Change of Plans, What to Do in a Small Town

With only two National Park sites left in Arkansas to visit, and those being a battlefield and a fort, we planned to enjoy our drive back home by peppering in some nature. The hikes had been so awesome the day before, it was only fate that rain would balance out our trip and steal the opportunity to visit Devil’s Den State Park. But also because of this rain, we got incredible fog at our first stop of the day.

We got to Pea Ridge National Military Park first thing on the morning of our last day, and it was chilly, quiet, and foggy. I browsed the visitor center to refresh my civil war history, but mostly I just stared out at the big (battle)field, which with the current weather conditions made it easy to imagine how terrible a battle would be and how it must’ve felt to not have any kind of comforts of home nearby. Y’all probably know by now, I’m not much for battle sites, forts, etc., but this one was pretty cool.

It was time to head south down the edge of Arkansas, but Jenna and I both knew the weather wasn’t going to clear up. The closer we got, the more cloudy the sky got. Yet another day of rain on my trips; another day of hiking stolen. So it was time to scramble and I knew Fayetteville wasn’t too far and I also knew one of my friends who was a Razorback would have some last minute suggestions. My friend Megan came in clutch with some helpful tips that led us directly to the downtown square.

We had literally come one day past the last farmer’s market of the year, but not too far was a bookshop called Dickson Street Book Shop. I love small independent bookstores so I was pretty excited before we even parked. After arriving, I realized this was no “small” bookstore – it’s deceptively massive! Most of it was cramped aisles full of books (my favorite). Megan definitely wasn’t lying when she said, “Bring bread crumbs to find your way back out – it’s a never ending labyrinth.”

After some quality book browsing, Jenna and I had a bit of a sweet tooth, so we headed over to Hurt’s Donuts. That place was insane! Unpopular opinion: I hadn’t been that impressed with VooDoo Donuts. But Hurt’s Donuts had so many more unique flavors, amazing colorful decorations – it was hard to not want to leave with more than one! I got a blueberry cake donut (my go-to) and then decided to grab a chocolate peanut butter one for later down the road. The blueberry honestly wasn’t as good as the every day small shop ones – but the “Reese’s” inspired one was phenomenal. It was truly decadent but I needed it after hours on the road with no food stops in sight.

Kissing Fayetteville goodbye (with a promise to be back to explore not only Devil’s Den but more of the town when it’s not a Sunday), we headed on to Fort Smith. Here we were looking for our last Arkansas National Park site. We expected a typical fort, with some battle ruins or history on war, but that wasn’t the case. Fort Smith is classified as a National Historic Site, and their claim to fame is more about their criminal system – jury, judge, and imprisonment. (They still had a clearing where the old fort used to be, but the main attraction was definitely the big courthouse.)

The big visitor center had two different styles of jails to tour and a mock courtroom. It was fun to walk around a true model set up; one where you could actually lie on the prisoner cots or sit in the audience of the jury. Outside, we checked out the gallows, which wasn’t too interesting only because they’re the gallows you’ve seen in almost every Western movie. To my delight, a little theater town was set up right near this, with a saloon and a guy dressed as a cowboy. Not too far from that, a cute trolley was idling. Definitely worth the stop, but in that small town quaint way.

It was getting late in the day and all that was left was to finish out our drive through Arkansas by taking the scenic route through the Ozarks, winding our way around the Boston Mountains. It was so, so beautiful. Gloomy sure, but the trees were colorful enough that it was no bland drive. Even though I’ve checked off those National Park sites, Arkansas will definitely be seeing me again soon!

We wanted one final fun stop on the drive back home, so when we saw our route was taking us through Paris, Texas, we decided to do a quick google for anything good. Believe it or not, they have an Eiffel Tower! Well, with a cowboy stop. I sure do love weird road trip stops.

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.

Drive through Nowhere to Hidden Organic Haven

After the awesomeness of El Malpais, we were fine that El Morro was a little disappointing. The El Morro National Monument is most known for its sandstone cliffside. Deciding our drive up to its massive edge was good enough, we got our stamp and continued on.

Here, something crazy happened and my scheduling was off by almost two hours. I know! And after I’d gotten so good at road trip timing. Driving almost the whole west border of New Mexico was quite a feat for one day, but in making the itinerary I’d cut the time it would take by a third. So after our day of fun, it was time for some driving off the grid.

Lola, Jenna, and I were very much out in the middle of nowhere, not even able to map our Airbnb on our faltering GPS. We knew the roads and the vague area though, so we went after it. The sun was setting and it was drizzling, so when we passed the first sign of civilization we decided to stop to try and connect to satellites and our Airbnb host’s directions.

Not sure we’d find another chance, we stopped at a little mart to look at snacks and then decided we might as well grab a full sit down dinner at the cafe next door. Everyone was so friendly – it was a nice little reenergizing stop. We got the directions we needed and got going even though it was so dark and we were following hand written directions (like the old days ha!) to get to our beds for the night.

We arrived and met our hosts, D & D, a cute couple who owned the bed and breakfast that we’d found through Airbnb. Immediately there was so much about the place I was in love with. The couple had spent the day picking the vegetables from their backyard to can the next day. The whole house was fragrance free and full of organic and vegetarian-friendly foods in the kitchen.

After a day of hiking and driving, we were delighted to find out there was a hot tub out back under the stars. A hot soak was just what we needed! Then I took a shower with all natural bath products and nerded out living my best clean hippie life. I definitely tried every item because it was all sulfate-free, vegan, and unscented. And maybe I took a sample of locally made coconut moisturizer.

A great night’s sleep and then I was up with the sunrise. Mostly it was hidden by the cloudy sky, but as the sun brightened the surrounding landscape beauty emerged. Ah, New Mexico sure is gorgeous. I munched on one of the homemade morning glory muffins and brewed local coffee in the pot, realizing why bed and breakfasts are so popular.

It was time to head home. After a leisurely packing and hitting the road, we began our drive. Only an hour or so later and we hit the “beginning” of our road to the day’s stop (and our last New Mexico National Park site!) the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument. This road winded through curving roads and a bunch of trees. While I had a great time driving and enjoying the scenery, there was some motion sickness from my travel buddies because of the continuous twists and turns.

Finally, though we passed back and forth between Gila National Forest and Gila Cliff Dwellings NM, we arrived at our visitor center, a secluded spot in the middle of vast nature. We were excited to get out and stretch our legs. However, well to be honest, the park ranger scared us about time. Looking at our itinerary she said we were misjudging our following drive by two whole hours and we wouldn’t have time to see the cliff dwellings.

We didn’t have GPS to check our route and because of the mishap the day before judging driving times we trusted that if we stayed to hike we wouldn’t have time to get to our next destination before it closed. Bummed, we spent a bit of time checking out the surrounding valley and then headed back through the twists and turns of road. It would turn out the ranger was wrong. We would’ve had time for our hour hike and if you can believe it our next stop (to see the bats fly out of Carlsbad Caverns) ended up being a total letdown.

Sure, there was still lots of amazing views on our drive home, but missing out on that midday hike made the final leg of our trip feel dreary. So even though I’ve learned to accept surprises when I travel, the lesson here is to appreciate the things you didn’t count on from the original itinerary. Sometimes taking the risk, brings the higher reward. We should’ve stopped to do the hike, risking missing that final stop. As always, I’m learning to take my time on road trips.

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!

Seeing More than Doing, Driving Up the Coast of Texas

After a girls day in Mexico, we were ready to cool off along the South Padre coast. Perfectly along this drive between my friend Jenna’s home and the beach, was a National Park site (almost like we planned it, huh). The Palo Alto Battlefield was about to close, but we made it just in time.

As you probably know by now, I’m not super into the battlefields on my National Park stamp collection journey. But it was interesting to see the big light up map of the different borders of Texas being fought for. This Palo Alto battle was a vital event during the Mexican-American War and helped determine what would be Texas (and America) by the end. The battlefield itself was just a big field.

After this quick little stop we finally headed to the beach! It was getting late in the evening, but the sun was still out and the water felt great. Jenna and I swam for a bit, played in the sand, and had a great time people-watching. We stayed out enjoying the beach (my first to play in since a year ago in Belize!) until the sun started to set.

When it was time to head home, we made one quick stop for my favorite – ice cream! In Port Isabel, just over the bridge, there was a little square full of shops and an ice cream shop called Davy Jones’ Ice Cream Locker. I got the cookies and cream and it was the perfect cold treat after a day in the sun.

We picked up Mexican dinner on the way back to Jenna’s home and tried to find the effort to explore some nightlife. But after a full order of delicious nachos and the busy day in Mexico and the beach, we threw on a dumb Netflix movie and crashed early.

Having a lot of driving ahead of us, we got up early the next morning to get a good start. We drove along the eastern Texas border to the Padre Island National Seashore. After all the sun the day before, the rain surprised us by starting right around when we arrived.

It was a gloomy, cloudy midday at the National Park site, but there was so much natural landscape it was beautiful. The rain kept the crowds away and we got to check out the visitor center with a really cool turtle hatching exhibit. We got some shots of the vast coast around us and then decided we were done being rained on. We got back in the car for even more driving.

Rain is not fun for road trips, but we were driving through the wooded area of Texas. The two-lane roads were mostly empty so even though the weather wasn’t great, it was still a nice drive from the coast to the bayous along the Louisiana border. As usual on some of these trips to National Parks we lost GPS signal a bit, not even realizing we were in the middle of Big Thicket while looking for the entrance.

The Big Thicket National Preserve hosts nine different ecosystems that you can explore by foot and by water. Unfortunately, the rain had been steady all day and kept it up all through our time there. We’d planned for a fun hike on this trip, but the weather denied us some time to stretch our legs. As we’d become accustomed to on this final Texas National Park trip, we headed to the visitor center to learn what we could.

The coolest display was all about the pitcher plant, one of the four carnivorous plants found in Big Thicket. I’d never thought much of these kinds of plants besides the infamous Venus fly trap, but learning how they trapped ants and insects was morbidly cool.

We checked out all the displays on all the differing types of nature in this site, and then headed outside to check out the rocking chairs. To be honest, driving all that way and learning so much interesting stuff had us kind of bummed to be heading home without getting a chance to explore for ourselves. This will definitely be one of the trips I’ll have to make again, next time with clearer skies hopefully!

Blogiversary: Two Sides of the Gemini

This blog is one year old today!! So I don’t truly believe in horoscopes, but sometimes it’s fun to look at them after the day has passed. I officially started this blog on this date, exactly a year ago. Before taking time to think about how far I’ve come (a lot!), I wanted to share my horoscope of that -this- day, 2017.

“A critical turning point arrives in your life today via the full moon in Pisces, dear Gemini. You need to find a better balance between your personal and your public lives.”

How funny, as a pretty private person, that day would be the one I would start sharing my journey on the internet. So why did I start a blog? Mainly because I love writing, always have. Secondly because I was excited to be actively pursuing adventure instead of just dreaming about it.

Once I started traveling and having new experiences, I realized how easy it is to do! If you make it a priority, if you chase your interests, it’ll happen. So now not only do I hold myself accountable by blogging twice weekly, I try to encourage readers to get out and and explore also! Sometimes it seems we’re just afraid to take that first step.

I’ve started my mission to collect all of the National Parks stamps – I’ll even be done with the entire Southwest Region by the end of this year!

I made it my mission to travel internationally at least once a year – after booking impromptu trips this and the previous summer to Belize and Tulum, respectively.

I made it a goal to be a tourist in my hometown, Dallas, so I could experience all the hot spots as well as find new local things to do.

I’ve prioritized hiking, by trying to make it to every trail and park in my area. I wanted to prove to myself I could find amazing nature in the backyard of a big city.

And finally, I’ve strived to say yes more and more. When a friend invites me to a sage-making class, when my dad invites me to learn a new sport – I go!

So yeah, I’ve shared a lot with all of you. On my Instagram, I try to post daily to keep myself active in adventure. But I’m still pretty private, and that’s good. I’m very protective of my relationship, I try not to be too obnoxious with picture-taking, and I totally understand when a friend doesn’t want to be mentioned in a blog.

I’ve learned a lot about balancing! For me that mainly means pursuing what makes me happy and being so, so grateful for everyone in my life. It would’ve been much harder on this journey alone (i.e. impossible). So thanks everyone for a fantastic, unimaginable first year!