If you are following the trilogy of posts of our 4200 mile road trip, you are ready for the second part of the trip. Although Missouri is the end point of this section, it’s the title, because it sums up the highlights. The area known as the Ozarks, encompasses parts of Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Kansas. The area is known for it’s culture, but geographically for the caves, caverns, springs and other remnants of ancient times.
We headed out of New Orleans mid-day, with a quick stop at Whole Foods, not only for a picnic lunch but because we knew that the States ahead could have less chances for the healthy food we eat. We had packed a cooler, besides our usual cold bags. After I finish the third blog in this trilogy, I am going to write about things we take on trips, so stay tuned for more on that.
There were a number of routes we could take out of NOLA that would have interesting things to see. We had already made reservations in Vicksburg, Mississippi for that night, so we knew where we needed to be at night. We decided on a scenic route from the books mentioned in my last post that would take us through swampland, sugar cane plantations, cotton fields and more. We actually missed our first turn, but backtracked later to take several parts of the route and saw a lot of interesting scenery.
We got off the main road in Houma, Louisiana. This is a town with 99 bridges. The trees drip with Spanish Moss. There are swamp tours you can take from here to see alligators and other residents and plants, but since we’ve done this in the past, the only alligator we saw was this guy here.
We did a few geocaches which showed us some of the scenery in the area. Included were this caching spot at the end of dirt road leading to the Mandalay Nature Trail. It might have been an interesting wildlife area to explore, but the spiders and swarming bugs at the trailhead were enough for us.
We then turned back toward and drove through fields of sugar cane taking Routes 307, then 20 and finally heading toward Baton Rouge. There we checked out a geocache on the grounds of the Capitol, where there is a lovely lake, where we were close up with a few of the lovely white cranes (who hated pictures, but more about them later).
Dinner was in Natchez, Mississippi, at a cute local restaurant called Planet Thailand. As many of the restaurants we found, they had an eclectic menu – sushi and other Japanese, Chinese, as well as Thai, some less traditional variations. I found them on both my Happy Cow and Find Me Gluten free apps. They were able to accommodate both vegan and gluten free, with some questions to the kitchen. I also try to avoid soy and they were able to do a stir fry for me without it, using some browned broth. It was full of yummy veggies.
At Vicksburg we choose to stay at the Riverview Casino Hotel. By the time we arrived we couldn’t actually see the Mississippi, being on the first floor and in the dark. We did have a small view in the morning, with the pool in the forefront. We didn’t check out the Casino, but the hotel was certainly not like the ones you would find in Las Vegas or Atlantic City. It was dated, though they were undergoing a renovation on the upper floors. We did have a Jacuzzi tub that we didn’t try and it was perfectly clean and comfortable and well priced, just looked like it was a fancy hotel in the 60’s.
In the morning we went to check out the town, which was quaint. There is a large museum, part of which includes an attached riverboat. We viewed the riverboat from the outside, along with a model that they have of the Mississippi River. We drove up by the river where we found markers for the various years of high water.
Then we headed north. We had one more night with a specific reservation. We wanted to visit the Ozark Mountain Arts Center. We weren’t sure if we could make in this day and then stay and leave or make it to the area, stay and then visit in the morning. We had one extra day built into our vague plans and it wound up being the second alternative. The drive turned from yesterday’s cane fields to fields of cotton.
Driving through Cary, Mississippi, we saw something else abundant and white that wasn’t cotton. We had been seeing lovely white cranes in ones or small bunches along our way since Florida but now we passed a stream area where there were dozens of them sitting in the trees. We parked by the side of the road and walked nearer. Although they didn’t seem to be disturbed by passing trucks or other louder noises, as soon as we tried to take pictures they all flew further away. Steve did get a few pictures but it was a challenge.
Our Roadtrippers app has a setting called off beat attractions and when we saw we didn’t have to De Tour too far to visit the birth place of Kermit the Frog, well, what choice did we have. Leland Mississippi was actually the childhood home of Jim Henson, but the small building has been turned into a museum about Jim and his Muppets. It’s free to visit and the enthusiastic curator will help you take pictures and tell you about the artifacts and the area.
The rest of the day’s adventures included a number some Railroad themed geocache De Tours. The first was a car from the Illinois Central Railroad, and since we had been listening to our limited Spotify playlist (make sure the ones you want are really downloaded), which included “The Train They Call The City of New Orleans” (go ahead, sing until you get to the Illinois Central), it was extra cool. The second was an old caboose that was actually open, so you could walk inside, a rarity. The last on the following day was a shell of a train that lead us to meeting the town’s historian, a train historian and a candidate for Arkansas State Representative. You can bet he had a lot to say and although he had a meeting to get to finally gave us his personal cell phone if we ever want to come back for a tour of town.
We stopped for Mexican food for lunch at the Mexican Grill in Cleveland, MS. We opted for take out so we could keep traveling and the food was good but the guacamole was excellent, something I can’t say about any of the other guac, we had on the trip.
We then De Toured to the Louisiana Purchase State Park, where a marker at the end of a boardwalk marks the spot where the initial point from which all surveys of property acquired through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 originated. It takes you above an interesting swamp, but you have to keep moving as the biting bugs find still skin irresistible. Fortunately we were alone when we found the geocache at the monument, because signing the log required doing a geo-dance to keep from being eaten alive. We didn’t stay longer then necessary.
Then we headed for Mountain View, Arkansas. Our one other reservation for the trip was in Mountain View, due to our desire to visit the Ozark Mountain Folk Center. We got into town just in time for a late dinner, any later and we might not have had many choices. We choose Anglers Restaurant partially due to the reviews, partially for the River Front dining, but we decided after we got there not to sit outside, since it was too dark to see much view and we had had enough of bugs earlier in the day. We sat inside and had a delicious meal. They specialize in a lot of Southern Foods, but have a variety of dishes and sides which the waitress helped us choose. It seems very popular with locals and the visitors who come to the area regularly to fish. Then we found our way to the cabin we had rented for the night at Pinewood Cabins. That was a great find, inexpensive, lovely, right on the edge of the town. It had a kitchenette and parking by the door which let us reorganize our luggage and stuff a bit. Definitely a place you could stay a few days if you wanted to enjoy the area. Mountain View claims to the be the Folk Musical Capital of the World. There was at least one outdoor group playing right near the cabins the night we were there but we were too tired to check it out.
In the morning we walked through the small, quaint little down town, though not much was open yet and the one cafe was very crowded. We choose instead to have breakfast up at the Ozark Folk Center’s Skillet Restaurant and were very glad we did. Their dining room has lots of big windows and they place bird and squirrel feeders right outside the windows so you can see a variety of birds and other wild life coming up to find food. The squirrel feeder inspired my husband and I think we will soon have one in our yard. The food was typical and we found by ordering a la carte, eggs, potatoes and fruit for me, grits for Steve we had a good breakfast. I believe they also had gluten free bread but we passed on that. The Folk Center is just across the road from the restaurant. There you pay an admission price and can stroll the grounds, enjoy hourly music and watch the craftspersons work. They often have special concerts in the evening, but those are separate events. They have at least a dozen buildings, each with a different artist or artists making and selling their unique crafts. These are passionate people (often couples) who have worked there for years. There is pottery, jewelry, copper smiting, chair caning, weaving and more. There are some games and crafts children can try. I bought my usual favorite really lovely soap, used it for the first time this morning and already want to go back for more. I really enjoyed this place and am glad it was part of our De Tour.
From the Ozark Folk Center we probably would have moved on down the road a bit, but they enticed us to visit the nearby Blanchard Springs Caverns. There is a discount admission with the ticket from the Folk Center and they convinced us it was a really great cave. In the end we had planned another cave later in the trip that we needed to skip due to timing, so I was doubly glad we stopped. They have several tours, but only the shortest was available at the time we were there, so we didn’t have to make any choices. There are a lot of great spaces with interesting features. The tour guides are National Park Rangers and very knowledgeable, though I’m not sure I bought the explanation on how they protected the fragile ecosystem while making the cave accessible and well lit for tourists, but they are very concerned about the cave dwellers and preserving the living structures. Interestingly enough I learned on this trip, when looking at literature for other caves that being in the Bible Belt, there are some caves that give their tour from the Christian perspective that all the caves were formed during the “Great Flood” in Noah’s time. Not judging, just saying you need to know that you may get different geographical interpretations depending on the cave you choose to visit, and there are as many choices are there are Springs in the Ozarks.
Talking about our adventures with one of the artists at the Ozark Folk Center, we asked for any recommendations of things we should see in the next day or so. He recommended we stop at the Top of the Rock Resort in Ridgedale, Montana. We got there, but not until around dinner time on Saturday. I think it might have been interesting if we had arrived earlier. They have a sunset ceremony at the top of the hill, but we got there just as it was ending. The restaurants at the top were a little fancy for us, I gather there is also a separate resort area. If we had been there in the daytime there is a tour of a cave involving riding in a golf cart, a bar in the cave and a big excavation they are doing that sounded interesting. Instead we enjoyed the view over the massive Table Lake for a few minutes and headed onward into Branson.
I tried asking people before we left home about Branson and if it was worth the De Tour, I had a feeling it might be too commercial. It wasn’t too commercial, it also wasn’t too exciting. I guess I expected another Nashville or New Orleans atmosphere, it was not, at least when and where we were it was pretty subdued. We got in to late for Saturday shows, there were a handful of Sunday shows we could have stuck around for but none that were that interesting and all we could have seen in Atlantic City and we never do. What we did do was have a very good Thai dinner at Thai Thai Cuisine. I asked for my curry with just vegetables and they gave me lots and not just the usual broccoli and cabbage but a really nice assortment.
Then we headed to check out what they call the “Boardwalk” area, which is just shops down by the River. There was one outdoor entertainer and we wandered and waited for the “fire and fountain show” as we arrived just as the last one was finishing. We stayed for the hour and found that it was a “show” that lasted as long as the National Anthem and was just some squirting water and squirting fire, not even timed to the music. We had picked a nearby hotel, which was less then spectacular, it was noisy all night and we could have stayed further out if we knew that the boardwalk area had lots of parking.
The redeeming part of Branson was we decided to check out a really nice brunch. That was it’s own kind of adventure. We read a lot about the brunch at The College of the Ozarks. We called for reservations but they were booked, though they said they take walk ins, so we went for a ride to see the nearby dam and got there shortly after the brunch started. They told us the wait might be an hour, but actually it was more like 10 minutes. In the meantime we explored and learned something about the school. There are banners all over that said “hard work U”. It winds up that the students don’t pay tuition, instead they work for the college 15 hours a week during semesters and more during breaks. The catch, it’s a Christian College with a very strong religious doctrine. The students had that “stepfordish” thing going on, or maybe it was me being super sensitive. The buffet was massive and good labeling of things that were gluten free, dairy free and a few others. They did have separate gluten free with the desserts, none were also dairy free except the sorbet, but we were so full anyway and a did take a chance on a macaroon 🙂
On our way East, we stopped for our first Spring, at an Earth Geocache in Patrick Bridge, Missouri, at Althea Spring. Not only was the Spring interesting and we learned some geography but we met lots of little fish, tiny frogs and a turtle crossing the trail.
Before we left when we were looking for areas with lodging we talked about staying in West Plains, Missouri, just South of where the route through the scenic forests and springs started. Now we arrived there around mid-day so we kept exploring. We went a bit South to Grand Gulf State Park, which is a system of collapsed caves, so basically canyons. We hiked several trails and learned that Missouri and later West Virginia, like to put steps in the woods. Sometimes they tell you how many steps, really you usually don’t want t to know.
Then we accidentally headed more South, thinking we were going North, but when we saw the Arkansas State line again, we knew we needed to head back. By the time we got back on track and found the next spot we wanted to explore we decided it was too late for that day to start walking in the woods. Since we were not that many miles from West Plains, and were concerned even if we could find places to stay in the smaller towns we might not find food, we decided to go back to West Plains where there were several big hotels. It was a good choice, the Hampton Inn was almost new and well maintained. The nice desk clerk suggested El Charro Mexican Restaurant where we had a delicious dinner. I had a dish with fish which was unusual for Mexican that I’m used to but extremely tasty. We did some laundry back at the hotel and relaxed. The next day we did pass some other places we could have stayed but food would have been a lot harder to find without driving a distance.
In the morning we headed for a sort of sideways loop detour that took us to a number of Springs that were in our tour books. The first was Big Spring. We were glad we had brought the 4 wheel drive car, it was longish rough road coming in but almost no walk to the Spring. The color was lovely and each other spring we would see would have a slightly different color, it has to do with the minerals it brings up from the ground. If you notice the picture of Steve throwing something, it’s sticks. The Earth geocache required a game of “Pooh Sticks” to determine how fast the water was moving after coming up from the ground. Each spring also had interesting statistics about the amount and pressure of the water. Here is a little from the Wikipedia Entry: The average flow of 470 cubic feet (13,000 L) of water per second from Big Spring constitutes the second largest tributary of the Current River. The spring is by far the largest spring in the Ozark Plateau region. Big Spring is ever increasing in size, as the groundwater continues to dissolve limestone in a vast karst system, and continuation of stream capture in greater quantities. The spring is estimated to dissolve and remove 175 tons of limestone during an average day. The amounts of limestone dissolved and removed by the spring system in one year is estimated to equal a one-mile (1.6 km) long cave 30 feet (9.1 m) high 50 feet (15 m) wide.
The next Spring down the road was Blue Spring. A short hike and new shades of blue.
At Alley Spring, there is a Mill and several historic buildings. We ran into a group that just came off a horseback tour, which also seems popular in the area. Other then walking through the Mill building to get to the Spring we didn’t check out the buildings, but the Spring, which you can walk around has more describable colors. If you walk up the path shortly past the spring the water flows over small falls.
Time for another take out lunch so we could keep traveling. Our options were kind of limited. We settled on Dos Rios Mexican Grill. The woman at the register wasn’t very helpful in figuring out the choices that would work for us, but thankfully one of her co-workers came up and helped. Since I didn’t eat my food right away, I can only guess that maybe they were out of cilantro. Both the taco that was supposed to be topped with it and the guacamole were sorry lacking in my favorite herb, otherwise okay. I drove while Steve ate, he asked me if I felt comfortable with the curvy roads. Before we left the parking lot I looked at the map and said “the next part looks pretty straight on the map”. It became our running joke for the rest of the trip “oh look another straight road”, in other words there are more bends per mile then an amusement park ride.
We stopped at last Missouri Spring, Round Spring . There were two springs on a short trail from the parking lot.
Then we De Toured to Dillard’s Mill Historic Area. Unfortunately, the Mill was closed so we just got to see the pretty area.
Last stop before St. Louis was Elephant Rocks State Park. This spot where giant granite boulders scatter the landscape. Here is a great explanation of the Park and Boulders. The trail, known as the Braille trail is handicapped accessible, letting all to interact with these giants. The site for many years was a quarry, so included in the explanations are names and dates carved into some of the rocks by those who because masters in the trade, as well as remnants of drilling and the old railroad building where the granite was shipped from.
Last stop for this leg of the trip was St. Louis. We weighed staying in the City versus some of the outlying areas. In the end, the outlying might have been a better choice. Like many cities, at night what is open is limited and as tourists its hard to know safe vs. unsafe areas to walk. We were thinking about parking the next day for the Arch, the main thing we were heading for. I didn’t think to check what the rates were to park, but I now believe it might not have been that bad. Looking online though I found that some hotels offered a park and stay rate, so we decided to stay at Hilton Downtown by the Arch. We actually got a better price in this case by calling Hilton directly. We did have a hard time getting an answer to how long we could stay in the garage, but at check in, it wound up being until 5 PM the next day, which more then suited our plans. The hotel was nice enough but after walking to dinner and feeling a bit scared we decided to Uber back, although it wasn’t that far.
Dinner was fun. After looking at cattle grazing everywhere for days I was in the mood for grass-fed beef, something I eat once every month or two. When I found a restaurant that served not only grass-fed burgers and veggie burgers on gluten free buns, but also offered non-dairy ice cream, there was no other choice then Bailys’ Range. The place wasn’t very crowded since it was late; just a few people at the bar and one other bigger party. They were celebrating a birthday and were a little loud and silly. We were entertained by them but they kept apologizing for disturbing us. It wound up they were friends of our server, who actually felt unnecessarily bad and didn’t even charge me for my ice cream that I took to go. The burger was good, though better in theory then taste. Steve’s veggie burger was also good. We also had fries with their interesting sauces, so it was good to have something different for us. They were very good about ingredients. I wanted mayo for my burger, but they make their own and it had dairy so they caught that. The ice cream which I ate back at the hotel was really good. I was very stuffed.
We were worried about tickets for the Arch and the associated movie and I guess in Season they can be limited at certain times, but when we called in the morning they said we wouldn’t have a problem and we didn’t. Therefore we took our time. Everyone told us there were two things we needed to see/do in St. Louis, the Arch and the City Museum, but it wound up the City Museum is closed not only on Mondays, but when we were there Tuesdays as well. Breakfast could have been a big disaster. We choose a place called Roosters, which came up on both gluten free and vegan apps. The server we got was awful. When I asked about Almond or another non-dairy milk for coffee, she told me they didn’t have any besides soy, then I see on the menu that they have coconut milk in some of their drinks. We asked if the gluten free crepes they are known for are also dairy free, she said, “no everything is cooked in butter”. Then I find on the menu that they are vegan. I was so frustrated, that I went to the person who was seating people and said that our server was both unknowledgeable and being rude to us, something that was very hard for me to do (I was almost in tears). The manager, Camille happened to hear and said she would serve us personally. She was nice and helped us work through the selections on the menu that would work for us. We wound up having omelettes that were rolled like crepes around fillings and were quite good. We were thankful to have our day back on the right track.
Then some geocaching luck also took us the scenic way back from where we were through the City Park that stretches for many blocks heading toward the River and the Arch. It allowed us to enjoy the walk and get some great pictures. The Arch is very interesting. Having seen pictures of it many times I had no clue you could ride up inside the Arch and look out upon the City from the top. The ride is like being in a Ferris wheel enclosure, but you only see steel structure out the windows. The movie about the designing and building of the Arch is just as interesting and the area around the theater is a great museum talking about regional history. We were very impressed on the unbiased descriptions on how both Native Americans and Mexicans were cheated out of their land and their ways of life. After we left we did make a quick stop to see the “Old Court House”, which not only has interesting architecture but also was the site of some important court cases, including Dredd Scott.
The adventure, Part 1 is here. Next, Part 3, Take us Home Country Roads.