Southwest Vacation – Part III

I’ve been down in southeast Utah a few times in the past two years, and Brooke was down here for family vacations and for her 8th grade “LEAP” experience to Crow Canyon Archaeological Center. My family never ventured this far for vacations, so Brooke has a bit more of a “connection” to the region. Thus, it’s always been on the list for our own family to someday visit.

There are multiple reasons to visit this area. For one, the desert environment is pretty foreign compared to what we’re used to in Missouri. Secondly, depending on when you go, the “dry heat” effect means that 90 F is still remarkably pleasant compared to the same temperature in Missouri. This time of year, the evenings are in the high-50s/low-60s, so it cools off right as the sun goes down. Not bad!

The are also a lot of outdoor adventuring activities to consider, especially around Moab, UT, where you can rent off-road vehicles and you’ll see countless trailers and camper vans to be jealous of.

And finally, there’s the Ancestral Pueblo culture. One could argue that this is the big reason to come here, as there are only a few places in the world where sites like these are preserved for people to see.

In short, for thousands of years, Ancestral Puebloans settled in this region, likely beginning around the 12th century BCE. They inhabited the area and, again due to the climate, many artifacts have survived from that time frame all the way up through around 1300 CE, when most of the sites we visited were ultimately abandoned.

A big misconception that’s been rectified in the last few decades is that the people of this region did not “disappear” for some strange reason: instead, they simply migrated elsewhere as anyone else would. Many of them settled in areas around the Rio Grande river basin, where agriculture was a bit easier. Still, the archaeologists who study this culture have been able to trace the development of advanced pottery and architectural techniques, making for a fascinating area to explore.

That….all….being…..said…. We first stopped at Edge of the Cedars State Park, which happened to be in Blanding! They’ve got world-class research facilities and artifacts, including the room pictured above. They’ve got pottery dating back over a thousand years, and with the computer in the bottom-left, you can select an artifact and learn more about where it was discovered and what was painted on the pots, if anything. It was a pretty neat display!

Out behind the museum, they also have a ruin that can be entered. We saw many such ruins, called kivas, as we visited various sites in the region. These were the “village centers” of small communities, where the structure would be dug into the ground, then bricks stacked in a circle around, and then finally a roof thatched with timbers and clay that was strong enough to walk on. In the center of the structure, a fire could be set up, and a ladder would descend from a hole in the top that allowed smoke to come out from the fire. They Ancestral Puebloans believed that passing through the smoke was a spiritual experience.

There was also more modern art along a short trail behind the museum, including this piece that acted as a sundial. You can see the shapes cut into the piece, including antelope and dancers, and the sun would then pass through those shapes, projecting to the inside. On the summer and winter solstices, those images combine to form a line on the inside, which is probably pretty cool, though we aren’t planning on driving back in late June to find out!

After we were done at Edge of the Cedars, we headed toward “House on Fire,” which is in Mule Canyon, but on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. Before we went in, we visited another ancient kiva that was preserved until a permanent shelter. Here, you can get a better sense of what a lot of these look like. Typically, they are in a circular shape like this one, however the bottom of this one has more sand in it, rather than a fire pit. You can see what looks like a tombstone on the right-hand side of the floor, and that was a “reflector,” of sorts, so the fire in the center of the kiva wouldn’t be blown out by the air vent coming in from the right side (the hole in the bottom on the direct other side of the “tombstone;” that hole went to another hole further from the kiva, coming out of the ground).

We then took the trail toward House on Fire. As this is BLM land, trails aren’t as well marked as we’d like, so we weren’t entirely sure we were going the right way for awhile! No one else was with us, though we’d eventually run into some others as we got closer to the site. The trail was up in the grass, but also down in this “wash” picture above. We moved back and forth between the two routes. I was wearing my Chacos, so I wasn’t as well-prepared as others (I didn’t know we were going to be in a sandy ditch….sue me….), but it worked out alright. The hike was less than a mile out before we reached our destination.

“House on Fire” gets its name because, well, there’s a house built under the rock face, but also because depending on the time of day and how the sun is hitting, the erosion in the rock face looks like it’s…..”on fire.” We unfortunately didn’t get to see anything so spectacular, but it was still pretty cool! There was another couple there who had been there since 9:30 and they hadn’t seen anything, either. We were told 10:00-11:00 was probably the best time of day to be there, and we arrived closer to 11:30, but again, apparently we didn’t miss much. For our first “up close” cliff dwelling, it was pretty neat!

The walk back, again, featured the same trip we’d already taken, but I wanted to point out the varied terrain. Unlike what we see in Missouri, where a trail is a trail is a trail, in Utah, you can be in a sandy “wash” like we had above, or through a more grassy soil, or on flat rock like above. We’d hit other trails later on in the vacation more like this, but I think it was interesting for the kids to experience such a difference!

Calvin, at least, found it interesting. Meg mostly grumbled.

Our last stop of the day was Natural Bridges National Monument. Arches National Park is near Moab, UT, which makes it a very popular tourist destination. We’d already decided that we didn’t want to deal with that, so instead, we figured that the kids need to see some arches, but maybe bridges would be close enough!

The difference is that an “arch” is formed by any number of things, like erosion from seeping moisture, whereas a “bridge” is formed by erosive action of moving water. For example, water hitting a rock face and being diverted around it: over time, that water would eventually punch through the rock, creating a direct route underneath, whereas the original, diverted water would now exclusively flow in the new channel, leaving the old one dry.

There are three main bridges in the area, all of which can be seen and hiked to. Sipapu Bridge and Kachina Bridge involve relatively strenuous hikes down, so the kids weren’t all that enthusiastic about trying that (they also weren’t crazy about an 8.6 mi hike to see all three of them…).

Luckily, Owachomo Bridge was pretty easy to get to, and it’s the largest one, so that’s what we did! I mostly wanted to include this picture because it’s a good one, but….

This shot provides better scale to see just how big it is. Meg is standing in the middle of it, at the bottom. Pretty cool!

After we left Natural Bridges National Monument, the real adventure began. Brooke wanted to try an “off road” trip that wasn’t necessarily difficult, but still took up off the beaten path a bit. Leaving Natural Bridges, we noticed a dirt road that went around Bears Ears National Monument, which is one of the newest in the system. The sign said “15 miles,” though we admittedly can’t remember specifically to where it was indicating, and given where we ended up going, it may have simply meant “to the end of the road you’re getting on right now.”

This trip took us nearly 2 hours to do what we thought was 15 miles. Brooke was driving (thankfully), and we were going pretty slowly. Some stretches were fine, with some slow ups and downs, but others took us at a 4 degree angle up a one-lane cliff where I didn’t want to look over Brooke’s shoulder to the canyon below. We kept watching the mountain on our right wondering where the pass was going to cut through, and it continued to not do so.

I’m still working on my best estimate as to how far we actually went, but 45 miles is what I’ve got as of writing this (I may edit it as I plug through Google Maps to figure out which road(s) we were actually on). I know we were on Burch Canyon Road for most of the scary stuff, and then we got off onto Wooden Shoe Road for awhile before passing right by Bears Ears East. The GPS tag on the pictures I took confirm we made it at least that far. We also know we ended up on CO-95 when we finally hit pavement again, but specifically where is what I’m a bit fuzzy on. Still, it took quite a bit longer than planned and, after all that, it was time to head home so we could decompress a bit.

It’s good to have an adventure like that sometimes! Next time, maybe we’ll do it at a lower elevation!

The next day brought new challenges, though, when we hit Mesa Verde National Park!

Southwest Vacation – Part II

We made it to Redstone, CO around 4:30 pm MDT on May 30th: just enough time to explore a bit before dinner. We ended up staying at Redstone Cliffs Lodge on the recommendation of my buddy and colleague, Waylon, who was in the area for his annual elk research project. Our hope was that, being the height of elf calving season, we’d be able to meet up with his research group to watch “the miracle of nature” take place and see an elk calf! Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that day, so we ended up finding other things to do.

Still, Redstone Cliffs Lodge was situated in a really neat area, one that didn’t involve all that many tourists and one that showed off a side of Colorado we don’t always get to see, especially if you stay in Denver, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, etc.

The Lodge itself is fully featured, including a kitchen, a fold-out couch, two queen beds, heating (no need for A/C, and the Crystal River is running just behind it, so you can light a fire by the river or sit in the hot tub. It’s also two doors down from Propaganda Pie, which was awesome. Pizza is their “claim to fame,” but they’ve got pastas, salads, a solid beer selection, etc. We were there for dinner both Thursday and Friday nights, and on both nights, there were parties going on. It seems like Propaganda Pie is the only game in town for gatherings like that (literally), but also in the general region, so folks from neighboring communities also come in.

I should note that there isn’t a grocery store in Redstone, so while cooking was an option (and we did take advantage of the kitchen for leftovers!), you have to go north to Carbondale, CO if you want more amenities. As long as you come prepared, it’s a peaceful time and worth the stop! Redstone also has an ice cream shop/general store that the kids visited, and looks like it has some antique-type places (that we didn’t visit).

Since the whole “elk calving” thing didn’t work out, we found other things to do! Nearby, close to Marble, CO, we visited Beaver Lake, hoping to make it to a waterfall. We couldn’t find a way to get there without crossing private property, so we just walked around and enjoyed the beautiful day.

Actually, Marble is an interesting site in its own right. As its name implies, there’s a marble quarry there that is still active to this day. Coincidentally, marble from that quarry was used in the construction of the Lincoln Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Neat!

From there, we tried going on an adventure to Crested Butte, CO, but tried to get there via CO-12 by crossing Kebler Pass. It’s closed in the winter and, apparently, May 31st still counts as winter, so we couldn’t go that way. We had our lunches with us, though, so we continued on that road to Erickson Spring Campgrounds, which is managed by the National Park Service. After eating our sandwiches by a creek, we hiked down Dark Canyon Trail for just under a mile, before things started getting really muddy and difficult. It was an easy little hike and a beautiful day to be outside!

That evening, we hit up Propaganda Pie once more, and Waylon joined us for one more outing before we were to take off the next morning. He usually stays in that region of Colorado through June, and is then off all over the place for July and most of August, so we probably won’t see him again until school starts. Regardless, thanks for the recommendations, man!

The next morning, we were heading toward our ultimate destination for the trip: Blanding, UT. If we went north to I-70 and took the “normal” (boring) way, it’s a 5 hour trip, so instead, we went south through a more interesting route that would take more like 5 hours…..and 9 minutes. So yeah, it was a pretty easy decision!

The trip was mostly uneventful. We stopped in Montrose, CO to pick up some groceries prior to heading into Utah as, again, our options were probably going to be limited for the next few days. There’s a grocery store in Blanding, but’s somewhat limited in options.

(Spoilers: The grocery store there is pretty good, honestly. Some things are the same price that you’d find at the Aldi in Marshall, whereas things like avocados, bananas, and cheese were pretty pricey. In general, things that spoil are a bit more expensive!)

We arrived at the house around 4:20 pm MDT on June 1st, which was a Saturday. This is good in that it gave us a chance to check out the grocery store in town to make sure we were good to go. Also, so that we would know that the grocery store is closed on Sundays (because Utah), so we grabbed a few extra things just in case!

We booked the house through Airbnb months ago and the hosts were pretty flexible with us, even shifting the dates around after we decided to add in the Redstone leg. There are 3 bedrooms, one full bathroom, and the kitchen/dining/living room section is all pretty “open concept.”

Whereas our internet speeds in Redstone left…..much….to be desired, the signal there is pretty solid. It still isn’t anywhere near speeds we normally get at home, but at least streaming content is doable. This was going to be a struggle with the kids, and thankfully, it wasn’t…

The house was our home-away-from home for 6 nights, from June 1 to June 6. Brooke found this location because it was centrally located to a bunch of sites in southeastern Utah, but far enough away from more tourist-y places like Moab, UT to keep the cost to below $1000, which we thought was pretty reasonable. For a home base, not bad!

There were a few “quirks” to the house, though. The kids’ bedrooms were pretty close to one another, and their doors didn’t close very well…or at all… The electrical in Meg’s room was limited, with some lights not working…at all… The kitchen area was pretty nice, though there weren’t hand towels, there was a weird assortment of glassware, no mixing bowls…just kind of odd. Most of the necessities were there, though, and part of the fun of Airbnb is not necessarily being sure what you’re going to get when you arrive!

Brooke’s got it on her list to make sure she brings more aluminum foil next time we stay in a place for that long, though.

Next up: exploring southeastern Utah!

Southwest Vacation – Part I

It’s that time of year again! Thankfully, this time we left a little earlier this year so I’d be less stressed out with the next school year looming. Like last year, however, we left in the early afternoon so that Brooke could put in a few hours of work and the rest of us could get the car loaded. We left a little later than Brooke wanted to, on account of me not being quite ready yet, but we were out the door around 12:30ish.

Of course, we made it past the Marshall Junction and I asked whether the new tablet holder (mounted on the passenger seat head rest above) worked, so Calvin was going to try it out…..only to find that he’d left his tablet on the counter at home…

Thus, we turned around, grabbed it, and left closer to a little after 1:00…..

The goal was to make it as far as we could, and if we were lucky, we’d hit Hays, KS. Luckily, we didn’t really hit any traffic in Kansas City, nor construction anywhere else. And Kansas is Kansas, so there isn’t much to see… We ended up pushing it all the way to Limon, CO, which would only leave us around 4.5 hours to reach our destination for the next few days!

We rolled into Limon after 9:00 pm MDT (which is 10:00 CDT….so the rest of the family was rather tired…), so we slept in a bit the next morning. After we grabbed breakfast, we headed toward Denver, looking for something to pass the time before hitting our destination for the night in Redstone, CO, which is on the other side of the Rocky Mountains.

My buddy, Waylon, works out in Colorado in the early summers, and given that Utah, doesn’t have the best beer selection, he recommended getting some on the other side of Denver. Near there, we found the Colorado Railroad Museum, which ended up being a pleasant surprise!

They have quite a few functional engines, as well as some that are being refurbished. The tours are run mostly by volunteers, all of whom seemed to really enjoy what they were doing. The gentleman pictured above was enthusiastic talking to the kids (and the adults……) about the differences between North American Morse Code and International Morse Code (there’s a difference?!), the history of those differences, and how the codes are mostly obsolete, but still used to this day by intelligence forces as they listen in on communications overseas.

There were quite a few things to see, some of which included relatively modern dining cars, or older refrigeration cars, or postal service cars. The engine pictured above featured a series of levers that had been attached to a sound simulation system (that used to cost $0.25, but the lady said they don’t charge anymore because no one carries change!). She gave direction on how to increase and decrease speed, ring the bell, and so forth. It was pretty neat!

They also have a “roundhouse” that puts engines under a roof for repair, and can then bring them out as needed (you know, like in Thomas the Tank Engine). They don’t actively pull trains out of it, but it was set up so that the kids could push the turntable around with a big, wooden lever. Calvin struggled a bit, but with a little help from the volunteer, they got the job done!

The park is geared toward children, but there were cool activities for the adults. There was a train ride that takes a trip around the grounds 3 times where passengers can ride in a late-1800s passenger car. They also had a series of miniatures, one of which was outside (with an example of the aforementioned Thomas the Tank Engine, naturally…). The model was cool, and featured some of the same buildings that were around the museum.

Down in the basement, they had a classic HO scale train set that was pretty intricate. There wasn’t a lot of interaction from the outside, but there was a ladder that could be slid along so kids could get a better view. It was pretty impressive, and reminded me of yet another hobby from my childhood (and before) that’s slowly disappearing.

After that adventure, it was time to cross the Rockies! Rather than taking the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70, which we have taken quite a few times over the years, we decided to go the scenic route and take Loveland Pass. It wasn’t a particularly difficult journey or anything, though the two-lane roads following large trucks can be annoying. Really, it was the “uphill” that took longer, and after we’d stopped at the pass for a few pictures and starting heading down, we made good time.

As always, it’s fun to see so much snow when it’s late-May and you’re from Missouri! It may not look like it in this picture, but it was pretty chilly up there, which made us question the shorts-and-t-shirt wardrobe we’d chosen. We weren’t out there for very long, though!

We looked for a few abandoned gold mines to tour, as that’s the kind of activity both Brooke and I enjoyed from our childhoods, but the railroad museum had to suffice: the gold mine tours we found looked pretty “tourist-y” and not all that cheap for what would be an hour or two of time to kill. Next time, perhaps!

Onward to Redstone, CO!

State Park #26: Edmund Babler State Park

This post is part of an ongoing series summarizing each State Park in Missouri that our family has attended. We hope to visit each of 54 State Parks before the kids graduate from high school.

Dr. Edmund Babler State Park was an interesting visit, similar in some ways to Route 66 State Park. Babler State Park was established in the 1930s after 88 acres were donated to the State in honor of a respected doctor in the St. Louis area. 800 more acres were added in the following years. Dr. Babler was an early supporter of the State Park system, so his family’s support and the era they found themselves in help improve the infrastructure beyond what we see at a lot of other parks.

In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps was actively fighting against The Great Depression. The CCC ended up building shelters and other infrastructure at multiple state parks (pictured below), so there are some similarities here compared with other sites we’ve visited.

The Visitor Center was pretty neat, though very obviously geared toward school groups coming from all over the St. Louis region. There were some insects, snakes, and amphibians available for viewing, so we killed some time before going on a very brief hike. It’s a neat space, though, and we had a nice conversation with some of the park hosts behind the desk.

Babler has more going on than Castlewood State Park did, which we visited earlier that morning. Babler features the aforementioned Visitor Center, some hiking, camping, open spaces for throwing frisbees, and basketball and tennis courts. Unlike Castlewood, we could actually kill some time at a place like this!

As I mentioned earlier, in some ways, Babler proved to be as interesting as Route 66, but mostly that’s because this park, apparently, was heavily segregated. African Americans weren’t allowed in the park for many years, and camping wasn’t originally allowed, so the State of Missouri had to buy additional land that wasn’t originally donated by the family in order to allow people to stay within the park overnight. Interesting history!

The hike we went on was a 1.6 mile loop that only took 38 minutes. Given the amount of time we spent at Castlewood, the kids weren’t interested in doing much more. The weather had warmed up a bit, and there were no leaves on the trees yet, so it got a bit toasty for late March when we were there.

Still, hiking in late March or early April is pretty good because there aren’t any bugs and you don’t have to deal with overgrown plants along the trails. It could be worse!

After the hike, we drove around the park to find a place to picnic. We noticed quite a few walkers and bikers along the road, as it has some decent rolling hills, but nothing too strenuous. Compared to Castlewood, the hiking and biking here was a revelation: if we lived around there, we would absolutely pick Babler over Castlewood, and those to parks are only a few minutes apart from one another. Castlewood has longer trails if an extended hike is desired, but heck, I’d rather just do the same loop multiple times at Babler so I didn’t have to deal with the crowds…

We finished off our State Park Extravaganza throwing a frisbee after lunch, using an open space near the basketball courts. There was also a large tent set up for an Easter Sunrise Service that was scheduled for the next day.

Babler was a good visit! It was a nice one to end the trip with!

State Park #25: Castlewood State Park

This post is part of an ongoing series summarizing each State Park in Missouri that our family has attended. We hope to visit each of 54 State Parks before the kids graduate from high school.

We stayed in Arnold between state park visits, so we were able to hit Castlewood State Park relatively early in the morning. I knew Castlewood was a pretty popular park given its proximity to St. Louis, but oh boy was it busy that day. We found a parking spot, but had to pass a series of cars parked on the side of the road on the way there from regular Saturday morning walking/running/hiking groups.

We started on the Riverscene Trail, but a lot of the trails at Castlewood intersect, so we think we shifted onto another trail at some point during the morning. The trails are generally nice and maintained, mostly because it receives such high traffic from the locals. This particular trail, as the name suggests, runs along the Meramec River for the first portion of it, but then it goes up the hill using wooden steps and a railing. Once you’re at the top, it shifts back to a light gravel.

There were some good rest spots along the way, especially those overlooking the river. It really was a beautiful morning and the temperatures were warming, but it was pretty comfortable at the time.

The biggest issue was all the people! A lot of young families with small kids and large dogs on lengthy leashes. Usually the mom would be trying to get her 3 kids, all of which under 5, to keep moving while the dad would have two labs or German shepherds or huskies on 6 ft leashes getting wrapped around trees. There were multiple sets of these people!

Look, we get that it’s good to get your kids outdoors and go for a family walk, but is a narrow trail with a whole lot of other people trying to hike the best place to go? Gotta be a better option…

Eventually, things thinned out a bit and we were able to escape all the young families. We ultimately ended up hiking 2.4 miles in a little over an hour. I think the kids weren’t all that happy to be hiking that far that early in the morning, but alas, they survived.

Hiking is really all Castlewood has to offer, to be honest. There’s some fishing and picnic options, but no camping available. It’s nice to have it there, so close to St. Louis for people to enjoy the outdoors, but it’s pretty busy on a Saturday morning!

….there was a nice view, though. 🙂

State Park #24: Don Robinson State Park

This post is part of an ongoing series summarizing each State Park in Missouri that our family has attended. We hope to visit each of 54 State Parks before the kids graduate from high school.

We were knocking off 5 parks the weekend we visited Don Robinson State Park, and it was the third park that day that we hit, so suffice to say, the kids weren’t in the mood to do anything strenuous at this one. Still, we needed to check it off the list, so a stop was necessary!

Don Robinson State Park, like many State Parks in Missouri, stems from donated land collected by an individual (i.e. Don Robinson…..) that has been made available to the public for use. It’s close to St. Louis, so it generally attracts its citizens to the area for its hiking trails and camping. It’s actually one of the newest State Parks in Missouri, being established in 2017 after Robinson passed away in 2012. He began collecting more than 800 acres in Jefferson County, and he began living there in 1978.

There are two main trails in the park: the Sandstone Canyon Trail (3.9 mi), and the LaBarque Hills Trail (2.4 mi). I’ll let you get which one we did……

The park follows along the LaBarque Creek watershed, so it provides fishing opportunities with pretty clean water before it dumps into the Meramec River (which is decidedly muddier). The trails are likely very pretty during the Summer and Fall, but at this time of year, with trees only beginning to bud within the last month, there wasn’t much vegetation to help identify species or get a sense of the diversity of the plant landscape.

On the other hand, no bugs or spider webs, so ideal for going on a hike! The kids were not enthusiastic about it, but they handled the 2.4 miles pretty well. We were pretty to head to our hotel and grab dinner by the time we wrapped up, though.

It’s good to have a few longer trails like this available, though. A lot of State Parks we visit don’t have anything approaching 4 miles, so having some choices for longer hikes is good, especially in proximity to the greater St. Louis region. We didn’t really check out the camping options, as water was still shut off until the beginning of April, so it’s hard to get a sense of what camping is like there.

Don Robinson State Park is limited to picnicing, hiking, and camping, largely because it’s a pretty new park, so there hasn’t been much development. Still, as I said earlier, it’s good to have options near St. Louis, and this one seems pretty good!

State Park #23: Route 66 State Park

This post is part of an ongoing series summarizing each State Park in Missouri that our family has attended. We hope to visit each of 54 State Parks before the kids graduate from high school.

The list of State Parks we hit on our last round of visits included some where we knew what the expectation was, but Route 66 State Park was kind of a wild card: Was it an old timey diner? Was it some preserved roadway from the original Route 66? Was there even a playground at this thing, or camping? On its face, it just seemed radically different from the other State Parks we’ve been visiting.

In many ways, it was pretty different, though we were pretty surprised at how interesting it ended up being! The State Park does commemorate the beginning of the Route 66 path through Missouri, from St. Louis down toward Springfield, however it’s located at this site in particular because it’s actually the site of Times Beach, MO.

In short, back in the early 20th Century, the Meramec River was a popular weekend destination for the air conditioning-less citizens of metro St. Louis, so a lot of little “resort towns” started springing up along its banks. Times Beach was one such resort town, one where a local newspaper advertised $67.50 lots of land upon which little houses could be placed. Neat, right?

Well, some dude decided to coat the gravel roads with oil to knock down the dust back in 1971, but he took the cheap route and acquired the oil from a local pharmaceutical company that made Agent Orange, and sprayed it on the roads of Times Beach. The waste oil ended up containing dioxin, a well-known carcinogen, among other things. It was so bad that the EPA and CDC got involved and declared it a “Superfund” site, so the entire town was razed to the ground and incinerated. As in, the houses, and the roads, had to be incinerated and then buried in mounds that are still on the site. Crazy!

What’s left of the town is there, and some leftover paths that look like they used to be roads, but it’s been paved over as a nice walking and biking space along the river. There wasn’t any camping, but they had fishing, boating, horseback riding, a few picnic areas, and a playground.

The visitor center was pretty good, including exhibits regarding Times Beach, but most of it was Route 66-centric. The bad part is that the visitor center is on the other side of the river from Times Beach, and the only way to actually get across is to take I-44…but the exits aren’t set up correctly, so if you start at the visitor center, you need to take westbound I-44, get off at the next exit, then hop back on eastbound I-44 and get off at a different exit, go under I-44, and then you’re at Times Beach. Frustrating.

There’s an old bridge that they’re hoping to have reach by 2026. The funding to fix it dried up, so all that’s left are the metal girders, waiting to be covered by a walking path or other roadway. Once that’s done, it’ll be quite a bit better!

We enjoyed this one more than we thought we would! Honestly, we spent most of our time at the visitor center, and then just drove around Times Beach. Calvin got out and ran around a bit, but other than that, we didn’t really get out of the car. A neat place to visit, but we probably got as much out of it as we wanted to!

State Park #22: Robertsville State Park

This post is part of an ongoing series summarizing each State Park in Missouri that our family has attended. We hope to visit each of 54 State Parks before the kids graduate from high school.

In our effort to try and visit all the State Parks before the kids graduate, we’ve had to try and block off some times where we could hit multiple parks in the same trip. Luckily, this Spring presented an opportunity around Easter where we could head over toward St. Louis to visit 5 parks around the Meramec River. Obviously, we weren’t going to be able to visit every aspect of each of these parks, and camping wasn’t a good option as running water wasn’t turned on yet in the parks, but with some hiking and visitor center stops, we figured we would get the high points of each one.

Robertsville State Park was the first on the list. The park gets its name from Edward James Roberts, a landowner from the mid-1800s from whom the property originated. In the early 1900s, multiple “resort towns” popped up along the Meramec River to attract the St. Louis to the region, and this area was among them.

Today, the park has hiking trails, fishing, a boat ramp into the Meramec, and camping. We picked up lunch on the way in that morning and ate alongside the river. Personally, I think the river was a bit more muddy than I’d want anything to do with. It may be fine for fishing, but the boat ramp was coated in mud. Based on pictures from the early-1900s, it sure seems like the river has looked like that for generations, but I suspect agricultural run-off hasn’t done it any favors.

Point being, I’m not sure how much swimming I’d want to do in it….

Hiking, on the other hand, was pretty good. It turns out this time of year is perfect for hiking, as there aren’t any bugs yet and there isn’t (much) poison ivy to worry about! We did a 0.9 mile loop on the Spice Bush Trail, which wasn’t particularly challenging, but at least gave us a taste of the terrain. The Lost Hill Trail is about 2.6 miles, so we went with the shorter one for this visit so we could hit a longer one later in the day, elsewhere.

Calvin still felt the need to rest on this Boy Scout’s Eagle Scout project, though.

We didn’t hang around all that long, aside from a brief hike and eating lunch. The area was nice, though: not very crowded, beautiful weather, and a good opportunity to explore a bit.

A brief aside, though: on the way in, we stopped by the McBaine Great Burr Oak, a 400-year-old tree that’s right along the Katy Trail. It isn’t part of a State Park, but it’s something the rest of the family hadn’t seen before (I biked past it last year), so it seemed like a good opportunity to visit while we were on our adventure!

West Virginia Vacation – Part IV

The final leg of our Southeast-ish tour took us to Nashville, TN. The plan was to go to the Grand Ole Opry, but that was scheduled for Saturday night, when their regular radio broadcast is produced live a la Prairie Home Companion (RIP).

But first, we headed into Nashville, and oh boy, was it raining cats and dogs for most of that trip. In fact, most of the times I found myself driving, we went through a downpour of rain (that rarely actually hit Missouri, apparently…). So while we had grand plans to visit the Gilded Athena, among other sights, we ended up delayed due to weather and didn’t end up doing all that much.

It also took us…forever….to even get to our hotel, the Grand Hyatt Downtown. We were running multiple GPS systems in trying to figure this out, but long story short, Nashville decided to tear out a bridge that was directly in front of the hotel, and the hotel didn’t really warn us about how to handle this, so we ended up circling around quite a bit before we figured out where to unload, where to park, how to physically enter the hotel, and so on. It was a truly frustrating experience, compounded by the rain (not pictured above).

Ultimately, we figured out where we were going (it was a really nice hotel room, though, I’ll say that much…) and decided to venture downtown to see what was going on. We went to a restaurant that was pretty satisfying after so much frustration (note: Nashville is not in a dry county like Pigeon Forge is. Win.).

After that, we walked around and….um….there was a lot going on in Downtown Nashville that day. Seriously, it reminded us more of Bourbon Street in New Orleans with all the activity. I don’t know if the students were back in town partying at 2:00 pm on a Saturday, but there was a lot of “that” going on. It was a far cry from our experience the rest of the trip.

One thing Brooke looked up, that I was completely unaware of, was Goo Goo Clusters. Their store was set up such that you could buy the traditional Clusters (peanuts, caramel, nougat, chocolate), or you could design your own, or you could get different flavored bonbons (pictured above). It was a pretty neat, yet simple, experience, so both kids chose what they wanted in their personalized Cluster, then they could watch it being made in front of them. We also picked up a box of the original recipe version, as well as a bonbon mix. It was a good distraction!

We then hustled back to the hotel to clean up before the Opry performance. There were a lot of people there, but a neat thing is that they had a secondary stage outside (with some food trucks) with live music going on before the real thing began.

I didn’t have much of a connection to what, exactly, was going on with this, but Brooke was more aware of what Grand Ole Opry is. They’ve produced a radio show for years, and it’s now broadcast on Willy Nelson’s SiriusXM station live on Saturday nights. It’s mostly a traditional country music showcase featuring some regular musicians, as well as special guests that perform a 3 song set. It’s pretty steeped in tradition, as the original location was in an old church, the Ryman Auditorium, also in Nashville. The current Grand Ole Opry is a larger recreation of the Ryman, complete with church pews as the seating.

The concert was good! The music isn’t exactly my preference, but the kids haven’t been to all that many live performances like this, so it was a good experience for them. The girls having fun with their presumed bachelorette party behind us were also having a good time….much to our detriment…

The next morning, we took off for Marshall and made it home in good time! Overall, it was a good trip: perhaps not as memorable as what we did on the West Coast in 2022, but still, a nice time. We have decided to never take a vacation that close to school starting again, though, as that created more problems than we anticipated, and probably added to the stress we were trying to alleviate. Still, we’re glad we made the trip and knocked a few more National Parks off the list.

Spoiler Alert: we already have reservations for a house near Moab, UT next June. Onward, 2024!

West Virginia Vacation – Part III

The day we left West Virginia, we spent a lot of time on the road, but ultimately made it to Pigeon Forge in time for dinner. Our hotel happened to be next to a mini-golf course that had two 18-hole courses available, so after we ate, we checked out mini-golf (always a popular activity!).

We drove in on a Wednesday, leaving us with Thursday or Friday to hit Dollywood and Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Weather was supposed to be a little more on the rainy side, so we opted to hit Dollywood on Thursday and save Smoky Mountain for Friday.

On the one hand, this ended up being a great decision! We didn’t realize it, but school was back in session for much of Tennessee and West Virginia. That, combined with some spotty showers that morning, meant that practically no one was at Dollywood. As I said at the time, had we paid for the “Lightning Lane” equivalent, I would have been asking for our money back, because we were able to walk up to any ride we wanted and, sometimes, be the only four people riding it.

We hit every roller coaster we could at least twice, if not more. Even some of the smaller ride, we hit multiple times. Mind you, I don’t have pictures of many of these rides because Dollywood had a locker system set up and wanted people to leave their phones, purses, etc. in those lockers. We ended up paying for a day pass that was actually pretty slick, as you could have a temporary “log in” system to the lockers at multiple locations. Once you registered at the new location, the previous one would “log out,” opening that locker up for someone else to use. Since it was raining, we had hats, rain jackets, etc. with us, so I usually just tossed my phone in there, leaving few options for pictures.

The rides were good, but in comparison to Disneyland, a bunch of these roller coasters were giving me a serious headache. Brooke and I felt more “jostled” by the rides at Dollywood, where some were smoother than others, but a few of them tossed my head back and forth to the point that it was uncomfortable. At Disney, at least there was a 30-40 minute lag between rides, but since no one was at Dollywood, it was closer to hopping off one ride and getting right back on it again with little break in between.

There were Silver Dollar City vibes in various places, such as candle making, metal working, etc. They even had a “Fire in the Hole” knock-off called Blazing Fury that was practically the identical ride, complete with someone saying “fire in the hole!” toward the end.

We avoided treats for the most of the day and saved it for an all-you-can-eat family-style meal at Aunt Granny’s Restaurant, which is considered to be one of the best theme park restaurants around. I can’t say the meal was cheap, but as Calvin’s face above suggests, there certainly was a lot of food. It was all very good, but we didn’t put away much of it.

We only ended up spending one day at Dollywood, and given our experience at Disney last year, one day sure didn’t sound like enough….however, since there was no one there, I think we were all satisfied with a day’s worth of a visit.

The next day was a Friday, so we hit up Smoky Mountain National Park. This day, unfortunately, was rather disappointing. There were simply too many people, meaning we were stuck in long lines of cars with few opportunities to pull over and do much. I had to hop out of the car to get a parking pass (that’s how they limit entry there, as opposed to how they do it at Yellowstone where there is a pass you have to purchase to get into the park in the first place.

It also ended up being somewhat rainy, which isn’t too surprising given the climate of the area. We had rain jackets with us, so it wasn’t a huge deal, but it limited how much outdoor time we actually wanted to spend in the park. We hiked a bit to see some old buildings that were still standing from before the National Park was there, and we saw some exhibits like a grain mill that was still semi-functional, but honestly, we kinda stuck to the car.

I think by the time we were hitting Friday, we were kinda done with seeing the sights. Brooke and I still like the park, but I don’t know that the kids really got much out of that day. There were simply too many cars (and people in them….) to feel like we could get out and do much. It’s saying something that the lines at Smoky Mountain were worse than the lines at Dollywood, but again, perhaps because we did it on a Friday, we invited the situation onto ourselves.

For our last evening in Pigeon Forge, we ended up struggling to find a place to eat within walking distance of the hotel. There were a lot more people out and lines were long everywhere, but we eventually found a place. We hit the second 18-hole mini-golf course next door to our hotel to end the day, though, so I think that made up for an otherwise disappointing day!