The Real Florida Comes Alive at Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park

This state park offers many opportunities to observe the Real Florida and its wildlife

Meet a manatee face-to-face without ever getting wet at Florida’s Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park. Underwater viewing stations allow visitors to see the manatees—and other fish as they swim by—up close and personal at this showcase for Florida’s native wildlife.

Manatee as seen from the Fish Bowl at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Fish Bowl underwater observatory floats in the main spring and allows visitors to “walk underwater” beneath the spring’s surface and watch the manatees and an astounding number of fresh and saltwater fish swim about. A television screen with a viewing control is located on the sundeck allowing visitors in wheelchairs to appreciate a view out the underwater windows.

Manatee as seen from the Fish Bowl at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park also features a variety of captive animals such as alligators, black bears, red wolf, key deer, flamingoes, whooping cranes, and the oldest hippopotamus in captivity. The native wildlife that reside in the park serve as ambassadors for their species providing visitors face-to-face connections between the diverse Florida habitats and the animals that call those habitats home. Each with a unique life story, all of the animal inhabitants are here for the same reason: they are unable to survive in the wild on their own. Daily programs educate visitors about the various species and what can be done to protect Florida’s valuable natural resources.

Fish as seen from the Fish Bowl at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Included in your admission, weather permitting, is a boat tour that transports visitors along Pepper Creek from the visitor center to the main entrance of the wildlife park. Rangers give an introduction to the park. Native wildlife is identified along the way. The pontoon boats are accessible with a ramp for wheelchairs. There is an elevator from the visitor center level to the boat dock for wheelchairs and strollers.

Manatee Program at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A 1.10-mile trail winds throughout the wildlife park including paved trails and elevated boardwalk systems. Benches and rain shelters are conveniently located along the trail. Bleachers are available at the Manatee Program area and at the Wildlife Encounters pavilion. The park offers many opportunities to observe and photograph the Real Florida and its wildlife.

Flamingos at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Manatee programs are offered daily at 11:30 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:30 p.m. From April 1 through November 15, the programs are presented alongside the main spring in the bleachers overlooking the Fish Bowl underwater observatory. From November 15 through March 31, the programs are presented alongside the in-ground manatee pool at the Manatee Care Center.

Alligator at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pets are not allowed at Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park because of the captive wildlife. The park provides kennels at the main entrance of the park on U.S. 19 for those visitors traveling with pets. The kennels are self-service and free. Service animals are welcome where the public is normally allowed.

Roseate spoonbills at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park includes the Wildlife Walk and paved trails for wildlife viewing. The Wildlife Walk consists of elevated boardwalks that are accessible for visitors in wheelchairs or strollers. The boardwalk allows an elevated view into the natural habitats and provides rain shelters along the way.

Flamingo at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is an excellent site for birding. The Pepper Creek Birding Trail runs from the Visitor Center parking area along the tram road and loops through the parking areas at Fish Bowl Drive and returns via a boat ride along Pepper Creek. An information kiosk is located at the trailhead behind the parking area of the Visitor Center on U.S. 19.

Fish as seen from the Fish Bowl at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ellie Schiller Homosassa Springs Wildlife State park has been a tourist attraction since the early 1900s when trains stopped to let passengers off to walk the short trail to the first-magnitude spring. The tracks ran alongside what is now Fishbowl Drive. While passengers enjoyed a view of Homosassa Spring and its myriad of fresh and saltwater fish, the train’s crew was busy loading their freight of fish, crabs, cedar, and spring water aboard the Mullet Train.

Roseate spoonbills at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The 50-acre site and surrounding 100 acres was purchased in the 1940s and was turned into a commercial attraction. At one point, a company called Ivan Tors Animal Actors housed some of its trained animals here in between their appearances in movies and TV shows (remember “Flipper” and “Sea Hunt”?). Lu the hippo was brought here through that company many years ago.

Wood duck at Homosassa Springs Wildlife Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The park is located in Homosassa on the west side of U.S. 19/98. Admission is $13 for age 13 and older and $5 for children 6 to 12. Children 5 and under admitted free. The park is open daily from 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Worth Pondering…

A string of counties studded with emerald-like gulf waters, deep springs and rivers….If you’re looking for a place of stunning natural beauty, undisturbed…habitats and silence, you’ve come to the right place.

—John Muir on his visit to the Nature Coast in 1867

Black Hills: Step Back in Time to the Wild West

The Wild West comes alive in the Black Hills

Due to changing advisories, please check local travel guidelines before visiting.

An isolated mountain range located in the western edge of South Dakota, the Black Hills is full of scenery, rich history, and tons of family fun. Nestled among the prairies of the upper-Midwest, you’ll find majestic granite spires, pine covered peaks, and unique rock outcroppings.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While discovering off-the-beaten-path treasures, the inherent thread of Wild West history and American Indian culture piques one’s curiosity, fueling the desire to explore even more.

Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors will find fascinating places to learn about American Indian culture, the Old West, pioneer history, and wildlife. The Crazy Horse Memorial, a mountain sculpture in progress as a tribute to all Native Americans, draws crowds, as does Custer State Park, where visitors often spot bison, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, wild burros, coyotes, wild turkeys, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs.

The Needles in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Black Hills area is claimed as sacred ancestral land by nearly two-dozen Native American tribes. A variety of museums and historical sites provide insight into local Native American history and heritage.

The region’s name—the “Black” comes from the dark ponderosa-pine-covered slopes—was conferred by the Lakota (Sioux) who named it Paha Sapa, which means “hills that are black”.

Bison in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lewis and Clark heard tales about the Black Hills from other traders and trappers, but it wasn’t until 1823 that Jedediah Smith and a group of about 15 traders actually traveled through them. While other adventuresome trappers also explored the Hills, most avoided the area because it was considered sacred by the Lakota.

Pronghorns in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

They never welcomed the white man to their hunting grounds and as immigration increased there was a marked decline in American Indian-white relations. The Army established outposts nearby, but they seldom entered the Black Hills. Trouble escalated when bands of Lakota began to raid nearby settlements, then retreating to the Hills. In the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, they were assured that the Hills would be theirs for eternity, but the discovery of gold changed that only six years later. 

Burros in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The discovery of gold in the Black Hills brought the first white settlers and miners to the Dakota Territory in 1874. The hunt for riches gave birth to many of the modern day towns located in the area, including the Wild West towns of Deadwood and Keystone.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When miners moved into the area in 1876, they came across a gulch full of dead trees and a creek full of gold—and Deadwood was born. Practically overnight, the tiny gold camp boomed into a town that played by its own rules that attracted outlaws, gamblers, and gunslingers along with the gold seekers. 

The Needles in Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The famous and the infamous have called Deadwood and the Black Hills home over the last several centuries. Lewis and Clark, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, George Armstrong Custer, Poker Alice, the Sundance Kid, Calamity Jane, and many others have all passed through here in search of fortune and adventure.

Hiking in the Black Hills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Deadwood survived three major fires and numerous economic hardships, pushing it to the verge of becoming another Old West ghost town. But in 1989 limited-wage gambling was legalized and Deadwood was reborn.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An Old West town just a few miles from Mount Rushmore, Keystone is a Black Hills experience like no other. Keystone is one of the few places where you can actually visit an underground gold mine.  Originally named Gold Hill Lode when the mine was first tunneled in 1882, the Big Thunder Gold Mine is a very popular Keystone attraction. The mine offers tours and allows visitors to try their own hand at panning for gold.

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Learn more about the history of this Gold Rush town with a free self-guided walking tour around Keystone. Or, climb on board the 1880s Train for a ride through the Black Hills; the rails take you on a two-hour tour through to Hill City and back.

Keystone © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visit the Keystone Historical Museum to learn more about the past as well as about one of the town’s famous residents. Carrie Ingalls, sister of Laura Ingalls Wilder and featured in the Little House on the Prairie books, lived and died here.

Worth Pondering…

My first years were spent living just as my forefathers had lived—roaming the green, rolling hills of what are now the states of South Dakota and Nebraska.

—Standing Bear

A Great Migration: Bosque del Apache

The sound of the sandhill cranes and the scent of roasting green chile herald the arrival of autumn in the Rio Grande valley

It was a frigid November morning at New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge where we had joined dozens of ardent wildlife photographers and nature enthusiasts, lined up tripod-to-tripod and scope to scope, ready and waiting for the action to begin.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We were standing on an observation platform called Flight Deck overlooking a network of fields and marshes teeming with thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese that pause here to feed and rest during their annual migration south.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Talk about a great migration! Every year starting in early November, some 10-15,000 sandhill cranes, 20-30,000 snow geese, nearly 40,000 ducks, and even a few hawks and bald eagles migrate to the Bosque del Apache. This annual event also attracts birders, photographers, and nature lovers of all kinds who also migrate to the Bosque to enjoy this spectacle of nature.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated on the Rio Grande just a few miles off Interstate 25 south of Socorro (between Albuquerque and Las Cruces) in the tiny town of San Antonio, the 57,000-acre refuge was established in the 1930s to protect the sandhill crane. The majestic 4-foot-tall crane had nearly vanished along the Intermountain West Corridor, a vital north-south flyway for migratory waterfowl and many other birds.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For instinctive reasons known only to the birds, a sunrise “fly out” en masse is a daily routine. As is a “fly in” at sunset when the flocks return to the shallow marshes after a day of feeding on corn and grain crops farmed on more than 1,300 acres, mostly at the northern end of the refuge.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“They could go any minute now,” said the photographer next to us. An amateur wildlife photographer, here as a member of a photo tour group. “They take off all at once…thousands of them,” he adds, “and it’s really unbelievable.”

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we watched and waited, the sun inched over the eastern horizon illuminating a wispy fog rising from the marsh several hundred feet away. Then, without any discernible signal, it happened. In virtual unison thousands of snow geese erupted in a thunder of wings, and in a blur filled the sky as they flew low over head before soaring northward to spend the day feeding in the fields.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sandhill cranes then started to walk. Others lowered their heads, long necks stretched out in front of them, almost off-balance. This signal is followed by quick steps, the awkward first wing flaps and flight.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s unbelievable how they take off all at once, thousands of them. Nothing we’ve ever seen in nature compares to it. It is the rare human who is not stirred to awe and excitement as thousands of birds soar scarcely 20 feet overhead.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then in the late afternoon they streak the sky and return to the water to roost for the night. The afternoon fly-in is almost as enjoyable to observe as the morning fly-out.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The spectacular sunrise had also made us forget for a time the freezing chill as we retreated to the warmth of our toad.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once warmed up, we drove the 15-mile one-way auto loop road and hiked the trails and observed large groups of snow geese and cranes, thousands of ducks of many varieties, hundreds of Canada geese, dozens of hawks, eagles, blackbirds, crows, roadrunners, sparrows, grebes, coots, and other birds along with occasional reptiles, amphibians and mammals, such as mule deer, coyotes, and jackrabbits.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The refuge’s dirt roads are well maintained and RVs should have no trouble driving on them. If 15 miles sounds too long, you can cut your tour short by taking a two-way cutoff and driving on one section—the 7-mile Marsh Loop or the 7.5-mile Farm Loop.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is open year-round from one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset. The one-day entry fee is $5 per vehicle including all occupants; an annual pass is $25. Golden Age and other federal passes are accepted.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The refuge hosts a number of special events, including the annual Festival of the Cranes, staged during the height of the fall migration. The 32nd annual Festival of the Cranes is set for November 20-23, 2019. It’s a glorious pageant of nature celebrating the annual migration of birds as they head south for the winter.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Kiva RV Park and Horse Motel (Bernardo); Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park (San Antonio)

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

Great Parks to Observe Animals and Birds

The RV lifestyle offers numerous opportunities to get back to nature

National, state, and regional/county parks are havens for a variety of animals and birds that can easily seen by the casual camper or day visitor.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

Prairie dog © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

If you want to see bison without the crowds of Yellowstone, this park in North Dakota is truly amazing. You might see a bison slide down the steep sides and cross the nearby river. During our visit, a bison grazed along the roadside. It is always enjoyable to watch prairie dogs pop out of their holes in the prairie dog towns at several locations in the park. Pronghorns, mule deer, white-tail deer, jack rabbits, and wild horses are frequently seen either from a car ride or a hike. Other animals include elk, coyotes, bobcats, and porcupines.

Catalina State Park, Arizona


Javelina or collared peccary © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Catalina State Park sits at the base of the majestic Santa Catalina Mountains. The park is a haven for desert plants and wildlife and nearly 5,000 saguaros. The 5,500 acres of foothills, canyons, and streams invites camping, picnicking, and bird watching—more than 150 species of birds call the park home. Commonly encountered species of wildlife include javelin, coyote, mule deer, bighorn sheep, and various reptiles.

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Bison roundup © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Custer State Park is a South Dakota State Park and wildlife reserve in the Black Hills. The park encompasses 71,000 acres of spectacular terrain and an abundance of wildlife. A herd of 1,300 bison roams freely throughout the park, often stopping traffic along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. Annual Buffalo Roundup draws thousands of people to Custer State Park every September. Besides bison, Custer State Park is home to pronghorns, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros.

Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, Texas

Green Jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

As part of the World Birding Center, Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park is a world-class destination for bird-watching. The Rio Grande Valley hosts one of the most spectacular convergences of birds on earth with more than 525 species documented in this unique place. Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park alone has an impressive list of 358 species recorded within the park’s boundaries. Birders have a chance to see bird species they can’t find anyplace else in the country—from the Green Jay and the Golden-fronted Woodpecker to the Great Kiskadee and the Altamira Oriole.

Jasper National Park, Alberta

Rocky Mountain Goat © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Jasper is the largest national park in the Canadian Rockies and part of UNESCO’s Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site. For many visitors, a trip to Jasper is about seeing wildlife. The Canadian Rockies support 277 species of birds and 53 different species of mammals including elk (wapiti), white-tailed and mule deer, moose, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black and grizzly bears, coyotes, wolves, beavers, porcupines, cougars, wolverines, hoary marmots, and Columbia ground squirrels.

Edisto Beach State Park, South Carolina

Birds at Edisto © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Edisto Beach State Park is a part of the ACE Basin buffer zone around the ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve. The ACE Basin boundaries include the watersheds of the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto Rivers. The park also offers access to the Atlantic Ocean and beach. It also provides access to the saltwater marsh and creeks.

The park is a nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles. Other wildlife includes white-tailed deer, raccoon, and opossum. The best area for bird watching is along the trails in the park. Water fowl can also be spotted along the beach or marsh areas.

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, Florida

Manatee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park occupies almost 200 acres around Homosassa Spring, which is the primary source for the Homosassa River. The Wildlife Park includes the Wildlife Walk and paved trails for wildlife viewing. The park’s central feature is the main spring, where you can view the spring from the Fish Bowl floating underwater observatory that offers an underwater view of the spring and the fish and manatees. The Park also includes a large number of native animals in natural settings.

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb