Saturday, January 25, 2014

Lost Valley, Arkansas Buffalo NR area

1/25/2014 - Lost Valley Hike

GPS Coordinates:
  Parking: 36.01018, -93.37438
  Eden Falls:  36.01752, -93.38730
  Armadillo Falls Creek juncture:  36.01243, -93.38088
  Armadillo Falls:  36.01515, -93.38088

Pet Friendly: No - Pets are prohibited by Park Service
Motorcycle Friendly: Yes - short 1/2 mile gravel road from paved highway to parking area.

Natural Bridge
Lost Valley - even the name conjures up visions of some valley hidden from mankind where all sorts of interesting features await.  That's not far off base, except the "hidden from mankind" part.  On the contrary, this is one of the most frequently hiked trails I have found.  Most of our hikes are in wilderness areas or deep in National Forest land and we almost always have the whole place to ourselves.  On this hike, there were several other folks enjoying the natural beauty of this place.  It was hardly crowded, though.  The trail is a little over two miles round trip, and we saw maybe a half dozen couples or families hiking the trail.  And the kind of people that do this are generally the nicest, friendliest folks you will find anywhere.  Lost Valley has quite a variety of features; Clark Creek, waterfalls, a natural bridge, a rock feature they call "Jigsaw Blocks", a couple of caves, and even a waterfall inside a cave.  My wife Bethany and I took off for Lost Valley today with our German Shepard, Boomer, in tow.  Boomer was real excited until he saw he was going in the Explorer for a road trip, but he perked up once he got on the trail.

Elk in Boxley Valley
To get there, go on Hwy 43 just south of Ponca.  The road to Lost Valley is well marked on the Highway and is one mile south of the intersection of Hwy 43 and Hwy 74.  If coming from Ponca/Jasper, you will be turning right (west) onto this road.  The road takes you along Clark Creek to a large parking area, complete with toilets and picnic pavilion.  Nice.  Today, we drove in from the south, going north on Hwy 21.  Just before turning up Hwy 43 to Lost Valley, we saw a couple of Elk along the highway in Boxley Valley and stopped to take some photos. 

Lost Valley Trail
Even though it's called Lost Valley State Park, it was acquired by the National Park Service in 1975 to become part of the Buffalo National River.  Being run by the National Park Service (NPS) brings with it the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The 'good' is that NPS has applied the resources necessary to restore the park after the flash flood in 2011 pretty much wiped out everything.  The hiking trail is superb.  It isn't paved, but seems like it.  On trail ascents, they have built rock stairs to make climbing easier.  Overall, you have to rate this hike as an easy except maybe inside Eden Cave itself, since it is a wild cave.  The 'bad' of having NPS operate Lost Valley is that they have made it so "nice and easy" that a lot of folks use it.  Nice folks, as I said, and not that many of them even on a sunny Saturday like today.  But if you hike for the solitude, you'll probably have to sacrifice that a little in Lost Valley.   The 'ugly' with the NPS is that it is the NPS, and they like to have rules, such as "no pets", and rangers to enforce rules.  More on that later.  Lost Valley is day use only now as the campground has not been restored yet and NPS has not even determined that they will rebuild the campground. There was no fee for day use, so NPS maybe isn't as ugly as other federal agencies after all.

Clark Creek - dry at trail head
You start out at the trail head at the back of the parking area, and immediately cross over Clark Creek to the trail on the south side.  Before the flood, there was a bridge here.  The bridge has not yet been rebuilt, but there is a low-water bridge of sorts that allows crossing without getting wet in most water conditions.  Today, the creek was completely dry here.  But not to worry; like many creeks in the Ozarks, the water sometimes will disappear underground, only to reappear downstream.  Lack of water in the creek here does not necessarily mean there is no water upstream at the waterfalls, and that was the case today.  It has been unseasonably dry the last couple of weeks, but the waterfalls still had enough water to show their natural beauty.  

Natural Bridge
The trail is on the level for the first 0.7 miles, where it splits.  Take the trail to the right, keeping along Clark Creek.  That will take you past a rock feature called Jigsaw Blocks, and then to the natural bridge.  I'm not sure how it got that moniker because it is not so much a natural bridge as it is a tunnel through the rock bluff,  Over the years, the creek has eaten a fair sized tunnel through the rock and is large enough to walk through.  Be careful here - I slipped on the rock at the bottom of the small waterfall exiting the tunnel and went knee deep in the large pool at the bottom.  Lesson learned here is even if your boots have Vibram soles, wet moss is slippery.  So was the ice inside the tunnel/bridge,  but at least that didn't put me back in the water.  You can continue on the trail up and around the natural bridge, or go through the tunnel as I did. 

Inside Natural Bridge

On the other side, NPS has kindly provide stepping stones back up to the trail.  As I already mentioned, they have made it an easy hike.  Just past the brdige, there is another fork in the trail, allowing you to stay at creek level and go to Cobb Cave and Lower Eden Falls, or climb the bluff to the left and go up to Eden Falls Cave.  We chose to go to the cave first, and the trail is still easy, with stone steps created to make climbing easier.  You do need to be careful on the top of the trail as it gets to the cave, as there is a long drop off over the falls.  The trail is a ledge maybe a couple of feet wide.  Still plenty even for people like me with a fear of heights, but I can see where it would be hazardous in wet weather.

View out of Eden Falls Cave
Eden Falls Cave is a "wild" cave.  That is, one that is just left in it's natural state with nothing added by humans to modify it and no controls or anything for entering and exploring.  There is a fair sized creek running out of this cave.  In fact, as it exits the cave mouth, it immediately goes off a ledge to form the Middle Eden Falls, which then goes around a short bend and drops off Lower Eden Falls.  As the trail enters the cave, there is a drop off into the channel cut by the creek in the bed of the cave, so be careful here.  For those with shorter legs, it may be easier to drop down into that creek channel (about 3 feet drop).  You'll want to go across
Eden Falls Cave Passage
the creek to the right side of the cave.  Although there is a passage on the left side where the creek runs, it is only a couple of feet high and you have to crawl to get into the back room of the cave where the waterfall is.  If you stick to the right side, there is a passage that you can actually walk upright in, more or less.  I'm a little taller than most, so I had to stoop over quite a bit, but at least I could stay on my feet.  Eden Falls Cave opens up to a large room over 30 feet high at the back of the cave, approximately 150 to 200 feet into the cave.  Sticking to the right wall, there will be two places about 30 feet from the waterfall room where you have to drop down, crawl around a rock, then you can pop back up into the slot passage and get into the waterfall room of the cave.  Take two flashlights, as it gets really, really, dark if your flashlight malfunctions.  I used a LED light that straps on your head, and it worked great while leaving both hands free. 

Eden Cave Falls
My wife and I went back into the waterfall room separately, so one of us could stay with Boomer at the cave entrance.  A youngster hiking with his Aunt and Uncle was kind enough to guide Bethany back to the waterfall room in the cave, and she recorded the whole path out with photos each step of the way.  The Eden Falls Cave Falls (??) itself is spectacular, coming out of a hole at the top of the cave room and dropping 30 feet to the cave floor and out through the cave.  Trying to photograph it was, well, challenging.  we each tried with a tripod light on the falls, but mist and drops from the falls made it almost impossible for the camera to focus.  She finally managed to get a couple of pretty good shots, but they still don't show the water in the falls very well.  But at least I think we have it figured out.  Next time we will take a couple of LED flood lights, point them at the wall away from the falls, and let reflective light fill the room.  At least that's the theory.  Stay tuned for our next trip.  

Coming out of the cave, we encountered a friendly NPS park ranger, who informed us Boomer was a criminal.  It seems there was one of those international signs depicting a guy and a dog with a slash through it - no pets allowed.  But she did think Boomer was quite the handsome dog, and since we were merely blind and apologetic, and not jerks, she let us off the hook with just a warning ticket. The nice lady ranger was quite friendly, understanding, and professional.    The fine would have been $50, so no more taking Boomer on this particular hike.

Lower Eden Falls
From Eden Falls Cave, you can come down a trail straight to the base of Lower Eden Falls.  There are actually four "Eden Falls"; This Lower one, the Middle one at the exit from Eden Falls Cave mouth, an Upper Eden Falls above the cave on Clark Creek, and the one in the back of Eden Falls Cave.

Cobb Cave
Where Clark Creek runs out of the pool of Lower Eden Falls, Cobb Cave extends across a broad swath of the cliff on the other side of the creek.  It is a 'shelter' type cave, and quite large.  There are a number of spots you can easily cross Clark Creek to get into Cobb Cave and explore it.

There are a lot of features packed into just a mile of trail through Lost Valley, but there's more.  At 0.4 miles from the trail head, a small creek flows into the other side (north side) of Clark Creek.  You can bushwhack .2 miles up this creek to three more waterfalls - Upper, Middle, and Lower Armadillo Falls.  GPS coordinates for where the creeks merge are listed at the top of this post.  If you don't have a handheld GPS, it is about a hundred feet past the forth bench on the trail after leaving the parking area.  On this particular day, we didn't know how much water would be in this creek further up (it and Clark Creek were dry at the juncture) and we were already pressing our luck with Boomer, so we decided not to do the short bushwhack up the creek today.  That's always difficult with a dog on a leash anyway.

All in all, a great way to spend the day.  My GPS track showed 2.11 miles round trip, and 2 hours 19 minutes trail time.  Most of that time was spent exploring, chatting with our friendly ranger, and letting Boomer's adoring public tell him what a handsome dog is he.  Kids especially gravitate to him, and he loves it, so we had a good deal of Boomer PR time today.  

Since we didn't go to Armadillo Falls and we still had a good deal of afternoon left, we ate lunch at the Lost Valley picnic area and decided to stop at Triple Falls on the way home.  Blog entry for that below when I get it written.

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