Diamonds, Hot Springs, and History for Spring Break

Note: This is part three of a three part series looking back at previous Spring Break camping trips that our family has taken. Short camping trips over Spring Break has become our go-to for a short recharge before finishing the rest of the semester. After writing about our most recent trip to Bastrop State Park and Austin, I thought it would be good to look back at the other places we have camped during the week-long break. All pieces are part of a bigger writing project I have been working on for the last year.

No matter where I travel in the United States, if I make a trip enough times, certain states become my nemesis. I went to college in Nebraska and my parents and boyfriend lived in Michigan. Every time I traveled home, I had to drive through Iowa. For four years I made the trek back and forth between eastern Nebraska and Michigan more times than I wish to count, and during that time Iowa became my nemesis. I got my first speeding ticket in Iowa. I narrowly escaped being stuck on the interstate in the great spring break blizzard of 1998 while racing through Iowa. And a couple years after graduation, when Jeff and I were four hours away from ending our trip from Indiana to Yellowstone and back, we lost a tire in Iowa.

I don’t care what Field of Dreams says, I’m not a fan.

And in the years since we moved from Indiana down to Texas, Arkansas has become our new nemesis. The primary path from southeast Texas up to Indiana and Michigan, where the majority of our family resides, is straight through the heart of Arkansas, and if you are traveling through the state looking for pretty, natural landscapes, you are in the right place. But if you are just trying to get through, it can be pretty awful. On our first trip back to Michigan after our big move, we discovered that there are few places to stop between Little Rock and the Missouri border. We were tired, hungry, and we needed to stretch, but no matter how hard we looked, there was no location that could handle a stop with our camper. When we crossed the Missouri border, our excitement over the welcome center sign quickly dissipated when we discovered that we had to wait another 20 miles to get to the promised rest stop. We were so relieved to be out of the truck and stretching our legs that we let our guard down just long enough to allow our then five-year-old son to cross monkey bars that were far too tall for him, resulting in slipped fingers, a fall, and three days later the discovery of a broken wrist.

And then there have been the “camping” stops that we have made in Arkansas. Our first time through we found an RV campground right off of the interstate near Texarkana, the “campground” a large expanse of dry dirt and gravel parking spots with the necessary hook-ups and not much else. In our travels through, we have found ourselves there at least one other time. Another time through the state we found another privately owned RV campground close to Hot Springs but right off of the interstate. While the campground boasted a small playground for the kids, giving them a chance to stretch out before we sent them to bed, it didn’t offer much else as we struggled to hook up in the dusk and then darkness. I walked the dogs around the dark campground, dodging holes in the dirt roads that wove around the camp sites and wondering what brought people back to Arkansas. After all, the Arkansas rest areas we had stopped at in our times through the state boasted beautiful landscapes and nearly every outdoor activity imaginable, but we had yet to see it.

The point is, we were not fans of Arkansas.

But as spring break 2018 loomed in the distance, I had to make a decision about what we were going to do to get away. We needed to leave Houston but it needed to be short because Jeff couldn’t take an entire week off from work. In our area of the country, Arkansas is “close,” and I decided it was time to give the Arkansas state parks a try. Besides, if we found a camping spot close to Hot Springs National Park, we could knock another national park off of our list.

It was time to see if Arkansas was more than just an annoying state that we had to get through to visit family.

I made our reservations at Daisy State Park, an hour away from Hot Springs and about half an hour from Crater of Diamonds State Park, another spot that we wanted to check out. We made our four-day, three-night reservations at the park, just enough time for a much-needed reset, at least for Jeff and me. As we normally do for long trips, we parked our camper in front of the house the night before we left, packing everything but the refrigerated food and the toiletries that we would need for the next morning. But even then, we got a late start to our morning, and after seven hours of driving 360 miles, we pulled into our spot with just enough light to spare. I heated up dinner, the kids and Jeff made a fire to help ward off the dropping temperatures, and we settled in for three nights of being (mostly) unplugged.

Since it was supposed to be a little warmer the first full day of our trip we decided to drive to Crater of Diamonds State Park so the kids could dig in the dirt and mine for rocks. We rented shovels, buckets, and sifting screens and we trekked out to the fields where many others sat in the rows of dirt, digging, sifting, and handling rocks hoping to add to the collection of over 33,000 diamonds that have been found by park visitors since the park was founded in 1972. Both kids hunted for the perfect spot to dig and joined the hundreds who were digging and sifting. Eventually we took their full buckets over to one of the washing pavilions and watched the dirt come off of their most treasured finds. After taking a mile hike around the Prospector Trail, they took their finds to a park ranger who informed them that they had discovered glass and quartz, but it didn’t matter that their rocks weren’t worth anything. The rocks were beautiful and both kids were already making plans for where they were going to store them in the camper.

By the time we returned to our campsite we were ready for some definite chill time. Our son accompanied me on a short walk to the lake and then we headed back so we could get started on dinner before one of our friends from Houston arrived for an overnight stay on his way to Nashville where he was spending the majority of his spring break. We ended a good day of outdoor exploration with dinner, some sunset pictures over Lake Greeson, and a campfire to keep us warm while the breeze picked up and the mountain spring temperatures dropped.

The next day we headed towards Hot Springs, Arkansas so that we could explore the national park within the city limits of Hot Springs. We rode the elevator to the top of the Hot Springs Mountain Tower and took pictures of the vast forests surrounding the historic town. We walked down Bathhouse Row and toured the Fordyce Bathhouse, getting a glimpse into a history we had known nothing about before visiting. We stopped in the visitor center and stamped our National Parks Passport books, ending our day in Hot Springs with a stop at the Michigan chain Kilwin’s Ice Cream store. It was the perfect ending to our son’s day as he got to taste his favorite ice cream, Blue Moon, for the first time in two years. And after we arrived back at our campsite we once again watched the sun set over the trees and the lake before heading back to our warm campfire.

The short spring break trip proved to us that Arkansas was more than a boring highway through sparsely habited farmland, more than a no-man’s land for travelers. While it is not at the top of our list for further family excursions, it is now a possibility when we want to go somewhere that is within a day’s drive.