To the Edge and Back, Whitaker Point

While talking to the Buffalo National River park ranger, she let us know that if we went to hike at Lost Valley (which we did), not too far away was Whitaker Point. Even though this was outside of the Park, it was apparently the “most photographed spot of Arkansas” and worth it to check out. That recommendation was good enough for Jenna and me, so we were headed off down a looping, ascending six miles of dirt road.

We didn’t really know anything about this hike, neither the elevation nor the distance. The sun was due to set in two hours and this seemed like enough time to at least try to attempt the hike. (Also, let me be clear these are all no-nos when going hiking. The main reason we proceeded was because there were a ton of people hiking with us. People in jeans, people who looked like they’d never hiked, people to the front and back of us. My one complaint with Arkansas is how many people there are out on the trails- haha!)

The way to the point was a lot of downhill terrain, so Jenna and I were both preparing for pain coming back up and out. Passing people headed out who were red in the face and stopping for breaks had us both a little weary. But what are we going to not do it? No. We wanted to reach “the most photographed area of Arkansas” even if it meant a serious workout. After enjoying our time in nature, taking a few preliminary pictures along the trail, we reached Whitaker Point.

It was a big cliff edge that opened up to big rolling hills of Arkansas where you could see only trees for forever. It was really impressively beautiful. But also crowded. About forty feet ahead of this point on the trail is a little opening in the treeline where you can get a pretty cool shot of the ledge, so Jenna and I took turns taking each other’s pictures. But also kind of battling back the crowd of people hanging around in the trees.

I want people to go out and hike. I want people to enjoy nature and see what this beautiful world has to offer. But these Arkansasians are out of control. They’re out in hoards. And I’ve learned from my time in the state that I’m not a fan of sharing a trail with more than a few people. If I’m constantly in eyesight of someone (other than a hiking buddy), I’m one unhappy hiker. I don’t know if it was because the sun was out after a cold front, because it was a Saturday, or this was the typical, but I was ready to go back to having the trail all to myself.

On our way back, Jenna and I decided we would try and just plow through it. We’d take breaks if needed, but we didn’t want to drag out our misery. This speed hiking back uphill business has kind of become a strong point. We just focus, grit down, and go. It had taken us about an hour and half to get to the point, and we estimated it would take us just as long to get back out, trading picture time for ascent time. But with our sheer force of will, we made it out in half that time, legs and lungs burning.

We had a nice middle-of-nowhere drive (with gas station snacks) back to civilization. Or as close as Bentonville gets to that moniker. After showers and meeting up with our hosts, my friend Margaret and her husband, Matt, it was time for dinner. We went for Mexican at one of their favorite local spots. Afterward, I was bugging them for ice cream even though the temperature was dropping to the forties, so they took me to Sweet Dream Creamery. This cute little shop was a food truck located in the downtown square area, right across from the newly opened ice skating rink. We enjoyed the lights and then decided it was time for us old ladies (and man) to head home. I can’t wait to head back and focus more attention on Bentonville because it seemed like a neat little town!

Chasing Fall(s) in Arkansas

I wanted to strategically plan my trip to finish up the Arkansas National Park sites in fall so I could enjoy all the beautiful colors. I’d been to the area earlier this year for a wedding, and my drive to the northwest corner of the state was so beautiful, I was excited to head back with some yellows and reds added. One of my best friends, Margaret, lives in Bentonville, so after work on Friday me and my friend Jenna headed that way. Side note: I will never head out of town between 4PM and 7PM again. Dallas traffic is pretty dang awful.

After arriving late enough that there wasn’t much to do, we woke up early the next day to enjoy the sunshine in the cooler weather. We started with a two hour drive further east into Arkansas, which I wasn’t at all upset about. The state is truly beautiful, with its rolling hills and plentiful trees. Arriving at the Buffalo National River visitor center, we chatted with the ranger for a good half hour trying to figure out where to head for the day. We’d done minimal research and I was excited to get the insider perspective on the hot spots.

In fact, I had only looked up one major lookout to see the river (which the site was named after obviously), but the ranger recommended a closer river lookout that would save us almost two hours of driving round trip. As a planner, I’m really trying to figure out how to plan future National Park trips. There’s always so much to do that we never have enough time, but the rangers aren’t always available for me to ask an hour’s worth of questions over the phone long distance. I’ve learned the best approach is to research using a full map of every trail (and driving distance between!), look up any pictures you can find (which gets hard), and then start your convo with, “What do you recommend?”

So we headed to the nearby River Overlook Trail to checkout “America’s First National River” and see the land. It was an easy twenty minute hike through a field with some surrounding woods. We passed the Sod Collier homestead on the way, a few buildings that were preserved by the Park. The crunching of leaves under my feet was so nice – I was glad to be hiking in a new season! Getting to the overlook, I was impressed by the view of the river, but also glad I hadn’t driven somewhere else when this view was great. Plus, we saw the river – worth it! I hope to head back in summer to enjoy some kayaking or other river sports.

We headed to the west area of the park where the most popular hikes were found. First, it was time to take on the Lost Valley section. This turned out to be such a busy trail! I don’t mind seeing people every now and then on a trail, but I guess I’m a bit of a selfish hiker. Having to pass people, or not feel rushed when trying to get a good picture, or wait on switchbacks so everyone could proceed safely – it was kind of terrible. We did our best to be on our own, but people were out in hoards. I guess Arkansasians love their outdoors!

On this trail, we first ran into an off shot of the Eden Falls which had a little cave you could hike through. After a couple of pictures, I slid and slid and slid. Even with my hiking boots on, the moss on the side of the rock was so slippery, once I started – I didn’t stop until I was in a puddle of water at the bottom. It was cold, but mostly I was just embarrassed and glad nothing hurt. People saw me (because of how busy the trail was) so I hurriedly ushered Jenna and me along through the cave to escape their concern. Then just as we were able to laugh about it, going down a hill of roots and steps – I fell again.

Seriously, I have never fallen on a hike – and here I’d fallen twice! In the span of fifteen minutes, on the busiest trail I’ve hiked to date, I embarrassed myself by falling probably about six feet each time. An older gentleman helped me up from my second tumble and this one had hurt a bit more (my legs are still bruised up) but I awkwardly laughed and rushed forward to the falls.

The falls weren’t too impressive, though they were nice minus the loud surrounding chatter from so many people on the trail. The trail looped back through the trees and it seemed most people decided to go back the way they’d come, so finally we got the trail to ourselves. And we found fall. The trees were so beautiful with the golden hues. Ah, peace and quiet – and flat ground.

When to Judge a Book by its Cover; Hikes Based on Pictures

The three of us (well, four, counting Florence the dog) left our airbnb pretty early so we could get on the road. We stopped at an independent coffee shop in Santa Fe, called Betterday, for a little caffeine kick. Then we were catching the sunrise from the windows of my car. Even better, since we were driving past Albuquerque, we caught a sky full of air balloons from afar.  It was great up close watching them launch the day before, but it was also great seeing them all laid out across the big blue sky.

After an easy drive, we arrived at El Malpais National Monument. Besides seeing that they had caves, and incorrectly assuming their use online of the word “tubes” meant there was tubing – I knew nothing. It would turn out these tubes were more like cavern passageways. The word ‘malpais’ actually comes from a Spanish term for ‘badlands’ because a lot of the park is covered in volcanic rock.

We headed to the visitor center and talked to the ranger there. His help along with the pictures posted on the walls helped us decide on our hikes for the day. Seriously, we looked at the cool pictures and said, “that one!” Side note: I use the National Park website constantly, and if they had all the trails with times, difficulties, and pictures, etc. listed it would be so, so helpful. (Send them an email on my behalf, thanks!)

First stop was the Ventana Arch, which was a little bit out of the way driving wise, but the three of us had such great memories of Arches National Park, that we decided where there’s an arch, there we’ll be. The hike was a super easy flat one, maybe twenty minutes. The arch was awesome. It’s always so incredible to see what nature can do.

From there, we headed in the car down a long stretch of bumpy dirt road to head to our next destination: the Big Skylight Cave. This was one of the most popular images found at the visitor center so we definitely wanted to check this one out. We’d gotten a permit to access these “tubes” (a set of 4, including the Big Skylight). Because of an epidemic of white nose syndrome among the bats of the US, we had to be very careful to clean our shoes on the way in (and out) of our hiking trail.

Our hike was fun, though I’ll be honest the lava rocks were not my favorite to hike on. The whole path was marked with cairns, basically small rock towers, to show us our path, which was fun because it was basically a wide open space of varying sizes of lava rocks and no real path to follow. Then we reached the the top of the cave and we were already impressed. It was like looking into a big, beautiful crater, with an arch to the left and a big tunnel with a skylight to the right.

Warning: we did not have the appropriate gear to attempt this “tubing” adventure. They recommended helmets, gloves, and headlamps. I hadn’t even put on my good hiking boots. But when greeted with this amazing sight, I knew I had to get down in there. Just, very very carefully.

It was a bit of work getting down the cliff, finding the path with little red metal divets, and trying to scale the thing without slipping. Then we were down there, making our way across big boulders to get further into the cave. Every step was cautious, but mostly we were slow going just looking around in the hunt. The skylight was a big hole at the top of the cave, allowing a beautiful stream of light, but also hitting the rocks below enough to create a lush moss growth.

The day had been perfect above, a little crisp but perfect for a lightweight long sleeve shirt, but the deeper into the cavern we went, the colder it got. Without headlamps, we didn’t venture too much further (plus you know, we had a schedule to keep). It was absolutely breathtaking though.

We eventually made our way back up, which actually seemed easier, and hiked back to the car. I was feeling pretty great because of the whole experience, so as we headed to our next destination I was in high spirits. We were out in the middle of nowhere with little reception, but we passed one kitschy little town and the art sculptures made us slow down. Then, lo and behold, a coffee shop was right off the little highway calling our name.

On the side of the colorful building was Inscription Rock Trading coffee, and inside was a miriade of New Mexican delights. Handmade jewelry and bags, a whole herb wall, and in the back a little bar area with all sorts of coffee drinks. The intriguing art outside had stopped us, and it was the cherry on top of our recent adventure!

Taking Our Time Where We Normally Wouldn’t

I’ll be honest, a lot of the National Park sites are very similar. I’ve been all over the Southwest region and seen an assortment of battlefields, ruins, forts, and pictographs left by lots of different Peoples. In most cases, it feels like you seen one, you’ve seen them all. But every now and then, there’s room for surprise.

Still on the first day of our road trip, the three of us headed south from Albuquerque, saying goodbye to hundreds of hot air balloons in the sky. Now that the sun was up, our first National Park site was open: the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. Having visited missions in San Antonio earlier this year, I was excited because those religious buildings always have beautiful architecture. However, since we were headed to the Abo Ruins portion of the missions, I was concerned they’d be just more pile of rubble. (Yep, not a fan of ruins, sorry.)

Getting to these Abo ruins was nice; we drove through vast fields on our way to Mountainair, New Mexico, and then right in the middle of nothing – we arrived. They were definitely ruins but so much was left in tact. The adobe structure was fun to explore. Anytime you have ruins with actual doorways and clearly sectioned rooms, I’m a bit more happier to see them. These ruins were right near the visitor center, so after checking them out thoroughly and grabbing our passport stamps, we headed back the way we’d come to the south side of Albuquerque.

I don’t know why because I’d seen petroglyphs before when visiting Mesa Verde, but I was also kind of excited to hike at Petroglyph National Monument. Something about having the name in the title made me think we were going to be seeing a ton of cool pictures on rock formations. We picked the Rinconada Canyon trail because it was a little over two miles and offered more than 300 petroglyphs. Spoiler alert: I think I saw twenty.

The images were kind of hard to spot, and when I thought I saw something I couldn’t always be entirely sure what it even was. Besides the trail being about ten to twenty feet from the rocks, making the petroglyphs hard to spot, there was also some more recent markings – i.e. vandalism. There was even a sign posted saying they weren’t entirely sure if some of the images were originally there or had been added in the early times of the Park opening. Still, some of the birdlike creatures and sun petroglyphs were fascinating to look at.

Overall, this hike was very easy, but the surrounding nature was beautiful. Even though we were so close to the city of Albuquerque, it felt like we were all on our own in a big field, with interesting rocks to one side and lots of different plants and flowers to inspect along the way. After driving through the night and starting our day at sunrise, this walk felt great. Looking for petroglyphs made it fun too, of course!

I left us plenty of time in the schedule this go around because I didn’t want to be stressed for time at the actual Park locations. I’ve learned how to plan time for drives (more importantly, for stops on drives), but it’s taken me awhile to realize you can be flexible on a trip but it’s hard to create more time. Taking our time exploring the sites was so, so nice! It made the day so much more enjoyable that we got to fully experience it – even if ruins and petroglyphs aren’t exactly “exciting” we still had a great time learning that for ourselves!

There for the Trees, Obviously

It seems odd to be heading to the Big Lagoon in Redwood National Park, but after our morning hike we were ready for a bit of a cool down and some relaxation. I’d never been to a lagoon before, but this one just ended up looking like a little pond. I had imagined lush greenery and cool blue waters. The water was pretty cold though, so after a dip it turned into taking a nap in the grass.

It was getting late in the afternoon, so Austin, Jenna, and I headed to the showers so we could get some of the trip’s grime off us before one final hike. Yes, if you’re wondering, we would’ve liked to shower after our final hike, but since the campsites were full we would be backcountry camping in the area of the Tall Trees trail. Logistically, we were going to take it easy on our hike and try and remain comfortable for camping.

As mentioned in my previous post, you need permits to get to the Tall Trees trail and you have to drive a bit of rough road to get there. Having the code to get into this “private” area was so cool. Plus, we were finally going to spend some time with the actual redwoods! So much of Redwood Park is devoted to nature that isn’t exactly tree related. I was ready to finally walk among the tallest trees in the world!

This trail started at the top of a hill, so the trail itself had a bit of elevation and several switchbacks. But being in the trees that blocked the surrounding stuff out was amazing. I haven’t grown up with much woods in my life, so being in a huge forest with massive trees was definitely different.

Once we reached the bottom, we were in the “Tall Trees Grove” which was full of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen. We hadn’t run into hardly anyone, but now that we had hiked a couple hours we could hear campers not too far from the creek. It was lovely. However, we had not hiked down with our tent, so after some photos (of course), it was time to head back the way we’d come.

The sun was definitely setting, and we’d planned on setting up our tent in the dark, but Jenna had us on a mission to hike back up and out before all the light was gone. Even with some steep spots of elevation, we made it back up in less than an hour. We’d turned on our lights only five minutes before we were done, so we basically accomplished our goal.

Setting up camp though, seemed like a tiresome ordeal. We hadn’t had a great night’s sleep previously, we were all pretty amped from our vigorous hike, and as we were scouting for a location to set up our tent, we wondered if it was worth it. The time of sleep we’d get would be almost equivalent to how long it would take to set up and break down camp. We scrapped our plan and decided to just go ahead and get on the road while we were still wide awake.

This would prove to be kind of awful, because all the motels along our drive were completely booked or super expensive. We didn’t realize how much traffic had headed to the California coast to escape the big Carr wildfires. Plus it was summer, prime time for camping and road trips. After getting too exhausted to keep driving, we finally pulled over and grabbed a few hours sleep in our cramped car. The plus side is the sun was rising soon and we had gained more time for a stop in San Francisco!

Best Kept (Non-) Secret at Redwoods

After a little bit of a restless night’s sleep – I had to pee but had done so much bear research I’d scared myself into getting out of the tent in the middle of the night – it was time for our first full day at Redwood National Park! Since we were at the northern edge of the park, we first drove the Newton B Drury Scenic Parkway.

Jenna, Austin, and I had woken early to make sure we made good use of the sun and this meant our car was pretty much the only one on the road. I’d heard about terrible traffic along this road, but driving it right at sun up was awesome! We stopped whenever we felt like and got some quick shots of the more “touristy” spots.

We passed by the “Trees of Mystery” which we kept off our itinerary but did make a quick stop at to get some pics of the great Paul Bunyan and his ox. Also, I totally fell in love with a bear statue (which would also be the closest we came to a bear all weekend). At the end of our drive, we stopped to check out “The Big Tree.”

This is supposed to be the thickest tree in the park, so that was pretty great to see. Honestly, all the trees were so huge it was insane. I had never seen trees this large before, and to see a whole forest of them made me happy. We were visiting Redwood National Park during it’s 100th year of operation, but these trees are obviously hundreds of years old. (Research says millions of years old and that is mind boggling – haha!)

Next stop was the visitor center to get our Passport stamps and permits for the private trail we’d be tackling later in the day. Before that trail though, our agenda had us heading to Fern Canyon, which I’d heard great things from the locals the evening before. I went in knowing we wouldn’t have time to do everything on this quick trip, so I was glad one of the things we’d picked was getting talked up. Spoiler alert: it did not disappoint.

Even though I’d done the research, you never quite know what to expect, and a trail of ferns did not seem as exciting as the trees we were supposed to be enjoying. We headed out on this hike a little unsure of the route, but it was populated enough we followed in line down wood planks over creek waterways. It seemed we were hiking through a mostly dry creek bed, which was full of ferns and other greenery up the sides. It was gorgeous.

The further down we went, the trail lost a lot of people because the wooden planks had stopped. Halfway through you had to commit to danger (and the possibility of water) to keep going. We were on the hunt for some “falls” Austin had seen on the map, but the water was mostly in small streams it was hard to imagine us running into actual falls.

I was glad I wore my hiking boots because I definitely slipped on at least a dozen rocks, meaning I stumbled into the pools of water quite a bit. There were also a ton of overturned trees we were having to scramble over, so it was super fun! I will admit I did get stabbed by a broken tree branch, resulting in a gnarly bruise, but also adding to my excitement. I’ll say it a million times – I live for the experience!

We made it to the falls, which was pretty much just a dripping, wet wall, but it was still worth it. The hike was so much fun, not too strenuous, and for several stretches it was just the three of us. I think a lot of people stop halfway, but I suggest you keep going! The whole trail system is made for adventure.

Headed to Redwood, Seeing the NorCal Coast

My friend Austin had Alaska Airlines vouchers that he needed to use by the end of August, so it was time to make a trip back to the west coast! He’d been to Seattle and I’d been to Portland so we made a compromise and made plans to head to Redwood National Park in California. Funnily enough, our flights would take us briefly to Seattle and through some of the coastline of Oregon, giving us a bit of a win-win!

Our first stop in Seattle only provided us a three hour layover. Most people would stay at the airport, but I was not about to waste a whole half a day of vacation time sitting on a plane or in an airport. We thought we’d check out Angle Lake, which was just one stop over on the Link Light Rail. Well, first we thought we’d change the plan last minute and check out Rainier Beach because it was pretty close. Surprise, this did not work out – haha!

After leaving the residential area of Rainier Beach (couldn’t even see Mt Rainier), we got back on track to check out Angle Lake. A short walk through a little scenic neighborhood and we arrived. Unfortunately, we weren’t close to the public access, but we probably wouldn’t have gotten in anyway. It was a nice way to stretch our legs between flights and see a pretty sight. And that totally counts as a visit to Seattle, right? Yeah, probably not.

Onto another short flight to Medford, OR and it was time to pick up our car and meet up with my friend Jenna, who’d taken a different flight. The air was pretty smoky from the wildfires that were only an hour’s distance. We got our groceries and got on the road to California!

This was my second time driving toward the west coast this year, and it is just so damn beautiful. You have big fields of flowers, eerie mountains in the distance, and a wide coast with cliffs and giant rocks. Everything is in shades of blues, greens, and purples, except for when the sun comes out and then everything is cast with a soft glow. I know I’m waxing poetic over here, but I never was a huge fan of beaches until I explored the pacific northwest coastal areas.

We got to Crescent City, which is the main city in the northern section of the Redwood National Park. We stopped at a bodega for some local beer and crossed the street to the skate shop, Local Boys, because it seemed like a cool place. I love these little “adventure” towns because in the local shops you can find people who know all about the hiking and good nature spots, as well as find art and jewelry made by local artisans.

We checked into our campsite (booked in advance and the last one available), set up our tent, allowed Austin a mini panic attack when he thought he’d gotten poison ivy, and headed back out to the coast. We wanted to catch sunset before having dinner and enjoying some brews.

It wasn’t too busy for sunset on the Crescent Beach Overlook, so we enjoyed it and got some great shots. Then it was time for my favorite excuse for hiking trips – PB&J! Having not actually hiked our first day, we all got full so fast. Then we tried to enjoy our beers that was pretty hard considering everything. It’s hard to enjoy (or feel a bit of buzz from) your beer when you don’t have ice, you just ate too much, and you spend 20 minutes opening them without a bottle opener. Haha!

It got dark quicker than expected, but we hung around chatting until we had to turn on our headlamps. As always on camping trips, the sky out in the middle of nature is so awesome. You can see a billion stars and you don’t mind when it hurts from craning your neck back so long to keep staring. We got into our tent, wished no bears would bother us, and passed out ready for our full plans for the following day.