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Trail Riding in Branson, MO at Pot A Gold Stables

Trail Riding in Branson, MO at Pot A Gold Stables

In my opinion, almost any beautiful walk can be even better if you’re watching the scenery from horseback.聽As much as I love hiking, almost every time I’m walking through the woods I think, “This would be so much better if I was riding.”

 

 

Back in July, I was browsing the #explorebranson hashtag on Instagram in search of fun new things to do, and got SUPER excited when a post from Pot A Gold Stables showed up in the feed. I had NO idea there was a new trail riding place near Branson! If you read my blog often, you might remember that I’ve been taking Hunter/Jumper (English) riding lessons for a little over a year, but I haven’t had the chance to go trail riding in a couple of years, so a relaxing trail ride through the Ozarks sounded perfect!

 

 

Pot A Gold Stables is located just across Lake Taneycomo from Downtown Branson on the same property as the Sycamore Creek Family Ranch, which serves as an event and wedding venue. Although the ranch is off the beaten path, it’s easy to find. From the Branson Landing area, you just cross the bridge and only have to make two turns after that – about a ten minute drive. The final road leading up to the stable is gravel, but it’s pretty smooth for a gravel road and my little car had no problem with it. There’s parking just a few steps from the barn, which is super convenient!

 

 

All of THAT said, I was still late getting there for my ride.聽馃槀聽I had only glanced at the map and thought I’d be taking a totally different highway to get there, and only discovered when checking directions right before I left that it was a good 15 minutes farther away from my house than I thought. Oops! Thankfully I’d been planning to leave early anyway, so I still arrived well before the actual start time. Most of the other guests were already paired up with horses by that point, though, so I’m glad I wasn’t any later! (You do need to make reservations for your ride so the trail guides know in advance how many people to expect and thus how many horses to have ready. That also means that if you’re running a few minutes late like I was, they know to wait for you. Definitely aim for being early, though. Nobody wants to be the guy who everyone had to wait for. And allow some extra time for traffic if you have to drive through Branson!)

Pot A Gold Western Adventures offers one, two, and three hour trail rides, which I LOVE. It’s so hard to find a barn that offers rides longer than one hour! If this is your first time on a horse, you’ll probably want to stick with an hour, but if it’s something you’ve done before and know you like, definitely go for the two hour ride! For me, an hour on horseback just flies by, so I’m all about the 2 and 3 hour options!

 

Adorable donkeys also live on the ranch

 

They also offer 20-minute lead pony rides, which are great for kids that are too young to join in the regular trail rides but want the chance to try it out. (Kids need to be at least 6 to go on the regular rides, and riding on the same horse as a parent is not allowed for safety reasons.)

On the opposite end of things, they don’t have a weight restriction to ride but you do need to let them know if you’re over 250 lbs when you make the reservation so they can have a horse ready to accommodate you. I know that can be a delicate subject to bring up to a stranger, but both you and the horse will be way more comfortable and safe!

 

 

I got super lucky with weather the morning of my ride! It was overcast and even sprinkling a little on my drive there,聽 but the rain stopped before it was time to ride and we got to enjoy the cooler temperatures that came with it. It started out at about 72 degrees and hit the upper 70s by the end of my two hour ride. (For the record, rides still go out as long as it’s not raining too badly. They do reschedule if the weather conditions are going to make things unsafe, though.)

 

A few horseback trail riding tips if you haven’t been before:

 

What should you wear for a trail ride, and what should you bring along?

Definitely wear long pants – jeans are probably going to be the most comfortable. I know shorts might seem like a good idea when it’s hot, but trust me, they’re not. Not only do legs rubbing against your saddle get painful, but you’re riding through the woods where branches and bushes can scratch bare skin. Jeans are your friend!

Closed toed shoes are another must. Boots are great, but tennis shoes will work just fine in a pinch. I actually tend to ride in a pair of $30 boots from Target most of the time. Something with about a 1-inch heel is ideal, because that keeps your foot from slipping through the stirrup. Avoid anything with an actual 2+ inch heel, though.

(As a side note, there are several great thrift stores in Branson, so if you’re visiting and want to pack light, you could easily find jeans and boots for a few dollars and then just re-donate them before you leave town.) Depending on the weather, you may also want to bring a hat or sunglasses and a light jacket. Be sure to bring a bottle of water (saddle bags are available so you can bring it with you on the ride), and if it’s a hot day, you might want to bring two! Tips for your trail guides are not required but are definitely appreciated, so you may want to bring some cash as well.

Children are required to wear helmets, but older teens and adults can choose whether they’d like to or not. The horses are very well trained and used to beginners, but even with the best trained animal there’s always a chance something could happen. I always wear a helmet when I’m riding English, but generally don’t for Western. Just go with whatever you’re more comfortable with!

 

Pausing by the lake for photos

 

To be honest, I’m back an forth on the idea of bringing your phone along. One of the guides on my ride was awesome about taking photos for people and texting them to them, and you can always ask to have a photo taken on your horse before you start or end your ride. I did bring my phone along because I’m very comfortable on horses and experienced enough to judge when I feel safe taking it out to snap some photos. In general, though, it’s better to focus on the ride and keep both hands on the wheel, so to speak. Nobody wants to have to drop a billion dollars on a new iPhone because it fell out of your pocket and the horse stepped on it. (Seriously – even with 30+ years under my belt, I’ve dropped my phone on a trail ride before. I’m super lucky I heard it fall or I probably never would have found it!)

 

 

Let’s get back to my actual experience, though! I wound up riding a super sweet little mare named Izzy. I could tell from the beginning that she was super chill and I’d be able to just relax and enjoy my ride, which is exactly what I’d been hoping to do! A funny side note – she was over a foot shorter than the horse I usually ride for jumping, so when it came time to get off her it was like, “WHOA, there’s the ground already!” I gave her lots of love post-ride and asked the guides if it would be ok to give her some of the horse treats I keep in my car (What, everyone does that, right?) as a reward for her hard work. We became instant buddies.

 

 

The trails at the ranch are absolutely beautiful. You get to ride through the woods, along Lake Taneycomo, through big open fields, and even down a path that winds through a patch of bamboo that’s like 12 feet high! Most of the ride is very relaxed and easy, but there are a few challenging parts mixed in for a little excitement. The location also makes it a perfect place to spot wildlife. We saw baby deer on my ride, but bald eagles, herons on the lake, giant groundhogs, an other Missouri wildlife are also common.

 

 

The horses are all very well trained and beginner-friendly. A lot of horses would freak out at things like passing a big tractor or seeing a deer jump out, but nothing bothered these guys. Another common issue with trails horses is being barn sour (not wanting to leave the barn and wanting to run when they’re getting close to home), but the Pot A Gold horses stayed relaxed the whole time. At the same time, if you actually do have riding experience, you’ll notice that they don’t just mindlessly follow the horse in front of them like a lot of trail horses do. I played around with giving Izzy some very subtle cues while we rode, and was pleasantly surprised by how well she listened to me.

 

Pot A Gold’s Branson location is currently closed for the season because riding in 30 degree weather is no fun for anyone, but if you’re planning to visit Branson in 2019, be sure to put it on your list of Missouri adventures, as the current plan is to re-open in March!

 

I need to add an important note here at the end: I received a complimentary trail ride in exchange for sharing my experience with my readers- pretty standard for travel blogging, but I actually started working for this company about a month after my first ride. I wrote most of this post right after the trail ride and before I started working there, so I’m glad I preserved my original opinions fresh after the experience before I started viewing everything through an insider lens! I tried to primarily only use photos from that first ride, too, but I did end up adding in a few photos from later rides just to flesh the post out a bit. I’m working on another post about my experiences during my first season of guiding trail rides, but I wanted to keep this post in the pure, unbiased view of a guest. Hope that makes sense? Either way, feel free to fire away with questions whether they’re about trail riding in Branson or trail riding on vacation in general or working with horses or anything else and I’m happy to answer!

 

 

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A post shared by Pot A Gold (@potagoldstable) on

(Yes, that’s me “Woo-hoo!”-ing on Polka Dot in the back. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen plenty of Polka Dot!)

 

You can find Pot A Gold Western Adventures on Facebook and Instagram聽(you’ll spot me in a few pics there!), and learn more on their website!

Fantastic Caverns

Fantastic Caverns

 

A fun fact that most people don’t know: Missouri is FULL of caves. Over 6,000 of them, to be more specific. Only 16 offer tours, and one of those, Fantastic Caverns in Springfield, Missouri, offers a ride-through tour on a tram.

Fantastic Caverns is America’s only ride-through cave. This is a BIG deal – there are only a handful of ride-through caves in the entire world! I love exploring caves but most require visitors to be in pretty good shape physically, since you’re likely to be stooping down to fit through low passages, climbing stairs and inclines, and generally on your feet for around an hour. The pathways are sometimes narrow, low, and inclined in order to preserve as much of the natural environment as possible, but this makes them inaccessible to a lot of people – those with mobility disabilities, elderly visitors, small children who can’t walk through on their own, etc. So while I totally understand why not every cave can offer a more accessible tour, it’s awesome that there’s at least one cave that pretty much anyone can visit comfortably!

As you guys might have noticed, I always try to include as much info as possible to help travelers with disabilities or other special circumstances plan their trips, since I know that can be hard to find. If you have any questions that I don’t cover, feel free to reach out in the comments or email! (And yes, the trams have ramps so they’re wheelchair accessible! You may want to check with them if you have a chair that’s especially wide or tall, though.) I just learned while browsing their Facebook that the tour is even dog-friendly, so this is also a perfect choice for anyone with a service dog or even just a well-behaved furry traveling companion!

As you might remember from my summer posts, this spring and summer have been SO HOT, so I started looking around for local attractions that doubled as a great place to cool off. The Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau was kind enough to send me a press pass that allowed me to visit Fantastic Caverns so I could report back to you guys with some honest feedback and tips for visiting.

 

 

Getting To Fantastic Caverns:

Ignore what Siri is telling you to do. She doesn’t know your life. Follow the signs instead. (Basically, if GPS tries to send you on a weird loop to the west of town, ignore that and either take Kansas Expressway up past the fairgrounds or use I-44 exit 77. ALL of the Fantastic Caverns signs say exit 77, so of course my phone yelled at me when I didn’t take exit 75 like it wanted me to.) Just be prepared for the fact that you’re going to feel like you’re heading out into the middle of nowhere and driving a few miles down farm roads. Caves don’t really keep visitor convenience in mind when they’re forming.聽馃槀

 

馃幎聽I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes…聽馃幎

 

Fantastic Caverns Tours:

The cave is open almost every day of the year (closed Thanksgiving and December 24th & 25th) from 8 a.m. until around dusk (so 4 p.m. in the winter and 8 p.m. in the summer) and tours go out about every 20-30 minutes, so you can arrive whenever you’d like and you probably won’t have much of a wait before your tour departs. I had about 15 minutes, which gave me time to use the restroom, browse the gift shop, and check out some of the educational material in the waiting area. (They have some really cool books that you can flip through!) There’s also a vending machine with bottled soda, tea, lemonade, and water available at really reasonable prices (as in $1 – $1.50). In fact, all of the gift shop prices seemed really reasonable. They had baseball caps for $5, and lots of cool gemstones for around $1-2 each.

 

These agate pieces were $1.50. They also had turquoise and rose quartz (among others) for 99 cents.

 

When tour time rolls around, everyone boards a tram that holds around 30 people. Here’s a peek at what those look like:

 

The tour guide is also your driver, so sitting towards the front can make it easier to hear, but the cave acoustics are pretty good so I don’t think sitting towards the back will affect the ability to hear what’s being said much, if at all. I sat at the front of the large part of the tram, and I did notice a bit of a fuel smell up there. (The trams are powered by clean-burning propane in an attempt to preserve the cave as much as possible.)

The tour travels a path carved out by an ancient river and makes a loop that goes about half a mile into the cave and then back out in a sort of horseshoe shape. The lower part of the cave system, which is much larger and contains creatures like cave crayfish and tri-colored bats, is not visited during the tour.

 

A Bit of Fantastic Caverns History:

Although the cave was discovered in 1862 by a farmer and his dog, it wasn’t explored until 1867 when twelve women answered an ad seeking people to investigate the cave. Can we pause and acknowledge how badass those women were? Can you imagine going into a big dark cave with only candlelight and NO idea what you might find in there? The women wrote their names on the cave walls, and those were eventually traced over to preserve them. You’ll see them on the tour!

 

The caverns served as a speakeasy during prohibition, and in the 50s it became a popular concert hall due to the awesome acoustics. The room pictured below is known as the Auditorium, and was the site of countless concerts.

 

 

The jeep-driven tours began in 1961, and have been going strong ever since. I visited once on a school trip in the late 80s or early 90s, but didn’t remember much from that visit , so I was excited to see what was waiting below ground.

 

The Tour!

The cave tour takes approximately one hour and is a fantastic introduction to caves. I thought they did a great job of teaching about caves – how different formations grow, the history, etc – without overwhelming visitors with too much info.

One amusing note:聽 You’re welcome to take as many photos as you like, and the guide mentioned that flash photos are allowed. I tried that in one spot, but I should’ve known better! If you’ve ever tried to take a flash photo in a super humid place, you already know what happened.

Majestic, isn’t it?聽馃槀

Here’s almost the same photo without the flash:

 

The lighting in the cave is designed to illuminate the cool formations (In 2017 they replaced their incandescent bulbs with LEDs for environmental reasons), so you’re likely to get pretty good photos without the flash, especially when the tram is stopped, which is often. However, the mix of dark cave and lighted formations probably isn’t going to result in phenomenal photos if you’re using your phone or a basic point-and-shoot camera. The pics in this post were taken with my dinosaur of an iPhone 5s. I didn’t get any amazing shots, but overall the quality was pretty decent given that I was photographing things that were usually 20+ feet away in weird light. Also on that note, if you don’t know, caves are wet. Don’t bring in a camera that you’re not ok with an occasional large drop of water falling on.

Take a look at those formations above and then consider this: they grow at an average rate of one cubic inch per 100 years. And those guys above? They’re pretty big. For scale:

Tour guide near formations for scale.聽

There is one formation that they know the exact age of! Back in 1941, this concrete cylinder was added to the cave. (We were told why, but I’ve completely forgotten.) Since it reaches through the roof of the cave and allows water in, formations started to grow around it. Sorry for the bad photo, but again, caves aren’t awesome lighting for pics! But the little formations that reach out from the pole are now 3/4 inch long. After 77 years. Just something to keep in mind when looking at the huge ones in other photos!

 

 

Here’s one more to give you the scope of how old some of these cave formations are:

 

The smaller stalactites seem unremarkable until you think about how it took them almost a millennia to get THAT big. It was also fascinating to learn that we were 90-120 feet below ground! It never felt like we were descending much, but the entrance to the cave is set into a hill, so you’re a good 30-ish feet? (I’m estimating) underground from the beginning.

 

Although you’re WAY underground, the cave is high and wide enough in most places that I doubt anyone would experience claustrophobia. You do go under a few low ceilings where taller people need to watch their heads, but there are no tight, enclosed spaces on the tour. (Passages can often be cramped on walk-through tours, so again, this is a great option for those worried about doing a cave tour for that reason.)

 

 

While we’re talking about possible worries, there is one brief part where the tour guide turns off the lights so that you can experience total darkness. There’s so much ambient light now that the only places you can truly experience total darkness with ZERO light is deep within a cave or way down in the ocean. The darkness is maybe 10-15 seconds? There were some small children in our group and they seemed to handle it well (The guide had them count down 3…2…1… to the lights going out, which I think helps), but if you’re traveling with kids you know them best – if they’re hardcore afraid of the dark, just keep this in mind. There are also brief demonstrations of what exploring by candlelight would have looked like, but otherwise the tour has plenty of lighting.

(I’m trying co cover all of the bases for anxious adventurers, but if I’ve left anything out feel free to ask!)

 

 

It’s about 60 degrees inside Fantastic Caverns year-round, so keep that in mind when planning your visit! It’s a perfect way to cool off a bit on a super hot summer day. I wore jeans and a 3/4-sleeve top and was perfectly comfortable. I almost brought a jacket since I worried I’d be cold, but it never felt chilly in there – just pleasantly cool.聽 (Maybe the lack of wind helps?)

This was one of my favorite spots. It’s called the Breakdown Room, because the ceiling has fallen in several times. It looks pretty sound now- look at that super sturdy column holding things up on the left!聽馃槀

 

 

Souvenir photos of your tour group are taken inside the cave, and are available at the end of the tour for $12. (I believe they were 5×7’s in a cardboard folder-style frame.) Afterwards, you’re free to wander the visitor’s center, and there’s even a 1/2 mile trail down to a spring that I really wish I’d had time to check out! (There was a huge storm rolling in around the time my tour ended, so I was hoping to make the hour drive home before it hit. I totally failed at that!)

 

 

As you’re leaving, there are again signs to point you back towards I-44 and Kansas Expressway, which I appreciated since you really are kind of in the middle of nowhere. There’s also a really nice park called Ritter Springs Park just down the road. I stopped for a few minutes and found that there’s some great playground equipment and what looked like a gorgeous trail that I sadly didn’t have time to explore due to the aforementioned impending storm.

A little extra info: Tickets are聽$24 for adults, $17 for children, and kids under 5 are free. This is a little higher than most other local caves I’m familiar with (Talking Rocks in Branson West is $19 for adults, Onyx Cave in Arkansas is $8, and Cosmic Cavern in Arkansas is $16), but the perk of getting to ride through is worth the extra cost, if you ask me, especially if it means your whole travel group gets to do something together vs. some family members or friends having to sit it out.

Fantastic Caverns is just a few minutes from Dickerson Park Zoo, which I wrote about a little over a year ago (that post is here!) so if you’re visiting Springfield, the two would be a perfect combination for a day of educational fun!

Check out the Fantastic Caverns Website for more history and updated info on hours, visit their Facebook page for lots of great info and videos, and of course, Instagram for pretty pictures.

Feel free to ask me any questions that I missed answering down in the comments I’m planning to write about some other caves in the Ozarks soon, so if there’s anything you’d like to know, just ask!

Turpentine Creek – A Sanctuary for Lions and Tigers and Bears! (Oh My!)

Turpentine Creek – A Sanctuary for Lions and Tigers and Bears! (Oh My!)

 

You guys know I’m 100% a cat lady, so when I was offered the opportunity to visit a big cat sanctuary, I was all over it! Bring me all the kitties, please!

Turpentine Creek is different from most attractions in that they wish they didn’t have to exist. The animal sanctuary, which is located in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, takes in big cats whose owners pass away or realize they’re not equipped to care for them, or from other exhibits that close down. Unlike some animal attractions, these guys aren’t being taken away from their natural habitats or being bred for exhibition, they’re being rescued from unsafe situations and being given a forever home.

Every animal’s story is different, and their enclosures are equipped with signs that fill you in on their background.

Although Turpentine Creek focuses on big cats, to quote one of the tour guides, “We’ve recently branched out into bears.” (No idea why, but that phrase tickled me.)

 

They’re working on new enclosures for the black bears that will have trees they can climb in the center so they can get their climbing fix without being able to get over the fences. The grizzly bear already has a pretty fancy place to live, complete with his own pool and waterfall, since they’re not built for warmer temperatures!

 

Um, can I live here?

Thinkin’ about Bear Stuff

Speaking of the enclosures, I want to mention up front that I didn’t manage to capture how nicely designed they were in my photos. (Let’s be honest, I was mostly thinking, “Ooooh, kitty!”) Each area is well thought out with plenty of space to roam around, and features that mimic what they’d play with or relax on in a natural habitat. Due to how much it costs to build a new enclosure, they do sometimes wind up needing to do a switch-out process where, to use an apartment metaphor example, two male tigers get the big fancy penthouse-style space today, then tomorrow they go into a smaller studio-style area and the two females get the big space. Given that just before my visit they’d taken in 30+ animals from an animal attraction in Colorado that had been shut down, it seemed like a pretty solid way to accommodate the new arrivals until resources are available to give everyone their own fancy place. They avoid mixing animals that didn’t grow up together to avoid scary hierarchy fights, so they won’t just add a new cat to a pair that already lives together.

I took a Google Maps screenshot that hopefully provides a better idea of how much space the big cats get to run around in. There are a few cars at the top of the pic for scale, and you can see the grey fence outlines throughout.

 

(I come from a Disney World background, where we build entire African-style savannas as animal environments, so my standards are pretty high. These guys obviously aren’t working with Disney’s budget, but they do a great job of providing happy, comfortable homes for the animals they rescue.)

Also, I did my best to minimize the fencing in photos, but it’s worth noting that there are two pretty serious fences between guests and animals. It creates a nice “in-betweeen” zone that ensures nobody can throw something into their environment, or anything else along the “well, that was really dumb” line of guest behaviors.

As a cat lady, this place is totally up my alley. (alley cat?) For instance, I finally got to learn…

Ohhhhh.

Every time I watch big cats, (especially tigers) I’m struck by how similar their behavior is to my little guys. These two young tigers giving each other baths is 100% like what happens at my house on the daily:

Turpentine Creek White Tiger Siblings

 

Let’s backtrack a little bit to give you guys a better idea of how a visit to Turpentine Creek goes!

The sanctuary is a short drive outside of historic downtown Eureka Springs, about 15 minutes. There’s plenty of parking (big difference from downtown!). Tickets are regularly $20 for adults, $15 for teens, $10 for kids, seniors and veterans and under 3 is free, but you can sometimes find discounts on sites like Groupon.

Admission includes a guided tour that lasts around 45 minutes, plus the freedom to wander around part of the sanctuary (see below) as much as you’d like. They offer a trolley tour for an extra $5 if you’d prefer not to walk, but the trolley option is complimentary for guests with mobility disabilities. There is a lot of stopping to listen to the guide speak on the walking tour, so as long as you’re comfortable walking about half a mile very slowly, you’re likely to be ok. (I always try to include info that will help people determine if they can handle the physical aspects of an attraction, but if you have specific questions, feel free to ask!)

 

This map is from Turpentine Creek’s site, which has a page where you can check out their brochures and maps! It’s a great resource if you’re considering visiting.

After purchasing your tickets, you’re given a time and place to meet for the guided tour. Until then, you’re free to wander the area marked with a black line above. I think I had around 20 minutes before my tour time, which felt like plenty of time to explore that area. It’s worth noting that the exhibits you see along the red line on the map are only accessible while on the tour. (I’m guessing this is for safety reasons? It would probably take a lot of resources to monitor guests and ensure safety if you were free to explore the whole sanctuary on your own. It’s big!)

I spent a lot of my pre-tour time watching this guy take a bath.聽馃槏

 

 

black leopard Turpentine Creek

I didn’t get a very good pic of this kitty, but I loved him because he’s basically a slightly larger version of my Bear.

A better pic from the Turpentine Creek website:

 

And my own Bear, whose vet has said that he looks just like a panther he used to treat.

 

Very fierce, much terrifying.

(Fun fact – One of the bears at Turpentine Creek is named Huggy, which has resulted in me calling Bear “Huggy Bear” way more often than he’s probably comfortable with. 馃槀)

My tour guide patiently put up with all of my crazy cat lady questions (“Hey, do tigers get hairballs?”), and gave us a ton of info about the animals. I think the tigers were my favorite, 聽because like the wildlings they are, as we would divert our attention from them to listen to the tour guide talk, they’t take our distraction as the opportunity to stalk us.

Turpentine Creek tiger

Kitty invites you to (be) dinner.

 

One of the white tigers spent several minutes sloooowly creeping up on us, which was super fun to watch. 聽It started way up the hill and gradually made its way down. Our tour guide did what’s lovingly known as a “butt dance” – apparently they look for animals that are distracted by eating or drinking water, aka a head down position, to sneak up on. That went a little like this:

 


Well… that worked!

 

Turpentine Creek offers an option where you can stay in lodges, bungalows, or tents at the sanctuary. The lodges are styled to look like a safari lodge you’d stay in while visiting Africa, which I dig since I’m a sucker for pretty much any kind of theme suite. What’s really cool about these rooms, though, is that you’re able to hear the cats roaring and such throughout the night! Definitely on my list of places I’d like to stay on a future Eureka Springs visit.

I’d definitely recommend adding Turpentine Creek to your trip plans if you’ll be visiting Eureka Springs or Northwest Arkansas in general! You can learn more about them on their website, or follow on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. I mean, be honest… your life needs more cat videos in it.


 

I’m also happy to answer any questions you might have about planning a trip or anything else about my visit that I didn’t cover!

I received complimentary admission to Turpentine Creek in exchange for sharing my experience. No other compensation was received, and everything above is my honest opinion.聽

 

Crescent Hotel Ghost Tour 馃懟

Crescent Hotel Ghost Tour 馃懟

Eureka Springs Crescent Hotel Ghost Tour

 

Last week, I took a quick trip down to the quirky town of Eureka Springs in Northwest Arkansas. While I was there, I got to check out one of the most popular attractions, the Crescent Hotel. Known as “America’s Most Haunted Hotel”, there are a LOT of stories surrounding this place, and one of the best ways to hear them is to take the Crescent Hotel Ghost Tour, which I got to experience thanks to the local visitor’s bureau, who set me up with a ticket. (Thanks!)

 

The Crescent Hotel in 1886, via Wikipedia. I need to go back and get a similar shot so you can compare the current appearance. It’s basically identical!

My only other visit to the Crescent Hotel was back around 2000 when I was freshly out of high school. We met my sister and her family there for breakfast, and then wandered the hotel a bit to explore. My nieces were around 3 and 6 at the time, so I’m not sure how much they understood about the whole “haunted hotel” concept. What I do know is that after we walked around on one of the upper floors, the younger one started throwing a fit, wanting to go back up there. It’s literally just a hotel hallway, so we couldn’t figure out why, and she finally said that she liked all of the people up there.

We had been the only ones up there.聽馃槷

Crescent Hotel Hallway Eureka Springs Ghost Tour

Helllooo? Anyone there?

When we were almost back to our cars, I turned around to snap a photo of the hotel exterior, and my camera shut off. Nope, it wasn’t the battery or anything normal – it just completely died, never worked again.

So, that was my history with the hotel before now. Paranormal or just weird happenings? Who knows.

For聽a little extra background before we dive into the tour, there are different types of “hauntings” – one that I totally believe in and others that I’m not super sure about. The one I completely believe is known as a residual haunting. Think of a cassette tape (if you’re old enough to remember those. If not, get off my lawn, you crazy kids!). While I don’t totally understand the science behind them, I think we all get the basic idea –聽you make some kind of sound, and whatever weird material the tape is made of happens to be聽able to capture it and play it back when it is triggered to (aka when you press “play”). Residual hauntings work the same way. Something about the building or the atmosphere or maybe a whole combination of things is able to “record” sounds or images, just like the tape does. Then, those sounds or images are played back, sometimes decades or centuries later, causing people to hear footsteps in an empty hallway, children’s voices in an old school, or see a figure running down a staircase. The sound or image always plays out in the same way, often at the same time of day.

This one totally makes sense to me, because it seems scientifically explicable. Just like when you play back a tape, what you’re seeing or hearing doesn’t interact with you, it’s just repeating back.聽Although I have no idea how it works, some kind of natural, unintended recording happening seems possible.

The other kinds, involving spirits who move things and can be felt touching you and all that? 聽Jury is still out. But I think the most fun way to approach this kind of tour is with an open mind! The guests on the Crescent Hotel Ghost Tour range from complete skeptics to people who come equipped with ghost hunting equipment, and everything in between those two extremes. And even if you’re not so sure about the ghost part, learning about the history of the hotel is fascinating, too. It’s had quite a past!

Crescent Hotel Eureka Springs

Maybe the stone used to construct old buildings like the Crescent contains some of the same properties that let cassette and video tapes record things? Who knows!

There are multiple tours per night, and the earliest tour of the evening is generally the most kid-friendly. That’s the time slot that I toured in,聽but I only know of one difference going by reviews I’ve read. (We’ll get to that towards the end!) They recommend ages 8 and up for the tour, but there was a little girl on mine who was 6 who was super curious about everything. I think the best rule of thumb here is that you know your kids best. If the Haunted Mansion is their favorite Disney attraction, you’re probably fine. If they’re going to want to run around the hallways all willy-nilly while the tour guide is telling stories, it’s probably not for them.

 

Crescent Hotel Ghost Tour Meeting Location

The tour meets up on the fourth floor and works its way down the building, stopping along the way for stories about the hotel’s ghosts and history. One nice part about starting at the top is that you’re always walking *down* staircases, not up! (Although the hotel is old, it does have an elevator – it was the first building in Arkansas with an elevator! – so the tour is accessible for聽those in wheelchairs or with other mobility disabilities, but they do ask that you let them know when reserving your tickets so they can prepare accordingly.)

The heart of the Crescent Ghost Tour is its stories. The hotel dates back to 1886, and over the years it has been the site of quite a few deaths. Each ghost’s story is told in the location where it happened, from the balcony a young woman jumped off of after learning she was pregnant back when the hotel doubled as a girls’ school, to the room now located where a 17 year old Irish boy working construction suffered a fatal fall when the hotel was being聽built. (Apparently he’s still very much a 17 year old boy, so to speak, and enjoys moving the blankets and shower curtains of female guests.)

Crescent Hotel Room 218 Michael

Room 218 is known as Michael’s Room聽

Due to this being a working hotel, the stories are often told outside the door of hotel rooms because they can’t just barge in on the guests staying in them. If a room happens to be vacant that night, though, you may get the chance to go inside. I wouldn’t plan on this, since the hotel stays pretty busy (The room of Michael, the boy mentioned above, reportedly sometimes has a 2 year wait for reservations!), but consider it an awesome perk if it happens!

There’s one ghost who likes to tidy people’s rooms up, but if she decides she doesn’t like them, they’ll return to the room and find their suitcases packed and waiting by the door!

Being the #catlady that I am, my obvious question was if anyone ever sees the ghost of the hotel’s former resident cat, Morris. (He has a memorial photo in the lobby and a fancy grave out in the garden. And yes, I made sure to meet the current hotel cat while I was there! You can see him聽here!) Turns out that yup, kitty ghost sightings are a thing! Man, maybe I can talk some cable TV network into giving me a reality show where I travel around as a kitty ghost hunter?? That would be an amazing way to get to answer the “So, what do you do?” question. Actually, I might start answering “kitty ghost hunter” anyway. Explaining the whole blogging and social media thing gets old. (And LOL, you guys, I Googled Morris and found that he has a page on Find A Grave! I also found this聽page that lists most聽of the former Crescent cats.)

But uh, back to the tour before I give up travel blogging to start a ghost cat blog… (But seriously, call me, History Channel. Or TLC. Or whatevs.)

After stops on the “creepy” 3rd floor (back to that in a minute), outside several rooms, the staircase, and lobby, it’s time to head down to the morgue and autopsy room.

What, your favorite hotel doesn’t have a morgue? Lame.

The vast majority of the deaths that occurred at the Crescent were not accidents. Around聽1937, the hotel became a “cancer hospital”. The quotation marks there are because the “doctor” running the hospital was a total fraud who never actually cured anyone. He was charismatic and famous, thanks to having his own radio station, and because of that he was able to convince tons of people who were running out of hope to spend all of the money they had to come receive his “cure”. (Than goodness we no longer live in a time where countless people will follow a horrible, unqualified person just because he’s famous and claims to have the answers they’re seeking! Oh, wait.)

You can read the full story of Dr. Baker in this great article on the Crescent’s website or hear about it on this episode of the “Stuff you Missed in History Class” podcast, but I’ll keep things short for the sake of this post. Everyone who came seeking treatment received horribly painful injections several times a day, suffered a lot, and died. Remember my earlier mention of the “creepy” third floor? There’s an area up there where quite a few guests have felt ill, and even fainted. That’s the area that was soundproofed as a place to stick patients who were moaning and crying in pain, so they wouldn’t be seen and heard by potential customers touring the hospital. (Um, it’s also now where the honeymoon suites are.)

Crescent Hotel Baker Cancer Hospital Sign

 

It seems that the ol’ doc was getting pretty delusional by the time he was eventually arrested for fraud in 1940, and he was keeping organs of the deceased in jars so he could show people how totally cancer-free they were! (Because logic!) And so as the tour draws to a close, you get to visit the former morgue, autopsy room, and “body parts room” where the jars of pieces were kept. (Fun fact – apparently when Dr. Baker died, four whole people attended his funeral. In comparison, 50 people attended Morris the hotel cat’s funeral. Cats: They’re better than most people!)

 

As I mentioned earlier, this seems to be the main difference between the kid-friendly 7 pm tour and other reviews I’ve read. Other guests mention the lights being turned off to experience the room in darkness, and a rather long video of the hotel’s appearance on Ghost Hunters. On my tour, the guide asked if anyone wanted to go into the former cooler where bodies were kept with the lights off and door shut to try to capture ghost photos, but everyone else stayed out in the (dimly) lit autopsy room. We got a shortened version of the Ghost Hunters video, which I think was around聽a minute.

One moment that struck me as hilarious while we were down here – While the tour guide was telling the story of the morgue, a little boy around 2 started babbling to himself the way kids that age tend to do. Since it was pretty distracting, the guide suggested to his dad that he might want to step outside, but since it was聽kind of icky out there (There was a pretty strong grease smell coming from the kitchen at the time), they might be more comfortable in the autopsy room. Ahh, the Crescent, where the autopsy room is the LESS icky/uncomfortable option!聽馃槀

I’m a total whimp when it comes to spooky stuff, but I didn’t find this portion of the tour bad at all. There’s quite a bit of freedom to explore after the video, so if you want to go in the dark body parts room on your own to try to聽have a spooky experience you can, or you can stick to areas where you feel more comfortable. (I did NOT hang out in the room from the above video very long! Although the creepy old wheelchair in there freaked me out more than the locker from the video.) If you’re really not feeling the vibe down there, I’m sure the guide wouldn’t be offended if you wanted to head out early, since it’s the last stop on the tour anyway. If it IS totally your scene, take note – the ghost tour is the ONLY way to get access to the morgue and autopsy areas. While you can wander around most of the hotel any time, these areas are off limits to the general public, so if you want to explore them, the Ghost Tour is the only way in.

One other funny note – I didn’t pay much attention to the hallway we exited the morgue through at the time, but then I found myself there the next morning when I returned to the Crescent for my massage at their New Moon Spa. Only in a town as quirky as Eureka Springs do you find a spa right next to the morgue! (The spa is amaaaaaazing, though, so don’t let the unusual location scare you away from it! You’ll find a link to my post about it in the previous sentence.)

 

 

I would definitely recommend the Crescent Hotel Ghost Tour to Eureka Springs visitors who want to learn more about the town’s history, especially those staying at the hotel! It’s also an obvious must-do if you’re into the paranormal or mysterious. I do think that the tour experience will vary a lot depending on which guide you get. Each tour guide puts their own spin on it, has their own experiences to share, and (obviously) their own personality. My guide, “Aunt Reba”, was a fantastic storyteller and never crossed over into being cheesy or 聽trying to force a spooky feel.

You can learn more about the Crescent Hotel Ghost Tour on their website and聽Facebook聽page, where they share photos and videos sent in by people who have been on the tour. You can also find tons of reviews on TripAdvisor. The tour lasts around 75 minutes, and the current price is $22.50 for adults and $8 for kids.

Have you ever had a ghostly experience?聽馃懟聽Do you think the Crescent’s ghost stories are real? Share your stories and opinions聽the comments!

Education and Conservation at Dickerson Park Zoo

Education and Conservation at Dickerson Park Zoo

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Did you know that a hippopotamus can crush a large pumpkin with its jaws? Neither did I, until I was handed a pumpkin and told I could place it right into the waiting hippo’s mouth.

 

Hungry Hungry Hippos!

 

Last month聽I got the opportunity to visit Dickerson Park Zoo in Springfield, MO, including an awesome behind the scenes tour that involved animal interactions like my moment with the hippos above. Although I got a more in-depth look at all of the care and attention that goes into caring for the zoo’s 500+ animals than the average visitor does, most of the special experiences I got to participate in are available to everyone!

I grew up in southwest MO, so I remember visiting聽Dickerson Park Zoo as a kid, but I don’t think I’d been since the聽80s, so my memories are pretty thin! The zoo is located right next to the Ozark Empire Fairgrounds, so anytime I’ve attended an event there over the past few years, I found myself thinking it would be fun to revisit the zoo. Glad I finally got a chance to!

 

Visiting the zoo’s veterinary facilities made me wish I’d gone pre-vet in college like I’d planned in high school! Being a zoo vet would be absolutely fascinating, since you get so many unusual cases and creatures. Sure, they still spend a lot of time doing routine exams like a regular vet but just within the past few days before my visit, they had repaired the broken beak of a Scarlet Ibis and crafted a little boot for a black swan with a foot problem so it could heal more comfortably. I think I’d love the creativity and out of the box thinking required to treat such a wide range of animals and illnesses!

One thing I was totally unaware of is the scope of the zoo’s work rehabilitating injured wildlife, primarily large birds of prey. The program began back in the 70s, and today local residents bring in injured birds including eagles, owls, and hawks on a weekly basis.

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One of the zoo’s veterinary staff releasing a rehabilitated hawk earlier this year

Bald eagles are probably one of the most well known animals when it come to conservation efforts to save them from extinction. They were declared an endangered species in 1967, but thanks to efforts of conversationalists like those at DickersonPark Zoo, they were officially removed from the endangered list in 2007. The zoo’s rehabilitation team was involved with the rehab and release of over 70 bald eagles in the 80s and 90s. Given that there were under 2,000 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the US in the 80s, those 70 birds definitely made a difference in helping with repopulation! (They actually JUST released another rehabilitated eagle today!)

 

One very cool experience that’s available to zoo guests for a really reasonable extra fee is giraffe feeding. (Their website has info on all of the available animal encounters!) I love giraffes (maybe because I’m tall?) but this was the first time I’ve had the opportunity to get within a few feet of one. After meeting a four year old giraffe named Millie, I got to watch some training exercises that her keepers had been working on with her (was surprised how similar it is to training a horse!), and then take about a billion selfies while feeding her. I don’t care what anyone else posted on Instagram that day – giraffe selfies win the internet!

Giraffe encounter at Dickerson Park Zoo Springfield MO

Look at how huge her head is compared to my entire upper body!

You may have seen that giraffes recently joined the endangered species list. I can’t imagine a better way for kids to really understand the importance of protecting a species than getting up close to it like I did and having that personal connection!


Even if you’re not springing for the giraffe tour, the giraffe exhibit is still designed to let you get up pretty close because there’s an overlook deck with giraffe food dispensers that’s available to all zoo visitors.

The wind chill was 45 degrees on the day I visited, so I only spent about an hour wandering around after my tour. The zoo is open year round (weather permitting) which makes sense since the staff needs to be there to take care of the animals whether there are a lot of guests or not! I ended up missing an entire section of exhibits thanks to my total whimpiness when it comes to cold weather, so 聽hopefully I can return soon to explore again! Just wandering the park is relaxing – the natural Ozarks scenery is lovely! I’d definitely recommend making sure you have several hours set aside to visit so that you can thoroughly explore.

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I spent a big chunk of time in the reptile house since it was nice and warm in there (and I like pretending I’m Harry Potter). It was divided between聽different environments (desert vs rainforest), and I loved that they had a whole section just for creatures from here in the Ozarks!

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Pro Tip: The reptile house is always your friend on super hot or cold days! Yay for climate control!

Given that I used to live a couple of miles from Disney’s Animal Kingdom, my bar for animal viewing is obviously set pretty high. No, it’s not Disney, but I appreciated a lot of the details that went into the design of the zoo for a great guest experience, like cool animal art throughout the park and that even though the animals are in enclosures, I was able to find a spot to get fence-less photos of the animals at each exhibit. I especially appreciated that they had several exhibits featuring animals I’m used to only seeing for a few seconds on Disney’s safari ride, which meant I could actually hang out and watch them for as long as I wanted instead of just driving past.聽The more traditional聽exhibit was great for animals like the Bongos, which are usually so hidden away that they’re known as the “ghosts of the forest”! I was happy to see that all of the animal habits at this zoo are thoughtfully designed to keep the animals really happy and healthy!

bongos

Admission to Dickerson Park Zoo is just $12 for adults and $8 for kids and seniors, but if you are visiting Springfield, MO or live nearby, I would 100% suggest spending a little more and doing one of the animal encounter experiences. There’s a river otter feeding experience that includes watching a training session that’s only $30 for a group of up to 3聽people.聽Zebra feeding is also $30, but doesn’t include the training session.聽You can barely take 3 people to the movies for that price, so it’s an awesome deal for such a unique experience. (And photo opp! Let’s be honest, we all love awesome things to post on our blogs or social media!) They offer experiences with elephants, tigers, tortoises, eagles… not every animal in the zoo, but pretty close! Tons of zoos and theme parks offer “behind the scenes” tours and encounters, but they tend to be super expensive. I love that Dickerson Park Zoo聽offer such cool educational experiences at聽prices that actually make them accessible to most visitors!

If you do plan to visit Dickerson Park Zoo the next time you’re in Springfield, be sure to visit their website for hours, directions, and activity sheets and scavenger hunts you an print for the kids (or yourself!) before your visit. You can also find zoo news and fun animal photos on their Facebook and Instagram!

Thanks to the Springfield CVB, who hooked me up with a press pass to聽Dickerson Park Zoo, and to all of the zoo staff members who took time out of their day to show me around and share their knowledge!

 

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