Guide To The Best RV Camping In Florida During The Winter
Guide To The Best RV Camping In Florida During The Winter
Florida is a popular winter destination for not only the snowbirds heading south for those cold, dark months, but also for RVers and nomads alike, who want to spend the winter months somewhere without wind, or snow...
Unlike anywhere else Adam and I have RVed to in the past 2 years, Florida is also a beast of it's own to navigate. The competition is fierce, the prices are high, the boondocking is slim, and the state parks are booked up for a year.
So where do you begin?
The key factor to making your RV camping experience in Florida the best it can possibly be, is to plan ahead. Where do you want to be? What are the most desirable locations to you? If you are planning to do more of a wing it as you go camping trip here, I don't think you will enjoy your camping locations as much as you would if you were able to plan ahead. For the most part, we winged our trip down here this winter, but we did have a lot more opportunities to find places to stay with Covid cancelations and borders closed. We won't always be this lucky in seasons to come, and I know that I'm already behind in planning our ideas for next winter - that's how far ahead you really should be, one or even two years.
If you are used to camping for free and utilizing boondocking sites in other states, I will just warn you that it will be a little bit tougher in Florida. Yes, there are boondocking places available, but not as much as you may be used to in states like Arizona, or Texas. If you are used to staying in campgrounds, in more of a costly but reasonable way, this will still be a bit of an adjustment for you. Florida prices are no joke, especially if you are planning to go in the winter months!
Florida state parks are unlike any other state parks so far in our travels. They are true Florida, wild Florida, old Florida. In fact they are what showed us a side of Florida we never even knew existed, prior to coming here for RV travels. We encountered wild jungles, thick tropical forest vegetation - and beauty we couldn't even imagine.
I immediately fell in love with the Florida state park system, and would even love to volunteer at one someday - the only problem is.... they are SO hard to get into! I'm telling you, like nearly impossible during the prime months. I got lucky in the month of November, before Thanksgiving - but it was nothing but a struggle for the holidays onward. They book completely up, with zero availability. Your best bet if you can't book 11 months ahead and get lucky with a spot, is to continuously check their website daily for cancelations, like I did. That is the only way I was able to get us into Oscar Scherer on the gulf side, and I was only able to secure 2 nights.
The state parks we have camped at so far include:
Fred Gannon Rocky Bayou (panhandle) - This park was a great place to stay to check out nearby Destin in the panhandle. The sites were very large and spread out, with thick vegetation around them. It was a great location to camp at while we explored beaches on the Emerald Coast.
Faver-Dykes (east coast) - I would say this is probably one of my favorite places we have stayed so far, and we only got to enjoy it for one night before we had to evacuate for a tropical storm. Tucked deep into what feels just like a tropical jungle, are only about 25 sites. The sites are very large, with thick vegetation in between them, and I honestly think we haphazardly got the very best site in the park. It was absolutely stunning and made me feel like we drove ourselves to somewhere like Costa Rica. We are already planning to come back here this upcoming fall!
Jonathan Dickinson (east coast) - This is one of Adam's current favorite places to camp, due to the size of the park, the size of the spaces, and the proximity to beautiful turquoise blue waters on the east coast. If the opportunity presented itself to volunteer here, we would. This park has two campgrounds - one of which was slightly under water when we were here in the fall after hurricane season. There are at least a hundred sites, maybe two hundred total. The sites aren't as jungle-like as other state parks in Florida, but they are spacious and still have good vegetation.
Oscar Scherer (gulf coast) - Located not too far from famous Siesta Key, or Venice Florida, is Oscar Scherer. This park was another extremely thick, jungle park, with great coverage between sites. There are hiking trails available to explore here, and I think it's only about 20 minutes to the beach, maybe less. The two nights we had here was not enough and we would definitely come back.
I have found county parks in Florida to be a great in between option - from state parks to RV resorts. They are a little more costly than state parks, but definitely far, far less than RV resorts. They also tend to be in nice locations. I would also say they seemed to have a bit more availability, aside from Fort Desoto. The one thing I will say about the ones I've listed below, is that if you plan to stay at Fort Desoto in your travels, you will want to plan out your trip at least 6 months in advance and be prepared to book ahead. The only reason we were able to camp here is because I checked the website daily, for months, in hopes of a cancelation of any sort. I got lucky one day with an entire week open, but you can't guarantee that kind of thing will happen!
The county parks we have camped in so far include:
COE Landing (panhandle) - This park was a lot smaller than the other county parks we stayed at, but the sites were roomy and great. We were situated on a lake, not too far from Tallahassee, and had a good forest setting.
John Prince Park (east coast) - We went to this park for the week of Christmas, right after we got done selling Christmas trees in the greater Fort Lauderdale region. The park was in the north suburbs, not too far south from West Palm Beach. It was a very large place, on another lake, and it had both lakefront sites and "regular sites". The park was very full for the holidays, and offered more long term availability as well.
Fort Desoto (gulf coast) - At this point I can confidently say this is the best place we stayed in the entire time we were in Florida. The park is situated on an island, off the coast of Tampa Bay, and has 3 campground circles, and a humongous park with beaches, fishing piers, a dog park, trails, and so much more. We will absolutely be back here again next year - as long as we can get a reservation!
By now you have heard me mention how RV campgrounds in Florida are the most difficult thing to book and the most expensive thing you will likely ever pay on the road - I mean it's just ridiculous! I think the only reason we even found availability at RV resorts this past winter is because of Covid, and all the people still not ready to travel, as well as the fact that RVers from Canada were not able to cross the border this season.
RV Resorts are expensive. There is no other way to put it. I see posts every day in RV groups asking for suggestions on what campground they can camp at in Florida that won't be that expensive and will have availability. Honestly, your best chance is inland. You really might find some wonderful and cost effective options inland, seriously I bet you will. But if you want to be near any of the Florida coasts, near a beach, or in a popular place - you best believe you will be spending probably more than you have at any RV resort in any other state. This is at least our experience - as our first resort was about 3x more than we had ever paid for one single month. It was more than double what our mortgage used to be!
Now don't get me wrong, some of these resorts are really, really nice places to be. Nothing against them at all. A lot of them that I have come across, or where we have stayed, tend to be either extremely tight and cramped, or it seems to be a place with a lot of mobile homes and people who live there permanently or for an entire season at a time. The demographics are definitely older, retired folk, and they tend to be a little clicky too.
The RV resorts we have camped in so far include:
Neapolitan Cove RV Resort (Naples - gulf coast) - This was the motherload, the most expensive "rent" we have ever paid for one month. Honestly I think we were entranced by the idea of going to Naples, and didn't really know much about Naples itself. For the amount of money we paid to stay here we could have been ocean front in another city, or could have at least gotten a bit more space. The spots were tight, but they did have vegetation and concreate pad sidewalks, which made them seem a lot nicer!
Frog Creek RV Resort (Palmetto - gulf coast) - In our experience, this location was the one that was more like a mobile home park. There weren't too many actual mobile homes, but there were a lot of folk that lived here in their RV the entire winter season, came back to their same spot every year, and left their RV there year round even. It was very clicky, a bit tight, and the photos didn't really accurately describe the entire park - in my opinion.
Arbor Terrace RV Resort (Bradenton - gulf coast) - We only stayed here for 3 nights, to extend our stay in the area as a whole, as my mom and some other family came to visit. The park had a lot of seasonal guests, but overall wasn't too bad. The sites felt bigger than Frog Creek and it was a lot cheaper, and closer to Anna Marie Island.
When I'm describing Boondocker's Welcome to someone who has never heard of it before, I like to compare it to an Airbnb option, only for RVers. The only main difference is that Boondocker's Welcome is a membership program, and instead of staying in someone's house - you stay in your own home on wheels, on someone's property.
This whole new world of camping opportunities allows RVers, vans - nomads, to stay for free on private property from a length of time of 1 night up to 5 nights, depending on the host. You can search host options all across the entire United States, review their photos, their location, what amenities they offer (YES, a lot of hosts offer amenities like electrical hookups, water, sometimes even a dump or WIFI), and view their calendar of availability. Some hosts will suggest a donation amount per night for use of their amenities, and some hosts will state that they do not request donations at all.
Once you have a profile created and have paid the annual membership fee, you can request a location and message with your host right through the system. They have even recently created an app that works for both iPhone and Android!
Cities we utilized Boondocker's Welcome host sites so far include:
North Fort Myers (gulf coast) - We stayed with a Super Host here (had over 150+ reviews) and in a location that allowed several Boondocker's all at once. We had the luxury of an electrical hookup and water, right in their backyard. There was a front gate to enter and exit out of, and our stay here was wonderful!
Hernando (north-central) - We stayed with a newer host, who just began hosting in January. They also allowed several Boondocker's at once, however their property was so large, and they spread you out so well, you didn't even realize anyone else was there! We had electrical and water hookups here as well.
I consider this option a little hidden gem that I did not personally know about prior to heading to Florida. In fact, I don't think I found out about it until I haphazardly came across a post in an RV group, for a spot in Florida I had never heard of before called Potts Preserve. Upon looking up where it was, I realized it was near a lot of the springs I wanted to go to on our way out of Florida, so I proceeded to do some more digging.
Florida has five water management districts that handle the management of water resources in the state. Throughout these districts, there are campgrounds that have been set up, completely free to use, with a reservation. The South Florida district is the largest one - stretching from Orlando to the Florida Keys. The Southwest district handles more of the Tampa Bay region - and is one that we almost stayed at this March. A campground called Potts Preserve is located in Inverness, and close proximity to a lot of natural springs, and Ocala.
You secure your reservation online and it appears you can book quite a few days at once, as I initially reserved 5 nights. There are no hookups or amenities, but I have heard really great reviews on RV groups about their stay here, and how this is still a bit of a hidden gem way to RV camp in Florida. We didn't end up staying at Potts Preserve due to a heat wave that required an electrical hookup for us, but that doesn't mean we won't check out the water management districts for options next year!
A lot of people want to know how to boondock in Florida, meaning camp for free on public land. In general, freecampsites.net is a great way to check for boondocking availability across the country, and a lot of locations will have reviews and photos too. If there are options to park for free in Florida, this would be the website to use.
Honestly, we really didn't utilize this at all during our winter here, as we knew we were in search of hookups for mostly longer term stays. But that doesn't mean I won't utilize this option in the future, and I did in fact see a few places that appeared to be boondocking approved throughout our journey. One particular place was just before you would go over the Skyway bridge in Tampa Bay. A small pullover area prior to the bridge, on the south end of the bridge, appeared to have RVs parked for multiple days in a row. You would have to double check this location prior to staying there, as there could be signs posted stating no overnight parking.
Although this is an option we did not pursue this time around in Florida, it is an option that some feel is the best way to go about RV camping in the Sunshine State. Ideally, it makes it affordable to stay at RV resorts, and bounce around to them throughout the whole state, or country.
I did look into this as an option for us, however due to the last minute nature in which I was looking to book reservations at parks in Florida, there was no availability. Essentially if I would have purchased a membership, we would not have been able to use it in Florida at all, and that is the only place it really would have benefited us. We really don't stay at Thousand Trails RV resorts in general, and I wouldn't want to pursue them across the country versus our typical finds at state parks, county parks, Boondocker's Welcome, and such. Personally, I would only invest in this if it was going to benefit me for Florida, as I believe the one year membership price is still at least $500 lower than a one month stay in Naples in the winter. With this one, just like with any Florida option, you are still most definitely going to have to plan ahead!
Thank you for taking the time to read my guide to RV camping in Florida and I hope it helps you plan your next stay in the sunshine state!
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