My Dream-Come-True Visit to Ann Atkin’s Gnome Reserve

This past June, one of my ultimate quirky travel dreams came true in the English countryside. In the midst of a three-week Eurotrip, we went well out of our way to visit the Gnome Reserve in North Devon.

Ann Atkin has been an idol of mine for many years. She holds the world record for having the most gnomes (at least 2,042) and she started the International Gnome Club, which I write newsletter articles for.

To get here from Bristol, the “roads” were more like treacherous and death-defying hedge mazes.

P1030002But a tiny sign with a friendly face finally appeared to reassure me and my wonderfully gnome-tolerant husband that we were on the right path.P1030013There’s no other way to describe this experience but euphoric. Believe it or not, this place is visited by around 25,000 people each year, and I couldn’t believe I was finally one of them.
P1030021But first order of business…a gnome hat! 
P1030328It is requested that all Gnome Reserve guests wear gnome hats while they tour the magical four-acre wonderland. You wouldn’t want to offend the gnomes with your bare, ugly head, now would you?

P1030039Ann’s collection has been featured on TV and in magazine tons of times and she’s pretty much the worldwide expert on the subject. I’m working my way up that ladder though, don’t you worry.
P1030083The reserve is a wonderful place for a casual stroll, and there’s something new and exciting to see around every corner. Lots of pointing and squealing took place, as you can imagine.
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Followed by some light fishing for stones in the gnomes’ dried-up pond.
P1030115Everyone you could want to be here was here. There were spacemen gnomes, pilot gnomes, and eating and drinking gnomes, as pictured here. Not particularly known for healthy habits, these lil’ guys were enjoying a feast of cake and wine. I can support that.
P1030145There were even a few rare racially diverse gnomes living on the property!P1030158Gnome races were taking place in another section of the reserve. I always place my bets on the one with the red hat.
P1030166And even a gnome chess tournament was taking place! Perhaps that chess board could use a little dusting off though, wouldn’t ya say?
P1030185Siegfried is the oldest gnome in the Gnome Reserve, and Ann sculpted him herself back in the late 70s!P1030196One of my all-time favorite gnome scenes here was the fishing scene. While I was only able to fish for stones earlier, these guys got real flowing water and some seriously serene scenery.
P1030220But the #1 highlight of my visit was getting to meet Ann. It was a weekday morning that we visited and not too crowded, so I was able to chat with her a while about gnomes and such.P1030227Ann is a skilled artist and sells her paintings (prices start at £5) and pixie figurines in the entrance building of the Gnome Reserve.
P1030233If all this gnoming makes you crave some refreshment, you can order sandwiches and cream teas from the Gnome Kitchen. There’s a little picnic area to hang out in for a while to savor the experience a little longer.
P1030324But there’s more! I know you’re wondering, “But HOW? How could there be any more to life than THIS?!”

Well there’s a wildflower garden here as well that Ann encouraged me to tour and view the labeled species of herbs, wildflowers, and grasses. There was even a quiz! Yep, I missed a few. This area is more nature-themed rather than gnome-themed, and full of fairies and pixies, but it was still a very lovely little activity.

P1030294Before heading back to the car and sadly leaving my new-found gnome friends behind, I browsed the gift shop for a few treasures to take back home with me. I bought four of Ann’s handmade pixies/gnomes and one of her gnome-themed paintings. And also a couple cups of locally-made ice cream to celebrate this awesome day.

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I’d been wanting to visit this gnome mecca since I first heard about it 5+ years ago and it totally lived up to the hype. I wish the nearly 80-year-old Ann all the best as she continues to take the gnome world by storm and be an inspiration for gnome lovers worldwide.

The Gnome Reserve is typically open between March 21 and October 31 between 10 am and 5 pm daily. Adult admission is £3.75, and it’s definitely worth it…even if you’re not an obsessed fanatic like me.

Turning 32 on Sapelo Island

As the days of August ticked by, 32 seemed like a pretty insignificant number, so I was half-expecting a pretty insignificant 32nd birthday. My creative husband who knows me all-too-well had something entirely different in mind.

Three days before my birthday, I was handed a packing list and told to be ready to leave at 10 am the next morning. Leave for where?

I had no clue….it was a surprise adventure and I was more than okay with that. There really aren’t enough fun surprises in life, so I wasn’t going to ruin this one by asking too many questions.

We took turns driving and five hours later, we arrived at this.

20150821_152232A ferry boat in the middle of nowhere. Okay…

I knew we were along the Atlantic coast in southeastern Georgia, and I remembered that there were some islands off the coast. I’d heard of these surprisingly situated islands, but had never been to any of them. That was all about to change.

P1040582With my trusty chimp sidekick, Ginger “Dunkey” Bromeliad by my side, I boarded the ferry and settled in for a short ride to Sapelo Island. Sapelo is one of the most remote and uninhabited islands along the Georgia coast, and actually it’s a national estuarine research reserve owned by the Department of Natural Resources.

Sapelo’s history dates back 4,500 years, when Native Americans settled here, but it’s best known for Civil War and slavery times. When the Union army started attacking the Georgia coastline, slave owners bailed, leaving many of their slaves behind to fend for themselves.

Some slaves who left the island came back later in search of family members and ended up settling here. Almost all residents of Sapelo Island today are their descendants.

We stayed at a VRBO property called “Sapelo Island-Leave the World Behind,” and our host, Lucy, picked us up at the ferry. The drive from the ferry was a small taste of what was to come, with dirt road, potholes, forests, and an utter lack of civilization. The only real town here is Hog Hammock, which has an estimated population of about 40-50 people.

P1040751There are no hotels on the island, and no restaurants either. We rented an attic apartment above Lucy and Mike’s home, which was actually spacious enough to sleep six if you really squeezed in. 
P1040590It was a totally comfortable place to stay, surprisingly with functional WiFi and TV. There was even a little outdoor patio with a table and chairs upstairs that we could use.

P1040761To get around the island, our hosts loaned us “The Beast,” a clunky, nasty SUV that could somehow still manage to maneuver the Sapelo wilderness.

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After settling in and getting acquainted with the island on a map, our first order of business was….THE BEACH! After all, what’s an island trip without the beach?

There are two beaches on Sapelo Island….the north beach and the south beach. But technically, they’re both on the south part of the island since the whole northern part is DNR territory and off-limits to cars.

Never before in all my days have I witnessed a more secluded and surreal beach. This shot was taken on Sapelo’s south (main) beach, Nanny Goat Beach, right before a ridiculous storm hit. And for the record, there were only three other people on the entire beach before the skies turned all dark and crazy.

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Every morning I spent on the island started with yoga…
P1040606…and then a beach walk to discover strange creatures that called this place home.
P1040617Plenty of time was spent in a rare state of relaxation on the beach…reading, writing, playing Frisbee, sketching, and drinking wine. Sapelo is the best place I’ve found that really takes me away from it all.

But there are some local “tourist attractions” that we checked out during our time here too. One of them is the Reynolds Mansion, which actually offers tours if you show up at the right day and time. We did not, but we did check out the grounds and eat a can of beans on the sidewalk.

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It’s named after big tobacco heir Richard Reynolds who purchased the property in the 1930s and started letting the University of Georgia use the facilities for marine research. In its heyday, the 1920s, the mansion was used to entertain rich and fancy guests in the automotive industry.

Lucy and Mike also let us use some rusty old pink beach cruisers that they had in the garage to explore the island on two wheels.

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We pedaled to the nearby African Baptist Church, which has a service once a month.

P1040645Although cars aren’t allowed on the north part of the island, bikes are. So we set off to see what the more remote areas of the island were like. Sapelo Island is about 10 miles long and 4 miles wide, which makes it larger than Bermuda!
P1040644All seemed to be going so well on this little self-guided bike tour….until we hit the massive puddles.
P1040648The night before, very shortly after that picture of me on the beach with the crazy sky was taken, a torrential downpour hit and made a big mess of Sapelo’s dirt roads.

After walking our bikes around entirely too many flooded sections of road, we had to give up on the northbound route and head south instead. Fortunately, there was plenty to see down there too.
P1040655Sapelo’s lighthouse was built in 1820 by Winslow Lewis and repaired extensively after the Civil War and also an 1898 hurricane.

But a trip to the island wouldn’t be complete without spending time at BOTH beaches, so after a much-needed shower, we headed to the north beach, Cabretta Island, to scope out the scene. 
P1040694Just when I thought Nanny Goat Beach was remote, I discovered Cabretta Island and my mind was blown. The “roads” to get here were questionable at best, and we passed through was an abandoned campground on the way. Camping here would have been amazing, but apparently it only takes reservations for large groups for staffing purposes, not parties of two.
P1040707Ahhh…another secluded beach afternoon before a storm. A gal could really get used to this.

But alas, I had two more islands to briefly check out before heading home and accepting the fact that I’m a 32-year-old human being. The next stop was St. Simons island, which is far more inhabited and touristy. Don’t get me wrong…it’s still really nice though, and I’d move there in an instant.

I kicked off my actual birthday day by stand-up paddleboarding in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of St. Simon’s Island.

20150824_090526We met up with a local guy to accompany us since it was only our second time SUP-ing and the last time was two years ago. Compared to the last time in Lake Michigan (Chicago), this time was a breeze! I didn’t fall…not even once…and I even pulled off a couple easy yoga moves on the board.

After an essential ice cream stop post-SUP, we only had a little bit of time to spend on Jekyll Island. This is a built-up island with lots of new hotels, restaurants, and shops….and also a sea turtle center. My favorite part about this particular place though was the driftwood beach.

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This beach is located on the north end of the island and is pretty much a tree graveyard. It’s a bit sad actually, because the north end of the island is slowly eroding away and leaving the trees like this. But for now, it’s a surreal, haunting, and beautiful place that’s unlike any other beach I’ve ever seen.

It was really hard leaving the islands and coming home, as you might expect. A true getaway, far away from technology, obligations, and responsibilities, was really what I needed and spending a four-day weekend here really cleared out a lot of mental clutter.

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For the longest time, I haven’t had a huge “draw” to a particular place where I could see myself plopping down for a while. Now all I can think about is living in a chill beach town…where my days start with yoga in the sand and end with sketching in the sunset.

I guess turning 32 wasn’t really so insignificant after all.

48 Hours in the World’s Most Romantic (eh?) City: Paris

By the time I reached Paris by train, I had already spent five days in Amsterdam, three days in Brussels, and visited the world’s greatest gnome-themed brewery in Belgium. That’s a solid trip right there, but my journey was only half complete.

I had just 48 hours to soak up Parisian culture and see for myself if the city lived up to the hype.

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PARIS: DAY 1

The Gare du Nord train station in Paris was super close to our hostel, which served fresh croissants, coffee, and juice each morning. Vintage Hostel is on rue de Dunkerque and was a pretty sweet place to stay, with 1 Euro Heinekens during happy hour, a foosball table, and good Wi-Fi. We had booked a four-person dorm and found ourselves shacking up with a guy from North Carolina and a girl from an undisclosed location in South America.

It was also just a short walk to Sacre Coeur.

P1020658This was a huge cathedral with a lonely carousel outside. Mysterious armed guards met our acquaintance as we walked up the stairs and beggars flocked toward us from all directions. It really was a beautiful church though….and those views! P1020667This was a great place to snap a panoramic shot of the city…which is clearly what every other tourist quickly discovered too. Next up: the Arc de Triomphe! P1020699And what a triumph it was! I was feeling a bit under the weather during my entire time in Paris, mostly due to a weird bubbled lodged in my right eye. (It’s not contagious, I swear!) So the walk to reach this classic landmark was a bit of a doozy.

A doozy yes, but also an insightful glimpse into the real streets of Paris. These were streets filled with trash, traffic, tow trucks, and sporadic yelling. It all kind of reminded me of a European version of New York City…but with more motorcycles and scooters.

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Marching on, we looked tirelessly for that elusive hunk of scaffolding that everybody’s always talking about.
P1020761Well I finally found it (I’m totally pulling your leg…it’s completely obvious) and those were my first words, “That’s it? It looks like a bunch of scaffolding!” To me, it seemed like an unfinished piece of construction, but it sure is big.

The park around the Eiffel Tower was really nice though. We stopped by a local Soup & Juice to pick up lunch to-go and plopped down on a nearby bench. It was a weekday, so the crowds were totally manageable. The lines to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower were not manageable in my opinion, and I’ve seen enough vistas from high places lately, so we skipped that whole thing.

An interesting part of the visit was that a large screen was placed on the lawn and played a tennis match. Tennis fans rooting for Robert Federrer and the other guy perched themselves on the lawn to watch. The temperatures were finally warming up and the sun was shining. What a wonderful way to spend an afternoon!

But the minutes of our 48 hours in Paris were ticking away, so onward we plodded into the city…

Everyone knows that Paris is full of a ridiculous number of museums. Some people handle museum days better than others…

P1020788Like these tourists who I busted passing out mid-day outside one of the military museums, I was starting to get museum-ed out myself. This fact coupled with the time constraints were enough reason to simply view the museum’s architecture and sculptures from the outside rather than actually going inside.

P1020801The stroll took us past Ecole Militaire, Musee de L’Armee, Musee de Orsay, the Louve, and the Seine.P1020814All this urban hiking was making me thirsty, so we decided to stop at a fancy French cafe for an afternoon treat.
P1020822Our waiter was only moderately snooty, and after some time passed, he brought us a bottle of their cheapest white wine on the menu (30 Euros and decent) and a lemon/strawberry dessert (14 Euros and tiny).

With a little French sustenance in our systems, we continued on to explore yet another stereotypical French tradition…shopping!
P1020851This was the huge indoor luxury shopping complex known as Galleries Lafayette. In our not-so-luxurious outfits, we browsed all sorts of counters Tiffany, Coach, etc. and didn’t buy a damn thing. Le sigh.

That evening was pretty low key…I cranked out an article for work and we used a couple free drink coupons at On the Road Pub that our hostel handed out. Then we took a stroll around the neighborhood in search of by-the-slice pizza and failed miserably. I guess it’s not a French thing.

PARIS: DAY 2

My eye condition had worsened by the morning, but I was still convinced to see the sights of Paris. Passing through the Indian part of town, we walked to the Marais neighborhood, which is raved about in the all the guidebooks.

Instead of just walking by and snapping pictures of museums, we actually went into one on Day #2…the Picasso museum. I’ve always enjoyed a good abstract/cubist creation.

P1020879Even if you arrive a Paris’ museums before they open, it seems there is always a line anyway. The line only took about 30 minutes to get through, which wasn’t too bad. There were four floors to check out here and it was pretty interesting to see all of his non-cubist works and sculpture work in addition to the well-known paintings.

We had packed a picnic lunch to take to Vosges, another famous Parisian park, and snagged some gelato at a little shop on the way out. We also took a walk to Bastille, another big monument here, but no one takes photos excessively of it like they do the Arc de Triomphe.
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After a quick nap back at the hostel (when in Paris…), I got all dolled up for a fancy night out on the town. 
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Dinner was at Petit Canard, which translates to The Duckling. It was my first pleasant dining experience in France, as the staff was nice, the service was good, and the restaurant was cute but not crowded.

It seemed that no trip to Paris, no matter how short, would be complete without seeing a show. So we booked tickets for a cabaret show at La Nouvelle Eve.
P1020936Photography wasn’t allowed during the show, but let me assure you, the evening was filled with plenty of singing, dancing, costumes, champagne, and perky breasts. It was all a bit cheesy and touristy, but definitely a fun time.
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Okay, I guess my math is bad because we actually had a couple more than 48 hours in Paris. On the morning of third day, we woke up early and walked to Père Lachaise Cemetery, to see row-after-row of elaborate gravestones and mausoleums.

P1020967The big tourist draw here is the site where Jim Morrison was buried, and there are fences surrounding it so you don’t bother him too much.

Morrison’s great and all, but this was one of my favorite gravestone. Well done George…you’ve epitomized every horror movie fan’s nightmare-come true.P1020968

But before catching our flight to the UK, we had one last stop to make in Paris. After one last stroll along the Seine (because that’s what you’re supposed to do in Paris, right?), we finally found the elusive Ile Saint Louis, which is an “island” with an ice cream shop made famous by Anthony Bourdain. 
P1020974I must admit, Berthillon did serve up some pretty delicious ice cream…my ultimate food weakness.

Paris is one of those overrated places that you visit and expect to be wowed in an instant. But what I remember most is how burnt out I felt on city life. In the short amount of time I spent here I felt beyond irritated with the crowds, the lines the noise, the smells, and just people in general.

I grew up in a town of 2,000 people and dreamed of big city life. But by now, I’ve been there, done that, and moved on. I certainly don’t want to move back to that tiny town, but I’ve come to really appreciate solitude, the sight of trees outside my window, and the sounds of birds chirping in the morning. Sometimes the best part about traveling is coming to new realizations about yourself.

I wouldn’t say that Paris is at the top of my “must visit again” list, but I wouldn’t mind seeing less-touristy/more-quirky areas of the city someday. Although Paris was technically part of my honeymoon, I didn’t see the romantic appeal that’s touted in all those movies and storybooks. But then again, I’m not all that romantic of a gal, so what I do know?

As with most cities, I’m sure that there’s a neighborhood or two that I would have fallen in love with. But those will have to wait a little while because there are plenty of other places to discover for the first time.

Next stop: the English countryside! Au revoir!

A German Village Oddly Misplaced in the Hills of North Georgia

These days, pretty much all travel planning is done via the interwebs. I work for travel companies, write for travel blogs, and Google my way from one destination to the next.

However, this travel story begins differently than all the others. That’s because I planned this trip WITH A BOOK.

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I picked up this book at a local state park after a hike and flipped through it up occasionally while it sat on the coffee table. I picked out six or seven “quick escapes” from Atlanta that I wanted to check out, and one of them was the Helen/Clarkesville/Sautee area. Here are a few key points from the book that stuck out to me about this particular escape:

  • German alpine village
  • Waterfalls
  • International restaurants
  • Local wine
  • German beer
  • Boiled peanuts

Following the book’s recommendations, we started our two-day northern Georgia journey in Cornelia, a tiny town “famous” for having the world’s largest apple monument. It was pretty big, as far apples go anyway.

20150718_113810There isn’t a whole heck of a lot else going on in Cornelia (population 3,834), so we quickly moved on down US 23 to Clarkesville, another little town (population 1,250) known for mountain craft and antique stores. The book recommended a placed called Stephen’s for lunch, but Stephen must have lost in an epic battle to someone named Tucker.

I haven’t the slightest idea who Stephen or Tucker are, but this is when I realized my prized book was published in 1996. Whoops.20150718_130820

Lunch at Tucker’s was pretty alright – a fried green tomato sandwich and side salad, which hit the spot and seemed appropriately southern. Well, the fried part at least.
20150718_131021Then we mozied on over to a few of the little craft shops and watched cows paint other cows. Craft shops and festival booths always make me wish that (1) I didn’t have to have a full time job, (2) that I had unwavering motivation to keep up with crafts, and (3) that I was much, much better at crafts. Le sigh.
20150718_132107Old timey libraries with lots of books and grandma-style couches welcomed us in town…
20150718_135102…and so did little pathways around historic (abandoned?) cabins surrounding by strategically-placed statues. I’m always willing to lend a helping hand to a friendly statue.20150718_135159But statues can only provide entertainment for so long, and our next stop was Sautee, a town best known for its old general store.20150718_143502Inside the store were lots of old-timey relics…
20150718_143554…and even circus-style games that tested the strength of your love and let you watch a little peep show. I think I saw an ankle. I’m not entirely sure, but it still felt scandalous.20150718_144133By this point in the day, I’d worked up a hearty thirst. Fortunately, the Habersham Vineyards and Winery was on the way to Helen. The Southern Harvest label utilizes the distinctly Southern Muscadine grape to make sweet, fruity wines. I picked up a bottle of Peach Treat, which seemed only appropriate for a Georgia winery.

Tastings were $5 per person, but the most memorable part of this winery visit was the slushy drinks. Habersham had two slushy options: a peach flavor with white wine and a blackberry pomegranate flavor with red wine. Wine slushies…what a brilliant idea for a hot summer day!
20150718_151421Nothing really goes better with wine than chocolate, and fortunately, there are lots of sweet shops in Helen. Unfortunately, it rarely dips below the mid-90s here in the summer. So if you’re going to buy chocolate, you’re going to have to stuff your face with it right away or be prepared for a nasty mess in your pocket.

20150718_185851Unlike my typical travels that usually involve stays at campgrounds and hostels, I sprung for a full-fledged B&B this time. In Helen, we stayed at the Alpine Hilltop Haus, whose owners were kind enough to accommodate us for just one night. Most B&Bs in the area require a two-night minimum…even for last-minute bookings, which is annoying.
20150718_182624Our room had the most amazingly realistic mural painted on it. Seriously, nothing in this photo is real except the chairs, table and lamp. Mind = blown.
20150718_182336It was totally relaxing to hang out in the B&B’s living room, which was much more spacious than mine back at home. This is where I watched some ridiculous reality show about dating naked while flipping through old copies of National Geographic Traveler, while my husband started putting together a puzzle of an bland lighthouse.

This is also where breakfast was served the next morning, which was a tasty egg quiche, breads, coffee, and tea. There were four or five other couples staying here as well, but it didn’t feel crowded. The back yard overlooked the Chattahoochee River down below, which would have been quite peaceful if not for all those silly tubers.
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The big thing to do in Helen, which I quickly discovered, is tubing. Tourists stand in long lines waiting to board re-purposed school buses and be dropped off at the top of the river. They leisurely float down the gentle currents, bumping into each other and awkwardly getting out to swim from time to time.

The crowds, lines, and congestion made this an unattractive option for our relaxing, low-key weekend. But perhaps another time.
20150718_191657There were quite a few German restaurants around town in Helen, and although the food is hit or miss, this particular restaurant got my “thumbs up” for having cool steins. And the beer was pretty alright. 20150718_194200

But putting all the trip details aside, I find it absolutely bizarre that a German-themed village is tucked away in the hills of north Georgia.

Apparently, Helen was a logging town that was going downhill fast. To resurrect itself, some local business folks decided to recreate a Bavarian alpine village in its place and try to bring in some tourists. Even franchise businesses like Dollar General and Huddle House have that German architecture look.

20150718_202446And not surprisingly, this is also THE place in the area to party for Oktoberfest. On weekend evenings, this little town square area is filled with DJs spinning bad 90s dance-along tunes and vacation-minded southerners dancing-it-up with plastic cups of beer in hand. Then again, it’s also a total family-friendly area and kids are everywhere.
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After waking up in the B&B the next morning, we took the kayak out on Lake Unicoi, a 53-acre lake in Unicoi State Park. There isn’t a whole lot of water to paddle here, but it is pretty peaceful.

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Then we drove over to Anna Ruby Falls for a short waterfall hike. You only have to hike in a half mile from the parking lot to see the falls, which is created by the convergence of Curtis and York Creeks. Curtis drops 153 feet and York drops about 50.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo this was my experience planning a weekend trip “by the book.” It started with a book, and then branched out into randomness from there. Helen is just an hour and a half from Atlanta, but it couldn’t feel farther away.

Sure, it’s more touristy than authentic, but what more would you really expect from a European replica in the American south? Regardless, it’s one of the most unique places I’ve discovered down here and totally worth a stop to gawk if you’re passing through.

An Afternoon in Clovelly, A Step Back in Time

After spending a dream-come-true afternoon at The Gnome Reserve in the WAY remove countryside of England, I found myself searching for something else interesting to do in North Devon.

Something…oh I don’t know…England-y, something country-ish, something off-the-grid. Something like Clovelly.

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I think I first learned about Clovelly from TripAdvisor. It’s a small village in the Torridge district that’s intentionally stuck in time in the mid-19th century. It’s known for steep cobblestone streets that allow donkeys, but not cars. It’s also known for it’s lovely coastal views over the Bristol Channel.

Interestingly, Clovelly is a privately owned city that’s been under the control of the same family since 1738. In fact, it’s been run by just three families since the middle of the 13th century – nearly 800 years! According to the most recent census, around 443 people call this place home today.
IMG_2128Visitors are required to park at the top of a hill and enter through the Visitor’s Center. It costs £6.95 to get into Clovelly, which goes towards building maintenance and historic restoration.

We caught the last 5 minutes of the 20-minute video that tells about the village’s history and picked up a brochure to fill in the gaps. After passing by some resident donkeys, we took a stroll to check out the silk and pottery craft workshops before they closed for the day.

IMG_2136The cobblestone streets here are too steep for cars, so donkeys were used as the primary means of transportation for centuries. Now it seems that the donkeys are more of a tourist attraction than a source of hard labor, but motor vehicles are still prohibited. Everything from groceries to building materials are now hauled up and down by sledge.
IMG_2167The buildings here are ridiculously cute, from old-timey inns to chapels and houses that you swear people must not truly live in…but they really do.
IMG_2192It was about 5 pm when we were talking around, which is when many of the shops were closing. But I didn’t mind. Closed shops meant less temptation to break the Eurotrip budget, and it’s not like any more trinkets would fit in my backpack anyway. Closed shops also meant less crowds…which is perfect in a place like Clovelly.

IMG_2206However, a few restaurants and bars remained open and we were able to snag some traditional English grub and a couple beers before heading home at the end of the day.
IMG_2227But what I loved most about this place was the seascape. I’ve always been a sucker for little towns along the shore, and this was by far one of most serene and beautiful ones I’ve visited. Clovelly used to be a fishing village, which isn’t surprising, considering its perfect location and plethora of boats.
IMG_2263One thing that surprised me though was the waterfall. As if this village wasn’t beautiful enough, someone had to stick a waterfall in there too.

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You have to hike across some medium-sized pebbles and stones (a little rough in flats with minimal support) from the main cobblestone path to reach it, but when you do, you can walk right up to the waterfall. Behind it is a cave, where it’s rumored that the Arthurian magician Merlin was born.IMG_2347Speaking of magic…the air was warm (finally!), the sun was shining bright, and funny blobs of clouds dotted the sky.
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Author Charles Kingsley lived in Clovelly as a child, and the town inspired him to write Westward Ho and The Water Babies. Over a century and a half ago, here’s how he described the village:

Suddenly a hot gleam of sunlight fell upon the white cottages, with their grey steaming roofs and little scraps of garden courtyard, and lighting up the wings of the gorgeous butterflies which fluttered from the woodland down to the garden.

IMG_2410And these boats aren’t just for decoration either. If you have a little more time to spend here than we did, you can book a fishing trip or a boat excursion to nearby Lundy Island at the Visitor’s Center.
IMG_2435There are two hotels in town…one at the top and one at the bottom. The one at the bottom is called the Red Lion, which used to be a coal store and tavern back in the day. There are a couple cottages that offer bed and breakfast accommodations too. IMG_2441 There’s a bar inside the Red Lion where I snagged this beer and took it outside to sip by the dock in the sunshine.IMG_2449After a little beer-fueled relaxation, there was really only one way to go…back up. So I begin retracing my steps and climbing the cobblestone stairs back to the top of the village.

Little did I know at the time that I’d left my wallet down by the dock and actually had to run all the way down and back up again to find it. Fortunately, it was right where I left it…passport and all. A little extra exercise never hurt anyone.
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Sure, Clovelly may be categorized as a tourist attraction, but to me it was one of those really unique places I’ll never forget. It’s easy to find historic villages all over the world, but this one had a uncommonly authentic vibe that’s hard to describe.

Clovelly made me forget about checking my smartphone, forget about the conjunctival cyst that was stuck in my eye, and forget about being in a hurry to get anywhere. To me, it felt like a fairytale, but it’s nothing more than real life for hundreds of people who call it home…which is fascinating to me.
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The whole concept behind Clovelly intrigues me and honestly creeps me out a little bit. The village has inspired me to write a fictional short story about the alleged deep, dark secrets of the village’s owner family and why its residents have stayed for so long.

I’m not the first one to have this bright idea either. An 18th century fiction book called The History of John Gregg and his Family of Robbers and Murderers tells the story of cannibalistic bandits who lived in Clovelly and committed over a thousand murders while living in a cave by the sea.

Does Clovelly really have deep, dark secrets? I guess you’ll just have to visit for yourself…or read my upcoming hypothetical novel.

Highlights from the Quirky Capital of Waffles, Beer & Chocolate: Brussels, Belgium

So after five amazing days in Amsterdam (Alyssa in Amsterdam: A Brief Rundown of Awesome Things), my next Eurotrip stop was Brussels…the capital of Belgium that’s world-famous for a few key things. Belgian waffles, Belgian chocolate, and Belgian beer were definitely at the top of my to-do list.

We arrived late via train and checked into the Urban City Centre Hostel. The perk here was that we had our own private room and bathroom. The downside was that this was probably the loudest hostel we stayed at. Earplugs be damned. Regardless, it was nice to have some personal space after sharing an eight-person dorm.

One thing that I quickly learned about Brussels is that the city has a sense of humor. Not in that “I’m trying super hard to be hipster-ish” sort of way, but more of in an “I’m so quirky that I don’t even realize that I’m quirky” way.

Take, for example, Manneken Pis.

pisShrouded by legends, mischief, and fancy outfits, this tiny peeing boy statue is a huge deal in Brussels. This shot was taken early in the morning before the crowds piled up. Normally, it looks more like this or worse.

crowdThe statue really is that small and just inconspicuously stuck onto an otherwise unassuming street corner. But still, it’s a big deal to these Belgians. So much of a big deal that the little guy gets a wardrobe change just about as much as I do.

We later visited the Museum of the City of Brussels, which was a pretty average museum…until you reached the top floor. This is where all the Manneken Pis replicas reside wearing outfits from different countries, current events, and random themes.

You can actually look online before you visit to see what he’ll be wearing on upcoming days. Spoiler alert: sometimes he’s just naked!

costumesAnother big hit in Brussels is the waffles. Don’t believe the hype of the “one-Euro waffle.” It might sound like a bargain too-good-to-be true, and it is. That price is just for the plain, boring waffles that I could pretty much just make at home.

All the real deliciousness is in the toppings…strawberries, bananas, whipped cream, peanut butter, ice cream, and Nutella – from what I saw, all of Europe is obsessed with Nutella.

However, the waffles’ deliciousness is somewhat counteracted by their messiness. They’re impossible to eat without getting schmutz all over your face and the weak plastic forks vendors provide you with are an absolute joke.

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Smurf house! I kinda-sorta fit inside.

Belgian waffles should only be attempted by professionals, those not afraid to look like a fool, and those who are not on a first date.
waffleAnother big deal in Belgium is the almighty comic book. We visited the Belgian Comic Strip Center and I was surprised to learn how many comics were created by Belgian artists.
comic2I was a moderate Smurfs fan back in the 80s, and there was lots of Smurfs stuff to be seen here. The museum really wasn’t all that big, but it was more interesting than I expected, especially as a not-so-huge comic book fan. The Adventures of Tin Tin also had a big exhibit here and a whole shop dedicated to Tin Tin memorabilia.

But what got me really interested in Belgian comics was when I spotted GNOMES in a weird Polish comic created by illustrator, Grzegorz Rosinski. His comic is called Thorgal and I bought this particular book of his that featured helpful little gnomes in the woods. It’s called “The Guardian of the Keys” and was pretty entertaining to read.
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Although I didn’t sample as much Belgian chocolate as I did waffles or beer, I did make it to Chocolatier Mary, which is a famous handmade chocolate shop that supplies the royal family. You kind of need to be royalty to afford it too.

I settled on a €9.50 box of chocolate liqueurs and made them last as long as humanly possible…which was about two days.
chocolateWhich brings me to the beer…the strong, delicious, and wonderful beer of Belgium! One of our first stops was the Delirium Cafe. Sure, it’s touristy, but it’s actually a whole alley full of Delirium bars, which is pretty fun.

It’s a cute little alley with outside seating and rare varieties on tap that you just don’t find in the U.S. This is where I fell in love with Delirium Red and Floris Cactus. Floris is a Delirium brand that specializes in fun, fruity beers.beer

One of my favorite afternoons in Brussels was spent at Au Brasseur, a beer bar in the central restaurant area where I learned about La Corne in its horn-shaped glass & holder and sipped a few of these while drawing in my sketchbook.

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Of course, Brussels has lots of museums to check out if you’re not already museumed-out by this point in the trip. museum

And the architecture is absolutely nuts if you’re into gorgeous city scenery and all that.

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But never fear…there’s plenty of more weird stuff lurking around the streets of Brussels. For one, the Atomium.

I really expected a science lesson from this visit, but instead I got a history about a world expo in 1958 and a bunch of closed-off areas.

atom1There are eight levels spread across five spheres that you can access by stairs and elevators. Honestly, the exhibits weren’t all that interesting…certainly not worth €11. But this escalator was pretty trippy, so I’ll give it that.
atom2Determined to make the most of our €11 tickets, we took the elevator to the very top to see panoramic views of the city and look down upon the equally-weird attraction of Little Europe down below.

Here’s me sipping a pricey drink from the top sphere and looking down over the city.atom3But one of the most random things we did in Brussels was attending a marionette show at Theatre de Toone. It was all in French and I don’t speak a lick of French.

Well, other than, “Haw haw! Oui oui! Baguette! Croissant!”

This is a traditional Brussels puppet theater that was recommended to us by the son of the owner of Achouffe Brewery. The show recounted the history of a French/Flemish battle in the 1300s, of which I was completely lost about 90 percent of the time.

But alas, attending the not-so-well-attended show makes for a fun story to tell, and it was an absolutely random way to spend an evening in a random city. marionettesMeanwhile and elsewhere in Brussels, you can find gigantic cartoon characters and mock their hand gestures…comic1…or reprimand fake dogs for peeing on sidewalks…
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…or do some laundry, because well, you’ve backpacking for weeks…

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…or watch street performers do things like this (whatever “this” is)…

performance art...or try to walk through doors that resemble fake forests.

Yep! You can do all that in Brussels and more. P1020413

And then you can write home about it. Just look for the red post boxes and pop in a post card!

postcardBrussels definitely was something to write home about, and I’ll always remember it for its quirkiness.

Hiking to the Tallest Waterfall in the Southeast (with a Dog): Amicalola Falls, Georgia

One of the best things that I’ve discovered about living in Georgia is that there are lots of decent hiking trails within an hour’s drive.

Before my living situation brought me to the southeast instead of the northwest, I put a high priority on living in a hiking-friendly area. Although the mountains aren’t quite as tall or the parks as vast down here, Georgia continues to surprise me in pleasant ways.

Did you know that there’s a 729-foot waterfall just 90 minutes outside downtown Atlanta?

Well there is! And I recently had the pleasure of checking it out with my fiancée and a random English Setter named Lily.

Amicalola Falls State Park is located in north central Georgia, smack dab in the middle of the Chattahoochee National Forest. Newcomers be forewarned: this is one of the most popular state parks so arrive early in the morning to beat the annoying line of cars waiting to get in the parking lot by noon. Parking costs $5 unless you have a state park pass.

The drive to get here is quite nice – it’s hilly, windy, and redneck-y. As soon as you see the gentle rolling mountains in the distance, you’ll soon forget about the perils of Atlanta traffic. Wear layers and bring a jacket because the temperature drops at least 10 degrees by the time you arrive from the city.

IMG_7889There are several different trails to choose from when you arrive at the park. Hardcore hikers (with hardcore dogs?) can venture out on the 8.5-mile route to Springer Mountain, which leads from the park to the end of the iconic Appalachian Trail.

From the visitor center, we started on the 0.6-mile Creek Trail (yellow), past the reflection pool at the base of the falls. From there, you’ll find the Appalachian Approach Trail (blue), which leads to the top of the falls. This trail is marked in blue on the map and follows the creek on a series of steep stairs.

I was dog sitting Miss Lily, a 5-year-old English Setter, through my part-time gig as a DogVacay host. She seemed like a pretty agile pup, so I figured a nice long hike would do us both some good.

IMG_7903“Amicalola” takes a few attempts to pronounce correctly and means “tumbling waters” in Cherokee. The whole park spans about 1,000 acres and is considered one of Georgia’s Seven Natural Wonders. A quick Google search informed me that these are the seven wonders…two down, five to go!

  • Amicalola Falls State Park
  • Okefenokee Swamp
  • Providence Canyon
  • Radium Springs
  • Stone Mountain
  • Tallulah Gorge
  • Warm Springs

IMG_7927This stunning waterfall reminded me of the best ones I saw while hiking through the Smokys…which I guess makes sense because they’re really not all that far from each other.

In addition to the waterfall, there’s a 56-room guest lodge, a 24-campsite campground, 14 cottages, and even a dining room with banquet facilities. This is one fancy-pants state park!

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It’s about a mile from the base of the stairs to the top of the falls, with few open areas to stop and take a break. I don’t think Lily had ever seen stairs quite like these, and considering that she has anxiety issues that warrant doggie meds, they were a bit nerve-racking for her.

But we went slow, stuck with it, and eventually reached the top! It was about 10 or 11 in the morning on a Saturday in late March, so although we were greeted by some fellow stair-climbers, the route wasn’t over-crowded.
IMG_7940Brave Lily was the only dog on those stairs that day and she did a great job sticking with it. If it would have just been my fiancée and me, we would have likely continued hiking after reaching the top to check out some of the other trails. But this was enough for our day with Lily, and I’d packed a picnic lunch to relax and enjoy the scenery and the beautiful sunny day.

Much to Lily’s relief, we didn’t have to backtrack down those steep stairs to complete our journey back to the Jeep. We took the East Ridge Trail down, which was wooded, rocky, and had a moderate down-slope. Lunch at the top had re-energized us and the air was feeling warmer with each step.

IMG_7991Just before making this little trip up north, we picked up and installed a new (to us) soft top on my Jeep, “Chief Surfs with Manatees”. What better way to enjoy the fresh (pollen-filled) southern air than with the top down and my crazy hair blowing in all directions?!

This was the first day we put the new soft top to use, and lil’ Lily seemed to love the open air as much as I did.
IMG_8005If you’re looking to grab a beer on an outdoor patio after a day of hiking (my favorite kind of reward!), head to Dahlonega (another hard-to-pronounce name) and check out the Bourbon Street Grille for a well-deserved brew and a bananas foster dessert to share.

Dahlonega is a super-cutesy and historic town that’s the site of the first major gold rush in America. Step down, California!

There’s some tourist shops to check out in the downtown square, a growler fill shop, and apparently some wineries in the area that unfortunately, I only learned about later on.

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Hiking with a dog is a relatively new thing for me; however, I’m getting better at it every time. I’ve provided dog sitting and dog boarding services for about 20 dogs now, which I’m hoping will make things go smoother one day when I have a pup of my own.

These are a few dog hike considerations that I’ve learned so far, and the list continues to grow with each trail…

  • Understand your dog’s physical limitations
  • Scope out specific trails, trail distances, and terrain beforehand
  • Call the park to make sure it’s dog friendly
  • Leave early in the morning for a slimmer chance of crowded trails and hot temperatures
  • Have a reliable leash/harness setup
  • Bring water, a water bowl, food, and poop bags
  • Bring plastic bags, paper towels, and hand sanitizer for poop messes
  • Take breaks if your dog looks like she’s struggling or turn back early if you’re reasonably worried
  • Check the pup for ticks and fleas after the hike

A Cabbage Patch Dream-Come-True: Babyland General Hospital – Cleveland, Georgia

This is a story about how five-year-old Alyssa’s dream finally came true…26 years late.

Every kid has a favorite toy, whether it’s a teddy bear, Lego blocks, or a plastic truck. As an only child, I was somewhat spoiled with toys, but hands down, my favorites were Cabbage Patch dolls.

Babyland General Hospital is a Cabbage Patch museum/factory/showroom of sorts, and I finally got to see it for myself…with my parents in tow.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA My grandma bought my first (of six) Cabbage Dolls back in 1983, when they were the hot ticket item on everyone’s shopping list. Her name was Isabelle, and oddly enough, I’ve taken Isabelle to live with me every time I’ve moved. She’s quite the well-traveled lil’ thing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo when my parents planned a road trip from Illinois to Georgia to visit me in my current home, a trip to Babyland General Hospital was a MUST.

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It’s located in the tiny town of Cleveland, Georgia…northeast of Atlanta at the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

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It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so you’ll know you’ve arrived when you see the huge, white plantation-style home surrounded by 650 acres of green space.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALike any decent kitschy attraction, a fair number of famous people have walked through these doors and/or collected Cabbage Patches themselves. You’ll be greeted by their signed photos as you make your way inside to the admission desk past the bathrooms.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABefore there were Cabbage Patches, there were Little People, plush dolls that date back to 1977 and that were Xavier Roberts’ first creations. This is the oldest one of them all…valued at a whopping $37,000!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There were plenty of good photo ops for Isabelle and me as we toured Babyland General Hospital. To me growing up, Cabbage Patches were more than just silly dolls. They were my siblings. Weird, huh?

Being an only child can get lonely, so Isabelle, Netta, Jerry, Martha, Henrietta, and Lara kept me company by playing school, pretend cooking, going on road trips, and hosting birthday parties. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow it’s important to note that my parents were just as much into this whole experience as I was. They’ve finally accepted me for who I am, and they don’t (outwardly) judge me for playing with creatures and dolls instead of my own unborn offspring. Thanks, Mom & Dad 🙂
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne thing that caught me slightly off-guard was that everyone working at Babyland General Hospital was dressed like a nurse and totally in character. I really think some of these old women believed they were delivering actual babies in a real hospital. But I can support that.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA I expected a bit more of a “museum” aspect to this place, but it ended up being more of a sales room than anything else. Practically everything inside was for sale! I would have loved a few more informational plaques, factory photos, and maybe a little video presentation to add to the experience though. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADolls were carefully positioned in “nurseries” and play areas, and even separated by girls’ rooms and boy’s rooms. I’m sure this was to avoid the dreaded case of the cooties.
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Apparently even Andy Warhol got in on the Cabbage Patch craze at one point because a few of his paintings lined the “hospital” walls. 
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut by far, the most interesting thing that happened at Babyland General Hospital was the BIRTHING.

I’m not even kidding…a head of cabbage gave birth to a doll while a “nurse” delivered it….and I saw it all. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThanks to a little audience participation, this head of cabbage turned out a baby girl and all the gross parts about birthing were edited out of the show. WHEW!

When the nurse asked the audience to name the new baby girl, my dad called out, “Alyssa!” And thus, a new baby me was born this day.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThroughout the course of the morning, I learned that there are many different types of Cabbage Patches and they don’t all look like Isabelle. However, she still had to wear a visitor pass so that she wouldn’t be mistaken for one of the residents.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor a Cabbage Patch fan, this was total sensory overload.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI could have probably spent all day hanging out with these little buggas, but alas it was a work day, and there’s only SO much time that “free admission” will buy you.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere was an onsite birthday party room that I would have absolutely died for when I was a kid. Aw what the hell…maybe I’ll see if it’s available in late August for the big 3-2.
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My parents made it known that they were bound and determined to buy me a brand new Cabbage Patch doll to celebrate this magical day. But with hundreds upon hundreds of glistening, adoptable painted eyes staring at me, how was I to choose just one?!
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After a requisite bout of indecision, I settled on a little brown baby boy wearing monkey pajamas and smelled of talcum powder. But this was no ordinary store purchase…this was a full-fledged adoption!

And you questioned my motherly instincts….heh!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWith one look into those abnormally large brown eyes, I signed my life away…with Isabelle as my witness.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the adoption process didn’t end there! I was required to raise my right hand and repeat after the nurse that I would be a kind adoptive mother to the little guy for as long as I shall live.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd with that it was done! I was too ecstatic at the moment to focus hard enough on choosing a name for my new little guy. So he’s still nameless…any suggestions? I need to write it on his birth certificate (yes, there IS actually a birth certificate) before he realizes that his adoptive mom is a flake.
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And just so Isabelle didn’t feel left out with all this new baby madness, I got her a little “candy striper” dress as a souvenir. They seem to be getting along pretty well so far.

And both 5-year-old Alyssa and 31-year-old Alyssa deem this latest Georgia adventure an overwhelming success! If you could belatedly fulfill one childhood dream trip right now, where would you go?

My First Hike as a Georgian: Sweetwater Creek Trail

Over the past month, I’ve totally fallen off the blogging bandwagon. But don’t worry; I have plenty of excuses lined up to justify the absence of personal musings!

After six years of calling Chicago my home, I have relocated to Atlanta. I also got engaged (yes, the to-be-married kind), the holidays were squeezed in there somewhere, and I vaguely remember having a fever. Boo hoo and such.

But excuses aside, I’ve found the transition to southern living remarkably easy and have been out and about exploring what Atlanta and the surrounding nature areas have to offer. Which brings me to my first hike as a newly licensed Georgian – Sweetwater Creek State Park.

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This is one of the closest state parks to metro Atlanta, so it was a logical pick for a first point of outdoor exploration. The park spans 2,549 acres, including a 215-acre lake, visitor center with gift shop, picnic shelters, fishing docks, and a bait shop. There are nine miles of trails here: the red, trail, yellow trail, and white trail.

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There are three parking lots, but we settled on the third one for better access to the white trail. There’s a nice little visitor center and gift shop up front with a little museum about the wildlife inside and the old mill. We sprung for a Georgia State Parks annual pass, figuring that we’d be making quite a few visits to these parks to get our money’s worth and would make use of the campground discounts too. Gosh I can’t wait to go camping…I’ve sleeping in a warm, comfy bed for far too long. 
IMG_7858The white trail is the longest – a 5.2 mile loop that takes about 2.5 to 3 hours to hike. It’s rated “moderate to difficult,” but it was definitely tamer than that rating would suggest. Winding through stream coves on a wide dirt path, the white trail is the most remote and least crowded of the three.
IMG_7862Armed with a slightly-less-than hardcore manatee backpack (manatees!) and a picnic lunch, we hiked through the wooded area with lots of tall, skinny trees. My parents gave us a tree guide book for Christmas, but I haven’t really figured out how to transition it from being a coffee table book to a useful field companion. There has to be an app for that…
IMG_7864 The creek flowing across the rocks slabs was really beautiful, and I had to keep reminding myself that this really was January. There is definitely nothing about Chicago weather that I’ll miss!IMG_7870 After scarfing down the sandwiches and fruit I’d packed for lunch, we continued hiking to where the white trail met up with the red one. The red trail leads to the intriguing ruins of the five-story New Manchester mill, which was the most interesting feature of this hike. Discovering this mid-hike mill reminded me of the ruins of the Ney Springs Resort in Mt. Shasta, California.

Related: Resort Ruins and an Auto Graveyard: Rediscovering My Love for Hiking in Mt. Shasta

IMG_7874.CR2Another fun and notable feature of this state park were all the dogs! I’m slowly coming to realize how dog-friendly Georgia is. Although I don’t have a dog of my own yet, I run a dog-sitting side business through Dog Vacay. It’s a fun way to get to know different types of dogs and dog personalities while life if still a little too uncertain to commit to a full-time pooch of my own. Finding parks, patio bars, and even driving ranges to take the dogs-on-loan to makes the side gig even more fun. And in this particular park, I almost felt out of place NOT having a four-legged friend tagging along beside me.

IMG_7876 The red trail is the most congested trail in this park because it provides the easiest access to the historic old mill. As the stroller crowds trudged along en mass, I came to realize that we weren’t the only ones to have the brilliant idea of a mid-day hike in the mild sunshine. IMG_7878Now fenced off and lined with “no trespassing” signs, this mill was part of a mid-nineteenth century town called New Manchester. The Civil War destroyed this town, but remnants of this mill are still standing today. Apparently, park rangers lead guided hikes on certain days and times inside the fences and tell the history of this crumbling textile mill.
IMG_7882But even if you don’t catch one of those tour times, there are some signs posted around to catch you up with the Cliff’s Notes. With water rushing in all directions in the background, it really does make for some photo-worthy views.

1Actually just yesterday, I went on my second Georgia hike – to Panola Mountain State Park, also in close distance to Atlanta. And this time with a boxer that I’m dog-sitting for the weekend!

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It feels great to get out and active in the middle of winter, and it feels even better to explore a new place that I call home. It’s a new phase of my life and I’m glad to be in an area where there are lots of trees and non-stressful spaces to reconnect with the environment around me. I expect these to be the first of many more hikes as a newly southern gal as I slow down my pace and start taking notice of the new, exciting, and beautiful things around me.

Spelunking at California’s Lava Beds National Monument

As I recently discovered, one of the best ways to break up a West Coast road trip is by taking a slight detour to the Lava Beds National Monument. Located in that mysterious Northeastern corner of California, this park makes up the largest total area covered by a volcano in the Cascade Mountain Range.Lava6

Mammoth Crater erupted 32,000 years ago and sent massive lava flows 10 miles downhill, creating some really impressive tubes, caves, and boulder fields. Medicine Lake Volcano last erupted 950 years ago, and shifting tectonic plates in the Pacific Ocean could actually make it active again someday.

This area is also steeped in brutal American history, thanks to textbook clashes between the Modoc Native American Tribe and Euro-American settlers. But you don’t have to know much about the Modoc War of 1872-1873 to enjoy this bizarre scenery.

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Surrounded by a high desert wilderness, this national park has over 700 caves, Native American rock art sites, historic battlefields, and campsites. Designated as a national landmark in 1925, Lava Beds has numerous lava tube caves, a couple dozen of which have marked entrances and developed trails you can venture down and explore.
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The best part? You can explore these caves on your own without forking over cash for a guided tour or having to put up with annoying tourists huffing and puffing next to you.

Not surprisingly, the best place to start is the visitor center because you can rent flashlights out here for free. They are heavy, bulky, and painfully dim, but they will set you back zero dollars. Basically, if you don’t have one of your own, they’re better than nothing down there.

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However, if you plan to spend a few hours at the park exploring the caves beyond just a few safe steps inside, splurge on an $8 plastic helmet at the visitor’s center. The cave ceilings get lower the farther you hike in and the ceiling rocks are dreadfully sharp. I had a head wound a couple years ago (the kind that requires 11 staples), so I wasn’t exactly into the mood to go through that all over again.

But before you lose yourself in the netherworld of spelunking, keep in mind that there are plenty of nice hikes above ground as well. Soak in the views of the cooled lava beds with gentle mountain peaks in the distance as you give yourself a mini history/geography lesson to stimulate some sort of brain activity.

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You can wander around to your heart’s content around the lava rocks around Black Crater and Battlefield. This is an awesome place to hike if you don’t want some “trail expert” telling you where you can and cannot go. Vegetation is very minimal, so it’s pretty hard to get lost too. On the day I went, the crowds were unbelievably slim and the whole place had a super eerie vibe.

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Definitely don’t miss out on hiking the Schonchin Butte, a 0.7 mile trail that feels about triple that because of the steep elevation. At the top, there’s a ranger station and the dude hanging out all alone inside was quite friendly. However, I truly wonder what he does all day up there.

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As you get back in your car and drive along the park roads towards the main section of caves, there are lots of places to pull off and check out. The most accessible caves are surrounded by metal fences and a ladder that leads down to their cool and creepy depths.

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To get a small taste of caving without much intensity, you can check out the Mushpot, an accessible cave with a high ceiling, paved surface, installed lighting, and lots of informational plaques to read.

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If you’re craving some more caving at this point, you can either hike or drive along the main road to explore a few others. I hiked down and around Labyrinth, Lava Brook, Sunshine, and Sentinel during my time at the park.

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But by far, one of the most awesome caves to check out is Skull Cave. Not only because it has a hardcore name, but also because the floor is covered in ice…even on a sunny 90-degree California day.

The trail down to Skull Cave isn’t very challenging, but it’s really unique. It’s a remnant of three large lava tubes situated on top of each other, and the rock ceilings are high enough so you don’t have to duck down at all. This odd setup traps the cold winter air and creates a year-around ice floor down a metal stairway on the lower level.

But why “Skull Cave?” Because two human skeletons and the bones of some pronghorn and bighorn sheep were once discovered inside…that’s why.

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To pick out a few routes before you visit, check out this handy PDF of cave descriptions. All the caves are really chilly inside and regardless of the outside temperature, the caves range from about 30-55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Although visitors are free to roam around pretty much everywhere on their own, the caves are still fragile. So don’t touch stuff!

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There’s also been an issue with white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal bat disease that’s been killing off bat populations down there. Check the National Parks Service site for current cave closures because of this.

After visiting other national parks on busy summer days, I really appreciated the low crowds and the freedom to wander around on my own at Lava Beds. Mammoth Caves in Kentucky, for example, doesn’t allow visitors to explore the caves unless they’re part of an organized tour group. Mammoth is still an awesome place though, especially if you sign up for the hardcore 6-hour “Wild Cave” tour.

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Lava Beds National Monument might seem a little out of the way for some travelers, but if you are in Northern California or are looking for a really unique road trip destination, I’d definitely recommend swinging by! Who knows, you might even find some of my gnome friends guarding the entrances…