National Parks, On the Road

Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park in 3 days!

We have covered some serious miles recently. We went from being stuck in Summerland, British Columbia with a broken truck to Kansas City, down to Eureka Springs, AR and back to KC in just a week and a half! That is about 2400 miles (not including all the miles we drove in the parks) and 37 hours of drive time according to google maps. If you have ever towed a trailer, you know that 37 hours according to google maps is closer to 42 hours of towing. I did the driving for almost every mile so that Lenny could work in the car. I listened to hours of podcasts and now have a level of confidence towing the Airstream that I couldn’t imagine 4 months ago. AND, in between all of that, we certified three scuba students (Lilya included) and visited Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks! Needless to say, we are excited to sit still for a bit. Now that I have some time and I’m not driving like a trucker, I thought it would be good to get some updates out.

Yellowstone wasn’t really on our list this year, but we knew we would be close on our drive back, the weather would be pretty good, we had an extra day off over Labor Day, so why not just pop in and check it out? Funny enough, until we started talking about Yellowstone with others, Grand Teton wasn’t even on our radar, and we didn’t realize how close the two are. The very first thing I will tell you is that we certainly plan to go back. 3 days is not anywhere close to enough time to explore these remarkable places. This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive guide but rather a way to share what we experienced and also help you maximize the time you do have if you decide to visit.

First Things First

When you visit any National Park, the very first thing you should do is to go to the visitors center and tell them what you like to do. Do you just want to see the highlights, drive through the park, picnic, camp, hike, photograph, etc.? Park Rangers are the best resources hands down for making the most of the time you have.

Our next best resource for National Parks is the Just Ahead app. We discovered this app when we went to Big Bend during the government shut down, and there were no Park Rangers or resources to guide us. The app works like a local guide. As you drive through the park, it will point out areas of interest, give you history, tell you how long drives and hikes will take, and let you know when there is a highly recommended stop.

Day One

We opted to use Gardiner, MT as our base into the park, which is near the North entrance. We stayed at Eagle Creek National Forest Campground which is high on a bluff overlooking Gardiner and about a 10 min drive to the park entrance. We arrived on Saturday afternoon and were able to get the last spot available. We quickly unhitched and headed into the park to the Albright Visitor Center in Mammoth Hot Springs and got the highlights from the Park Ranger. Mammoth Hot Springs is like a little village in the park that I think is mostly inhabited by elk. Elk were absolutely everywhere, and not shy to the cars and people walking the streets at all. Clearly, they felt quite protected. With only a few hours left in the day, we headed over to see the Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces. We walked the boardwalk and enjoyed the beautiful travertine terraces then headed back into Gardiner to grab dinner and make a plan for the next day.

Day Two

If you have looked at a map of the roads running through Yellowstone, you realize the main roads make a figure 8 through the park. We planned to drive the full figure eight on Sunday and try to hit as many of the highlights as possible. We started out from the North entrance and headed toward Tower Junction. From Tower Junction, we headed south toward Yellowstone Lake. This was a beautifully scenic area, and we drove through most of this side of the park, stopping at a few places recommended by the app. Some notable areas included Tower Fall, the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, Dunraven Pass, and Hayden Valley.

Yellowstone is clearly known for its geysers, but the East side of the park should not be missed. Tower Fall is a quick stop and easy walk to an overlook of the fall and its unusual rock columns. Dunraven Pass is a beautiful alpine area including the highest point of over 10,000 ft at Mount Washburn. Lots of high winding turns, but the view makes it all worth it.

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View near pull out for Mount Washburn hike

Hayden Valley was a vast expanse where we encountered hundreds of wild bison. When bison decide to stand in the middle of the road, you figure out quickly that you are a visitor to their land and you are on their time, so we pulled over and enjoyed watching them, from a distance of course!

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Bison enjoying the summer in Hayden Valley

Probably my favorite place in the park though was the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. We hiked the Brink of the Lower Falls Trail which is a short distance down to an overlook where Lower Falls spills into the canyon.

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Lower Falls Trail overlook

The hike back up is steep, but the view on this hike far outweighs the effort. You can also see Upper Falls further up the river on this hike. 

Double Rainbow in the breathtaking Grand Canyon of Yellowstone

Heading further South, we stopped near Grant Village, grabbed some food and drinks from the store, and sat on the edge of Yellowstone Lake for a picnic. It’s a pretty drive through this area of the park, but if I were short on time, I would skip the southeastern loop of the park. 

After filling our bellies, we headed toward the southwest loop and wrapped up our day with the classic visit to Old Faithful. Even though this is not the most impressive geyser in the park, it is a must-see. As the name implies, it faithfully goes off several times a day and is reliably +/- 10 mins of its predicted time. We arrived for a 7:30pm eruption which I thought was perfect. The crowd was not too large, and the sun was beginning its descent, providing subtle warm lighting and an ideal way to wrap up our day.

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Old Faithful getting ready to blow!

Day 3

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Sunrise looking toward Lamar Valley

We heard that there was a pack of wolves that had been feeding on a dead bison in Lamar Valley. Lamar Valley is coined the American Serengeti, and the Yellowstone wolfpack is apparently a pretty rare treat. Knowing that the best time to catch wildlife is near dusk and dawn, we left our campsite at 5:30 am to reach Lamar Valley by sunrise. There were lots of people along the side of the road looking through spotting scopes and with enviable camera lens apparently enjoying a viewing of the wolves. I think we expected we would be able to see them closer, but we were ill-equipped so if this is on your list be sure to bring your scope/binoculars/telephoto equipment. Even though we didn’t see the wolves, the drive was incredible at sunrise, and we did see elk, pronghorn, and again hundreds of bison right by the road so no regrets or complaints from anyone about the super early wake-up!

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Bison jam during our morning commute

Starting out so early also gave us an advantage over crowds as we headed back toward the west side of the park from the North. We didn’t stop much along the North West side of the loop since we had already been to Mammoth Hot Springs and there was quite a bit of construction on that side. Our first stop where we got out of the car was at the Norris Geyser Basin area where we hiked around the Porcelain and Back Basins.

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This area is one of the most geothermally active regions in the world. It is full of color, noises, smells, and erupting hot water everywhere! Many of the cars in the parking lot have protective coverings over them because Steamboat Geyser, the worlds tallest active geyser was expected to erupt. This clearly must be a spectacular show because there was a large group of people who brought lawn chairs and appeared that they may have been camped out at this geyser for several hours, if not days.

We really wanted to see Grand Prismatic Spring, but the parking lots were completely full, so we opted to continue our drive south, stopping at the Old Faithful Visitors Center for a park ranger talk where Lilya finished up her Jr. Park Ranger badge and we had another opportunity to see Old Faithful erupt.

At this point, we decided to head south into Grand Teton National Park. With limited time, we stopped at Colter Bay Visitor Center, attended a Ranger-led talk and then drove south to Jenny Lake. We took a short hike around Jenny Lake, where the views of the Tetons over the water are simply breathtaking. It was in this part of the park that we decided we absolutely must come back to explore again. I can only describe it as what I envision is summer in the Swiss Alps with jagged peaks towering over serene lake settings where visitors frolic along the shore.

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Summer on the shores of Jenny Lake

We drove back North, stopping at the visitor center so Lilya could be sworn in yet again as a National Park Jr. Ranger, her second in one day. On our way out of the park, we went to a great pizzeria at Leeks Marina.

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Wrapped up our visit at Leeks Marina

We had a lovely relaxing dinner on the porch overlooking the water and then hopped back in the car for the long drive back to Gardiner. It was an incredibly long day but well worth it. I would not recommend this pace for most, but I do think we saw most of the highlights and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to go. My biggest regret is missing Grand Prismatic Spring, not getting to dip in the hot springs, and not having the chance to see any of the wolves but we will make sure we add those to our return visit.

 

Final Thoughts

All of Yellowstone is incredible, but for us, the Northwest (minus Mammoth Hot Springs) and Southeast are pretty drive but have the least amount of attractions so if you have limited time, save these until the end. If I were to return, I would trade more time in Grand Teton over those sections of Yellowstone, but of course, we may have missed something. Also, starting at the Northwest or North entrance may provide the easiest route to cover these areas since you could primarily just cover half of the figure eight on your way into Grand Teton.

If you have questions, or if you know of areas we missed that are on the top of your list, please post in the comments below.

 

On the Road, Texas

Texas is YUGE – Part Two

Big-Bend-National-Park-Texas-56.jpgBig Bend National Park

Big Bend is a land of extremes. Highs and lows, hot and cold, dark and light.   After traveling from Fort Worth and enjoying several stops along the way, we arrived at Big Bend National Park the day the government shutdown was announced. 

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Notification during Government Shutdown in Big Bend National Park

We weren’t sure what to expect, but luckily the park was open all four days we were there.  We heard they shut it down after we left, so we felt quite fortunate to have been able to freely explore the whole park.  Without any park services, the visitor center was closed, but we found an app called Just Ahead that turned out to be incredibly useful for our visit.  You need to download the app and the park program before you lose service, but once you have it on your phone, it uses your GPS signal to guide you to all the points of interest in the park along your drive.  There were many scenic areas we would have missed without this app and I’m sure I will download the guides for other parks we visit.

We stayed in Study Butte which we found to be an ideal launch point for both the park and some evening visits to Terlingua.  Our four-day itinerary at Big Bend consisted of the following.

Day One

  • Maxwell Scenic Drive – This is a winding drive that runs from the park entrance near Study Butte all the way down to Santa Elena Canyon.  We spent our first day just driving and getting out of our car to hike several trails and view the various stops along the way.
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    Pink Cactus overlooking Mexico from Big Bend National Park

    We arrived at Santa Elena near sunset but really wanted to explore the canyon further so decided it would be an excellent place to catch the sunrise and start the next day.  We headed back to our campsite and went into Terlingua for dinner.

  • Starlight Theatre – a local in the area suggested we check out Starlight Theatre in Terlingua.  Terlingua itself is a pretty funky little town.  It feels quite authentic and seems to exemplify the extreme in your face vibe of Big Bend.  Starlight Theater is one of those places where you sit and think if only the walls could talk.  We enjoyed a nice dinner, spicy margaritas, and live music.

Day Two

  • Back to Santa Elena Canyon – We headed out at dark to watch the sunrise at Santa Elena Canyon.  I had planned to photograph from the entry to the canyon as a full moon would set almost directly between Mexico and the US, sparkling on the Rio Grande.  Unfortunately, we miscalculated how long it would take to get there, so we ended up watching the sunrise from a point just overlooking the Rio Grande facing Mexico directly.  The park at dawn is eerily quiet.  From where we were sitting I could see a small house with goats just over the river in Mexico. At times the goats sounded like a crying baby.  After sunrise, we explored the Homestead Ruins and then hiked by the Rio Grande into the canyon.  This is a must see and if you go, my recommendation is to go early.  Since we were there for sunrise, we had the whole place to ourselves for quite a while but on our hike back, the crowds were definitely increasing.
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    Inside the Santa Elena Canyon along the Rio Grande in Big Bend National Park

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    Looking through the window of an abandoned homestead in Big Bend National Park
  • Old Maverick Road – Maxwell Scenic Drive is the smoothest road to and from Santa Elena but since we opted to take Old Maverick Road back toward the park entrance.  Old Maverick Road is not paved and while it is a much shorter distance, it takes almost a long as the paved road.  I would recommend you have 4wd before heading out on Old Maverick Rd.  We saw a Prius pass us by but I suspect they either got stuck or turned around.  It’s definitely a different view than the paved roads so if you are inclined to offload, by all means, take this route but be prepared for a long bumpy ride.

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    A Jeep Rubicon at the base of the Chisos Mountains
  • Boquillas Crossing – After covering most of the west side of the park, we decided to head east.  After you pass the entrance to the Chisos Mountains, the landscape becomes much flatter and open.  It’s a bit of a drive to go from one end of the park to the other but there is a lot to see along the way.  Near the southeast end of the park, you can find a small general store at the campground.  This is the only campground in the park that has hookups for RV’s.  We grabbed a couple of sandwiches for lunch and then headed to the border crossing.  We had our passports and planned to cross the border and visit the small town of Boquillas.  The crossing is only open Wednesday through Sunday during the winter.  Unfortunately, there was no way to know but even though it was during that window, the crossing was also closed due to the government shutdown.  So instead we hiked the other the Rio Grande on the other side of the park at the Boquillas Canyon trail. From there we were able to see the town of Boquillas along with the locals hanging out having a picnic near the river.

Day Three – Christmas Eve

  • Lost Mine Trail – If you plan to hike and have limited time, this is the one trail I would recommend.  It’s a substantial hike close to 5 miles climbing over 1000ft but there are several stops with incredible views along the way.  Once you reach the peak, you will be well rewarded with some of the most amazing views within the park.  The parking lot for the trailhead is small so arrive early to get a spot.  Take lots of water and some snacks to enjoy once you reach the peak, sit for a while then enjoy the downhill hike back to the trailhead.  If you have built up an appetite, stop in at the Chisos Mountain Lodge for some lunch.

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    The view from the summit at Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park
  • Balanced Rock – After lunch, we headed out for another hike at Balanced Rock. You will need to drive on an unpaved road to reach the trailhead. 
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    Sun rewarding a winter hiker in Big Bend National Park

    This is an easy hike with a bit of mild bouldering toward the end and then an impressive view and some unique formations.

  • La Kiva – After a day of good hiking, we were ready for a nice dinner out for Christmas Eve.  La Kiva is a little subterranean restaurant in Terlingua.  The entrance is a large counter-weighted mine-shaft door.  After going down a set of stairs, you will enter a small cavern with tables and an area set up for a band and a smaller room to the side with various games and a sofa.  Along one of the walls, you will see some pictures of Glen Felts who had taken over the bar from his uncle.  We were told a story of a night of drinking gone wrong ending in the brutal murder of Glen Felts outside of this local hangout that shook the town.  

Day Four – Christmas

  • Christmas morning  This is our second year we have spent Christmas in a National Park and both times we have found it to be incredibly memorable.  This year, Lilya was insistent that we get up and have a Christmas morning breakfast before opening any presents.  I love that she is focused first on the meaning of Christmas and the time we spend together rather than just tearing through the wrapping paper to get to the ‘goods’.  Since we have moved into a tiny space, we think about gifts differently.  Our tree was small and our gifts were focused around experiences.  Things like binoculars for birdwatching, headlamps for exploring at night, upgraded geocache app, and rocks for painting and hiding.  After a relaxed morning, it was time to set out to enjoy our final day in the park.
  • The Window – This hike is almost tied with Lost Mine Trail for me.  Instead of starting on an incline, you descend between vertical rock walls ending at a waterfall that spills into the Chihuahuan desert below.  The last part of the trail is a little trickier to navigate.  When we were there, we were able to get very close to the edge of the waterfall right in the middle of the window.  The view is spectacular, but I wouldn’t suggest going too far as the rocks can be slippery.  The return is uphill but we were able to make it back in half the time we hiked down.

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    Valley view from the end of The Window trail in Big Bend National Park
  • Sunset at Sotol Overlook – We stumbled on this location our first day in the park and knew it would be a great place to watch the sunset.  Our view of the park during the day did not disappoint.  It’s a convenient location because you can just park your car and sit at the overlook vs. trying to hike back from somewhere in the dark.
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    Layered mountain sunset from Sotol Overlook in Big Bend National Park

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    Ocotillo overlooking Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park
  • Stargazing – One of the most special things about Big Bend is the dark sky.  It is so remote and so large that you can see the headlights of cars driving on the road from about 20 miles away!  If someone were to stand across a peak in the park with a flashlight, you could easily spot them.  When we were there, the moon was full but the stars were still amazing and abundant.  We packed a dinner including egg nog and pecan pie and found a spot just off the road and sat on the tailgate of the truck eating under the bright starlit Texas sky.  It was the perfect way to celebrate and reflect on the meaning of Christmas.

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    Amazing sunset in Big Bend National Park

Marfa and Valentine

On our way west out of Big Bend, we decided to go through Marfa.  If you haven’t heard about Marfa, it’s a funky little town in the middle of nowhere that is a legitimate destination for foodies and art lovers.  Admittedly, we didn’t spend much time in Marfa and it feels a little like a place that is trying to hold on to its authenticity.  There are lots of people wandering the streets that are apparently looking to see and be seen. 

I was born in Laguna Beach, CA and as a teenager used to spend a lot of time north and south of Main Beach.  What I remember is a town that was home to artists and beach junkies and all the people in between.  Then along came a little show called ‘Laguna Beach’, and every time I go back home, I get the same vibe as I had in Marfa.  It’s great for local businesses but also a little sad to see the takeover.

Marfa Ghost Lights

It seems everyone that has been to Marfa will ask you if you have seen the Marfa Ghost Lights.  Right off the highway is an entire rest area dedicated to viewing them.  Of course, we couldn’t visit this town without at least giving the lights their due.  It was a frigid night, quite windy, but that didn’t stop tons of people from coming out for their chance to see the mysterious orbs that dance just outside of town.  Of course, I had to google what causes them, which immediately takes away from the folklore.  Either way, I think on a warmer night with a group of friends, it could be a fun place to chill and tell spooky stories.

Bourdain’s Parts Unknown

IMG_2893The first time I consciously recall hearing of Marfa was on an episode of Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain.  Lenny and I are huge fans of the show and always enjoyed Bourdain’s desire to go to any place the locals would hang out.  The Far West Texas episode was one of Bourdain’s last before his death so as our own little pilgrimage, we decided to pop into one of the local bars where Bourdain had a drink and visited with the owner.  It’s a typical small town bar, a couple of pool tables with torn felt, and not much distinction other than the large bright red neon sign reading ‘BEER’, and a parking lot paved entirely with beer bottle caps.

Prada Marfa

Type Marfa into Instagram and you will undoubtedly scroll through thousands of photos of the Marfa Prada art installation.  Strangely, it’s not really in Marfa but closer to Valentine.  It’s a little building right next to the two-lane highway complete with real Prada purses and shoes in the window.  Of course, you can’t shop there but people stop and take some pretty unique photos which are in themselves, their own forms of art.

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Prada Marfa art installation near Valentine Texas

Valentine and James Dean

A couple that we met in Terlingua suggested we drive a little further into the town of Valentine.  There is a small cafe off the road where a scene from the movie Giant starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, and Rock Hudson was filmed.  IMG_2874We were told we could stop in and have a bite there but when we arrived the owner was just leaving the building.  We quickly explained why we were traveling through and with amazing Texas hospitality she opened the doors to let us in and served us a nice hot cup of coffee.  Kami, who is a petite woman who looks like she got it a fist fight with the Texas wind and won, explained to us that she bought the cafe a while back after it had been closed with hopes of opening it back up.  What she didn’t account for was that she would have to get everything in the kitchen back up to code and for such an old building, that was going to be a massive undertaking, so she is now in the process of turning it into a little boutique.  Kami still has lots of old memorabilia in the shop and told us that the town is slowly being deserted and she picks up items around town in abandoned buildings.  Kami’s personality is as big as Texas and if anyone can make a go of a shop in the middle of nowhere, it is her.  We wished her luck and headed back to the Airstream for dinner.James-Dean-Giant-Mural-Valentine-Texas-64

On the drive back home, as the sun was going down, you could hear faint music blowing in the wind.  We pulled over and on the side of the road is a scene from the movie Giant with James Dean looming large over the mountains in the distance. 

On West

These were our last few stops in Texas on our way west.  We had hoped to continue on the Guadalupe National Park, Carlsbad Caverns, and then White Sands but heard they were all closed.  There was winter weather chasing our tails, so we continued on.  We will have to make the trip back through to complete that area of Texas some other time.

Next stop, sunny (or rainy) California!

On the Road

Branson to Hot Springs and on to Fort Worth

img_2131We have been quite busy trying to stay ahead of the freezing weather so I’m a bit behind on updates.  We are currently just outside of Austin and plan to be here for the week.  It’s been raining non-stop for the last few days but the sun made a much-welcomed appearance today so we went to church with a coworker of Lenny’s that lives in the area and then puttered around Austin.  I look forward to sharing more about this area in my next post but I’ll catch you up on our travels since Thanksgiving.

img_1983I’ve had two convertibles in my life and sometimes when I get on a beautiful winding road I really miss driving with the top down.  One of those vehicles was a fun little two-seater sports car that was so much fun hugging tight turns.  After visiting with family in Branson, we traveled to Hot Springs, AR down 7 Highway.  It’s one of those kinds of drives you love in a little roadster but not so much with a big truck and trailer!!  I do highly recommend this route as the views were incredible but also be prepared to get a good glute workout.  Again, Lenny was a champ but between the oohs and aahs I was flinching and grimacing the whole way.  The steep drop-offs are always on the passenger side! We stopped at a little roadside gift shop at about 2100 ft.  The view from this area is absolutely amazing and according to the roadside stand, you can see into Missouri as well.  I don’t doubt it.

We arrived after dark at the Gulpha Gorge campsite which is managed by the National Parks Service.  It is a first-come-first-serve location so we weren’t sure what we would find but we were hopeful.  As we were driving around we were flagged down by an enthusiastic guy who told us his friends were just visiting in the spot next to him and that it was an awesome campsite.  He helped us to get the trailer backed in and shared the warmth of his fire for a moment.  When we woke up the next morning we were not disappointed.  It was a great little spot that backed right up to the creek and the hills over Hot Springs.

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Partial view from the Observation Tower
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Downtown Hot Springs

Hot Springs is an interesting National Park.  You can hike some great trails into town and if you hike to the observation tower you will enjoy an amazing 360-degree view over the town.  Besides the trails, the park is the town itself as well as the bathhouses along Bathhouse Row that utilize the 143-degree mineral springs that are unique to the area.  If you take a ranger tour you get the full history of the Fordyce Bathhouse which is one of the nicest in the area.  When I heard “mineral springs” and “bathhouses” I envisioned this wonderful spa experience but the bathhouses were really built as medical facilities.  People would come from all around with a doctors order for a series of baths.  There were ALL kinds of ways that they bathed people but none of them really looked very relaxing.  One of the more disturbing treatments was an area where a “medical professional” would wash people with what looked like high-pressure fire hoses.  There are some other very unique treatments but I’ll leave it for you to explore on your own. Lilya can also give you a tour as she is now a sworn Jr. Ranger!

Outside of the history of the mineral springs and Bathhouse Row, the town is a cute little area with lots of quaint shops and restaurants.  One highlight for Lenny was a visit to the Superior Bathhouse which has been converted into a brewery.  We enjoyed a sample of their local brews that are made with the mineral waters.  We also had an amazing pizza at Grateful Head Pizza and spent an afternoon working from Kollective Coffee.

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We have met some great people so far on our trip and one of our highlights from Hot Springs was the family next to us at Gulpha Gorge.  Remember our enthusiastic neighbor that was so helpful getting us set up the night we arrived?  Well, Tom, his wife Shannon, and their three kids have also been living full time in an RV for the past 10 weeks. Tom is a retired professional snowboarder who has a pretty interesting story.  img_2060He has lived through the wild world of snowboarding and now focuses his energy traveling around the country talking to kids about dreaming their biggest dreams and not letting their circumstances deter them in any way.  Tom also works with an organization called Compassion Causes that has a school in Nicaragua.  Spend ten minutes talking with Tom and you quickly realize you are talking with someone who has found his passion and is pouring himself into it fully.  The kids all became fast friends, we exchanged information and wished them well on their way back home.  We are looking forward to meeting up with Tom and his wonderful family again in California.  You can read more about Tom and his mission with Dare to Dream here as well as his work with Compassion Causes here.

From Hot Springs, we traveled on to Fort Worth, TX.  Again, we have been traveling in the evenings but we landed at a nice location in Grand Prarie called Loyd Park. Thanks to the park staff, we once again found a great campsite with a pretty view of the Christmas light display across the water.Fort Worth-50

Our purpose for stopping in Fort Worth was primarily to visit with Cody and since we all had quite a busy work week, we didn’t get to explore much.  We did, however, go late one afternoon to see the longhorn cattle drive through the Fort Worth Stockyards.

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Longhorn cattle drive!

It’s a ten-minute event but pretty cool and a great chance to see longhorn cattle up close.  I don’t recall ever seeing one previously so it was a fun experience.  Most importantly, I was able to visit with Cody a couple of evenings, see his apartment downtown and get a little time to just hang out.

So far, things have been going well and we look forward to staying south in the warmer weather at a slower pace of travel.