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Road Trip 2016

My Birthday Week in Chattanooga

After an awesome time exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we headed south towards Chattanooga, Tennessee — the southernmost point on our itinerary. We arrived on a sleepy overcast Sunday afternoon, and set up shop at Harrison Bay State Park. Not wanting to waste an afternoon, we drove into downtown to poke around and give ourselves the walking tour. We expected everything to open and hopping — it was a balmy Sunday afternoon with no rain in the forecast — but the town was basically dead. We walked five blocks of downtown before we even saw another person!

After heading back towards the river, we stumbled upon this beautiful water feature cascading down towards the bank. This waterfall is called “The Passage,” and it marks the beginning of the Trail of Tears — the journey of the forced removal of the Cherokee people from Chattanooga to Oklahoma.

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The seven, six-foot ceramic disks on the wall tell the story of the Cherokee Nation from hundreds of years of Native American habitation in the southeast. And a ‘weeping wall’ represents the tears shed by the Cherokee as they were driven from their homes and around 4,000 of them died on the Trail of Tears. It was a beautiful and thoughtful monument to the Cherokee tribes!

After spending a while exploring the waterfront and the interesting parks surrounding the riverfront Tennessee Aquarium, we headed back to camp for a quiet evening. The next day though, it was adventure time: we were headed to Ruby Falls — an underground waterfall in a cave system inside of Lookout Mountain, which faces commands a tremendous view of Chattanooga.

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Rebecca had done all the research on this one, and she was quiet excited. As it turns out — her anticipation was well-placed. This place was SWEET. And not only that — they had UNDERGROUND WIFI. But not content to have the deepest underground wifi short of NORAD, they even got punny with the motto. “SmartCave: Connect on a Deeper Level.” **Cue rimshot**

We signed up for a tour, and were lucky to get one of the smallest tour groups of the day — about 10 of us with a very fast-moving tour guide …

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… so fast, in fact, that after asking us not to straggle behind the group, she promptly lost me as I tried to get pictures of the formations she was showing us. Eventually I stopped rushing and just went at my own pace. There was some cool stuff down there!

One of my favorites was the one shown in the picture below — the Niagara Falls formation. Rebecca and I had just visited Niagara Falls in June for our anniversary, and and it was neat how much the formation looked just like the falls!

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We saw a number of other formations, including the “tobacco leaves.” Unlike Carlsbad Caverns and Mammoth Cave, which are both owned by the NPS, Ruby Falls is privately owned and operated, and they have no issues using colored lights to jazz up the caves. Personally, I feel like it made the amazing landscape even more dreamlike and otherworldly, and we enjoyed the theatrics.

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Nothing, however, came even close to matching the grandeur and magnificence of Ruby Falls itself. Towering at 145 feet tall, this is the tallest subterranean waterfall in America, and it was awesome.

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Here the lights and sounds had been put to work again. When you enter the chamber, it is completely dark. The music starts, and the lighting slowly comes on around you as the music builds. As it reaches its crescendo, the falls are suddenly illuminated, and it is nothing short of stunning. (And with the underground wifi, you can Instagram it immediately!) You get about 15 minutes to enjoy the falls and take pictures, and we enjoyed every minute.

We emerged blinking into a beautiful sunny afternoon, and decided to drive up to the top of the mountain to explore the views. At the very crown of the mountain, we found Point Park, guarded by a beautiful castle gateway.

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Point Park is part of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, managed by the national park service. Chickamauga & Chattanooga NMP is a sprawling park site encompassing at least four different sites (we’re still not totally sure!) — and this was the first time we felt let down by a national park website. There was no clear list of the sites, or what to do there, although this map was the best resource we could find.

Anyway, Rebecca actually discovered Point Park online when researching Ruby Falls and its sister attraction, Rock City. Rock City is famous for its beautiful “Lover’s Leap” waterfall, and its panoramic “See 7 States” view. But at $20/ticket, it seemed a little pricey for a view. During her online research, Rebecca discovered a mention on Trip Advisor about Point Park, which several locals recommended as having views just as good as Rock City — without the crowds and pricey admission. We decided to give it a try, and simultaneously check a national park off our list.

There was a $5 fee to enter (or free with your America the Beautiful national park pass!), payable on the honor system at a kiosk inside the gates. Unfortunately since we arrived after hours, the little visitor’s center across the street was closed — so no passport stamp for us. We headed into the park to explore  — and we certainly found the views we’d hoped for!

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This was a historically significant spot, as it was a military dream, controlling the river and overlooking the city. After the Civil War, it had also helped start the tourism industry in Chattanooga, as painters would bring their subjects to the point and paint or sketch them.

The highway Rebecca and I have driven for years to visit my family in Louisiana runs right alongside the river, and it was fun to marvel at how many amazing things we had been driving right past for years, completely unwittingly.

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One more recommendation on visiting Point Park. Inside the park is a 2 mile round trip hike to Sunset Rock, which is apparently a perfect spot to — you guessed it — catch the sunset. We got there too early (and too hungry) to wait for sunset, but I’d definitely love to check it out in the future! The only caveat is that the park technically closes at sunset, so you have to hustle back to your car to leave before the park rangers show up.

The next day was a special day for me — my birthday! I spent a sunny morning relaxing and enjoying Rebecca’s apple cinnamon pancakes. She had a few work items to take care of, but once that was finished, we headed into town to celebrate the day with some indoor climbing at High Point Climbing Gym!  Rebecca isn’t much for heights, but after some birthday pleading, she agreed to give it a try with me.

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I had done some climbing in high school, but not since. I was excited to see if I was in any kind of shape — rafting and climbing work very different muscle groups!

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High Point was an awesome facility, and if we lived nearby, they would definitely be my gym. They had a ton of walls (including some outdoors), areas for bouldering, and they offered yoga classes and childcare! High Point even had a traditional weights gym available as part of your membership or day pass! We had a fantastic time, and would definitely go back.

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We capped off the day with dinner at the Big River Grille and Brewing Works across the street from High Point, and headed back to the campground. Thanks Chattanooga for a great birthday!

If you’re interested in more of Chattanooga, we’ d highly recommend checking out the Chattanooga Visitor’s Bureau suggested itineraries. They’ve got recommendations for everything from week long family vacations to weekend girls’ getaways. We know one thing: we only scratched the surface of everything Chattanooga has to offer! Tell us in the comments: what’s your Chattanooga must do/see/eat?

Road Trip 2016 Recap

Road Trip 2016 Recap | Our Streamlined Life

We are total number nerds, so just like last time we got a a kick out of looking back and seeing the breakdown of what we actually did. We thought you might get a kick out of it too! So here we go:

Road Trip 2016 By the Numbers:

Total travel days: 38
States visited: 5
Nights car camping: 26
Nights in cabins: 1
Nights in hotels: 2
Nights with family: 9

Our 2016 southwest adventure was a total success. A huge part of that was our new and improved road trip machine — a vast improvement over all the tent camping we did in the fall. A big “thank you!” to our family and the real life and online friends who kept up with our adventures through Facebook and Instagram and gave us so many tremendous suggestions along the way. We loved reading your comments and sharing our experiences with you!

It took us much longer than planned to get caught up on all these posts, but we had way too much fun not to share everything we did and saw with you guys — so thanks for being patient! We have lots of awesome adventures planned for fall 2016 and are making plans to share them in a more real-time way this time around. In the meantime, check back through the archives and make sure you didn’t miss a thing!

Day 1: Texas or Bust!

Days 2 & 3: Beaching in February

Days 4-6: Sunny San Antonio

Day 7: Her Name is Rio and She Dances on the Sand

Days 8 & 9: Our Big Bend Adventure Begins

Day 10: High Times & Higher Temps in Big Bend

Day 11: Rain in the Desert: Driving Big Bend

Day 12-13: An Unplanned Hike (and Unexpected Discovery) in Big Bend

Day 14: The Grand Canyon With a Roof on It

Day 15: Snow in the Desert

Days 16-17: Adventures at Gila Cliff Dwellings

Day 18: Welcome to the Wild Wild West

Days 19-21: Tucson: An Arizona Love-Affair Begins

Day 22-23: Desert Luxury in Cave Creek

Days 24-26: The GRAND Canyon

Day 27-28: Prescott: A Love Story

Day 29: Red Wine and Red Rocks

Day 30: A Petrified Forest in the Painted Desert

Day 31-34: Wild Beauty in Northern New Mexico

Day 35-36: They Say “OKC-ing Is Believing”

Day 37-42: Homeward Bound

If you’re still itching for more road trip adventures, check out our 2015 Road Trip recap here!

They Say “OKC-ing Is Believing” … (Days 35-36)

One way our Southwest Adventure ended up being very different from our last big road trip was overnight accommodations. During our fall 2015 trip we ended up staying in hotels 14 out of 42 nights — one third of the trip! This time around, mostly due to our upgraded car camping setup, we hadn’t felt the need to reserve a single hotel room.

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Home sweet home!

But all good things must end, and after five weeks on the road, we were tired. Ryan had also been battling some pretty killer allergies throughout New Mexico and Arizona, and we were pretty sure that the car was full of the juniper that was leaving him with red, swollen eyes and sleepless nights. After a long driving day from Los Alamos to Oklahoma City, we turned to Priceline Express Deals and snagged a pretty good rate on a comfortable hotel room.

In fact, we were so comfortable we ended up just staying in the hotel room all day, sleeping, popping Claritin and watching TV. We reserved the room for another night and the following day were off to explore Oklahoma City.

Our first stop was Bricktown, a former warehouse district now full of restaurants, shopping, and other entertainment options. I loved this mural with postcard-like scenes from Oklahoma City’s history!

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It was a lovely day out so we spent some time following the river walk, which felt like a much smaller and quieter version of the San Antonio river walk I’d so loved.

OKC Riverwalk 1 Our Streamlined Life

The river walk was lined with shops and restaurants, and the trees were just beginning to bloom.

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At the very end of the river walk was this mosaic mural, depicting a sunrise, a buffalo, a redbud tree, and the names of Oklahoma’s 77 counties. The mural is cleverly designed so it looks like water is pouring from the buckets of three Native American women into the river walk.

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It was pretty early in the day, and the river walk was very quiet. I’d imagine in the evening and on weekends it becomes much more lively.

We had one more stop to make before leaving OKC: the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

OKC Bombing Memorial Our Streamlined Life

This memorial stands at the site of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. It is a beautiful and thoughtfully-designed memorial, and very sobering. If you’re planning a visit, I’d highly recommend reading the Wikipedia article first, to learn more about the symbolic elements represented at the memorial. Every piece of the design, from the “Gates of Time” at either end of the memorial, to the “Field of Empty Chairs,” has some deeper meaning.

We only spent a few hours exploring Oklahoma City, but I’m sure there’s lots more we could have done. We’d just reached what I call our “road trip breaking point” — that moment when we’re just ready to be off the road and back in our own bed. Does anyone have any recommendations for OKC, in case we ever go back that way?

Wild Beauty in Northern New Mexico (Days 32-34)

After leaving Arizona we were excited to cross back into New Mexico and experience the northern part of the state! And this time we’d have tour guides — Ryan and Emily, some of our best friends from college who now live outside Los Alamos. When we visited they were house-hunting and living with Emily’s parents, who were kind enough to let us camp out in their driveway. Our time in Los Alamos also gave us the opportunity to get to know their two little guys, James and Charlie, who we fell in love with and who kept us highly entertained through our whole visit!

To kick off our visit, Ryan and Emily gave us the driving tour of Los Alamos. The Rio Grande runs right past town, and looks much different here than it did down in Texas!

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The next day, the six of us spent an awesome day hiking and exploring. We started at Valles Caldera, a gorgeous spot up in the mountains. When Ryan and Emily told us they wanted to bring us to the caldera, my Ryan googled it, and we were excited to discover that a lot of the filming for one of our favorite shows, Longmire, is done there! (If you’ve been following along with us since last fall, you might remember that we got to visit the town Wyoming town where the Longmire series is set.)

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The caldera was beautiful, and incredibly large. Like the Grand Canyon, the scale is so big, it’s hard to comprehend. When Ryan spotted a cabin used in the Longmire series from the Visitors’ Center, he asked the ranger how long it would take to walk there, expecting an answer in the range of 10-15 minutes. As it turned out, the cabin was miles away, and most people take several HOURS to walk there and back. It seemed like a lot to ask of the little guys, and it was pretty cold that high up in the mountains, so we made a mental note to return in the future, and jumped back in the car.

Our next (and much warmer) stop was Bandelier National Monument. Bandelier is made up of 33,000 acres of rugged canyon and mesa country. Ancestral Pueblo people lived here from approximately 1150 CE to 1550 CE, and the monument features petroglyphs, dwellings carved into the soft rock cliffs, and standing masonry walls. We had a great time hiking with these guys, who were real troopers during a long day of exploring with no naps!

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The little boys did ok, too 😉

We loved walking the trails around the homes carved out of the soft mountainside …

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And Ryan even climbed up the ladder into a cave with a toddler on his back! Look at those cute faces peeking out of the rock 🙂

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Like at Gila Cliff Dwellings, we were able to climb high up into the cliffs to explore the caves. The views were absolutely tremendous, although the high ladders were a little nervewracking!

The ladders at Bandelier National Monument
(My brave face!)

At the top was  large recessed cave…

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… with a tremendous view of the gorge below!

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We had an awesome time, and would highly recommend the Valles Caldera National Preserve and Bandelier National Monument if you’re traveling in northern New Mexico. A big thank you to Ryan, Emily, James, and Charlie for hosting us — and to Emily’s sweet parents, too!

A Petrified Forest in the Painted Desert (Day 31)

The Petrified Forest National Park in the Painted Desert is totally alien landscape that, if I’d never seen it for myself, I would never have imagined existing in the United States. And yet, in northeast Arizona there are 109,000 acres of land that look like this:

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I knew very little about the Petrified Forest before we stopped there while traveling from Sedona, Arizona to Santa Fe, New Mexico. But I’m so glad we took the time to see it. It’s an easy-to-get-to stop off I-40, and can be explored in a few hours!

Since we were traveling east on I-40, we took the NPS recommendation and started at the south entrance of the park. We then traveled north through the park and picked up I-40 a little further east. (Westbound? Use the north entrance.) This map shows the layout of the park, which lies both north and south of I-40.

We stuck with our tried-and-true park exploration process, and headed straight to the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center near the south entrance of the park. The visitor’s center had some great geological exhibits that explained how the petrified forests were formed, a nice little gift shop where we picked up another set of postcards for family (something we’d been trying to do at every park we visited this trip), and of course, a fascinating video that  gave us a great overview of what we were about to see.

We started our exploration right out the visitor’s center’s back door on the Giant Logs Trail, which showcased some of the biggest and best samples of petrified wood in the entire park — including “Old Faithful,” which is almost ten feet wide at the base!

Petrified Forest Collage

It was super windy that day, so after a short hike around the trail, we quickly returned to the car for a driving tour. Petrified Forest National Park is quite large, and the easiest way to see the park is by car. The scenic 28-mile road running from one end of the park to the other is an excellent way to experience the park’s highlights. The park map highlights many scenic overlooks and other points of interest that you can stop at on the way.And let me tell you, the views were spectacular.

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We drove past a number of stunning vistas and overlooks, no two the same, and some simply showcasing the natural beauty of the Painted Desert. Newspaper Rock is an archeological site that is actually neither a newspaper nor a single rock. It’s a high concentration of petroglyphs — over 650 petroglyphs covering a group of rock faces within a small area. The petroglyphs were created by ancestral Puebloan people living along the Puerco River between 650 and 2,000 years ago. You can’t walk down to the rocks, but there is a catwalk and overlook for viewing, and free spotting scopes to get a closer look. Hard to get good pictures of without a great zoom lens, but really fascinating!

Eventually we ended up at one of the highlights of Petrified Forest National Park: the Agate Bridge. This natural stone bridge is a pretty cool stop just off the road. While visitor center photos show Victorians merrily walking across it, you’re no longer allowed to cross the bridge, despite the concrete reinforcement you can see in the photo below.

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If you walk to the end of the bridge, you can see a cross-section of the tree, and the vibrant colors formed over the years. 2016-03-12 13.07.48

We absolutely loved Petrified Forest National Park, and are excited to go back (hopefully when it’s less cold and windy!) to do some hiking, exploring, and maybe even some backpacking! PFNP really offers a variety of experiences, from a 2 hour quick tour, to days of up-close exploring and sight-seeing.

Have you been there? What was your experience? We’d love to hear in the comments!

Petrified Forest National Park “Extras”

  • Backcountry camping. Petrified Forest doesn’t have any developed campgrounds, but you can get a (free!) backcountry camping permit to hike into the park. It seems like such a cool, eerie place to spend a night!
  • Listen to Criminal‘s Triassic Park episode. If you’re planning on visiting the Petrified Forest, I’d highly recommend this podcast episode. It’s short — just about 20 minutes long — but it’s a super interesting behind the scenes look at the “problem” of petrified wood being stolen from the park. (If you listen to the episode you’ll learn why I put “problem” in quotes.)