We planned our trip to explore as many National Parks and natural areas as we could on our way out to Los Angeles to visit my brother. It was easy heading west, but on the way east from Flagstaff we cut across the country further north so as to not repeat the same route. It was late-February, and even in northern Texas the temperature swung from below freezing to 70s during the day, and predictions of heavy storms peppered the forecast. Between the storms we had time to visit Palo Duro Canyon, just south of Amarillo, Texas. Palo Duro is considered the second largest canyon in the US at 12o miles long, 20 miles at its widest, and a maximum depth of 800 feet (for comparison the Grand Canyon, is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide, and 6000ft deep). It was a long drive from Flagstaff, and we pulled into the Palo Duro State Park in the dark around 8pm. Unlike the Grand Canyon, you can drive to the bottom of Palo Duro, so we followed the winding road to the bottom and found a spot in one of the campgrounds. We had time for a morning hike the next day to enjoy the canyon in the daylight.
We continued east to avoid the upcoming storms, and arrived in Hot Springs National Park (Arkansas), in time for lunch the next day. We didn’t quite know what to expect in Hot Springs, its the smallest national park, and is focused more on the historic bathhouses lining the main street than trails in the forest.
We found the town to be quite charming, with quirky places like Superior Brewing which is operated out of the renovated Superior Baths building. Two of the mineral baths are still operational, one run in the style of a traditional modern spa and the other in the early 1900s style. The baths were said to be a cure for a variety of diseases, with certain baths thought more beneficial for certain ailments. We opted for the more modern bath house due to timing reasons, and later walked around town stoping to gawk at cherry blossoms and the water (which is naturally at 150ºF) flowing out of springs in town.
From there we started north, with our last stop being Mammoth Caves National Park (Kentucky). We pulled into the park in the dark, and made our way to the drive-in campsite only to find it closed. Nothing on the park’s website had indicated this, and we were hungry and cranky, so we headed back into town (Cave City) to eat Mexican food and figure out what to do. We found a Motel 6 for about $50, and decided to stay the night. The next day we headed back into the park for a morning tour. Unlike Carlsbad Caverns which has a self-guided tour as well as guided tours, at this time Mammoth only had two guided tours available (one just being an extended version of the other). There were about 40 people on our two-hour tour. We all piled into a school bus and were driven to a cave entrance, which the park has sealed off to protect the cave. You can see the ranger next to the door in the picture below.
The tour took us down a steep network of stair ladders that had carefully been placed through the passage to get us to a larger cavern below. Unlike Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Cave has a capstone above the network of passages which makes water seepage into the cave a rare event. Without water seeping into the cave, stalagmites and stalactites are nonexistant. We saw some cave crickets, experienced complete darkness, and meandered through the mostly smooth passage. We saw Frozen Niagara, an impressive formation. If it sounds like I liked Carlsbad Caverns better than Mammoth, it’s because I did. I was disappointed with the amount of information on the park’s page, and that they only had two very similar tours. Most of that was our timing though, as we arrived in the off-season (and the two months of the year that the campground is closed). If we were to return, we’d wait until the summer months when the park is in full swing with a large variety of tours. Next time! From Mammoth Cave, we drove east with stops for quality time with our family in Pittsburgh & Rhode Island, and made it back to Maine weeks after all the heavy snow had fallen.
Part of the reason we set off on the road-trip was to see how we liked traveling around the country, and to maybe consider buying a van or RV one day more frequent trips. This time we just had our small car, which limited how much we could bring. Had we had more space, we could have brought our winter gear, which would have allowed us more flexibility in the conditions we were prepared for. More space also would have allowed us to sleep in our vehicle the few nights we found ourselves without a viable campsite. We also planned our trip to see a little of a lot of places and to break up the driving. Next time, we may try to focus our energy into exploring more of a specific area. That being said, we really enjoyed our couple months on the road! And we’ll have plenty of time to think about future adventures while we’re hiking the Appalachian Trail. We start in less than a week!