Monday, July 16, 2018

Mirror Lake Night Photography, Blanchard Springs Recreation Area, near Fifty-Six, Arkansas

7/16/2018 -  Mirror Lake Night Photography

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Park for Blanchard Springs:  35.95889,  -92.17539,  439 ft.
  Blanchard Springs:  35.95860,  -92.17740,  483 ft.
  Mirror Lake:  35.96349,  -92.17094,  416 ft.
  Gunner Pool:  35.99507   -92.21349,  461 ft.
Pet Friendly: Yes; dogs on or off leash will be fine, just not in the cave.  This is a National Forest Service recreation area, and other people will probably be around.  If your dog isn't well behaved around other folks, I recommend keeping it on a leash.

Motorcycle Friendly: Yes; there are well-paved roads right to the visitor center, as well as parking locations for Mirror Lake, Blanchard Springs, and along Sylamore Creek toward the campground area.

Hiking Statistics:  We did a number of short hikes today, all of them easy, on some of the best trails you will find.  Hikes to either Blanchard Springs or the base of Mirror Lake are only about a quarter mile each.  We ended up hiking around 10 miles total between all the spots we scouted during the day and the actual hikes at night.  For the duration of our night adventure, we parked at the spillway on Mirror Lake and made the trip down the boardwalk and back upstream to the base of Mirror Lake Falls, then up to the top, three times.  It's about a mile round trip each time.  We also went out on the trail along Mirror Lake's shore for a few shots.

Related Blog posts:

Mirror Lake Falls with
Milky Way in the background
(light painting by Bethany)
Night photography?  Is this a hiking blog, or what?  Well, yes.  Yes, it is.  As we found out, if you go out shooting the milky way at night you are likely to get in a good deal of hiking.  The thing is, I'm more of a hiker than a photographer.  But I like to hike because (A) it's pretty good exercise, and (2) I love the outdoors and enjoy the natural beauty of this fabulous area we are lucky to live in.  So naturally, you want something to look at and remind you of just how majestic and beautiful the waterfalls, caves, and vistas can be.  My theory is that every avid hiker either is an avid photographer or they will certainly become one if they keep hiking.  Since they do go hand in hand, I decided to write up a special edition of the blog to cover this trip, and my lessons learned in nighttime hiking and photography.

Mirror Lake Falls,
beautiful by day or night
I am literally a newbie at night photography.  My wife, Bethany, gave me a gift certificate for one of Tim Ernst's workshops, and it was only last week that I finally used that on one of his night photography workshops.  This workshop is highly recommended, by the way.  I came back with some great photos and learned a lot of stuff, much of which I would never have figured out on my own.  Having one of the best nature photographers in the world at your beck and call from sunset to sunrise to answer all your silly questions is a huge plus as well.  Now I was completely fired up about going out and shooting some waterfalls with a backdrop of the Milky Way, the holy grail of night photography.  

Ruins of the old mill
Mirror Lake Falls visible through window
Unfortunately, as I found out, it isn't as simple as taking the same photo of a waterfall after the sun sets.  The Milky Way is only visible in the southern sky, and the core of the galactic center is only at it's best for us in the northern hemisphere for a couple of months in the summer because of the earth's tilt.  Add to that the fact that the light cast by the moon can completely obliterate the light from distant stars, so you don't want to be shooting when there is any moonlight during the night.  So these were my selection criteria:
  1) Pretty waterfall, with a north face.
  2) View of the night sky, visible behind the waterfall, and not blocked by bluffs or foliage.
  3) Waterfall with good flow in July.
  4) Within a few days of a new moon.
  5) Far enough from towns that light pollution was not a big factor.
Of course, you also need a cloudless sky, but that is just something you hope for after you select a suitable location.  

PhotoPills Planner for
Mirror Lake
There are only a handful of waterfalls, out of the hundreds I have seen in the Ozarks, that fit the location criteria.  Of those, I figured Mirror Lake would be the only one with good flow.  The huge caverns here have a river in the lower cave system that is fed from a vast aquifer.  The river flows out of the ground at Blanchard Springs Falls and the short creek started there flows into Mirror Lake.  Wherever the water comes from, it seems to have plenty to last through any dry spell and provide good flow year round over the waterfall.  Bethany and I had already planned a couple of days away at some good friend's cabin, which happened to be only 9 miles from Blanchard Springs Recreation Area.  We had planned to go up there on July 16, which was only four days after a new moon so the moon would be set for almost the entire night.  It happened kind of by accident, but my plan was coming together.  So this morning Bethany and I headed towards Blanchard Springs.  

One of the things I had determined a couple of nights earlier was that you really have to go check out locations in the daytime before attempting to shoot at night.  I had the great idea of using the old trestle bridge across Big Piney near Fort Douglas as my subject, with the Milky Way rising behind it.  Stumbling around in the dark with just a headlamp on, I nearly fell off a bluff into a pool on the creek.  I also took out many, many cobwebs with my face, not a pleasant experience.  So today, we got to the cabin and dropped off our bags.  We then went to Blanchard Springs to scout suitable areas for night photography.  I use an app call PhotoPills on my phone to help with planning, and it has a "Night Augmented Reality" feature to overlay the image on the camera with what will be showing in the night sky at a specific time.  It is really indispensable for planning Milky Way shots.

Blanchard Springs Falls today
This location was completely obscured from the night
sky by terrain and foliage.
After a few hours slogging around at various locations, we found very few spots that had a good view of the night sky where the Milky Way would come into view.  Blanchard Springs Falls and the bridges along the creek downstream of it were completely blocked by terrain and foliage.  We did find a spot near the shelter cave picnic area along Sylamore Creek that would have worked if we light-painted a small bluff.  Fortunately, Mirror Lake was a prime location, both at the base of the waterfall and on the north and west sides.  As an added bonus, the mountain to the east of Mirror Lake blocked out any light pollution from Mountain View, which was the only nearby town of any size.  Looking down toward the end of Mirror Lake from the spillway, you are looking in a direction with a dark sky and no light pollution for about 80 miles (Russellville).

Mirror Lake Falls
Still significant cloud cover and no Milky Way
After spending the day scouting for good night shot locations and enjoying the awesome scenery in the area, we went back for a good dinner at Angler's and a couple hours rest at the cabin before heading out for our night photography adventure.  It had been completely overcast and drizzly rain for most of the day, so I was a little apprehensive about our chances for a clear night sky.  Sure enough, when we got to Mirror Lake it had stopped raining but was still very overcast.  We had identified specific times the Milky Way would be visible from various spots on Mirror Lake and went to the spillway for our first setup.  We decided that instead of driving from the spillway to the bottom of the boardwalk, we would just park at the spillway and hike down the boardwalk and then up the trail to the base of the falls.

Fog over Mirror Lake
Initially, it appeared that the night and the weather were not going to cooperate with us at all.  There was not only significant cloud cover, but a heavy fog rolled down the creek and blanketed the area above the dam.  This was the first time I had attempted light painting, a technique by which you shine a light on ground objects you want to be illuminated during the long exposure you take to get a good shot of the stars.  The fog simply reflected the light right back at the camera, making for shots that were just one big blowout.  We played with the camera setup and experimented to develop our light painting skills, and eventually got a couple of cool photos.  We hiked down to the base of the falls to see if we might get some usable shots from that angle.  We ended up going back and forth three times, so we did get a little exercise in.  Using LED headlamps, we lit up enough of the trail ahead of us that we could hike safely.

Mirror Lake and upper part of waterfall today

From below the spillway, we avoided most of the fog and the cloud cover was starting to break up, allowing us to get some photos of the night sky above the waterfall.  We really didn't know what to expect for light painting needs, so we had taken a variety of lights with us, from a big LED floodlight to a small penlight.  Bethany did all the light painting and ended up using one of the smaller penlights for a three-second to a four-second sweep of the area we wanted to be lit up during the exposure.  Most of the exposures I took were 20 seconds, which I determined by trial and error to be about the most I could push it without getting any elongation of the stars, "star trails" caused by the earth rotating during the exposure.  We took almost 300 shots over the night.
Mirror Lake and upper waterfall
with Milky Way.  The large bright
object above the horizon on the left
is Mars
 required of the same shot, adjusting our light painting or exposure.  We would take the shot with light painting, then adjust for an area that was too brightly lit, or one that was too dark.  Bethany was a real trooper, and adapted to my lighting needs very quickly.  

By the time the cloud cover lifted and we had mostly clear skies, the fog also was lifting.  We hiked back up to the top of the spillway and got a few shots, and finally got rid of the clouds and fog when the Milky Way was really showing.  I didn't get the early shots of the Milky Way rising in the east that I had planned, but we did end up with some really good ones.  We had to go back and forth from the top to the base of the waterfall to catch the Milky Way in the right space over the subject, but it's a short enough hike and didn't take that much time.  We ended up spending all night at Mirror Lake and never had time to go to the other location we scouted by the picnic area.  Bethany got pretty good at hanging over the rail and light painting the waterfall while we were at the top of the spillway, so I was able to get some good shots of the upper section of the waterfall and the surface of the lake, with the Milky Way standing up at the end of the lake.

Milky Way over Mirror Lake
and Mars on the left
After hiking the area to scout locations in the drizzly rain, we hiked around and photographed the Mirror Lake area at night from about 10:00pm until 3:30am.  We should have been bone tired, but I was so excited I couldn't sleep when we eventually got done and headed back to the cabin.  I know I'm new at this and have a lot to learn, both in the night photography arena and in post-processing the photos.  This little adventure was not only a heck of a lot of fun, I learned an enormous amount from experimentation.  Looking back at it, and looking at the photos, there are many things I now know to do and am already planning a return visit.  I don't really have the patience of some of my photographer friends to take multiple shots that I can stitch and stack to remove noise and enhance visibility, but I now know that there is a whole lot I can do with "one-shot" photos to look really spectacular.  
Mirror Lake Falls and Milky Way

All in all, this was one of the more fun hiking adventures I've had.  We didn't take Boomer, because keeping track of a solid black German Shepherd at night would have just consumed too much of our time.  I did get to spend all day and all night out in a spectacular area with the love of my life, learning and marveling at the beautiful vistas we had all to ourselves.  Well, after dark we had the whole place to ourselves, anyway.  I'll be going back, and I now have a lot more tools in my bag of tricks to try.  On future hikes, I plan on using PhotoPills to scout for suitable night photography shots.  I'll save those plans for my use, and if my readers find value in them, I'll share them on the blog posts.  Looking forward to the next one!

Friday, March 23, 2018

Sandstone Castle, Richland Wilderness Area, Ozarks near Lurton, Arkansas

3/23/2018 - Sandstone Castle, Exploring Arkansas edition

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Parking:  35.84146   -92.98413
  Trail Head on NC5080:  35.84189   -92.98472
  Sandstone Castles:  35.81647   -92.97268
  Rock Wall #1:  35.82520   -92.98599
  Rock Wall #2:  35.82412   -92.98407
  Old Homesite #1:  35.82303   -92.98264
  Rock Wall #3:  35.82039   -92.97832
  Rock Wall #4:  35.81955   -92.97672
  Old Homesite #2:  35.819701   -92.97643

Pet-friendly: Yes!  Be aware there are a number of trees down on the trail and other obstacles that might challenge a smaller dog on a leash.  Also, unlike most of my hikes, there is no water available.  Make sure you pack water for your dog as well.

Motorcycle friendly: No.  Getting to the parking area takes you about seven miles on rough, gravel, forest service roads.  It's doable, but you'll be sorry if you take a cruiser or street bike on these roads.

Hiking Statistics:  From top to bottom, The Richland Wilderness Area is over 1200 feet of elevation change.  Today we hiked approximately five miles, with a "highest to lowest" elevation change of only 262 feet.  There are a few ups and downs, but the hiking is mostly on the level.  While technically a bushwhack because no trail maintenance is allowed in wilderness areas, there is a fairly distinct volunteer trail that follows an old trace road.  This makes for easier hiking so I would rate this a moderately easy hike.  Note that in "leaves on" season, the trail will be mostly overgrown. 

GPS files (maps at bottom of this post):
  Richland Wilderness Area Waypoints
  GPS track file, trailhead to Sandstone Castles (.gpx format)

Links to blog posts for other nearby areas:
  Devon Falls, Hamilton Falls, Twin Falls, and Richland Falls
  The same, plus Long Devil's (Jim Bob), Mystic, and Big Devil's Bluff Falls
  Dogwood Falls
  Wind River Hollow

Richland Wilderness
I have been out to Sandstone Castle a few times over the years and had visited it just three months ago.  It is a nice wintertime (leaves off) hike, and since we were in the midst of a prolonged drought it made a good hike that didn't need water to make the natural features look their best.  Today, I had a different reason to return to Sandstone Castle.  Today my hiking partners were Chuck Dovish and Jeff James.  Chuck and Jeff produce an excellent series on the AETN television network, Exploring Arkansas, which is exactly what it sounds like.  It is a show where Chuck goes to fascinating places in Arkansas and Jeff films him visiting the places and talking about it.  I'm a big fan and have our DVR set up to record new episodes automatically.  Bethany and I use the show for ideas on places to visit all the time.  When Chuck contacted me to see if I would guide them out to Sandstone Castles, I jumped at the opportunity to head back out there again.  After updating my system post-hike, I noticed that I hadn't made a blog post for the area for almost three years, so this blog post is long overdue.

The Sandstone Castles are actually a series of caves cut into the rock of the
bluff at the top of the ridge overlooking Big Devil's Fork and Long Devil's Fork, high above where they flow into the Twin Falls of Richland.  The caves have 'windows' overlooking the valley below.  Legend has it this place was used by criminals and civil war deserters to hide out from the Law.  I'm betting that strategy was highly successful.  This is one of those places that if you know where it is, it is easy to get to and easy to find.  If you have never been there, it can be quite challenging to find.  This trip, I noticed the trail out to Sandstone Castle is getting enough traffic to be clearly visible almost the entire route.

To get there, take Highway 7 north and turn onto Highway 123 north at Lurton.  From the 'T' where you can turn left to Hwy 7 or right to Hwy 123, turn right and go 1.5 miles.  Turn right on NC5070 (aka FR-1200, aka CR-36, aka Herbie Hampton Rd, aka Assembly of God Church Road).  Take NC5070 for 6.8 miles, then turn right on NC5080 (aka FR-1205).  Note that after approximately a mile on Assembly of God Church Road, the pavement ends and the road turns into a gravel road.  Go 1.1 miles on NC5080 and look for where the power lines cross from the right hand (south) side to the left hand (north) side of the road.  The trailhead will be near the last power line pole on the right.  On the north side of the road, there is an extended gravel shoulder to park on.  

The trailhead GPS coordinates are listed above.  Years ago, there was a blue smiley face painted on a tree at this point on the south side of the road.  Now, I can't find that smiley face anywhere and think that tree was cut down.  At any rate, If you climb the embankment across the road from the parking area, you will see there is an old trace road that goes uphill.  Turn RIGHT onto it from the road.  i.e. - you will be heading south-west, at first almost paralleling the NC5080 road you just drove in on.  As mentioned before, this trail is now clearly visible.  The trail will head up the mountain on this trace road.  There are a fair amount of fallen trees on this first part of the trail, but don't let that discourage you.  As you climb the trace road it will crest the ridgeline, and just over the ridgeline, you will make a sharp turn to the left.  The trail here is more discernible and easier to follow, with fewer detours around fallen trees.  Someone has put a sign here to direct you from the ridgeline back to the road on your way back.

After cresting the ridgeline and turning left, the trail follows more or lessjust along the crest of Big Middle Ridge, the ridge between Big Devil Fork and Long Devil Fork.  See the maps at the bottom of this post for reference.  The old trace road is visible in most places and the trail will follow that as it can, with zigs and zags around fallen trees.  The trail is usually visible, but there are a couple of places it gets difficult to see.   As you can see from the GPS track I recorded (at bottom of this post), the trail sticks pretty much to the ridgeline of Big Middle Ridge.  If you stick close to the top of the ridge and don't go down either side of the mountain, you should be okay. The elevation along this route does not vary a whole lot, but there are some gradual ups and downs.  

You pass some rock walls, a couple of homesites, and an old well along the way.  The first of these is about at the halfway point and is actually off the trail to the right a few yards.  These are a good check that you are on the right path.  I included GPS coordinates for these waypoints so you can track your route.  This is where hiking with Jeff and Chuck was somewhat different than my normal hikes, in that we had to wait for Jeff to get set up to take some video footage for the show, record the footage, then move on.  They have clearly done this a bazillion times, so it goes smoothly and quickly and doesn't really hold us up at all.  

Old Homesite #2
The last of the rock walls is barely visible on the trail, and if you don't know what to look for it is easy to miss.  There was a field of blooming forsythia just past this, and in the sea of yellow blossoms, I noticed something else I had walked past many times and not noticed.  There was an old stacked rock fireplace here, the only remains of what was a homesite at one time.  The only other homesite I have located from our pioneering predecessors was what looks to be a stack of rocks that was at one time another fireplace and chimney.  At one time, people lived all over these remote hollows.  People much more rugged and self-reliant than the folks we have become today.

The trail will lead right down the ridgeline to the point where it drops off above Twin Falls.  The  Sandstone Castles are caves in the rock bluff line at this point, and the trail leads to the cliff directly above the caves.  There are a couple of spots you can make your way down to the cave level.   To your left, as you look over the cliff is the easiest way down, going between the two largest caves.  From above the caves, out on this point of the ridgeline, you can look out over most of the almost 12,000 acres that make up the Richland Wilderness Area.  This was designated as a wilderness area as part of a bill that Senator Dale Bumpers pushed through Congress in 1984, establishing nine new wilderness areas in Arkansas.  For 34 years now, the area has seen no logging or any other activity, by law now a "hands off" area for nature to do whatever comes naturally.

Jeff, Chuck, and Rick (L-R)
After filming an interview and taking a lot of video for the Exploring Arkansas show, Jeff and Chuck spent a while taking additional still shots and B-roll video of the area while I just enjoyed the scenery.  It's always a great day to be out in the wilderness, and these were a couple of great guys to enjoy it with.  For me, it was fascinating to see how a television show like this is produced.  After wrapping up all the material they needed for editing into a segment of the show, we headed back the way we had come out.  This is a hike I would recommend for everyone, with one caveat.  Please remember that this is a wilderness area.  No one is going to clean up after you, and there are strict rules on what you can and cannot bring into the area.  No mechanized equipment is allowed of any kind, not even mountain bikes.  You are allowed to build a campfire and camp out but leave no trace that you were there.  Someone had camped in the big cave and had left an empty can.  Since that is all I found, I'm assuming they just missed it.  I packed it out with me, but please make sure you look around and leave the area as you found it. 
Sandstone Castle GPS Track
Richland Wilderness Area

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Northwest Prong of Trace Creek, Ozarks east of Hagerville, Arkansas

3/2/2018 -  Northwest Prong of Trace Creek

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)

  Parking Location #1:  35.58673   -93.22045,  1794 ft.
  Parking Location #2:  35.60608   -93.22053,  834 ft.
  Falls #1:  35.59942   -93.22710,  909 ft.
  Falls #2:  35.59061   -93.23420,  1017 ft.
  Falls #3:  35.59151   -93.23994,  1156 ft.
  Falls #4:  35.59129   -93.23983,  1141 ft.
  Falls #5:  35.59025   -93.23987,  1182 ft.
  Falls #6:  35.58715   -93.23013,  1011 ft.
  Falls #7:  35.58526   -93.22964,  1035 ft.
  Falls #8:  35.60079   -93.22779,  810 ft.
  Falls #9:  35.60232   -93.22816,  801 ft.
  Falls #10:  35.60174   -93.22878,  820 ft.
  Falls #11:  35.60408   -93.21788,  820 ft.
  Falls #12:  35.60383   -93.21791,  826 ft.
  Falls #13:  35.60309   -93.22878
  Falls #14:  35.60215   -93.23203
  Falls #15:  35.60344   -93.23365
  Falls #16:  35.60447   -93.23489
  Falls #17:  35.60412   -93.23682
  Falls #18:  35.60367   -93.23780
  Falls #19:  35.60180   -93.23990
  Falls #20:  35.60166   -93.23997
  Falls #21:  35.60139   -93.24144
  Falls #22:  35.60110   -93.24173
  Falls #23:  35.60105   -93.24166
  Falls #24:  35.60283   -93.23631
  Falls #25:  35.60297   -93.23610

Pet-Friendly: Dogs off leash should be OK.  If your dog needs to be on a leash, it is doable but difficult because this is mostly all bushwhacking.  

Motorcycle Friendly: No!  This is not at all friendly to your big bike.  The parking locations are several miles down rough dirt roads.

Hiking Statistics:  The Trace Creek valley is over 1300 feet from top to bottom and covers several square miles.  Today I hiked 4.2 miles, with a highest-to-lowest elevation change of 545 feet.  This is all bushwhacking, with no trails of any kind once you get down into the Trace Creek basin.  The terrain is very rugged, with some undergrowth.  Overall, I would rate this a difficult bushwhack.

GPS files (.gpx format) - See maps at the bottom of this blog post
    Dover-Sand Gap area waypoints
    Trace Creek GPS track

Links to blog posts for other nearby areas:

    Hole Creek 
    Graves Creek (upper section)
    Graves Creek (lower section)
    Arkansas Sphinx

Falls #10
My friend Dan Frew and I had hiked Trace Creek just a month ago and had covered a lot of the huge Trace Creek basin.  We had found a lot of waterfalls, even though we only hiked up into the lower parts of each prong and Short Hollow, which is also part of the Trace Creek drainage.  Today, I was hiking alone, and because I intended to go into unknown areas that Boomer (our German Shepherd) might not be able to access, I left him at home as well.  On our last visit to the area, we bushwhacked over 10 miles in the drainage, going up each fork of each prong to the first photo-worthy waterfalls, then hiking back down to go up the next fork.  Today, I decided that I would concentrate on just one of the major prongs to see if I could thoroughly explore it.  We had finally gotten some major rainfall a week ago, so I was looking forward to seeing some of this area with good water flow.

Falls #22
To get there, from the Dover town square (junction of Hwy 7 and Hwy 27), go north on Highway 7 for 5.5 miles and turn left on Highway 164.  Go 7.6 miles on Highway 164 and turn right on FR-1800 (Pilot Rock Mountain Road or CR-3891).  This is just past the twin bridges over Big Piney Creek.  Stay on Pilot Rock Mtn Road for 5.5 miles as it changes to CR-3890, to CR-3861, to CR-4840.  Bear Right onto FR-1802 (aka CR-4891, or Meadows Knob Road).  Go 0.9 miles on FR-1802, then turn left onto a Jeep road.  Parking location #1 is 0.1 miles down this jeep road at a food plot.  Park as far off Meadows Knob Road as you feel comfortable in your vehicle, but be aware that going further will require a 4WD vehicle with good ground clearance.

Falls #20
Today, I was in my FJ Cruiser, so I felt pretty confident about continuing down the ATV trail that runs along the spur between Short Hollow and the rest of Trace Creek.  I had scouted out a location almost down to the level of the main creek itself that I was pretty confident the FJ could make it down to.  As I drove down the ATV trail, I had to stop occasionally and move logs and big rocks out of the way, and in two places go a bypass route around fallen trees, but I eventually made it all the way down to parking location #2.  At the time, I was thinking "woo-hoo!" because I had cut off most of the huge climb out of this area.  Before you decide to go that far down the mountain, though, you might want to read on for the rest of the story, and what it took to get back out.

I started out hiking down the old ATV trail, and in a very short time, I was at the bottom of the mountain.  It is less than 100 yards from my parking location to Short Hollow's creek, near where it flows into Trace Creek.  The first thing I noticed today was how much higher the flow in the creek was.  A month ago, it was no problem rock-hopping across Trace Creek, even down in this area where it has water drainage from the entire basin.  Today, even though our big rain was a week ago, it was still knee deep.  I figured I would eventually end up with both boots soaked, but wanted to prolong the amount of time I got to hike with dry socks as long as possible.  Since I had failed to restock trash bags in my pack after my last hike, I went barefoot, crossed the creek, dried my feet, and got rebooted.  

Falls #24
My recollection from my previous hike was that it was definitely easier to hike on the north side of Trace Creek up to the point the northwest prong branched off.  I also wanted to be on that side because I remembered Falls #9 spilling over the bluff on that side directly into the creek and wanted to check out the drainage above that.  Hiking up into that drainage, I did find Falls #13 about a hundred yards up that side drainage.  While nice, I wasn't all that impressed with it or the amount of flow in this small drainage, so I decided to cut off exploration and went back down to the main creek in the northwest prong.  This is an area where the blufflines stay intact and are deeply undercut as the creek has wound from side to side in this canyon.  Looking down, I saw enough rock that I thought hiking along the creek would be doable today, but it probably was flooded from side to side last week.  

Falls #14
I hiked along the top of the bluff past Falls #10, noting a good place to descend through the bluffline.  I didn't stop to go down to the base of the waterfall because I intended to go down along the creek in this area on my way back.  Comparing the flow over Falls #10 to my memory of it last month when we were still in the thick of a prolonged drought, the difference was amazing.  This gave me a lot of hope for conditions upstream, so I pressed on up the creek, hiking along the creek itself, and rock-hopping from side to side as needed.  I found Falls #14 about a quarter mile upstream, a very pretty but smaller waterfall right on the main creek.

Falls #18
Continuing upstream, I soon came to the first major side drainage on the right.   This side drainage seemed to have almost as much water as the main creek, and until I looked at my GPS map, I thought it might be a fork in the creek. Since I wanted to explore as much as I could in this prong, I followed it upstream to Falls #15.  I don't normally pursue side drainages that far uphill because the flow drops off significantly as you gain elevation.  Today, looking above Falls #15, I couldn't see where the side drainage went, but I could see a large, solid rock bluff rising up above in the background.  I decided to check out at least one more big bluffline upstream, to see if the amount of flow would hold up. 

Falls #16
Climbing above Falls #15, I hiked upstream to that large bluffline and found Falls #16 spilling out over it.  This is certainly a nice one, and it made me wish I had made this hike a few days earlier, to catch it with all the water flow from the rains we had received.  As it was, it still had plenty of water to look great.  I chose not to look further upstream, however, as it seemed unlikely there would be enough water flowing higher up to produce good waterfalls.  Instead, I decided to hike around the base of this large bluffline, catching the waterfalls produced wherever side drainages spilled over it.  I found Falls #17, and Falls #18 in this fashion, all about the same elevation.  I saw Falls #19, a large waterfall with a lot of flow today, on the main creek at this same elevation.  I bypassed Falls #19, for now, to continue upstream just a bit more.  Falls #20 is a smaller waterfall just upstream, also on the main creek.

Falls #22 (right) and Falls #23 (left)
By the time I got to Falls #21, I had come all the way around to the top of the main creek in the northwest prong.  Falls #21 was in a side drainage just a few yards from the main creek.  Just upstream from it the main creek split into two forks and had a really nice waterfall in each fork, Falls #22 and #23, on that same bluffline.  These two waterfalls really made my day, they were beautiful; my photos really do not do them justice.  The sun had been very bright and harsh all day.  I did my best to compensate for the glare, but I'm afraid the photos are still sub-par.  As usual, photos really don't compare with actually being there.  I think there are probably at least a couple more nice waterfalls upstream in each of these forks, but it was getting late, and I still had to hike all the way back down and do some photography in the lower canyon area of this prong.

Falls #19
I headed back downstream along the creek and stopped to get some photos of Falls #20 and Falls #19, using a break just downstream of Falls #19 on the north side to access the bottom of the waterfall.  Continuing downstream about a quarter mile, I found Falls #24 in a side drainage on the north side.  All of the side drainages with substantial flow were on the north side, taking in a drainage area that goes all the way up to the pinnacle of Pilot Rock Mountain.  Falls #24 is a tall waterfall, flowing almost vertically down the rock face of the bluff into a small pool before draining via a steep cascade into the main creek.  Falls #25 is a three-tiered waterfall less than a hundred feet further downstream, flowing down the same bluffline as Falls #24.  You can easily see both Falls #24 and Falls #25 together from the main creek.  They are in the same drainage as Falls #17, on the bluffline much higher up.

Continuing downstream, I soon came to the part of the main creek that I had left when following the side drainage up to Falls #15 and Falls #16.  I retraced my route from there back to Falls #10, where I climbed down through a break on the left (north) side.  This waterfall was one Dan and I had found on the first hike here, and the difference today with a more normal amount of water was amazing.  Falls #10 is really nice, and the creek in this prong from Falls #10 to where Falls #9 spills over the north bluff is a very cool little creek.  The creek has eroded its bed down through solid sandstone, and as it has flowed from side to side within that channel, it has eroded big overhangs in the sides.  This is a really nice feature that reminds me of parts of Graves Creek.  We did not see another creek canyon like this in the rest of the Trace Creek valley.

Falls #10
After pausing to snap some photos of Falls #10 and Falls #9 and a lot of the creek in between,  I headed on back.  This is where I made another error that I won't repeat.  I theorized that since I was at the juncture of the northwest prong and the main Trace Creek, I should cross Trace Creek upstream of the confluence of these two creeks.  That way I would have smaller creek crossings and I would be on the side of Trace Creek I needed to be on to go back up the ATV trail to where I had parked.  It's just another theory that did not work out in practice.  Hiking on the south side of Trace Creek was much harder because of the steepness of the slope on that side and a lot more briers and underbrush.  The contour of the slope on the south side (right side as you hike downstream) eventually forced me to cross back over Trace Creek anyway, this time where it was wider and deeper, and then to cross back at the bottom of the ATV trail.

Falls #9
From the juncture of Trace Creek and Short Hollow, it was a really short hike and minimal climb back to where I had parked the FJ at parking location #2.  I was patting myself on the back for eliminating most of the huge climb up out of the Trace Creek valley and started driving back up the ATV trail the way I had come down.  Unfortunately, that was another plan that had a few issues.  Going downhill is always pretty easy, but going uphill I came to a spot that I had to nose the front wheels up and onto rock across the trail.  Normally, that's easy.  But now I had all four wheels on wet clay, going up a steep grade, and they just didn't want to get enough traction to get the front wheels up where they could grab.  Even in 4WD low and the rear axle locked, I was going nowhere.  

There was no way to go a different route through the woods, and I didn't have a chainsaw.  Even if I did, there was a big bluff on one side and dropoff on the other side.  So I spooled out the winch, connected the disconnects and control pendant, and winched my way uphill past the deep wet clay.  Thank God I put that winch in.  There were two more places that I got stuck in deep wet clay, but I had just left the winch connected.  I figured the food plot would be a good place to disconnect everything, and as it turned out I needed that winch a couple more times.  Making matters worse was the fact that Friday is date night, and I should have been home getting a shower and getting ready to take my wife out for dinner.  One of my preset messages on my InReach (see FAQ and Glossary) is "I'm delayed, but everything is OK".  This was the first time I was delayed enough to use it.  Bethany can always ping the InReach to see where I am, but it's nice to send a message so she knows not to worry.  It took me over an hour to drive the two miles up to the food plot at the top of the ATV trail.

Falls #23
Trace Creek clearly is a nice area, with a lot of stuff to see.  My conundrum for this hollow is that for the waterfalls to look really nice, you need some wet conditions.  Wet conditions mean the ATV trail will also be wet, making the drive back out probably not worth the time and energy you save by parking at the bottom of the trail.  While hiking the ATV trail along the spur is not as steep as the side of the hollow, it is still really steep.  It is a 1.5-mile mile hike up this spur along the ATV trail and an elevation change of 1067 feet.  If you are familiar with the hike from Hemmed-In Hollow Falls up to the Compton trailhead, this is about like that, except on that hike you can take a breather by going out to Wild Vic's Cabin.  On this hike out, you just have to take it slow and take a break when needed.   I will need at least two more trips to the Trace Creek Valley, one to fully explore Short Hollow, and another full day to explore the south prong of Trace Creek.  So I'll be back!
Trace Creek northwest prong GPS track (today's hike)
Trace Creek drainage basin
Red - 2/6/2018 hike
Blue - today's hike

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Wolf Creek and Left Fork Big Creek Caves and Waterfalls, Ozarks north of Cowell, Arkansas

2/27/2018 - Big Creek Cave Falls, Wolf Creek Cave Falls, more waterfalls, caves, and "Stuff you might find in the Ozarks"

GPS Coordinates:  Latitude/Longitude/Elevation
  Parking:  35.87684, -93.16071,  1162 feet
  Big Creek Cave Falls:  35.86318, -93.15447,  1294 feet
  Wolf Creek Cave Falls:  35.86063,  -93.15244,  1297 feet
  Underground Falls:  35.86074,  -93.15257,  1281 feet
  Cave Creek Cascade:  35.86384,  -93.15439,  1267 feet
  Mine shaft:  35.85954,  -93.15322,  1309 feet
  Unnamed Cave Falls:  35.85954,  -93.15350,  1300 feet
  Unnamed Wolf Creek Falls #1:  35.86265,  -93.15121,  1292 feet
  Unnamed Wolf Creek Falls #2:  35.86225,  -93.14889
  Unnamed Wolf Creek Falls #3:  35.86211,  -93.14881,  1425 ft.
  Turn off trail to Wolf Creek Falls #3:  35.86147,  -93.14929,  1408 ft.
  Turn off trail to Cave Creek Cascade:  35.86472,  -93.15319,  1239 feet
  Rock Peninsula Falls:  35.86666,  -93.15417,  1214 feet
  Turn off trail to Rock Peninsula Falls area:  35.86736,  -93.15412, 1223 feet
  Old homestead with antique car bodies:  35.86826,  -93.15399, 1260 feet

Pet friendly:  Yes, I usually take Boomer with me when I go here.  One word of caution - if your dog needs to stay on leash, it should be OK unless you venture off trail and do any significant bushwhacking.  There are a lot of briers and underbrush in this area.  Around the upper two waterfalls on Wolf Creek, Boomer struggled a little finding a way in and out, but he managed.

Motorcycle friendly:  Not really.  It is 2.8 miles down a marginal gravel road.  I would never take mine on it, but I know a lot of you riders don't see that as a challenge at all.  As one of my nephews puts it, "my driveway is longer and rougher than that."

Hiking Statistics:  We logged 4.25 miles round trip today, with a highest-to-lowest elevation change of 400 feet.  Our hike was cut short today by a thunderstorm; normally we wander around for well over six miles here, just exploring a little while hitting all the other stuff we already know we wanted to see.  I would rate this a moderate bushwhack.  Quite a bit of hiking is along old trace roads.  The only difficult bushwhacking is climbing up and down at creek level on Wolf Creek

GPS files (.gpx format) - Maps of the GPS track are at the bottom of this post.
  Big Creek Cave area waypoints
  Big Creek Cave and Wolf Creek GPS track for today's hike

Note - this post adds some new features I found on this hike.  Previous blog posts to the Big Creek Cave area:
  Feb 6, 2016
  Jan 27, 2015
Wolf Creek Falls #3
With all the recent rainfall after our extended drought, I have been torn on where to go.  After almost no rain for a half year, we finally got eight inches of rain over about a one week period.  Needless to say, the creeks, streams, and waterfalls are gushing.  I wanted to get out and see some of my favorites in all their glory, but I also wanted to go see some areas on my "wet weather" list that I still have not seen with a good amount of water flow.  I finally settled on one of my old favorites, the Big Creek Cave Falls area, because it has lots of cool stuff AND it has waterfalls on Wolf Creek that I still have not seen with decent water flow.  It was just me and Boomer (our German Shepherd) today, and with more rain threatening to blow in, we got out as early as we could and headed north.

Wolf Creek Cave Falls
To get there, go north on Highway 7 another 1.3 miles from the Highway 16 intersection going to Deer. Turn right onto NC-6840.  There is a one-story frame farmhouse here on the right and this looks like a couple of ruts going behind the guy's house as if it is his driveway.  It isn't.  It actually turns into a decent one-lane forest service gravel road. Go 2.8 miles from Highway 7 on this road and park on the right by a metal gate. The power line ends there at what was an old homestead years ago, one of at least three that I know of in the area. There is no trace of a house left, but there is a rock storm shelter remaining. There is a metal gate here across an old road leading past the homestead site and you can park in the small loop off the road by this gate.  Note that NC-6840 is the 'new' Newton County road number.  Old maps will have that as FR-1224 or CR-59, and it is sometimes referred to as Cowell Road.  NC-6840 is the only road sign you will see when turning off Highway 7.

Ford across Left Fork Big Creek
On a previous blog post, I detailed step-by-step hiking directions to the various features in this area.  I even included photos of the area at each major turn and section of the hike to get you over the field, across Left Fork Big Creek, and onto the old trace road.  I won't reiterate all that mass of detail, I'll just direct you to them at the link here. That's an awful lot of detail to copy and would just needlessly clutter this blog post.  One note here on my directions; this is one of the few hikes where I deviate from the route in Tim Ernst's Arkansas Waterfalls book.  This excellent book has been my hiking bible and was my guide for my first visit to the area, many years ago.  I have since used a much easier route that utilizes the old trace roads in the area.

Rock Peninsula Falls
Boomer and I hiked straight through, across the first creek you ford, which is Right Fork Big Creek, across the small field, across the big field, across the ford on Left Fork Big Creek, and then we took the trail along the left (east) side of the creek.  We detoured off to go to Rock Peninsula Falls and snap a couple of photos.    From there, we took an old trace that runs closest to the creek and runs into the trail we had been on.  We got a little surprise today in that it looks like erosion from the creek has caused a small landslide, and a section of this old road was completely gone, leaving a dropoff of about 20 feet to the creek below.  We could hike around the eroded area easily enough, but I'll just have to remember to stay on the main trail running along the east side of the creek in the future.

Wolf Creek Falls #1 - with Boomer
We continued hiking up the trail to where it crosses Wolf Creek, then we hiked upstream on Wolf Creek on the right (west) side until we got to Falls #1.  I had only seen this waterfall previously with a little dribble of flow, and today it looked great.  From there, I knew I wanted to go upstream to look for more waterfalls, and it appeared it was easier to go up through a break on the left (east) side of the waterfall.  Climbing up above Falls #1 and heading upstream, there is a tall, solid rock cliff on the east side, with the creek running very close to it.  Our hiking, therefore, was confined to the right (west) side of the creek, and it is very rugged with a steep slope and lots of huge rocks to maneuver around.  In the future, I'll be going in the opposite direction we did today; I'll explain later.

In addition to Wolf Creek Cave and Big Creek Cave, which are well known, there are a number of caves in the area, and some fairly big ones at that.  Because the others are not well known and are wild caves, I won't be sharing the location data for them.  I hate to leave the blog post incomplete, but because of the small fraction of people that just can't seem to go to fantastic places like this without leaving graffiti or removing and damaging artifacts, I'm not making public any location data for wild caves and sites I find that have any kind of historical or archeological significance.  Not ones that are not already well known, anyway.  I apologize and hate that the sins of the very few dictate measures like this, but there it is.

Wolf Creek Falls #2
After climbing upstream to Falls #2, I thought that it was a little difficult to get to.  That was a walk in the park compared to Falls #3.  I could see the upper part of Falls #3 from Falls #2, so I was determined to get to it, and by climbing through some narrow cracks and over and around boulders, then climbing up the steep bluff and back down to the base of Falls #3, we finally got there.  It was worth it.  This waterfall reminds me a lot of Thunder Canyon Falls, one of my favorites.  It is about the same size and twists down a narrow chute.  Falls #3 has a big sentinal rock that splits the flow as it comes down, making the roar that much louder and making the waterfall that much prettier.  Wolf Creek has a lot of drainage area upstream and looks like it should have a lot of flow most of the year, but I know that is not the case.  That being said, when the wet weather does hit, this one should definitely be on your list to go see.

Wolf Creek Falls #3
Climbing back up the bluff to get out of the area below Falls #3, Boomer really struggled to find a path he could climb up the rocks to get to the steep earth slope above the creek.  Once he had dirt he could dig into, he was okay and I was the one trying to climb without slipping.  I was dreading hiking downstream on the very steep slope, so I stopped and took another look at the old Forest Service maps.  Sure enough, it indicated an old road running down the spur along the top of this slope.  We hiked up and around the spur a short distance and found it.  That made it much, much easier to hike down.  My recommendation would be to hike up this road to the point I marked in the GPS coordinates above, then cut over and drop right down to Falls #3.  It is much easier going up the road and then down the creek instead of vice versa.

Vehicle at the old homestead site
After taking the old trace road down the hill to where our trail had crossed Wolf Creek, we turned left and crossed Cove Branch to go upstream to Wolf Creek.  One of the things that have always bothered me is why Wolf Creek Cave is not on Wolf Creek, and why Big Creek Cave is not on Big Creek.  Big Creek Cave Falls runs into Cove Branch, near the junction with Wolf Creek, but at least all of this is in the larger Big Creek watershed.  Wolf Creek and Cove Branch flow together to form Left Fork Big Creek, which then flows into Big Creek itself.  I think somewhere along the way, someone got confused.  If you look on the really old USGS maps, what is now Cove Branch was labeled Wolf Creek, which makes sense then for Wolf Creek Cave Falls flowing into it.  What is now Wolf Creek was labeled "Cave Branch", which some drunk cartographer must have transcribed and mixed up as "Cove Branch".  That's my theory, anyway.

Wolf Creek Cave Falls
We went upstream on Cove Branch to Wolf Creek Cave with the skies getting very dark and ominous, so Boomer and I rushed through some photos.  Coming back down to where the creek from Wolf Creek Cave flows into the cave with Underground Falls, we stopped only long enough to snap a couple of photos and a video with my cell phone.  It was thundering and we felt a few raindrops, so I decided to cut the exploration short for today and just hit Big Creek Cave Falls on our way out.  By the time we hiked the short distance back downstream on Cove Branch to the drainage with Big Creek Cave Falls, it was starting to rain.  Thinking we might get lucky and it might blow over, I detoured over to Cave Creek Cave to see if we could wait it out.  

Big Creek Cave Falls 
Cave Creek Cave is the large shelter cave where the water from Big Creek Cave Falls that goes underground at the base of the falls comes back out of the ground.  While Boomer and I were taking refuge from the rain there, we had a pleasant surprise.  Kristin Jones and Harrison Sutcliffe, both of whom I had known only through social media, were also out in the area today and came up to the cave.  It is always great to meet folks I know of, but have never met in person, out in the wilderness.  Kristin had been watching the radar and informed me that this storm probably would not be blowing over.  We all decided to head back before it got too bad.  Boomer and I made a quick trip around the bluff to Big Creek Cave for a couple of photos, and Harrison and Kristin headed for the creek crossing and the old homestead with the old cars.  

Old Homestead site
Boomer and I also made a quick stop at the old homestead site, then went back to the lower trail and headed back as we had hiked out.  The rain had already made the lower trail much soggier than it had been on the way in.  We managed to get back to the FJ before the rain really started coming down, although we were soaked anyway.  All in all, it was a shorter trip to one of my favorite places, and I wish we could have had a few more hours to explore and not be in a rush, but I'm glad we got out and did the hike.  I was finally able to see Wolf Creek with enough flow to make the waterfalls on it look great, and Falls #3 is well worth the trip by itself.  This area has a lot to offer in a relatively small area and is always highly recommended.
Big Creek Cave Falls area - GPS track for today's hike