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10 State Parks of the Florida Keys

10 State Parks of the Florida Keys

One of my favorite places I have ever traveled is the Florida Keys. The combination of blue waters, swaying palm trees, and rich history satisfied my wanderlust and I hope you get to visit there one day. While I was there in July 2016, I got to see a few of the state parks that call the Keys home. Here is a list of all ten and the various activities you can do in them.

Dagny Johnson Key Largo Hammock Botanical State Park

This park is located in Key Largo just north of where Hwy. 1 comes onto the key. The biggest draw to this park would the miles of hiking trails including six miles of trails that are accessible with a backcountry permit. If I had gone to Florida during a cooler time of year, I would have loved hiking in this park! There are also a whopping 84 protected species of plants and animals in the park. If you are looking for an experience with nature, definitely go to Dagny Johnson.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park

This next park is located in Key Largo just south of Dagny Johnson. It’s the first undersea park in the United States, so it has excellent diving and snorkeling opportunities. It even has a glass-bottom boat that goes out to the coral reef and kayak and canoe rentals. In the upland part of the park, there are three beaches, camping, a boat ramp, and a 30,000-gallon saltwater aquarium in the visitor’s center. There are even replicas from a 1715 Spanish shipwreck in one of the swimming areas. I only got to be in this park a short time, but I absolutely loved the beach and would have gone on the glass-bottom boat if there had been more time.

The view in John Pennecamp State Park onto the swimming area with replicas of a 1715 shipwreck.

Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park

This small park is located in Islamorada and is the site where Henry Flagler’s Overseas Railroad mined limestone. The railroad stretched all the way from the mainland to Key West until it was destroyed in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. A lot of the keys’ history centers around this railroad and this state park is an excellent place to learn more about it. You can view the walls where they used to mine, see old mining equipment, and walk any of the five self-guided trails.  I didn’t have time to go here while I was in the Keys, but it’s on my list for the next time I go.

Indian Key Historic State Park

This state park is on its own island south of Islamorada. To get there you need your own boat or a boat tour out of Islamorada. Indian Key is one of the few places that has nearshore areas for diving or snorkeling the coral reef. It’s also the historic site of people who made their business salvaging cargo from shipwrecks in the area. The would be a neat place to go to get away from the high traffic of Hwy. 1.

The view along the Golden Orb Trail in Long Kay State Park.

Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park

I definitely checked the spelling on this one several times. Lignumvitae Key is north of Indian Key on the other side of Hwy. 1. Again, this park is on its own island and the only way to get here is your own boat or a boat tour out of Islamorada. On the island, there is a house built by a Miami chemist in 1919. It’s a wonderful way to get a feel for the Keys in the early 20th century and get away from the busyness of the rest of the islands.

San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park

After growing up in Wisconsin, the idea of a state park that is entirely underwater is strange to me. Located 1.25 nautical miles south of Indian Key, this park contains the remains of the shipwreck of the San Pedro, a Spanish ship that sunk in 1733. This is the perfect park for people who enjoy snorkeling and scuba diving.

The Atlantic Ocean from the Overseas Railroad in Bahia Honda State Park.

Long Key State Park

This park is located on part of Long Key, named so by Henry Flagler because it comes right before the longest bridge he had made up to that point. It’s also the location of a fishing resort destroyed in the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. There is a lot going on in this park including swimming, kayaking, and oceanfront camping. I walked along one of thier nature trails called the Golden Orb Trail. It’s about a mile long and goes through four different habitats. It was a wonderful way to see the island and get great ocean views along it.

Curry Hammock State Park

This park is located in Marathon and includes several different keys. There is a beach, camping, and kayaking and they also host the Florida Keys Birding and Wildlife Festival each year. I had lunch there and enjoyed the picnic area that was right on the beach. I still regret not renting a kayak and exploring lagoons in the park. There’s always next time.

A section of the Overseas Railroad on the left and Hwy. 1 to the right from a beach in Bahia Honda State Park.

Bahia Honda State Park

This park takes up nearly the entire island of Bahia Honda, which is located right after Seven-mile Bridge, the longest bridge on the Keys. I had the chance to stay at this park and absolutely loved it. It has 80 campsites spread throughout the park, 6 cabins, two swimming beaches and a boat ramp. It also has access to a small part of the Overseas Railroad where you can walk to see an awesome view of the island and ocean. There are also opportunities to rent snorkeling equipment and kayaks. This park really has it all when it comes to the Florida Keys and I would suggest making this park a must-see.

Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park

We are at our tenth and final state park. This park is located on Key West and is the southernmost park in Florida. It has a beach and hiking, but probably the coolest thing is the fort. It was completed in 1866 and was important in the Civil War and Spanish-American War. I really wanted to see this, but I got there after tours had closed. There are a lot of things to see on Key West, so make sure to prioritize based on the time they close. This park also boasts the best view of the sunset on Key West.

The Florida Keys are a wonderful vacation destination, especially for people who love the outdoors. If you ever visit, make sure to visit some of the state parks that encompass the natural beauty of the area. Which park sounds the most interesting to you? If you’ve been, which is your favorite?

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Mt. Rainier National Park Road Trip

Mt. Rainier National Park Road Trip

One of the reasons I moved to Washington was because of the mountains and one of my favorite places is Mt. Rainier National Park. Mt. Rainier is the mountain you see on pretty much all Washington memorabilia and can see from Seattle and the surrounding area.  The park is an awesome place to hike and get into nature. The first two times I went to Rainier, I drove pretty much the whole way through the park and I loved every second of it. Here is my guide to a road trip through Mt. Rainier and my experience doing it.

The Route

Mt. Rainier has only a view roads going into it. The main ones form a backward “L” that goes from the lower left-hand corner of the park up the upper right. Of course, there are other roads too, I’ve including them on my rudimentary map above, but this is the route I took through the park. You can find a map online or you can get one when you enter the park.

Twin Firs Trail

This is a 0.3-mile trail about half way between the Westside Road and Longmire. It’s a nice little jaunt through the woods that has only about 100 feet in elevation climb. It was a nice way for me to get out and stretch my legs, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Save your time so you can see some other things in the park.

Longmire

I went on a very, very busy Saturday afternoon, so there was literally no parking available in Longmire. I’m sure if I had spent the time to drive around for a bit I would have stumbled upon something, but it didn’t seem worth it to me. What I really wanted to see was the Longmire museum and maybe take a short hike up the Trail of Shadows, maybe next time I go. There is also the National Park Inn here, that has food and lodging and the Wilderness Information Center that gives out all kinds of permits.

Carter Falls
Madcap Falls

Carter Falls

I drove  a few miles to the pull out for Carter Falls which is across the road from Cougar Rock Campground. I decided to hike to the falls since it was a 3-mile roundtrip. The trail dips down to the Nisqually River and is clearly marked as you walk through the boulder field there. I was super excited to be able to see this, since I’d driven by it so many times. Then the trail goes over the river on a pretty rudimentary bridge, which I imagine gets swept away in the spring each year, so the trail changes each year. After that, the trail follows the Paradise River and climbs steadily for the next mile and a half. It’s a total gain of about 500 feet from the river valley. Finally, I got to Carter Falls, which was really cool to see. A fellow hiker told me to to walk about a minute further up the path for another falls and I did. This is Madcap Falls and was a lot easier to see through the trees, I would suggest going to see it as well, the walk is short and fast. Hiking back down was much easier than walking up (hallelujah). I really enjoyed this hike, especially being able to see the river up close.

Christine Falls and Comet Falls

Not very far down the road is the turn out for Christine Falls (which is right next to the roadway) and the trail to Comet Falls (a mile or so hike). I had really wanted to go see these falls, but both sides of the turn off were completely packed. I even tried to park in a tiny end spot, but I couldn’t get all four of my tires off of the roadway, so I had to continue on. If there is room when you go to the park, please go up this trail, I’ve heard it’s beautiful and it’s definitely still on my list.

View from behind Narada Falls towards viewpoint
Narada Falls

Narada Falls

I continued a few more miles down the road (and went by the one-way road that I wanted to drive, but was closed for construction, just my luck). I came to Narada Falls and pulled into the packed parking lot, thanks to my tiny car I was able to get a parking space. This was something I really wanted to see, so I was completely prepared to drive around a while until I found a spot. The parking lot is located above the falls and I followed a 0.3 mile roundtrip trail down to the other side of the river to see the falls. It’s a pretty steep path down, but it’s so short that it makes up for it. The falls are breathtaking! And the way the sun was falling there was a rainbow at the bottom of it while I was there. Definitely go and see this falls. It’s perfect for kids, since the trail is so short and the view so great.

Paradise and Reflection Lakes

The next two spots on the road I drove by. Paradise was packed, so I only looked around. I know there are several trails around the area. The next time I go, I’ll hike to Bench and Snow Lakes, but I didn’t have the time this trip. I also drove by Reflection Lake and Louise Lake. They are a epidemy of beautiful mountain lakes. Definitely worth a visit. I’ll be frank, I had to go to the bathroom, so I kept driving, so I could get to the next restroom. Lesson learned: go to the bathroom whether you have to or not. You never know when the next bathroom will be.

Stevens Canyon Road

This is probably my favorite part of the whole park (for driving that is). The road hugs the side of a massive canyon. There is no road on the other side of the canyon, so you get the feeling you are in the middle of nowhere, even though you aren’t that far off from civilization. There were a lot fewer people after Paradise so I took my time enjoying this part of the park. There are even two tunnels along this stretch of road which tickles the inner child in me.

Grove of the Patriarchs

This is the last stop before Stevens Canyon Road hooks up with 123. It’s a 1.3 mile round trip out to an island formed by the Ohanapecosh River that has some truly giant trees. The walk down to the suspension bridge is pretty easy and has a few beaches that you can walk out on. After you cross the bridge, you can go on a short, loop trail that wanders past many giant trees. It’s wonderful looking at them and learning about how they came to get so big. I really enjoyed this part of the trip.

Sunrise

It’s a relatively quick drive from Grove of the Patriarchs to Sunrise. There is a ton of really great hiking up there and an awesome viewpoint on the way. Definitely worth it as it’s own day trip or as a tack on to this road trip. I’ve been there several times before, so I decided to head home. Since there isn’t cell phone reception in the park, I would suggest looking up the way home before you leave so you know the general directions before you get back to service and can use your navigation.

This is definitely not an exhaustive list of everything you can see in Mt. Rainier, but a way to see as many features as you can in a one-time trip. I have all the spots of interest I have gone to or want to go through on my Washington Google Map. Check it out for some more ideas for the Park. If you have been to Mt. Rainier, I would love to hear about it!

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A Guide to The Field Museum in Chicago

A Guide to The Field Museum in Chicago

I love Natural History Museums. So going to The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago was high on my must-see list. This museum was constructed for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and houses some truly unique exhibits, including the Tsavo Lions and Sue the T. Rex. My roommate, Gina, and I made the 3-hour trip down to Chicago to see all it had to offer.

After driving through tolls (ugh), downtown Chicago (double ugh), and paying an exorbitant amount for parking (triple ugh!), we entered the Field Museum. There is a two-story central hall in the middle of the building and an east and a west wing that break off of this. After getting our tickets (we opted for general admission), we started exploring immediately.

Our first stop is Sue the T.Rex. This is the most complete T.Rex discovered to date. Her skull is so massive (like 600 pounds) that it can’t be mounted on her body. It’s upstairs on the second level just above where her body is.

We then went through the exhibits Hall of Conservation and Restoring the Earth and Traveling the Pacific. Both were interesting, but not the stars of the show. Though, in Traveling the Pacific the exhibit showed Pacific islands forming from hot spots in the earth’s crust and slowly degrade from islands to atolls to nothing. So cool!

We walked over to the other side of the building and went through the exhibit called Evolving Planet. Both Gina and I agreed this was one of our favorite exhibits, especially the dinosaur hall. The last picture you see in the skeleton of Lucy, which I wasn’t expecting to see at all, so I was very happy!

We got hungry around this time, and we went downstairs to get at the Explorer Café. There is another restaurant on the main level, but it was very busy. It was much less busy downstairs and there was outdoor seating, which was refreshing. I would suggest going down there if you are at the Field.

We then went upstairs to Inside Ancient Egypt. We got to go into a room that had panels from a tomb found in Egypt, which was so interesting. And then we went downstairs to see multiple real mummies and other artifacts from ancient Egypt.

Then we went to what is probably my favorite place ever: the Hall of Birds. There is a taxidermied version of so many different kinds of birds. I was so engrossed in it that I only took two pictures, but I looked at every single specimen. I think Gina was a little tired out by it in the end but endured it because I was so in love.

The last place we stopped at was the Tsavo Lion display. In the picture above, it details exactly what the Tsavo lions did. Both Gina and I had been wanting to see them since we listened to an episode about them from Stuff We Missed In History Class. Fun fact: they were made into rugs after they were killed and so they were even bigger in real life.

After this we decided to go home, it had been a long day. Overall, we loved the Field Museum! It was all extremely interesting and well put together. If we could do it again, I think we would have started with the Mammals of Africa and Asia that was near the birds and worked our way up. I also would have loved to see the Maori Meeting House that we just plain missed on our way past it.

If you are ever in Chicago please go visit the Field. It’s awesome! It’s also close to the Shedd Aquarium and Soldier Field, which I would both love to see. If you have any suggestions or your own stories, please tell me in the comments or on my social media!

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A Guide to Wyalusing State Park, WI

A Guide to Wyalusing State Park, WI

I’m not the sort of person who likes to go out alone. If I’m going shopping, I bring a friend, or if there is a park I really want to see, I bring a friend. It took me having a roommate who worked opposite shifts to be comfortable going grocery shopping by myself. I like the accountability and the companionship of having someone go with me. But my time of always having a handful of friends at the ready is coming to an end. Once I move to Washington state, I’m only going to have two other people I know in the town I live in and they are going to have just had a baby.  Definitely not prime shopping or hiking buddies.

This leads me to Wyalusing State Park. It’s located south of Prairie du Chien, WI where the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers converge and is just under 2 hours from my house. I wanted to see this park before I leave for Washington state and I was going to use it as a testing grounds. I wanted to see what a solo trip felt like and how big the learning curve was going to be for me to feel comfortable doing them. So, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, I got in my car with my tennis shoes and a bottle of water and drove.

This part of Wisconsin is truly beautiful. All along the Mississippi River, there are giant bluffs and rolling hills with gorgeous lookout points. I knew that I wanted to see that part of the park. When I looked at the map, I decided to go down their list of interesting places in the park and see as many as I was able.

Point Lookout, Treasure Cove, Council and Signal Points

I parked my car nearest to Point Lookout and got walking. Down a small incline was Point Lookout. No matter how many times I get to see the Mississippi River valley it always amazes me. This sight, in particular, was astounding because of the presence of the Wisconsin River. Also, both rivers were very high at the time, so they looked even more massive.

I walked along a path to the right on my way to Treasure Cove. I really had no idea what it was, but figured since it was on the map it must be good. I encountered a set of steep stairs that I went down and then a sign pointing up a different set of steep stairs. It turns out Treasure Cove is a cave. I didn’t go deep into the cave since it involved crawling and I had no flashlight, but it was really cool to go into and climb up to!

I finished this part of my time at Wyalusing by visiting two more lookout points. Signal Point was the most impressive. It had a sign completely laying out the view and what cities and other landmarks were visible. And, as always, the view was amazing! Council Point was pretty overgrown from trees but was very close to the road and it was an easy walk back to my car.

Sentinal Ridge Effigy Mounds and the Passenger Pigeon Memorial

Next, I decided to go down the road to the boat landing. On the way, there is a picnic area that has a memorial to the Passenger Pigeon. I got there and was immediately drawn to the fabulous view and I walked along the path there and I passed by several effigy mounds. They were mostly conical, but there was one bear mound. Then I went to see the Passenger Pigeon Memorial, which I’ll show below because this part of our history is SO important.

Boat Landing

I mostly wanted to go to the boat landing because I knew it was going to be completely flooded and boy was it! I couldn’t even see where the landing should be, just some vague areas where there were soggy docks floating. I would love to come back here when the water is down and take a kayak on the canoe trail that goes through the backwater and goes into the actual Mississippi River.

Little Sand Cave and Big Sand Cave

My last stop was going to be a hike. The previous two hikes were just over a mile added together (you can see them on my Runkeeper). This last one, I knew, was going to be a longer hike. I started off on the trail going at a good clip, this was especially easy since the trail was running downhill. After a ways of hiking, I came to a crossroad, one trail lead to the Little Sand Cave loop and another ran straight to Big Sand Cave. I started on Little Sand Cave. I’ll be honest, coming here I was a little worried that I wouldn’t like hiking without another person and without any music or podcasts. I learned, for sure, on this hike that I loved it! It was so wonderful being in nature without any distractions.

I reached Little Sand Cave, which featured a waterfall and a shallow cutout in the sandstone. I thought about exploring the bottom of it, but I decided that I wanted to see what Big Sand Cave looked like more. I continued on the last leg of the loop and went back to the crossroads to see Big Sand Cave. It was another waterfall that had another, larger and deeper cutout into the sandstone behind it. Basically, the creek goes down the waterfall and then curves along the backside of the cave and comes out the other side. It was really cool! I wanted to go down and take a look around, but a family with a bunch of kids was there and I thought I would leave them to it and get back to my car.

I was tired out after a long day in the sun and going back uphill after seeing Little and Big Sand Caves. I took the long drive home at the reasonable speed and stopped at Culver’s to get a celebratory ice cream.

This trip was a test for me to see how I would handle going on a solo adventure. I have to say it was a complete success. It was so freeing leaving my house without having to tell anyone where I was going and show up exactly where I wanted to be. That said, I did let some friends know once I got there, where I was. Even in my newfound freedom, I know that I need to be careful. I feel like I really proved to myself that I don’t need other people to have a good time and I don’t need other people to discover new an interesting things. This realization is going to be further tested when I leave for Washington in six weeks (eek!)

If you’ve been to Wyalusing State Park, please tell me about it! If not, what is your favorite solo adventure? Would you give me any tips you have?

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How to Survive a Solo Road Trip

How to Survive a Solo Road Trip

Long road trips don’t scare me anymore. I’ve gone from Wisconsin to the east coast and back five times AND I’ve driven the entire length of Florida from Georgia to Key West. I am comfortable on long road trips. That is, I am comfortable on long road trips that include other people to share the drive time. My only experience with solo driving is in my home state of Wisconsin with drive times no longer than three hours.

Therefore, when I was faced with a six hour drive to Missouri, I quickly went to work making a road trip plan. Here are a few of the suggestions that saved me on this trip!

1. Listening Material

I used a mixture of podcasts and music, but audiobooks would work also. It’s the idea that your hands are occupied, so your brain should be as well. Listening to something also helps the time go a lot faster and you get into the story or lyrics.


2. Snack and Drink

You’re going to get hungry and thirsty being in the car this long. Especially if you’re like me and sing until your voice gets scratchy. Place a few snacks and a drink close at hand. I laid them out so they would be easy to get to while I was driving. You don’t want to be digging for food in the middle of the interstate.


3. Plan Pit Stops

It’s very helpful if you stop every two to three hours to stretch out and go to the bathroom. You can also plan this by location, so you know when you get to a certain town you need to stop. This can be especially helpful for multi-day trips, so you know where you are staying each night.

4. Know When to Pull Over

Sometimes you have to push through any fatigue or restlessness you may have. However, it’s good to recognize the difference between things you can push through and things you need to stop for. If you notice your eyes getting heavy or you are becoming easily distracted, pull over. It doesn’t matter if it’s not time to stop yet, just take a few minutes to step out of the car and regain your mindset. You really don’t want to be unsafe on the road.

My first solo road trip was much easier than I expected. Mainly, because I followed the suggestions from above.

Do you have any tricks you use on road trips?

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The Lighthouses of Lake Winnebago

The Lighthouses of Lake Winnebago

I love lighthouses. There is something about the lore of the lighthouse industry that strikes a cord within me. I’ve been to many of the lighthouses in Wisconsin both on Lake Superior and Lake Michigan, but there is another lake in Wisconsin that boosts lights. Lake Winnebago is the largest lake completely in Wisconsin at 10 miles across and 30 miles long and has several small lighthouses on its shores.

I was in the small town of New London, northwest of the lake, and decided on my way back south to Madison, to visit a few of these lighthouses. It was late in the day and I only had a few hours before the sunset, so I knew I would have to work quickly to see all I wanted to see.

Kimberly Point Light, Neenah, WI

My trip began with a driving east to Neenah, which sits at the northern tip of Lake Winnebago about half an hour south of Green Bay. I was headed to Kimberly Point Park, where my first lighthouse sits. This park is surrounded by an old and beautiful neighborhood with many houses with lake front access. These houses were large and entirely unique. This is the type of  place that people would drive through just to take a look at the houses.

This neighborhood is built where the Fox River exits Lake Winnebago. At this point is Kimberly Point Park which boosts the Kimberly Point Lighthouse. It was built in 1945 to mark the confluence and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s a 49-foot, octagonal tower that, strangely, has a public bathroom in its base, which was closed for the season when I was there.

I got out of my car and took a few pictures of the light. I noticed that it has a weather vane with a ship on top of it. This struck me as funny, since Lake Winnebago isn’t exactly known as a place that had a lot of large boat traffic. On the way back to my car, I noticed that there were a lot of running cars parked along the road that goes through the park. A man, who I think was trying to unsuccessfully use the bathrooms, walked by me and remarked, “I think we’re the only two people here that aren’t playing Pokemon Go.” I suppose he was probably right.

Asylum Point Light, Oshkosh, WI

From there I drove south along the western shore of Lake Winnebago to the city of Oshkosh. I was looking for Asylum Point Park. Foolishly, I only put Asylum Point in my phone and learned why this area is called “asylum.” Back in the late 1800s, the Northern Asylum for the Insane was built on a piece of land abutting Lake Winnebago. Since then, it’s name has been changed to the Winnebago Mental Health Institute (which is a much better name) and I inadvertently drove through its campus looking for my next lighthouse.

After I realized that the lighthouse was not there, I changed my querie in my phone and drove about a mile to Asylum Point Park. Sitting on it’s own island is Asylum Point Lighthouse, probably the cutest lighthouse I have ever seen. I literally did a little dance outside of my car because this lighthouse delights me. It was built in 1937 as a project of the Works Progress Administration, but it was rejected as an aid to navigation and never lit. Sadly, when I was there, the bridge out to the island was closed, as it was leaning quite heavily.

Bray Point Light, Oshkosh, WI

I once again got back in my car and drove south. I only had to drive a short ways into the city of Oshkosh to see my next light. This one is unique in that it sits on private property and is privately maintained. I parked on the corner of Bay Shore Drive and Lake Street and did a cursory look around. Next to me was a wall that enclosed one of the houses on the point, which got me worried that I would not be able to see the light from the street as promised. I looked a bit to my right and, through the trees, stood Bray Point Lighthouse, plainly in view.

This light was built in 1910 by the first owner of the land, William Bray. Since then it has passed through many hands and underwent a restoration in the late ’80s. I left the light quickly, as I felt a little weird standing the street gawking into someone else’s yard. Even so, it was a neat little light to see, I especially enjoy the green iron atop it. .

Fond du Lac Light, Fond du Lac, WI

As I left Oshkosh, the sun began to set. I knew when I set out that I would not be able to see all the lights around Lake Winnebago, but I was hopeful I would get at least four in before it got completely dark. I ended up at the southernmost city on Lake Winnebago: Fond du Lac (which literally means “bottom of the lake” in French.) Here they have a large waterfront park called Lakeside Park that houses a bunch of different attractions. Just on my ride in, I noticed a monument to the Spanish-American War, an old steam engine, and a merry-go-round. The jewel of this park is the Fond du Lac Lighthouse.

It was built in 1933 by donation and quickly became a symbol to the surrounding community. The lighthouse is featured in the seal of the city and adorned on businesses and bridges in Fond du Lac. In the warmer months, visitors are allowed to climb the 40-foot tower. Unfortunately, I was there in March, so I could only look in the windows longingly.

At this time, it was dusk and it was another half hour to the fifth lighthouse on the lake, Calumet Harbor Light. I decided that I would turn for home and visit this lighthouse at a later date. Though there was never serious shipping on this lake and many of the lighthouses were never official aides to navigation, it was still fascinating to visit these lights and learn about their history. Overall, I have to say that these lights were some of the cutest I have ever seen and were worth the trip.

Historical Source: Lighthouse Friends

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