Honestly, I’m not sure what I expected; the entire ordeal was a disaster from the get-go.
Disclaimer: the park is actually amazing, but my experience with it was not.
So here's the story:
I had this trip planned since the beginning of May when things were finally starting to open back up in Florida. I had been eyeing up a night at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park after reading this article about it, because well, what’s more enchanting and romantic than spending a night under the stars?
And honestly, I had a previously failed attempt of night sky photography from years ago that I wanted to retry, so this would have been a perfect opportunity.
I ummed and ahed about when I should book the trip, but the first weekend available was the third weekend in May, and I'm not the type of person who likes to wait, so I took it. I booked an astronomy pad, and I anxiously awaited the day.
I bought all my gear in anticipation. A new six-person tent (the dogs need room too, you know), an air mattress, a car DC power inverter to blow up the mattress, and some other miscellaneous camping objects. In all totaling well over $100 -- plus the campsite fee which was about another $20.
No big deal; it’s worth it -- I thought.
The week finally rolls around when it’s time to go camping. Nearly every day that week I got in my boyfriend’s face and yelled “WE’RE GOING CAMPING THIS WEEKEND,” since that’s what excited girlfriends do.
The forecasted weather for the weekend was slightly cloudy but not rainy and not hot yet. It was still getting down into the 70s at night.
It was going to be perfect for camping under the stars!
And then Thursday -- two days before the trip -- I get a text from a friend I invited along, “Hey, the site says camping is closed, are you sure it’s open?”
I check the website again and it does indeed say campsites are closed... Weird, surely they wouldn’t book people if the site was closed, right? So I check my itinerary and I see it’s still confirmed...
I text back and say, "Yeah I think it’s fine, I have a confirmation email and haven’t gotten any updates."
Then Friday happens.
The day before we are scheduled to go on this so-anticipated trip, I get a call around 2 p.m. from an automated messaging machine telling me that campsite closures were just extended due to COVID-19 and I would be getting a refund.
So we did what everyone was doing: spent the weekend at home... again.
The refund came a couple days later, and I decided to reschedule for a couple weeks ahead, coincidently right around the time of my birthday.
Again, I paid the $20 to book and crossed my fingers that things wouldn’t get shut down again since I really wanted to do something for my birthday.
That week finally arrived too, but of course, things didn’t decide to go as planned.
Tropical storm Cristobal was brewing off the South American coast and slowly making its way to Florida.
And then it did make its way to Florida, right in time for the weekend. Dumping nonstop rain right over the state for three days straight. At least the campsite was still open, though.
*insert eyeroll here*
As you can imagine, star viewing would have been a nonexistent feat, and we didn’t really feel like setting up a tent in the pouring rain just to sit in it the entire time, so we did what probably everyone did that weekend.
Yep, stayed at home and rescheduled. Again.
This time though it wasn’t free, I had to pay a $10 fee to reschedule.
Now I was invested in this damn camping trip for $30, and being the frugal person I am, I wasn’t going to let that go to waste.
"Whatever," I thought. "It will be worth it to reschedule so I can get a clear view of the stars to take photos of."
Oh, how wrong I was.
We waited out the storm and pushed the date back another two weeks to a weekend in late June.
In the meantime, my lovely boyfriend took off of work to take me tubing on Rainbow River (pic here) for my birthday (which was great; totally NOT a disaster, and I will be sure to write about that soon) to make up for the constant camping mishaps; which at least make me feel a little less stir-crazy while we again were on standby.
Neither of us were holding our breath, but the date was finally approaching, and as we continually checked our weather apps, COVID-19 updates, and placed bets on our Bingo cards of what was going to go wrong next, the weekend actually arrived. And it had a hidden surprise.
The weather looked fine (minus the fact that it was the hottest week of the year so far, boasting a 98-degree weather index and temps only going down to 86 at night), and we were getting a Saharan dust cloud that would not only keep those pesky tropical storms at bay, but we were also promised that they would give us amazing sunsets.
Things were starting to appear that it all worked out for the better.
Saturday came around and we packed the car with supplies, people and dogs, and away we went.
We spent three hours in the beautiful AC’d car, admiring the picturesque Florida landscape leading us to the actual middle of nowhere. We even passed the infamous Yeehaw Junction and giggled about not only how ridiculous the name was, but how crazy it was that someone literally destroyed one of Florida's oldest buildings by barreling into it with their truck. Whoops. Photo & news article for reference.
But back to the main story: I'm hardly exaggerating when I say this park was in the middle of nowhere. There were no gas stations, stores, eateries or really any sort of civilization around for MILES.
Of course, that's to be expected for a dark sky park in order to have the luxury of, well, a dark sky, but it was something I really didn't remember to take into consideration.
We probably underpacked food options (I was thinking there would be at least one gas station around), but we had at least enough to get us through the night -- perhaps not comfortably, but doable. A few protein bars, and your set, right?
So instead of veering off course and driving another 30 min to go to a gas station for snacks, we continued to our destination.
We arrived around 4 p.m. and the front gate was still wide open; however, it closes and is locked at night. You need the combination to open the gate if you arrive later in the day, which the park should give you before your arrival. If they don't, then you're kind of out of luck because there's no one waiting at the entrance to let you in.
A short distance from the gate, there is a box for you to leave money in an envelope for your parking fee; people who aren't camping have to pay for parking. But the way the entrance was set up was sort of confusing, and it was after normal office hours, so there was no one to ask about more information.
We stood around for a while reading all the signs, maps and other notifications at the entrance and finally got the hint -- people who booked a campsite don't have to pay for parking, so we continued to our destination.
Finding the astronomy pad truly wasn't the easiest task, and since the office was closed, we were on our own. We wandered around, in and out of the different campsites before finally finding something that resembled the photo of what we booked.
The hottest part of the day was already passed, but it was still late-June and the Florida summer heat is absolutely brutal. We didn't even have to get out of the car to realize we wouldn't be spending any time in the tent until after sundown.
In fact, while we were making our rounds through the other campsites, my boyfriend made a joke that if we asked the campground host where our site was, he would've said, "Oh, do you see that field? Well, if you turn towards it and keep going for about five miles, it'll be on your right -- right under the hot, burning sun!" Turns out, he wasn't that far off.
Located off a beaten dirt path in an open field without a shade tree for miles, we braced ourselves for a steamy night ahead -- but we had no idea just how brutal it would actually be.
Most people might ask why we decided to stay if it was going to be uncomfortable... well...
Sure, it was ridiculously hot, but we drove three hours to get there, paid $30 for the campsite, and there was absolutely nowhere else to go to wait until after sundown, so we did what any frugal, stubborn young adults would do: proceeded to the blazing field of death and unloaded the car to prepare for a night we knew would be less than comfortable; but hoping we were wrong.
The Saharan dust cloud may have made the day overcast, but certainly not enough to keep the sun from mercilessly beating down on any unfortunate souls who dare enter its path -- us -- we were the unfortunate souls.
In no more than five minutes outside of the car, I could feel my skin burning. Sweat started to pour from my body, desperately trying to cool me down, but to no avail as the humidity index was far too high.
One plus was that we had phone signal at the park -- sometimes. It did come and go, but I could check the thermostat, which read 96 degrees "but feels like 106." No wonder we were hurting.
By the time we finished setting the campsite up, we had undoubtedly drank gallons of water and our clothes were soaked with sweat. Shade was calling our names.
We knew it would have been a death sentence to try and hang out in the tent until evening, so instead, we went to the main office area, which had bathrooms, grills, picnic tables and what we were most interested in: some trees that we could tie our hammock to and desperately await nightfall.
Sweat continuing to pour and no-see-um bites aplenty, we still tried lying to ourselves to feel better about dumping hundreds of dollars into this already-disastrous camping trip. But it wasn't over yet.
Not a moment too soon, the sun started to go down, so how could it possibly get any worse? Surely there would be a brilliant sunset at least.
No brilliant sunset as promised; just slow, dull, agonizing moments of diffused sunlight getting less bright. Though, maybe it wasn't the dust cloud misting our view; it was probably the millions of mosquitos coming to swarm every living being in the area. I won't argue the particularities, though.
We started getting bit pretty heavily not long after sundown, but we weren't quite ready to call it quits for the night as we wanted to stargaze, so we loaded up on the bug spray and waited for it to take effect.
I am fully convinced that the mosquitos at this park were some sort of nuclear experiment gone wrong because bug spray did NOT make any difference. Also, they were massive. Here's a photo of one we killed in the tent for reference:
Now that you're successfully grossed out...
It was still too hot to try and sleep, but despite our hopes to stargaze, we were forced to take cover in the tent just to avoid being eaten alive. We could actually hear them buzzing around in swarms outside trying to find ways to get in, and every time the tent door was open -- no matter how quick we were to close it -- at least 20 blood sucking vampires infiltrated our flimsy safehouse.
Between the ungodly humidity, unrelentless bugs, ridiculously loud campsite neighbors and the sound of what could only be described as wild hogs oinking in the distance, sleep was essentially impossible. So instead, we made a game out of killing all the mosquitoes in the tent; which was successfully covered in blood by the end of the trip.
Being unable to rest wasn't completely awful though -- after a couple hours of restlessness, the milky way shined brightly over the horizon, giving us an opportunity to make something out of this disastrous trip. So my boyfriend insisted he would be getting the camera out of the car to snap some photos.
It was suicide.
Not even 5 minutes into setting up the camera and tripod, he unexpectedly packed it all right back up and ran back into safety before even taking one pic. His reason? The mosquitos were eating him alive, of course. Admittedly, it's pretty hard to pay attention to the sky above when you're feeling the pin-pricks of parasites all over your arms and legs.
Did I also mention that we held our bladders all night too? Because that was a definitely highlight. There was no way we were braving the wilderness to walk all the way to the bathrooms (a good football field distance away).
Defeated, hungry, dehydrated and desperately needing to pee, we accepted our fate and failed attempt of a "good camping trip with a purpose" as we laid on our mostly-deflated air mattress, too afraid to blow it back up because more mosquitos would find their way in.
But the night still wasn't quite over.
At some point during our delirious half-awake state and in between the loud cacophony of mosquitos dive bombing the tent, we heard some rustling around just outside the tent.
After suspecting that wild hogs were in the area, we were kind of scared to look at what we might come face to face with. Turns out, it was just a raccoon getting into our stuff, and as soon as we shined a light on him he scampered away, but not before making sure to leave a mess for us to clean up.
Sunrise couldn't (and didn't) come fast enough. In fact, there were two other parties camping at the astronomy site next to ours that night -- and one of them didn't even wait until sunrise before leaving. The other one was a family with a very-obviously abusive mother who was constantly yelling profanities at her children -- like, seriously. One of the kids in their group must have asked her a question or did something she didn't like because she could be heard responding with "I'm going to smack the f****** bullsh*t right out of your face if you do that sh*t one more time." Big yikes and definitely not the best campsite neighbors.
At the very first sight of sunlight -- and before it got too hot again -- we hurriedly packed everything up and went on our way, back to the comfort of civilization, bathrooms, and AC.
Our night at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve in the middle of summer can be summed up pretty easily: hundreds of bug bites, sunburn, an unsuccessful attempt of night photography, no sleep, and overall disappointment.
And while I definitely didn't get the night shots and romantic evening I had hoped for, I did end up with a blood-stained tent, a lasting memory (that's kind of funny now), and a realization that maybe it's cheaper and easier just stick to creating composite nighttime photos. Needless to say, I certainly don't have the urge to camp again anytime soon.
All this reflection rang loudly in our minds during our three hour car ride home, but at least it made us appreciate our creature comforts (that we very much looked forward to) at home.
Coincidently, after arriving home we found out that our central AC unit had broke over the weekend due to overheating from, well, the heat. So our disastrous trip was upgraded to a disastrous weekend shortly thereafter.
But that's a story for another time.