Gay Camping and RVing in Florida
A few years ago I bought a 28-foot Sunnybrook fifth wheel trailer, and named it Heath. Heath was towed by a 2500HD Chevrolet Silverado pickup, which I named Jake. Last year I upgraded to an Open Range 350 square foot condo on wheels with all the comforts of home including a washer and dryer, and king size memory foam bed — he is also named Heath. Hauling Heath Jake can pass anything except a gas station.
Get Your Gay Camping On
Friends often ask about camping and I hesitate before answering because what I do is not camping as you may know it, but better termed glamping. In Heath there is central air conditioning, hot showers, cold beer and my own on board laundry.
Gay campgrounds charge an annual membership fee allowing them to limit access to gays. Membership fees become onerous for travelers, making an overnight stop at a gay campground costly. A typical gay campground for RVing with Heath could cost two membership fees of $10-25 each and an overnight fee of $30-50; $70-100 is just too much for a 15 hour stop, making gay campgrounds better destinations than overnight stops. I have passed up overnight stays at gay campgrounds in 17 states from Arkansas east to Georgia and north to New York.
Most gay campgrounds are very social and the daytime social activity is a swimming pool. All of the gay campgrounds I have visited feature clothing optional pools, and some are clothing optional all together. Many have wooded areas with trail systems.
Gay campers are generally more friendly, open and inclusive than campers in mainstream campgrounds. You cannot pass someone in a gay campground and not get a hello, and probably also an offer to stop and sit for a while. Rarely can you get a hello passing someone in a state park or straight RV park. Passersby, many with dogs on leashes pulling eagerly ahead, smile or wave or nod or speak and some even drop in for a moment, sit, have a drink, or perhaps even hope for a connection.
Gay camping can easily be the antithesis of the urban gay scene. Stars above can shine brilliantly on a clear cool evening. The soft scent of wood fire drifts past from time to time as a cool breeze curls without moving a leaf in the trees overhead. Cool evenings set off with a warm fire make for a comforting calm — a calm seldom realized amidst the roar of the gay ghetto.
The air can be filled with calls to friends, waves of laughter, a din of music, rock, house, country, blues all mixed with the breeze as though intended. Quiet can suddenly fill the night as laughter, high voices, wind and dogs momentarily disappear into darkness before once again coming alive like a switch is thrown, lighting up the night with gay life in the woods.
Woods can be magical places and camping in them can be mesmerizing in its sights, sounds and scents. Sights obscured by darkness, people walking quietly by unrecognized in the murk of night, sounds carried over still air as the din of day diminishes into quiet, scents of wood smoke, pine trees and meat cooking on some distant unseen grill.
Many find discomfort in the change, feeling a loneliness removed from their urban surroundings and gay stimulation. Lonely the woods are not though alone you may be, for it is an aloneness that’s not loneliness, like an animal among animals.
Wind will pick up to a steady breeze rippling the gay flag, furiously spinning the rainbow spinner, driving flames to leap and reach, shaking the tall spires of stately pines, gathering into gusts and fading to calm before roaring once again. In the silence of a lull, rain may ping the roof in a soft tapping growing to a constant cacophony of low tones.
Then I retreat to the warmth and dry kicking off shoes and settling into the soft leather of the deep recliner basking in the luxury of real gay camping — camping at Camp David, Camp Mars, Sawmill or Vitambi Springs, four of the most easily accessible gay campgrounds in Florida.
2000 S Bishop Point Rd, Inverness FL 34450
Located nine miles west of I-75 and then two miles south on private unpaved roads.
Be careful what you know. Much of what we know is what others have said and may not necessarily be the case. This is the case with Camp David. For years I have been told that Camp David is inaccessible at the end of a narrow, overhung and treacherous dirt road. Yes, the road is dirt, though wide and cleared in height for big rigs. The road is rough most of the way and passable at slow speeds. Take your time it’s only two miles.
Rumor has it that Camp David is for old gays. Yes, older gays do enjoy the property. They enjoy the compactness, the quiet and the sense of community spirit, yet 18 years of age and older are allowed because Camp David does not sell alcohol on the only clothing optional, male only property in Florida. Camp David is quiet at 10 p.m.
The retreat is a beautiful heavily wooded property with three lakes covering 16 secluded acres of over-arching Live Oaks dripping with Spanish Moss. From the monitored entrance gate, the road meanders in a circle leading to 35 RV spaces with 20, 30, or 50 amp electric service. Many are permanent camps and there are plenty of transient spaces. Even tent spaces have electricity and water though primitive tenting is available that does not include either electricity or water.
Those 16 acres seem like a great deal more. In addition to the camp road there is the track that leads to (The Point), an area away from the center of camp where campers can go to sun and commune in a clearing in the forest at the head of the nature trails. Campsites are situated around a lake with tenting in a broad open space covered in shade.
Social amenities are near the office, which offers free Wi-Fi, and includes an outdoor trellis covered area with tables and chairs located near a water feature and the filled in swimming pool. The owner said the pool is filled in because of new Florida regulations governing swimming pools that will be cost prohibitive for Camp David to complete. Dan, the owner, has plans for a new pool in the near future. A clubhouse for games, TV and community meals is nearby, as is a video room. In addition to tenting and RV spaces, Camp David offers cabin style rooms and some RV’s for rent.
There is no restaurant or bar service, though that is more than compensated for by the community meals generally available. Most weekends one camper or another hosts everyone for breakfast or dinner. On special weekends Dan and his staff provide a community meal. The office store carries minimal supplies; enough to survive until morning should you arrive completely unprepared.
A host of nearby attractions are available including the Withlacoochee Trail, a 46 mile paved rail to trail ideal for biking, hiking and horseback riding.
Dan has owned Camp David since 2005 and the campground has been gay since 2000 when it was converted from a rowdy straight campground. My preconceptions of Camp David are changed since my tour and I would happily give Camp David a try as I go by on a trip in or out of Florida.
326 Goff Rd Venus, FL 33960
Located 3.8 miles west of US27 on County Road 731, then one mile south on Goff Road.
My first gay camping experience was Camp Mars. When asked where Mars is I like to say, “It’s near Venus due west of Jupiter,” which roughly speaking is accurate. If you think of Lake Okeechobee as a clock, Camp Mars is at about 9 o’clock. I borrowed my brother’s class ‘A’ bus, drove it across interior Florida and arrived in the middle of nowhere.
The 40-acre property is situated at the end of Goff Road, through a gate along an endless pasture across which campers can enjoy spectacular Key West style sunsets, only these are across grass rather than ocean. In years past sunset potluck dinners took place on the lawn in front of the office with everyone bringing a chair and a dish and settling in for the show. The potluck dinner became so popular it is now an integral part of the Camp Mars culture happening every Saturday night presided over by Koren with her wooden spoon poised to push back any attempt at early indulgence.
No more gracious a welcome could one expect. Dale, who has owned Mars for about eleven years, in his golf cart led us in the bus to our campsite and soon after Koren, Dale’s loyal deputy, arrived with fresh eggs from her chickens. Camp Mars offers a variety of campsites from primitive tent sites to full hookup RV sites including wide open pull through spaces for really big rigs. There are unique trailers and even some yurts for rent.
Much like Camp David, Mars is mostly covered by enormous Live Oaks dripping with Spanish Moss. There are green pastures, lush tropical foliage, nature trails, ponds, creek, and oak hammock. Campsites are scattered hither and yon without apparent planning. These days most sites are occupied by permanent residents with new sites located in an adjacent field and backed up to the swimming pool available for transient rental. Many snowbirds flock to Camp Mars in winter and even those sites can be difficult to reserve.
On visits to Mars over several years I have made friends and often find those friends in other gay campgrounds. Mars is a real treat, a few hours drive from South Florida, there is a great community and it’s as quiet as Florida can get. Bring everything you want or need because anything worth stopping at is 30 minutes away.
The heated inground swimming pool is large with ample lounges, a shade area, appropriate music and unlimited sun. Mars is not a clothing optional property and caters to both men and women over the age of 21. Wi-Fi is available free throughout the park. There is no restaurant or bar service and the location of the property 30 minutes from the nearest retail requires good planning prior to arrival.
A recreation hall is the social center of Camp Mars. The Saturday night potluck dinner is not to be missed. I am amazed at the food a gay man or lesbian can cook up in a camper. I am lucky to get a decent ziti done. Bingo is a mainstay of many gay campgrounds and each has its ‘rules.’ Beware erroneously calling Bingo at Camp Mars. After bingo on weekends the recreation hall dims the lights and turns up the music for disco or country depending on the weekend theme. Thursdays and Sundays are movie nights.
Though Camp Mars was my first gay camping experience the opportunity to visit in the past years has dwindled as on each of the past three occasions I was told the park was sold out. On each of those occasions I was called midday Friday, while on the way to a different gay campground, and offered space.
21710 US 98, Dade City FL 33523
Located on US 98 eight miles north of Dade City and two miles south of FL Route 50 immediately across the Withlacoochee River; from the north slow down as you cross the bridge then immediately turn left.
A favorite Florida gay campground for many years running is Sawmill. It’s close enough for a long weekend and active enough for a week. Some gays live there. A few years ago the property was purchased from straight owners and converted to a co-op owned by its residents. Though it has gone through growing pains, (imagine a committee of gay men deciding anything) Sawmill is finding its footing and refocusing on providing a quality experience. My past several visits have each been better than the one before.
Sawmill is more than a gay campground, it’s an LGBT resort billing itself as the first gay community. Accommodations range from primitive tent sites to standard and deluxe cabins and RV sites to permanent homes. There is also a laundry with new washers and dryers and several well maintained community shower houses.
The property includes an area of full time residents, many of whom own shares in the co-op. In addition, there is a store, 24-hour guarded gate, a nightclub, restaurant, entertainment venue, swimming pool, cabins, tent camping, RV sites and on site trailer storage. The infrastructure including water, sewer, streets, lighting and camp wide Wi-Fi. All of this is directed by a board of directors and managed by a paid staff.
The right side of Sawmill as you enter is populated with permanent sites, homes to many gay members. Some have a view of Ricki Lake and the entrance to The Trails, a winding network of well groomed nature trails.
Lucy’s is the general store and office to greet you on arrival. The store has become better stocked and provides basic essentials including beer if you don’t want to make the ten minute trip to perhaps the best Winn-Dixie store in the chain. Within sight of the Winn-Dixie are fast food restaurants and even a Cracker Barrel. Closer still are several convenience stores and a Dollar General store.
From the moment you pass the guarded gate this hundred plus acre, members only resort for both men and women, opens its arms to include you. Each staff member is welcoming, helpful and seems genuinely happy to fulfill your needs.
Recently resurfaced roads circle the main entertainment complex including the swimming pool; “Splash,” the poolside bar and food service; The Courtyard, the outdoor entertainment venue including the community campfire; and Woody’s, the bar and club. The circle winds past vast fields of tent camping sites including water and electricity and RV sites with full hookups and 30 or 50 amp electric service.
Entertainment is important on this huge property and mostly well executed including live variety and drag shows and even parades on the gay high holidays of Halloween and New Years.
The cruise ship like pool surrounded by rows of loungers is the center of daytime activity with “Splash” the screened pool bar providing food service, cold beer and drink specials. Holiday weekends include cookout style burgers by day, steak and chicken dinners by night and a weekend DJ. Nearby the pool, operated independently, Rik provides a truly therapeutic and relaxing massage at a very reasonable price.
Nighttime activity includes a night club, newly setup club room for special shows, a courtyard with outdoor shows and community campfire, and an often candlelit trail system.
Nearby is the Withlacoochee State Park Rail-to-Trail providing 46 miles of converted short line paved for bicycles and hikers. The paved trail is easily reached in minutes from Sawmill. A contractor provides canoe and kayak services on the Withlacoochee River picking up participants at Sawmill, driving them up river and picking up the boats later at Sawmill after a downstream paddle.
If you can’t have fun gay camping at Sawmill, well you just need to get rid of the camping gear.
28280 Etumakee Way, Clewiston, FL 33440
Located twenty miles south of Clewiston on County Route 835, Evercane Rd.
Vitambi Springs, VS, is a newer two hundred and seventy acre property south of Clewiston. Originally built as a boy’s ranch it was acquired a few years ago by South Florida gay men. Converting the existing infrastructure to use as a gay campground has gone smoothly and the owners have felt or experienced no resistance from local authorities in the approval of planning, acquisition of permits or inspections. VS is an evolving property with a great deal of planning that is slowly moving forward to building as investment in the project has gathered growing interest.
Again thinking about Lake Okeechobee as a clock, VS is located about seven o’clock. Take what you want when you head out to VS, the twenty mile ride down CR835 seems longer cutting through endless farm fields. You will not want to make the return trip for a forgotten item. Once you make the east bound turn onto the driveway the road winds through scrub over decent one lane pavement.
First the Pine Tree Inn appears on the right. Originally the councilors’ quarters the Pine Tree Inn now serves as eight private bedrooms sharing two common baths, and a large common room with a full kitchen and a big screen porch. The screen porch is particularly valuable at VS. Mosquitoes at VS are relentless succumbing only to a good spray or air conditioning.
Ahead on the left is Hanger 10 an air conditioned multi use space used for dancing on the nights we visited. Just past and behind Hanger 10 are the Barracks, bunk house style accommodations with outdoor showers. Also nearby are some cabins.
Pavement ends at the Big Oak Lodge, a building that houses the reception area, a small store, the Bongo Bar and Bolo Café. The entry road curves around Vitambi Lake from the Big Oak Lodge to several temporary RV sites, three complete houses available for rent, a lakeside pavilion and a dog park. All of these facilities are located in what VS calls the Lake District.
South of the Lake District is the Garden District, an area that includes a temporary RV site, several cabins, primitive tent camping sites and the pool area. The pool area includes lounges, showers and the mist room which seems more like a sauna than a cooling place. Weekends the Café moves to the pool for a grill out. The Garden District is clothing optional except when you step within some undefined reach of the grill and you are instructed to cover up — a sign or rope line would be less nurse Ratchet.
Tent camping in the Garden District is in lush widely separated sites covered with heavy tree growth providing both shade and privacy.
South of the Garden District is Explorers Park, a hundred and eighty acre undeveloped parcel of trails winding through scrub to a lake and various areas of ruins. VS expects to develop Explorers Park after the rest of the property is complete.
Plans have been approved for development of several areas for RVs including big rig drive through spaces and wagon wheel style communities with wedge shaped lots providing personal space for campers. Plans have also been approved for development of a street of cabins which will arrive already built. All this development is contingent on VS completing development of sewer services and bringing in additional power. Should all, or even most, of the planning come to fruition VS will be a premier gay campground destination in relatively close proximity to the South Florida market.
In the interim VS is an already complete, well managed, fun destination. The owners and staff are involved and interested in your experience, the Bongo Bar is lively, The Bolo Café is adequate and Hanger 10 is fun after dark.
That Being Said
I can’t finish this article without mentioning Jones Pond, a gay campground located in Western New York. Though not in Florida, Jones Pond sets the standard for every gay campground I have visited. If Sawmill is Club Med, Jones Pond is the Ritz Carlton. Jones Pond is a premier property and fosters a strong sense of gay community in its seasonal campers, the campground is open May through September. Each block hosts a block party in the summer, raising money for local organizations. These events also serve to inculcate newcomers into the embracing culture. Being a stranger and being recognized serves the dual purpose of feeling included and wanting to come back for more. Many businesses of all kinds could learn from this simple tactic.
Also, I can’t finish this article without mentioning my pet peeve about membership fees. Membership fees allow gay campgrounds to limit who they admit, are a revenue stream and are themselves not the problem. These membership fees do limit the number of gay campgrounds I visit, particularly when truly passing by and not likely to revisit. These businesses are well served to have variations on the annual fee policy to facilitate use of their properties by customers who are passing them by for less expensive mainstream overnight stops. I tend to travel weekdays with a weekend destination. Gay campgrounds are generally empty on weekdays with a concentration on weekend use. Providing me an incentive to spend my gay dollars at a gay business makes sense for both me and the gay business. I have passed up overnight stays at gay campgrounds in 17 states from Arkansas east to Georgia and north to New York.
Gay camping can be about sex and some gay campgrounds are clearly set up around that notion. For most gay campers visiting a gay campground it’s about community — new friends, old friends and permanent friends. It’s about meeting new people, exchanging ideas about campers and camping, inviting friends to a campfire and having a few cocktails under the moon and stars. Gay campers are a community unto themselves and when traveling I often see campers I have met in a different place and time. Traveling can be a lonely proposition on long or dreary days, particularly two gay men traveling with a little white dog, and arriving to find a familiar smiling face with open arms is a certain comfort.
Removing the strings, drama, expectations and familiarity of day-to-day life in the home zone and replacing that with relaxation, camaraderie, freedom of spirit under the stars and new experiences in a less controlled environment delivers a sense of comfort and inclusion rarely experienced in everyday city life.
If you haven’t experienced gay camping it’s time to get out and give it a try. You don’t need much. Most gay campgrounds rent cabins, though check before you go as many don’t provide linens, towels or blankets. Many have on site food service and bars, though again, check before you go because some are a great distance from retail services. You don’t need many clothes or personal items. Gay campers tend to be much more interested in who you are than what you wear or drive.
Take a break, make a date and get your gay camping on.