We started our trip mid-week, and well before sunrise, in order to avoid the typical St. Louis Metro rush-crush traffic jams. We would normally travel southwestward on I-44, but, in order to avoid major road-construction delays, we began by heading west on I-70.
From I-70, we went south on U.S. Hwy. 54 through Jefferson City -- site of Missouri’s State Capitol ( http://mostateparks.com/page/55186/missouri-state-capitol ) which offers free daily guided tours and also houses the free Missouri State Museum ( http://mcaf.ee/syzp1 ) -- and then on southwestward through the Lake of the Ozarks region. We were rewarded with a panoply of blossoming dogwood and redbud; along with an early morning turkey that flew right along the roadside, too.
A couple of miles beyond Macks Creek, MO, we headed south on Hwy. 73. Within a mile or so, right along Hwy. 73, a brief stop afforded an opportunity to climb to the top observation deck of one of the few remaining “open-to-the-public” fire towers in the state. Even though it is not situated atop a high mountain or tall ridge -- as is typical of most fire towers, it is one of the tallest fire towers out of the few dozen we have climbed. As with all fire towers, the strenuous climb is always worth the topside 360-degree view!
After heading farther south on U.S. Hwy. 65, we stopped at the Missouri Conservation Department’s Lake Springfield Nature Center ( http://tinyurl.com/jburr ) in s.e. Springfield, MO. When we’re in the vicinity, we always like to spend enough time there to stretch our legs and hike the hilly, 2-1/2 mile Long Trail loop.
The trail takes you through the woods and affords a good bluff-top overview of the lake. You’re almost always guaranteed to see a group of deer -- as we did -- not too far from an open-glade/fen boardwalk on the trail. Right after the glade, the trail crosses over a stream and follows it to a low waterfall. Again crossing the stream, it takes you down to the lake and along the shore where we always see many water turtles sunning themselves on floating logs. Crossing the lake on a wide wooden footbridge, you can normally see a few dozen of the largest freshwater lake fish we have ever seen! After a long stretch through an open field, the trail meanders alongside and over a clear-water stream back through the woods where you again most probably will encounter more deer. This leads you to the final climb back up to the refreshing air-conditioned Nature Center’s museum.
After our rejuvenating Nature Center aside, we continued south on U.S. Hwy. 65 – past the Branson, MO tourist-trap area – and headed west on Hwy. 86. This scenic highway parallels the Arkansas border. It crosses an arm of Table Rock Lake and snakes its way up and down through Dogwood Canyon ( www.dogwoodcanyon.com ), crosses the Kings River and affords fabulous views of intriguing knob hills in the distance.
About a mile before Chain-O-Lakes, MO, we took Hwy. P south; after only another mile or so, Hwy. P turns into Hwy. 23 as it crosses the state border into Arkansas. Then it was only about another 10 miles of more beautiful scenery into our first days’ destination: the Best Western Inn of the Ozarks ( www.innoftheozarks.com ) – with its well-known Myrtie Mae’s restaurant -- in Eureka Springs ( www.eurekasprings.com AND/OR www.eurekasprings.org ) in northwest Arkansas.
Eureka Springs has a long history as a resort spa/mineral springs tourist draw. There are many such springs located within its environs. In the springtime the town is overabundant with blossoming shrubs, trees and flowers. In addition to the ever-present white and pink dogwood, one stand-out is the beautiful purple wisteria.
One particular spot in town not to miss for its floral display of many-colored tulips and azaleas, along with many more flower varieties, is the recently renovated historic Crescent Hotel ( www.crescent-hotel.com ). You can get to the Crescent by taking the counter-clockwise Red Route Trolley ( http://mcaf.ee/d1baf ) which follows the Historic Loop Tour. There are a half-dozen such trolley routes in the town. You can buy inexpensive tickets -- for either a one-time get-on/off, or an all-day-unlimited-get-on/off -- for the trolleys at the main Trolley Station ( www.eurekatrolley.org ) and at many locations and hotels throughout the town. (The trolleys are actually rubber-tired buses, but are constructed to look like the real thing.)
We usually prefer to walk (clockwise) most of the Historic Loop route; which, for the most part, is marked by curbs painted red. By walking the route we are able to take the opportunity to smell the many fragrant flowers along the way and to fully admire and photograph the many Victorian-style bed-and-breakfast homes; and, to linger at the various springs.
When visiting the Crescent Hotel, be sure to read the historic marker outside its main “rear” entrance; which is where the trolley stops. Also be sure to read the historic plaques inside the hotel, too; particularly the one on the back side of the massive fireplace inside the lobby. And, do climb the stairs -- or take the elevator if you prefer -- to the Observation Deck for a great view overlooking the town below.
The adjacent Crescent Park is ringed by Spring Street, which leads downhill from the “back” side of the hotel. After stopping to enjoy the cool air emanating from the half-dozen street-side springs (no longer potable water, though), we always like to walk up the steps into the historic Carnegie Public Library. As you enter the library don’t miss perusing its many historic photos of the town. You’ll find these photos housed in an open-topped, flip-file cabinet that sits right inside the library’s entrance. You can also purchase a self-guided “Six Scenic Walking Tours” booklet for Eureka Springs at the library.
As you wind your way just a bit farther along the Historic Loop route you’ll enter the heart of downtown Eureka Springs. Don’t miss reading the newly installed brass plaques that denote the history of various points of interest along the way, such as the Basin Park Hotel ( www.basinpark.com ).
Between and across from the City Hall and the Trolley Station on Main Street (Hwy. 23) is Benton Street. Its sidewalk leads up a steep hill. We always find the climb up Benton St. worthwhile for the flowers, and even the occasional groundhog sighting, too. But, before heading up the hill, we like to stop near this corner at the small (seating for 20 people at most) Italian restaurant called Geraldos. It’s owned by a friendly Englishman who likes to sit down and “chat-up” his customers. The food is really good; try not to pass it by!
Another walking tour route we did in town takes you by the man-made Lake Eureka, which was the areas’ original “swimming hole.” This same route takes you by a couple of hillside springs. Carry Nation Spring is right across Steele Street from Hatchet Hall (http://tinyurl.com/odzqy ), which “was the last home of the saloon-smashing prohibitionist.”
On this same route you’ll also pass right by the historic Grand Central Hotel ( http://tinyurl.com/o9ue5 ). We stopped in this hotel hoping to get some cool refreshment. We found the elegant female owner sitting next to the grand piano inside the hotel’s well-appointed and spacious lobby. The hotel restaurant wasn’t serving and the hotel was actually closed for the day. However, she welcomed us in and even took us on an exclusive room-to-room (each bedroom has it’s own Jacuzzi-spa tub!) tour of the recently renovated hotel. After showing us the upper floor of the hotel, she also took us downstairs to see the newly furnished banquet area. Here she opened up some semi-hidden alcove doors, which allow access to a closed-off tunnel. She said that all the buildings along Main Street now sit above these old unused and closed-off tunnels. The buildings’ current ground floors were originally their second story. Because of previous flooding and mudslides, the streets were elevated…thus producing the old tunnels beneath the current ground level.
We spent the entire weekend at the Inn of the Ozarks to attend a very informative 3-day conference, which has been held annually in the Inn’s large conference hall for the past 18 years. One of the main featured speakers was renowned Harvard Astrophysicist, Dr. Rudy Schild, Ph.D. ( http://cfa-www.harvard.edu/~rschild ). The topic of his keynote talk was: “Emerging UFO Science and Technology.” Interestingly, during the Q&A, Dr. Schild predicted that within 3- to 5-years, at most, the U.S. Government would admit to the physical reality of UFOs! (For more info on the inexpensive and well-attended Ozark UFO Conference, see: www.ozarkufo.com )
[For a pertinent aside: See the second to last paragraph of this article for info on another physicist’s scientific UFO research in relation to a previous decade-long wave of UFO sightings in Missouri. --- Additionally, for those few who remain uniformed about UFOs -- and/or those who are misinformed, and therefore still have doubts -- be sure to read Mercury 7 astronaut Gordon S. Cooper’s autobiographical book, Leap Of Faith ( http://tinyurl.com/no7j9 ) ].
Leaving Eureka Springs, we took two-lane Hwy. 23 south for a long, hilly and little-populated – but very scenic -- drive to link up with I-40 near the town of Ozark in west-northwest Arkansas. We then headed east on I-40 – with an abundant variety of wildflowers lining the center median the entire way -- to the Holiday Inn right at the Russellville, AR, “Scenic Hwy. 7” exit. We have stayed at this Holiday Inn before. They have great room service, which costs no more than eating in their restaurant. After our day’s activities, we then got to eat our food in our room while watching one of our favorite Discovery Channel shows: “American Chopper.”
[By the way, we recommend always checking online sites like Travel Buddy ( www.interstatetravelbuddy.com ) for valuable motel discount coupons offers. However, do be sure to read the fine print on the coupons for any date/time restrictions. Also be aware that the discount rates offered via such coupons are usually only good for one night’s stay.]
We had considered heading farther eastward that day to hike to the top of Pinnacle Mtn. ( http://tinyurl.com/nqvs6 ), which is ten miles west of Little Rock. We have climbed to the top of Pinnacle once before and it offers a great view of the Arkansas River valley in that area. But, since the unseasonable temperature was already in the 90s, after checking in at the Holiday Inn, we instead decided to drive a few miles south of Russellville to Mount Nebo State Park ( http://tinyurl.com/mecbn ).
Mount Nebo is a flat-topped mountain. However, the drive up to the top is anything but! There are so many radical switch-backs – where you literally almost “go vertical” while making near-180 turns in no more than a car length! – that no motor homes or trailers are allowed on the drive up to the top of the 1,350 foot-high mountain.
The mountain has a “resort” history behind it. Back in the days before air-conditioning, the area’s wealthy locals used to spend their summers atop Mount Nebo high above the hot, humid and mosquito-infested river valley. Normally its high elevation and breezes would yield cooler temperatures and blow away those pesky “skeeters.”
Once you’re up to the top of the mountain and parked at the state park visitor’s center, you’ll get a great view of the Arkansas River valley below; which, unfortunately, also includes a bird’s-eye view of Arkansas’ only nuclear power plant. If you’re atop the mountain in the late afternoon, you may even see a few hang gliders launch into the wild-blue, too. You can also drive to opposite ends of the top of the mountain for more great panoramic views from both Sunrise Point and Sunset Point.
At any of these three mentioned locations atop Mount Nebo you also can do as we always do (with plenty of water and at least a couple of apples) and hike up-and-down, and down-and-up, on the 3-1/2 mile Rim Trail loop. You get even more vista views of the valleys below from this trail. While hiking the trail you’ll also be accompanied by the many prevalent vultures at eye-level, too. Do be aware that this trail is subject to possible occasional blockage by rock falls; so, be sure to inquire at the park office/visitor center before attemptting a hike. We did have to negotiate a 20-foot section of rock-fall on our hike. (Unfortunately on this unseasonably hot mid-April day there were uncommonly few breezes and the temperature was 92 in the shade and 97 in full sun! Fortunately, though, the humidity remained low.)
The next day, as the unusual heat wave reached 98 degrees, we toured the Clinton Presidential Museum (www.clintonfoundation.org/cpc-index.htm ) in Little Rock; which is the State Capital of Arkansas. In addition to being very informative, the museum is very innovative with its energy efficient design and bamboo wood-plank floors. It is located on the banks of the Arkansas River, adjacent to an old railroad bridge, just east of I-30. (Be forewarned: The basement restaurant inside the museum closes early each day at 2 p.m.)
Also adjacent (same parking lot) to the presidential museum is the Bill Clinton School of Public Service. The school is housed in a renovated historic train station with impressive woodwork throughout. Annually, out of 2000 student applicants 75 “finalists” make the preliminary cut. Out of those 75, only 16 students end up being chosen each year!
There is a free trolley bus that stops right out front of the entrance to the Clinton museum. We did not ride it, but it will take you to/by a variety of points of interests in downtown Little Rock; some of which we have visited on a previous trip to Little Rock. Not to be missed are the Historic Arkansas Museum ( http://tinyurl.com/nlhnu ), the Old State House Museum ( www.oldstatehouse.com ), and the State Capitol Building ( http://tinyurl.com/el9cq ); all of which can be seen via a pleasant walk of about 2 miles.
While in the area, we also decided to check out the unusual Old Mill ( http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-old-mill ) in North Little Rock. If you have ever seen the motion picture “Gone With The Wind”, the mill is featured in the movie’s opening scene. The mill is situated in a very picturesque setting. If you have the extra time to spare, it is worth the aside; but, don’t sacrifice seeing another point of interest instead.
From Little Rock, we traveled east on I-40, crossing both the White and Cache rivers not far from Brinkley, AR. This is the area where a rare -- and previously thought to be extinct -- Ivory-billed woodpecker ( www.birds.cornell.edu/ivory ) has recently been spotted. Farther along on I-40 we passed over the north/south-trending Crowley’s Ridge ( http://tinyurl.com/fexg5 ) near Forrest City, AR. The ridge really stands out as an anomaly between the vast, flat flood plains to its east and west. --- A worthy side trip, which we have previously taken, is about dozen miles east and north of here near Parkin, AR. It is the site of an Indian mound at Parkin Archeological State Park ( http://www.arkansasstateparks.com/parkinarcheological/ ).
Crossing the Mississippi River from Arkansas on I-40 brings you to Memphis, Tennessee. We’ve been to Memphis before and I would definitely recommend not missing the following tourist sites there: Mud Island River Park ( www.mudisland.com ), which is a fabulous indoor/outdoor museum, and The Pyramid ( https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Pyramid_Arena ) Both of these attractions are in downtown Memphis right along the Mississippi River within sight of the I-40 bridge. You can hop aboard the inexpensive Main Street Trolley ( http://www.matatransit.com/ ) -- a real electric trolley car -- at this location for the mile-down-and-back parallel loop ride along the downtown Memphis riverfront, too. The Pink Palace Museum ( www.memphismuseums.org ), which is made of pink granite, is situated in a well-to-do section of Memphis. And, of course, don’t miss Elvis Presley’s ‘Graceland’ Mansion and museum ( www.elvis.com/graceland ). While there, be sure to allow enough time to also tour the Elvis Presley Automobile Museum and to take the tour of both of the customized private jet planes, the “Hound Dog II,” and the “Lisa Marie.”
Passing by many miles of fallow fields covered in a beautiful brilliant-yellow hue of wild mustard plants along our continuing trek east of Memphis on I-40, we stopped at the Western Tennessee Tourist Info and Visitors Center near Brownsville. This was a welcome find as not only was it well stocked with a vast array of free tourist information brochures and motel discount coupon booklets, it also housed an extensive free regional museum.
I-40 finally led us to Jackson, TN; where we checked into the Days Inn right off I-40 near the Casey Jones Home and Railroad Museum ( www.caseyjones.com ). Shortly thereafter, we went straight to the Cypress Grove Nature Park ( http://mcaf.ee/kvls4 ) in the s.e. portion of the Jackson area. This free park has a 7000-foot boardwalk that traverses a mostly shaded cypress swamp. The boardwalk also goes out over a lake and to an elevated viewing tower. Along the walk -- in addition to the ever-present cypress “knees” ( http://tinyurl.com/lau7e ) -- we saw both a small raccoon and a mink within just a few feet of us! (Maybe the 95-degree heat and humidity slowed them down, too!)
By the time we got back to the motel it was too late to visit the Casey Jones museum. We did walk over to its nearby Old Country Store restaurant for a meal. This restaurant is supposedly rated as “Jackson’s best,” but we found the food very lackluster. However, the restaurant does have a recreated old-time ice cream parlor inside and lot of antiques (over 15,000!) that are worth seeing.
On our next day layover in Jackson, after waiting out a morning rain shower, we drove about a half-hour south to Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park ( https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Pinson_Mounds ). The 17 mounds found on the 400-acre site are said to be of the “Woodlands” Indian culture. The mounds are supposed to have been constructed during the period from 2000 B.C. to 500 A.D. We paid a small per-vehicle fee and started our walking tour of this site at the unique visitor center museum, which is housed within a modern-day mound. A relatively short, paved walk from the rear exit of the visitor center museum takes you to the site’s signature attraction: Saul’s Mound. We climbed the steep wooden stairs ( http://tinyurl.com/nbvhw ) to the top of this tall, tree-covered mound for a well-deserved view of the surrounding area. There are six miles of trails here to walk, but because of the rain, we limited our trek to only about two miles to see a couple of other mounds, too.
The next day, after an almost sleepless night due to violent all-night torrential rain storm with 1000 lightning strikes per hour (official weather service count), we headed north from Jackson on U.S. Hwy. 45W. We stopped in Rutherford, TN, to see the last cabin of Davy Crockett ( www.davycrockettcabin.org ), which has a headstone of his mother outside. He left this location to fight and die at the Alamo in Texas.
After crossing into Kentucky and eventually proceeding northward on U.S. Hwy. 51, we took a side trip from Clinton, KY, via Hwy. 58. This took us to Columbus-Belmont State Park ( https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Columbus-Belmont_State_Park ), with its wide-expanse bluff-top overlooks of the Mississippi River at Columbus, KY. (Fortunately, by this time the rain and wind had stopped, and the sun began to shine producing a temperature rise for the day’s high of 60-degrees.) This beautiful park is at the site of a historic Civil War battle. It is also the site where, in an ill-fated attempt to impede the Union forces, the Confederates strung a heavy chain -- attached to a ship anchor on one end to a capstan on the other -- across the Mississippi River from Columbus to Belmont, Missouri. A portion of the large-link chain and the HUGE ship anchor are on outdoor display here; along with various artillery cannon. A variety of informative plaques are placed at strategic points of interest around the site. There is also a museum to visit there, but unfortunately it did not open until May 1st.
After rejoining U.S. Hwy. 51 via Hwy. 80 from Columbus, we stopped at Wickliffe Mounds ( https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Wickliffe_Mounds ); it’s just downstream of confluence with Ohio River and atop the Mississippi River bluff hills at Wickliffe, KY. This was one of the numerous mound sites of what is said to be the “Mississippian” Indian culture, which existed from 1000 A.D. to 1300 A.D. Right off the highway there is a small, low outdoor “temple” mound immediately adjacent the sites’ parking lot. The very compact site has three museum buildings, which enclose excavated mounds with very interesting and informative displays.
A short distance north of Wickliffe, and just a couple of miles south of Cairo, Illinois, U.S. Hwy. 60 took us over bridges across both the Ohio R. and the Mississippi R. and by Confluence Point park ( http://mcaf.ee/fokih ). The view from both of these bridges was spectacular.
From U.S. Hwy. 62 at Charleston, Missouri -- renown for its springtime Azalea Festival ( www.charlestonmo.net/festival.asp ) which is a must-see! -- we continued a few more miles westward on I-57 to its junction with I-55 at Sikeston, Missouri, for our final overnight of the trip. We stayed at the Days Inn which is conveniently located right next to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet restaurant with their swimmingly good shrimp and seafood salad.
The next day, before leaving Sikeston we discovered a stone marker denoting the “El Camino Real” -- a.k.a. the “King’s Highway” -- on U.S. Hwy 61 which runs all the way from St. Louis to New Orleans. (There are only 3 other official El Camino Reals in the U.S.: in Florida, Arizona and California.) We also visited the restored Sikeston Depot Museum ( http://sikestondepot.org AND www.missouridepots.com/sikeston.htm ). This museum highlights the past history and culture of the area. In addition to “King Cotton” displays, they have the original pocket watch of the town’s founder, John Sikes; along with an old coin-operated mechanical horse, which are still manufactured by the Hahs Company in town.
We then drove an hour westward on U.S. Hwy. 60 to Poplar Bluff, MO. We took the time to check out both the old Missouri-Pacific R.R. station (a late-night/early-morning Amtrak stop), and the MOARK Regional Railroad Museum ( http://moarkrail.org/ ) which is housed in the beautifully restored National Historical Site, Spanish-style Frisco depot ( http://tinyurl.com/h65mx ). We were given a guided tour of the Frisco by the museum’s friendly president, Dave. This museum has lots of historic pictures and plenty of railroad memorabilia to peruse; along with a rather large, working scenic HO-gauge train layout, too!
From Poplar Bluff, we headed northward through the very scenic pine-laden hills on U.S. Hwy. 67. We stopped to stretch our legs along the St. Francis River at the Old Greenville National Historic Site ( http://tinyurl.com/p2cbw ). This was the location of the original of Wayne County Courthouse and a formally thriving town. However, after enduring nine major floods throughout the 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, the remaining residents relocated the entire town to higher ground a few miles up U.S. Hwy 67. The old-town site is now managed as a park by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There are numerous informative plaques at the locations of all the former (long-gone) buildings of note, providing for an excellent self-guided tour on the old town’s remaining sidewalks.
[As another aside: We struck up a conversation with the Corps of Engineers site’s park ranger, whose name was Adam Warren. In passing, I asked him if he was aware of any UFO sightings in this area. Despite his relative youth, he immediately mentioned how intrigued he was with the previous historic decade-long wave of UFO sightings in southeast Missouri back in the 1970s. I was then able to strengthen his interest by mentioning the following: Professor Harley D. Rutledge, Ph.D. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harley_Rutledge AND http://www.semissourian.com/story/1155552.html ) – who was the Chairman of the Physics Department at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau – was regularly featured in the two major St. Louis newspapers reporting on his investigations of those UFO sightings. Professor Rutledge and his team of graduate physics students in southeast Missouri conducted a ten-year UFO field study. They utilized binoculars, Questar telescopes and various electronic-sensing equipment, along with a small plane and various high vantage points as lookouts throughout the Piedmont, MO area -- including the fire tower Mudlick Mtn. at Sam A. Baker State Park -- to triangulate their own numerous UFO sightings. As a result, in 1981 Dr.Rutledge published a 265-page book -- with excellent photos -- about this effort. The book is titled, Project Identification: The First Scientific Field Study Of The UFO Phenomena. It includes scientific analysis of Dr. Rutledge’s various first-hand UFO sightings with his field-research team, along with his own and his family’s very close-up-and-personal daylight UFO sightings right in Cape Girardeau!].
Before embarking on the final push northward on U.S. Hwy 67 back to the St. Louis area, we stopped for our evening meal in Farmington, MO, at the totally cigarette smoke-free Ryan’s restaurant. I couldn’t resist having seconds of their wonderful sugar-free pecan yogurt upon which I added their s-f chocolate pudding and s-f whipped cream, too. You can bet we’ll be returning to a Ryan’s in the future!