Destination: Little Rock

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Leaving the Fort Smith area I headed east on I-40, with a stop at Petit Jean State Park.  Miles of creek side trails and a big lake make Petit Jean a great spot for outdoor adventures.  One of the central features is Cedar Falls, which tumbles 90 feet into a gorge.  There’s a couple of vantage points above it that are easy to get to, but to see it from below requires a hike down into the canyon.  Another interesting spot is Rock House Cave, a petroglyph site.  Beautiful Civilian Conservation Corps construction on roads, trails, and picnic areas round out this gorgeous location.

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Right smack in the middle of Arkansas is its capital city: Little Rock. Once upon a time this was the place everyone was talking about as nine black teenagers struggled through the integration of all-white Little Rock Central High School. The school itself still operates so you can’t just go wandering around in it (although there are tours occasionally, see the NPS website for info) but the grounds are open and the National Park Service operates a very nice (and free) visitor’s center kitty corner to the school. I was there in the afternoon and watched for a bit as the students were heading out for the day. Black, white, sixty years after the National Guard was used to keep out the Little Rock Nine everybody mingled together and it didn’t seem to matter a bit what color anybody’s skin was.

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

The River Market District is a beautiful section of the city packed with restaurants, shops, and historic buildings.  I stopped for lunch at Ottenheimer Market Hall where stalls offer just about any kind of food you can imagine.  Pizza, ice cream, Asian, Middle Eastern, soul food, nobody could possibly go hungry in this place. While I was there I saw everybody from bankers to construction workers chowing down.  I was basically eating with the Village People.  Wandering along the street I came to the Old State House, where Arkansas seceded from the Union on May 6th, 1861.  The free museum inside covers every aspect of Arkansas history you can think of.  There were big sections on governors, civil rights, the history of bicycles, movies with any sort of tie to Arkansas, there was even a whole room of dresses worn by governor’s wives.  When my feet started to hurt I hopped on a trolley; for $1 it meandered through the river district, over the Arkansas River into North Little Rock, and back again while the driver pointed out interesting things along the way.  North Little Rock holds T.R. Pugh Memorial Park which contains The Old Mill.  This was never actually a mill, it was created purely as a picturesque ruin, but it is pretty enough to have made it into the opening scenes of Gone with the Wind.

Continuing along I-40 there are three different archaeological parks to visit. These are mound sites, created hundreds of years ago by the ancestors of modern Native American tribes. Some of the mounds have fallen victim to farming over the years but several are still visible. Toltec & Parkin have trails going out to their mounds, but Hampson is just a small museum dedicated to a site that remains privately held and can’t be visited. The ranger at Toltec told me that they had excavated one mound for study and when they rebuilt it they had to bring in 18 dump trucks of dirt. Imagine doing that by hand, carrying the dirt in baskets.  Village Creek State Park also resides along this corridor and has some nice trails.

I really didn’t expect Arkansas to be so incredible, but I’m already scheming to go back.

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Destination: Northwestern Arkansas

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Arkansas has been a place of cultural clashes for at least the last 200 years. Westward expansion, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, civil rights – it’s intense. With that much history it’s no surprise that the state is packed to the brim with memorials and battlefields.  If you think of Arkansas as a square divided by a diagonal line the northwestern half is rugged and mountainous, with winding roads and fields of cows in the valleys, while the southeastern half is flat and wet, containing many small towns surrounded by cropland. I don’t know if Arkansas just has better parks than other states or what but all the ones I went to were stunning, and by some miracle free of charge, so it doesn’t cost a thing to get out and experience the incredible beauty on display here. They don’t call it The Natural State for nothing, and I was super happy to be out in the woods again after so many months of dirt & rocks in Arizona.


A Journey

On the very western edge of Arkansas, right on the border with Oklahoma, is the town of Fort Smith, once the very last outpost before you left the United States and entered the frontier. The infamous Trail of Tears passed this way heading out to Indian Territory. The fort itself once imprisoned the ruffians that made the West wild. Major clashes of the Civil War were fought nearby as the Confederates tried to make some headway on the border state of Missouri. It’s almost overwhelming trying to take it all in.

Fort Smith National Historic Site consists of a large park on the Arkansas River as well three buildings from the second incarnation of the fort: the gallows, the commissary, and the courthouse.  The courthouse holds a very nice museum covering the long and varied history of the fort, the frontier, and the Trail of Tears.  In those days this was the end of civilization, with Indian Territory just a few steps away.

Heading north on Scenic Byway US-71, I stopped at Devil’s Den State Park is a great place for hiking or swimming.  Caves, boulders, cliffs, and waterfalls dot the forest.  I never did figure out which one was the Devil’s den and which was the Devil’s ice box, or why people insist on giving these Satanic place names.

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Just outside the small town of Fayetteville, where I wandered into a farmer’s market in the town square and spotted a local chef buying his produce for the day, is Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park.  There’s not a lot left of the original landscape, but there is a nice museum and a walking path with buildings from that era.  The interesting thing about Prairie Grove is the driving tour through town.  Pick up a flyer or buy a CD at the visitor’s center for the information pertaining to each stop, and try not to ogle people’s front lawns too much.  They’ll start to think you’re weird.

Stop at the Daisy Air Rifle Museum ($2) in Rogers for a quirky history lesson and more Red Ryder than you can handle.  I had no idea the history of air rifles was such a long one, but they’ve got guns dating back a few hundred years.  Some of the memorabilia is way hyper-masculine but I guess that’s their demographic.  Confusingly incongruous with being called Daisy though.

Just a few miles shy of the Missouri border is Pea Ridge National Military Park, where the land has been maintained much as it was during the decisive Civil War battle that was fought here.  The only remaining building is the Elkhorn Lodge, and even it is a rebuild from shortly after the end of the war.  The driving tour supplemented with foot trails takes you through the battlefield, onto the ridge above it where soldiers hid from their enemies, and to a couple of memorials placed later by veterans from both sides of the conflict.  As much interest as I have in historic battlefields, I struggle to really understand them.  Some group from some place with a certain number fought with some other numbered group from a different place.  Eventually one group left.  Yay.

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This part of Arkansas is incredible and it’s definitely a place I’d like to explore further in the future.  It’s just too pretty.  I can’t stand it.

Gallery: West Fork Trail (Call of the Canyon)

This is easily one of my favorite hikes.  The trail follows the west fork of Oak Creek for almost three and a half miles as it flows down through the canyon.  The trail is fairly flat, with soaring cliffs on each side as a backdrop to the forest.  All along the trail were signs of flood and fire damage, and even a few patches of snow.  It crosses the creek 13 times, including several that require wading through ankle deep (and ICE COLD) water.  The first ford turned back at least two large, obnoxious groups of hikers, so I wasn’t too broken up about having to get my feet wet. >:D

Prints of photos from this series and others taken at Oak Creek Canyon are now available for purchase here.

Other people’s trash that I packed out:

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Destination: Tuscon

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Saguaro National Park

The park is split into two sections, one on each side of the city.  Both are fairly easily accessible from I-10, although they’re not right near the interstate. The Rincon Mountain District on the eastern side is so beautiful & pristine that I kept forgetting I wasn’t in a botanical garden.  It has an 8-mile loop that’s drivable and plenty of trails for those who want to explore on foot.  I enjoyed the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail that leaves from the Javelina Picnic Area.  It goes way up into the mountains, although I didn’t take it all that far.  At one point I came across a box where they wanted me to register my presence there, so I filled out my name and then realized they wanted to know what time I left and what time I came back.  I was so afraid that I’d forget to write down when I came back by and they’d be all in a tizzy thinking I went up in there and died or something that I filled in a time I thought I might come back and rendered the whole thing moot.

The Tuscon Mountain District on the western side borders county-run Tuscon Mountain Park.  The landscape here is totally different, with more rolling mountains and interesting rock formations.  There are miles of trails and roads, however a large stretch of Golden Gate Road is not well maintained and requires a high clearance vehicle.  A 1/4 mile trail at the signal hill picnic area leads up to series of ancient Hohokam petroglyphs on the rocks.  I always think ancient artwork is so interesting, even if nobody has any idea what it means.  It looked to me to be mostly authentic, although there were a couple bits that I thought had been carved more recently by vandals.  I’ll never understand why people feel the need to do that.  “Bob loves Jill 2002!”  Guess what?  Nobody cares.

Of course its namesake saguaro cacti are all over both halves of the park, along with tons of other cool looking plants.  I have to wonder how anybody ever made it through these places before there were roads given that everything seems to have giant murderous thorns.


A Journey

Highways 82 & 83 run through the desert from Vail to Nogales, passing many ranches and a couple of small towns along the way.  Just don’t make a wrong turn at the end & accidentally end up in Mexico.  There are a lot of dirt side roads leading off to various things, including probably some ghost towns, but be careful: signs at the turn offs warn of drug smuggling and illegal immigration.  Tuscon is just back up I-19, including a trip through a border patrol checkpoint complete with drug dogs so don’t have anything illegal in the car.  The vast majority of the road signs all the way back to Tuscon express distances in kilometers, so it’s a little harder to keep track of locations.

On the way back to Tuscon I-19 passes right by the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, a decommissioned Cold War era nuclear missile silo that still houses its Titan II rocket.  They offer 1-hour tours ($9.50) through the command center, including discussions of the crew’s daily life, a simulated launch, and a look at the rocket itself.  Other types of tours are also available a few times a month, check their website for details.  I went on the basic tour and found it very interesting.  Our guide, Ed, was very knowledgeable.  He showed us the technology involved in running the place, the various security procedures and steps involved in crew changes, and walked us through the launch sequence.  Given that the base operated from 1963 to 1982 their tech seems downright ancient now, and I’m always fascinated by the way complex things operated in a time before computers ran it all.  Punch tape targeting systems, thumb wheel code entry, no electronic screens anywhere, it’s completely nuts.  The other weird thing is that the whole place is set on shock absorbers.  Everywhere you look there’s huge springs on the walls and along the walkways.  Ed said one time they got a bunch of people to push on one wall of the command center and they actually got the room to move.

Prints from the Saguaro National Park infrared series are now available for purchase here.

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