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CAMPING IN THE GREAT INDOORS

State park cabins let you soak up the getaways without a bumpy night sleeping on the ground.

My boyhood cabin at Mallard Lake was nothing special. It was made of real logs, Abe Lincoln style, and had three bedrooms, though we kids were usually banished to the back porch that we shared with a couple of hundred hungry mice.

That's probably why there were so many snakes - copperheads and timber rattlers - hanging by the kitchen: no shortage of food. My father told my brothers and sisters and I to keep an eye out for the reptiles, especially come April when he would send one of us crawling under the cabin with a blowtorch to fix the pipes that froze during the winter.

But the hand pump in the kitchen always brought plenty of cool spring water from the lake, which also fed the toilet, which worked more often than not. Showers, however, had to be limited to a minute or two, lest the bather succumb to hypothermia.

Unfortunately, my family sold the upper New Jersey cabin in the late 1970s. My two older brothers thought about buying it.

"Phil was about 20 and I had just gotten out of the Navy," my brother Tim recalled. "He was convinced it was a gold mine because we could sell bottled water . . . he had the design for the label in his head and everything. Of course I told him, 'What are you, nuts, no one will ever pay for water!' "

With the cabin sold, I quickly became a tent camper. Over the years, I have slept on the ground everywhere from the jungles of South America to the mountains of New Zealand.

I vowed that whenever I ventured into the wilderness, I would rough it. Cabins were for sissies, I proclaimed to friends and families.

But I have had a change of heart.

Several years ago, I took my two small children to the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs. I had heard about some new "cabins" that had been recently built, but was totally unprepared for what we found. These rustic shelters turned out to be nicer than most hotels. When it came time to go home, my kids did not want to leave.

"Can't we live here forever?" my son asked.

No, but we can come back a lot.

Terry Tomalin can be reached at tomalin@sptimes.com.

About this series

This is the third in a four-part, yearlong series focusing on camping in Florida by Terry Tomalin, St. Petersburg Times outdoors and fitness editor.

Read past stories at travel.tampabay.com. Stories in this series are:

- Florida's family friendly campgrounds, March

- Coastal camping, June

- State park cabin camping, today

- Wilderness camping, December

* * *

Florida State parks

with cabin camping

The cabins at Florida state parks range from $55 to $90 per night. A minimum of two nights is required on weekends and holidays. One-night reservations are accepted Monday through Thursday, except during holidays. Call toll-free 1-866-422-6735 or toll-free 1-800-326-3521 up to

11 months in advance to make reservations. You can also reserve online at www.reserveamerica.com. The cabins that have been built in the past five years (see list) have modern conveniences. Plans are also in the works to build cabins at more than a dozen other parks when funding becomes available.

Northwest Region

Topsail Hill

This state park, located in picturesque Santa Rosa Beach, is home to the Gregory E. Moore RV Resort. The parkÕs quaint little beach bungalows are found within the campground. Unlike most state park cabins, these one-bedroom beach-style cottages are available only for weekly or monthly rentals. Topsail Hill Preserve State Park, 7525 W Scenic Highway 30A, Santa Rosa Beach, (850) 267-0299.

Grayton Beach

This state park, which has a beach that is consistently ranked as one of the best in the United States, offers 30 two-bedroom, one-bath duplex cabins that can accommodate six people each. The cabins, hidden away in a shady pine woods, are just a short walk from the Gulf of Mexico, where visitors can swim, surf, fish and paddle. In most of the cabins, the front bedroom has a queen bed; the rear, two twin beds. Air conditioning, fireplaces and screened-in porches make these cabins ideal for vacationers, regardless of season. Grayton Beach State Park, 357 Main Park Road, Santa Rosa Beach, (850) 231-4210.

St. Joseph Peninsula

Blessed with miles of unspoiled beach, towering sand dunes and a sheltered lagoon, this state park is one of the most popular in Florida. The eight cabins, with their upstairs lofts, foldout futons and day beds can sleep up to seven people. A popular destination with birdwatchers Ñ more than 240 species have been spotted here Ñ the cabins tend to book up early. T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, 8899 Cape San Blas Road, Port St. Joe, (850) 227-1327.

Three Rivers

Nestled on the Georgia border, where the Chattahoochee and Flint rivers meet to form Lake Seminole, this state park is a favorite haunt of anglers in search of largemouth bass. The parkÕs rustic setting is perfect for Three RiversÕ lone log cabin. But unlike the Cracker shacks of the pioneer days, this 20th century dwelling has air conditioning and a fully equipped modern kitchen. Three Rivers State Park, 7908 Three Rivers Park Road, Sneads, (850) 482-9006.

Northeast Region

Fanning Springs

With second-magnitude springs that empty into the nearby Suwannee River, this park is an ideal place to cool off on a hot summerÕs day. The park, a hub on the new Suwannee River Wilderness Trail, is a frequent stopping-off point for canoeists and kayakers on their way downstream. The five recently built cabins are environmentally friendly. The large, L-shaped, screened-in porches come equipped with two rocking chairs, a swing and picnic table and offer a great place to kick back and relax after a hard day on the river. Fanning Springs State Park, 18020 NW U.S. 19, Fanning Springs, (352) 463-3420.

Lafayette Blue Springs

Another one of the SuwanneeÕs top parks, thanks to ÒblueÓ springs that discharge 168 million gallons of water each day. One of FloridaÕs 33 first-magnitude springs, Lafayette Blue has excellent swimming, snorkeling and cave diving for those with proper training. Like the cabins at Fanning Springs, these are recently built and equipped with modern amenities. A plus: Visitors can enter a boat, canoe or kayak via the river. Lafayette Blue Springs, 799 NW Blue Spring Road, Mayo, (386) 294-3667.

Mike Roess Gold Head Branch

The 16 vacation cabins overlooking Little Lake Johnson were built within the last five years. There are also nine more rustic cabins that were built during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and five block cabins that are slightly larger than their rustic counterparts. One of FloridaÕs original state parks, perched atop the rolling sand hills of the stateÕs Central Ridge, is another great place to view wildlife. Mike Roess Gold Head Branch State Park, 6239 State Road 21, Keystone Heights, (352) 473-4701.

Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center

Steeped in history, this state park honors the memory of Stephen Foster and his song, Old Folks at Home, which made the Suwannee a household word, at lease in Florida. A museum, a 97-bell carillon and a craft square with regular blacksmithing and stained glassmaking demonstrations help bring the past alive. The five recently built riverside cabins are spacious and equipped with gas fireplaces, which make them especially cozy during the cooler winter months. Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park, P.O. Drawer G, White Springs, (386) 397-2733.

Suwannee River State Park

A strategic spot during the Civil War, this state park still has long mounds of earthworks built to help keep Union gunboats from traveling upriver. Today, most the action here comes from canoeists and kayakers making their way down the Suwannee River Wilderness Trail. The modern cabins, like the others built in the past five years, feature the comforts of home, including dishwashers, microwaves and gas-powered fireplaces. Suwannee River State Park, 3631 201st Path, Live Oak, (386) 362-2746.

Central Region

Blue Spring

The largest spring on the St. Johns River, this watering hole was put on the map in 1766 by the botanist John Bartram. Today, the spring is a designated manatee refuge and, during the winter months, home to a large number of these gentle giants. The park has six rustic two-bedroom cabins, each one equipped with central heat and air, as well as a gas grill, picnic table and screened-in porch. Interaction with the manatees is not permitted, but swimmers can use the spring during most of the spring, summer and early fall. Visitors can also canoe or kayak on the spring run and nearby St. Johns. Blue Spring State Park, 2100 W French Ave., Orange City, (386) 775-3663.

Hontoon Island

Located in the middle of the St. Johns River, and accessible only by private boat or passenger ferry, this quiet little hideaway was a favorite haunt of Indian tribes. The six primitive cabins have the bare necessities including an electric light and ceiling fan. But staying here saves you the trouble of pitching a tent. Hontoon Island was scheduled for construction upgrades. Call before scheduling your trip to get an update on park closures. Hontoon Island State Park, 2309 River Ridge Road, DeLand, (386) 736-5309.

Lake Louisa

The largest in a chain of 13 lakes linked together by the Palatlakaha River is a spot where visitors will enjoy great fishing, canoeing and kayaking. Gasoline-powered motors are not permitted, which enhances the serenity of this designated Outstanding Florida Waterway. Twenty newly built cabins overlook Lake Dixie. Visitors will find the comforts of home including dishes, pots and pans, picnic tables, even rocking chairs on the porch. The parkÕs close proximity to Orlando and many amenities make it ideal for families. Lake Louisa State Park, 7305 U.S. 27, Clermont, (352) 394-3969.

Silver River

Humans have been visiting the springs that feed this river long before the first Europeans arrived 500 years ago. The same thing that made this area appealing to the Indians Ñ crystal clear water Ñ make it attractive to visitors today. The 10 new cabins, each with a full dining area, stove and refrigerator, are suited for a long weekend or short vacation. The park is ideal for birdwatching. Silver River State Park, 1425 NE 58th Ave., Ocala, (352) 236-7148.

Southwest Region

Cayo Costa

This barrier island is truly a coastal paradise. Remote and undeveloped, it has not changed much since Spanish sailors first viewed its shores nearly 500 years ago. With miles of secluded beaches, hiking and biking trails, as well as fishing and sea kayaking, you will find no shortage of things to do. The primitive cabins have no electricity or running water, but the Spartan aesthetics are the price you pay for total seclusion. Accessible only by passenger ferry or private boat (or kayak), Cayo Costa is best in the late fall, winter and early spring. Cayo Costa State Park, P.O. Box 1150, Boca Grande, (941) 964-0375.

Myakka River

The cabins at this state park, one of FloridaÕs oldest and largest, were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression. These historic log structures can sleep up to six people each and have electric stoves and refrigerators. There are plenty of things to do in Myakka, including hiking through the 58 square miles of hardwood hammocks and pine flatwoods. A bonus is the parkÕs ÒCanopy Walkway,Ó which gives visitors a rare glimpse of the world in the treetops. Myakka River State Park, 13208 State Road 72, Sarasota, (941) 361-6511.

SouthEast Region

Jonathan Dickinson

Located on the Loxahatchee River, FloridaÕs first to receive the federal Wild and Scenic River designation, this park lets visitors explore 10 miles of the blackwater stream by canoe or kayak. The rangers also offer guided tours of the 1930s-era pioneer homestead of Trapper Nelson, who made his living on the river and swamps. The park offers a variety of cabins, built at different time periods. All come complete except for bed and bath linens. Jonathan Dickinson State Park, 16450 SE Federal Highway, Hobe Sound, (772) 546-2771.

Oleta River

Just minutes from downtown Miami, FloridaÕs largest urban park has access to Biscayne Bay and the Oleta River. This park is renowned for its off-road cycling trails. Other activities include canoeing, kayaking, fishing and swimming along a 1,200-foot sandy beach. The park has 14 primitive cabins, which do not include bathrooms or kitchens. Oleta River State Park, 3400 NE 163rd St., North Miami, (305) 919-1844.

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