The secret to being the cutest girls in any park? Wearing matching cat shirts.
You don't need to plan an a big hike or epic adventure to enjoy a beautiful fall afternoon. Sometimes you just need to throw on your favorite t-shirt and run around outside. Which is exactly what Ellison did with her close friend on Saturday afternoon. She wanted the two of them to be on Girls in the Park, but in the park where they always play together, not on a new hike. So we went to nearby Kanapaha and they built forts, played with the dogs and shared secrets while climbing trees. Like they have since they met six years ago, when they also coincidentally happened to be wearing matching outfits. It was just meant to be.
These two are so adorable, happy and genuinely encouraging of each other. They are a few years apart in age and they don't go to the same school, but their friendship is an easy one and brings out the best in both girls. I hope they continue to stay close because a good friend is a true gift.
See you back here next weekend!
Ellison and I love St. Augustine - and not just because so many of our favorite people live there. Although that helps because we really do love them so much!
Located along the Atlantic coast roughly an hour south of Jacksonville, St. Augustine is a popular tourist destination. And while our nation's oldest city (it was founded in 1565) has a ton to offer in the way of history and culture, it is also a great place to get outside and see a more natural side of Florida.
So, since my mom is from St. Augustine and I still have family in the area, Ellison and I visit often. While we visit more in the summer, the area is at its natural best when the temperature starts to drop. It is in this spirit of cooler weather that we decided to put together a list of our favorite places in St. Augustine to take beach walks, nature hikes and just enjoy the outdoors. By no means is this a comprehensive list - there are many places we still want to check out - instead these are places that never fail to brighten our day and lift our spirits.
Anastasia state park
Anastasia State Park is best known for its beaches, which run in an arc for four miles from the coast back in to Matanzas Inlet. They are beautiful with wide stretches of sand leading down from the dunes and Ellison and I have spend countless hours here over the years. In addition to the great beaches, Anastasia also has some really interesting trails.
There are three potential hikes - a walk along the beach itself, an exploration of the old Spanish quarries and then Ancient Dunes, which is considered the official nature trail of the park. It winds through a scrubby Live Oak and palmetto forest and offers a number of great trees for climbing, which is definitely one of Ellison's favorite things to do at any park. Anastasia also has a lengthy lagoon that is frequently used for windsurfing and paddleboarding, but also offers unique opportunities to watch wading birds and explore the shore.
This is the park we visit most frequently. The entrance is close to our home base when we're in town and is good for those times when Ellison and I just want to get away from the throngs of tourists and relax for a few hours. That being said, this park can get really crowded on weekends, holidays and throughout the summer. In our opinion, it is best enjoyed on weekdays or during the off season. Ellison would also like to add that it is a park best enjoyed when accompanied by tacos and a snow cone - both of which can be found in the parking lot of the surf shop next to the park entrance. They are really good...
washington oaks gardens state park
Washington Oaks Gardens State Park is not only one of our favorite places to go in St. Augustine, but one of our favorite places in the entire state. It offers access to a unique part of Florida's coastline and has gardens that are truly beautiful, particularly when spring flowers are in bloom. The beach is the big draw for us at Washington Oaks, though, and on most visits we don't actually end up going to the gardens.
Conquina rock formations are found all along the shore and create little tidepools filled with tiny barnacles, hermit crabs, periwinkles and limpets that Ellison could (and usually does) spend hours investigating. As the waves crash on the rocks it causes water to shoot up through the thousands of holes in the conquina, creating a dramatic display not found on any other Florida beach. It's pretty cool to watch. This is also along the migration route for the northern Right Whale and if you're lucky, you can spot them off shore between December and March. We have never seen them, but do make multiple visits during the winter every year hoping our luck will change.
Because of it's unique beauty, you would think this would be a particularly crowded spot. It's not. In fact, that is one of the reasons we love it so much. We've been here in all seasons - peak and off times - and rarely are there more than a few people at any given time. The location has something to do with it, I'm sure (Washington Oaks is actually in Palm Coast, about 20 minutes south of St. Augustine proper ), but I would still think that more people would make the drive. Or maybe since the gardens are so phenomenal they never make it to the beach. Not that we're complaining - we'd love to keep it to ourselves!
So the gardens are on the inland side of AIA (the gardens and beach are separated - the beach is across the street from the official park entrance). While Ellison and I don't always go to this part of the park, when we do we're always delighted by not only by the gardens specifically, but by how well they maintain the park overall. The visitor center faces the Matanzas River and you can walk and fish along the seawall. There are two hiking trails - the Mala Compra (1/2 mile loop) and the Bella Vista (1.6 mile loop) - and both offer interesting walks through increasingly rare Florida habitat.
fort Matanzas national monument
Fort Matanzas National Monument is actually in Crescent Beach, just south of St. Augustine, but it is well worth the short drive from town to get there. There are stately Live Oaks in the parking area that are perfect for curious kids to climb (which of course Ellison did, though you can barely see her in the picture below), as well as a few picnic tables that make a good spot to have a quick lunch before heading out to explore the park.
To reach the fort itself you have to take a ferry across the Matanzas River - which is free, but you do have to get a pass at the Visitor Center. There is a pretty (small) rocky beach area down by the ferry dock, and a 1/2 mile long boardwalk nature trail that loops around the park. Located on a small barrier island, Fort Matanzas is historically interesting, and also has a wide variety of plant and animal life (like gopher tortoises) as well as some amazing views of the beautiful natural scenery surrounding the island. On this particular visit, Ellison and I didn't go to the fort (take a virtual tour) because the timing wasn't right, but we are definitely planning a return visit.
castillo de san marcos
While not as "natural" as the others on this list, the grassy area surrounding Castillo de San Marcos (otherwise known as "the Fort") is a favorite place for a family picnic. We sit on the conquina sea wall and look out into the bay, watch the boats and just talk. When Ellison was little one of her favorite things to do was the roll down the hills outside the fort walls, but she has since given up rolling in the grass. I'm not really sure why. However, every time we're in town one of the first things she asks is if we can go sit by the fort and hang out so we decided that since it is a relaxing outdoor location (at least for us), it deserved a spot on our list.
We have only actually gone into the fort itself a handful of times - it's the park atmosphere we're after here (though it is really interesting and you should check it out at least once). Since St. Augustine is a haven for tourists and Castillo de San Marcos a main attraction in the center of town, it gets crowded at peak times. So, as with so many of the places Ellison and I love to go, it's all about timing. If we go during the day we try to head off to an area along the wall, but at the far end of the park away from the fort. There's almost always a shady spot open for a picnic away from the crowds. If we're there in the evening, then there are more options since the fort is closed. If the weather is cooperative you can get beautiful views of the bay at dusk as the sun sets out to the west.
These are our favorite outdoor hang-outs in the St. Augustine area. If you haven't checked some (or all) of them out, then Ellison and I encourage you to do so - each one offers a glimpse into some of the best parts of Florida.
So where do you spend time when you're in St. Augustine? Do you have any natural areas you would recommend?
See you back here next weekend!
One of our October traditions is to take Ellison to visit a nearby farm with her cousins. The owners have it all set up for fall fun with hay rides, corn mazes and spooky ghost trails. It's a pretty great afternoon spent outside if you're a kid. While I have to admit that as a parent the fun at this farm is limited to watching your child have a good time, I do find myself looking forward to our annual fall visit. I get to spend the day with my sister-in-law, Lindsey (who is all sorts of wonderful), and her family and it's a chance for the kids to race around outside and jump on a giant bounce pad. Plus, I love taking pictures of the cousins together and seeing how much they've grown. Here are a few taken over the years, along with one from this visit, in the same corn maze.
The hayride takes you past a field of sunflowers and out to a pumpkin patch where the kids get pick out their own pumpkins. The pumpkins are too small to carve, but Ellison still loves decorating hers.
There is a spooky trail that the kids love to race through, pointing out all the ways in which they are not scared by the skeletons and witches and creepy sounds, and a small petting zoo where you can feed goats, chickens, pigs and donkeys. The animals are always so full that they never want the food we give them. And they bite, especially the pigs. Because of course a petting zoo made for small children would be filled with biting livestock.
And there's this. Whatever you want to call it (running back and forth in a big pipe?) they thought it was a blast.
This trip always makes us want to have a farm of our own. I don't know that I would want to be a farmer by occupation, but to have one just big enough to grow the food we need and raise a few animals would be perfect. There is a lot to be said for knowing exactly where your food comes from and I would like Ellison to have that connection, plus after living in our tiny condo for so long it would be nice to have some space to run around. But for now we are happy to just spend the afternoon outside enjoying a race through a corn maze. One that is supposedly made simple enough that small children can easily find their way out, but which confuses me every single time. So much for my wilderness navigation skills.
See you back here next weekend!
Ellison and I accidentally found the largest Live Oak in Florida.
We had just picked up Ellison from a sleepover (where not a lot of sleep occured - they were up until 4:30!) and Trevor needed to take a work call. I didn't want to keep driving until I knew where we were headed for lunch so I pulled into the next available parking lot where, so randomly, was the largest Live Oak in Florida. Or so said the sign. And when I looked it up, the internet agreed. So, it's official.
Cellon Oak Park is tiny, and I'd never heard of it (which doesn't mean a thing, actually), but it is home to one tremendous tree. Here are its stats - it is a "champion" Live Oak that is 79 feet tall, has a 160 foot crown spread (reach of branches) with a circumference of 29 feet. It's huge, truly beautiful in the most quintessentially Southern way, and perfect for climbing. Which, despite the absolute lack of sleep, Ellison decided she had to do. We had fun reading the names carved into the sides, seeing who could "walk" farthest up the branches and watching more people than I would have expected stop by to take their picture next to the tree. I thought it was odd until I realized we were doing the same thing. I mean, it is really photogenic!
While not large, Cellon Oak Park is has a wide, grassy field, making it perfect for picnics. In fact, there is a small grill and a table under a pecan tree close to the parking area. Apparently it is also a popular wedding location and when I told Ellison, she thought getting married under a giant Live Oak sounded magical. I have to agree! Since it is fenced on three sides, the park also seems like an ideal spot for young children and dogs since there is really no danger of them running off and its square shape makes it easy to keep a watchful eye. But honestly, even if you don't stay long Cellon Oak is worth a visit just so you can check out this beast for yourself. We feel pretty lucky to have accidentally found it.
See you back here next weekend!
My family and I love to get outside and explore every chance we get. My daughter and I started this blog as a way to chronicle not only the places we have visited, but also as a way to preserve our time together. We hope you enjoy it and will make a little time for a hike with friends!