Sunday, October 29, 2017

A Day in Saint Louis

Recently, the whole family took a day off of work and school to get some family time away. Through the months of September and October our schedules are consumed with extra-curricular activities and we finally figured out that if we wanted time away, we would have to take it during the week. So one Friday morning in mid October, we told the boys we were taking them to school and surprised them by turning onto the interstate instead. We were leaving town to take St. Louis by storm.

This was their reaction when we finally revealed our plan. They were so happy. We've missed our annual zoo trip the past 2 years, and Lex has been begging to go. Perfect. First stop - the St. Louis Zoo. The best thing about the St. Louis Zoo (aside from the fact that it is a beautifully maintained zoo) is that it's free! 

The zoo was all decorated for fall and Halloween and also, the weather was perfect!

We saw the new Grizzly Bear attraction and the bears were out and active!

And the boys enjoyed all the "haunted" decorations.

We went through the chilly and smelly penguin house.

The last time we were at the zoo, the railroad pass got you one round trip on the train. That means 4 stops and then you're done. This time, we were pleasantly surprised that the train pass (which does cost money) got you unlimited riding time. And we definitely took advantage of that. We probably did 2 1/2 round trips by the time it was all done. When we got tired of walking and we just jumped on the train and rode it for as long as we wanted.

 The elephants were also all out and active.

More time on the train.

And then we saw the zebras. 

And giraffes.

And my personal favorite, the monkey habitats! There are so many, and they are always playing.

And then the sea otters, which were one of our favorite stops of the day. The boys loved watching them do tricks at feeding time. 

We saw so much more than I have documented here. One cool thing that we learned from one of the volunteers at the Zoo was that at around 5 pm, they feed the big cats, and apparently you can hear them roaring for their food from anywhere in the zoo. We've only ever gone to the zoo in the morning, but now, we can't wait to plan an evening trip so we can hear those cats!

We were at the zoo for about 4 hours and by the time we were tired of walking and felt like we had seen as much as we wanted, we were famished. We wanted to find a local pizza place, and decided that since it was so early in the day still, we would head to downtown and get a closer look at the arch. We easily found parking at a garage right across from Busch Stadium (where the Cardinals play for those of you who aren't local or don't care about baseball). 

We were so lucky to not be in downtown when the Cards were playing because otherwise, we would have never found this parking garage literally 3 blocks from the Arch, AND the traffic would have been insane.

One of the boys said it would be really cool to eat at a restaurant where you could see the Arch right from your seat. And guess what - We walked right into Angelo's and got a booth where the boys could look right at the Arch from their seat.


After some pizza, we walked on over to the Arch. The boys have never been there close up. And even though I've been there several times, it never gets old. I mean, where else in the country is a piece of architecture as unique as this one.

It had been such a long day and was nearing evening by this point, so we opted against a trip to the top. We did walk all around the grounds though and saw the Mississippi River. It's such a beautiful area.

 And that's how we took St. Louis by storm. We headed home, full, exhausted, and refreshed.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Spinach and Artichoke Stuffed Bread

What is it about fall that incites cravings for carbs, heavy cream, and butter? After a summer full of salad recipes, I was surprised to see that once I compiled my fall themed grocery list, I had not one, not two, but three packages of cream cheese in my grocery cart! Oh my goodness. I will certainly need to pace myself as I plan weekends of football food (aka soups, sandwiches, and appetizers).

I have seen variations of this recipe all over the internet and was happily surprised to see how easy it was! I will definitely put this in my bank of "recipes good enough to take places." Who doesn't like a good artichoke dip? Who doesn't like a good garlic toasted baguette? Why wouldn't you want to combine the two?

2 baguettes
1-2 Tablespoons of oil (for sauteing)
1 14 oz can artichoke hearts, drained and chopped
8 oz spinach
1 8 oz block of cream cheese
1 1/2 cups mozzarella
3 green onions, sliced
1 t. garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste
To top:
garlic butter
Parmesan cheese

I have had a love affair with baguettes ever since my first trip to France after my senior year of high school. Every single morning we had these for breakfast, spread with butter and preserves and I will never forget the taste or the feeling of being in France eating fresh baked bread for breakfast.

For this recipe, I started with 2 baguettes, cut the ends off. and cut the remainder into 4 pieces.

 Next, I used a long knife, and hallowed out the inside of the bread.

 Now for the yummy filling.

Start by sauteing the artichokes in the oil over medium heat for a minute.

Next, add the spinach until it cooks down. (The spinach I had was mixed with arugula, so I threw it all in there, but spinach alone will work just fine (if not better)).

Let the greens cook all the way down.

Aaaah! Steam bath!

Add in the cream cheese and stir around. You may want to turn it down to a medium low temperature.

And then the mozzarella. Let it all cook until it's completely melted.

Stir in the onions, and then add seasonings to taste.

Now for the fun part. Fill each of the hallowed baguette pieces with the spinach/artichoke mixture. Lay them end to end inside a piece of aluminum foil.

Brush the baguettes with garlic butter. Brush it on thick. Anything that runs off will be captured in the foil.

Sprinkle with shredded Parmesan.

Wrap the foil around the baguettes, and then bake at 350 (F) for 15 minutes. Unwrap the foil and then bake for another 5 minutes uncovered so that the bread gets nice and toasty brown.

Remove from foil and then slice. You can wait until they cool to do this also. I preferred the cool ones to the ones straight out of the oven, but that's totally your call.

Recipe post thought: These are amazing. Amazing with soup, amazing for a late night snack, and amazing as leftovers. I can't help but wonder though how much more amazing they would have been had I sprinkled some sea salt over the garlic butter before baking. Next time... next time.

Oh, and also... they freeze great! Just reheat in the oven when you're ready to eat.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Ha Ha Tonka Trail Review

Oh my goodness. We seriously went on the most incredible hike a few weekends back.  Every once in a while, I just crave a hike that kicks my butt. You know that kind of workout that gets all of your endorphins to kick in? I totally wanted and needed that kind of hike that weekend. And holy smokes people, Ha Ha Tonka was the perfect combination of workout intensity and incredible landscapes. A great last summer hike for sure.

It wasn't the longest hike we've taken, but by far the most rigorous in terms of trail conditions and elevation changes. I'll save the specific stats for the end of the post.

If you've never been to Ha Ha Tonka, it's a state park in Missouri with an incredible display of geological features including caves, a natural spring, sinkholes, a natural bridge, rock walls, and a turn of the century castle overlooking the Lake of the Ozarks. There is a view almost everywhere you turn.

I highly recommend stopping at the Visitor's Center first. They have really nice trail maps there, among other information about the park. There is also a covered model version of the entire State Park.

We are here.

We were hiking on Labor Day weekend in a Missouri so parking was somewhat difficult. We couldn't park in the parking lot at the trail head but we were able to park in a lot across the street. Fortunately, everything in the park was incredibly mapped out and we were able to easily get where we needed to be.

We did some research ahead of time and decided to hike Devil's Kitchen Trail. It included a couple of points of interest and touched on a couple of other loops that looked interesting.

It takes us just over an hour to get to Ha Ha Tonka from our house. You can imagine that by the time we got there, the boys were ready to get moving. We got out of the van, stretched a little bit and then we were off!

The whole drive there, we saw the first twinges of signs of fall. The leaves were just a slightly lighter shade of green everywhere we went. 

We started out on a wide trail through a shallow wooded area.

This wooded meadow hybrid landscape seems to be common on trails we hike in Mid Missouri. I love being able to peek through the trees to meadows on the other side.

Did I mention it was low to mid 70's on this particular day? Perfect for a late summer hike.

And the long distance view. Sigh.

The wooded trail opened into a meadow with full sun.

And quickly descended.

You know that feeling you get when you're hiking downhill really fast and you just know at some point you're going to have to go back up? That's the feeling I got about 5 minutes into this hike.

And yet we still went down.

And the views were literally breathtaking.

We continued downhill over a moderately rocky trail and back into the woods.

We had to go somewhat slower than usual because there were so many loose rocks. What was really cool though was that the rocks were made up of some kind of mineral that made them sparkle in the sun. A geological glitter. Quartz maybe?

Finally, we entered a low point and found this. Our first point of interest of the day.

A natural rock climbing wall!

We had to stop of course and play, and explore a little bit.

But soon we were back on our way, deeper into the forest.

The jutting rocks definitely were a tripping hazard.

This was the kind of rocky sculpture we saw all day long. We would be walking along on a nice wooded trail and round a corner to see something like this.

Lots of wildlife out today. Hello, toad.

We had a seen a place where you could peek down into a cave, but some other hikers told us that if we kept walking around the rock, we would see the really cool feature. 

And they were right, we rounded the corner and I literally squealed with glee over this massive cave, complete with climbing rocks and a peek hole (or chimney) to the sky. It was so cool. We stayed in here for quite a while just climbing around and looking into crevices.

 Looking up through the chimney.

 Looking from the top back out of the cave. This is known as the Devil's Kitchen trail and the boys both pictured this cave as the actual kitchen. And then they speculated why the devil abandoned this kitchen in the first place. Among their guesses: there's not enough light, and there's not enough space to cook stuff. I love how their brains work.

After plenty of time climbing and exploring, we marched on until we came upon this, the Devil's Promenade, a massive rock wall where the trail hugged right up against it. 

More little caves to explore.

And lots of climbing. This picture below - that's the actual trail. Climbing required.

And then we came to a point where you actually had to cross a gap in the bedrock to move along the rock wall.

Jeremy had to help all 3 of us across.

Not the first time on a trail that Jeremy has had to get the boys from point a to point b.

But we made it and carried on. 

A little longer along the rock wall.

Until we were finally back onto the wooded trail.

 We found a mushroom that looked like a flower.

This was what the trail looked like in many places. Thick tree roots embedded and woven through the tough ground, creating an obstacle course for hikers. I twisted my ankle in this specific area which is why I took a picture.

And finally, finally, we were to this old country road.

which led us to another point of interest, an old post office, plus a little park, and huge grassy area. We stopped here for some granola bars, almonds, and water break. 

After our break, we had to walk up the road a bit to see the old Post Office. 

From here, we crossed the road to where the Devil's Kitchen trail meets up with the Spring Trail for a little bit. I should also mention that at this point, we had only gone 1/2 a mile! We had seen beautiful grasslands, caves, a rock wall, an old post office and lots of wildlife. We were exhausted, but we had only gone 1/2 a mile. That's what I mean by this being a moderately rigorous hike. It's not just a walk in the woods. The uphill, downhill, tripping over roots, climbing through rocks, etc. makes for a fun adventure. 

So on to the Spring Trail we went.

Starting with a walk down some stairs to get to the actual trail.

It was no time at all before we were looking over the spring to the beautiful rocky cliffs on the other side.

A peak at the spring below.

And then we came to a sign that showed the spring trail cutting off from Devil's Kitchen trail. We had not planned on taking this offshoot loop, but the stairs leading down to the spring did look inviting. Probably because they were going down! All 300 plus stairs... I was scared of coming back up from the very first step down. Especially since my legs were shaking like jello about half way down.

I can't believe these pictures don't show the dozens if not hundreds of other people who were climbing down these stairs and then the ones huffing and puffing climbing back up. We talked several times about just turning around instead of climbing all the down. But going down was so easy so we continued.

And then a peek at the spring, Missouri's 12th largest.

At the bottom of the stairs, the trail continues flat around the spring. We decided to delay climbing back up the 300+ stairs and kept on walking.

We went through a rock tunnel.

We learned about all kinds of wildlife and plants from the signage.

The water was so clear.

And the lightest shade of blue green.

The spring opens up to the Lake of the Ozarks.

Finally, we found a resting spot at a shelter house at the end of the spring. The boys looked for fish in the small canal.

It seemed like a good place to sit, get some snacks, and drink lots of water. While we rested, we reviewed the map and considered the white connector trail that was right by where we were resting. Taking the connector would mean extending the hike a little bit BUT it would mean going uphill on a trail instead of climbing back up the 300+ stairs. Some other hikers resting in our area convinced us that was the way to go. So up the trail we went.  

The connector trail was a combination of uneven steps and rough terrain...

But FAR easier than climbing 300 steep stairs.

 We finished up the loop and passed up the trail back to our car to see the watch tower and castle ruins.

And the views at this higher elevation - WOW. It was so incredibly beautiful.

Alas, more stairs to the watch tower.

We had to look through the bars but it was still interesting... and very old.

A nice family came along and offered to take our picture and then we returned the favor.

 Just a little trek further up the hill led us to the castle ruins. We were sad to see that it was mainly blocked off. On our last visit, we were able to get much closer and actually look inside (through the windows).

And finally, FINALLY, we were ready to head back to the car. We could not even muster enough energy to go to the natural bridge which was probably less than 500 feet from where we parked. That's something for next time, because there most certainly will be a next time on this trail. What an amazing trail experience. 

Here are the stats from geotracker, starting with the maps of our hike.

The big loop is the Devil's Kitchen Trail. The smaller loop is the Spring Trail.

Three miles doesn't seem like a lot, but considering the terrain, elevation, points of interests (meaning stop/start/stop/start), stairs, stairs, and more stairs... Well you get the point - I'd say this is the most rigorous hike we've done yet. 

And speaking of elevation, here are the stats to prove it. 

It's usually around this time that I talk about how I really prefer a less populated trail/hike, and given the holiday weekend a Missouri outdoors hot spot, we saw many more people than we usually do on trails. We ran into quite a few other hikers along the way. We shared tips (take the white connector on the way back up!) and several admired our boys' strength and endurance. What I loved though, was when were back in the car and I asked the boys what their favorite part of the hike was. Lex's answer? "All those nice people we talked to." What a great way to end summer with a bang. 

Happy Hiking!