The Ozarks is one of those regions of the country that is diverse and interesting enough to be a tourism gold mine. From the bright lights and music of Branson, Missouri, to the gentle flowing current of the Buffalo River in Arkansas, there is something for just about everyone. Although there are no large cities in the Ozarks, there are towns with a few city amenities, like the restaurants, shopping, museums, and entertainment spots available in Springfield, Missouri and Fayetteville and Bentonville, Arkansas. On the other hand, Ozarks visitors can head off grid and commune with nature at any number of conservation areas, state parks, national parks and forests, national rivers, and wilderness regions.
Between those opposite ends of the destination scale, there are a few spots that offer a nice blend of the outdoors with the comforts of the built environment. One of those is the Lodge at Mount Magazine State Park near Paris, Arkansas. Located just below the crest of the highest peak in the state (2,753 feet), the lodge is situated on Mount Magazine’s south bluff overlooking the expansive Petit Jean River Valley and Blue Mountain Lake. Because this ridge is so high above the valley floor, the park includes a launch area for hang gliders within walking distance of the lodge. Other activities to enjoy include mountain biking, horseback riding, backpacking, and ATV riding. The park visitor’s center is within walking distance of the lodge on one of several nearby easily accessible nature trails.
The term “lodge” may be a bit misleading to potential vacationers to the site. Other than the rural setting, the exposed pine log beams, the nature-themed art, and the natural rock accents, the lodge has many of the comforts of a resort. The rooms are well appointed, many of which have a whirlpool spa. The indoor pool is spacious, and there is a fitness center and a game room too. There are multiple seating areas with large glass panels looking out over the valley. The dining room and bar are a real cut above what most guests would associate with a state park. Accommodations range from individual rooms and suites in the main lodge to cabins of various sizes flanking the building on either side, all overlooking the valley. Each cabin has a fully equipped kitchen, fireplace, and covered deck with an outdoor hot tub. The lodge also houses a conference center.
What attracted me most about the lodge and prompted me to book a room for my wife and me in the fall of 2022 was the view. It is magnificent. We spent many hours on the balcony of our lodge room looking out at that incredible vista. The pleasant surprise was how nice the whole facility was. The service was great. The food was quite delicious and plentiful considering the price and the somewhat rustic setting, with buffets offered for most meals, although ordering from a small menu was an option. The park is in a remote part of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests, but there are small towns only thirty minutes away. It’s a great place for the family that enjoys nature but doesn’t want to sleep in a tent or camper, although the park has plenty of campsites. The lodge and cabins are also perfect for a romantic getaway, and we are always ready for that kind of excursion.
I had the pleasure of spending a long solo weekend in Mountain Home, Arkansas, earlier this summer. I began taking solo weekends about five years ago, in my mid-fifties, to recalibrate my head, get creative with writing and music, devote large chunks of time to reading, and explore the outdoors hiking. My wife is an incredible partner who not only tolerates these self-indulgent excursions but encourages them. I’m a lucky guy. I have written posts about previous solos, which have taken me to places like Cherokee and Blowing Rock in North Carolina and Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. This trip to Mountain Home was my first solo weekend in Arkansas and my first time doing so in an Airbnb.
My accommodations were perfect. “The Attic” is a recently renovated upstairs apartment over several professional medical offices located a few blocks from the quaint downtown square of Mountain Home. My host was a gracious and extremely attentive woman whose brother had just opened a new location on the square for his business, Rapp’s Barren Brewing Company. This modern rustic brewery occupies the Baker Building, the oldest on the square that dates to 1892 according to some sources. Rapp’s Barren was the name of a trading post near this location settled in the early 19th century by a legendary European character named Henry Rapp. White settlers probably considered the land in this region of the Ozarks to be barren because it was composed of tall prairie grass with very few trees. By the time the town was incorporated in 1888, the name had changed to Mountain Home. At any rate, I made more than one stop at Rapp’s Barren Brewing Company during the three days I was in the town – great spot.
In addition to playing my guitar for hours each day and reading a good novel by Ron Rash, I drove outside of town to explore this scenic part of the Ozarks. Mountain Home is positioned between Norfork and Bull Shoals lakes and is flanked by the White and North Fork rivers. Obviously, Mountain Home is a popular destination for anglers and those who enjoy other water-related activities such as boating, skiing, paddle boarding, and floating. Campsites are abundant along the banks of the rivers and lakes.
I was particularly interested in hiking, which on my first day led me to David’s Trail along the shore of Norfolk Lake about nine miles east of town. The trail honors the memory of David Floyd, a local outdoor enthusiast and community activist. I took a four-mile trek in and out from one of the trailheads, which gave me great views of the lake and several of its tributaries, in addition to some lovely plants, a timid snake, a well-camouflaged deer, and a couple of pileated woodpeckers that refused to let me get close enough for a photo. The portion of the trail I hiked had some moderate hills and featured some shady fern banks and moss-covered rock outcroppings that were lush and green. I never saw another human being the whole time I was on the trail. It was a warm morning, but I was in the shade of the tree canopy for most of my hike. I felt invigorated and extremely hungry afterwards.
On my second day, I took another short road trip to see the White River. Meandering its way 722 miles through Arkansas and Missouri, the White River is ranked as one of the top trout fishing waterways in the country, although white bass, catfish, walleye, and sunfish populate the river too. The river also presents the opportunity for one of the most common pastimes in the Ozarks – floating. Climbing in a canoe, kayak, or johnboat and letting the river carry you downstream at a slow, relaxing pace has been a popular form of recreation in the Ozarks for ages. I visited Buffalo Shoals access area at the little hamlet of Buffalo City where the Buffalo River merges with the White River just south of Mountain Home. Stair Bluff rises 689 feet along the southside of the White River and is a spectacular site. There is a parking area at the river’s edge with access to boat ramps and a sandy bank. I enjoyed watching families wading and fishing in the chilly water while others launched canoes and kayaks and drifted with the current. I found several other walk-in access points for the White River, where I could soak up the tranquil environment all alone.
In an unpublished journal, the famous naturalist John Muir wrote a brief sentence that has become one of his most famous quotes: “I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” I suspect many people realize that, to get in touch with ourselves in a profound way, we must be reminded occasionally how small we are. We need to take external journeys to probe internal mysteries. We search for our place in the realm of nature. These solo weekends that I am privileged to experience allow me to go out, then go in, and come back home with a new perspective on just about everything.
Missouri is often referred to as the “Show Me” state, a reference to a late 19th century lawmaker’s observation that its citizens as a rule prefer visible proof over blind faith. Given the political climate in Missouri in 2021, I would argue that this moniker is no longer applicable. A much more accurate appellation would be the “Float Me” state. River and stream floating trips are a major source of relaxation in Missouri with a long history and a strong tradition. According to multiple sources, flat-bottom jon boats originated, or were at least made popular, in the late 19th century in the Ozarks because they were perfect for navigating the shallow waterways characteristic of the region of southern Missouri and northern Arkansas. With an abundance of large lakes, rivers, and streams, water recreation is a huge business in Missouri attracting millions of tourists each year; however, native inhabitants have been enjoying the simple pleasures of just floating downstream for many generations.
Not only is Missouri blessed with plenty of water resources, but the Ozarks comprises one of the nation’s richest concentrations of natural springs. There are well over a thousand of them in the state. The maximum daily discharge from some of these overflowing aquifers can exceed 500 million gallons. On average, more than a billion gallons of water flow from the ten largest springs in Missouri every single day. For many centuries, springs provided drinking water for settlements and towns throughout this region of the country and were later used for powering mills and producing salt. Some springs purportedly had healing qualities. In recent decades, these groundwater flows have predominately functioned as recreational resources centered around fishing, camping, hiking, and other outdoor activities.
One of the largest springs in Missouri is Bennett Spring, located in what is now Bennett Spring State Park in Dallas County. As one of the state’s oldest parks, this spring was the site for several grist and flour mills going back to 1846, the most successful of which was operated by a man named Peter Bennett, the namesake for the spring and park. In 1924-1925, the state purchased the spring and part of the surrounding area to create the park. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps contributed much of the present-day character of the park, building cabins, a shelter house, roads, trails, the arched bridge across the spring branch, and the rustic dining lodge.
Bennett Spring State Park features many different ecosystems including rich bottomland and stream habitats associated with the spring valley and oak-hickory woodlands in the upland areas. Many animals native to the Ozarks make their homes here, including numerous pickerel frogs, northern water snakes, pileated woodpeckers, river otters, muskrats, and bobcats. The park’s diverse flora includes dense forests of trees, grasses, and herbaceous plants. Wildflowers such as bluebells and purple coneflowers flourish in the summer.
The park features a series of hiking trails, which is what sparked my interest in the late summer during the COVID pandemic and prompted a day trip to check out the site. Upon arriving at the park mid-morning, I made a quick visit to the Nature Center that serves to introduce visitors to the ecology of springs in general and to the natural resources specific to the park. I then made my way to Whistle Trail, which mostly travels along the east side of the spring’s branch, winding its way over the bluffs rising above the stream. It connects with other trails in the park that lead to the spot where the branch flows into the Niangua River, a tributary of the Osage River of south-central Missouri. According to the park’s website, Whistle Trail is likely prehistoric but was used more frequently by local inhabitants from the 1840s to the present.
The views from Whistle Trail are quite wonderful at times, especially because of its proximity to the water and the path it cuts through the lush surrounding forest. I was lucky enough to encounter a pileated woodpecker, only my third sighting of this magnificent species to date. Typically, I prefer the solitude that hiking trails offer, but in this case, it was quite entertaining to watch people wading in the stream trying their luck at hooking a rainbow trout, which I could easily see swimming all around the anglers in the crystal-clear water. The Missouri Department of Conservation stocks the branch daily during the regular fishing season, from March through October, and there is a hatchery located near the spring. The park attracts over a million anglers a year. From what I have heard, there are so many people in the stream fishing when the season first opens that you can barely see the water!
I spent the rest of my time wandering around the buildings, other structures, camping sites, and open grassy areas, just enjoying the beauty of the surroundings. I sat in a swing by the spring branch watching families fish and play in the water. For the last hour or so I explored the spring itself, which creates a gorgeous pool of blue-green water about 50 feet in diameter. Again, the trout are clearly visible swimming just below the surface. The water emerges from a 20-foot-wide seam at a temperature of approximately 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Discharging 100 million gallons per day, the spring creates the trout stream that meanders 1.3 miles through the park before flowing into the Niangua River. Bennett Spring is the principal groundwater outlet for the extensive karst geographical area in south-central Missouri.
Missouri has over 90 state parks, and Bennett Spring is among the most popular. A variety of interpretive programs are offered at the park for all ages. The park’s concession hosts offer fly fishing classes too. Canoes, rafts, and kayaks are available to rent for floating on the Niangua. There are multiple options for lodging including a motel, cabins, and camping sites. With seven hiking trails ranging in distance from 1.3 to almost 12 miles and elevations from 849 to 1,102 feet above sea level, hikers can get their fill of exercise, wildlife gazing, and plenty of fresh air. I found the property to be just what I wanted for a day trip, but a weekend would be lovely too. Bennett Spring State Park represents the best of what the Ozarks has to offer for outdoor enthusiasts. I highly recommend a visit.
A ten-year study conducted by Paul Williams and Paul Thompson published in 2013 concluded that brisk walking several times a week can significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart failure, and dementia. No weightlifting, jumping jacks, or push-ups required – just a fast-paced walk. Furthermore, individuals who do exercise regularly in other ways can still benefit just the same from walking. That magic 10,000-step-a-day threshold that our Fitbits remind us about daily was reinforced by another ten-year study completed in 2015 that demonstrated how meeting that daily goal can lower risk of death by 46%.
Honestly, we all know we need to move to stay healthy. A treadmill will do the job, but strolling five miles on a churning rubber belt is about as exciting as working in a meaningless profession from 9-5 every single day, which is why the treadmill analogy works so well for those circumstances. The good news is, no matter where we live, there are usually at least a few good options outdoors to pack in several miles of vigorous walking when the weather permits. Local nature trails, state and national parks, city and county recreation areas, national forests, greenways, river walks, and so many other options are available to us if we are serious about staying healthy.
What if we live in a big city? Well, there are typically public parks and gardens with paved trails for walking. We can even map out a “trail” in our boroughs, neighborhoods, or suburbs. However, there is another great space for walking that we should always remember – cemeteries. True enough, most of us don’t exactly consider walking among gravestones to be a source of happiness, but take into consideration the design, maintenance, and accessibility of cemeteries. They can be quite beautiful. Most major cities have several of them, and they may be even larger than parks and recreation areas.
Obviously, people tend to have an emotional connection to cemeteries where friends and family are buried, which means that they usually support them through political influence, volunteer hours, and donations. In this sense, cemeteries are beneficiaries of charity in much the same way churches and hospitals are. Through their function as spaces of “eternal rest” for the departed and places for contemplation and memories for those left behind, cemeteries have evolved into sanctuaries characterized by creative architecture, landscaping, and gardening.
Acre for acre, we are hard-pressed to find more diversity of trees, shrubs, and other plantings in urban areas than what cemeteries contain. Many of them have water features, bridges, statues, prayer gardens, chapels, gazebos, and special monuments and memorials. The older they are, the more character they have developed. They are rich repositories of history and genealogy. Cemeteries speak volumes about a community’s past and the promise of its future.
This autumn I decided to take a walk in one of the cemeteries where we currently live in Springfield, Missouri. Maple Park Cemetery dates to 1876 when a group of local businessmen established it on a 31-acre tract where an old fairground was once located. Some of the city’s most prominent citizens are interred there. One of the most famous people buried in Maple Park is known not by his own merit but by how he met his end. David Tutt was killed on the square in downtown Springfield by Wild Bill Hickok.
Maple Park gets its name because of an abundance of the species, which according to early newspaper accounts were growing on the property when the cemetery was first established. Because Maple Park is almost 150 years old, there is an interesting variety of grave markers and mausoleums. There is also a wonderful mixture of mature and young trees of many different species, which put on a spectacular show in autumn months.
Many of us drive for hours to visit mountains and valleys to see fall leaves on a grand scale, but Maple Park Cemetery offers a chance to see those brilliant yellow, orange, and red trees in a setting that is peaceful and even reverent. My walk among the memorial markers under the canopies of color helped me appreciate how wonderful it is to still be moving, how the turning of the seasons is a perfect metaphor for our lives, and how precious beauty is because it is so brief.
My wife and I moved to Springfield, Missouri in December, 2018. Her new job prompted the transition from Georgia, the state where I was born and lived for 58 years. We are now settled into a house just outside the city limits in a convenient location and are enjoying the features that a city of 250,000 people can offer, including some great restaurants, plenty of outdoor activities, and an incredible music scene. When we refer to Springfield as a “city,” some of the natives chuckle. They think of it more as a large town, and indeed it does have the feel of one. The people we have met so far have been especially friendly and welcoming.
Over the last few months we have taken the opportunity to venture out from the Queen City (a familiar pseudonym for Springfield) to see other parts of Missouri. I had never visited the Show Me State until we came to visit in the fall of 2018, when the leaves were turning brilliant shades of red, yellow, and orange. Over the last four months, I have been to St. Louis, Kansas City, Lake of the Ozarks, Columbia, and Branson. Those road trips have taken me from the state’s east border to its west, to the south-central lake district, through the capital to the town of the flagship university, and close to the Arkansas state line in the southwest corner. What’s left? The northern third of the state and the southeast quarter, which are both quite rural.
While I have spent some time and covered a few miles in the Midwest, I didn’t know much at all about the countryside of Missouri before moving here. I have been pleasantly surprised with the beauty of the landscape. Most of the area I have explored is considered part of the Ozarks geographical region. The Ozarks are among the oldest eroded plateaus in North America, and the wearing away of soil over the course of about 200 million years makes them look like a collection of deep valleys between elevated plains. The tallest peak in Missouri is just under 1,800 feet. Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia in the foothills of Appalachia, tops out at 4,783 feet. It’s difficult for me not to compare the unfamiliar with what I know so well, and I find myself frequently seeing similarities between my old and new environs. What I have seen of the southern half of Missouri reminds me a great deal of the piedmont region of Georgia, with gently rolling hills and plenty of vegetation.
St. Louis is in every sense a real city, and it has the tall buildings, monuments, parks, and museums to prove it. My wife and I have been there twice together. Once was a work event for her, but we stayed overnight in the historic Union Station Hotel with its signature spectacular music and light show projected on the ceiling of the Grand Hall. Our second trip was for a weekend getaway when we took in a Cardinals baseball game, spent a few hours at the Missouri Botanical Garden, and visited the Gateway Arch and historic courthouse adjacent to the Mississippi River. We also strolled through Central Library downtown with its impressive exhibit hall.
Our weekend in Kansas City was also associated with a work event, which gave us the opportunity to see a soccer match with Sporting. We also spent a half day shopping and wandering around Country Club Plaza, where the Spanish-style architecture is just as interesting as the stores and restaurants. Of course, no trip to Kansas City would be complete without a taste of BBQ, and we stuffed ourselves with some scrumptious pulled pork and sides at a local franchise called Fiorella’s Jack Stack Barbecue.
I took a solo weekend to work on a writing project at The Lodge of Four Seasons at the Lake of the Ozarks. The Lodge was built in 1965, and it clearly would have been a top-of-the-line resort in its day. After undergoing a $15 million renovation in 2016, The Lodge still offers respectable accommodations and several special features including a multi-story indoor cascading waterfall, a Japanese garden, an indoor/outdoor pool, and a sizeable marina with the largest boats I have ever seen up close. The main restaurant was surprisingly good, where I enjoyed some of the best scallops I have had in a long time. The Lake of the Ozarks was formed in 1931 with the construction of Bagnell Dam on the Osage River. It has a long history as a thriving source of recreation and tourism for central Missouri. A recent book by Bill Geist titled Lake of the Ozarks: My Surreal Summers in a Vanishing America is a laugh-out-loud memoir of his days working as a teenager at his uncle’s resort, Arrowhead Lodge.
I started working as a special projects coordinator at Missouri State University Libraries in June, and on my first day at the job I accompanied the Dean of Libraries to Columbia, home of the state’s flagship University of Missouri. Columbia is a classic university town with fine architecture, cultural institutions, athletics, and a charming downtown. Naturally, Columbia has a thriving nightlife, perhaps best represented by Booches, a pub and pool hall dating back to the 19th century. An interesting fact about the town: when it was originally designed, a tract of land was set aside specifically for a university. We traveled through Missouri’s capital, Jefferson City, that had recently suffered considerable damage from a strong tornado. The whole area was also struggling with terrible floodwaters courtesy of the Missouri River that had completely covered the small airport, destroyed some local businesses, and left homeowners living on their own “islands” accessible only by boat. Missouri certainly has its share of violent, unpredictable weather.
When we first began to consider the move to Springfield, we were happy to learn how close the city is to one of the most popular tourist towns in the Midwest. Branson has been welcoming vacationers to the Ozarks since it was incorporated in 1912. Among the first attractions was Marvel Cave, one of many underground caverns open to the public in Missouri. In 1960 the operators of the site opened Silver Dollar City, a small park modeled after a frontier town. Over the next few decades the site grew into a family-centric amusement park with roller coasters, children’s rides, and various forms of entertainment. The first music theaters began to open in Branson in the mid-20th century. By the 1980s, the town was bringing in major music stars such as Roy Clark. Eventually, other big names would move in to build their own theaters such as Boxcar Willie, Jim Stafford, Ray Stevens, Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, and Dolly Parton. In recent years, the theaters have reduced in number, but other attractions have taken their place, such as water parks, museums, wineries, and more. We have visited Branson twice thus far, and on our last trip we had a fabulous dinner at the Osage Restaurant at Top of the Rock, a resort built by Johnny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops, which is headquartered in Springfield.
I had no idea how much Missouri would have to offer in the way of urban amenities, places of interest, and abundant natural resources. Our fair city also happens to be the official birthplace of Route 66, and Missouri is close to the heart of this iconic mid-20th-century roadway that linked Chicago to the west coast. Travelers through Missouri can still marvel at some of the quirky roadside attractions that are vestiges of the highway’s glory days: Meramec Caverns, a giant red rocking chair, Mule Trading Post, and Uranus Fudge Factory (pun absolutely intended). Our exploration of this diverse state has just begun, and I’m sure future blog posts will be devoted to what we find along the way.
My wife and I have had the good fortune to walk and hike in some spectacular locations over the last ten years including England, France, and Italy. I have written a few posts about our treks in Montana, Arizona, New Mexico, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and California. I maintain that some of the best scenic walks or hikes in the United States are in California: around San Francisco, along the Pacific coast, and in the wine country, just to name a few. If pressed to choose my favorite hiking experience to date, that distinction would have to go to Yosemite in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Yosemite Valley is the most familiar destination in this region to so many visitors, but Yosemite National Park covers 1,200 square miles. First protected in 1864 by the federal government and the state of California, Yosemite is best known for its waterfalls, deep valleys, grand meadows, ancient giant sequoias, and vast wilderness.
We were at Yosemite for several days during July, 2013. A close friend who lives in California frequently visits Yosemite to relax, hike, and take fantastic photographs — a hobby that has in recent years almost become a vocation. She was generous enough to be our guide, taking us to some of her favorite places to hike and witness the beauty of this amazing place. We stayed in a comfortable cabin about 45 minutes south of the valley near the village of Mariposa. For our first outing, we explored the meadows around the Merced River between Sentinel Beach and Cathedral Beach, which offered stunning views of the rocky cliffs of El Capitan and Cathedral Spires. The meadows with their lush riverbanks are large enough to provide some privacy and a good place to escape the crowds that gather near the camping sites and the more popular attractions in the park. We spent the early afternoon taking photographs and wading in the cool waters of the Merced River where it pools in the numerous bends as it winds its way through the valley.
On our second day, we spent some time at two of the most familiar waterfalls in the valley. Bridalveil Fall is the thin, tall spray that is visible on the right from the famous Tunnel View, the place where Wawona Road exits the tunnel and the place where most visitors get their first glimpse and photographs of the breathtaking vista of Yosemite Valley. There is a trail that leads to the base of the fall, where the water crashes against gigantic boulders and disperses a fine mist over an area about an acre in size. The best time to view the falls at Yosemite is the spring, when the melting snow creates the largest volume of water spilling over the soaring rock cliffs. Even in July that year the water was still running enough to make for a spectacular performance. We also walked up to the base of Lower Yosemite Fall, and then treated ourselves to afternoon cocktails in the courtyard of the Ahwahnee Hotel, now called the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. While sipping our drinks under the umbrellas, my eyes were drawn upward to the cliffs rising from the valley floor. Our friend identified the peak as Glacier Point, and I asked, “Can we get up there?” She explained that Glacier Point Road takes off from Wawona Road and leads to an observation point with a picnic area and restrooms. We decided that we would have enough energy by the next morning to explore the hiking trails around Glacier Point.
When we arrived at around 9:00, the crowds had not yet started to gather at this famous lookout point, which offers one of the best views of Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome rock formation. We wandered around the site, experiencing the valley from a completely different perspective than the previous two days. Similar to standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, words fail to describe the spectacle. Even explorers like John Muir had difficulty. Our friend, who is twelve years our senior, challenged us to take the hike from Glacier Point up to Sentinel Dome, which rises about 900 feet from the trail head and peaks out at over 8,100 feet above sea level. “I won’t be happy unless I’m at the top,” I said. We strapped on our backpacks, which included our lunches, and headed up the winding trail through the evergreens toward the summit. When there were breaks in the trees, the views along the way were fabulous. The last hundred feet of the trail opened up to bare rock and was fairly steep. The reward for making it to the top was well worth the effort. Sentinel Dome presented far-reaching vistas in all directions: to the west down the valley to the Merced River canyon and to the north the massive expanse of El Capitan and Yosemite Falls. At this elevation, the peak of Half Dome is in clear sight and is only 700 feet higher. I couldn’t resist hopping up on the large rock that crowns the dome for a selfie with Half Dome to commemorate the occasion.
To employ poor puns to the fullest extent, how do you top such an uplifting experience? On our way back down the trail, we stopped for lunch on some large rocks at an opening looking out to the east. We could just make out the remaining snow on the High Sierra peaks in the distance. Below our perch across a considerable expanse, we could see Nevada Fall making its contribution to the Merced River. At the brief intervals when there was no wind through the trees, we could just barely hear the distant roar of the water crashing down the crag to the huge rocks at the fall’s base. With tired legs and sore feet, we refueled on sandwiches and fruit, realizing that we were totally immersed in one of those wonderful moments where friendships, nature, and a deep appreciation of life converge to present memories that never fade. My wife and I continue to travel and look for opportunities to hike, especially at locations where we can enjoy beautiful scenery. Perhaps at some point I will have an outdoor encounter that impresses me even more than the morning at Sentinel Dome did. I truly look forward to it.
For those who enjoy hiking, perhaps the first places that come to mind for the activity are wilderness sanctuaries offered at national and state parks or through the U.S. Forestry Service. Surprisingly, there are also some major metropolitan areas that provide hiking opportunities both inside the city and in the surrounding countryside. Inner-city parks are great places to enjoy nature and leg-stretching. Sometimes, just walking the streets can end up being a good cardio workout, especially when cities are built in hilly sections of the country. One of the best destinations for hiking in the U.S. is the San Francisco Bay area. The city is characterized by steep hills and valleys, and there is an abundance of parks and wilderness all around the bay.
The city of San Francisco is built on a peninsula in a grid pattern with a collection of over forty hills, some of which reach a height of nearly 1,000 feet. There are plenty of books and websites devoted to urban hiking for San Francisco, and there are groups organized specifically for walking in the city for health, recreation, relaxation, social interaction, and learning about the history of the area. There are even companies that offer guided walks, such as Urban Hiker San Francisco. Most walks are a moderate challenge to people in fairly good health, and some of them have the added bonus of stellar views of the city. For example, the 40-minute loop trails at Bernal Hill crisscross 26 acres of pathways, some of which lead to the summit with 360-degree views of San Francisco all the way to Daly City, Oakland, and Berkeley.
Once you get outside the city, there are loads of hiking options to the north, east, and south. The California Coastal Trail is very popular and yields spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean and the rugged cliffs along the California Coast. There are also nice trails with beautiful bay vistas and distant views of the Golden Gate Bridge in suburbs such as Point Richmond to the east. Located along the rocky cliffs to the south and overlooking the ocean, Lands End is easily one of the most popular spots for a scenic walk. The trails are accessible from a parking lot just north of the world-famous Cliff House and directly in front of another major San Francisco attraction — the ruins of the Sutro Baths, a former swim palace built in the 19th century which featured the world’s largest indoor swimming pool at the time of its opening. The waves crashing against the giant rocks on the beach at Lands End is like something out of a movie!
Looking for a more traditional hiking experience? Just a short drive north of the city is Muir Woods National Monument. Named for the adventurous naturalist who devoted so much of his life to preserving the wonderful natural resources of the west, this National Park Service property is home to a primeval forest of old growth coast redwoods, cooling their roots in the fresh water of Redwood Creek and lifting their crowns to reach the sun and fog. The diversity of flora and fauna at Muir Woods is incredible. The redwoods themselves dominate the scene, but the humble Steller’s jay, ladybugs, ancient horsetail ferns, and the banana slug hold their own beneath the canopy. Plants adapt to low light levels on the forest floor, while whole plant and animal communities bustle in the canopy.
Of course, the bay is the true centerpiece of this portion of the Pacific Coast. With an average depth of only 12-15 feet, this large body of water looks more like a massive inland lake than a gateway to the ocean. The main body of the bay covers about 400 square miles. Approximately 40% of California’s water systems drains into the bay. Most visitors to the area probably take in the view of the bay from Golden Gate Bridge, but to truly appreciate its size, the perspective from the surrounding hillsides is best. My personal favorite vantage points are along the east side at Richmond and from the north at Muir Woods. Hiking is a great form of exercise, but what we see along the way makes the experience so memorable. With that objective in mind, San Francisco is a hiker’s dream.
Hiking is an outdoor activity that covers a lot of ground, literally and figuratively. People who hike do so for a number of different reasons (exercise, health, nature appreciation, social interaction, competition, etc.), and they have so many options of how and where to do this activity. Some folks only think of hiking in terms of backpacking and trekking out into the wilderness for days or even weeks at a time. Others envision hiking as a journey that gets you from point A to point B, or they see it as a test of endurance and distance. Hiking the Appalachian Trail comes to mind.
As with any form of recreation, there may be purists out there who maintain a set of standards or criteria for being called a real hiker. I hope not, because we would certainly fall short. When we hike, my wife and I are no longer interested in “pushing through the pain” to break any records of distance, speed, or difficulty. We are simply enjoying the outdoors and the opportunity to see things for the first time while getting a little exercise. As working professionals, we still operate on fairly busy schedules, so we often find ourselves carving out time to hike. This may mean that we only have thirty minutes or an hour, and we often grab these opportunities while in route. A perfect example was a one-hour excursion we took on our way from Phoenix to Tucson, Arizona, for a short up and back down hike at Picacho Peak State Park.
The drive from Phoenix to Tucson typically takes about two hours. We left Phoenix at about 7:45 in the morning and arrived at Picacho Peak State Park at about 8:45. We changed into our boots, pulled hiking polls out of the trunk of the car, grabbed water and hats and took off on the trail that leads from the parking area to the peak. It is a very rocky but well-marked trail that zigzags up the west slope. It is considered moderate in difficulty, which is a fair assessment. With a few quick stops for me to take some photos along the way, we made it to the overlook in just over thirty minutes. It was a sunny morning with temperatures in the upper 50s F, which was just about perfect.
We are not nearly young enough (admittedly a poor excuse), fit enough, or brave enough to climb rock faces, but we were perfectly satisfied to stop our ascent when we reached the overlook at the base of the jagged outcropping that forms the top of the peak. The view was spectacular looking southeast out across the Arizona desert. Of course, we took the obligatory selfie at this location and absorbed the experience for a few minutes before heading back down the slope.
This out-and-back hike took just over an hour. We were back on the road to Tucson by 11:00 and made it to the city to see some close friends for lunch at noon. More often than not, this is our hiking pattern. We have decided that short hikes like this one satisfy our need to get outside and stretch our legs, breathe in the fresh air, and sometimes enjoy spectacular scenery. Someday, when we are retired, we may have more time for longer hikes, but for now, the short ones are just fine.
People travel for a variety of reasons. Even people who travel for pleasure don’t all have the same agenda. We may be looking for simple relaxation, thrilling adventure, outdoor recreation, breathtaking scenery, cultural or historical education, stimulating enlightenment, or something altogether different. Generally, we are looking for an experience that transcends our day-to-day lives. We seek a opportunity to look at the world with fresh eyes, to be somehow transported if only for a brief time. And, we really don’t have to be in some romantic or exotic location. It can happen so unexpectedly, not because of our plans but in spite of them. It can also happen in an unlikely place — not at all where we anticipated “the magic” would occur.
Several years ago, my wife and I took a trip to San Francisco. We stayed for about a week at a good friend’s house in Port Richmond, a neighborhood in Richmond, California overlooking the bay. It was my first time to the west coast, so we acted like true tourists and visited Muir Woods, the wine country, various places in and around the city, and even took a drive down Highway 1 along the Pacific coast and spent the night in Carmel. It was fabulous. On one afternoon during our vacation, we met up with a young man who is a family friend who lives in the city. He took us to some of his favorite hiking spots at Land’s End and other locations around the entrance of the bay. We came back to the Port Richmond house and settled out on the deck overlooking the bay. We had a few drinks and took the time to catch up with him as the afternoon drifted towards evening. We were enjoying each other’s company and the comfortable weather so much that we decided to have pizza delivered instead of going out for dinner.
We continued to sit on that deck after the pizza was devoured and talked for hours. As we sipped on drinks, we watched the sun slowly sink behind the top of the distant hills to the west beyond the Richmond–San Rafael Bridge and marveled as the lights of the bridge and its endless stream of vehicles began to glow with evening’s approach. We talked and laughed about life, our memories, our hopes and fears. We soaked up the beauty of the bay at nightfall. There was nothing spectacular about the meal, although the setting was certainly enchanting enough. We were together, enjoying each other’s company, completely immersed in the now — the right then and there. We had not necessarily planned for the day to end this way. There was no remarkable event, no famous landmark, no fanfare at all. Still, it was somehow wonderful, and I knew it would be impossible to replicate. I took a photograph of the sunset from the deck to commemorate the occasion. Anytime I can stumble upon a moment like that, I get the sense that I have done more than travel. I have taken a journey.
Near a place called Blood Mountain in the Chattahoochee National Forest in north Georgia, the Appalachian Trail makes a steep descent south towards a place called Neels Gap. The Trail crosses Highway 19/129 just a few miles south of Vogel State Park at a historic site called Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center. The stone façade of the Center has been standing at Neels Gap since 1937. Originally a log structure, the building took its present form when it was rebuilt by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and was a living quarters for corpsman working to reforest the Chattahoochee National Forest. It later served as a restaurant and inn until 1965, when it was abandoned. By the mid-1970s the building was slated for demolition, but a group of conservation-minded locals lobbied successfully for its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Spared from destruction, the building served as an irregular store to hikers and tourists until 1983 when Jeff and Dorothy Hansen took over management of what became known as Mountain Crossings at Walasi-Yi. Although the store has changed hands several times, it still operates as a premiere full service outfitter on the Trail for thru hikers offering gear, large resupply options, lodging, and an array of gifts.
Walasi-Yi Interpretive Center boasts a couple of interesting features. It is the only place where the Appalachian Trail passes through a man-made structure. It is also the home of what I call the tree of blown-out hiking shoes. For years, hikers have been slinging their badly-worn shoes up into the branches of a tree located just outside the store’s entrance. It caught me by surprise the first time I looked up and noticed what was hanging from the limbs. I’m sure the tree stands as a monument to those who have passed through this section of the Appalachian Trail, whether they started in Georgia, Maine, or a thousand points in between. Having one’s shoes included in the tree must surely be a badge of honor. It almost serves as a footwear mausoleum, and perhaps a warning to those who think hiking the Trail is not so difficult.