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Camping Gems

Camping Gems

Find those fun and funky “special” places across the country. Hit the road and discover all the odd roadside attractions that make getting there more than half the fun. Road tripping gives you an excuse to search out hidden gems along your route. Look inside for suggested trips and inspiration to plan your own camping gem journey.

History and Wildlife: Venice to Boca Grande, Florida

Take a step back in time on Florida's historic Southwestern coast, an area filled with gorgeous beaches, incredible wildlife, and some of the finest fishing you'll find anywhere. Set in the quiet, undiscovered region around Charlotte Harbor, the coastal towns of Venice and Boca Grande offer old-world charm and modern hospitality. After you tour the beaches and explore the boutiques, take a day trip to the Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area, one of the best bird-watching spots in the country.

Begin your tour in lovely Venice, a sweet, sleepy resort town that's south of Sarasota and Interstate 75. Venice is made up of five small towns, each with its own unique flavor. In Osprey, Laurel, Nokomis, Venice, and South Venice you'll find distinctive boutiques and unique gift shops, plus plenty of cafes and galleries for window shopping. This is also a hotspot for golfing or for boating and fishing off the golden-sand beaches.

While you're in Venice, be sure to spend an afternoon at the Venetian Waterway Park, a ten-mile waterfront park that covers both sides of the Intracoastal Waterway. Head there for a scenic stroll, a bike ride, roller blading, or to walk your favorite furry friend.

Venice has a lively, active community with a thriving arts center. You'll find symphony performances, theater, and plenty of history at Historic Spanish Point and the Venice Historic Preservation League. On Friday night, you can enjoy the town's free concerts and then get up on Saturday, ready to shop for fresh fruits and vegetables at the Farmer's Market.

Once Venice has soothed you into relaxation, head south down Highway 776 to the island attraction of Gasparilla, home of Boca Grande. This charming town celebrates Old World Florida in all its glory with the 104-year old lighthouse and 80-year old Banyan trees. The Gulf side of Gasparilla Island is covered with white-sand beaches that are perfect for swimmers, sunbathers, volley-ball players, and shell collectors. On the bay side, mangroves and wetlands create an ideal ecosystem for fishing. These 750,000 acres of estuary are a haven for ocean fish that love this particular blend of fresh and salt water. Watch for dolphins, osprey, white pelicans, and manatees.

If fishing is what you're after, visit between August and November or during Tarpon season in the spring. You'll find waters filled with grouper, snapper, mackerel, redfish, and kingfish. There are plenty of boat rentals available, as well as boat ramps for getting your own craft into the water.

Beautiful Boca Grande will whet your appetite for more natural wonders and incredible wildlife. So head east through Port Charlotte to the Babcock-Webb Wildlife Management Area. This 102-square mile region is famous for its bird watching, bluegill fishing, mountain biking, hiking, and horseback riding. Visit in the spring to see the flatwoods burst into color with wildflowers or keep your binoculars trained on the trees as you watch for woodpeckers, nuthatches, hawks, hummingbirds, eastern bluebirds, and cedar waxwings. Herons, ibises, and belted kingfishers love exploring these lush wetlands.

Western Florida is an ideal place to head for a romantic weekend or family getaway. With its fabulous weather, sandy beaches, and wildlife, you'll truly find the perfect attraction or activity. Whether it's fishing, beachcombing, or gift shopping you're after, this part of Florida is the place to be.

Majestic Lakeshores -- Grand Traverse Bay, Michigan

The blue waters of Lake Michigan fill every view in this corner of the wolverine state. Set to the north of Muskegon, the Grand Traverse Bay region offers excellent water sports, golfing, family activities, and miles of sand and sand dunes at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. With its focus on the great outdoors, northwestern Michigan is a phenomenal place to enjoy a family camping vacation.

You can make a nice tour of the Grand Traverse Bay area by beginning in Frankfort, Michigan, at the southern tip of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, driving north through the park, stopping at Northport, and then heading south along the Bay shore to Traverse City.

The charming, quiet town of Frankfort is set on the stunning Betsie Bay, a historic sailing harbor on Lake Michigan. But Frankfort's focus isn't solely on the Great Lake. The town also has access to phenomenal fishing on the river and inland lake, over nineteen golf courses, and plenty of trails for hiking and viewing the changing leaves in fall. The Great Lake provides Frankfort with its golden sandy beaches and stunning views. If you bring your fishing boat or sailboat to Frankfort, you can make use of the seven full-service marinas. As you explore the town, be sure to ask about the local shipwrecks, the railroad history, and the way to the lighthouse. This area is also renowned among mushroom hunters as outstanding morel country.

From Frankfort, head north on Highway 22. This scenic route will carry you right down the length of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, giving you sweeping views of the lake, framed by golden sand dunes. Settle back and enjoy the scenery, but be sure to stop from time to time to explore the park. You'll find forested islands, antique farmhouses, and winding trails that are ready and waiting to be discovered.

As you leave the park's visitor's center, start your tour on the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive. This 7.4-mile route will carry you past dunes and woods, offering fabulous views of Lake Michigan and Glen Lake. From there, take the Cottonwood Trail for a hike along the dunes, and possibly even a dune climb. If you reach the top of the dune, you'll be rewarded with even better views of Glen Lake. The climb can be strenuous, but kids love it, and the run back down is a ton of fun. If you have the time, consider hiking through the dunes all the way to Lake Michigan (a 3-4 hour trip).

The park has plenty of other trails to try. The Dunes Trail is a 3.5 mile trek that leads to the lake and back. The loop trail to Sleeping Bear Point is 2.8 miles long and full of amazing scenery. And for easier hiking, try the Duneside Accessible Trail.

Before you leave the park, be sure to stop by the U.S. Coast Guard Museum, where you'll learn about the history of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, the Coast Guard, and the shipping past of the Great Lakes. On the second floor, you'll see a recreation of a Steamer Wheelhouse, complete with views of the Manitou Passage Shipping Channel.

On the way out of the park, you'll pass through Glen Haven, a lumber-milling village that has been restored to be as it was in 1900. Volunteers work the old-fashioned blacksmith shop, the cannery boathouse, and the general store. You can learn about Michigan's shipping days and even buy some old-style products in the store.

If you have the time for a fun day trip, head to South Manitou Island. The island has a reconstructed old-fashioned village, an old schoolhouse, and a lighthouse with views of the island and the shore. Take a hike to see the remains of the shipwrecked vessel, the Francisco Morazan.

Highway 22 will lead you through the park exit, past lovely Lake Leelanau, across the peninsula to Northport and views of Grant Traverse Bay. The cosy town of Northport was one of the earliest settlements in the country. Its access to the lake and to Grand Traverse Bay made it a key trading destination. Today the town offers excellent boating access, a harbor park, and plenty of art galleries and antique shops.

While you're exploring Northport, take a tour of the cherry and apple orchards in the hills around town. You can take a picnic lunch to Leelanau State Park, home of the restored Grand Traverse Lighthouse. The Leelanau Conservancy's Kehl Lake Preserve has superb bird watching and wildlife viewing. As you head south along the bay, stop in at Omena Bay's Lavendar Lane shop and the Leelanau Wine Cellars.

Once you've had your fill of beaches and lake vistas, it's time to visit Traverse City! This is the big-city destination in the area, because it's where you'll find the best shops, theaters, art galleries, and other family activities. You can head out to play mini golf, drive a go-kart on a race track, or ride the restored antique carousel at the mall.

Traverse City has plenty of options for boaters and fishers, with easy access to Grand Traverse Bay. There are also tall ships that call Traverse City home, some of which offer rides and tours. You'll find terrific dining options here, from seafood and steak houses to international and American cuisine. And for a bit of adult fun, head to the twin casinos, operated by the Grand Traverse Band of Ottaway and Chippewa Indians.

This scenic area is jam-packed with beauty, friendly people, and wide-open spaces. Your family is sure to remember their trip to the Sleeping Bear Dunes and Grand Traverse Bay. With all the fun in the sun available in northwestern Michigan, you may never want to go home!

Kitty Hawk -- Truth or Legend?

With all the focus on the Wright brothers as the founders of modern flight, it's easy to think that they were the only ones who came close to inventing an airplane. But in reality, Wilbur and Orville Wright were experimenting at Kitty Hawk during a whirlwind of manned flight trials and errors. All across the country, different people were testing out their own ideas of a flying machine. What the Wright brothers achieved in 1903 was the first powered flight in a fully controllable aircraft that was capable of sustaining itself in the air. As you'll see, they were far from the first men to fly.

In 1799, more than 100 years before the Wright brothers did their tests at Kitty Hawk, Sir George Cayley, an English baronet, dreamed up the idea of a fixed-wing aircraft. He built the first successful glider in 1804 and carried out a number of experiments on the theories of flight.

Later, Otto Lilienthal build a manned glider that flew successfully. In fact, he was the first to show audiences that a pilot could steer a glider and keep it balanced in the air. Sadly, he died in a flying accident, but his death served to propel the Wright brothers into action.

Octave Chanute was another important pioneer of flight. In 1896, he got a group of flying enthusiasts together in the Indiana sand dunes on the shores of Lake Michigan. They tested a number of gliders, including a biplane glider that became the model for the Wright brothers' first gliders. As Orville and Wilbur were getting ready to go to Kitty Hawk, testing their designs, they regularly wrote to Octave for advice.

A number of other Americans were hot on the heels of the Wright brothers. Percy Pilcher died in 1899 when his Hawk crashed just before he was ready to test his powered airplane. Edward Huffaker and George Spratt visited Kitty Hawk to test one of Octave Chanute's gliders, and they stayed on to help test gliders the Wrights designed. All across the country, brilliant inventors built and tested their flying machines. Some achieved success right on the heels of the Wright brothers. In the Midland International Airport in Texas, you can see the airplane built by blacksmith Johnny Pliska, the first man to construct and fly a plane in Texas. He began building in 1905, just two years after the Wright brothers' success at Kitty Hawk, and probably achieved flight before 1911. Pliska was also the county's first naturalized US citizen.

Blake Island, Washington

In the western reaches of Washington State, just a quick boat ride from Seattle, you'll find Blake Island, a small island that's been turned into living museum for Native American heritage. This evergreen island sits in the Puget Sound, an island-dotted body of water that stretches from Seattle to the Pacific coast.

Blake Island is a well-kept secret that makes a terrific trip because of Tillicum Village, a full Native American experience. At Tillicum Village, you and your family can take part in a Native-American style salmon dinner and see demonstrations of Northwest Indian dancing. You can explore a re-created long house and see how native peoples kept themselves warm and dry during the damp northwest winters.

This island was an ancestral camping area of the Suquamish tribe, a group that now lives on the mainland between Poulsbo and Bainbridge Island. The Suquamish were skilled paddlers and canoe-builders who visited the island regularly to fish and collect shellfish.

The entire island is part of Blake Island State Park, an area that's only reachable by tour boat or private boat. This 475-acre marine camping park has five miles of saltwater beach shoreline. On the island's southern side, you can see the Seattle skyline, framed by the distant Cascade Mountains. On the northern side you'll have views of the Olympic Mountains, Washington's oldest mountain range, and one that overlooks the Pacific Ocean to the west, Canada to the north, and the inlets of Puget Sound to the east.

After you visit Tillicum Village and get to know the heritage of the area, you can spend some time exploring the island's rocky beaches and tide pools, looking for crabs, limpets, clams, starfish, sea anemones, sand dollars. In the water, watch for river otters and seals, and in deep stretches, keep an eye out for Puget Sound's "J" pod, a family group of orca whales that call this body of water home. Overhead, you might see bald eagles (sometimes being chased and annoyed by crows). In bays and inlets, watch and listen for kingfishers, gulls, ducks, and cormorants.

You'll find tours headed to Blake Island from Seattle (via Argosy Cruises, piers 55 and 56) and Port Orchard (via Kitsap Harbor Tours). The boat trip from Seattle takes about 45 minutes. Approximately 100,000 people visit Blake Island every year. The park includes a 324-foot public pier with a 180-foot float, so there's plenty of mooring space.

The island includes 12 miles of hiking trails, including one that circumnavigates the island, crossing the bluffs high above the beach. Occasionally, important meetings and summits are held here, including the 1993 summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference (APEC) that was attended by President Bill Clinton and the heads of state of China, Australia, Canada, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand, and more.

Pennsylvania Dutch Country

Step into a slower pace of life in Pennsylvania's idyllic Lancaster County, home to many Amish and Mennonite people. With its covered bridges, horse-and-buggy transportation, and old-fashioned values, this area is a delightful place to explore. You might even take home a handmade quilt or other Amish craft!

The Amish
Many visitors to Pennsylvania Dutch Country go home refreshed, feeling ready to find the simple joys in their own lives. Lancaster County is home to the oldest Amish settlement in the country. These self-described “plain people” believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, and they feel that worldliness (connection to modern materialism) keeps them from being closer to God. As a result, you'll find that the old-order Amish live without televisions, radios, telephones, or even electricity, preferring a simpler mode of life. Some of the orders are more flexible -- you'll find a variety of lifestyles in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, though all focus on simplicity and peace.

Things to DoVisitors to Amish country can enjoy some aspects of the Amish way of life. You can take a buggy ride through a covered bridge, visit an old order farmhouse in Lancaster, or try your hand at Pennsylvania Dutch crafts. Lancaster County is filled with charming small towns like Lititz, Intercourse, Bird-in-Hand, and Paradise. You'll find incredible shops in each one, featuring products that are made right in the county.

The Amish people are famous for their crafts, from the homemade quilts to their incredible furniture. You'll also find jams, jellies, and baked goods, household goods, toys, and other craft items. And don't miss a chance to dine at one of the incredible restaurants! Featuring German and traditional American cooking, these dining centers offer many foods that are distinctive to Lancaster County.

While you're in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, you can take a ride aboard an authentic steam train, whiz down a roller coaster, or explore a tricky corn maze. The county also has a number of outlet stores with incredible bargains. With more than 200 different shops, you can find just about any product or line you can think of.

This county has 28 covered bridges, all of which accommodate cars as well as horse-drawn buggies. Be sure to drive slowly and cautiously in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, and be courteous to slower horse-powered vehicles. If you're after a covered bridge tour, you couldn't find a better spot. Start with the bridge that leads to Paradise (built in 1893) on Belmont Road over Pequea Creek.

Special EventsOne of the best events in Pennsylvania Dutch Country is the annual Mud Sale. Mud Sales are fundraising benefits put on by local fire companies, and they've been popular here since the 1960s. The sales always take place in the spring, and usually outdoors (hence the name Mud Sale). You'll find a wide variety of crafts, food, and other delights at a Mud Sale, from furniture and textiles to farming equipment, gardening tools, buggies, carriages, and more. Even horses and livestock are bought and sold here.

A Mud Sale is a terrific place to shop for quilts and lace or just to experience a fun part of Amish culture. If you can't make a Mud Sale, ask about other local events. There's almost always something fun going on in Lancaster County, from live shows and theater to the annual rhubarb festival.

Canyon de Chelly

Set in the rosy sandstone desert of northeastern Arizona, Canyon de Chelly National Monument is one of the most fascinating ruins in the nation. This land is filled with paradox, because while the ruins are expansive and remarkably intact, they give us more questions than answers. Clearly the home of a large, thriving population, the settlement at Canyon de Chelly seems to have been abandoned almost overnight, for no apparent reason.

Archaeologists have found that people lived in Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de Shay) for longer than they lived in almost any other place in early America. This area is filled with haunting beauty. The national monument covers 131 square miles, including the canyons of the de Chelly, del Muerto, and Monument Rivers. With steep canyon walls and rushing rivers, this is a fabulous place to explore, looking for slot canyons and cool spots on the canyon floors.

Because the national monument is set within Navajo Tribal Trust Land, it's unique among national park sites. In order to tour the canyon floor here, you must be led by either a park ranger or a Navajo guide. The one exception to this rule is the White House Ruin Trail, which visitors can tour without guides. Guided tours are easy to arrange and join at the visitor's center.

Most park guests arrive by car and begin their visit at the overlooks on South Rim Drive or North Rim Drive. The elevation changes in the monument are truly dramatic with thousand foot drops and towering plinths. For example, the highest park overlook is at 7,000 feet while the visitor's center is at 5,500 feet. On the South Rim Drive, you'll find the White House Ruin, a sprawling living structure that's nestled into a long, low cave in a sheer rocky face. As you hike the White House Ruin Trail, be on the lookout for wildflowers and interesting native plants, as well as petroglyphs and rock art. For a fun side trip, head to the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, an area that's home to more than 700 different plant species, including a number of gorgeous wildflowers.

In nearby Chinle, Arizona, you can arrange for special park guides, horseback rentals, jeep tours, and photo tours. The weather can be unpredictable here, so always carry a raincoat with you and be prepared for sudden afternoon showers. In general, the spring and fall are the best times to visit, when temperatures range between 50 and 70 degrees. Summer is quite hot and dry with highs in the 100s. Winter is cold, breezy, and snowy. In the fall, be particularly aware of thunderstorms that can blow in quickly.
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