Since Covid, there has been a dramatic increase in outdoor recreation. From people rushing to buy their first RV to retailers selling out of tents, America (and the world) is on a quest to rediscover the Great Outdoors.
And I love it! I really do. Camping is a great way to save money on hotels and Airbnbs when traveling and seeing the world. What do I not like about 2021 camping?
This past year, I’ve encountered the issue that everyone has decided to take up camping as their new favorite weekend adventure. State park campgrounds are booked months in advance, national park campgrounds are booked within seconds of availability, and even the remote Chickees Huts in the middle of the Florida swamp have become the hottest item for weekend warriors.
My favorite adventure has become everyone’s favorite adventure, and it makes sense. Most countries continue to have their borders closed, people are still timid about Covid, and outdoor recreation just screams “social distancing-friendly”.
And it’s not just me. Campers, Rv’ers, and outdoor enthusiasts all throughout the United States are reporting fully-booked campgrounds and no availability. My family recently did an RV trip across the west, and struggled to find campgrounds that were available or affordable— spending over $100 a night for certain sites.
However, the world of camping has not quite caught-up. Getting permits for a new campground is a long and slow process, so demand is outpacing the supply (and that drives up prices). For us outdoor-lovers, this is a sad fate for our favorite pastime. Campgrounds are at capacity, and there is no sign of this slowing down as we head into the peak of 2021 travel.
For those of us new to Hipcamp, this is booking service similar to Airbnb. However, instead of booking rooms or houses, you can book RV spots, tent spots, cabins, glamping options, or even the random treehouse. It is designed as a perfect solution to the lack of campgrounds problem.
So how does it work? When I say Hipcamp is like Airbnb, I mean it is just like Airbnb. By visiting the homepage (or the app), you can select the area where you want to camp. Put in your dates and number of guests, and you are given an interactive map with a list of options.
Instead of booking a traditional campground, you are booking sites owned by individuals. Sometimes, it can be a full-service RV pad in the woods behind someone’s house or other times, it can be a 1-acre lot of land near a national park perfect for boondocking or primitive camping.
Just like Airbnb, prices range depending on the location, dates, and services. To give you a picture of how awesome this site can be, I put in dates for July 12-14 near Yosemite National Park.
Reservable campsites in Yosemite have been booked for months, however Hipcamp offers great alternative to last-minute planners. 30 minutes outside of Yosemite was an RV site with water and electric going for $40 a night. Seeing that the average campsite in an established campground now ranges around $50 a night, this is a great deal for families scrambling to secure a spot for that brand-new Class A motorhome. This is just an example of several sites available within an hour of the park’s entrance.
If you’re lacking inspiration, you can also cruise available camping options located within certain criteria–such as, pet friendly, lake stays, beach stays, top locations, and instagrammable glamping tents (okay, so I made up that last one).
Why am I pushing this site so hard? Because it saved my butt a few weeks ago when I really wanted to visit Rainbow River State Park, but the campgrounds were fully book and I wasn’t willing to shell out $300 a night for an Airbnb.
Instead of nixing our weekend, we were able to secure a great, primitive campsite just down the road from the park’s entrance. Our site was the bare minimum of Hipcamp stays– just an empty, wooded lot off a county road surrounded by pines and oak trees. For $10 a night, we had a quiet place in the woods to pitch our tent, have a fire, and enjoy the peaceful sounds of Florida’s summer around us.
Hipcamp follows a similar system to Airbnb where you “request” to book a location, and the host approves you. We got instant booking for our site, had great communication with the land owner on the messaging platform, and were able to find our site (relatively) easily, save a lot of money on a hotel stay, and do what we enjoy most– being out in nature.
While I would love to see this site expand even further in the future (host-led trips or experiences?), Hipcamp provides a great solution to our 2021 camping woes. Even if you’re not a hardcore tenter or own an RV, this site has great options for glamping and cabin stays. If you happen to own land and want to make an easy dollar, Hipcamp also is a great option for landowners to easily rent out spaces for us lonely travelers.
And I promise, Hipcamp didn’t have to pay me for raving about how great it is. I’m just a Type-A person who loves knowing I have a place to pitch my tent at the end of a long day of adventuring.
Happy trails, everyone!
Bonus Round: Other great resources for campers/rv’ers/outdoor adventurers
TheDyrt– great site for finding campsites, cabins, rv sites, and boondock locations
FreeRoam– boondock-focused, this is a great app for scoring that free camp spot!
AllTrails– Hiking site (and app) with detailed trails and reviews. Perfect for finding things to do after you find a place to park your camper.
Forest Maps– A comprehensive app with detailed national forest areas. For those new to camping, it is free to camp on national forest lands (maximum 14 night stay).
“If the devil ever raised a garden, the Everglades was it.”
James Carlos Blake
The Devil’s Garden. That’s a pretty accurate description for how most travelers would view Everglades National Park as they drive the 39 miles spanning from the southern entrance all the way down to Flamingo. Although it is one of America’s largest parks, it is often forgotten or passed over in favor of more instagrammable locales (looking at you, Old Faithful).
Picture this: Visitors drive past pine lands and cypress, counting the mosquitos that stick to their windshield, and hop out in a Deet-induced haze to quickly snap a picture of an alligator. At the end of their drive, they hit Flamingo, the little dot that sits at the bottom of Florida, caught in the long shadow cast by Miami on the opposite shore. Flamingo is an outpost that probably hit its heyday in the mid 50’s, and has since been forgotten in the annual budget of the Department of the Interior (as seen by the lovely abandoned building that greets you as you enter the outpost area).
There are few choices once visitors arrive here. For those unlucky travelers who forgot to bring a lunch, they’re left to the overpriced offerings of the general store (the only food option in the park. Picture canned chicken salad and $4 Gatorade). If you didn’t fill up in Homestead, you get the pleasure of paying for the Glade’s premium at the one gas station (only open during the day, so plan accordingly). And if you like to sleep in a room which isn’t composed of canvas and netting, then you’re better off grabbing that entrance sign pic, turning around, and heading to Key West for the weekend instead.
I was like many visitors– hitting a few boardwalks, swatting a few flies, then getting out of there to find some air conditioning and hydrocortisone cream. I just didn’t get the appeal. Then, I started taking more trips here, taking more time to really experience what the park had to offer (and braving the night full of mosquitos) and something amazing happened. I started to get it. This place is truly one-of-a-kind.
Everglades is not like other parks. The trails aren’t easily marked and most can only be accessed by a kayak or boat. However, this park can offer an amazing adventure for those willing to go outside of their comfort zone.
Below, I’ve listed some of my favorite (and budget-friendly) things to do on a weekend in the Everglades.
Sleeping in anEco-Tents
Unless you’re in an RV, the only option for spending the night in the park is camping. Currently, there is a hotel being built in Flamingo, but it’s been a long process and as of May 2021, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be popping up on Booking.com anytime soon. Airbnb? Also not an option.
However, Flamingo Adventures has created an amazing solution for those wanting a little more glamour than a basic tent. Marketed as an “above-ground, glamping tent”, the eco-tents are built on wood platforms facing the Florida Bay. It’s as far south as you can go without driving to the keys, and the views are specular. I’ve stayed in these canvas rooms twice now (over Labor Day weekend and in May), and both times I’ve been blown away by how comfortable of a camping experience these tents provide. You have the option of booking a tent with a queen bed, two doubles, or BYOSP (bring your own sleeping pad), and each tent is decked out with electricity, three sides of netting, a lamp, and a massive fan (for those muggy, Florida nights). The best part? You have an outdoor patio where you can sit and watch the storms blow by or even catch a glimpse of an osprey snatching a fish from the shallow waters.
The tents are large enough that you can spread out all your gear (like those muddy hiking shoes), and still have plenty of space to move around. Unlike a traditional tent, they’re also tall enough that you don’t have to crouch, and you feel comfortable enjoying nature without becoming a snack for the mosquitos. To add to the extra-level of glamping, there is even a bathhouse with showers and flush toilets (this Missouri girl is unused to such level of comfort).
While they are an amazing option in the day (especially as a place to hideout during those daily summer storms– nap time while smelling the rain? Yes, please!), the eco-tents truly shine at night. If you’re here during the milky way season (Spring-early Fall), you will be treated to some of the most beautiful dark skies this side of the Mississippi. This is what makes staying the night in Flamingo a must-do for any weekend adventurers.
The cheapest time to book these tents are in the summer season (late April-November), where you can snag one of these beauties for just $50 a night. A tent site in Flamingo runs $25, so it is definitely worth it to level-up and get a little bit more comfort. If you go in the winter, tents start at $90 and only go up. They’re also more in-demand at that time so you need to book in advance.
The Cons? Summer time is also the buggy time, where no-see-ums and mosquitos reign supreme. Winter is much more friendly if you’re looking to avoid our buzzing friends, but you will miss out on the storm-watching and Milky Way. You’ll also have to deal with a bit more people around.
Important note: While the eco-tents are a great option to hide from the mosquitos, the netting is not no-see-um proof. It’s best to plan your visit when the wind will be strong enough to keep these annoying pests away.
Hiking a Cypress Dome
Everglades National Park is the first place I ever got my feet wet in swamp hiking (literally. Your boots get soaked.) I was lucky enough to get to go with some friends, and the moment my boot disappeared into the water and I was under the canopy of enchanting cypress, I was addicted to this place.
A cypress dome, for those of us not well-versed in glade vocabulary, is characterized by a circle of cypress trees growing in a deeper pool of water. It is the stereotypical image that most of us have of the swamp, and has probably been featured in over five different Nicholas Sparks’ movies. Cypress trees tower above you as you tread in knee-deep water (even deeper depending on the season). They are populated by gators, tropical birds, and beautiful orchids. I never imagined that I would enjoy treading through water, but the serenity and peacefulness found in a dome is unmatched. Unlike most hikes that are done out west, a dome hike is slower, more reflective. It isn’t about reaching a destination, but more about enjoying where you are at.
I often get asked what to wear when hiking into the swamp. From experience, I can tell you to leave the chacos at home and opt for an old pair of hiking boots or sneakers. Your feet will get wet, but your toes will be protected from whatever may be under the water’s surface. Always wear long pants and long sleeves when hiking in the glades. Opt for clothing that is lightweight and breathable, so it dries quickly and won’t weigh you down.
Cypress Domes perforate the glades landscape, but unless you are with a native swamper, they can be difficult to find (it took me over a year living in Florida before I ever went into one). Fortunately, Everglades National Park organizes ranger-led hikes (called “wet hikes”) into this beautiful ecosystem. Hikes meet at the Royal Palm Ranger Station (the first station you see upon entering the park from Homestead), and can be booked online here.
Looking for Orchids
This was an activity I never envisioned I would enjoy until I found myself dating an orchid-enthusiast. I knew about the beautiful flowers that I would sometimes see at the Home Depot, but I never thought to go view these plants in the wild. Everglades National Park has the most diverse population of orchids in the NPS system (it’s the place to go if you love unique plants and flowers). Unfortunately, a history of poaching and development have led to much of the Everglades’ orchid population being depleted. But you can still view some of these beauties in the wild (just don’t touch or take. Follow the Leave No Trace policy that keeps the wilderness wild).
Orchids are found in a variety of places in a glades, but most require some hiking to access. A venture into the salt marsh prairie can lead to the rewarding experience of seeing a Mule Ear orchid in the wild. Check out the photo below for just how gorgeous these plants are.
Orchids bloom depending on the season you visit. For those sharp-eyed hikers, you can usually spot them on most trails, but a guided hike is also a great option. Check here for more information on ranger-led hikes in the park.
Just remember, alway carry plenty of water when exploring the park. Florida is a hot and humid destination, and poor planning could lead to a bad situation.
Everyone heads to south Florida determined to see an alligator, and while gators are cool and all, they are literally everywhere. A drive down 41 will allow a visitor to see enough gators to satisfy any gator-itch they may have.
What most visitors don’t realize is that Florida has another toothy-resident, and they’re not nearly as common. The American Crocodile is a spectacular predator to behold, and Flamingo is a great place to spot one of these guys chilling in the water (or out of it if they’re sunning themselves). Everglades National Park is the only place in the world where crocs and gators are natural neighbors. For those itching to catch a glimpse, you are almost always guaranteed a croc sighting by cruising by the Flamingo boat ramp at night. Crocs have a thinner nose and exposed teeth, but if that is too hard to see, shine a light in their direction. A croc’s eyes will shine back red while a gator’s eyes will be yellow. Bingo! You got yourself a croc sighting.
Other critters found in the park include black bears, panthers, mink, manatees, flamingos, birds, snakes, and too many more to list. In the late spring/early fall, manatees can be seen swimming by the docks just past the Flamingo General Store. Ospreys can be seen nesting throughout the area and diving for fresh fish in the bay. Rattlesnakes can be spotted throughout the tall grasses and pine lands, so be careful where you step and keep those airpods at home.
If you’re a night owl, you can spot your animal namesake perched in trees and on posts at night throughout the park and along the park road (please drive slowly! Owls are frequent roadkill along the road and this is easily avoidable). Pythons come out to play in the evening as well, and, if you’re awake, you can see the invasive snakes hunting across the pavement or in the grass. Just leave the wrangling to one of Florida’s approved python contactors. These men and women are trained to capture these giants.
These are just a few of the many activities you can do on a weekend in Everglades National Park. If you’re eager to get on the water, you can also rent kayaks from the Flamingo Activities Booth (located right next to the gas station) and explored one of the countless water trails that snake deeper into the swamps or out into the bay.
If you plan on visiting some of the Park’s other entrances (Shark Valley and Gulf Coast Visitor Centers), there are even more things to do. Shark Valley offers a tram ride to an overlook tower (this can also be done on a bicycle), and Gulf Coast offers boat tours, kayak adventures, and more into the Ten Thousand Island region.
A weekend in the park is definitely one for the hardy adventurer, but it comes with endless rewards and experiences that are truly one-of-a-kind. It is also a nice variation from the binge-drinking party scene popular in Miami. If big lights and clubs aren’t your scene, switch up a trip to south Florida by spending some time in the “true” Florida, where cypress and grasslands have been spared by the relentless development and concrete jungles.
The Isle of Skye is a dreamscape. Every bend in the road treats your eyes to a new view, some of it the familiar Scottish variety, some of it alien and otherworldly, and all of it completely magical. In a place where two of the most famous stops start with the word “fairy”, would you expect any less?
We arrived in Skye after our northern road trip (read about it here!), and were eager to stock up on food and supplies, and then rest our weary eyes in our AirBnb (£232 total for the weekend- about £77/person.)
Imagine our thrill when we arrived to the cutest little glamping pod you’ll ever see, located on a family farm and complete with a pack of baby goats right outside our door! We took pictures and videos of the kids for a while until one of the family members felt bad enough to come out and bring us a baby goat to pet. Did we squeal like idiots? You bet.
Since the rental car and AirBnb were split three ways and really inexpensive (around £100 each total for the entire weekend), we were able to do some splurging on dinner, so we stopped in at a family run restaurant down the road for dinner and the best sticky toffee pudding I’ve ever had. Then, we stocked up at the local co-op with snacks and some food for future meals (and a few bottles of wine), and went back to our pod, where our host had left some firewood for us to help light up our little cast-iron fire pit. The perfect ending to our first night on Skye.
The next morning, the adventure began. There is no limit to the amazing things you can see in Skye. While we didn’t have the time (or the cooperation of the weather) to see everything, we managed to hit the majority of the famous sights:
The Fairy Pools- A must see. Located at the base of the rugged Black Cuillin mountain range, these pools stretch down a sloping glen. The blue isn’t quite as startling as you might see in a highly filtered Instagram post, but they’ll still take your breathe away. It was the mountain range that really stood out for me here. Dark and foreboding, and so damn cool. The next time I’m in Skye, #1 on my list is a hike through these black hills. It’s a small hike from the car park up to the pools, so make sure you wear the right shoes- it can get a little muddy!
Portree– The largest town in Skye (which isn’t saying much). We stopped here for lunch and walked around, enjoying the views of the colorful town and the clear, still waters. There were rainbows overhead and bagpipe music permeating the air. A fairytale town, and a good place to find some souvenirs if you wanted to take a piece of Skye home with you.
Kilt Rock and Mealt Falls– For those of you who appreciate a great geological formation, Kilt Rock will not disappoint. Made from towering basalt columns that take on a tartan pattern, Kilt Rock juts out from the cliffside, Mealt Falls flowing down the face of it straight into the ocean below. On a particularly windy day, you might be able to hear a haunting song dance upon the winds. Fairy pipes? The ghost of an old highlander? The wind blowing through the fence at the edge of the cliffside? We’ll never know.
The Fairy Glen– You will never be able to shut me up about the Fairy Glen. It is literally the most magical place I have ever been to. Whimsical, otherworldly, and with strange hill formations and spiral ground designs (some made by tourists- please don’t do this! There are natural spirals and shapes there already), the place lives up to its name and then some. Entering the glen is like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia- it’s an almost alien place, so different from anything you’ve seen so far in Skye. It was a long and winding road to the glen, way outside of any cell phone reception or sign of modern life. The roads are tiny, the sheep are numerous, and I would literally travel all the back to Skye just to spend another hour wandering around this place.
The Old Man of Storr – Because of our time constraints, we didn’t do the hike all the way up to the Old Man, but had a great view from below. If you’re going here for some great uphill exercise, this is the trail to take (along with hiking a little further to the Quiraing, another incredible landscape caused by an ancient landslip). It’s a bizarre sight- sharp peaks of rock jutting out of the ground. Legend says it’s the thumb of a giant who was laid to rest on the hillside. If you turn your head just right (and squint a little) you can see the profile of a man’s face in the outline of the rocks.
The night sky– This might sound silly if you’re from the countryside or have done a lot of traveling in remote places, but for this city girl, the night sky was one of the more memorable things about Skye. I had never seen so many stars at once. With all the beauty at ground level, it’s easy to forget to look up!
Finding a place to stay in Skye is easy and can be inexpensive, it all just depends on what kind of place you want to stay in. For us, glamping added to the experience in the best way possible. There was a full bed and a pull-out couch, and the three of us fit easily and comfortably in the small space. Important to note for this trip: this was actually the first one we took together as a threesome. If 3 girls who were basically strangers can share a pod with 1 shower and 1 real bed, I think anyone can make this work. After the first night eating out, we cooked dinner in the pod. There was a small kitchen and some cooking utensils (plus a microwave). We had everything we needed to make this trip inexpensive and unforgettable.