Once we left Memphis, we headed west to West Fork, AR: home of Devil's Den State Park. I've been visiting Devil's Den ever since I was a child. When I was young, we would stay in a tent in the campground, living out of a cooler and cooking meals on a little camp stove. My brother and I would spend our days running wild about the campground, making friends, swatting mosquitoes and seeing how dirty we could get in one day. As I got older, we began renting a cabin, and for many years, our family made an annual trek to Devil's Den to stay in cabin #10 every Memorial Day weekend.
Last year was the first year I got to share my love of Devil's Den with my own family, and after seeing what an amazing place it was, Brad was hooked as well. When I suggested we return again this year, he was quick to agree. Devil's Den is home to the largest known sandstone crevice in the world. There are miles and miles of hiking trails to explore, large fossil beds to examine and search, and all sorts of wildlife to watch and observe. There is a lake to fish and canoe in, a pool to swim and splash in, and a camp store with a freezer full of treats to eat after a hot day. It is kid-heaven, a place to get dirty and be silly, a place to forget about TV and modern conveniences and focus, instead, on the important things: games of Uno, laughing with your family, and eating s'mores by the fire.
This year, we rented a one-bedroom cabin, #9, that was charming, with 2 queen beds in the bedroom, a separate living area, a jacuzzi tub, and a small kitchen. We spent most of our time outside, though. We started off our first day by hiking Devil's Den Trail, a big loop that takes you past 2 caves to explore, waterfalls, a creek, and even the ruins of old pioneer homesteads. Unfortunately, the caves are closed this year in an effort to protect the large bat population in the area from a fungus that has killed millions of bats in the northeast U.S. (it is thought to be spread by humans on our clothing/shoes). But despite that, we enjoyed exploring the outer crevices and splashing in the waterfalls. Aubrey rode along in her frame backpack carrier again this year, content to watch the sights go by from her perch on Daddy's back. Aiden hiked and climbed like the trooper he is, although he needed a bit of encouragement a few times to make it through.
After our hike, we headed back to the cabin for a quick lunch, followed by a family nap. Aiden and I played a few hands of Uno while we waited for Aubrey to finish her nap. Then we all changed into bathing suits and headed down to the pool for a swim. Aiden, who had been terrified of the water slide on the back of the Foxes' boat just one week before, loudly declared "I'm going down the slide" as soon as we arrived at the pool. Before he had even gotten wet, he climbed the ladder and slid right in! And then slid again. And again. He even started experimenting with different ways to slide: on his belly, head-first on his back, sideways, etc. We were so proud of him for conquering his fear. While he enjoyed the slide, Aubrey waded in the baby pool and enjoyed jumping off the side of the pool into our arms. Whereas Aiden needs some time to gather his courage before trying something new, Aubrey is fearless and spent most of the afternoon trying to kill herself in one way or another!
After an hour or so of swimming and splashing, we headed over to the camp store for a frozen treat. Aiden and Aubrey devoured their popsicles and ice cream. Aubrey even let Aiden have a bite of her popsicle.
Then we headed back to the cabin to cook dinner. After a delicious meal of steaks and veggies and couscous, we put Aubrey into bed, and then Brad and Aiden headed out for a little night fishing off the dam. Aiden caught a few fish, and although they were too small to keep or eat, he loved the thrill of reeling them in.
When they returned, Brad and I enjoyed a few hours sitting by the fire and eating s'mores. What a treat it was to just chat and enjoy the sounds of nature echoing all around us.
The next day, we donned our hiking gear once again and headed out for a short hike around the lake and river. We explored the ruins of the old Civilian Conservation Corps camp that employed hundreds of young men in the 1930's. We bounced along the suspension bridge (which completely freaked Aiden out), then wandered along the creek. Aiden, who had woken up on the wrong side of the bed that morning, was awful our entire walk, complaining, whining, and generally being a brat. Aubrey fussed and whined in her carrier. So Brad and I threw up our hands and headed back to the little cafe for an early lunch. After lunch, we headed back to the cabin for Aubrey's nap. Aiden, who refused to sleep, pretended to be a blacksmith for hours, digging in the ash bucket and poking sticks into the little fire I built him, while I sat nearby and read a book. After our naps, we headed back to the pool for another day of swimming, where Aiden began experimenting with swimming underwater--major progress from being completely afraid to put his face in the water just a week before. Aubrey was happy to splash in the baby's wading pool and eat snacks from my stash--she was much more interested in the food than in the water.
After dinner at the cabin, we packed up flashlights and slathered on the insect repellent and headed over to the amphitheater for a presentation by one of the park rangers. The topic was the trails of the park, and since I had been on all of the trails a dozen or more times, I think I knew the park better than the newbie park ranger that was leading it. But we enjoyed the chance to socialize with other visitors to the park. Afterwards, we hiked in the dark back to our cabin, enjoying the opportunity to watch critters, like deer and raccoons, traipse through the forest nearby. Aiden kept blinding us with flashlights and freaking out at the slightest sound, so finally Brad and I took his flashlight away and made him close his eyes, let them adjust to the darkness, and finish out the hike using his night vision. At first he was afraid, but when he realized just how much he could see and hear, he began to enjoy it more. Along the way, I distracted him with stories of my previous camping adventures: he especially loved the story about time I went for a night walk and came back to find raccoons had broken into my plastic tub of food and were sitting on the picnic table, with a bag of marshmallows between their outstretched legs, looking like a couple of couch potatoes sharing a bag of potato chips.
When we arrived back at the cabin, Aiden asked for "just one last s'more, before we go home tomorrow." How could I deny that request?! So, I quickly built a fire, and while I bathed Aubrey and settled her into bed, Aiden and Brad toasted marshmallows and made s'mores. While they were enjoying their snack, a rather large raccoon came ambling by. Aiden quickly pointed it out to his daddy, and when they crept forward for a better look, Brad noticed Aiden holding his s'more behind his back. "What are you doing, buddy?" Brad asked. "I don't want to raccoon to see my s'more, Daddy--he might steal it!" How cute is that?!
The next day, we enjoyed a vacation treat: brownies for breakfast. Aiden was in chocolate heaven, and Aubrey was quite a fan of her gooey treat. Afterwards, Brad and Aiden headed out for some early morning fishing while I packed and cleaned the cabin. Aiden caught a few small fish. Then we loaded up the car and headed west. Our time at Devil's Den had been far too short, but what a great time we had! I look forward to going back again and again with my kiddos--how fun it is to visit one of the favorite places of my youth and share it with my own children, building new memories with each visit.