“Staycation” 2020

We had this grand plan in mind for our vacation this year. Reservations were made, days were claimed to be taken off, and tents were being bought in preparation for the journey. The plan was that we would drive out to Yellowstone National Park and camp at one of their campgrounds, then stay at an Airbnb closer to Grand Teton National Park for another few days, then circle down through Colorado and see Brooke’s cousin.

Well, we all know how that turned out, right?

The kids and I still needed to get out of the house though, and Brooke has an innate need to go on a road trip every year, so we decided to knock a few more state parks off our list and head out to Pilot Knob, MO, where we could stay in a motel (with a swimming pool), and hit up 3 state parks while we were in one central area. Pilot Knob is pretty close to Elephant Rocks State Park, Taum Sauk Mountain State Park, and Johnson’s Shut-Ins State Park, so we’d be able to spend part of the day at each one while we went for an extended weekend. We actually drove through Onandoga Cave State Park, but because they weren’t doing cave tours, we figured we should just go back there when all of this is finally over…

So yeah, because we’ve got a whole other thread of posts for state park visits, I’m going to make separate posts about those. Here, I’m going to speak more broadly about the trip.

Pilot Knob is about 4.5 hrs from Marshall, and luckily for us, St. James, MO is on the way, so we stopped off at our favorite winery in the state, Heinrichshaus, to pick up some bottles. While we were there, we had a picnic lunch and enjoyed being out of the car for a bit. It was a pretty short stop, but it had been a few years since we were last there (Meg and I stopped in last Spring on the return trip from an excursion with my Biology students,, but we didn’t exactly “stock up”).

That afternoon, we stopped off at the Huzzah Conservation Area to play in the water for a bit. Really, it was just an excuse for Brooke and I to relax with our feet in the water and let the kids mess around in a fast-moving float trip river.

We only stayed for an hour or so, but the kids could have done that all afternoon. They’d float their bodies while their hands kinda shuffled them along with the current, and then they’d do it again, and again, and again. It was like sledding.

There weren’t many options for where to stay in Pilot Knob or Ironton (which is practically attached…), and we weren’t thrilled with the prospect of camping in late-July humidity, so Brooke booked us a room at the Fort Davidson Hotel. It has an attached restaurant with a nice patio, it had exterior access to the room, and it had an outdoor pool, so we figured it was a relatively safe bet. The place turned out to be pretty nice, all things considered! We had an issue with the toilet constantly running, but the owner of the hotel came right over and took care of it for us. That night, I went out to Casey’s to get pizza, so the kids were more than satisfied.

The next morning, we went to Elephant Rocks (more on that in another post), and thankfully, it wasn’t all that crowded. More folks kept showing up and, as we were being responsible human beings, we tried avoiding others to the best of our ability, so it was good that we went relatively early so we could leave before the crowds got really bad.

That afternoon was mostly spent out by the pool! The kids were pretty proud of themselves swimming in the 11 ft deep end of the pool for much of the time. Meg was able to get diving sticks from the very bottom, though it took her some practice to get there. Calvin touched the bottom a few times, but again, he hadn’t really done that before, so diving from the surface was tough!

That night, we ate at the attached restaurant. We had the option of eating inside or outside, but the patio was nice enough and the weather wasn’t too bad, so we were comfortable. The kids got some Fitz’s soft drinks and their beer selection was surprisingly decent, considering how far Pilot Knob is from….er….anywhere… And my fried catfish was spectacular.

Across the street from the restaurant sits the namesake of the hotel: Fort Davidson. It was my first “earthen fort” that I’d ever visited, so there wasn’t really all that much to see aside from a hill with grass on it in the shape of a square. Apparently, the Union were holding the fort and then lost a battle with the Confederacy, who then subsequently took over.

So yeah, it was a nice evening stroll after eating way too much. An excuse to walk around a bit like normal people for a change. 🙂

The next morning, we went to Taum Sauk Mountain, and that afternoon, we went to Johnson’s Shut-Ins. Again, I’ll have separate posts about those, but here, I’ll point out that Taum Sauk was a nice little hike where we got to sit and enjoy some small waterfalls, but Johnson’s Shut-Ins was a madhouse. We figured on a Sunday afternoon, the “St. Louis Crowd” would have waned a bit as they were all heading back home, but nope…totally wrong on that one… We had to park almost a mile away from the main area of the park, and it was very difficult to maintain any form of social distancing, let alone 6 ft. We only stayed for an hour or so, and while the kids would have liked to have stayed a little more (and seen more of the park), we just didn’t feel comfortable.

So we went back to the hotel and swam there again! 🙂

That evening, we went to a Mexican restaurant in Ironton called Checo’s that was pretty good. Not a lot of good mask-wearing in that building either, but we were seated relatively far from anyone else, so we felt at least okay about it.

In the evenings, we played some games that we brought alone. The first night, we played Skip-Bo, which is a family favorite. The second night, we played a family edition of Trivial Pursuit that actually worked shockingly well. The kids get their own set of cards separate from the adult-level cards, and we think they did a good job of getting that mix right.

Monday morning, we decided to hit up Meremec Caverns on our return trip home, as Onandoga Cave was closed and we had played up how cool caves can be (literally and figuratively).

The kids definitely enjoyed it! I’m not sure I’ve ever been there, though I’ve been to others in the state like Mark Twain Cave, Bridal Cave, and Jacob’s Cave. Like those, this one is definitely a tourist trap, but again, it provided a bit of “spectacle” for the kids to experience. Hopefully they’ll remember it!

We were wearing masks, but very few others in our tour group was. Our tour guide did, but most of the folks with us weren’t doing their part. When we passed other tour groups, it looked like there were others there wearing them, but the majority of the visitors didn’t have them on. Definitely disconcerting.

Again, I think the kids enjoyed it quite a bit, and they did a great job of following directions and listening to the tour guide as he pointed out various aspects of the cave. They also very much enjoyed when they turned all the lights out, just how dark it gets in there. Of course, as we were vacationing in southern Missouri in late-July, we didn’t have jackets with us…..so next time, we should try to remember to bring long sleeves. Calving got a little chilly after being in there for an hour, but overall, they did a good job!

After we finished at Meremec Caverns, we continued home via Highway 50! Mostly, it’s because that was a different route than we took to get home (it also rained quite a bit on our return trip, so that was lovely…..), but the real reason was that we would pass through Jefferson City a little after lunch time:

For the record, Brooke did not eat that entire banana split. Meg did eat the mint chocolate chip sundae in its entirety, though. And she didn’t throw up, for the record.

That’s it! We had a ton of laundry to do after this, but for an extended weekend trip, it was “good enough” to tide us over until next year. We’ll have to double back and get to Yellowstone eventually, but assuming things get better in time, next year’s plan is a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway ending at Disneyland!

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