My Night in The Ozarks

I’ve been trying to retroactively write about my New Zealand experiences, but I wanted to take a break and write about what’s been going on recently. My internship in Denver has just ended and I miss working with my polar bears and otters so much! I really missed my friends and family back in Florida though, so I decided to load up my car and take a little road trip home. This is a 2-3 day drive depending on how much driving you want to knock out in one day. I had nothing else to do, so I figured why not, I’ll do it in two. My goal was to make it to Arkansas on the first night, so I could camp in the Ozark National Forest. I found some pictures online and thought the area looked really beautiful, plus National Forests are predominately pet friendly and cheap when it comes to camping. I figured I would find a spot as I got closer and go from there.

This plan wasn’t my worst, but it definitely wasn’t my best. My phone screen at the time was completely shattered and it kept freezing every minute, so I’d have to lock it and re-open it to keep using the touch screen or read the screen. At this point I was entering Arkansas and getting really nervous I wouldn’t be able to find a place to camp with how long it took me to use my phone, so I just picked the first campground that came up in my search and that seemed close off the interstate. Long Pool Recreation Area was the ultimate destination.

The next hour of my life was one of a serious internal battle. It was late and it was dark. I had been driving for 12 hours and it was about 10 pm. I turned on to this little road leading into the mountains out of a town called Clarksville, and my one working headlight was all I had illuminating my way through the winding roads. It had just rained, making the scenario all the more gloomy. I had never been to the Ozarks and I had never really found a campsite and stayed at one all by myself before. So my logical brain was telling me I was absolutely crazy and that my actions were irresponsible and dangerous. I mean I had no idea what this campground would be like, I had no clue where I was, and I was driving deeper and deeper in to the middle of no where. I lost cell service a little bit later (thankfully the pre-loaded GPS was still navigating me) and my nerves were all the more on edge. Also, I feel it’s pertinent to the story that I add that I watch way too many murder mystery shows. Thankfully I made myself stop watching Criminal Minds a few years ago for this very reason or I might have really been freaking out. I mean, this did seem like a story straight out of a scary movie. Girl goes camping in woods alone, girl gets kidnapped and tortured in a cave in the mountains, girl is never to be seen from again. However, this is also where my idealist side came into play. I always love the adventure and as much as I get nervous, or stressed, or my mind wanders to the worst possible scenario, I do keep a very optimistic state of mind. I knew why I wanted to camp, and I kept that goal in mind, and we (Bella was with me of course) made it to our campground.

I felt immediately more at ease once I reached the campground. It was 11 by now, so the campground host and the two other campers were asleep, but the campground host had the coolest set up at their site. It seemed very welcoming and fun, and I was ecstatic to discover I had picked a campground with an actual bathroom that had flushable toilets and running faucets. Bella and I walked around a bit, but I really couldn’t see anything, so I started re-arranging my car for our sleeping comfort. When I’m out on my own like this, I do typically carry pepper spray and a small pocket knife with me, just in case. I find that I feel very safe with Bella near me, as I figure most people wouldn’t want to mess with a 90 lb beast of a dog. I hung some tapestries in my windows, so no one could stare in at us and we settled in for the night. Bella was very confused as to why we were sleeping inside the car and kept staring at me for an explanation, but she finally lied down next to me.

We woke up the next morning to a very low-lit, foggy day. I slept better than I had expected to in our tight quarters and was interested to explore the area before hitting the road again. It had been perfect temperatures overnight, in the upper 40’s, so I just threw on a sweatshirt and Bella and I started to move around. I walked out in front of where my car was parked and couldn’t believe my eyes. There was this beautiful turquoise colored river flowing right next to our camp site! It was incredible! I was absolutely not expecting to see water of that color out there in the woods of Arkansas. We walked around down by the river side, and there were so many spots where the water was slowly falling off the rocky edges next to the trail. It was breathtaking after such a nerve-racking drive in. I wanted to keep hiking, but I knew I needed to get back and my phone no longer had the GPS route saved and I still had zilch in cell service. This meant I was going to be driving back out, trying to remember how I got there in the dark of the night. The fog started lifting as I got ready for the long day ahead of us and as we started driving out, I was shocked to see that the road that we drove in to the campsite on had a steep drop off to the river below. Thankfully, the whole experience was a safe one and so much fun. I can’t wait to see where I’ll be camping on my drive back out to Colorado. I’m thinking Texas this time, but I have no idea just yet.



Cape Kidnappers

On our way out of Napier we decided to do a tractor tour of Hawke’s Bay’s Cape Kidnappers. This is usually a 16 km hike along the beach that is very tide dependent. You can only complete this hike when the tide is out. Given our last two days of extreme activity, we opted to do the tractor tour. Personally, I’m not a fan of tours as I’d much rather have the freedom to do as I please, and take my time looking and exploring the things I find interesting.  But I didn’t have much of a say so on this one and we set off as the sun was rising across the ocean.



The morning was very foggy, but it added to the character of the looming cliffs along the beach. Essentially, Cape Kidnappers is a long peninsula with steep, white cliffs lining the beach. If you look closely at the cliffs, you can see the different layers of marine sediment from millions of years ago. You can clearly see fault lines where earth quakes and volcanoes have displaced the levels of the deposits. Towards the end of the peninsula, you will find the breeding and nesting sites for thousands of gannets, a large sea bird that flies to New Zealand from Australia for its breeding season. If you were able to see the land located at the tops of the cliffs, you would find the famous Cape Kidnappers golf course.

The intriguing name, “Cape Kidnappers,” comes from a story dated back to October 15, 1769. A local New Zealand tribe, the Maori, attempted to kidnap one of Captain Cook’s crew members. Cook was a British explorer who had been mapping out New Zealand’s coast line at the time. The Maori pulled up alongside Captain Cook’s ship, the HMS Endeavor, offered the crew some fish, and pulled a young boy onto their boat. The boy was able to escape after Captain Cook’s crew opened fire on the ship, giving him a chance to jump overboard and swim back to the Endeavor. Cook left the peninsula immediately, documenting the experience in his journal, and dubbing the peninsula “Cape Kidnappers.”




The fog cleared up enough so that we could get out and explore the end of the peninsula. We walked up through a sheep and cattle field to get to a rather large nesting point for the gannets. These are beautiful white and yellow birds that spend a lot of time in the water. They were very loud, squawking at any bird that got too close to their personal nest, which wasn’t very hard to do considering each nest was about a foot apart. A couple birds would fight, wrestling each other and battling it out with their impressive beaks. After observing the birds for a while, Kendra and I headed back down to the beach to admire more of the cliff side views. The beach itself was beautiful and we saw a fur seal resting on a large rock far out in the water. Soon it was time to get back on the tractor and head back. I will say the tractor ride was relaxing, despite the scolding I received for climbing up on a small rock to get a better angle on a picture I was taking.












Napier Wine Tasting

Another day that started out simply enough. Kendra and I had left Tongariro and were now staying in a cute place on the beach in Napier. We were in wine country and couldn’t wait to take part in a wine tasting bike tour. After a morning beach walk, we headed over to a lady’s home where she rented out bicycles for people wanting to visit the vineyards. She handed us, what we would later discover to be, a poorly scaled map and we were on our way.


Maybe we should have known better than to trust the map we were given. But this lady ensured us it was only 10 minutes to the first vineyard. About 45 minutes later we were finally arriving at the first listed stop. This vineyard was Abbey Cellars and it was our least favorite. The guy serving us was “meh” and the wine was not that tastey. We had a quick cheesey flat bread snack and biked to the next vineyard. It took us about 15 minutes to get to this one and we getting a little more suspicious about the distances shown on this questionable map. The wine here at Alpha Domus was much better. The atmosphere was a little more lively and there was an adorable pup running around greeting everyone. We were eager to get to the next winery which didn’t look too far, 5 minutes perhaps. However, about 20 minutes later we arrived at Sileni Estates. As far as taste goes, third times the charm! Kendra and I loved the wine here and got a couple bottles to take home. Unfortunately, this is also where things started to go awry.

The lady helping us out as Sileni Estates swore up and down the next winery was only a 15 minute bike ride away. We were slightly skeptical because the map had so far led us astray but she kept telling us, “No, it’s so close!” The wineries were closing in 45 minutes and she promised we’d make it in time to the next listed vineyard. Ash Ridge Wines was our goal and we biked and we biked and we biked. At this point I was starving and beginning to fall out a bit. Cars were flying by us on the street and we still hadn’t seen the winery. About 5 minutes after the wineries closed we came up on Ash Ridge; mind you that’s about an hour after our Sileni Estates departure. Kendra was my life saver and biked ahead down the long dirt drive as I walked beside my bike towards the vineyard. She convinced the cook to make us paninis and explained to him how we were so lost and kept getting told massive underestimates of how far apart the wineries were. He couldn’t believe the last lady told us Ash Ridge was close, “That’s at least 9km away!” he exclaimed.


Our return bike ride home was exhausting. We were done. The only thing we had going for us was the beautiful scenery. Other than that we were so ready to ditch the bikes, get some decent food, and rest our tired bodies. I forgot to mention that the day before we had hiked the 2o km Tongariro Crossing, plus the extra distance we added running after our shuttle and hiking around town looking for a ride to Tongariro. Oh yeah and one weird thing we kept noticing on our bike ride was how many dead birds there were! It was strange, I mean really, they were everywhere. We finally made it back to the lady’s home 2 hours later, after a few wrong turns. Thank God. We later mapped out the distance we biked and it came out to about 36 km. So much for our leisurely planned out day of getting a little tipsy on good wine and cheese plates, and hello to a  decent day of Tour de France training.  All in all, Napier did not leave the best taste in my mouth but at least we did get a good bottle of Pinot out of it.




The Tongariro Alpine Crossing

This day is one I will never forget. It started out simply enough, Kendra and I were to catch our shuttle at 6:15 AM to make it to the crossing by 7:15 AM so that we had ample time to get back to the shuttle at the end of the day. We layered up and packed up a hearty lunch with several snacks, mentally preparing for what everyone kept telling us was one of the hardest hikes they had ever gone on. We walked out to meet the shuttle at 6:15 and there it was… anddd there it went. We looked at each other for a split second in sheer panic, breakfast bagels in hand, and started sprinting after our shuttle, screaming at them to stop. After about two blocks, we stopped, completely dumbfounded by what had just happened and decided to walk to the i-site to see what we could do. Well unfortunately the i-site didn’t open for another two hours and no one was answering the phone for the shuttle company. Kendra and I were pretty angry and had just added an extra 2 miles of running to our already lengthy 20 km trek that was ahead of us… if we made it there. We had to make a decision. And that decision was to hitchhike. After several failed attempts, we found a young couple in a camper van filling up at the local gas station. We asked where they were headed and wouldn’t you know! They were headed to the end point of the crossing! All we had to do from there was convince a shuttle to take us to the front, and wouldn’t you believe it! They were taking the same shuttle that had left us! This amazing couple took Kendra and I to the end of the crossing, we secured a spot on our original shuttle after guilting them about leaving us behind, and made it to the start of the crossing, only an hour and a half behind schedule. We couldn’t help but laugh at what had happened and we were so excited to get our hike started.


At the start of the crossing, there were hundreds of people. It was slightly overwhelming. It was a pretty chilly, windy day so I couldn’t imagine what it was like crowd-wise on a nice, warm summer day. However, once we got started the crowd thinned out a bit and we got so hot! The first section of the trek started on  a boardwalk overlooking a field of lava rock. We arrived at the first pit stop, Soda Falls, in about an hour and had to strip down to our base layers. Ahead of us was a steep incline known as the “Devil’s Staircase.” Kendra and I handled it surprisingly well. We took a couple short breaks to drink water and eat a granola bar, but we couldn’t believe that was all the “Devil’s Staircase” had to offer. At one point, we even asked fellow hikers if that was really it or if there was another intense climb we hadn’t arrived at yet.



At the top of the staircase, you had the option of hiking to the summit of Mt.Nguaruhoe (Mt. Doom from Lord of The Rings) or to continue on the alpine crossing. We chose to pass on the summit hike as we were already running behind and it looked like something that might be slightly out of our physical abilities for the day. (Neither of us had done a mountain hike of such length and caliber before, so we wanted to make sure we weren’t dying and rushing at the end of the day.) If I ever return to the North Island of New Zealand, it is definitely something I would like to accomplish. As we continued on the crossing hike, we walked across a nice flat segment in between the two volcanoes, Mt. Doom and Mt. Tongariro. It was spectacular. There was no plant life, just tan colored sediment and snowy leftovers from the winter season.




Kendra and I arrived at the next incline, very steep, but not as lengthy as the last. One section offered a metal chain for you to grab on to in order to help you up the icy rocks.  The view from the top of this final climb was more than breathtaking. I can’t even describe the beauty of the volcanoes and the surrounding mountain ranges. To one side of this 360 degree lookout, you had this incredible view of Red Crater. If you scanned over a bit, to where the trail was headed, you saw the Emerald Lakes followed by Blue Lake. Further still, you saw the Tongariro Volcano summit, and completing the full circular view, was Mt. Doom and its respective lake. Pictures cannot portray the beauty of this place. We proceeded to take a few hundred pictures and adventured off the path to get up close and personal with some of the sights.





Climbing back down the other side of what we had just climbed up proved to be difficult and hilarious. We sat just off the side of the trail and watched people slip and slide down the trail of volcanic ash. Some falls were easily predictable, and as long as no one got hurt, we let out a few giggles. It was all in good fun as I took a spill myself, quite gracefully I might add, while we were descendingthr steep slope trying to get a better view of the yellow and green sulfur lakes. Around the three lakes, there were pockets of steam billowing out from the ground. Each lake had its own vibrant color. The first one that we came to was the largest, filled with bright green water within its center that was surrounded by a thin yellow ring along the outer rim. The second was the smallest and more of a pastel aquamarine color that reminds me still of an Easter egg. The third lake was my favorite. Its water had a translucent turquoise color towards the center that darkened quite a bit on the edges. It was absolutely beautiful. We decided to eat our lunch here before continuing on across the valley to Blue Lake and beginning our descent down the mountainside.


Blue Lake was incredible as well. It sits up alone after you cross the valley between the Red Crater, Emerald Lakes, and Mt. Tongariro. Kendra and I sat here for a bit as well since we had made decent time so far before we decided we had better get going. I didn’t want to leave but the shuttle would be waiting and we had taken enough pictures and mental snapshots that the views would last a lifetime in our memories.



The descent, in my opinion, was the hardest part! My poor toes were constantly smashing into the front of my hiking boots and my knees, which are prone to soreness from IT band problems, began to send me little hints that they were not happy. There were a few more volcanic vents we passed by, including Te Maari Crater which had erupted most recently in 2012. Several signs warned us to keep moving quickly through this volcanic hazard area. After we were done hiking down the open volcano side, we entered a beechwood forest with more warnings to keep moving as we were in a lahar (lava flow) region. At this point we were more than ready to reach the end and when we finally saw the parking lot with all the shuttles we were relieved to be able to sit down and take off our packs. It had been quite a memorable day and we laughed as we thought back to our panic nearly 11 hours earlier when we thought we wouldn’t even make it to the start of our hike.







Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park quickly became my favorite spot we traveled to on this trip. It was so incredible. The park consists of three active volcanoes that are clustered around each other. These volcanoes are surrounded by rain forest, scrubland, and gravel fields at different, respective altitudes. There are a number of different trail options and we decided to hike the 6km trek to Taranaki Falls first. The trail leads you through alpine grassland into a beechwood forest that winds alongside a river. There were several smaller waterfalls that we passed along the way to the larger, punch bowl waterfall that we were aching to see. It did not disappoint. Kendra and I sat beside the powerful waterfall for quite a while, laughing and taking in the views (and the mist, as it slowly started to soak us and our belongings.) You can get a view from every angle of this waterfall; we walked behind it, around it, and above it. Each spot being just as spectacular as the last. You could see amazing views of the three volcanoes, Mt. Ruapehu, Mt. Ngauruhoe (Mt. Doom for all you Lord of The Rings fans), and Mt. Tongariro, as well.

After we had completed the waterfall walk, we drove up to the top of the Whakapapa Village to see the ski field on Mt. Ruapehu. (Side note: “wh”in New Zealand is pronounced “fa”… we had a good chuckle over that one.) If you want to talk about incredible views, let’s talk! It was like stepping in to a volcanic battle zone. Mt. Ruapehu is composed of andesite, which is just old volcanic rock. I had never seen anything like it. There was still plenty of snow on the upper parts of the ski field, but it had mostly melted where we were exploring. We walked up to the famous Mead’s wall, from the LOTR movies, that overlooked a gorge of lava rock with a small flow of water drizzling through it. Mt. Doom was looming in the distance and the site was absolutely breathtaking. There was one more waterfall that we wanted to catch before it got too late, so we headed back down the volcano for our final mini trek of the day.

Tawhai Falls was our final exploration spot. It didn’t take very long to hike down to, thank goodness as it was starting to get a bit chilly. It was a beautiful little area, allowing Kendra and I a chance to practice messing around with our photography skills. This particular waterfall was also a part of the LOTR’s movies, featured as “Gollum’s pool.” It was actually pretty incredible seeing this beautiful waterfall in “real life” and seeing how the artists manipulated it to look so creepy in the movie.

I could have explored Tongariro for hours longer, it would honestly take a few days to see everything, but we had scheduled our alpine crossing hike for the following day at 6 AM, so we headed back to our lodge to get some rest and carb load on spaghetti to prepare for our 20 km hike.