A New Year’s Eve Getaway in Estes Park, Colorado

Standing under the evergreens on our snowy hike up to Nymph Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park filled my heart with gratitude and relief. Just a few months ago, we were anxiously watching the news and hoping that the wildfires would be contained. Although the damage was substantial, thanks to the incredible effort by firefighters (and perhaps some good luck and answered prayers), Rocky Mountain National Park is open and beautiful.

Here is a map of the Area Closures due to fire damage.

America the Beautiful Park Pass

We bought our annual America the Beautiful Park Pass which covers entrance into national parks and federal recreation lands for the entire family. For us, this is a great deal because we go to the park frequently, plus we feel good about financially supporting the national parks. You can learn more about the pass here.

Details about day passes entrance fees for Rocky Mountain National Park as well as upcoming free days can be found on the nps website.

Nymph Lake

The hike to Nymph Lake begins at the Bear Lake trail head. The journey to Nymph Lake is only .5 miles. Our girls were eager to play in the snow and thrilled that the lake was frozen solid.

Hike to Dream Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park

Cozy cabin in estes park

I spent a lot of time during our trip sitting next to the fire in our cabin, reading books, and drinking coffee. I read 37 books in 2020 which beat my previous year by 11 books. My 2020 favorites include Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. If you enjoy reading on vacation, check out my Book Lovers Guide to Estes Park, Colorado.

In 2020, COVID-19 made us weary of airport travel. We were also navigating the school calendar for the first time as our oldest started kindergarten. This meant fewer trips to the mountains last year. The positive side is that we were able to rent our cabin to many families who wanted a safe and relaxing vacation spot. We are reinvesting the rental income we earned into a couple of upgrades including new flooring throughout the first level. Learn more about renting our cabin here.

Solitude Cabins in Estes Park, Colorado

Hike around lily Lake

I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve written about Lily Lake on our site. Lily Lake is our favorite destination because it is easy, fun, and family friendly. A trip to Rocky Mountain National Park without a stroll around Lily Lake feels incomplete.

Lily Lake Hike in Rocky Mountain National park
Lily Lake in the Snow

Sledding in rocky mountain national park

Hidden Valley is the only place where sledding is allowed in Rocky Mountain National Park. We have been taking our girls to this spot every year. It is a blast! You can rent sleds and other winter gear at Estes Park Mountain Shop.

Sledding in Rocky Mountain National Park

Sprague Lake

Sprague Lake is a half mile loop. We enjoyed this hike on New Year’s Day. This felt like a good start to the year even though life remains a little uncertain. Typically, I’m very goal-oriented, but this year (for now at least) I’m not writing a list of goals. I love to hear what other people do to celebrate the beginning of a New Year, so please feel free to share your reflections in the comments below.

Bierstadt Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Our 5 Most Popular Colorado posts in 2020

I always think it’s fun to see what our readers are finding on our site.

Our fifth most popular post was extra sweet. The Best in Estes Park: A Cinnamon Roll Showdown.

The Estes Park Winter Bucket List was the fourth most popular post this year. Although it was written in 2019, the list remains a good one! On our New Year’s Eve trip we checked off several bucket list items including sledding, winter hikes, shopping for a Christmas ornament, sitting by the fireplace with a good book, and swimming at the Estes Valley Community Center.

The Homer Rouse Trail – a Dog Friendly Trail in Estes Park, Colorado and the updated version Homer Rouse Trail – Revisited (written in 2019) continue to be among the most popular posts on our site.

The second most popular post was A Trail Less Traveled: Hollowell Park to Mill Creek Basin in Rocky Mountain National Park which was written in 2019. We returned to Hollowell Park this summer and wrote about it here. The wildflowers were beautiful! If this is a hiking destination you want to try, make sure to check in with the national park service. According to their website, ‘Trails that remain closed in the Bear Lake area include the Fern Lake Trail, Cub Lake Trail, the Mill Creek Basin, and Hollowell Park.’ (as of 1/4/2021).

The most popular post was 7 Romantic Things To Do in Estes Park, Colorado. This post was actually written in February of 2019, but most of the points remain true except that the Dunraven has a new location by Lake Estes.

If you are on pinterest, I’d love for you to check out our profile. I typically add videos on pinterest that aren’t included in the blog posts.

coming soon

I’m going to ask my husband Eric to post his favorite moments from our recent trip too. Some of his pictures are AMAZING. I can’t wait to share them here soon. I’m also excited to share about our latest Estes Park food adventure. A post about our Asian Takeout Extravaganza is coming soon.

Happy New Year!

-Kelly

Hot Springs National Park

Today I want to share about a trip we took over Thanksgiving break to Lake Catherine State Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas. We rented a cabin right on the lake and enjoyed hiking within the park which I wrote about here.

Lake Catherine State Park Arkansas
Lake Catherine State Park in Hot Springs Arkansas

What to do in hot springs, arkansas

We spent a large part of our time hiking and relaxing at Lake Catherine, but we were excited to explore the area too. There is a lot to do!

Garvan Woodland Gardens is the botanical garden of the University of Arkansas. We didn’t make it to the gardens on this trip, but a stroll through the Evan Childrens Adventure Garden which features the Bob and Sunny Evans Tree House is high on my list for return visits.

The Mid America Science Museum is another spot that is high on my list for our next trip to Hot Springs. The museum has an outdoor exhibit called Dino-Lites which features festive dinosaurs dressed up for the holiday season.

Hot Springs National Park is located in historic downtown Hot Springs. The indoor tours are currently closed because of COVID-19, but we were happy to walk the trails and read signage about the history of the park.

Hot Springs National Park

According to hotsprings.org, ‘Native American tribes called this location the “Valley of the Vapors” and believed that the naturally hot springs had healing powers.’

Hot Springs National Park
A penny for good luck (and a donation).

Grand promenade at hot springs national park

The Grand Promenade is a National Recreation Trail. Learn more about the history of the promendade here. Despite being adjacent to the busy downtown streets, this area felt serene. Our girls loved stomping in the autumn leaves.

Hot Springs National Park

We also enjoyed walking past Bath House Row which consists of eight bathhouse buildings and the historic Arlington Hotel , the largest hotel in Arkansas according to the hotel’s website.

“Politicians, dignitaries, actors, gangsters and entertainment and sports legends bathed in our bath house, danced to our music and enjoyed our splendor and charm. The Arlington has survived a devastating fire, economic downturns, changing social attitudes and much more. Steeped in history, The Arlington is truly a legend.” (arlingtonhotel.com)

Hot Springs Arkansas Arlington Hotel
Arlington Hotel

where to eat in hot springs, arkansas

As we strolled the streets of downtown Hot Springs, we made mental notes of several restaurants and breweries we hope to visit on return trips (post COVID-19). This time we grabbed a quick (and delicious!) cupcake at Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcakes. This local favorite was featured on the Food Network’s television show, Cupcake Wars.

We also found a great lunch spot with outdoor seating outside downtown. Taco Mama was a hit for our whole family. The authentic Mexican food was fresh and delicious. The local owner exuded hospitality.

Hot Springs Arkansas Cupcakes

I’m currently reading a book called This is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are which explores place attachment. I admit that I never expected to live in Arkansas, but since moving here two years ago, I’ve enjoyed exploring the Natural State. Trips like this one, and our recent trip to Mount Magazine State Park, have been great ways to build a deeper connection to the beautiful state which we now call ‘home’.

Falls Branch Trail at Lake Catherine State Park

Lake Catherine State Park

Lake Catherine State Park is located in Hot Springs, Arkansas in the Ouachita Mountain region of the state. The state park offers a full-service marina where boat rentals are available year round.

We rented a cabin right on the lake for our weekend visit. Besides cabins, the park also has 70 campsites, six primitive tent sites, one Rent-A-Camp, and one Rent-A-Yurt according to the park’s website.

Hiking at lake catherine state park

There are four hiking trails at Lake Catherine State Park. Here is a map of the park’s trails. We decided to hike on the Falls Branch Trail which is two miles in length. This trail is ranked as a top ten hike in Arkansas by AllTrails and is rated as moderate.

Lake Catherine Arkansas State Park. Falls Branch Trail

Falls Branch Trail

Our girls woke up before the sun, so we started our hike early in the morning before the fog had lifted. Our early start time added a quiet, magical feel to our hike through the forest, and also helped us avoid weekend crowds.

This trail is family-friendly, however the rocks are slippery in places.

Lake Catherine Arkansas State Park. Falls Branch Trail
Hardwood Forest
Lake Catherine Arkansas State Park. Falls Branch Trail
Lake Catherine Arkansas State Park. Falls Branch Trail
Lake Catherine Arkansas State Park. Falls Branch Trail
Little Canyon Creek
Lake Catherine Arkansas State Park. Falls Branch Trail
Falls Creek Falls
Lake Catherine Arkansas State Park. Falls Branch Trail
Lake Catherine

I love to hike in Arkansas in the autumn because we don’t have to worry as much about pesky bugs, snakes, or heat. However, the water levels in the lake, creek and falls were lower. For a different perspective, check out this blog post from arkokhiker from a visit they took in June.

Bald Eagles in arkansas

At the end of the hike, there is a bench that overlooks the lake. We spotted several ducks swimming in the mist. I also spotted a bald eagle, or at least I believe I did – it was difficult to see in the distance. Lake Catherine State Park is hosting Eagle Bonanza Tours in January. Call (501) 844-4176 to sign-up for a free boat tour.

Arkansas State TreE

We were mesmerized by the towering trees at Lake Catherine State Park. Did you know that the Arkansas State Tree is the Loblolly Pine?

Lake Catherine Arkansas State Park. Arkansas

One of the things we appreciated about spending a weekend at Lake Catherine State Park was how relaxing and peaceful the park felt while also being close to restaurants and attractions like Hot Springs National Park. I’ll write more about these attractions in my next post.

Arkansas in the Fall: Lost Valley Trail, Buffalo National River

My original post about hiking Lost Valley Trail in the Buffalo National River area continues to be our most popular post about hikes in Arkansas.

On our first trip to Lost Valley, we went in the middle of summer. A copperhead greeted us on the trail. On our return trip this fall, we spotted a tarantula!

Tarantulas in arkansas

“Texas brown tarantulas, the only species found in the state, live in dry, upland areas like the Arkansas River Valley and the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains” according to Kristen Bartlow, watchable wildlife coordinator with Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (article from Arkansas Democrat Gazette)

But don’t let spiders or snakes keep you away.

Natural Bridge

There is a lot to love about this hike including caves, bluffs, and waterfalls.

The trail is 2.4 miles round trip with countless rocks and trees to explore.

On the day of our hike the water was low, so the rocks were less slippery (and the waterfalls were less spectacular).

Eden Falls Cave was closed due to COVID-19 precautions.

But overall, this hike remains one of the best hikes we’ve gone on in Arkansas!

elk in arkansas

Another highlight of this autumn trip was spotting elk near Ponca, right down the road from the Lost Valley trail head.

“Fall is especially a great time to elk watch as the bulls go into mating season form, bugling and battling for herd domination right before your eyes!” according to buffaloriver.com.

ozark cafe

To top off our adventure, we ordered a round of cinnamon rolls to-go from the popular Ozark Cafe in nearby Jasper, Arkansas. This was a delicious decision.