From Hope to Hot Springs

Hot Springs Arkansas National Park Visitor Center

Anyone who has been to Texas can tell you that it’s hard to road-trip out of this state- in some directions you can drive for 10 hours and still be in Texas! For our long MLK weekend we were looking for a road trip to a place we hadn’t been to, out of Texas, and on the way to DC. Bonus points if we could tag a national park! We settled on Hot Springs, Arkansas.

After an overnight visit with friends in DFW (thanks Ken and Kristina for the hospitality!), we drove to Hope, Arkansas- which is the birthplace of our 42nd president, Bill Clinton. His childhood home, where he lived with his mother and grandparents for his early years, has been preserved by the National Park Service, and is open to visitors daily, with a tour every hour.

Birthplace of William Jefferson Clinton

From Hope, it was just a couple more hours driving to get to Hot Springs, Arkansas. A light snow was falling, and the visitor’s center was about to close, so we popped in quickly to get some info about the area (visitor’s centers staff always have great suggestions). We had dinner at Picante’s Mexican Grill and then checked into our motel for the night, Dame Fortune’s Cottages (yes, I picked it solely for the name).

Formerly Fordyce Bathhouse (est.1915), now the Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center

The next morning, we were up early to get in line at the public bathhouse. As of January 2022, the only open bathhouse is the Quapaw, which dates back to 1922. Visitors can book for private baths, massages, and other spa services, or for $20, can access their four public thermal pools, each at a different temperature. The thermal waters that flow into the Hot Springs area have been carbon-dated back to 4000 years ago- meaning that, the waters we were bathing in there had fallen as rain in 2000 BC- as old as the pyramids in Egypt. The water is high in minerals such as silica, calcium, magnesium, free carbon dioxide, bicarbonate, and sulfate. For centuries, these waters have been famed for their healing properties. If you do visit the Quapaw, be sure to bring your own shower shoes, and get there early- they do not take reservations for the public pools- and they are closed on Tuesdays.

Chris and Deah, inside the Quapaw Bathhouse

After spending a couple of hours in the baths, we showered, dressed, and got ready to explore the rest of the town. First off, a fabulous lunch and craft beers at Superior Brewery, formerly Superior Bathhouse. The main street of the town of Hot Springs is also the national park- in fact, it is the first national lands set aside in the United States (not to be confused with Yellowstone, which sometimes claims that title). The waters and area around Hot Springs were designated national lands as far back as 1832, when President Andrew Jackson set aside the lands as a public reservation. It wasn’t until 1872 that the area really came under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, and by then, several families and businesses had settled and built structures there. After several fires in the wooden bathhouses, the row of Victorian, fire-resistant brick buildings that we see today were built between 1912 and 1932. In 1921, Hot Springs officially became our 18th National Park.

The Quapaw Bathhouse, est. 1922

The row of bathhouses thrived during the first half of the 20th century, but by the 1950s, many of the buildings were in decline. Every one of them except the Buckstaff (still in existence but temporarily closed due to Covid) had closed by 1985. A campaign started to revitalize the area, and various other businesses were allowed to purchase and marginally renovate the eight Victorian bathhouses along Bathtub Row. Now, the buildings have been repurposed into Superior Brewery, the Hale Hotel, the Maurice Bathhouse (currently vacant and available for leasing), the Fordyce, which is now the park’s official visitor’s center, the Quapaw Bathhouse, the Ozark, which houses the Hot Springs National Park Cultural Center, and the Buckstaff. The last building on Bathtub Row, the Lamar Bathhouse, includes a small national parks store, as well as a research library and the park archives.

Buckstaff Baths (est 1912)
Superior Baths (1916)- now Superior Brewery

The National Park’s Visitor Center, housed in the old Fordyce Bathhouse, is definitely worth a visit. All three floors are open to visitors, and you can see the old changing rooms, gymnasium, baths, massage rooms, and resting rooms that the clients of the bathhouse using in the Roaring 20’s. If you go down to the basement, you can see where the hot spring actually comes out of the ground. Original Art Deco stained glass windows and other embellishments are still in most of the buildings along Bathtub Row.

The gymnasium at the Fordyce- available to male clients only when it was open
Fountains, marble dressing rooms, and stained glass windows added luxury to the services

After visiting the town of Hot Springs, and driving out into the park a little- the Hot Springs Mountain Tower has an observation deck from which you can view the surrounding valleys- we wended our way toward Little Rock. I needed to catch a flight back home, while Chris needed to keep driving to DC. We stopped at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and learned about the civil rights events of 1957. The school is still a functioning high school, and there is a Visitor’s Center across the street with videos, images, and articles about the turbulent fight to desegregate schools in the south. If you’re in Little Rock, I definitely suggest you spent a couple of hours here. It was the perfect way to end our 3-day weekend and think about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, and other civil rights activists.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Little Rock Central High School

Christmas in Puerto Rico

I heart Puerto Rico

With ever-changing airline restrictions and countries closing their borders due to Covid, we decided to play it safe and travel mostly domestically for the time being. For our winter holiday, we chose to fly to Puerto Rico, which, being technically part of the United States, meant that we wouldn’t have to worry about finding and taking a Covid test to arrive or to return back to the US.

Old San Juan

We spent the first few days in Old San Juan, enjoying colonial-style architecture, rich history, and delicious food. Between a walking tour of the small old-town area, and the two remaining fortresses, we learned a lot about the explorers, pirates, traders, and soldiers who have made San Juan their home over the past five centuries.

A view of El Morro, the San Juan defensive fortress, from the waterline
Old San Juan, the colonial cemetery, and new(er) San Juan in the background
The flags of Puerto Rico, the United States, and the Cross of Bergundy (flown over forts built by Spain)

Favorite dish in old San Juan: the Puerto Rican Sampler at Deaverdura

Where we stayed: Hotel Casablanca (which features 4 stone bath tubs on the roof terrace)

Fajardo

From Old San Juan, we took an Uber to the outskirts of Fajardo, a smallish town on the east coast of the island. We stayed at a high rise condo just beside a marina, and attempted to do something we rarely do: nothing. Our condo was a mile away from the nearest restaurant or small market, and two miles from the nearest grocery store. We loaded up on some provisions, had a delicious mofongo dinner out the first night, and then hunkered down for a few days. We did wind up booking a scuba diving excursion for Christmas Day, but other than that, we stayed put and watched the sea birds, the boats, and the water from our 9th-floor balcony.

Watching the boats in our harbor
A Merry Scuba Christmas!

Favorite dish in Fajardo: Mofongo relleno de Camarones en Crema de Cilantro at Sal y Pimienta

Where we stayed: A studio condo listed on AirBnb in the Dos Marinas Tower

Luquillo

Luquillo is a laid-back beach town in the north of Puerto Rico, a perfect place for swimming, surfing, and drinking rum. We took a taxi from Fajardo to Luquillo, and arrived at our AirBnB apartment just a half block from Playa Azul. On our first evening in town, we walked over to the famed Luquillo Kioskos, a row of 30 or so bars and restaurants stretched out along the curve of a shallow bay. We drank beer and ate fried seafood and enjoyed the warm evening. For the rest of our time in the town, we tried out each of the other restaurants and cafes- Luquillo has just enough to try out two a day and not have to repeat, all without having to walk more than a mile. With views of the El Yunque Rainforest behind us, and the ocean in front of us, we were content to stay there and rest, relax, and toast the end of 2021.

Chris at the beach in Luquillo
Deah reading at the beach
An afternoon rain shower over the rain forest

Favorite food in Luquillo: Drinking a cold, creamy coquito. Here’s the recipe. I’ve already made two batches since we’ve been home.

Where we stayed: possibly my favorite Airbnb apartment. This one’s a gem, and under $100 a night

Of course this is only one small corner of Puerto Rico- there’s still so much to explore on this beautiful island (and the smaller barely-populated islands near it). Have you been to Puerto Rico? What was your favorite city or area?

Hiking the PCT pt4: interviews with hikers

a group of hikers at the trail head ready to head into the PCT Northern California

While Chris hiked, I got to know several of the hikers who crossed his path on the trail or in towns. I gave rides to and from the trail, had lunch and dinner with hikers, and sometimes camped with them or shared hotel rooms when they were ready for a break from the daily grind of hiking. I tried to interview a few of them to find out why they had carved out 5-6 months of their life in order to come live in nature and hike 2,660 miles.

Continue reading “Hiking the PCT pt4: interviews with hikers”

Chris Hikes the PCT Part 3: the fire section

Black and white photo of a lone tree along a range of mountains with smoke clouds obscuring the view in Northern California

Californians and Pacific North-Westerners like to say they have five seasons: fall, winter, spring, summer, and fire season. By the time Chris reached the midway point for the Pacific Crest Trail, we were definitely into fire season.

This smokey vista portends our next few weeks

Although Chris was able to hike from Buck’s Lake to Belden Town, by the time he got there, the trail was closed heading north from Belden. I picked him and seven other stranded hikers up, and got us all to Chester. By the next day, the trail was closed from Buck’s Lake through to Chester, so he essentially was in the last group that got to hike that section. Although Chester was quite smokey, with some ash in the air, there was not an active fire close by (yet), so he was able to hike out of there. Luckily for us, our friend Piñata had booked quite literally one of the last motel rooms in the town, and we were able to stay with her for a night and catch up, as we hadn’t seen her since Mammoth Lakes.

From Chester, Chris hiked north through Lassen Volcanic Park, and then to Old Station and the Hat Creek area. I drove to Old Station and we stayed at a campground there, and explored some cool lava tubes and a lava cave. And by cool I mean cold! It was fun to explore the pitch dark and chilly underground area.

Heading into Lassen Volcanic National Park

I drove to Burney Falls, giving some hikers rides along the way. Back in Chester, it was getting even more smokey, and the fire was advancing, so lots of hikers skipped past it and needed rides to get further north to get back on the trail. Soon both Belden Town and Chester were evacuated, and later, a town in between them, Greenville, actually burned to the ground. The devastation was unimaginable. Both the Tamarack Fire and the Dixie Fire forced more and more hikers to get off trail and skip dozens, then hundreds of miles of trail, ranging from Tahoe almost up to the Oregon border.

Burney Falls- definitely worth the extra time to hike down and see it from the bottom

We took a rest break in Burney, and went swimming in the lake, and enjoyed a picnic. I camped for a night actually on the trail with Chris and a bunch of the other hikers (they laughingly called my 4 person tent a “palace”). Then I hustled up towards the Mt Shasta area/Castle Crags/Dunsmuir area, and tried to get a room. With so many hikers forced to jump north on the trail, it was getting harder and harder to book motel rooms and to find fully stocked grocery stores for resupply. And that’s how we ended up staying in a “haunted hotel” in Dunsmuir– featured in the show “Ghost Finders” and in “Ripleys Believe it or Not”. Actually we spent a very pleasant night in Dunsmuir, and enjoyed a short hike to a view point at Castle Crags State Park.

Often called the “Upside Down Hotel”, the Hotel Dunsmuir originally had their lobby at the bottom level, across from the Amtrak station. Now the lobby is at the third floor, street level.

While Chris advanced north from Dunsmuir, I stayed in town a couple of more days and hung out with Sunny, Sandman, Piñata, and some other hikers. The town of Mt Shasta had an outdoor concert at a park near the headwaters of the Sacramento River, and most of the hikers who were in town showed up to enjoy the show. With so many hikers in town, we could only get a hotel for one night, so Piñata and I camped a second night on the lower reaches of Mt Shasta, enjoying a fantastic sunset as we set up our tents.

Smokey clouds make for a great sunset!

Although so, so close to the Oregon border at Mt Shasta, the PTC actually take a turn to the west, then north, then back east again. So we still had 200+ trail miles to go before we reached Oregon. I drove west to the small town of Etna- and fell in love. The town is small but has everything I needed- a brewery, a distillery, another brewery, and a small library- and they are hiring a manager for their library! I was almost ready to send in my application, but the job was only for ten hours a week. I’m sure I could maybe raise chickens, or learn about brewing beer, in my free time?

It’s tempting to get stuck in trail towns, but the key is to keep on walking. Even when you don’t want to.

The town of Etna was kind enough to allow hikers (and hiker-adjacent people like me) to camp in the City Park for $5 a night, so I wound up getting stuck in a hiker vortex there for three days. The trail crosses the road 13 miles from town, and it’s not an easy hitch, so every time I took a car load of hikers out to the trail, there would be another group waiting to go into town, and they would offer me lunch or dinner or drinks, and then the cycle would start all over again. I even met a gal whose parents own a business on our street! What a small world.

These hikers are ready to get back on the trail!

But I did pull myself out of it eventually, mainly because I wanted to go visit the Redwood Forest while Chris hiked the last hundred miles through Seiad Valley, the last “town” in California along the PCT. I spent three days driving around and hiking around the Redwoods, until I had a crick in my neck from such much looking up at the giant trees. And I know I’ve probably said this before, but this time I really mean it: I think this national forest is the best of them all. Coupled with the fantastic foggy northern Cali coast, it can’t be beat. I loved it.

Some pretty big trees in the Redwood Forest!
The California coast

I hung out in the Oregon Caves National Monument on my way back to the trail, and then suddenly we were in Ashland, the first trail town in Oregon! Although sometimes it seemed like California, which makes up 60% of the Pacific Crest Trail, would never end, it did. While we were in Ashland, buying (hopefully) one final pair of shoes and repairing Chris’s tent, hiker friends back in Etna and Seiad were leaving the trail and hopping north- the trail had been closed out of Etna due to smoke and a nearby fire. Unfortunately, Ashland and on up to Crater Lake weren’t much better- some hikers began making plans to hike an “alternate route” along the coast.

Chris reaches the Oregon border

It was the end of summer break for me, so I took the car to Portland, hung out with friends there for a day, and attended a travel social event with our friends at Wild Spirit Travel. After stuffing ourselves with food from Portland’s food trucks, it was time for me to jump on a plane and head back to Texas and mentally prepare for work. Four days after I left, Chris had completed another 120 miles to Crater Lake- and is now done with 3/4 of the trail. Just 825 miles to go!

A hiker signs in at a trail register along the PCT

Interested in some interviews I did with other hikers? If so, click the “Follow” button and get my next post.

Chris Hikes the PCT- part 2: the Sierra Nevada

Small wisps of smoke rise from a fire near Yosemite National Park California

“The mountains are calling and I must go”, John Muir wrote in a letter to his sister in 1873, and after being in the Sierra Nevada mountains for the last few weeks, I can understand how he felt.

Although some of the toughest hiking, the Sierra Nevadas are also some of the most scenic

By mid-June, Chris and his hiking bubble had completed 25% of the trail, ending the “desert” portion of the trail. Starting June 14, he hiked out of Kennedy Meadows South, and began traversing the southern Sierra mountains. This part of the trail included the longest stretch of the trail with no access to resupply points, and no cell coverage. I camped with him at Cottonwood Meadow Campground, up in the Alabama Hills just west of Death Valley and the little town of Lone Pine on 395, and brought him a giant Subway sandwich and enough dry foods for eight days of hiking. Which makes a really heavy pack! When he left the next morning, he began the trek to get to the top of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the continental US.

Continue reading “Chris Hikes the PCT- part 2: the Sierra Nevada”