Our trip to Gulf Islands National Seashore near Pensacola, Florida was extremely last minute.
This was our first trip in our minivan camper and it was also our first time sleeping at a rest area, a Walmart and a truck stop–but I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start the story from the beginning.
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Gulf Islands National Seashore And Big Lagoon State Park, Florida
The story begins on a Thursday afternoon with me sitting in our family room working on my other blog, Snail Pace Transformations, when suddenly I see my husband’s truck pull up in front of the house several hours earlier than usual. Within seconds he bounds into the house with a huge grin on his face.
“Honey,” he announces, “It turns out I took Friday and Monday off for your birthday, want to go somewhere?” You see, my husband took those two days off months before my birthday and then forgot about them. He forgot so quickly that he didn’t plan a thing for us to do during that time off. He forgot so well that it took two co-workers and his boss making snide comments about “must be nice for people to have a long weekend” for him to look at the schedule and suddenly remember he had taken that time off.
So there we were Thursday evening with four days off in front of us and a minivan camper half built. We had the kitchen mostly done, but the bed frame was just a design in our heads–but we did have the tri-fold mattresses. A bed frame is nice, but mattresses are the most essential item of a bed so we decided to take the minivan camper out as is.
Two hours of frantic packing later we were on the road. Just the two of us, a few free camping apps, a road atlas and the destination of “go where ever it is warm.” It was mid-March and still freezing in Indiana, we both wanted to feel the warmth of the sun.
We spent our first night sleeping in the parking lot of a visitor center outside of Nashville, Tennessee and quickly discovered that despite tinted windows, parking lot security lights make for a very bright interior sleeping area in our minivan. But despite the light, we slept pretty okay.
At just before six we awoke, checked our weather apps and decided Pensacola Florida was the closest place to us with sun and warmth.
Gulf Islands National Seashore: Fort Pickens
We arrived just after lunch and spent the afternoon exploring the beaches of the Gulf Islands National Seashore near Fort Pickens.
Just before sunset we headed out to the Fort and watched the sun go down as we ate our picnic dinner. It was glorious.
Unfortunately, the campsite in the park was full and so were the sites in other state parks in the area. So we ended up spending our first night camping in a Walmart parking lot. This time we went in and purchased blackout curtains and rope to hang them with before going to bed.
In the morning we headed out to watch the sunrise in Gulf Shores National Park near Fort Pickens. When the sun was fully up, we headed back to the van.
Before we reached the van, I spotted a restroom in the nearby camping area and told Jack I needed to visit it and would be right back. When I got out of the bathroom, I spotted our van near the trash cans with my husband outside of it looking a bit troubled.
It turns out our minivan locked him out when he got out to empty some trash into a trash bin. We found a piece of wire from a camper and spent the next 45 minutes trying to get it open. In the end, we reached the sunroof button on the dash, and after opening it, my husband climbed in it. I was laughing so hard at how ridiculous he looked jumping in headfirst that I forgot to snap a picture.
After exploring a few more beaches, we drove into the historic area of Pensacola and being the old house buffs that we are spent over an hour salivating over the porch railings on the homes as well as other architecture in the area. Help us out by telling us in the comments below which railing we should pick when we redo our porch on our 100 plus-year-old home in Indiana that we bought for just under $10,000.
Railing design #1
Railing design #2
Railing design #3
Railing design #4
Railing design #5
All the walking and salivating made us hungry! We Googled top restaurants in the area and picked one that was within walking distance.
The place was packed! We took a seat outside wanting to soak up as much warmth as possible before heading back to our home in Indiana that was still covered in snow and ice.
The food at Hub Stacey’s was reasonably priced, and the portions were a fair size. The food was good but not “OH, MY!” good.
However, I did have a cheese dog with a side of onion rings, so it is kind of hard to wow someone with that type of meal. They do offer a variety of meals on their menu, but I felt like a hot dog and onion rings.
The Bodacious Brew Thru
Before leaving town to head to a campsite we managed to reserve in Big Lagoon State Park, I grabbed an iced coffee from The Bodacious Brew Thru located in the Pensacola downtown area. It was pretty good.
Big Lagoon State Park
The first place we headed to once we arrived at the campground was the showers. Then we headed out for a hike in the park. Big Lagoon State Park is 750 acres and offers five miles of hiking trails. We hiked a little over half of those trails before dinner.
The scenery was beautiful, but what captured my heart the most were the animals. Never before on such a short hike have I spotted so much wildlife. And that is saying a lot considering we hiked almost daily on our 5 1/2 month trip with our children in 2017. These pictures represent just a small handful of the little creatures we saw.
I couldn’t resist seeing one more Florida sunset and since it was my birthday weekend trip, my husband happily fulfilled my wish. We watched the sun first disappear behind the trees then we raced down the trail about a half a mile to watch it disappear over the water.
We finished the night enjoying one more benefit of not sleeping in a parking lot–a campfire.
Big Lagoon State Park Campsite
We had site number 23 in Big Lagoon State Park. Although it was enough space for our minivan, it would have been too short for longer travel trailers. The site was level and clean.
The campground hosts were very friendly, as were the workers. The campsite had a small store where you could purchase camp wood and a few basic camping supplies. The restrooms were simple, but clean. The shower stalls were the same. The showers had good pressure and plenty of hot water.
Our Minivan Camper Build 1.0
Here is a peek at what our minivan camper build looked like during our trip. After this trip, we changed the kitchen a little bit and changed the sleeping area a lot.
We started our last morning in Florida with a morning hike on one more trail in Big Lagoon State Park where we were treated to one last sunset over the water.
Big Lagoon State Park Observation Tower
Before leaving the State Park, we headed over to the observation tower and climbed to the top to see what we could see. Even though it was a slightly overcast day, you could see for miles.
Gulf Shores National Park: Perdido Key Area
We decided to view the ocean one more time before heading home. This time we went to the Perdido Key Area of Gulf Shores National Park. This area of the park is much smaller than the Pensacola Beach area with fewer views of the ocean from the road.
On the way home I finally got to try Zaxby’s. I wasn’t overly hungry, so I just had a kid’s basket. Although it was good, I don’t think it was the best test for the quality of Zaxby’s food. However, it was a good test of their iced tea, which was amazing! I refilled the little kid’s cup twice.
Jack got it in his head that we could drive the whole 12 1/2 hour trip home in one day. However, the weather had other plans. An hour or so past Nashville, we hit snow. Wet, heavy snow. Between the snow and the dark and my husband getting tired we decided it would be best to call it a night when we had just four hours left until home.
So the morning of my 44th birthday I woke up at a Pilot Travel Center. Yeah, I never saw that happening when I was in my teen years and dreaming of my future. Oh, well. The weekend was amazing and I would do it all over again, including sleeping in Pilot’s parking lot. To me where we sleep isn’t as important as what we explore.
I am tired of our budget restricting us from seeing places near and far. By building a minivan camper we can now camp for free in more places than with our 28-foot travel trailer and that is allowing us to finally add a weekend away each month (well, most months) to our lives.