My wife and I woke up early to get ahead of the heat as the weather forecast called for 90+ degree temps without a cloud in sight. I packed my daypack with a few granola bars and an ice cold hydration pack I'd taken from the freezer the night before. My goal was to not only take in the scenery and hike a trail, but to also check it out for a possible backpacking trip in the fall. I've never done an overnight backpacking trip, but it is something I've always wanted to get into.
In truth, besides being a chef and writer, I have been an avid skateboarder for over thirty years. Skateboarding has, for better or worse, always been the first and foremost activity outside of work and family for me. The downside of being absolutely devoted to skating is that I have let opportunities to do other things pass by me. Those things I always wanted to do but have not include camping, hiking (backpacking), trail running, cycling (mountain biking), and bushcraft. So, in August of 2019 I decided to fix that. I have done all of those things I didn't let myself do, and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I haven't, of course, quit skating. Instead, I've focused on freestyle and distance skating. I freestyle for at least an hour a day at least five times each week, and I compete in The International Distance Skateboard Association challenges each month. When all is said and done, I've become a much better skater and I've broadened my scope of life.
Anyway, back to Devil's Den!
We got off the interstate and made the drive down into Devil's Den, which you must admit, sounds really cool to say. It was about twenty minutes into the drive when we saw the sign letting us know we'd arrived. As we continued in we passed cabin sites, some of which already had activity bustling around them as campers headed out for hikes and cooked breakfast. It appeared that new camper cabins were being built as well, and the construction team was already hard at work.
We had to wait a few minutes for some folks to finish up in the visitor's center (only four people at a time during Covid-19), but I was able to get a hiking map and some Devil's Den stickers to commemorate the occasion. I always buy stickers at state parks I visit (although I wish I would have started that tradition from the first time I visited a state park). The visitor's center was very sparsely filled with items. I don't know if that is because of Covid-19 or if they keep it so sparse all the time.
After looking over the map, we decided to hike The Devil's Den Trail, which had a trail-head just behind the visitor's center. The Devil's Den trail is 1 1/2 miles of fun, rocky trail with interesting caves and caverns along the way. It passes by Lee Creek, but it has been so dry lately that there wasn't a lot happening. I will say that the creek was clear enough to see the fish swimming around. According to the Arkansas State Park website, this trail is, " This rocky trail is a perfect example of the rugged Boston Mountain terrain," and I'd say they are perfectly correct in saying that.
After leaving the trail we explored the park a little bit including hiking a little of The lake Trail and checking out one of the bridges. We passed by the pool which looked amazing after hiking in the July heat.
My plan is to backpack (or possibly bikepack) The Butterfield trail in late September or early October when the heat isn't as bad, and I can use my hammock set up
Just off highway 64 about an hour away from the Tennessee border is Village Creek State Park. Village Creek is somewhere around 7,000 acres with a lot to do including golfing, camping, and hiking. Not being a golfer (I just don't get the desire), I chose to camp and mountain bike during my brief visit. However, I must admit, it is very hard for me to write about my experience in a positive way because I never should have gone in the first place.
I lift weights every morning before I start my day during the week, and the Friday morning before visiting Village Creek I decided to increase my weights by a few pounds too much. I pulled a muscle in my lower back which I tried my best to ignore during my trip down from northwest Arkansas through Russellville, Bald Knob, and Wynne. I continued to ignore the pain as I checked in to my site, put up my tent, and took my mountain bike down from the back of the car. I even ignored the pain as I rode my mountain bike on the m.b. trail.
I could not, however, ignore the pain as I got off of the mountain bike. I could barely walk. Getting onto my sleeping bag and pad was a challenge, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to get up off the ground in the morning. In fact, I wondered how I might get an ambulance to help me, the pain was that bad. So, I was laying in my tent by 6 p.m. Friday night and didn't attempt to get up until 5 a.m. the next morning. And that was excruciating. It was equally as excruciating as I loaded my gear, took down my tent, and put my bike back on the car rack. Immediately after leaving, I went to Wynne and purchased pain meds, some instant ice packs, and a back brace. It would be two weeks before I could pick up another weight or go running.
So, with all of that said, how was Village Creek!
Village Creek isn't the place that you're going to get freedom from everyone like Lone Pine outside of Marrianna, and it isn't mountainous like Devil's Den. It is, however, a huge park with very friendly staff, an equestrian campsite, tons of places to hike, a 27 hole golf course, and two lakes. It is also very convenient to Wynne, a small and pleasant town on highway 64.
Just below Windsor Creek Dam and just off Lancashire Boulevard in Bella Vista, is a two mile circular nature trail called Tanyard Creek. Tanyard Creek is not only easy to hike or trail run (no bikes allowed), but it also boasts a beautiful waterfall and has access to the miles and miles of single track mountain biking trails. It might seem odd to have a no bike trail connected to MTB trails, but as a trail runner it is wonderful. You know you won't have any bikes along this part of the path, but you have the option to make your run much longer by skipping over the the MTB trails. In fact, this is my favorite place to run for two reasons:
1. I have great memories of getting turned around with my son and my niece on one of my first visits here.
Several summers ago I brought my son and niece to Tanyard Creek for a little dayhike. We walked the paved trail toward the first bridge then circled to our left to go up to the waterfall. We came back down and made our way around the trails until they were sufficiently worn out and ready to head home. I, however, didn't realize that there were two nearly identical bridges. I kept circling around to the same bridge, the whole time wondering how in the world we could be lost in such a small park (I'd never been on the other side of the trail by the way). Finally, I figured out my mistake and we were able to get back to my vehicle. I think about this memory every single time I step foot on the trail.
2. It is where I learned to trail run.
For the first several months of off-road running, Tanyard Creek was the only place I'd go. I learned the trails backwards and forward and pushed myself time and time again before branching off to start running the mountain bike trails. It is, after all, an easy trail to get yourself acclimated to off-road running. You will have to run on dirt with some very rocky areas. You will have spots where you may have to cross water (depending on rainfall). You have some elevation changes but nothing that will make you feel like you suddenly took up mountain climbing. And when all is said and done, you're right by Bella Vista proper if you want to run by Harp's Grocery for a snack or down to JJ's for a burger and a beer.
I pulled off of a gravel road and into my campsite just as the sun started to sink behind the tall pine trees to the west of me. As it was so late in the day, I hurried to get my tent set up before the sun was completely down. It isn't that I couldn't set up my tent with a headlamp and lantern, but the threat of rain was in the forecast and I didn't want to set up a tent in the dark during a downpour.
I did, however, take the time to light my sterno stove to get dinner heating as I worked on the tent. In fact, dinner was just heated as I finished the tent and got ready for an evening spent among the trees of Prestine Pines Campground, a hipcamp I had recently found.
What is Hipcamp?
Hipcamp is a website (and app) that provides a variety of campsites for rent around the country. Think of it as air b-n-b for campgrounds. I had recently signed up on the app and was eager to find my first hipcamp. Prestine Pines, which is located about fifteen minutes from Searcy, Arkansas, seemed like the perfect choice.
I chose Prestine Pines because I travel, back and forth, the length of Interstate 40 across Arkansas twice each month, and the proximity of Searcy to 40 isn't too bad. In fact, anytime I have an excuse to cut over to highway 64 or any other back road highway is a great thing to me. It is nice to slow down, enjoy the drive, and see the farms, wooded areas, and small towns I pass.
Prestine Pines is a primitive campsite in the opening of grove of pine trees not far from a field of cattle. While it is a little close to a main road (I could hear some traffic as I settled into my tent), you do feel alone in a peaceful environment. The site can host up to four people (although I go solo). It is set up for campfires and has wood for burning (that I didn't use since it is August and I brought my d.i.y. sterno stove to cook with). You will get a cell signal at Prestine Pines. You are provided a 5 gallon bucket toilet, however, you will have to pack out your waste and garbage.
After dinner, I settled into my tent with a book, relaxed, and finally fell asleep waiting for the rain to wake me up. Instead, I woke up to my alarm. The rain didn't happen, so I set the sterno stove back up, made some coffee, and watched the sun rise above the trees.
I've been thinking of riding the entire 36 mile Razorback Greenway trail from Lake Bella Vista to Fayetteville since I first rode the Lake Bella Vista Trail several years ago. And I'd made a few five mile trips from the lake to Crystal Bridges over the years since then, but I'd never gone beyond that trek.
So, I decided to explore some more of the Razorback Greenway on a longboard.
I started just after dawn. The fog was still moving along the surface of the lake as I kicked and began coasting along the trail. The Razorback Greenway into Bentonville, passing by Crystal Bridges, is a long, winding trail full of hills some of which were far to much for me on a longboard. Just before Crystal Bridges, I was forced to pick up my longboard and walk, the hill too steep to keep any momentum while pushing.
But, once into downtown Bentonville, the land levels out and I was able to push through, even making my way to an underground tunnel.
The south Bentonville portion of the trail, however, was a little on the lackluster side of things. The trail butts up against 14th street leading into I-49 and the border to Rogers about 7 1/2 miles into my journey), where I decided to turn around and head back to Bella Vista. In all honesty, I wasn't even sure if I was still on the trail anymore. It was basically a sidewalk along a very busy 14th street, and the sidewalk was full of pebbles. I wasn't sure how long the trail remained like that, so I decided to head back.
The high points of the trail from Lake Bella Vista to Rogers happen around Crystal Bridges (the amazing art museum of Northwest Arkansas). You'll see statues, greenery, possibly even wildlife along the trail at that point.
My favorite stopping point along this portion of trail is a monument of sorts called, "A Place Where They Cried," which commemorates the hardships of American Indians forced to migrate west across Arkansas. According to the signage next to the monument, the installation is nearly two miles south of one of the Trail of Tears routes.
I'm planning on picking up the trail from Rogers on my next Razorback Greenway ride.
Have you ever driven down a dirt road and thought to yourself, "I think I've gone too far. I must have past my destination?"
Just after asking myself that exact question, I saw the entrance to Lone Pine, a campground at the Mississippi River State Park just outside of Marianna, Arkansas (about an hour south of Memphis).
Lone Pine is one of several campgrounds at the state park, but it is the only primitive campground with no potable water and no electricity. Surrounded by a lake on three sides, the campground is quiet, nestled away from the RVs (and noisy RVers) at the campsites with water and electricity. In fact, it was the perfect place for me to brew a cup of tea on my sterno burner and read a book.
While you are in a primitive site, each campsite does have a fire pit and grill sitting next to a picnic table. An outhouse sits in the middle of the campground and the campsite does have a place to put garbage into strong metal receptacles with lids to keep any wildlife from scavenging garbage.
While I only spent one day and night at the campsite, but it was a great, relaxing experience surrounded by trees and peace. In retrospect, I would have spent some extra time at the state park. I would have gone swimming in the lake. I would have gone on a hike along one of the trails. Unfortunately, I was concerned about possible thunderstorms coming in that afternoon (they never showed up, btw). I was concerned about traveling to the site and putting up my tent during a downpour, so I opted to hit the campsite as soon as I got to the park. Then, once I had my tent set up, I didn't want to leave it unattended. So, for the next trip, I'm going to explore before I burrow in for the night.
I'm pretty sure if you want to win on Chopped, throwing a fried egg on top of your main course is a great way to get yourself to the dessert round. And I know that, personally, I'm pretty much a sucker for a fried egg stuck on top of my food. So, when I ordered at ZaZa's in Conway, I had to go for the arugula, prosciutto pizza with a fried egg stuck on top of it.
Wood oven pizza with a nice, thin crust topped with fresh arugula, prosciutto, and a fried egg? Yes, please.
The pizza comes out hot, with arugula and prosciutto added after the cooking process along with some grape tomatoes cut in half (that I could have done without, in all honesty). I found myself eating the tomatoes separately from the rest of the pizza. I get it, Parma ham and tomatoes is great, but the tomatoes just weren't for me this time around.
On my other visit to ZaZa's I tried the Zupreme, another wood oven fired beauty topped with Pepperoni, House-Made Italian sausage, a 3 Italian Cheese Blend, caramelized onions, Mushrooms, kalamata olives, and tomato sauce. Equally delicious as the pie from my first visit, and the fried egg on top still would have worked (although I didn't have one)
My companions ate salads, wing, gelato and other pizza choices including one with a beautiful ball of Burrata and a drizzle of balsamic that looked amazing. I was very tempted to try it on my second visit, but decided to go in a different direction.
The salads are topped and tossed in front of the customer, and the wings looked really nice. I'm usually skeptical of pizza restaurant wings, but these got great reviews from the other guests at my table.
The only real complaints I have are that:
1. The delivery time for one entree to another left something to be desired. On my second visit, several of the people at my table were half way through dinner before I got my pie. It isn't the end of the world, but leaving people to get hangry watching others isn't the best look.
2. Some of our pies got a little too much love from the high heat of a wood fire oven turning the bottom of the pizza skin black in places. My guess is that some new cooks were learning about the wood oven and high heat that week.
Neither of those things will keep me from coming back. Nobody and no restaurant is perfect, and the pizza at ZaZa's is worth of a couple minor hiccups.
For all my affinity for Stoby's of Russellville, I have to admit I'd never been to the sister restaurant in Conway until recently. Honestly, I have always been a little nervous about the Conway location. It isn't that I thought the food wouldn't live up to expectations, and it isn't that I thought I'd have a bad experience. It is because Stoby's Russellville has such an original vibe/look that, in my mind, I felt like any other Stoby's just wouldn't have the same je ne 'est quoi.
The memories from being a long-time Stoby's of Russellville customer and employee don't make it easy to accept something other than "my Stoby's" as Stoby's. So much of my college (and grad school) life was centered around the restaurant. I was there very nearly every breakfast and lunch during the week and every dinner on Saturday night for a long time. I bonded with several of my dearest life-long friends in that train car on D street. One of those friends even officiated my wedding fifteen years later. As you can see, that train car and depot mean a lot to me. A lot more than a bowl of cheese dip and a pita sandwich ever could.
All of that said, one of the great things about food is that it has the distinct ability to bring a wave of memory and nostalgia with a single bite: One single bite of tortilla chip dipped in Stoby's Cheese dip.
Just like that, I was "home again" back to a time when life was more simple and the future was wide open.
I'm happy to say that I'm now almost as big of a fan of Stoby's Conway as of Stoby's Russellville. The recently revamped Conway location (it had been destroyed in a fire in 2015) does the food to the same specs as Russvegas with the same friendly, quick service. Over the course of my two weeks in Conway, I had my go to Stoby Sandwich (with turkey, summer sausage, salami, Cheddar, and Pepper Jack in a pita), the Philly cheese-steak (a more recent addition to the menu but absolutely delicious), and a Petit Jean pepper bacon burger. I also got to check out the nachos, and they looked amazing.
I'm debating to go with nachos or back to the Stoby Sandwich for my next visit. But what about the pita taco? It has been far too long since I've had a pita taco. The decisions!!!!
From my visits to the Conway location, the pepper bacon burger was my least favorite meal. While technically sound with a thick patty, fresh bun, and delicious Pettit Jean pepper bacon, the burger just didn't quite live up to the Philly or the Stoby. This is one of those times when nothing is wrong with the dish, but it just isn't on the same level. And that level is high.
The Stoby, like I mentioned before, is a classic. It is the sandwich that launched the business. Three meats of your choice, two cheeses cheeses of your choice, lettuce, tomato, Stoby sauce, and your choice of bread. Basically you build your own sandwich to your specifications. Want all turkey and American? Do all turkey and American.
The Stoby's Philly is my favorite cheesesteak of all time. Served with onions and peppers (of course) and topped with the spicy white version of Stoby's cheese dip and a side of crispy fries, the Philly is a hot, ooey gooey cheese and meat mess stuffed inside a soft bun. So good.
The Conway location is at 805 Donaghey Ave, Conway, AR 72034
With Bentonville and Fayetteville just down the road, Rogers can get overlooked which is a shame. With places like Parkside Public, Levi's Gastrolounge, and Saiwok as options, Rogers should never be overlooked.
Saiwok is an order at the counter, get a number casual eatery slightly hidden in a shopping center in Rogers best known for affordably priced, delicious food. I love the casual, family friendly yet trendy atmosphere that includes a colorful mural on the wall and tasteful wooden tables.
The service is quick with each dish being brought to the table as it is completed rather than the full order being brought out. As we tend to order a variety of apps to share on our visits, I like this style. We get to start and app and, just before we're done, we have another dish to savor.
For me, the big highlight on the menu is any dish that includes their smoked pork belly. The smoked pork belly cheese fries, topped with a soft cooked egg to sauce the dish are addictive as is the smoked pork belly bao (steamed bun) which has a large slice of pork belly topped with a refreshing slaw. The big additional hit from our visits has been their brussell sprouts which are crisp and perfectly sauced.
To find more information on Saiwok, check out their Facebook Page.
While I'll soon be branching out from Burgers and Mexican fare, I wanted to add in a quick blog on David's Burgers in Cabot. Unlike some of the older dairy bar and burger forward restaurants I've written about, David's Burgers is a new chain based in central Arkansas that has been modeled to have that "old time" feel to it.
Just inside is an interesting, if oddly placed, meat display. According to the website, the meat displayed is the actual meat that gets cut and ground to become your burger. This fresh, never frozen, beef is choice grade a, and is pattied out each morning before the service day begins.
The fries are all hand cut and double fried (the French way) to make sure they get crispy on the outside. This is a refreshing method in a world of frozen bag fries.
I opted for the #1 Single burger combo, and I wasn't disappointed. Enough fries to fill my craving and a delicious, well-seasoned burger topped with fresh veggies. However, now that I've had a chance to check out the menu, I know I'm going for the hamburger steak (no bun) next time. It comes topped with grilled onions and mushrooms, and looks delicious.
Other David's Burgers locations include Conway, North Little Rock, and Little Rock. For some reason, I thought there was a Russellville location, but looking online, it seems I was wrong. Here is there website: David's Burgers.
David Thornton is a two time national award winning writer, chef, husband, father, and fitness enthusiast.