By Joel Baker
One of the things my family looks forward to each year is our camping trips across Arkansas. Now, it is not for the reasons you may think. Let me clear up a common misconception. Our camping trips are not the beautiful, picture-perfect adventures you see in magazines or on TV. People have the expectation that when they go camping, they will find the perfect spot with no one else around. The weather will be nice—not too hot and definitely not too cold. Firewood will be stacked neatly, lighting the first time before setting up the ideal little teepee-shaped structure.
Would-be campers often envision sitting joyfully around the campfire with bellies full of special camp-inspired meals they discovered on Pinterest, singing songs and playing games as a starry night appears overhead, finally culminating in the most tranquil, peaceful, serene sleep experience that could ever be imagined. Yeah, I am sure it is like that for some people. But for the Baker’s, it’s a train wreck waiting to happen.
We love camping and have done it across the United States. But our favorite places are right here in Arkansas. We are car campers. That means we pack up our Jeeps with the necessary gear and make our way out into the Ouachita National Forest, looking for trails and dirt roads with cool sites to see as we drive up and down roads, ultimately ending up at a destination where we spend the night. For my son Hunter and I, the adventure is about the off-roading, seeing what trails we can find and exploring where they lead. My daughter, Savvy, is the planner. She researches online the area weeks before we go, finding points of interest along the way. She sets our schedule. My bride, Heather, who is not the “outdoorsy” type at all, humors us and comes along for the adventure. Her only prerequisite is that wherever we make camp for the night, it needs to have a toilet.
Once we arrive at our destination, my team knows the drill. First, we deploy the roof-top tent and get Momma and Daddy’s bed ready. Next, we set up whatever shelter the kids want to sleep in; they have their own room on the side of the Jeep complete with air mattresses, but they usually prefer sleeping in hammocks with bug nets between the trees. Then, the kids and I set up a fire and cooking station. All the while, Heather is busy documenting the trip on social media platforms. Now that everything is set, and the appropriate Instagram filters have been chosen, it is on to starting dinner.
I like to plan our meals out ahead of time. And yes, I get ideas from Pinterest, and we try them. They usually go horribly wrong; but again, that is part of the adventure. My one shining success story is cinnamon rolls stuffed in orange peels wrapped in foil thrown in the fire to cook. Luckily, we packed enough Smuckers Uncrustables, Doritos and Oreos to keep us from starving overnight.
This is the moment when things start to get crazy on our adventures. It typically starts off with some crazy weather phenomenon, like 70-mph winds, severe thunderstorms rolling in over the Buffalo River, 29-degree temperatures in September or a burn ban where we can’t start a fire. Our personal favorite: A bear strolling through the campsite at Lake Wynonna right as we were getting ready for bed. Nothing says peaceful dreams like worrying about a bear! If you go camping with us, you are guaranteed some crazy adventures when the sun goes down.
Another favorite trip we take every year is to the Buffalo National River. We start just north of Marshall and hit Buffalo River Outfitters for a day of paddling on the river. I know canoing is supposed to be a relaxing, laid back adventure, but nobody told my family. My crew launches our canoes and kayaks, and the race is on to see how fast we can get to the pick up point. You would think we were on a leg of the Amazing Race.
An hour later, after we have completed a six-hour float, we are ready to move on to the next portion of the trip. We head back into Marshall for dinner at a great pizza place called Boston Mountain Pizza Company. Next, we head on over to the Kenda Drive-In to get in line for whatever is playing that night. If you’ve never been, you have to check this place out. For about $5 a person, you can see the 2 to 3 box office films playing there each night. The kids think it’s amazing to spread out on blankets and watch movies outside.
When the movies are over, we jump back in the Jeep and head down to Grinder’s Ferry to find a spot right on the Buffalo to set up camp. When we awake the next morning, it’s time to break down camp, get everything loaded and head to McDonald’s for coffee and breakfast before traveling back to Little Rock.
This is one of the cheapest and easiest trips we take all year, but it is hands-down the one we look forward to the most. The abundance of inexpensive fun is what is so great about this state; there are so many trips you can take in your own backyard, with unique experiences awaiting. Arkansas offers day-trips, whether you want to take a dirt road to look at waterfalls or you want to find neat overlooks to hike. Arkansas State Parks have what you are looking for! Just load the family up and go explore them. It will not be perfect; you will get in arguments, and you will threaten to pull over and throw your kids out at some point. But I promise you will also find memories that you will share for the rest of your life.
My family doesn’t camp because we love the outdoors; we love the outdoors because we can camp. And we just can’t wait to see what crazy things might happen next!
__ Sleeping bag
__ Air mattress
__ Air pump
__ Fire starters/newspapers
__ Paper towels
__ Baby wipes
__ Trash bags
__ Ziploc bags
__ Bug repellent/candles
__ Camp chairs
__ Marshmallows, Graham Crackers, Hershey bars (s’mores)
__ Basic first aid kit
Before you go:
You don’t have to be a hunter or a fisher to find great outdoor resources from the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s website before your camping adventure. Check out AGFC.com for information on some of the excellent education centers and interpretive programs around the state. If you’re camping along the Buffalo National River, check out the Ponca Elk Education Center for information about the elk herds you might see along your journey. While at the center, relax in rustic log rockers or benches on the shady wraparound deck overlooking Ponca Creek while observing some of the area’s flora and fauna.