Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Penhook Polyfoss, Penhook Special Interest Area, Arkansas

4/1/2014 - Penhook Falls and several other waterfalls

GPS Coordinates: 
  Parking for Penhook Area: 35.56015, -92.94792
  Penhook Falls:  35.56745, -92.95155
  Unnamed Falls #1:  35.56598, -92.95191
  Unnamed Falls #2:  35.56536, -92.95083
  Unnamed Falls #3:  35.56548, -92.95083
  Unnamed Falls #4:  35.57077. -92.95276
  Unnamed Falls #5:  35.57108. -92.95250
  Unnamed Falls #6:  35.57106, -92.95213
  Unnamed Falls #7:  35.56735, -92.95709

Pet Friendly: Yes.  Easy for pets off leash, doable with pets on leash

Motorcycle Friendly: Marginally acceptable.  It is two miles down a gravel road, but the road is usually maintained fairly well.  If you ride slowly and watch out for potholes, it should be fine.

Penhook Falls
My lovely wife was busy today preparing for her annual yard sale.  Neither Boomer (my faithful canine companion) nor I really cared to be around for that and certainly didn't want to be put to work.  So we loaded up in the Explorer and headed out towards Hector to do some exploring.  Our goal today was to find all the waterfalls we could in the Penhook polyfoss area.

Penhook is designated as a SIA (Special Interest Area).  While it was considered for Wilderness Area designation back in the 1980's, it missed the cut for whatever reason.  The Forest Service uses the SIA designation for areas that "are managed for their unique geological, botanical, biological, zoological, scenic, or cultural features. These features are unique enough that they are not found in large areas anywhere in the Forests".  The Penhook SIA is supposedly special for both geological and botanical reasons.

Getting there is fairly easy.  Take Highway 27 north of Hector for 5.5 miles and
Turn left off Highway 27 here
turn left on FR-1376, aka Middle Fork Road.  This turn will be about 9.3 miles from the Bayou Bluffs campground, and is right before the bridge over the Middle Fork of the Illinois Bayou.  If you cross the bridge, you have gone too far.  Follow FR-1376 all the way to its end, 2.2 miles from Highway 27.  This is a gravel road that goes right next to the Middle Fork of the Illinois Bayou, as picturesque a river as there is.  About 1.6 miles down FR-1376, it fords across Snow Creek.  Today it was only was only three or four inches deep, so we had no trouble crossing the creek.  If you go when the water level is too high to cross, there is a short loop there to park out of the way and you can hike the last half mile of road.


After parking at the end of the road, take the trail straight out from the parking
Park Here
location.  I think it was originally a four wheeler trail, judging from the width of the track.  It looked like it had been some time since it had seen a four wheeler, not all winter at least.  This trail parallels Penhook Hollow Creek, and is mostly on the level at this point.  You will pass where another old track from higher on the mountain merges with the trail, cross over a very small drainage that is dry except when there is a lot of runoff, and another larger drainage that usually has water in the creek.  


Boomer and I explored this creek, going all the way down to where it flows into Penhook Hollow Creek.  It goes over a rock bluffline as it goes into the creek, forming a nice little falls.  Unfortunately, I could not find a safe way down to the main creek level.  If I had thought of it at the time, I probably could have saved some time by following Penhook Hollow Creek upstream above the bench until I got to that first waterfall.  But I didn't think of it, and neither did Boomer.  At least he wasn't talking about it.  So we went back up the feeder creek to the four wheeler trail and continued on down the trail to the next drainage, which has a little larger creek.  

Unnamed Falls #1
This second creek is still only about a half mile down the trail from the parking location.  Following this second creek downstream, you come to a nice little waterfall just before it flows into Penhook Hollow Creek.  In fact, from the main creek you can look back upstream and see this waterfall, Unnamed Falls #1.  As bushwhacks go, it is not that bad once you get off the trail.  There is not much undergrowth, and none of the briers and brambles that I can't stand.


Unnamed Falls #2
Going downstream on Penhook Hollow Creek from that juncture, we came to a couple of nice waterfalls, Unnamed Falls #3 and #2, with a slot canyon between them.  For the downstream falls, I again failed to find a safe way down the cliff to get to the creek level.  I took the photos here from above the falls.  I was able to get down to the main creek level between these two waterfalls, however.  I had to scramble down a steep slope and drop about four feet from the lowest ledge I could find there.  I told Boomer to STAY while I was down there taking photos, and he did for about ten minutes or so.  While I was taking photos and getting GPS coordinates for these two falls, he apparently couldn't
wait and had to jump down to check on me.    Big mistake on his part, since he didn't have enough room to getting a running jump back up on the ledge.  
Unnamed Falls #3
Which is exactly why I told him to STAY.  On top of that, Boomer is a water loving dog and feels it necessary to go swimming in every pool he finds.  Including the one here between the falls.  So I had to lift a hundred pound, WET dog back up on the ledge to get him out of there.  I was not happy.  Boomer was not happy, but that's what he gets for not doing as he's told.  


Penhook Falls
From there, we went back upstream to Penhook Falls.  This is just upstream of the juncture of the creek we followed down, and is a stunning 71 foot waterfall, spilling over a sandstone cliff into a box canyon.  We spent some time there taking photos and taking in the natural beauty of the surroundings.  Boomer talked me into sharing the turkey sandwiches I had brought for lunch.  Or at least a couple of slices of turkey, at any rate.  After resting, we got back to our hike.  

You have to backtrack out of the box canyon Penhook Falls is in to get to a break in the bluffline you can climb back through.  Once we got back above the bluffline, we bushwhacked back up to the four wheeler trail, turned right (north) on it, and continued on up into the hollow.  I knew the tallest waterfall in the area was further back upstream the same creek we followed downstream to Penhook Falls, but wanted to save that for last since the bushwhack was the most difficult.  About a quarter mile further down the trail, it crosses Penhook Hollow Creek itself.  Just before that, you cross another small feeder creek.  A short way up that feeder creek is another small waterfall, maybe eight feet tall.  There was not a lot of water going over this Unnamed Falls #4 today, but it was pretty nonetheless.


Unnamed Falls #5
Going back downstream from Unnamed Falls #4, we followed the low bluffline around and followed Penhook Hollow Falls upstream.  Just a short way upstream is another waterfall, Unnamed Falls #5, on Penhook Hollow Creek.  And following the bluffline from that one to the right, there is yet another waterfall, Unnamed Falls #6, on a small feeder creek just before it flows into the main Penhook Hollow Creek.  From this grouping of three small waterfalls, it was time to head back and find our way up to the tallest in the area.  


Unnamed Falls #7
Heading back on the four wheeler trail, Boomer and I picked a point before the trail dropped off to the creek we had followed get to down to Penhook Falls.  The creek canyon upstream of the trail is somewhat steep and rough.  Starting out higher above the creek helped somewhat with the bushwhack.  We were able to stay above the creek level as far as possible, just dropping down to creek level a couple hundred feet from the waterfall.  Hiking up the creek is fairly steep and rough, but well worth the effort.  The creek actually was dry for a distance, but this is not unusual for drainages in the Ozarks where the creek goes underground then reemerges further downstream.  This waterfall, Unnamed Falls #7, flows over the bluffline and drops a long way before hitting a rock shelf and falling the rest of the way to a small pool.  After enjoying the view for a while, Boomer and I headed back.  We stuck to the stream bed going back down to the trail, and I was thankful my wonderful wife had given me bone dry waterproof hiking boots as an anniversary present.  

Getting back to where we parked, it did not seem like we had hiked all that far.  We must have wandered around exploring a bit more than I thought; my GPS track showed 4.3 miles and right at three hours for the round trip.  Still, we saw an amazing amount of fantastic scenery in just three short hours.  The Penhook SIA really is a "special" area, and is highly recommended.

Snow Creek - ford, with creek dry
UPDATE:  8/13/2015 - Bethany, Boomer, and I went for a drive along the Middle Fork Illinois Bayou today, and while crossing Snow Creek I noticed a very large rock very close to where the road fords this creek.  Snow Creek was completely dry today, so it really sticks out.  When I forded this creek last year, I did not notice this rock, so it may have been pushed there by flood waters this spring.  At any rate, you can see where it is in the photo - this is taken coming back from Penhook SIA, so on your way there it will be on your right.  The water could easily be high enough to obscure this rock, so be aware and don't veer too far right when you ford the creek.  Rick



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