Northern California’s Volcanoes

Northern California’s Volcanoes

For the last leg of our journey, we left the rugged, chilly coastline to venture east to northern California’s volcanoes. The two areas couldn’t have been more different than each other. And the four-hour drive between them was alternately wildly beautiful and utterly devastated.

Highway 299

Trinity River along Highway 299

Highway 299 cuts its way east across the mountains, paralleling the scenic Trinity River for much of the route.The river is a great location for salmon and steelhead fishing. The drive itself is beautiful, some of it passing through a National Forest, with only a few towns popping up here and there. We picked up coffee in Big Bar at Strawhouse Coffee Shop then made a stop in Weaverville (pictured below) to tour the Jake Jackson Museum and get a peak at the Joss House Chinese Temple. We also popped into the Forest Service Ranger Station, where the kids loaded up on Smoky the Bear paraphernalia.

Main street in Weaverville

Once we passed Lewiston, the landscape changed to charred trees and bare mountains, evidence of the 2018 Carr Fire. Whiskeytown Lake National Recreation Area was at the heart of the fire, which began with a flat tire and a spark coming off the rim when it hit pavement. Nearly 93% of the park was burned and much of it remains closed today. We did find a nice trail down to the lake from the Visitor’s Center though. East of Whiskeytown, we came across Shasta State Historic Site, a ghost town from the days of the California Gold Rush.

Whiskeytown Lake in northern California

Ready to find our Airbnb in Dunsmuir, we didn’t have time to explore Redding. We did spy the famous Sundial Bridge from a distance, though. And we caught our first glimpse of Mt. Shasta after turning north on I-5. The impressive volcano dominated the horizon during our stay in the area.

Castle Crags State Park

View of Castle Crags near Dunsmuir, California

The granite outcroppings of Castle Crags State Park are just down the road from Dunsmuir. The 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail passes through the park, but we opted for the one-lane drive up followed by a short hike to the Vista Point. Afterwards, we went fishing in the Sacramento River, which flowed right beside the campground and the area’s natural mineral springs.

Mt. Shasta Fish Hatchery & Sisson Museum

Trout swimming at Mt. Shasta Fish Hatchery

An unexpected highlight of our trip was the Mt. Shasta Fish Hatchery and Sisson Museum. The trout hatchery is the oldest west of the Mississippi and features rows of ponds with varying sizes of fish. Here you can grab a handful of food and watch the trout churn up the water while vying to catch some dinner. The Museum was a wealth of information on the town of Mt. Shasta, the volcano, the railroad and pretty much anything else in the area. But the best part was the multiple play options for kids. They could climb aboard an old fire truck using the hoses to put out fires, crawl through tunnels, play dress up in an old cabin, watch the model trains or spend hours in the kids’ playroom.  It’s the one spot our five-year-old begged to return to again and again.

Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta, one of northern California's volcanoes

Our journey was always leading us to Mt. Shasta itself. The volcano rises to 14,179 feet and boasts seven named glaciers. We drove up to Bunny Flat trailhead, past a magnificent row of sequoia trees planted ages ago. The parking lot was a general zoo of hikers, but we didn’t have to travel far up the trail before we lost sight of the majority of the people. We took the Horse Camp Trail, only intending to go far enough to find some patches of snow. Several hikers carrying skies passed us along the way, intending to hike the summit and then ski back down.

Snow at Mt. Shasta, a northern California volcano

We pushed on farther through the trees, our youngest actually leading the way to find more and more snow (a rare sight for Louisianians). Before we knew it, we had hiked up to the Sierra Club’s Shasta Alpine Lodge at 7,884 feet. The views from here were stunning, with snow blanketing the ground and a fountain of spring water bubbling up for travelers. By the time we made it back down, we had hiked nearly 3.5 miles up and back–a feat for three boys used walking around below sea level! We celebrated our accomplishment with “Gummy Bear Burgers” and “Make Me Want to Cry Garlic Parmesan Fries” from Yaks.

McCloud Falls

Lower McCloud Falls

Highway 89 led us past the small town of McCloud, which featured a quaint Main Street complete with an historic inn and an old-fashioned candy store. Nearby McCloud Falls offered three sets of falls – Upper, Middle and Lower – all with separate parking lots or you can hike the 3.5 mile round trip trail between them. Lower Falls (pictured here) was pretty busy, with people swimming, picnicking and fishing all along the clear, cold water. Middle Falls was a short walk to a nice view of the wide, impressive falls, while Upper Falls gushed out between a rock canyon.

Burney Falls

Burney Falls in northern California

Hands down the most beautiful waterfall in this general area is Burney Falls. A hundred million gallons of water a day flows out of the 129-foot falls, which are so impressive even the kids stopped to stare in awe. Porous, volcanic rock holds much of the water in an underground reservoir, and it then comes back up through springs, feeding into the falls, Temperatures dropped dramatically on the hike down to the waterfall’s base, where we all stood shivering in the mist. Look for the black swifts darting about, often disappearing to their nests behind the falls.

Lassen Volcano

Lassen volcano, one of northern California's volcanoes

Our last adventure before heading back south to San Francisco was the other-worldly Lassen Volcano. From San Fran, up the coast to the redwoods and across the state to Mt. Shasta, people were everywhere – enjoying the views, the weather and the summer. But Lassen was a different story. Only a handful of cars accompanied us on our drive south, and much of the landscape still reflected the barrenness leftover when Lassen erupted several times between 1914 and 1917.

Frozen lake at the top of Mt. Lassen, one of northern California's volcanoes

The main road through Lassen is closed much of the year due to heavy snow. Many of the campgrounds are only open June through September. Even in July, our “bathroom stop” at the Lake Helen picnic area revealed only the roof of the bathroom – the rest covered completely in snow. Lake Helen was still frozen over. It was quite a sight for us southerners, who rarely even see snowflakes. In some places, where the roads or parking lots had been plowed, the snow pushed aside stood upwards of 30 feet.

Boiling mudpot at Sulphur Works, Mt. Lassen

Lassen Volcano is still active, as evidenced by the several hydrothermal areas throughout the park. It’s part of the Cascade Range, which includes Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Rainier.  Bumpass Hell is the best known trail for seeing steam vents and boiling pools, but unfortunately it was closed for renovations while we were there. Sulphur Works is just inside the southern entrance to the park and offers easy access to a bubbling mudpot.

View from Mt. Lassen, a northern California volcano



Northern California – Redwoods and Beaches

Northern California – Redwoods and Beaches

After traveling from San Francisco to Eureka, part two of our journey was in northern California’s redwood coast. We spent three nights in McKinleyville, just north of Eureka. This gave us two full days for exploring, and we crammed in as much as possible. Our agenda was divided pretty evenly between California’s redwoods and beaches:


Redwood National and State Parks and Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park blur together on a map. Highway 101 leads through both, and other than separate visitor centers, you wouldn’t notice much of a difference. While printing our booklets for the Redwoods Junior Ranger program, I stumbled upon Redwood EdVentures. It’s more than 20 Quests in various locations throughout the Redwood coast. Each Quest has a map and a series of clues to lead you along a trail. At the end of the trail, kids look for a hidden word. When you bring the word back to the Visitor’s Center, you receive a rather nice patch that can be sewn on a backpack or jacket.

Lady Bird Johnson Trail

Three boys dwarfed by the size of a redwood

Just north of Orick, turn onto Bald Hills Road to access the Lady Bird Johnson trail. President Nixon dedicated the grove the First Lady in August 1969. Pick up a booklet at the trailhead to learn more about the redwoods along the interpretive trail. There are 13 numbered stops throughout the easy 1.5-mile loop. If you take your time, you’ll find lots of opportunities to step inside trees or gaze upwards at the towering heights.

Prairie Creek Trail

Prairie Creek Trail in California's Redwoods and Beaches

Right outside the Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park Visitor Center is the Prairie Creek trail. This is one of the sites included in the Redwood EdVentures. It’s a beautiful trail, darker and more closed in than the Lady Bird Johnson trail. Prairie Creek winds along beside the redwoods here. The whole loop is 2.5 miles, but if you’re short on time and want to do the EdVentures, you only need to do a 1.5-mile loop to find the clue.

Elk in Prairie Creek Redwoods

Don’t miss Elk Prairie Meadow outside the Prairie Creek Visitor Center. It’s a great spot for elk watching. We got some close-up views on our way out in the evening. Another highlight of the State Park here is Fern Canyon. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to make it out there, but it’s definitely on the list for next time.

Big Tree Wayside

Three boys standing in front of Big Tree

A quick, easy stop is the Big Tree Wayside walk. Only 200 yards from the parking lot, you’ll find the 1,500-year-old behemoth, which stands over 350 feet tall. Short walks from the Big Tree viewing area lead to even larger trees.


The advantage of visiting the redwoods is you not only immerse yourself in ancient trees but also get lots of opportunities for rock hunting and ocean viewing.

Agate Beach

Agate Beach near California's Redwoods and Beaches

At Patrick’s Point State Park north of Trinidad, a steep cliff-side trail brings you down to Agate Beach. You could arguably spend a whole day here, lying on your stomach, sifting through the rocks in search of agates. We weren’t quite sure what we were looking for at first, but a nearby beachcomber took pity on us and showed us some examples of the translucent gem. While we searched, our youngest built a series of creeks and dams alongside a trapped tidepool. It was one of our favorite spots, and we practically had to drag the boys away.

Ferndale & Centerville Beach

Main Street in Victorian Ferndale

After seeing the advertisements for the Victorian village of Ferndale, we decided to give it a shot. A quaint town with an active Main Street, Ferndale was definitely a hidden gem. Every home and building in town seems to be both architecturally beautiful and historical, and in fact, the entire town is a California Historical Landmark. Our first stop in any small town is always the local bookstore, in this case, Chapman’s Bookery. We searched the guide books and kid’s books sections, excited to find The World of the Wazzlewoods by Tyrel Bramwell, a kid’s chapter book set in Ferndale.

Besides knowing a lot about books, booksellers are generally a great resource for recommending the top sights to hit in the area. This one was no exception, pointing us toward the historic cemetery, which rests on a hill at the edge of town. Some of the graves here date back to the 1800s. Also be sure to check out Golden Gait Mercantile, where I could have spent my paycheck on kitchen gadgets, but ended up settling for some old-fashioned candy.

Centerville Beach outside of Ferndale, California

Centerville Beach was a 10-minute drive out of town, down a nearly deserted road through farmland. We questioned our directions until the road brought us right up to the sand’s edge. There were quite a few fireworks remains left over from July 4 celebrations, but after we walked down the beach a ways, the area looked more pristine. We practically had the sand and surf to ourselves, as very few people had ventured out today. We were drawn to the huge cliff south of where we had parked and spent much of the afternoon walking along its base and searching for colorful rocks.

Eureka and Moonstone Beach

Carson Mansion in Eureka along California's Redwoods and Beaches

On our way back north, we took Waterfront Drive through Eureka, stopping to gaze at Table Bluff Lighthouse and the Fisherman Memorial on Woodley Island across the channel. At the end of 2nd Street, we ran into Carson Mansion, a stunning Victorian mansion built in 1885. Today it houses the private Ingomar Club.

Moonstone Beach in northern California

Continuing on, we took a chance at Moonstone Beach. Like all the others, it was beautiful, with Little River flowing through the center of it right out to the ocean. But don’t be fooled by the name. There are no moonstones here. However, on the north end, we discovered a small waterfall spilling from the cliff into the sand and small caves for exploring. It was the perfect spot for three boys to let their imaginations run wild.

Trinidad Beach

Trinidad Beach in northern California

Our last pull off for the day was at Trinidad Beach, just off the parking lot at the end of Lighthouse Road. To the north, the view of the rock outcroppings here was worth the stop. But the kids loved their “secret tunnel” on the south side, where they built a fort out of driftwood and searched for fossils along the base of the rocks. It was their own private hideout tucked away out of sight from the rest of the beachgoers.





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”

Ocean Springs train depot
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

Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs

Dedicated to Walter Anderson’s artwork, the Walter Anderson Museum of Art houses more than 1,000 pieces of art. These include 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

Ocean Springs Marina

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 them 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

Gulf Islands National Seashore

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

Fort Maurepas City ParkA great place to spend a hot summer afternoon, Fort Maurepas Park on Front Beach Drive overlooks the Gulf. It also 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. The fort was 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. In 1719, it briefly served as the capital of Louisiana.

Buffalo National River & Arkansas Highlights

Buffalo National River & 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. The kids played for hours by the shallow edge and fished in the deeper waters by the bluff.


Eden Falls

Lost Valley at Buffalo National River

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. We had a few falls and bruises, but it didn’t deter from the fun.

Lost Valley at Buffalo National River

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. It 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. Meanwhile, 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

Blanchard Springs

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. We had time to kill before the tour started, so 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.

Blanchard Springs Caverns

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. Imagine walking through an underground castle built by nature over thousand of years—one drip at a time.

Roark Bluff & Triple Falls

Fishing the Buffalo National River

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.

Triple Falls along Buffalo National RIver

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. 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

Natural springs in 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 is 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. The 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.”

Kids outside candy store in Eureka Springs

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. We took our time window shopping, stopping to buy some books and, of course, in the candy shop. Yes, those are candy necklaces they’ve got around their necks!

Thorncrown Chapel

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

Buffalo National RIver

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.


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