It has taken a little longer to get around to writing this than we would have liked, but we enjoyed the Lake George, Florida area enough that we wanted to share what we found.
We searched for a campsite by checking out the 39,000 acre Lake George Wildlife Management Area (WMA) campgrounds on the Florida Wildlife Commission website, but unfortunately the WMA provides only primitive tent camping, with no pop-ups or campers of any kind allowed. Finding this to be the case, we searched for campgrounds near or along the eastern side of Lake George. There were several to choose from of various price ranges. I believe two to three of them are owned by the same family. Ultimately, we chose to stay at the St. John’s River Campground, in Astor, Florida.
The campgrounds were nearly full in the area at the time of our search in the fall of 2019. The St. John’s River Campground only had two open spots available: both very close to the State Road the campground sits beside. The owners live on the property, and they are amazingly hospitable and kind. There were quite a few long-term campers residing in the campground. There is plenty of shade to be found under mature oaks and the campers themselves were quiet.
I drove down on a Thursday night and Michelle joined me midday Friday. I had a difficult time sleeping that first night because of the frequent traffic traveling State Road 44. The vehicles coming toward the east over the Astor, Florida Intracoastal Waterway bridge throw their sound directly into the front of the campground as they round a curve. Our pop-up was the first camper in the front, and with so little material to block the sound I slept very little that night. The next night I placed my truck between the road and our camper. This and just becoming a little less sensitive to the sound allowed us to sleep fine for the rest of our stay. Those of you with larger campers may not find this to be an issue at all.
The restroom facilities were great. One set of showers is dated but functional and wheelchair accessible. There are also a set newly built showers with hand-sinks and toilets that are hard to beat for a small campground.
Lake George, Florida WMA
We enjoyed exploring the dirt roads in our Tacoma and got off the beaten path on foot as well. Much of the area is comprised of mixed hardwood swamp and pine flat-woods. The borders between the two types of habitat were nice.
A couple of the fire breaks that we walked snake past beautiful open grassy areas that border mature pine flats. Some of the lanes between the mature pines are open, with only a little undergrowth and loads of deer sign. We found one lane that had a deer rub or scrape about every 10 yards, and we saw deer on multiple occasions while in the area. Although I’ve never known any hunters who seemed overly excited about the Lake George WMA hunting opportunities, it has something to offer.
We didn’t spend any time on the lake, which is world famous for the fishing opportunities it offers, and is also somewhat famous for a picture that has been widely shared on-line of a large alligator swimming across the lake with a deer in its mouth. Avoiding that fate is always on my top ten list of things to do in Southern waters. We considered taking the kayak down with us, but Michelle is a small person, and I think it is just too easy for her to imagine herself taking that deer’s place on a lake that size.
Oh well, we found plenty to do anyway and if you really want to fish you could wet a line at the local marina docks, as one of our camping neighbors did every day. He did well if his fishing stories are a reliable measure. He’s one of the seasonal regulars, so who knows, you may meet him and hear a story too.
As usual we scored in the food arena. There are at least three places within a mile of the campground. Two serve lunch and dinner: the Blackwater Inn Restaurant and Lounge and William’s Landing are both in the same building on the western bank of the Intracoastal Waterway just south of Lake George. We tried William’s Landing but not the Blackwater. The Rose Garden Family Restaurant is just east of the St. John’s River Campground on State Road 44 and looks to be the place to be for breakfast, but we found that they also serve a great lunch.
The Rose Garden is only open from 7 am to 3 pm so plan wisely if you want to give them a try. I certainly recommend that you do. During our stay we ate at the Rose Garden for breakfast and lunch twice, and all were good. I’d say the gyro was my favorite lunch item.
Michelle tried a fried chicken sandwich and said it was good but she could have gone another direction and maybe been more satisfied. On a positive note, everything comes with a little soup.
Williams Landing served an older crowd that evening: most of whom I thought were locals.
The food at William’s Landing was good in general but the fried mushrooms were some of the best I have ever been served. Even Michelle liked them and they are generally not her thing. The seasoning was great. I also had a freshly Panko breaded fish sandwich and fries. Both came out perfectly cooked.
We saw one thing at Williams Landing that I didn’t know was still in use: a cigarette machine. I saw these everywhere growing up, and prior to this trip I can’t tell you the last time I had seen one. It had been a many years. Also pretty sure they didn’t sell for $8.00 per pack then either. Really glad I don’t smoke!
There were mushrooms everywhere! Unfortunately, this was a state forest so we couldn’t take any of the perfectly edible mushrooms we saw. Suillus Dicipiens were everywhere in the pine woods and most were in pristine condition.
Had this been a place that allowed it, one could have engaged in an epic foraging session. We captured some fantastic pictures of mushrooms in their prime as others simply withered away. We also saw an amazing flush of Russula hixonii, described by Arlene Bessette as a “rare and beautiful” mushroom.
Bessette also mentions in a paper she co-authored that the mushrooms were or are being considered as a possible “Red-line” species because of the fact that their distribution is thought to be quite limited. With the rise in the numbers of people joining mushroom groups and sharing pictures of these russula on social media, I personally have begun to question how rare they really are, but I am primarily exposed to mushroom hunters in the state of Florida. I have seen Russula hixonii posted and identified by experts numerous times in those groups. I have personally found them in northeast, central east, and central Florida in a few locations. They are large and beautiful. Their “Pepto” pink is distinctive and their browning gills can be another sure sign when you think you see the right color on the cap. They dry to be much smaller than their original size when fresh. Mrs. Bessette mentions that they may smell like cake when drying, but I can’t say that I have found this to be the case in the couple of samples I have dried over the years.
There were some great looking Pulcroboletus floridanus around too. These are another edible mushroom if you happen to find yourself in a place where you are allowed to harvest them and know how to identify them. All that heavy reticulation on the top of the stem is something to look for on these mushrooms. The caps have a bit of a tart taste. Not my favorite, but when I am allowed to take them I will certainly grab a few.
We looked around in the St. John’s River Campground and found a couple of boletes, and bunches of Armillaria tabascens, aka Ringless Honey Mushrooms. The Honeys were well past prime and too far gone to eat. Armillaria tabascens are also an aggressive tree pathogen, so you don’t want to take them home to your own yard, as there is a reasonable chance they will kill a number of your trees over time and they don’t seem to be all that picky about the types they infect.
All in all, this was another successful trip that we greatly enjoyed. We are not sure whether or not our paths will take us back to Lake George, Florida area again, but if it does we’ll be happy about it!