Friday, January 3, 2014

Big Creek Cave Falls, Arkansas Ozarks

 01/01/2014 - Big Creek Cave Falls

GPS Coordinates:
  Parking:  35.87684, -93.16071
  Big Creek Cave Falls:  35.86318, -93.15447

Pet friendly: Iffy.  OK for pets off leash, pets on leash would be difficult due to the amount of undergrowth.

Motorcycle friendly: Motorcycle friendly: Iffy. I don't like riding mine on gravel roads, and this is 2.8 miles down a marginal gravel road.  I wouldn't take mine on it.

Update:  For a blog post with a much easier route and even more to check out, look at these posts from 1/27/2015 here and from 2/16/2016 here.

Big Creek Cave Falls
I got a late start and didn't get to the trail head until around noon. To get there, go north on Highway 7 another 1.3 miles from the Highway 16 intersection going to Deer. Turn right onto the forest service road (FR-1224, aka CR-59). There is a house there on the right and this looks like a couple of ruts going behind the guy's house. 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 under the power line. The power line ends there at what was an old homestead many years ago. 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
Follow the old road behind the gate.  It goes south past the old homestead, and you can see a old stone berm wall along the road for the old home site.
The road will lead to a small creek, actually Right Fork Big Creek.  Ford across this creek, and that is pretty much the end of any actual trail.

Old Primitive Road - Creek Crossing

A quick note about the names of these creeks to be technically correct; the name of the waterfall we are going to is indeed 'Big Creek Cave Falls'.  However, the creek it feeds is not technically 'Big Creek'.  The water running over the falls flows into 'Cove Branch' which, along with Wolf Creek, forms 'Left Fork Big Creek' just downstream of the falls and the feeder creek I call Cave Creek.  The creek you ford at the end of the primitive road is technically 'Right Fork Big Creek', even though it runs into 'Left Fork Big Creek' and not 'Big Creek' itself, which is quite a ways downstream.  The REAL "Big Creek" is in a drainage system to the east, and Left Fork of Big Creek runs into it just downstream of the town of Mount Judea.  About 4 miles after this juncture, Big Creek flows into the Buffalo National River.  

Open Field - i.e. Easy Going
On the other side of the creek, go left, then back across the open field as far back as you can.  This is where the easy going ends and the bush whacking starts.  As you can see in the photos, I went in winter so the underbrush was as minimal as it gets.  The area along Left Fork Big Creek is fairly overgrown is areas, with briers that are sometimes hard to avoid.  I like to snap off saplings and small branches as I go.  If you do the same, take a pair of leather gloves just for this.

At the end of the field where the woods start, someone tried to mark a trail with orange ribbon some time ago.  There is no actual trail or path, but there is enough orange flagging that you can usually follow it.  In any case, you can't get lost.  Just stay between Left Fork Big Creek to the left and the bluff to the right.  About a mile of the hike is bushwhack through the woods. 

I crossed several smaller feeder creeks into Left Fork Big Creek, most of which were dry or had very little water at the time I went.  Eventually, though, Left Fork Big Creek makes a turn to the right and you will cross a larger creek, one of the major feeders into Cove Branch, and then to Left Fork Big Creek. Following this creek uphill, you will come to a cave with the creek running out of it. 

From a distance, the cave does not look like much.  But as you get closer, you can see it is actually a fairly large cave with several tunnels.  I don't think this creek has an official name, so I call it Cave Creek.  My friends and family in Arizona will understand why.

View of the mouth of Cave Creek's cave.  For perspective on size, I left my blue backpack on the floor of the tunnel straight back.
Cave Creek runs out of the rightmost tunnel.  I didn't have a flashlight, just the camera flash. So I couldn't really tell how far back the tunnel actually goes.  It was too cold for wading, and I had already slipped into the creek once and had to break out my only spare pair of dry socks. 

From Cave Creek cave, you can follow the bluff about a hundred yards around to Big Creek Cave Falls.  As I found after a little more exploring, the best way is to climb the bluff immediately to the left of Cave Creek Cave then follow along the top of that bluff to the falls.  It is an easier hike than going around the base of the bluff to the gorge the falls are in and up to the base of the falls. 

This waterfall is one of the most unique natural features I have seen.  The waterfall itself comes out of a cave in the middle of the mountain, but once the water hits the rocks at the base, the water disappears back into the rocks.  Much further down the gorge, SOME of the water re-emerges to form Cove Branch.  However, my guesstimate is only about a third of the volume of water coming over the falls comes back out here.  I am convinced the majority of the water goes down into the cave system in the mountain and is the source of water for Cave Creek.  Hiking back up over the bluff, it appears the elevation of the base of the falls is about right for this, and the volume of water coming out of Cave Creek is about what is "missing" from that in the falls gorge.

Another view of the falls from further down the gorge.  This shows where the  falls are relative to the top of the mountain.  The mountain seems to be solid limestone, so you have to wonder - where does that much water come from?  The caves and water tables inside the mountain must be amazing.  Tim Ernst measured the height of the waterfall itself as 29 feet. 
On the trip to the falls, I stayed well above Left Fork Big Creek.  On the way back to the road, I veered off to Left Fork Big Creek, lured by the sound of cascading waters.  I followed along the creek about half the way back, and picking my way along the rocks was not any worse than picking my way through the underbrush above.  Left Fork Big Creek itself has several smaller cascades and pools, and is itself beautiful, scenic, and well worth spending some time exploring.  It is about 3 miles round trip to the falls and back to the road.  I dawdled a bit at the creek on the way back and spent some time at the falls and at Cave Creek Cave exploring and having lunch, and still made the round trip in 3 hours.  There is probably much more in this area.  In Tim's book he says the area "has not been explored much in modern times".  This would be a good place to spend a nice day.  I would not recommend taking pets if you have them on a leash.  There is too much underbrush and it would be difficult to keep from getting entangled. 


  1. Hi, Rick! There IS an easy trail to Big Creek Cave Falls. It's an abandoned logging road across the Left Fork of Big runs up the opposite side of the bushwhack Ernst describes in his book. (I guess he didn't know about it.) Takes 10 minutes from the field to the caves. Maps and details are on my site:

  2. Thanks, Ben! I'll certainly try going that way next time. Tim's book is essential to us waterfall chasers, but I do find easier ways sometimes. I'll put this one in my bag of tricks as well. The bushwhack was why I avoided this waterfall in the spring and summer. I appreciate the feedback!