Trails, hikes, museums and more: Exploring Bentonville, Arkansas

Hilly, wooded goodness awaits near Bentonville, Ark.

It seems a lot of my free time and time off is spent charging away at some trail, or hunkering down in a backcountry campsite. To be clear, I like it that way.

But not every getaway for yours truly is like that. And that’s a good thing. There is something to be said about mixing up some natural beauty with a more relaxed – and comfortable – break from the daily grind.

Earlier this fall, Bec and I did just that. Seeing how fun my last venture into northwest Arkansas was, a return visit seemed worthwhile. We made a bunch of stops: a huge lake, an incredible museum, some solid places to eat and, of course, a little time on the trail.

The locale this time was in and around Bentonville. Most people know the town as the headquarters of Walmart. And while this is true (and having a massive corporation anchor your city has its perks), there’s quite a bit more to be had. Bentonville and the surrounding towns have all benefited from the wealth a big company provides, but in many ways, this corner of the state has maintained some of its earthier flavor. And that, my friends, is also good thing.

Some of the highlights…

BEAVER LAKE

Beaver Lake and dam. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo)

At more than 28,000 acres, Beaver Lake is massive. There are 12 parks located around the lake with 650 campsites. We stayed at a cabin near the lakeshore, and had easy access to boat docks. The lake is prime for fishing (it’s biggest draws are trophy smallmouth bass and stripers), water skiing and boating, and I imagine would be a great place to explore in kayaks or on stand-up paddleboards.

CRYSTAL BRIDGES MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

It’s not unusual for smaller cities to have museums, but Bentonville punches above its weight with the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Funded by philanthropic endeavors of the Walton family, it’s a facility of jaw-dropping architecture, with airy, sunlit buildings laced together around a small lake. Glass walls let in natural light, and once inside, the collection of works from American artists dating back to the 1700s is impressive. Landscapes, portraits, sculptures and more modern pieces fill its galleries. My guess is any major American city would be all too happy to boast being home to a place like Crystal Bridges.

The museum has special exhibits, outdoor art, and is home to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House. The house was deconstructed from its former New Jersey site, moved to Crystal Bridges and rebuilt. It’s a fantastic piece of architecture, and maybe my favorite part of the visit.

A Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece.

Bentonville’s paved trails link Crystal Bridges to the rest of the city, and a walk from there to downtown isn’t too far.

One of the best parts of the museum is its free admission. There are paid, ticketed exhibits, but the main collection comes at no cost to visitors. The museum has a full-service restaurant and coffee shop on-site.

WAR EAGLE MILL

War Eagle Mill and Bridge.

This popular tourist destination is a working mill that dates back to 1832. The mill has been destroyed and rebuilt a few times, but it has persevered as an important site for nearly two centuries.

The mill itself still functions, powered by a paddlewheel that turns with the flow of an adjacent river. You can buy milled products there (as well as any number of touristy wares), and a café on the third floor is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

HOBBS STATE PARK

Arkansas does its state parks right, and Hobbs State Park and Conservation District is a glowing example of that. The park is host to a number of trails and looped routes through heavily wooded hills, some with overlooks of Beaver Lake.

The trails are great for hiking – they’re well-marked and maintained. Some portions might include some elevation gain and steep stretches, but for the most part, you can hike these routes whether you’re a seasoned hiker or a just beginner.

They’re also very runnable. Trail running enthusiasts train and compete here regularly. If mountain biking is more your thing, you’re in for a good time. Long, flowy stretches of singletrack await. Northwest Arkansas is becoming well-known as a mountain biking Mecca, and now I know why. I’m definitely bringing my ride next time.

DOWNTOWN BENTONVILLE

All that corporate affluence has made downtown Bentonville quite the scene, especially on weekend evenings. Several high-quality restaurants are located there (we tried Fiamma Ristorante and were not disappointed, and Table Mesa Bistro gets rave reviews). If that’s not your thing, an armada of food trucks is usually parked around the town square, and live music abounds. If you’re curious about the history of the world’s biggest retailer, a Walmart museum is also located here.

That’s a real quick overview of the area, and there is a lot we didn’t get to see. But I think you can get the gist. You can get your outdoor fix, clean up, and enjoy fine dining or a night at the museum if you please. Or just hang out at the lake. Either way, it might not be quite what you’d expect to find so far from a big city or more traditional resort town.

Bob Doucette

Fine dining, backcountry style

Kitchen prep.

Kitchen prep.

I get a serious kick out of reading the restaurant reviews from one of the writers of my local newspaper. The guy knows his food, and his recommendations are not taken lightly.

I also confess to being a huge fan of the television programs Anthony Bourdain produces. Part of it is the travel element, but also his wicked sense of humor, excellent screenwriting and music tastes. On top of all that, I want to eat the things he eats.

I’ve never been a cook of a chef, and I’m not the guy you would want writing about cuisine. I just like to eat, and eat well. The fitness side of me wants to treat food as fuel, but the rest of me says otherwise. Taste matters. So does setting.

This is a particular problem for those of us who like to spend time outdoors. Sure, if you car camp or otherwise have access to the tools that make cooking away from home easy, you can work wonders. But what if you’re backpacking for several days? Living from a tent? Packing as light as possible to cut weight? Cooking with a camp stove?

Often times, those dining experiences are relegated to dehydrated foods, energy bars, trail mix and powder drink mixes. Or maybe some beans and rice. Often those backcountry or outdoor dining experiences are long on atmospherics and short on taste.

But not always. I got to thinking of a few times where the food, the surroundings and the company made for some of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.

Serve yourself-style. As fresh as it gets.

Serve yourself-style. As fresh as it gets.

Catch of the day

If you’re stuck living away from the coasts, you know all about bad seafood. The fresher, the better. And that doesn’t happen very often when you live far from the sea. All we usually get that somewhat qualifies as fresh fish come from catfish filets gleaned from large fish farms.

But all is not lost. You actually can live inland and get a meal more fresh than anything served at a Boston bistro or San Francisco eatery.

In this scenario, I was with my brother-in-law, Mark, somewhere near the town of Eagle in western Colorado. Inside a small alpine valley was a mountain stream, with its flow interrupted by frequent beaver ponds.

Storming through the weeds and sloshing away in this little wetland, we’re on the prowl for brook trout. They don’t get very big – a foot-long brookie is a whopper – but they are quite common and oh so tasty.

On the streams, we searched for those sweet spots behind boulders, in front of riffles and around the bends. But the real action was in the beaver ponds. Lots of hungry fish in still, deep pools carefully engineered by those tree-gnawing rodents we all know and love.

The end of the day brought us a modest catch, but more than enough for dinner. Mark was the man in this scenario. He came prepared. Corn meal, salt, pepper and some vegetable oil. We cleaned the fish at the campsite, fired up the stove and fried up a few filets for the evening meal. The simple ingredients, paired with the brookies’ light, flaky and tender meat turned out to be the perfect end to that day.

I dare you to match that dinner in terms of freshness. You can’t surpass it. Straight from the stream, to the campsite, to the pan and on my plate within a couple of hours. That’s how you do fish.

Only the finest of dining companions will do.

Only the finest of dining companions will do.

Fusion fare

First, we went up 1,000 feet. Then down 1,000 feet. Then up 4,000 feet.

And it was then that we were only half done, atop the summit of Mount of the Holy Cross last fall. The next half of the journey would be retracing all those steps back to camp. Twelve miles round-trip, and 6,000 feet of total elevation gain.

A simple breakfast and high-calorie snacks helped power me through that ascent, but there is only so much sweet-tasting stuff you can handle before something more savory is required.

That’s not just a preference. It’s fact. When you’re burning through thousands of calories on such an endeavor, your body needs its salts. That’s why you see pretzels and salted potatoes sometimes offered during long races for runners’ consumption.

I was too tired and lazy to do much cooking myself. So I resigned myself to eating whatever edibles I had left at camp before retiring for the night.

But being among a group of mountain people, and mountain people being generally awesome, generosity abounded.

A couple of dudes grilled up some bratwursts over the campfire. They then hurried those tubes of meaty, fatty goodness away, sliced them up, then plopped them into a pot filled with mac and cheese and a sprinkling of diced peppers.

Best mac and cheese ever. A got a sampling of it just as it came off a two-burner Coleman stove. They need to serve that mess in restaurants.

Just then, another couple confessed to over-buying on food and had a box of convenience store White Castle burgers they didn’t want. They offered it to me, which I gladly accepted. Wrapped in foil, these little grease bombs cooked nicely over the fire and filled that salty/savory urge my body craved. Such nice people! I shared what beer I had, knowing my offering was an inadequate trade.

As the night went on, more goodies were passed around, usually in the form of cookies, potato chips and fine scotch. A warm, low glow of the fire brightened the faces underneath knit caps pulled tight over folks’ heads. Hours drifted on and a whole bunch of stories were swapped between people who all seemed to know each other well from past ascents, and yet included me just the same. I wasn’t an equal to any of them, but felt a part of the gang nonetheless, even if temporarily. This was their world, and I was just a guest.

And one of the best things about being an outsider invited in is feeling the gratitude toward people’s hospitality. The best meal isn’t always about atmospherics, mood-setting or even the quality of the cuisine. Sometimes it’s the company you keep.

The right setting can make all the difference.

The right setting can make all the difference.

Breakfast for three

So I noted earlier that great meals aren’t always about the setting in which you dine. But let me tell you something: Sometimes they are.

About seven years ago, I was on a little backpacking trip in northern New Mexico. We’d hiked about five miles into the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area near a small alpine lake somewhere around 11,000 feet.

The previous night was a little rough in terms of sleep. No one at camp had done a whole lot of sleeping in a tent lately, and certainly not at that elevation. I got up first, fired up the stove and began to boil water for the morning’s breakfast.

It was going to be simple for me: instant oatmeal. I got the water boiling, mixed it with the oats and munched on this modest meal alone just before everyone else finally roused.

The woods where we camped were gorgeous. The smell of pine was amazing. The only sounds (aside from the stirrings inside the tents) were birds greeting the morning.

And then my solitude was interrupted.

Uphill from me, a female bighorn sheep slowly ambled its way into camp, its lamb in tow. They weren’t skittish. They paused to take a look at me, and their curiosity satisfied, continued their leisurely walk downslope.

I wished everyone else there could have seen them, but then again, we had a big day of hiking ahead and they’d need all the rest they could get. And selfishly, that was a moment I kind of liked having to myself. A brief one, but very memorable. Sort of like a gift, and it was all mine.

Best breakfast ever? I won’t go that far. But certainly the most memorable. And definitely a backcountry dining experience that trumps just about anything I can think of at any restaurant to which I’ve ever been.

I think I will excuse myself from ever being a full-time food critic or foodie television rock star. But I know good eats. And I know a little something about great dining experiences, even if they don’t quite fit within the norm.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

Finding adventure in southern Thailand

thaicover

Before I get started, let me say that it’s not like this site is going to become a travel blog. I’ve had plenty of travel-type stuff in here, but it’s usually in the context of outdoorsy fun and adventure.

But as I’m sitting here, many people are plotting how they can live up to their resolutions or goals for the new year. Many will vow to travel more, to see a little more of the world.

That brings me to some sweet memories from a few years back of a 10-day trip to southern Thailand. For those who would like to travel to an exotic locale and enjoy some active fun, this is your place. Airfare isn’t cheap but once you’re there you can stay in non-resort areas for relatively little money.

Southern Thailand’s most famous locale is Phuket, a coastal city that’s well-known for its beaches and night life. The trouble with Phuket is that you will pay Western prices for food, lodging and entertainment. You can solve that problem by doing what Australian and European backpackers have done for years – stay inland in more modest accommodations and save a bunch of money.

Better yet, staying away from popular resort areas allows you to get closer contact with Thai culture. In short, stay in a more Spartan-style guesthouse or hostel and gain a much more authentic glimpse of the country you’re visiting. I’m convinced that’s the way to go.

I’m going to let the photos do most of the talking here. But for reference, we stayed in an inland city called Phang Nga, a city that is maybe 20 minutes by car from the beach.

First mention goes to local climbing. This is an outdoors site, so you had to figure that I would get something like this in here.

Southern Thailand is famous for top-notch climbing on limestone cliffs. The best of these are close to the sea, which are mostly free of the vegetation that covers much of the impossibly vertical spires that are common further inland.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t find good routes in a place like Phang Nga. The city has a large park with its own climbing area.

thaiclimb

On the coast, weather-carved cliffs abound. Onshore, you get great lines for sport and trad climbing. Offshore, you can try your hand at some big-wall free climbing, where you can use the ocean as your crash pad. Seriously, that’s what they do here.

Below are some Aussies tackling a 5.8 sport climb near Railay Beach.

thaiclimb2

If you’re looking to get outside but do something tamer, then that’s where the beaches come into play. I mentioned Railay Beach. Run on the beach, play some volleyball or just work on your tan. And do it in one of the most scenic places on earth.

Here are a few shots from Railay, which include some sweet beach scenery, vertical rock islands and a look down at another, more secluded beach from an opening in a cave.

thaibeach1

thaibeach2

thaicave

The trouble with all-inclusive and highly Westernized vacation destinations is that they almost sanitize the travel experience from all things local. If you couldn’t tell from that previous sentence, I think that’s a very, very bad thing.

Part of travel is meeting the people of the place you visit. You can’t say squat about a culture until you actually rub elbows with the people, talk with them, eat with them and otherwise get to know them, even if just a little bit. Go overseas and you’re bound to meet up with people whose language, religion, beliefs and customs are at times vastly different from your own. And still, folks all over are more alike than we could imagine – a shared love for family and friends and similar ambitions of trying to make our way in the world.

Some folks I met include (in order) a cool dude named Ong, some kids at a house-based church, more kids at a Thai school and a couple of monks at a well-appointed Buddhist monastery.

thaipeople

thaipeople2

thaikids

thaipeople3

Speaking of that monastery, here are some pics from that place. It’s ornate, and that’s not uncommon here.

thaibuddha1

thaibuddha2

thaibuddha3

thaibuddha4

Obviously, everybody’s gotta eat. You can learn a lot about a culture by what the people eat.

One of the best things about Southeast Asia is that its geographic position makes it a confluence of many great Asian civilizations. You can see that in a lot of realms, but it comes together most agreeably in cuisine.

The food cultures of China, India and a host of other places mix in Southeast Asia, and they do so in colorful, spicy and tasty ways in Thailand. Some samples of the fare include an amazing duck soup and a spread of stewed chicken with quail eggs, fried chicken, spicy vegetables, rice and fresh cucumbers to cool your tongue. I’m not a cucumber eater, but those slices of heaven were the best I’ve ever had. Period.

thaifood2

thaifood3

So why did I post this? Where’s a paragraph or three about running, lifting or busting out some push-ups? Let’s just say there’s more to an active life than training, competing or achieving. Sometimes an active life should lead you someplace where you can grow as a person.

If I can paraphrase Anthony Bourdain, the world becomes a better place when you walk in another man’s shoes. If you could backpack in southern Thailand, do some climbing, snorkeling and meeting people, you’ll be a better person when you get home. The only negative might be comparing stateside Thai restaurants to what you had in Thailand, but if you think about it, that’s not a bad thing. The fact that you’d know the difference means you had the opportunity to do something special. It will be one way among many in which your own world will have become a little bigger than it was before.

I don’t know what your resolutions or goals for 2013 might be, but going somewhere you haven’t been – a place out of your comfort zone – should be on that list. If it is, you might think of Phang Nga. And if not in 2013, then sometime soon thereafter.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088