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Snowbirding Smackdown: Southwest Vs. Southeast

Now that spring is upon us and we have officially survived our third winter of full-time RVing, we thought it might be time for a little good natured competition. Snowbird style! For those of you not keeping track, we spent our first two snowbird seasons wandering around the wild southwest, while this year we headed southeast for 16 weeks in Florida. These two sides of the country are very different, and consequently our RVing experiences varied widely.

We’ve complied a set of criteria that each side of the country will be judged upon. These criteria are based solely on our particular style of RVing and may not reflect the majority opinion of our fellow RVers (although if you try to argue with us about how terrible the bugs are in Florida…there will be a fight!)

Southwest Vs. Southeast Southwest Vs. Southeast

One note before we begin: For clarification purposes – the southwest includes the states of California (the southern portion), Arizona & New Mexico, while the southeast includes only the state of Florida. Plenty of people spend the winter months RVing around some of the other southeastern states, but since we spent the majority of our time in Florida, that is the state we chose to focus on.

Okay…let’s get ready to rumble!

Campgrounds

Southwest

~The Good~

Bring on the Free Camping: As passionate boondockers, we love the massive amounts of free camping around the southwest. There is nothing, and I mean nothing, more rewarding than finding a spot of your very own way out in the boonies, where with nothing more than an array of solar panels, a couple extra jugs of water, a full fridge, and a strong cell signal to procure our Internet (hey, no one said anything about roughing it) you can live and be happy… all for free. Well, until the fridge is empty and black tank is full of course. For us, this is what living in an RV is all about.

Southwest Vs. Southeast One of our very favorite southwest boondocking spots

Flexibility: The abundance of boondocking options ensured that we didn’t have to plan out our entire winter. If we wanted to simply float from one boondocking location to another all we had to do was point our wheels in the right direction. And when we did decide to stay in a campground, it was always nice to know that if we showed up without a reservation, there would be a site available in the overflow section. All of the public parks that we encountered around the southwest had large overflow parking areas. They weren’t always the most choice place to stay (ahem…Catalina State Park), but it was great to know that we had the option and didn’t always have to make reservations.

~The Bad~

Mind your Manners: We never really had a truly bad campground experience in the southwest, but I guess if we had to pick something it would be the poor boondocking etiquette exhibited by some. From trash strewn campsites, excessive generator use, disrespect of our natural resources, and those annoying people who insist on parking closer then necessary, sometimes you wonder who taught these people their manners.

Southeast

~The Good~

The State Parks! During our 16 weeks in Florida we camped at seven different state parks and thoroughly enjoyed every one. We can’t say enough good things about the Florida State Park system. From the friendly and knowledgable staff, to the scenic sites, clean facilities, and laundry (!) provided by most parks, we think that Florida has some of the best state parks around the country.

Southwest Vs. Southeast Long Key State Park – one of our favorites

~The Bad~

The Price Tag: Since we only stayed at public parks in Florida we have no basis for comparison in regards to private RV parks. But we can say for certain that the public parks in Florida are on average more expensive then the ones in the southwest. One reasons for this is that Florida state parks don’t offer a dry camping option. While we were usually able to save a few bucks out west by choosing a site at a public park with no utilities, all the state parks in Florida offer at least an electric and water hook-up, which naturally makes them more expensive.

*side note* There are some free or very cheap camping options around Florida in places such as the Ocala National Forest. Because we had specific places we wanted to visit (and family to see) we didn’t explore any of these options. While it would be difficult, and you would end up missing out on a lot of the state (specifically the coastal areas), you could potentially RV in Florida on the cheap.

No Dogs Allowed: While it wasn’t an issue for us this year since we are currently dog free, state parks in Florida are not in the least bit dog friendly. In some cases dogs are allowed on trails, but never, ever on the beach. Even at a campground such as Long Key State Park where the beach is essentially part of your site. As dog lovers we think this is really unfortunate, and down the road when (if) we have another dog it might prevent us from returning to Florida for an extended amount of time.

Scenery

Southwest

~The Good~

Mountains and Rocks Galore: We fell in love with the scenery of the southwest. As life long north easterners, we really had no idea that the mostly desert landscape around the southwest was so varied and beautiful. We hiked mountains, explored slot canyons, marveled at rock formations, and road our bikes down long sandy tracks.

Our Spiny Friends: Did you know that there are over 2000 varieties of cacti? While we didn’t even come close to seeing them all, we did enjoy discovering a wide variety of these interesting, if somewhat unfriendly, plants. We had fun learning their names, and got to see a large number of them sporting bright, colorful blooms last spring.

Southwest Vs. Southeast Is that a cactus or an alien?

Sunsets: We challenge you to find a better sunset than the ones occurring nightly around the southwest desert. It’s a mystery as to what force of nature is behind this spectacular end of day ritual. All we know is that southwest sunsets are some of the best we have seen anywhere.

~The Bad~

Tree Lovers Despair: Despite the surprising variety of desert plants, we did occasionally miss a good old fashioned tree. I still remember last spring when we arrived in the mountains of Cloudcroft NM after spending months in the desert. We were so happy to once again be surrounded by trees. No one is admitting to anything, but there might have been some tree hugging that week.

Southeast

~The Good~

The Beach: Florida has some really, really nice beaches! Yes, there are beaches in the southwest. San Diego has a few that almost come close to rivaling Florida, but in the end Florida beaches win out hands down. We were particularly impressed by the beaches in the panhandle where the gleaming white sand and clear turquoise water never failed to amaze.

Southwest Vs. Southeast A perfect beach in every way (Grayton Beach State Park)

Lush and Tropical: If you want to surround yourself with palm fronds, brightly colored flowers, and trees dripping with edible fruit…go to Florida. If you enjoy all shades of green, colorful birds, and giant leaves…go to Florida. The botanical delights of Florida are a treat for the senses. We loved waking up every day with a palm tree or giant oak outside our window, and simply couldn’t get enough of the greenery that surrounded us on a daily basis.

~The Bad~

Same is Lame: There are three basic scenery options in Florida: the beach, the scrub brush filled inland area, and the sprawling cities surrounded by gated communities. After awhile it starts to get boring. While there is only so much you can expect of a single state, we found that in general the southwestern states offered more variety in terms of landscape then Florida.

Give Me My Space!!!
It doesn’t matter where you go in Florida, it all has a congested, over-developed feel. With the exception of the Everglades, and maybe a few spots smack in the middle where no one wants to live, Florida is severely lacking in open space. Honestly, it got tiring after awhile. We wanted to drive for more than 10 miles before coming upon another town, go for a long hike with not another sole in sight, or gaze out across the open land. In Florida none of these things is possible, and by the end of the winter we were left feeling a bit claustrophobic.

Outdoor Fun

Southwest

~The Good~

Hiking: We went on some amazing hikes in the southwest. Hikes where we climbed mountains with views for miles in every direction, discovered caves and old mining operations, shared the trail with giant saguaros, trudged alongside towering red rocks and deep canyons of flowing water…you get the idea. The hiking is the southwest is excellent.

Biking: We fall into the category of cautious (or maybe just smart) mountain bikers. We don’t usually go for the trails where your chance of procuring a head injury is greater then the chance of seeing some great scenery. We also don’t enjoy trails where you’re practically climbing a mountain with your bike. Which is what makes biking in the southwest such delight. We experienced some of our favorite bike rides in the county parks surrounding Phoenix. Sure, the spiny cactus lined trails give you extra incentive to stay on your bike, but the gentle curving paths and rolling hills provide the perfect balance of adventure and safety.

Southwest Vs. Southeast Biking in Phoenix

~The Bad ~

The Altitude: If you’re a sea level kind of person, hanging around areas of the southwest where the altitude can easily climb up to the 6,000-7,000 ft. range can take some getting used to. We never experienced altitude sickness, but we did notice a definite shortness of breath while out on the trail in some of the higher areas.
Watch Where You Step: The desert is full of things that are out to get you. Cactus, snakes, scorpions. Even the most innocent looking leafy shrub is secretly sporting sharp thorns. We were lucky that we never had a serious incident with any biting or stinging animal, but we did have a few thorny experiences. The desert is one of those places where you always have to be on your toes.

Southeast

~The Good~

Beach Walking: Who doesn’t enjoy a nice stroll on the beach? If you enjoy walking along the shore with sand under your feet and the waves nipping at your toes, then Florida is the place for you. We made it a point to walk on as many beaches as possible. 
Biking:
While the biking in the southwest is quite a bit higher on the adventure scale, there is still some great biking to be found in Florida. For one, with zero hills, it’s EASY. For two, we were able to find biking trails at nearly every campground that we stayed at in Florida. We even did some beach biking at Grayton Beach State Park. We also biked around Key West, on an old bridge over gleaming turquoise water, and through an ancient hammock filled with giant cypress trees.
Getting out on the Water: Florida is a great place to get out on the water. Not only are you surrounded on all sides by ocean, but since the interior of the state is basically just one big marsh, you can’t go far without encountering a body of water. While we still haven’t pulled the plug and bought our own kayaks, we were able to borrow some while we were in the Keys, and had a blast paddling around the mangrove canals and through the clear, shallow waters near the beach.

Southwest vs. Southeast Nothing like an afternoon out on the water

~The Bad~

It’s Sooooo Flat! With the exception of a few tiny rolling hills around the Orlando area, Florida is completely flat. Sure, this makes biking easier, but it also makes getting in a good workout a whole lot more challenging. We really missed hiking in the mountains during our winter in Florida.

Pay Up: It’s no secret that we enjoy free recreation. Partly because we try hard to maintain a sustainable budget and not act like we’re on a perpetual vacation. Usually it’s pretty easy because a lot of the stuff we like to do is free. Stuff like discovering new trails, hiking mountains, and riding bikes. We found that in Florida there was a lot of outdoor recreation that cost money. If you want to go snorkeling, take a ride on an airboat or a glass bottom boat, charter a fishing boat, or walk around a historic fort, you better be ready to break out the wallet. It’s not that we’re entirely opposed to shelling out a few bucks in the name of a good time, but in general when it comes to outdoor recreation, Florida seems to lean more toward the expensive side.

The Weather

Southwest

~The Good~

Sunshine: The southwest is truly the land of perpetual sunshine. We kept track one year and I think we went three and half months without seeing a drop of rain. All this sunshine is great when you’re depending on solar power, but it’s also good for maintaining a sunny disposition. I’m one of those people who feels gloomy after a few days of clouds, and let me tell out out in the southwest I never had an excuse for being in a bad mood.

Perfect Temperatures: During our two winters in the southwest we did a a pretty good job of avoiding excessive heat. The trick is to move around the area according to the weather. During the coldest months we visited the southern parts, and in the spring when the heat started to come on we moved north to higher elevations. We both prefer temperatures between 70-80, and found this to be a completely achievable goal.

Southwest Vs. Southeast The mighty sun rising over the desert

~The Bad~

Chilly Nights: With no humidity and a higher altitude than anywhere in the east, the nights can be downright chilly in the southwest. Those perfect daytime temperatures quickly plunge to a bone chilling cold that have you reaching for an extra layer, and sometimes even cranking up the furnace. The drastic difference between night and day temperatures can be hard on the body. And for those of us who enjoy getting out early for some morning exercise, at times it can be tempting to just stay in bed.

Southeast

~The Good~

Consistent Warmth: Not all parts of Florida are warm all winter long. Try spending a winter in the northern half of the state and you’re practiallcy guaranteed some cold and probably even a few frosty nights. We avoided this hazard by going as far south as we could. During our three months in the Keys the coldest it ever got was that one week when temps dipped down into the 60s. For the most part, it was warm both during the day and at night. We happily donned shorts and sandals during our entire visit.

Southwest Vs. Southeast Bare toes & a hammock – a true warm weather activity

~The Bad~

Bugs: Oh man, are the bugs terrible in Florida. We entered Florida from the east and spent about a month in the Panhandle where the mosquitos were annoying, but generally not too bad. Then we moved into the middle of the state where the bugs increased, but were still not swarming us in epic proportions. And then we hit the Keys and discovered no-see-ums. Or rather, they discovered us. Those tiny, pesky creatures will forever be on our list of hated species. For the first few weeks we were both covered in giant red, itchy welts. To put it bluntly, it was miserable. Eventually we learned to deal with the bugs a little better, but we never got over our hatred of those no-see-ums.
Humidity: If the onslaught of bugs wasn’t enough, we also had to deal with a whole lot of moist, sticky air. Humidity sucks. In addition to frizzy hair and sweaty body parts (ewww!) it also adds an extra challenge to living in small space. Since we both hate air conditioned air, and try to use it as sparingly as possible, we were left dealing with towels that wouldn’t dry, sheets that always felt damp, and a sticky film on our floors.

People

Southwest

~The Good~

Spontaneous Gatherings: The last few winters in the southwest we had the pleasure of attending some incredible social gatherings. From large crowds in Anza Borrego and Quartzsite, to small intimate get togethers in places like Ajo, Phoenix, Tucson, and Albuquerque. It felt like everywhere we went there was someone new to meet. With so many opportunities for boondocking around the southwest, spontaneous large gatherings are not only possible, they are practically assured.

Southwest Vs. Southeast Getting social in the desert

~The Bad~

Long Distance: Since we originally hail from the east, spending two winters in a row in the southwest didn’t allow us to see many of the family and friends who we had left behind. We were lucky enough to have Tim’s mom visit us twice, but due to work and family obligations no one else could make the journey. And we can’t blame them. California and Arizona are a very long way from the northeast.

Southeast

~The Good~

Family: Spending the winter in the southeast allowed us to have more family time then normal. We spent Thanksgiving and Christmas with family, and a few months in the Keys with my dad. Our position on the east coast will also allow us even more family time this summer and fall as we head north visiting family and friends along the way.

Southwest Vs. Southeast Family

~The Bad~

Missing Out: While we were over here in the southeast frolicking on the beach we missed a whole bunch of social opportunities in the southwest. Don’t get me wrong, we got to meet some incredible RVers during our winter in Florida. But hanging out for an evening at the campground or a restaurant is not the same as spending a week or longer camped next to someone in the desert. This lifestyle makes it hard to form close, lasting friendships. It’s easy to meet people, but not so easy to really get to know someone when all you have is a single evening followed by a possible second meet-up six months down the road. We felt like we didn’t really get the chance to develop those relationships in Florida. Due to the nature of fully booked campgrounds and the lack of wide open space for large gatherings, it’s nearly impossible for a group of RVers to spontaneously gather and camp in the same spot for an extended period of time.

Southwest Vs. Southeast This? Southwest Vs. Southeast Or this?

And the Winner is…

Ummm…no one? Sorry to disappoint, but the truth is that after RVing around both the southwest and southeast we simply can’t say that one is definitively better than the other. I know, we are as surprised as you are. We obviously love the southwest, and when we decided to spend this winter in the Florida we honestly expected it to pale in comparison. I mean, how can a swampy state filled with retirees (no offense to all you retirees out there) and biting insects compare to our beloved desert? Let’s just say that Florida stepped up to the plate and fought the good fight. Despite its reputation for massive crowds and subdivisions, we were able to find some nearly empty beaches and lots of gorgeous campsites. We were also swayed by the weather that had us leaving windows open all night and keeping our socks tucked in the back of the drawer for months.

Yes, we missed hiking, and mountains, and rocks, and those amazing cactus. Yes we were sad that we missed out on some epic gatherings, and disappointed that we didn’t get to spend our third New Year’s in a row dancing in the desert. But we were also thrilled to spend time with our family, eat coconuts and mangos straight from the tree, and see some of the most gorgeous beaches our country has to offer.

In the end there is nothing left to do but declare this Snowbirding Smackdown a tie. I suppose the lesson is that no place is inherently better than another. If we’ve learned anything from our nearly three years of wandering around the country, it’s that everywhere is somewhere special. (But really Florida…must you have so many bugs?)

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