Saturday, April 19, 2014

Stack Rock Homestead Falls and Punchbowl Falls, Arkansas Ozarks

4/9/2014 -  Stack Rock Homestead Falls, Dry Creek, and Punchbowl Falls

GPS Coordinates: 
  Parking Location:  35.86676 , -92.92346
  Stack Rock Homestead Falls:  35.87452, -92.93038
  Old Pioneer homestead site:  35.87441, -92.93116
  Punchbowl Falls:  35.87578, -92.94057

Pet Friendly: Yes, for the most part.  If your dog doesn't climb steep slopes and rocks well, you might want to leave it home for this one.  I had to help Boomer get out of the Punchbowl Falls bowl.

Motorcycle Friendly: No.  This road is not suitable for street bikes.

GPS files:
  GPS track file for hike to Stack Rock Homestead Falls (.gpx format)
  GPS track file for hike to Punchbowl Falls (.gpx format)

Elevation changes:
  Parking location: 1907 feet
  Stack Rock Homestead Falls base:  1527 feet
  Dry Creek at OHT crossing:  1333 feet
  Punchbowl Falls base:  1066 feet

Punchbowl Falls
I had never been to Punchbowl Falls, but the photos I had seen looked fascinating.  When I mapped it out on my Topo software I found it was just north of my favorite hiking area, the Richland Wilderness.  So today Boomer (our German Shepard) and I set out for this area, where the Stack Rock Scenic Area meets the Richland Wilderness.  Should be a beautiful area, right?  It is!  And the fact that Stack Rock Homestead Falls is right on the way is just a bonus.

To get there, go to Dickey Junction.  This is on FR-1205 (aka NC-5070) 1.9 miles south of Iceledo Gap or 5.0 miles north of the Richland Creek campground.  If you are not familiar with this area, you can get detailed directions on my post for my hike to Twin Falls.  It can be referenced here.  From Dickey Junction, turn east onto FR-1201 (aka Richland Road or NC-5085).  Go three miles on FR-1201 and turn left onto a narrow road.  This goes only about a hundred yards to a gate.  Stop here and park; there is plenty of room for parking and turning around.  This is a trail head for the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT).  

Ozark Highlands Trail Head
Go around the gate and get on the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT).  There are a couple of old logging roads here, so make sure you get on the trail, not a road.  If you are unfamiliar with the OHT, look for the white metal tags loosely nailed to trees.  That's how you'll know you are on the OHT.  The tags also tell you the direction the trail will turn when you see them mounted at an angle instead of straight up and down.

From the parking location to the Stack Rock Homestead Falls is only 0.9 miles.  And being on the OHT, it is all easy hiking.  Kudos to the architects and constructors of the OHT;  everywhere I have been on the OHT, they seem to have found the ideal route through the area.  I love hiking the OHT, and today we only used two miles of this segment of the OHT that runs for 165 miles.  From the parking location to Stack Rock Homestead Falls, the OHT parallels the creek that flows over the waterfall.  As you get closer to the falls, look back up stream and you can see (in winter/early spring, anyway) where the creek cascades all the way down the hill before it feeds the waterfall.

Stack Rock Homestead Falls
I should have said the hike on the OHT to the TOP of Stack Rock Homestead Falls was easy.  The Falls is just off the OHT on the right.  You can't see it from the OHT, but you can hear it.  Unfortunately, getting to the base of the falls is not as easy.  It's a scramble down a steep hillside with a lot of brush and undergrowth.  Not nice, but not the worst I've seen.  Boomer had no problem at all here.  I was cursing the undergrowth and slippery soil, but made it to the base of the falls intact.  The way back up to the OHT has just as much undergrowth, but is steeply uphill.  OK, enough whining for now.  At least we only had to bushwhack a short distance off the OHT to get to the base of the waterfall.

Old Pioneer Homestead
On the other side of the OHT from Stack Rock Homestead Falls is the homestead that I assume the falls were named after.  This is at the lower part of the Stack Rock Scenic Area, and there is an old pioneer homestead here, so I'm thinking that's a reasonable assumption.  The only thing left of the pioneer home is the fireplace and chimney.  It's a little surprising the fireplace has stayed mostly intact a century and a half after the rest of the house decayed away to nothing.  If you look closely at the rocks in the fireplace, you can see they were dry stacked - no mortar to hold them together.  I guess back in the early 1800's it was hard enough to get mules into an area like this even without a wagon.  Packing stuff like Portland cement into an isolated area like this was probably out of the question.  When they dry stacked this fireplace and chimney, they did a good job.  The old pioneer homestead makes a great flat piece of ground for hikers on the OHT to camp.

From the old homestead, we headed on down the OHT.  So far on the hike to Stack Rock Homestead Falls, the trail had dropped some, but was mostly on the level or low slope.  Down the trail, it starts to zig-zag down into the Dry Creek valley and gets steeper.  Still, it is the Ozark Highlands Trail, and the trail makes for easy hiking.  Before the trail crosses Dry Creek, we went off trail to the right and started our bushwhack downstream.  

Dry Creek
Dry Creek, ironically, is a pretty good flowing stream.  While many creeks in Arkansas will go dry in late summer, Dry Creek almost always has water in it.  A kayaker told me it is one of the best kayak creeks in Arkansas.  As far as hiking, I would have to call it a difficult bushwhack.  Going downstream involved some serious rock hopping, crossing from side to side, climbing over boulders, and in some cases climbing up the creek canyon walls.  Despite having waterproof hiking boots, I still got my socks wet, slipping and going in up to my knees at one point.  Dry Creek has a plethora of water features one after another, with waterfalls, cascades, water slides, and deep pools all the way downstream.   We stayed mostly on the right side as you go downstream, but at a couple of points we had to cross to the left side.  Closer to the falls, the left side goes along a high rock bluff that limits access entirely on that side.

Unnamed Falls Above Punchbowl Falls
As you get to within 100 yards of Punchbowl Falls, there are some awesome water features.  There is a really nice 'umbrella type' waterfall where the water slides off the rock at a downward angle, with other nice smaller falls around it.  Just before it goes over the falls, the creek goes down a long, very fast water slide.  Unfortunately, the creek canyon closes up around the creek the last couple of hundred feet as well to make those features.  To get down to them and see them well, you have to climb up the bluff on the right and then go back down to creek level.  At the top of Punchbowl Falls, you have to climb back up the bluff on the right side to get downstream of the waterfall.

Punchbowl Falls used to be called Dry Creek Falls, but the new name suits it much better.  It is a powerful waterfall for the size of Dry Creek.  The more powerful and higher the waterfall, the bigger the pool it carves out for itself at the base of the falls.  In this case, Punchbowl Falls goes into a huge emerald pool with steep cliff-like walls on all sides except where the creek runs out downstream.  It does indeed look like a punch bowl.  The pool and waterfall look spectacular from the top of the cliff around the falls, and every photo I have seen of it is taken from the top of the cliff on one side or another.  Getting down to the base of the falls is pretty tricky.  And dangerous, so I don't recommend it.

Punchbowl Falls
If you don't mind getting wet you could go downstream until you find a break in the bluffline, then come back upstream.  But with the structure of the cliff around the bowl, you still have to go through the bowl to get to the base.  Boomer was game, but it was still a little too chilly for me to get in the water.  I found a crease where runoff water had cut a crevice down the side of the cliff on the right hand side, where we were.  As I
was contemplating just how stupid it would be to go down it, I kind of forgot that I had told Boomer to 'lead', which is just what he did.  As Boomer started heading down, I could tell he immediately had second thoughts, but couldn't turn around.  So he scrambled around and made his way over toward the falls where he could follow the bluff base down.  Since he was committed, I pretty much had to go, so I climbed down.  This is one of those rare cases where my ability to grab stuff and climb vertically gave me the advantage, and I made it a down a little easier than Boomer did.  He may have 4-paw drive, but I have opposable thumbs.  Thanks for that, God!

View from cave - at the left is the foot of the falls
At the base of the waterfall, you can tell it is an even more special place than it seemed from higher up.  Right next to the base of the waterfall is a good sized cave that you can't really see well from up on the bluff.  The sound of the water crashing into the pool next to us coupled with the spectacular view of the pool and creek downstream made this simply an awesome spot.  As you would expect, you also get a much better view of the waterfall itself from this perspective.  Boomer and I ate lunch, hydrated, rested up, and just kicked back inside the cave to enjoy the surroundings.  

This is almost a magical spot, and we probably dawdled more than a half hour soaking it up.  But I still wanted to see Dogwood Falls on the way home, so we eventually tore ourselves away and headed back.  I immediately saw it was going to be more difficult getting out.  Boomer could slide and jump on the way down, but there were a couple of spots that he just couldn't make it up on his own.  I braced and balanced as well as I could and gave him a boost.  We both made it up OK, but it wasn't pleasant.  Boomer feels the need to swim in every pool we go by and he spent a lot of time in the big pool here.  So that was a 95 pound WET dog I had to grab and lift up.  But I'm sure he would go for help if I fell down a cliff or broke my ankle, so I'm happy to help out my hiking buddy when he needs it.

Long water slide above Punchbowl Falls
Going back up Dry Creek was as much a bushwhack ordeal as it was going downstream, only now we were going uphill and were getting a little tired.  We eventually got back to the OHT and headed back on it, grateful to be done with the bushwhacking.   As a side note, the OHT parallels Dry Creek going downstream for a little way.  I think next time I will stay on it if I can cross Dry Creek on the OHT and then when the OHT breaks away from the creek, bushwhack down to the creek at that point.  

Heading back up the valley is much easier on the OHT, but it is still uphill.  We stopped at the the old pioneer homestead to catch our breath.  Okay, so I could catch MY breath; Boomer was fine, but he's still less than two years old.  We'll see how he does when he is my age.  After resting a bit, we headed back to the parking location and loaded up.  All in all, a pretty good day in the wilderness.  We ended up spending four and a half hours on the trail, but only tracked about 6.5 miles total.  Tired but happy.  And still early enough in the day to stop by Dogwood Falls, since it's parking location was close and right on the way home.

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