Northern California – San Francisco to Eureka

Northern California – San Francisco to Eureka

Our most recent summer destination was northern California. After a terrifying flight and unexpected landing in Colorado, we finally made it to San Francisco. Glad to be on land again and anxious to begin our ten-day driving tour, we threw the bags and kids in the rental and took off. We had 10 days to drive a loop from San Francisco north to the Redwoods, east to Mt. Shasta and then back south through Lassen Volcano. It was a whirlwind tour, with probably enough content for a whole book! But I’ll give you the abbreviated highlights from our favorite parts of the trip. Here is our leg along the northern California coast:

 

Baker Beach

Boy standing on Baker Beach near Golden Gate Bridge

As this was our third trip to San Francisco, we only allotted two days in and around the city – our first and last days. This was just enough time to hit our favorite spots, starting with Baker Beach. On a Friday after lunch, the parking lot and beach were packed to capacity. Kids in bathing suits were playing in the sand and dipping their toes in the frigid water. Being from the South and used to much warmer weather, we shivered in our jeans and jackets. But we didn’t come here to go swimming. Besides the cold, the waves are pretty rough. We came here for the photo op. It’s one of the best places to capture a shot of the Golden Gate Bridge. Besides, it gave our five-year-old some much needed time to run around and dig in the sand.

 

The Pelican Inn

The Pelican Inn near Muir Beach

We had a little time before our 6 p.m. parking appointment at Muir Woods. (Yes, in case you haven’t heard, you now need to schedule a time to visit Muir Woods and either reserve a parking spot or a shuttle.) So with time to kill and dinner on our minds, we swung by The Pelican Inn for fish & chips and an English dip sandwich. In between bites, the kids chased birds around the garden, and we watched horses trotting down the road, probably taking their riders to nearby Muir Beach.

 

Muir Woods National Monument

Redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument

Next up was Muir Woods National Monument. It’s a great, brief introduction to the redwoods before viewing the giants up north. I originally was bummed to get such a late time slot at Muir Woods, but it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The national monument is open until 8 p.m. during the summer and normally packed. When we arrived, we got a parking spot right up front and practically had the place to ourselves. It’s hard to really experience nature when you’re surrounded by people, so this was perfect. I had printed Junior Ranger booklets back in New Orleans, so armed with their packets and pencils, we stepped into the woods.

As close as Muir Woods is to bustling San Francisco, it feels like you’re worlds apart. The main trail is straight in and out, about an hour and half if you go to the end and back. It’s nicely paved, each side of the trail flanking a stream running down the middle. With the redwoods towering above us, we felt very small next to the tallest living things in the world. As the light dimmed, we finished our hike, and Park Rangers swore the kids in as the newest Junior Rangers.

 

Muir Beach

View of Muir Beach

On our way out, we stopped by Muir Beach. It was a short trail down to the water, where groups of kids were huddled around bonfires. Hoards of pelicans flew overhead. My oldest counted over 500 before we finally dragged them away. We still needed to make it to Petaluma for the night.

 

Luther Burbank Home & Gardens

Spineless cactus at Luther Burbank Home & Gardens

The Pelican Inn was our one splurge on eating out, but now we had to get serious about food. Finding a Trader Joe’s in Santa Rosa, we picked up breakfast and plenty of road trip snacks and had a little picnic at Luther Burbank Home and Gardens. It was early morning, and our only company was the groundskeeper, who welcomed us to enjoy the gardens. Luther Burbank had a 50-year career as a horticulturist, developing many new plants throughout his life. My husband, Paul, is an avid gardener himself. Our little patch of land in New Orleans is exploding with colors and hundreds of plants. And his pride and joy is his spineless cactus, created by none other than Luther Burbank. (It’s also a favorite snack for our red-footed tortoise!)

We couldn’t stay long, though, as we needed to make it all the way past Eureka before nightfall – with several stops planned along the way… Here are some of our favorites:

 

Hwy. 1 Beaches & Ocean Views

Navarro Point

People walking to coast view at Navarro Point

Driving west from Cloverdale along Hwy. 128, the road winds past small vineyards tucked away in hidden hills. You then pass through Navarro River Redwoods State Park, where for 11 miles, second growth redwoods crowd right next to the highway. And then it opens up to Hwy. 1, and the Pacific Ocean glistens before you. We parked at Navarro Point Preserve and hiked the trail through the wildflowers. The reward was expansive ocean views high atop a cliff, with sea lions playing on the rocks below us.

View of northern California coast at Navarro Point

 

MacKerricher State Park
View of Glass Beach, Northern California coast

In Fort Bragg, MacKerricher State Park manages nine miles of the coastline. Highly popular Glass Beach was once a dump site following the 1906 great earthquake. Apparently the townspeople hoped that the trash would wash away, but instead the stubborn ocean kept washing it back on the beach. A hundred years later, all that remains are the handfuls of colorful sea glass littering the beach. Take all the pictures you like, but as this is a state park, you’re not allowed to leave with any glass.

Sea glass found at Glass Beach on Mendocino Coast

At the main entrance to MacKerricher, visitors are greeted by an impressive whale skeleton. The road brings you around to the beach and a trail to Laguna Point. The seal watching station here offered one of the best views of both harbor seals and sea lions lounging on the rocks before us.

Whale skeleton at MacKerricher State Park

Hwy. 1 north from Fort Bragg offered breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean around every turn. The road then turned inland back to Hwy. 101. Much of this stretch – 31 miles – is mirrored by the Avenue of the Giants. We had driven this route years before, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough time to take it again. Our Airbnb in McKinleyville awaited. It was indeed a “Charming Farm Barn Loft,” and anyone traveling in the area should check it out.

Farm animals at Airbnb in McKinleyville

 

 

Walter Anderson’s Ocean Springs

Walter Anderson’s Ocean Springs

A short day trip from New Orleans, Ocean Springs is one of those small towns for which America is famous. Its historic downtown has quaint shops and restaurants lined up along a walkable main street, jutting off perpendicularly from a railroad line that runs straight through town.

 

Train Depot Housing “Realizations”


We went to Ocean Springs to learn about its most famous resident—Walter Anderson. A schizophrenic turned recluse, Anderson was a brilliant artist in the mid-1900s known for his colorful and quite fanciful paintings. Our first taste of his artwork was inside the old train depot next door to the Visitor’s Center. Run by Anderson’s family, “Realizations” has turned his kid-friendly designs into t-shirts, purses, bookmarks, posters and more. After buying some new tees for our boys, we scooted outside to the Saturday Fresh Market taking place in the depot’s parking lot (every Saturday 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.). Here, we sampled homemade goodies and browsed the produce and plants for sale before continuing down Washington Avenue.

 

Walter Anderson Museum of Art

Dedicated to Walter Anderson’s artwork, the Walter Anderson Museum of Art houses more than 1,000 pieces of art, including elaborate murals depicting his life and discoveries on the Gulf Coast. We stood for an eternity gazing at the Community Center murals, pointing out the animals and scenes hidden within it. Then we marveled at how he created the “Little Room” murals without a sole seeing them until after his death.

 

Marina and Shearwater Pottery Showroom

Our next stop took us to the family business. Shearwater Pottery was started by Walter’s brother Peter and is today owned by Peter’s four children, three of whom carry on the tradition of crafting decorative, functional clay pieces. The workshop, annex and showroom are tucked away in the woods close to the water’s edge. The drive to visit the shop is almost as scenic as the pottery itself, as you pass a boat-filled marina on an inlet off the Gulf.

 

Gulf Islands National Seashore Trail

By this point, the kids were starting to get antsy and needed some quality “hyper” time. So we headed off to Gulf Islands National Seashore to hike the scenic, coastal forest trail. They zoomed across the pathways, stopping briefly to search for fish and turtles in the still waters beneath the fishing pier. Then they looped back around to the Visitor’s Center where exhibits detailed the area’s beauty and mystique.

 

Fort Maurepas City Park & Nature Preserve

A great place to spend a hot summer afternoon, Fort Maurepas Park on Front Beach Drive overlooks the Gulf and features a splash pad and a ship playground. If you bring along a fishing pole, a fishing pier juts out into the Gulf from here as well. Throwing on their bathing suits, the kids cooled off while we sat in the shade and watched the boats go by. The playground rests near the former site of Fort Maurepas, built in 1699 by French explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville (pictured here). Fort Maurepas was the site of the first European colonization in Mississippi, and in 1719, it briefly served as the capital of Louisiana.

Fishing the Buffalo National River & Other Arkansas Highlights

Fishing the Buffalo National River & Other Arkansas Highlights

When the invitation arrived to my nephew’s wedding in rural Arkansas, we immediately decided to extend our stay and do some exploring. We booked a little cabin in Gaither, just north of the Buffalo National River where cattle seemed to outnumber the people. It was a great location, though, for a quick drive to several of the river’s access points. The Buffalo, America’s first national river, runs wild and undammed for 135 miles. Much of it is dominated by large bluffs, a beautiful backdrop to the river itself. It was May, and the weather here was already sweltering. But the water was cool and refreshing, and the kids played for hours by the shallow edge and fished in the deeper waters by the bluff.

 

Eden Falls

We started on the west side of the river in Lost Valley, taking a short 2-mile round trip hike to Eden Falls. About halfway to the falls, we came to Natural Bridge, where a small waterfall fell into a shallow pool (pictured above). The boys immediately threw off their shoes and splashed in the water. The rocks here were very slippery, so we had a few falls and bruises, but it didn’t deter from the fun.

Continuing on, we passed some great boulders for climbing on our way to Cob Cave, so named from the corn cobs left behind by Native Americans and later found here by archaeologists. It’s a large bluff shelter—a good spot to hide from the rain and with many nooks and crannies for exploring. The shelter leads you on to 53-foot-high Eden Falls, which was not more than a trickle when we visited, but grows in size after a good rain. My husband and our oldest son continued up the hill to another small cave (flashlights needed) and an indoor waterfall, while the rest of us sat by the deep pool at the bottom of Eden Falls, watching a rather large salamander make his way across the rocks.

 

Blanchard Springs Caverns

Nearly a two-hour drive from our Airbnb in Gaither, Blanchard Springs Caverns was definitely worth the time in the car. We booked the one-hour Dripstone tour, and as we had time to kill before the tour started, we took a short drive and small hike to Blanchard Springs. Here the water gushes out of a large crack in a rock wall, forming a creek that eventually flows to Mirror Lake. In our race back to the caverns to make our tour slot, our oldest fell off the path and rolled down the bumpy hillside to the creek below. Fortunately, he came out fairly unscathed, but soaking wet. And with the average temperature in the caverns being at 58 degrees, we had to make a quick detour by the gift shop for some dry clothes.

The tour begins with everyone piling into an elevator and heading deep underground. This trail goes through two of the large, upper rooms of the cavern, and every curve of the path revealed new formations. Some were so massive, you couldn’t quite understand their size until you were standing right next to them. And then others were so slight, you felt like if you breathed on them, they would break in half. The whole experience is rather unreal, like walking through an underground castle built by nature over thousand of years—one drip at a time.

Roark Bluff & Triple Falls

The next morning, we awoke with the Buffalo calling us back. We headed toward Ponca and Steel Creek Campground, pulling the fishing poles out for a morning in the river under the shadow of Roark Bluff. Besides the fish, we had quite a few animal encounters here, including crawfish and several snakes winding their way across the water.

Then we took the dirt road down to Kyles Landing, another canoe launch and camping site. We couldn’t help but drive up the road to Camp Orr, a boy scout camp featured in Boys’ Life Magazine, one of our first introductions to the Buffalo River. We figured with an Eagle Scout and two boy scouts in the car, we were cleared for a quick peak! After sneaking out, we stopped at the bottom of the hill near the trailhead for Triple Falls. Turning our backs on the Buffalo, we hiked inland toward Triple Falls (also known as Twin Falls). There’s some impressive shots of this waterfall cascading over the top of the bluff after a nice rain, but alas, we saw a much smaller waterfall. But the area was completely secluded, perfect for a picnic, and ripe for exploring. And, it turns out, there were fish in that pool, which the kids worked for hours to try and catch.

 

Eureka Springs

Breaking away from the Buffalo, we took a day trip to Eureka Springs—the aptly named town boasting 66 natural springs within city limits. Fifteen of them are located throughout the historic district, each one tucked away within a beautiful pocket park. We drove the trolley route around the historic loop, stopping to take countless pictures of the Victorian homes and gurgling springs. The terrain is very hilly here, and the roads snake over and around the hills. We stopped high on a hilltop for lunch at the Crescent Hotel, opened in 1886 to cater to tourists visiting Eureka Springs for the town’s healing waters. The Sky Bar Gourmet Pizza restaurant not only left us with full bellies, but a bird’s eye view of the city below. The boys were a bit nervous walking the hallways, though, as the Crescent is often dubbed “America’s Most Haunted Hotel.”

Continuing on the loop, we parked by the Carnegie Library on Spring Street and burned off some calories by walking downhill toward Main. The shops here line both sides of the street, and we took our time window shopping, stopping to by some books and, of course, in the candy shop. Yes, those are candy necklaces they’ve got around their necks!

We couldn’t leave without visiting Thorncrown Chapel. Surrounded by woods, this beautiful chapel has “425 windows and over 6,000 square feet of glass.” It’s truly an amazing piece of architecture, and worth the detour if you are in the area.

 

One Last Look at the Buffalo

Vacation Time: North to the Smokies and DC

Vacation Time: North to the Smokies and DC

Scrambling to get in a vacation before the first day of Kindergarten, we escaped the summer heat and pointed our car north, spending two weeks frolicking in the cold streams of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains and the air conditioned museums of Washington, DC. If I captured a day-by-day journal of our travels, I’m afraid this blog would turn into a book, so instead I’ll share some of the highlights and memorable adventures.

Our Cabin

Alarka Creek Cabin 2

When the listing on our Alarka Creek Cabin said Bryson City as the location, I pictured a small cabin on a creek just on the outskirts of the town’s main street. However, when the directions arrived via email, we found ourselves driving deep into the woods 15 minutes from the nearest cell phone and Internet connections. I must admit, at first it took a little adjusting. But after a day or so of being completely unplugged, we began to relish in our daily duties of exploring the creek running through our backyard, collecting fireflies in the nearby field and passing away the evening playing board games. The giant black snake eating his dinner off our back porch was an added bonus for the kids as was the family of frogs living underneath the garden water hose.

Waterfall at Deep Creek in Great Smoky Mountain NP

The Views
As we stood on the Blue Ridge Parkway gazing at the fog hovering between the blue-shaded rows of mountains before us, we remembered what draws us back year after year. Perhaps those who live in these parts are accustomed to the daily beauty of the Smoky Mountains, but to a family growing up on the Gulf Coast’s flat horizon, it’s a rare and awe-inspiring site. It’s a place that spurs the imagination, where a walk through an old homestead creates amazement at the hardiness of early settlers and quick moving fog prompts a five-year-old’s questions as to where the smoke machine is located. Throw in a few magical waterfalls at Deep Creek, hikes through Joyce Kilmer’s old growth forest and displays of mad kayaking skills at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and you have the prime setting for a place where dreams are brought to life.

Salamanders

One of the many salamanders we found

After last year’s disappointment at not discovering a single salamander, a staffer at our favorite nature center in Highlands, NC, let us in on the secret. These shyest of creatures are found “under” the rocks, not on top. So low and behold, our five-year-old led us on daily excursions into icy cold streams to lift every accessible rock present. We were rewarded with countless salamanders, some black, some blue with spots and some so fast their color was a blur. Our best searching spots were at the end of the path leading out from Mingus Mill, in the pool at the base of Indian Creek Falls at Deep Creek, at the Highlands Botanical Garden and on the moist, loop trail behind the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center.

The City

Great Falls as seen from Maryland

We don’t often take our kids to big cities, for obvious reasons starting with their tendency to wander off on a whim. Yet, after previously living in DC, we felt comfortable shuffling them around the metro to some of our favorite haunts. To ease them into the transition from wilderness to concrete, we started off at Great Falls, where the Potomac River drops 77 feet in less than a mile. The walk along the C&O Canal reminded us of our wish to bike the entire 184.5 miles and started the wheels spinning on how old the kids would need to be before we could embark on this trip.

U.S. Capitol

Next, we were off to visit our old friend Abe, who despite recovering from a recent vandalism attempt, still sat as impressive as ever. On the opposite end, we walked the Capitol steps on our way to the Botanic Gardens, one of our all-time favorite places. Of course, there was the dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum (twice!), the Carousel ride on the National Mall and a tour at my husband’s previous employment – The Phillips Collection (one of the best art museums NOT on the Mall).

Unexpected Finds
No matter how well you explore an area, there are always unexpected surprises that pop up in every trip. This time we ventured off the highway to Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park, where wild ponies run free and a hike through the forest leads to a rock outcrop with outstanding views of the state’s two highest mountains.  On the road there, we nearly missed the state’s Marion Fish Hatchery and made a quick u-turn to stop by. It was our lucky day, as a bear had ripped the feeder off the wall the night before, so instead of buying a handful of fish food for a quarter, we were rewarded with a whole bucket of food to feed every fish in the hatchery. The kids squealed as the fish splashed and jumped at the food, and our oldest found a new best friend in the manager who gave us a personal tour of the facility.

 

Monticello’s Gardens

Our other surprise was in Charlottesville, Va., where we stopped off for another look at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Years ago when we visited here, you could drive straight to the house, park beside the bookstore/gift shop and snap a few photos without even buying a tour ticket. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site greets visitors with an expansive entrance, complete with a movie, children’s Discovery Room, cafe and gift shop. The home itself is hidden from view, accessed by a shuttle ride up the hill. Despite our surprise, we paid the $24/person fee and embarked on a journey through his home and extensive gardens. If you’ve never been, it’s still well worth the visit to learn about this fascinating president.

Walled garden at the University of Virginia

Below his mountain, on the campus of the University of Virginia, we picnicked on the main lawn and then set off to investigate the walled gardens of the Academical Village. It was a private, magical place, where individual gates led from one small manicured garden to the next. Here, in the middle of campus, tiny bunnies raced across the grass to hide in thick bushes, and we found ourselves not able to stop exploring until we had found each and every garden.

A Few Parting Photos
Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center at Smoky Mountains NP
One of our scenic hiking trails
And one of the beautiful creeks in the Smokies
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
Can you spot the salamander?
A tranquil pool at Great Falls

 

Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum
Abraham Lincoln Memorial

 

Feeding ducks by the reflecting pool and Washington Monument

 

Feeding the fish at the Fish Hatchery

 

Enjoying the view at Grayson Highlands

 

Thanksgiving Pow Wow

Thanksgiving Pow Wow

Growing up in Alabama, a Thanksgiving family tradition was to visit the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore, Ala., for their annual Pow Wow. This year, we continued the tradition by bringing our children to see the colorful costume displays, rhythmic dancing and Native American crafts.

Dancers compete at the Pow Wow

As the only federally recognized Indian tribe in Alabama, the Poarch Creek Indians trace their roots back to the original Creek Nation found throughout Alabama and Georgia. Today, the Indians live in a mostly rural reservation, dotted with sprawling cotton and corn fields and supplemented by a towering casino.

Although we arrived before lunch, the parking lot was nearly filled to capacity. A shuttle whisked us from our cars to the front entrance, where a small ticket booth marked the entrance to the large arena. The steady beat of drums signaled the location of the dancing competitions, and we climbed the bleachers to watch the men twirl and jump in their elaborately decorated and highly feathered outfits. The women, although much more subdued, showcased simpler yet exquisite costumes and a quiet graceful footwork.

While my nieces took time to pose with a few Native Americans, we headed out in search of food. Roasted corn, buffalo burgers, Indian tacos and fry bread were just a few of the options, and, of course, we tried them all.

Jumping high

I was amazed at how long the kids had lasted before darting over to the children’s area. They marveled and pointed at the bounce house maze and the bigger kids spinning and jumping in various stomach-turning machines. While their cousins braved the bungee cord jumper, demonstrating their mad flipping skills, my two settled on the pony ride–or at least looked at the ponies before deciding they were still a bit too scary.

Just then, a child walked by with a bow and arrow, and all thoughts of rides were immediately over. A double row of booths lined the outer edges of the festival, and we steadily made our way past one after another. The souvenirs and crafts were nearly overwhelming, as each booth offered beautiful displays of dreamcatchers, animal-print shirts, wooden toys and just about anything else imaginable.

Native crafts for sale

Wooden alligator and pop gun in hand, we settled down for one more round of dancing before giving in to the yawns for nap time. A stop by a final booth on our way out landed us prized, buffalo-tooth necklaces, a lasting souvenir for mom and dad.

Early Summer Vacation: Great Smoky Mountains

Early Summer Vacation: Great Smoky Mountains

Occasionally our wanderings across Louisiana lead beyond the state’s border, taking us farther out into the rest of the country. Last week, we rooted our jackets out of the far reaches of the closet and kicked off the arrival of summer heat with a trip to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

Balsam Mountain Inn

We’d been to this area a few times before, staying in cabins or a lodge along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This time, however, we landed a Groupon deal at Balsam Mountain Inn and spent five fantastic days there. The first overnight guests to the three-story inn arrived via railroad in 1908 and carried their trunks up the steep hill to the front porch steps.

More than 100 years later, the original 100 rooms have been converted into 50 rooms, each with private bathrooms, but the rustic charm still remained. Rows of rocking chairs graced the first and second story porches, providing a relaxing spot to sip wine and gaze out at the mountains. The inn offered neither TVs nor telephones, but a cozy library and armoires overflowing with puzzles and board games provided hours of entertainment. The kids loved the claw-foot tub and window seats in our third-floor suite, and I looked forward to waking up every morning to a phenomenal breakfast served in their bright and cheery dining room.

Our days were filled with short hikes, picnics beside mountain streams and, of course, bug-filled adventures. Every afternoon coffee cup was recycled as a bug catcher, and by the end of the week, 4-year-old Charles had lined our window seats with tadpoles, snails and butterflies. The cricket had become his best friend and was allowed to sit on his shoulder–walking back and forth across his back, while the salamanders were lucky enough to slither away.

Abandoned church in Cataloochee Valley

We explored the far reaches of the national park, driving up and over the mountains to enter the secluded Cataloochee Valley. Once home to a thriving community of 1,200 people, they all left in a mass exodus when the U.S. government began buying up land to form the national park. Today, their homes, churches and schoolhouse stand as quiet reminders of earlier times. Like others before us, we walked through the empty rooms, imagining the children’s laughter that once echoed in the halls. Our hike to one abandoned home led us across small footbridges, a splash through the river bed and down a trail frequented by wild turkeys.

Waterfall along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Another day’s adventures brought us to the waterfalls of Deep Creek, where countless locals and tourists were braving the excruciatingly freezing waters to glide down the river in inner tubes. We watched in amazement, comparing our attire of long jeans and long-sleeve shirts to their bathing suits, and shaking our heads, continued on to play beside the peaceful pool at the bottom of Indian Creek Falls.

Outside Brevard, we discovered the Cradle of Forestry–the birthplace of forest conservation in America, and afterwards the kids fed the hundreds of trout growing up in the Pisgah Forest Fish Hatchery down the road. Just beyond Cherokee, a visit to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill brought a fleeting longing for simpler days, followed by a new appreciation for the conveniences we have today.

On our final evening, we stood at the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway and watched the setting sun cast a brilliant glow over the famously hazy mountains. It was a trip to remember and one we’ll most likely take again to break up the long, hot days of a New Orleans’ summer.

Sunset over the Smoky Mountains