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Mission: Manatees, Mardi Gras, Missions and More

Mission: Manatees, Mardi Gras, Missions and More


avatar   Stacy
Trip Date 03/03/2020
Posted On 03/18/2020 17:13:15

Camping | RV Adventure | Passport America | Louisiana | Alabama | Florida | Texas | Campgrounds | RV Parks | Manatees | Beaches | Springs | Mardi Gras | Missions



What started as a camping trip with a mission to experience Mardi Gras in New Orleans expanded time and again. By the time we were leaving home on our six week RV adventure, we had three missions in mind. As we planned our route through Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida, we added our second mission - a mission for manatees! In addition to beaches in the sunshine state, our route included a number of springs where we hoped to see some of these giant sea creatures.

As we got serious about reserving campgrounds and RV parks for our trip, we realized that we would have some time in San Antonio. For years we'd been wanting to explore more of the history in this city which is so close to our home. It was then that we added our third mission - a mission to see the missions!

If any of these destinations are on your radar, check out this post for ideas on where to stay, what to do, travel distances and more. (If you have a Passport America membership, you'll even find some places to take advantage of your discounts.) We generally followed I-10 to accomplish two of our three missions. Our manatee mission, however, took us further south into Florida but it was so worth it!

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Round Trip Route Departing from Austin, Texas

We drove just over 4,500 miles on our round trip loop from the Austin, Texas area through parts of Louisiana, Alabama, Florida and, of course, Texas.

Approximate distances from one campground / RV park to another were:

  • 395 miles from our Austin, Texas area home to Maxie's Campground in Broussard, Louisiana;
  • 395 miles to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida;
  • 145 miles to Panacea RV Park in Panacea, Florida;
  • 190 miles to Chassahowitztka River Campground in Homasassa, Florida;
  • 175 miles to Sunseekers RV Park in North Fort Myers, Florida;
  • 140 miles to Bay Bayou RV Resort in Tampa, Florida;
  • 130 miles to Hart Springs Campground in Bell, Florida;
  • 260 miles to Sapphire Island RV Resort and Campground in DeFuniak Springs, Florida;
  • 120 miles to Gulf State Park Campground in Gulf Shores, Alabama;
  • 195 miles to Mardi Gras RV Park & Campground in New Orleans, Louisiana;
  • 280 miles to Gulf Coast RV Resort in Beaumont, Texas;
  • 290 miles to Hidden Valley RV Park in Von Ormy, Texas; and
  • 115 miles to return to our Austin, Texas area home.

In addition to the miles getting to and from the places where we camped, we put another 1,700 miles on our tow vehicle exploring the nearby areas!

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2 Nights at Maxie's Campground

With manatee sightings being one of our main missions for our road trip, we had to get from the Austin area to Florida. To break up our drive, we chose Broussard, Louisiana as it was almost exactly half way.

So that we weren't pressured for time, we opted to stay for two nights. The extra day gave us time to stretch our legs after a long day in the car. We took some time to explore Broussard and also got to revisit some of our favorite places in nearby Lafayette - like Borden's Ice Cream Shoppe. (Our sundaes were just as yummy as we remembered!)


Ready for an Afternoon Treat!

Ready for an Afternoon Treat!

Our pre-reserved site at Maxie's Campground worked perfectly. The RV park accepts Passport America and is located less than 10 miles from IH-10. Getting to and leaving the campground was very easy both for our arrival and departure as well as our day of exploring.

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4 Nights at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

The first four of our 27 nights in Florida were spent at Gregory E. Moore RV Resort in Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. With over 150 RV sites, it's hard to believe that the resort fills up almost every night. We lucked out by reserving four consecutive nights just over two months before our arrival. Although the temperatures were a little cooler than we had hoped, our first nights of camping in Florida were great ones!


Camping at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

Camping at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park

As this was our second visit to the Emerald Coast, we spent one of our days exploring the nearby area in search of places that we would like to return to. We also took advantage of our chance to see some of our favorite spots including the Destin Harbor Boardwalk and Rosemary Beach.

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In addition to exploring the park where we had set up camp, we also visited two other nearby state parks. We enjoyed a perfect day walking along the shoreline (barefoot and in shorts) at Henderson Beach State Park. At the recommendation of a park employee, we spent our final morning exploring the grounds and touring the mansion at Eden Gardens State Park.


Our Stroll at Henderson Beach State Park

Our Stroll at Henderson Beach State Park

4 Nights at Panacea RV Park

After traveling a few hours further east in Florida, we reached Panacea RV Park, our second Passport America park. Due to some rainy days, the weather didn't really cooperate during our stay. We had two decent days, the first of which we spent doing some hiking plus exploring parts of St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge.


St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge

Before the worst of the weather settled in, we embarked on mission manatee. Prior to leaving home, I had never seen manatees in their natural habitat and Scott knew that seeing manatees in the wild was high on my hopes and dreams list. We had tried to see them several times in the past, but were never successful due to the timing of our visits to Florida. My only previous manatee sighting had been at an aquarium, and it just wasn't the same!

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We devoted most of a day to exploring Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park. Between manatee sightings during our riverboat journey and from the park's diving platform, I quickly became a manatee believer and we were off to a great start on our manatee mission! The driver/guide on our boat ride also pointed out so many alligators and other wildlife that we couldn't keep track of all that we saw.


On Manatee Watch at Wakulla Springs State Park Dive Platform

On Manatee Watch at Wakulla Springs State Park Dive Platform

4 Nights at Chassahowitzka River Campground

We finally started heading south for our next four nights of camping. The Chassahowitzka River Campground was in a great location as it was within walking distance of the Chassahowitzka River. We got our exercise doing the walk on multiple occasions as I loved spotting manatees from the river side park benches. We also had fun joining the campground's organized potluck dinner with fellow RVers on Super Bowl Sunday, the final night of our stay.


Manatees in the Chassahowitzka River

Manatees in the Chassahowitzka River

We packed a lot into our days including visiting two more Florida State Parks plus the Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge. Of the seven places where we had manatee sightings, this refuge was one of our favorites.


Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge

We certainly got our daily exercise walking around Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. After arriving to the park via boat, we spent time seeing most all of the animals including "Lu, the Hippo", the alligators, manatees, many varieties of birds and so much more. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park was a completely different experience. Even though our visit was not during the season for water activities, we definitely enjoyed seeing the live mermaids!


Lu, the Hippo at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Lu, the Hippo at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park Mermaid

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park Mermaid

The highlight of our time in this area had to be swimming with manatees! What started as a semi-private (no more than six person) tour, ended up being just the two of us along with a guide and driver. Being "hugged" by a manatee will not soon be forgotten!


Dressed in a Wet Suit and Ready to Swim with Manatees

Dressed in a Wet Suit and Ready to Swim with Manatees

4 Nights at Sunseekers RV Park

Our most southern camping site was at Sunseekers RV Park located in North Ft. Myers, Florida. Not surprisingly, the temperatures during these four days were the warmest of our entire trip. We spent our days trying to choose our favorite beach cities. We drove as far south as Naples and north as Venice. In addition to spending a few hours at Lovers Key State Park, we also spent time at Ft. Myers Beach, Sanibel and Cape Coral.


Sanibel Lighthouse

Sanibel Lighthouse

4 Nights at Bay Bayou RV Resort

We began our trek back north with a four night stay in Tampa at Bay Bayou RV Resort. Our first day was spent at Little Manatee River State Park. We learned that, although "manatee" is part of the river's name, there are rarely manatee sightings in the winter months!

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We did, however, discover Tampa Electric's Manatee Viewing Center where we had the last of our manatee sightings during our time in the "sunshine state". We also spent some of our afternoon exploring Lettuce Lake Conservation Park which we first heard about through Instagram!


Tampa Electric's Manatee Viewing Center

Tampa Electric's Manatee Viewing Center

We devoted one day to driving around the St. Petersburg Peninsula in search of places we'd like to return. Before reaching St. Petersburg, we made stops in Clearwater, Madeira Beach and St. John's. Before leaving Florida, I wanted to make sure that Scott had a chance to eat at his favorite restaurant from his years of living in the state, so we had dinner at Sonny's BBQ!

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4 Nights at Hart Springs Campground

We continued our drive up Florida's panhandle to the RV Campground at Hart Springs in Bell, Florida. The actual springs was about a 1/2 mile walk from where we were camped, but that didn't stop us from visiting every day of our stay. The hike past the pond with its resident alligator, sidewalks surrounding the springs and boardwalk leading out to the Suwannee River were perfect for helping us meet our daily step goals!


Hart Springs' Resident Gator

Hart Springs' Resident Gator

Although we didn't spot any manatees, we had fun getting a taste of both Manatee Springs and Fanning Springs State Parks. Since our time in the city of Fanning Springs coincided with Valentine's Day, we also enjoyed a lovely seafood dinner at Lighthouse Restaurant.

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3 Nights at Sapphire Island RV Resort and Campground

We spent our final three nights in Florida at Sapphire Island RV Resort and Campground in DeFuniak Springs. The campground was less than an hour away from Florida's Emerald Coast, so we again drove around the areas of Destin and Fort Walton Beach. We also finally had the opportunity to explore Falling Waters State Park which was recommended to us by fellow campers on one of our first ever RV trips!


Falling Waters State Park

Falling Waters State Park

2 Nights at Gulf State Park Campground

With almost 500 RV sites, Gulf State Park Campground was the biggest state park that we've ever camped at. Although our time was very limited, we had great fun exploring the park both on foot and on wheels. It had been over 35 years since either of us had ridden a bike, but we were proof of the phrase, "you never forget how to ride a bike"!


Gulf State Park Pier

Gulf State Park Pier

Since we were very near Foley, Alabama, I insisted that we eat at Lambert's Cafe which I had read about on Instagram just a few days earlier. I didn't want to miss seeing the "throwed rolls" when we had the chance.

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7 Nights at Mardi Gras RV Park & Campground

We made a reservation at Hassel's RV Park nearly ten months before our planned arrival. When we called to confirm our stay in early January, we were informed that they couldn't guarantee that they'd have space for us. What? (They said that they would call about two weeks before our planned arrival to let us know for sure. As you might expect, we are still waiting for that call!)

Fortunately, we found Mardi Gras RV Park & Campground where we were able to reserve a site on short notice for seven nights. Of our six full days in New Orleans, we spent the better part of five of them shooting for success on mission Mardi Gras! We saw both day time and night time parades which included walking, traditional rolling and even truck parades. Although we did experience a little rain, we definitely lucked out with the weather as we joined in on the Mardi Gras fun.


Krewe of Rex' Boeuf Gras Float

Krewe of Rex' Boeuf Gras Float

No visit to New Orleans is complete without enjoying some of the city's great food. Since we already had plans to be in Louisiana later this year, we chose some simple meals that would easily compliment our parade plans. Po-boys and muffulettas were tasty and filling, and of course, nothing beats a treat of beignets!

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Since we had one final day in New Orleans before returning to Texas, we got some exercise by exploring New Orleans City Park. We spent a lot of our limited time wandering around the Sculpture Garden with its two lagoons and over 90 sculptures.


"Window with Ladder - Too Late for Help" by Leandro Erlich

"Window with Ladder - Too Late for Help" by Leandro Erlich

2 Nights at Gulf Coast RV Resort

Our first of two stops in our home state of Texas was in none other than Beaumont, the city of my birth! Our short two night stay was at Gulf Coast RV Resort. Similar to many hotels, breakfast each morning was actually included in the price - an RVing first for us. With our Passport America discount, the price was also right!


Gulf Coast RV Resort

Gulf Coast RV Resort

As for seeing the city, we spent most of our time exploring my family's past. We wandered around Lamar University where my father earned his degree and drove past the hospital where I was born. No visit to the city is complete without seeing the huge Dalmatian-spotted fire hydrant. It's actually the largest working fire hydrant in the world!


The World's Largest Working Fire Hydrant

The World's Largest Working Fire Hydrant

2 Nights at Hidden Valley RV Park

We spent two nights at Hidden Valley RV Park before returning to our Austin area home. Sitting just outside of San Antonio in Von Ormy, Texas, the location was perfect for our final two evenings away. With a discount for Passport America, we were also quite pleased with the price.


Hidden Valley RV Park

Hidden Valley RV Park

The last of our three missions was to explore the San Antonio Missions. Located less than two hours away from our home, we had previously only taken the time to see the Alamo. This time, however, we made it to the other four (as well as a revisit to the Alamo).


Mission San Jose

Mission San Jose

Before returning to "RV There Yet?", our home away from home, we enjoyed the Broadway Across America performance of "Come From Away" at the Majestic Theatre.

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Missions Accomplished!

We left home with three distinct missions, and we feel very fortunate to report that all three missions were accomplished. Seeing (and even swimming with) manatees was a wonderful way to feel success at the beginning of our trip. Although there were some unfortunate accidents during the 2020 Mardi Gras festivities, we were so glad to have experienced this event that we've heard so much about. (It will also be great to help dispel untruths about the Carnival celebration in New Orleans based on our personal experience.) Our final mission to see the missions included a good history lesson. We always appreciate learning while traveling, so although ending our trip was bittersweet, we also felt a sense of accomplishment.

Passport America

If you are not already a member of Passport America, you can sign up today and The Wordy Explorers will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. (We truly appreciate your support!) Depending on where, how often and for how long you stay in participating locations, your membership can pay off very quickly. In two years since purchasing a three year Passport America membership, we have a net savings of over $400. We don't find locations everywhere, but our 13 stays more than paid for the fee.

Manatees and Mardi Gras

Don't miss our post titled "C is for Carnival + 13 Reasons to Celebrate in New Orleans" for lots more about Mardi Gras. In addition to plenty of pictures, you'll learn some of the local lingo. You'll also find 13 reasons (all starting with "C") why you should be planning your trip to Mardi Gras today!

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Our article, "Meeting Massive Manatees on Florida's Northwest Coast" is filled with information on our experience with spotting manatees. As always, we included lots of photos plus the names, addresses and costs for visiting some of the best locations to see these "gentle giants" in the wild. You'll even have access to our ranking of each site based on our experience.

Reserving Sites for RV Camping

When traveling cross-country by RV, when do you reserve your sites (well in advance or days before your arrival) and why do you choose to plan this way?





Mission: Manatees, Mardi Gras, Missions and More





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