St. Leo’s Benedictine Abbey

 

San Antonio, Florida, in Pasco County, has many photo opportunities:  The San Antonio Pottery,  lovely places to hike, and the St. Leo Benedictine Abbey,  justify a trip to this tiny town north of Tampa.  Often in passing through town to do the other two, I had seen a sign on the campus of St. Leo’s University for the Abbey.  Last week after a quick visit to SaintLeoAbbey.org, I set out with my trusty Olympus OM-D, EM5, to take some photos.

On arrival, sandhill cranes congregated in the parking lot and made me feel welcome as did the welcome center.

Gathering in Greeting in the St. Leo’s Benedictine Abbey Parking Lot

I’ve always wondered about San Antonio as It seems fairly isolated. The 1880s, though, things were hopping.  The South Florida Railroad passed through nearby Dade City and the Orange Belt Railroad stopped in San Antonio on its way to St. Petersburg.

In 1889, Benedictine monks established a monastery and Catholic high school and founded the town of St. Leo (later incorporated into San Antonio). The monastery became an Abbey in 1902. The Benedictines constructed the first concrete block building in Pasco County, St. Leo Hall, begun in 1906, completed in 1911 and still standing.

St. Leo’s Hall

The construction of the Abbey church began in 1931 and the church was finally consecrated in 1948.  The  Abbey website has more detail on the history and construction. I love the part of the story where the monks barter oranges for church furniture and building material with another group of monks in Indiana. Great stuff!

The lovely abbey, typical of many important pre second world war buildings, is in the Florida Mediterranean style. I have more description of this architectural style in a couple of my posts: Wakulla Springs and Bay Pines VA.

 

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The intensely hot, bright July day proved attractive to multiple butterfly species.  It gave my telephoto lens quite the workout.

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I hope to go back on a day where I can photograph the lovely stained glass windows (the light was just too much) and the grotto on the grounds. Stay tuned for Part 2!

 

 

Rainbow Springs State Park: An Antidote to the Florida Heat

Rainbow River

According to the Website floridasprings.org, “Rainbow Springs is Florida’s fourth largest spring and is designated a National Natural Landmark…The spring pool is about 250 feet wide and shallow, with especially clear blue water flowing over the beds of green aquatic plants and brilliant white limestone and sand…Seven vents contribute to the first-magnitude group near the spring bowl and are augmented by five more springs and hundreds of sand “boils” to create the Rainbow River. The river runs about 5.6 miles before joining the Withlacoochee River.

During the early twentieth-century the area was home to phosphate mines, parts of which can still be seen on park hiking trails.

Waterfalls built on old phosphate mining waste

The 1930s brought tourists and the spring became a theme park that included a zoo, gardens, rodeo, monorail, a swimming pavilion and artificial waterfalls built on old phosphate tailings.

Like many of Florida’s older tourist attractions, it couldn’t compete with the mega attractions in Orlando so closed in 1974. It reopened as Rainbow Springs State Park in the 1990s. after local volunteers supported the acquisition and restoration of the park.

Today pleasant  gardens and shady hikes invite a visit.  Butterflies and ancient trees abound.

Monarch enjoying a meal

 

Zebra: A common Florida Butterfly

 

Gulf Frittilary

The  Park provides a great place to escape the heat and swim in seventy-two-degree water in the head springs or kayak or tube down the river.We try to visit the park about once a year as this is the closest major spring to the Tampa Bay region. Florida springs are the perfect antidote to beat the Florida heat.  The gulf water and pools around our areas are all in the 90s.  The spring water though, ah a lovely seventy-two degrees!

Rainbow Springs State Park Swimming Area

The park tubing concessionaire, Nature Quest, rents tubes and provides tram service every twenty minutes up the river.  You grab your tube, float with the current, and two hours later you are pleasantly cool.  Tubing is available between April and the end of September (Before Memorial Day and after Labor Day rentals are limited to weekends)

Nature Quest Rents Tubes and Kayaks at the Park

We arrived around eleven: a reasonable time for a week-day but we probably would have been too late on the weekend as the park closes when the parking area fills. Early arrival is also advised because of frequent afternoon thunderstorms in the summer. For people, desirous of a quieter experience, I suggest a visit during the week or early or late in the season. Between the entry and two tubes, it cost us $45.  This includes the state park admission, tube rental and the tram ride north.

We floated two miles in about two hours. All manner of boats, tubes and kayaks take advantage of the cool water.  Given the crowds, we still saw quite a few birds, including anhingas, blue herons, and ibises. The water is clear, and feels just wonderful, as the air temperature was in the nineties.

A few important details: alcohol, coolers and disposable packaging (water bottles, food packaging and the like) are all prohibited on the river. The outfitter will keep your keys for a small fee. Additionally, even if you bring your own tube, you will still pay the $15 per person fee.

Perhaps the only drama occurred when I tried to pose for a photo at the end.  I did find out that the current near the end is strong enough to make it difficult to paddle the tube against the current.  Thus, into the water I went to paddle back to the ramp and off floated a sandal and hat.  Just a word to the wise.

An Unplanned Ending to a Great Tubing Trip (Photo Courtesy of Caity Mellicant)

 

Lettuce Lake Park-A Photographer’s Dream

About a month ago for one of our weekly field trip, the Florida Center for Creative Photography sponsored a photo walk to the Lettuce Lake Regional Park, north of Tampa. I’d been to the park a few years back sans camera, however, this visit found me well-equipped, with lenses in hand and accompanied by three expert members of the club. We got some great shots, so I decided to head back  to the park with my daughter and see it from the river in one of the park’s rental kayaks. Most of these shots are from the first visit, since I didn’t take my Olympus OMD out on the water and instead used my Windows 920 cell phone camera.

The Hillsborough River creates Lettuce Lake, via an overflow of river water. The river creates the swamp, named for the ubiquitous water lettuce plants.

Lettuce Lake
A peaceful morning paddle on the lake

In addition to lovely lake vistas, birds abound here.  Just a few minutes into my walk with the club, we came upon these two Limpkins.  They seemed to be literally posing for us for a good twenty minutes, until they finally caught some food and scuttled away.

 

Cyprus knees along the lake
Haunting Cypress Knees

The park has quite the collection of massive old cypress. pine and hardwood trees.  These trees seemed to have avoided the clearcutting that took out most of the woodlands during the 1920s and 30s. Perhaps because the area remains under water much of the year.

 

Swamp lily
Swamp lily hiding a cypress knob
Boardwalks
Boardwalks keep us above the swamp but allow for safe viewing

 

 

 

 

Swamp lilies, a native Florida plant, grow throughout, with waves of flowers bordering the river.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thirty-five hundred feet of boardwalks, a multistory viewing tower, and a 1.25-mile paved trail allow easy access to wildlife, views of the lake and picnics.

canoes and kayaks
Rental boats make for great views of the park from the river

 

 

Kayaks and canoes can be rented here. We rented kayaks for four hours at the bargain price of $25. Rentals include all safety equipment and paddles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The park is home to the Audubon Resource Center where folks can find more information about the park. The website provides information on kayak and canoe rentals here and in other Hillsborough County parks.

Running Cypress Point Park

Beach
Cypress Point Park Beach

Although most people think that the Courtney Campbell  Causeway Trail begins in Tampa near the Whiskey Joe Bar and the Westin Hotel, the trail actually begins at Cypress Point Park.  The other day, I decided to explore that end of the trail on one of my “long runs”.

I did go online to try to find a map of the trail.  Trail maps are hard to find, but this one  is somewhat helpful, though it makes no distinction between on road and off-road trails. The entrance to the park, listed on the park website is an empty lot.  The actual entrance is through an office park, rather than at the entrance listed on the park website.

Parking at the trailhead seems adequate, though perhaps it gets crowded on the weekend.  This is a pocket park nestled between the Courtney Campbell Causeway and Interstate 275. Though it is encircled by many buildings, once in the park it feels blissfully isolated. It has just a little slice of our lovely Bay with a well-maintained little beach.

One oddity in this park, given recent controversies is an actual monument to a Confederate hero.

Salt Works
Tampa Confederate Salt Works

Trails through the park allow for perhaps a half mile of beach trail running and then a concrete path through the disc golf course adds another half mile: good for a warmup and some off-road running.

After warming up along the beach trails, I ran out the driveway (no signs here) and headed left on the trail which first hugs the edge of the airport then follows along Florida  Route 60.

Beach Trail
Beach Trail.

This trail is part of what will someday be a greenway trail system that traverses Tampa and connects to the surrounding counties.  For now, Cypress Point Park is the terminus for the Courtney Campbell Trail in Tampa with the other terminus in Clearwater at the Bayshore Trail.

The Courtney Campbell trail which leads to the causeway is interesting in that it has various levels of protection from the road.  From the looks of the various barriers, it doesn’t seem that someone using the trail will actually be hit by a car.  Trash and ambience, well that is a different matter.

Trail
Poorly protected  and maintained trails attract trash and are noisy

I suppose that when we develop trails, trash probably isn’t something that we are thinking about. But, it really does matter.  Roads generate trash and trash flies onto trails. Sturdy barriers keep out trash and they also keep out noise, thus improving the trail experience.

Near the Hyatt
A well protected trail gives the illusion of a quiet country path

One hears nary a peep here in this part of the trail near the Hyatt Hotel.

The Cypress Point Park and the nearby trail are well worth a run and in the future I expect to explore further with a bike.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Riding the Cross-Bay Ferry

Checking in!
CCross-Bay Ferry in St. Pete
Cross-Bay Ferry in St. Pete

Some experts suggest that the future of public transport in the Tampa Bay region lies with the use of our waterways.  With that in mind, a few communities have ferry demonstration programs.  The Cross-Bay Ferry  began to travel between St. Pete and Tampa as a six month pilot project that will end this month.

Since the pilot was ending on April 30, I figured it might be the time to try this out. I visited the website last week to check out the schedule.  The first thing that struck me was that this really isn’t a commuter ferry.  On weekdays, the first ferry out of St. Pete is at noon and the last ferry out of Tampa is 5:30 PM.  I guess for folks lucky enough to work four hours per day, this might work! But for someone working eight hours per day, not so much. For retirees, tourists, and some late rising students, though this is probably about right. We saw one person who actually looked like a commuter. Nearly everyone we talked to was, like us, a local…curious about the service.

I had read that the ferry was lightly used during the week, so I didn’t buy my tickets online.  Turns out that was almost a mistake.  We left home early, at 10:45, and arrived around 11:15, to get the noon ferry. Tickets were initially plentiful, but by 11:30, all the tickets for the returning 5:30 PM ferry had been sold. Parking was free for ferry riders and ferry tickets were $5 per person.

We boarded the boat 15 minutes before launch.  My daughter, Caity and I sat up on the upper deck…seemingly less popular than the air-conditioned lower deck near the bar.  The ride was uneventful, and took 55 minutes. The seas were calm. Many photo ops along the way.  I rediscovered a filter on my camera that makes for interesting water shots. Most interesting is the Port of Tampa.

From the Ferry
On the Ferry
Kicking back

Once we arrived in Tampa, we had numerous options to enjoy ourselves.  We decided to take the streetcar to Ybor City.  I hadn’t been there for a while.  We could also have headed up the Riverwalk on the west side of downtown.  Strangely many of the bus options downtown don’t run this time of the day, so getting to Waterworks Park at the end of the Riverwalk, north of downtown Tampa, would have been a long walk.  We had decided against bringing our bikes as we didn’t want to worry about them. We had also decided against the Pirate Water Taxi  as being too expensive ($18 per person). It did look like a neat idea if one were spending a whole day visiting central Tampa.

streetcar
Catching the streetcar
Water taxi
Water taxi

The streetcar trip to Ybor City took 20 minutes.  Lunch was at Hamburger Mary’s where I blew up my diet for the day with a bean burger and an awesome side of sweet potato fries.  Coffee afterwards was at a neat place called the Blind Tiger…great coffee. Ybor City is quiet on a Friday afternoon, and I think most of the folks we saw walking around had come over on the ferry with us.

The trip back was at 5:30 and we were tired by then.  I took more photos on the way back.  The light is good that time of the day.  For those who had missed out on tickets home, folks were selling unused tickets near the kiosk.  We arrived back at about 6:30 and were home for dinner by 7:30.

on the streetcar
Caity on the streetcar

Hopefully, the service continues as I think most of the people using the service seemed to enjoy it.  Would I use the ferry rather than drive into Tampa?  Probably not, as it we live too far from St. Pete and this adds at least an hour each way to the trip into Tampa.  If someone decided to develop a service from our side of Tampa Bay to Tampa, I would definitely consider it.  The problem though is likely to be cost.  The initial cost was to be $10 per person. At that price, I might have been hesitant…particularly if parking wasn’t free. Apparently, private sector support has allowed the price reduction…so it isn’t clear whether this will be affordable.  But for tourists staying near the waterfront, this is a great way to see the other side of the Bay.

Ferry
The End of the Day

A Day at the Kite Festival

A Day at the Kite Festival

We were out photographing the Twentieth Annual Kite Festival on the Treasure Island Beach  this past weekend with a myriad of other photographers.  Kite festivals make for great photo opportunities and attract us like flies.  You also have multiple colors plus much activity taking place on a beach or some other photogenic location.

Wide-angle lens gets a work out

I’d been to the festival during previous years and been somewhat disappointed for various reasons…bad weather, rain, grey skies…etc.  As I recall, I wasn’t yet equipped with a selection lenses and I hate looking at photos of places where people have clearly Photoshoped blue skies.  This time around I switched between my various lenses…and early in the day we at least had some blue sky.

Each time I photograph an event I become a better photographer.  Especially when I compare my photos to the 100s of other people posting on the internet.  Be-that-as-it-may, I came away resolved to improve my video skills as kite festivals are perfect for that modality.  As I am wont to do I looked at what I had on my computer in the way of editing software, as most of my past videos have simply been automated slide shows created in iPhoto or Photo.

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I reloaded my old copy of Premier Elements 11 (three versions out of date) and tried to work with iMovie.  I was trying to do something simple, flip my images and remove the guy in the corner of my video who was clearly picking his nose.  I’m still working on it. But…I did discover a great Adobe resource. For those of us who don’t buy into the idea of paying for every update, this is the place for us. I’m still working on that  guy but my daughter, Caity Mellicant, and I got some great photos.

Almost blue sky

Bok Tower and Gardens

Bok tower
Bok Tower

Every Holiday season I visit Bok Tower and Gardens.  The visitor’s center, café,  gift shop, and Pinewood estate glow with lovely festive plants and creative decorations.

Garden Entrance
Bok Tower Garden Entrance

Bok Tower has a great website where you can check out events, learn more about the Gardens and its founder Edward Bok and plan your day.  The visitor’s center is also a source of information on the gardens.

What's in Bloom?
What’s in Bloom?

The historic tower carillon bells chime with the sound of holiday music as they have since the garden opened in 1930 with daily and special concerts. Bok Tower is located near the town of Lake Wales in central Florida, about an hour from downtown Tampa.

We usually spend a half day here, but one could easily spend days photographing this ever-changing landscape, with its lovely collection of colorful plants, and still not see everything here. Certainly, one could spend weeks here with a camera.  Most gardens are macro photographer’s heaven and this place is no exception with lovely flowers and many butterflies.

Butterfly Visit
Monarch on a visit to Bok Tower

But the garden features an opportunity for the landscape or architectural photographer. My strategy is to circle through the gardens switching lenses with each circuit (OLYMPUS M.: 9-18mm, F4.0-5.6; 75-300mm, F4.8-6.7; and 12-50mm, F3.5-6.3).

Bok Tower, the Art Deco Tower/Neo-Gothic center piece of this garden, perches atop the highest elevation in Florida. The 205-foot tall Singing Tower is a great example from the Art Deco movement.

Art Deco Windows
Art Deco Windows are great examples from the Art Deco Era
Golden Door
Golden Door at the Singing Tower

Industrialist C. Austin Buck built Pinewood Estates, a twenty-room Mediterranean Revival mansion in the 1930s.  Bok Tower Gardens acquired the mansion in 1970. Holiday decorations abound.

Pinewood Estates
Pinewood Estates

The new Hammock Hollow Children’s Garden provides unique approach to encourage kids to get outdoors. I wish I’d had such a playground when I was growing up!

December is a great month to visit these gardens as in addition to the holiday decorations, the huge camellia collection starts to bloom.

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We at lunch at the Blue Palmetto Cafe at the Visitors Center. In addition to sandwiches and wraps they have beer, wine and snacks.

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Bay Pines VA Hospital

Building 1
Bay Pines VA Building 1

Florida’s history is brief compared to other areas but does have its hidden history often only dating from the 1920s and 1930s.  Many of these in the Mediterranean revival style that I’ve mentioned in previous posts.  I found a great example of this architecture down in South St. Pete at the Bay Pines VA Hospital (now part of the C.W. Young VA Medical Center).  While I was hunting through my photos I found these photos that I took three years ago, with my brand  new Olympus OMD EM-5 in tow. I spent a morning photographing this great architecture. As I write this, I realize  that I made a typical rookie mistake of not researching my subject. I saw stuff I liked and snapped away.  But this really is a great place to spend a winter morning camera in hand.  Now that I know more about the history I plan to go back and take a more systematic approach.. Enjoy my rookie photos.

Construction began in the 1930s with Building 1, 2 and 13 with completion in 1933 . Fortunately these buildings still exist, though most have been repurposed over the years as more modern buildings replaced older buildings.  Newer buildings intermix with the old. This makes for a bit of a challenge sometimes if you are trying for iconic views of the facades.

Building 1 itself is a work of art.  Now housing offices, it is most noted for its three level entrance

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Nearby Building 24, though newer, is more accessible for photographic detail

Entrance
Building 24 Entrance

 

I searched for some historical photos of the buildings.  A few exist in the Florida Photo collection but many of these are old post cards. In 2011 the National Park Service published an extensive history and  background discussion of the buildings.

It isn’t necessary to obtain permission to enter the grounds to photograph the old buildings.  When I took these photos, I only had one lens, my Olympus M.12-50mm F3.5-6.3, but on my return visit I will go back with a better selection. These photos are exterior, taken early in the day. In the future I hope to do some of the interior (after getting permission) of the tile work.

This map will help you find the buildings. Of interest are Buildings 1, 2, 13, 20 and 24.  Parking can sometimes be challenging here…but visitor parking is well-marked.

Sunken Gardens

Sunken Gardens
Sunken Gardens is located in a great St.Petersburg neighborhoodFlorida

Florida has forty-two different botanical gardens to choose from. At 4 square acres, Sunken Gardens is perhaps one of the smallest Botanical Gardens in Florida.  But, what it lacks in acreage it makes up for by its location near downtown St. Petersburg, with its great music, art scene, and huge selection of eateries.  The Gardens are also co located with a children’s museum housed in an historic building.

Sunflowers
Colors lurk in interesting places
dutchmans-pipe
Look up for unique plants

Most of Florida’s old roadside attractions have been well catalogued, though Sunken Gardens seems to have missed out..perhaps because only bits and pieces still exist.

Old Forida
A Doorway to Old Florida

But, it exemplifies the kind of hybrid garden/zoo that was common in the state.  Thus the unique collection of birds here and the occasional interloper.

Chilean Flamingos
Chilean Flamingos
parrot cages
One of the many parrot cages
Racoon
A raccoon visits

Because of its age, this garden has some of the oldest trees and bushes that we see in the metropolitan area. Remnants of old Florida remain with the fauna here relatively unique. From the photographer’s perspective this  clearly provides opportunities.  It’s possible to come here mid-day and still have shade.  The flamingos, common in the past, in front of hotels and the like are now limited to places such as Sunken Gardens.  There are many flowers and birds that provide macro opportunities, but a wide-angle lens is useful for capturing the amazing landscape provided by the old live oaks, ferns and colorful Bougainvillea. On the other hand, the day I took these photos had started out bright, but my sun disappeared….making for a pretty dark day as reflected in these photos.

The small size of the garden and the seemingly steep entrance fee here are issues. The much larger Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo is free (described in a future post).   However, members of the American Horticultural Society, available with nearly any Botanical Gardens, membership will get a free pass here and Groupon has discount offers. These Gardens are worth a visit in conjunction with a visit to the ever-improving downtown St. Pete, or perhaps the Children’s Museum.

Wakulla Springs Overnight

Wakulla Springs

We recently spent the night at the historic Lodge at Wakulla Springs in the Edward Ball Wakulla Springs State Park.  The Lodge and park are about 250 miles north of Tampa Bay and about 30 miles south of Tallahassee.

We set out early on a Friday morning back in October for the  Springs.  Officially named after the original owner, it was about a half day drive for us, straight up US 19 from Clearwater to the Florida Panhandle.  We were actually headed to the Monarch Butterfly Festival at the nearby St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge on Saturday.

Arriving at the Lodge
Arriving at the lodge

The Lodge at Wakulla Springs was thirty miles away from the refuge, so provided for easy access to the Saturday festival. The lodge in its day,  a grand hotel, built with Tennessee marble, local heart cypress, and imported tiles, opened in 1937. Edward Ball, a financial manager and son-in-law of  the DuPont family built the lodge so that people could enjoy this unique woodland and spring. The State of Florida purchased he lands and lodge after Ball’s death in 1986.

Lobby
The lobby is resplendent in marble and cypress

The Lodge and the grounds have quite the history.  Archaeological finds in the park include early stone blades and Clovis spear points dating back to 12,000 BC, discovered during the lodge renovation. Fossilized remains of mastodon and other prehistoric animals remain in the spring and a fossil can be seen at the entrance to the jungle ride.

Wakulla Springs
Creature from the Black Lagoon

Florida Springs are favorite locations for movies because of the tropical appearance and Wakulla is no exception.  Most famous were Tarzan movies and many scenes from the classic film “Creature from the Black Lagoon” were filmed at the spring.

 

 

 

 

Art Deco Elevator
Art Deco Elevator

The Lodge is also home to the oldest working Art Deco Elevator, one that would have had an attendant …back in its glory.

World's longest marble soda fountain
World’s longest marble soda fountain

After lunch we had the house specialty, ginger yip at this historic soda fountain.

Swimmers in the springSwimmers in the spring

Wakulla Springs
Wakulla River Florida Jungle Cruise

While we waited to board the “Wakulla River Florida Jungle Cruise” for 5pm (reservations required), the last cruise of the day, we watched brave souls diving into the sixty-eight degree water.

Rangers narrate  a tour of the river in these historic little river boats. Unfortunately the spring is too cloudy for the glass bottom boat ride.

Alligator
Sleepy Alligator
Wading birds and turtles enjoy the day
Wading birds and turtles enjoy the day

Coming from south-central Florida , we found the bird population at the spring identical to those on our waterways.  Given that we were four hours north, I found this interesting.  For folks interested in seeing birds, such as the ibis, little blue heron and anhinga in this picture… normally seen in south Florida, this is the boat ride for them.

bed
Rooms

I don’t mean to do a review of the lodgings here or the restaurant, but I will follow-up with a Trip Advisor Review.  We paid $169 for our room.  This included a substantial breakfast and admission to the park.  Even with that, it was pretty expensive, given the room.  The lodge in many ways remains true to its 1937 roots and often not in a good way.  An awful lot is in need of repairs or just cleaning.

Dining Room
Dining Room

The park’s isolation pretty much guarantees that lodgers eat in the park. I looked at the various Google and Trip Advisor Reviews prior to our trip.  The food was well-reviewed and we thoroughly enjoyed all three meals…but the service…well there were definitely holes. Again a topic for a review.  The lobby is lovely so we were only a little annoyed at the long wait for dinner. People gather here to play antique checkers and other games as the rooms do not have televisions but do have wi-fi. There is even a Pokemon Gym in the back yard.

Early the Saturday morning I set out on my morning trail run on the Wakulla Springs Trail…right out the front door.  The six-mile trail crosses the river and heads east.  It was chilly, in the 50s, but with not a cloud in the sky. I gotta say that this was truly one of the best trail runs that I have experienced.  The well-maintained trail and woods are quite interesting, with many of the trees labeled so that I could read the little placards as I ran. Unlike the birds, the trees here are quite different from South-central Florida, with quite the mixture of hardwoods, uncommon in most of Florida, and trees common to south-Florida, such as palms.   Some trees were even losing leaves and exhibiting fall color. Truly a great end to our stay.

trail