Table of Contents:
Part 1: The Park Experience…Visiting During COVID
Part 2: Three Remote Small Parks…Wonderland, Frontier City & Magic Springs
Part 3: Beyond the Parks…Other Safe Outdoor Activities for Travelers (you’re reading this part now)
Part 4: New For 2020…A Review of Mystic River Falls & Texas Stingray
There are many different activities one may choose to travel for. Visiting monuments and museums is one of the most common, and often form the focus of travel to large cities. Natural sights are another common destination, whether in the form of a designated location or a self-guided trek through a region. Beaches are a popular pick among those looking for a relaxing getaway, and historical sites are the chosen locale for history buffs. I, of course, tend to make a lot of my travel focused on amusement parks, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have other interests. Much as many trips don’t involve a single type of attraction, I aim to have a bit of variety in mine, usually going for a 70-30 split between theme parks and other activities. Therefore, while we did spend a majority of our time at amusement parks, there was more to this tour than that.
Coastering in the Time of COVID
Part 3: Beyond the Parks…Other Safe Outdoor Activities for Travelers
During initial planning for this tour, I came up with a long enough list of random destinations there was no way to fit everything into just two weeks. Therefore, the list was trimmed back into something manageable, then trimmed even further as closures rendered some attractions inaccessible. Among the most noteworthy that were dropped were Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, the Houston Space Center, and Big Bend National Park on the Texas-Mexico border. While a few stops were cut, some good ones remained, so not all was lost.
Our first attraction of the trip was Cadillac Ranch, a roadside oddity on the outskirts of Amarillo. Located on a farm directly along Interstate 40, this art installation has been popularized in road trip magazines and TV shows for decades. The attraction consists of ten Cadillacs of various vintage, buried nose-first in a perfectly straight line. As one walks the length of the display, they pass by the vehicles in chronological order, making changes and evolution in design apparent for those looking for such. This is a monument to America’s road culture, one that has existed for several generations and has not waned even in the less travel-friendly environment of today.
Beyond just a sculpture, Cadillac Ranch is an interactive monument, with passers-by encouraged to leave a message in spray paint. Every second we were there, several of the fifty or so present at the time were engaged in putting their mark on one or more of the vehicles. Every so often, the cars are painted over to create a fresh canvas, but this rarely lasts twenty-four hours before tags cover the whole thing. It’s a neat feature of this monument, but a sadly destructive one as well. Hundreds of empty paint cans litter the area, lying abandoned until someone decides to take them away. It’s an additional monument to the American attitude of not caring what happens to excess waste discarded carelessly in a place other than their own backyard.
Believe it or not, there is a particular theme park connection to this monument. In the Pixar film Cars, the Cadillac Range that stands behind Radiator Springs was directly modeled after the appearance of this particular monument. As such, it was recreated in the real world at Disney California Adventure Park. Once that park reopens and you’re able to visit, compare the rockwork above Radiator Springs Racers with an image of Cadillac Ranch and you might find some striking similarities.
Cadillac Ranch was neat to see and was worth pulling off the interstate for a brief stop, but it was only the first of three locations we visited in Amarillo. Second was Wonderland Amusement Park, covered in the previous section, which we headed to directly from Cadillac Ranch. The third would be our primary activity of the following day.
Palo Duro Canyon
Texas is often described as flat and featureless. While this may be true for portions of the state, it is such a large state that different regions have vastly different feels. For example, Amarillo is located in the middle of grasslands, but just a half hour south of the city lies Palo Duro Canyon.
Dubbed the Grand Canyon of Texas, Palo Duro Canyon is over a hundred miles long, an average of six miles wide, and up to a thousand feet deep. It is far from the sort of feature you’d expect to find in Texas, seemingly more at home in the mountain states to the west. Multicolored rock walls rise steeply to the plains above, giving this canyon a striking appearance.
Unfortunately, a canyon such as this is not the best sort of place to visit in the heat of a Texas summer, where temperatures of over a hundred degrees are the norm. As such, our time here was limited to a couple hours in the morning, but that was enough to get a good overview. We drove the twenty-mile loop that makes up the main roadway in the canyon, allowing for a great view upward at the sheer cliffs above.
Palo Duro’s most popular hiking trail is the Lighthouse Trail, a 6-mile round trip climb to a rock formation on an outcropping that resembles the common shoreline structure. Were it more temperate I may have attempted the trek, but in the heat and humidity it wasn’t worth the risk. We instead opted to explore the Big Cave, a large hole in the canyon wall only a short climb from the roadway. We also stopped at a couple of the overlooks, as well as the visitor center so my Dad could collect his magnet (he keeps a collection of state/national park magnets).
Was Palo Duro worth checking out? Absolutely! Although the timing wasn’t the greatest for fully exploring the area, it was incredibly neat to see and an excellent way to spend a couple hours before making the drive to Oklahoma City. I don’t know how high the chances are of winding up in Amarillo again, but were I here in spring or fall I’d definitely return and do a bit more exploration. The hike to the lighthouse would be neat to do, as would climbing the canyon and checking out some of the wildlife.
We arrived in Oklahoma City in the late afternoon after a four-hour drive from Amarillo. Our time immediately after arrival and checking in was spent rebooking the second half of the trip, as a sudden unexpected change in operating hours at Six Flags Over Texas forced us to alter our route through Texas (Houston > San Antonio > Dallas instead of Dallas > Houston > San Antonio). Once that was sorted out, we headed out to explore the city.
The hotel I had booked was on the edge of Bricktown, a region formerly known as a warehouse district in the city. Today, it is an entertainment district centered around the baseball stadium of the Oklahoma City Dodges (AAA affiliate of the more famous Los Angeles Dodgers). With no games available, we instead headed down to the Bricktown Canal, a major waterway running through the area, and walked a portion of it to see the sights. Ordinarily, there would be a lot of activity along this river, much like the Riverwalk in downtown San Antonio, but due to the state of things it was largely deserted. After a bit of walking, we came upon Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill and stepped inside for a good southern-style dinner at the original location.
After dinner, we decided to walk the canal in the opposite direction. A short distance away, we came upon the Centennial Land Run Monument. This bronze sculpture at the south end of the canal commemorates the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889, at which point much of the land in this part of the country was opened to settlers on a “first come, first served” basis. It was at this time Oklahoma City was established, growing from a population of zero to around 10,000 in less than a day. Within a month, a full-fledged city had sprung up out of nothing on the Great Plains.
Continuing south, we crossed under the interstate to the shore of the Oklahoma River. Here, we found a location called the Boathouse District, a row of boathouses built right on the shore of the river. Rowing and kayaking take place here regularly, as do other recreational water activities. Just up the hill from the waterline is Riversport, an artificial white-water rapids center that would be a blast to do on a future trip where time permits such a thing. Next to it is the adventure tower, featuring the tallest dry slides in the United States.
From here, our journey consisted of following roadways back over the interstate and over to our hotel. All in all, it was a nice little 3 mile walk beyond the persistent 95-degree heat of the evening. While I didn’t expect much out of Oklahoma City, the part that I saw I enjoyed quite a bit, and like many of the other places on this trip, I wouldn’t mind stopping by again if a future journey brings me to that part of the country. I’d love to see the place under more typical circumstances, take in a game at Bricktown Ballpark, and go for a white-water rafting run or two. More than anything, however, it was nice to just get out and feel normal for the first time in months here. This part of the country is among the most lax when it comes to COVID policies, which has both positives and negatives. While California has allowed the virus to dominate all aspects of life, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Arkansas take an approach of it being more like a bad flu. I’m of the belief a middle ground between both extremes must be found, because the population I saw in OKC and elsewhere on this trip seemed both happier and healthier than those at home, likely because people are allowed to go out and enjoy themselves (within reason) rather than be confined to their homes.
Hot Springs National Park
Oklahoma and Arkansas were the two new states for me on this trip, and while much of Oklahoma was relatively flat and dull, Arkansas was actually extremely scenic and may be the nicest state in the region. While we only had one day here, Magic Springs was not a park I expected to take it all up, so we started our day by exploring Hot Springs National Park.
Unlike most national parks, this one is located right in the middle of downtown Hot Springs and incorporates portions of the city into its attractions. Bathhouse Row runs right through the center of the park and contains a number of historic bathhouses. Most of these have been repurposed today as museums, stores, or restaurants, but one or two of them still operate as a bathhouse and provide an opportunity for visitors to immerse themselves in the water of the hot springs.
Behind these buildings, a second promenade passes by several of the springs, getting up close and personal with a few of them. A fountain is even installed at one end that disperses fresh spring water, and locals are known to collect this and use it in their homes rather than the hot water from the plumbing.
Above Bathhouse Row stands Hot Spring Mountain, a 400 ft hill that overlooks the region. The top is accessible by car, but we opted to take a mile-long hiking trail to the top. Here stands Hot Springs Mountain Tower, a twenty-story observation tower providing great views of the surrounding hills. Due to capacity limitations, it was a short wait to go up in the tower, but once at the top the entire national park and surrounding region became visible. We spent around 20 minutes up here taking in the surroundings before heading back down, hiking back down the mountain (this time along a different, slightly longer trail), returning to our car and heading to Magic Springs.
At just 5,554 acres, Hot Springs National Park is quite small, but there’s enough to do here to fill the majority of a day. Had time permitted, we could have easily spent a couple more hours driving around Hot Spring Mountain and exploring West Mountain on the other side of the valley. It is, however, a different feel than most national parks. Here, you’re not immersed in the middle of wilderness, with the city never truly out of sight. It is more like a state park, primarily designed for day use. Still, should you wind up making a trip through the state of Arkansas, it’s worth spending a day in the area to see one of the lesser known national parks and take in the beauty this part of the country has to offer.
Last year’s Texas trip started and ended in Dallas, but due to time constraints I never had time to visit the city proper. This time, however, we had a free evening upon arrival after driving up from San Antonio, so we headed downtown to do a little roaming around.
In modern times, Dallas is perhaps most famous for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. Dealey Plaza, a small section on the west side of downtown, contains several markers indicating important spots in the tragic event. The Texas School Book Depository, from which the fatal shot was fired, has had its sixth floor converted to a museum, though this was unfortunately closed due to COVID.
Signs on the street below identify the position of Kennedy at the time of the shooting, as well as the position of Abraham Zapruder who filmed the events.
A short distance away, the Kennedy Memorial stands to commemorate the event. Consisting of an empty concrete box with a plaque at its center, it’s strange to me that such an important event didn’t get something a bit more significant. Truthfully, it felt more like a token effort to acknowledge an event many would prefer to forget than something erected in remembrance of a national tragedy with long lasting ramifications.
After leaving Dealey Plaza, we walked a couple blocks to a replica cabin of John Neely Bryan, the founder of Dallas. In 1841, two years after first exploring the region, Bryan established a permanent settlement on the site. He was the city’s postmaster, and his home served as the courthouse. Originally located where Dealey Plaza currently stands, the cabin has been replicated in Founder’s Plaza a block from the Kennedy Monument.
If I had more time or circumstances were better, I would have gone for a bit more exploration of the city. I know the city has a couple various museums and natural attractions, plus there’s Reunion Tower to check out. However, the city felt completely dead by big city standards, and most of the tourist stuff was closed. It’s a bit of a bummer, but Dallas is a place I know I’ll be back to at some point in the not too distant future. It is an extremely easy place to visit, and there’s still a few things in the region high on my want to do list once things become a bit more normal.
Saguaro National Park
Our last destination of the tour was Saguaro National Park, located on the mountains surrounding Tucson, Arizona. As one might expect, southern Arizona is a desert, and this national park feels very much like the stereotypical southwest. It is so named because the landscape is dotted by giant saguaro cacti, which are native solely to this region.
The park is split up into two sections on opposite sides of the city, so we split our visit over two partial days. On the evening of our arrival after a nine hour drive in from Texas, we headed up to Rincon Mountain to drive the scenic loop here. An eight-mile one-way road winds through the foothills at the mountain’s base, with numerous pullouts and parking areas for hiking trails and scenic viewpoints. While the loop only covers a small portion of the park and takes 45 minutes or so to complete (assuming you make a couple stops), it was a great way to spend the evening and get a feel for the place. July isn’t the time to hike in the desert, but I felt we saw enough for the visit to be worthwhile.
The next morning, we headed out to Tucson Mountains, the other half of the park. This side of the park has more roads and trails, but much of it isn’t paved. It also isn’t quite as scenic as the other side, with a lot of the views overlooking the city rather than the cactus forest. Still, we spent a couple hours driving through a portion of the park, then headed back down the mountain and on our way home.
In the time of COVID, outdoor activities like national parks are gaining popularity for very good reason. When you’re outdoors in the spacious wilderness, there’s no need to wear a mask or keep an eye on those around you. Additionally, you can’t close down nature, at least not in the way a business or museum is. Going out and doing anything is better than sitting at home contemplating the depressing state of life, so if you haven’t left your house for recreation recently, I highly recommend checking to see if a nearby national or state park is open and planning a day away.
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This is why we're not taking any trips right now. The very limited number of attractions open around the country is minuscule, and even the ones that are open have such limited hours, it's infeasible to even bother planning anything. Even though we do typically spend more than half our time on vacation at theme parks, these other attractions are very important to break the monotony of lines and similar attractions from park to park. While some of these smaller roadside attractions may still be operating, it doesn't make sense for us to drive halfway across the country if the top draws are closed or so limiting in hours/attractions that it's not worth the hassle.
It's cool to hear about these lesser attractions, but for us, the juice just wouldn't be worth the squeeze, especially considering the risks traveling right now.