street had something lovely to see, whether it be intricate architecture, cool shops or lush greenery like that of Forsyth Park. There was a wedding going on by the fountain and every angle looked like it was out of a storybook. This was our first real look at a city in the south (we only got to see the gulf coast of Mississippi and Alabama, which had a much different vibe) and it was certainly chock full of the dreamy secret garden-esque homes that people lust over on House Hunters. Whether that’s a realistic representation in 2018 or not, it sure made for some real purdy scenery. To our dismay, we had to leave the parking lot by 6 so didn’t get a chance to go for a drink somewhere or enjoy the open container laws but it’s at the top of our list to revisit another time. Savannah had many similarities to New Orleans with the European influence on architecture and liquor merriment but didn’t feel at all trashy like the NOLA overkill did. Sigh, onto the nearest Walmart to have a snooze.

Generic Van Life - Georgia Savannah Street
Streets of Historic Savannah are allowed to be filled with booze in Dixie cups!

The next morning, we made a brief stop in Hardeeville, SC to take Clemmie’s picture with the pink and grey elephants at Papa Joe’s Fireworks (assuming this is owned by John’s lesser known brother). No clue what the significance is but they’re definitely different. When we have longer drives, we use this website to see some “quirkier” tourist attractions that break up our drive and make it a little more interesting.

Generic Van Life - Georgia SC Elephants
They call them Thelma and Louise

Our next mission was to see what Charleston was all about but being a Sunday, parking spots seemed to be a mythical concept. When we’re in cities, we generally just drive around to see what’s up so we were satisfied taking in more of that southern charm from the van windows. Looking quite similar to Savannah, Charleston echoed the fairytale look with the historic homes and low hanging trees that lined the streets as people lined up to have their photo taken in front of a row of pastel coloured houses. We took our cue to move away from downtown and headed across James Island to Folly Beach. It was a moderately warm day so it was busy but nowhere near as jammed as Charleston and made for a nice little rest stop on the beach before heading north.

Generic Van Life - Georgia Folly Beach
Folly Beach was a nice, quieter spot just outside of Charleston

We’re big fans of the multitude of options for camping in National Forests, BLMs and WMAs in the United States. Being from Ontario (Southern Ontario specifically), although we have plenty of Crown Land, the resources and databases offered to the public are quite confusing and make it difficult to navigate exactly where you can and cannot camp. To that point, most of the more known spots that I or friends have visited are meant for portaging and are certainly not accessible in a camper. The amount of fully developed campgrounds that we’ve stayed at in the US that are completely free or require a simple free permit is mind-boggling. If you’re an American reading this, get out there and explore some of these public use spots while they’re still around! We’ve had better free campsites here than some of those that we’ve paid for at home. One of these spots being right by the Francis Marion National Forest in the Santee Coastal Reserve. It was so nice to be back in secluded wilderness after being packed in like sardines in Florida’s WMAs. No cell service and a sky lit up by stars and fireflies always makes for an amazing night’s sleep.

Generic Van Life - Georgia SC Santee
Taken at the Santee Coastal Reserve (in 2018 despite looking like 1982)

Continuing up the coast, we spent the abnormally cold work week at Myrtle Beach State Park and rejoiced that we no longer have to pay for campgrounds to use electricity to work. Our solar is up and running and we couldn’t be more excited! We were happy to have shore power this particular week because it was very overcast and cold and with the endless storms hitting the northeast, we decided to rethink our drive through North Carolina and just skim the bottom before heading to Tennessee. We made a stop in the Nantahala National Forest and admired how beautiful it was to be back in the mountains. Clemmie’s gotta get used to mountain driving again before we get back to BC and Alberta because everything east of New Mexico has been pretty flat for the past while. We’re on a mission now to get west as swiftly as possible to give ourselves enough time to explore America’s Pacific Coast before our tourist visas run out. As always, seeing all the things we can see along the way. Any suggestions?

Generic Van Life - Georgia Myrtle Beach
The beach at Myrtle Beach State Park

Keys and Glades

Highway 1 took us from Fort Lauderdale to the southernmost point in the United States. We had a blast in Key West before boating through gator land in the Florida Everglades.

After the rocket launch madness, we were stoked to head toward a BLM-style camping spot like those in the west, which are hard to come by in Florida. Over here, there are Water Management Areas where camping is permitted in designated areas by making a free reservation. That being said, they can get booked up quick – especially with February being the peak of high season in Florida. We arrived at DuPuis WMA after nightfall expecting a quiet forested area but soon realized it was basically an RV Park without hookups. I’m sure it’s not always like that but it was comical how jampacked it was. Granted it was a Friday and this place boasts amenities like bathrooms, hot showers and garbage disposal (a euphemism for dumpsters), which are all rare to find on free public land. This particular area is considered an equestrian campground but accommodates non-equestrian campers with RVs as well. As someone from the city, it was pretty cool to wake up to horses walking by the van despite them having to trot through a maze of RVs. When navigating which WMA you can camp at based on your camping equipment, the lady I spoke with on the phone clarified that a small camper like ours can fit at any of the sites, except backcountry. Larger RVs are generally best suited for the equestrian grounds and tents are good to go anywhere. Depending on the time of year, I’d suggest preemptively making some reservations along the way and cancelling them ahead of time (be nice) if need be – easier than scrambling last minute and toying with the idea of pitching a tent in a Walmart parking lot (don’t do this).

Generic Van Life - Key West DuPuis
This is the DuPuis WMA after some people had cleared out in the morning. Still lots of folks but plenty of green space to go around

Fort Lauderdale awaited us with friends, an air conditioned apartment and even colder beer. We spent the weekend catching up with an old friend of Justin’s and enjoying the luxury of having a flushing toilet at our disposal. With our streak of abnormally low temperatures hitting every town on our path, Fort Lauderdale shook things up and hit some seasonal highs. After months of acquiring extra blankets and making sure our propane is topped up to run the furnace, we had to go out and buy a fan. Boohoo, I know, but keep in mind we have a Canadian van aka great furnace but no a/c. Needless to say, we received no sympathy from people back home as they scrape ice off their cars and moustaches. Anyway, we set up for the work week at a county park called Easterlin Park in the Oakland Park neighbourhood (how many times can I say park in one sentence?). This was a really cool spot that even our Florida native friends didn’t know existed. It’s a lovely green space in the middle of an urban area that felt secluded and lush – well, until the blaring train went by. It’s part of a group of 5 parks scattered across Broward County that all offer different types of camping (and wifi!) with nice facilities. We just so happened to be there when the Parkland shooting happened and received alerts on our phones when the shooter was still at large. We were about 25 minutes away, so that was a little scary. Not gonna get into it, but here’s to sincerely hoping that no such emergency alert has to be issued again.

Generic Van Life - Key West Easterlin Park
Easterlin Park made for some jungle-like camping minutes from Fort Lauderdale

With the drive down the Keys on our agenda the next morning, we took the 1 all the way through Miami to Homestead. Of course this wasn’t until after making an important stop at Le Tub in Hollywood Beach to eat burgers bigger than our heads. I’ve heard Miami traffic is crazy and we can now attest that that is certainly true. At least there were trippy lightshows of dancing people on the sides of buildings to keep the drive interesting. We eventually parked up in Homestead and stayed the night in a Home Depot parking lot about 40 min north of Key Largo.

Generic Van Life - Key West Le Tub Welcome
Bathtub shop? Nope, burger joint. And we’re talking 16 oz patties

The much-anticipated drive down the Keys was well worth the excitement. Gorgeous views from every angle made it hard to not daydream about spending the day boating to a far out sand dune to have lunch like many of these boaters seemed to be doing. Even with the beautiful turquoise waters glistening in the sun, it was evident that hurricane Irma made a lasting impression on several of the Keys, especially Islamorada and Marathon. Piles of debris lined the highway and left behind not-so-distant memories of beautiful beach homes and pristine beaches. In fact, we drove past to see that even the KOA was closed for reconstruction. It’s clear that, similar to Texas, some areas have more money than others to clean up and rebuild, leaving virtually no trace of disaster. That being said, we drove out of the Keys on a Saturday and saw groups of people scattered around working together to clean up. As unfortunate as these things may be, the community coming together to help each other is always a good aspect of the outcome.

Generic Van Life - Key West Drive
Even our broken mirror looked gorgeous in the Keys!

Reaching Key West, we were on a mission to find a private parking lot that we could pay to park in for the night, as per advice from other vanners. Camping in Key West is known to be next to impossible unless you’re cool spending over $100+ a night and booking a campsite months in advance. After passing by several parking lots with blatantly posted signs stating “No RVs, trailers or campers” or simply, “overnight parking prohibited”, we went to a hotel to ask to park in their parking lot. The guy at the front desk said they don’t allow that but there’s no need anyway because in Old Town, you can freely park on the street. In his words, as long as you’re not in front of someone’s house, on the yellow lines or parked “backwards” (backed in) then you’ll be fine. He assured me that there’d be no trouble and that he had my back if the police had anything to say about it. Of course I left out the minor detail that we’d be sleeping in the van, but at least I made a new friend. We parked not far from the hotel in an area with a bunch of other cars, away from any main streets. We closed all the curtains, put our sun shade in the windshield and walked into all the tourist action to load ourselves with beverages.

Generic Van Life - Key West Roosters
Street parking meant we had some rowdy neighbours. They were roosters.

A must-see on our short trip was the Hemingway Home; a gorgeously preserved home filled with polydactyl cats, what’s more to love? Go on the tour and hear the facts and stories for yourself but I’ll just tell ya that this house is lovely and complete with every creative’s dream, a private studio. Walking around the property was surreal, especially for me as my 17 year old self got a quote from The Old Man and the Sea as my first tattoo (yes, I thought I was cool). After spending some quality time with the kitties, we had some delicious food at Santiago’s Bodega before eventually ending up at the tastefully divey Whistle Bar on Duval. A second-floor bar with a wrap around patio was a perfect choice for observing a night in Key West in full swing. Bonus, the third floor of this place is a clothing optional bar called Garden of Eden if that strikes your fancy ;). We stumbled back to the van and discreetly climbed in for the night. Stealth camping is always a gamble so be cautious to not let residents see you and of course, be as quiet and unobtrusive as you can be. From what I’ve read, sleeping in your vehicle is harshly punishable there and the police like to throw out the jail card. With looming paranoia and incredibly vocal roosters going all night long, it wasn’t the most peaceful sleep but a free stay in Key West nonetheless!

Generic Van Life - Key West Hemingway Pool
Hemingway’s backyard with the first (and most expensive) pool in Key West

The drive out was somehow even more beautiful and we made sure to stop on a couple other keys to take it all in. The only thing that would have made our stay better would have been seeing a key deer but we can’t have it all can we. We had our mid-day breakfast on Coco Plum Beach, near Marathon Key, before heading to the Everglades for an airboat tour that we scored a wicked deal on (thanks Groupon). We went to Coopertown, a town with a posted population of a whopping 8 people, for the “original” airboat tour. If you do click this link to go to their website, please enjoy as much as I did that their official video is a clip from Bridget’s Sexiest Beaches, a travel show by Playboy Playmates. Unfortunately there weren’t any Playmates present when we went but we did see 3 gators! This was so satisfying since our eyes were peeled whenever we were by a swamp in Louisiana, to no avail. Riding the gator high after the tour, I spotted at least 10 more gators hanging out along the banks and swimming in the swamps on our drive west out of the Glades along Big Cypress Preserve. Wildlife was the name of the game with several signs warning of panther crossings but like the key deer, they remained a mystery.

Generic Van Life - Key West Gator
Gator patrol

Click away for some more photos from lovely southeastern Florida:

Been to the Everglades? Done some stealthy boondocking in the Keys? We wanna hear about it!