Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Stepp Creek Area, Arkansas Ozarks

4/22/2014 - Stepp Creek Falls and Other Waterfalls in the Stepp Creek Valley

GPS Coordinates:  Lat/Lon/Elevation
  Parking for Stepp Creek:  35.85506,  -93.30045,  2080 feet
  Leave Logging Trail:  35.85071,  -93.30704,  2047 feet
  Upper Stepp Creek Falls:  35.85771,  -93.30904,  1820 feet
  Lower Stepp Creek Falls:  35.85773,  -93.30963,  1805 feet
  Lower Sidestep Falls:  35.85652,  -93.31180,  1781 feet
  Upper Sidestep Falls:  35.85513,  -93.31183,  1812 feet
  Stepp Creek Junction Falls:  35.85846,  -93.31128,  1750 feet

Pet Friendly: Yes.  Easy for pets on or off leash.

Motorcycle Friendly: Marginally acceptable.  It is a little over a mile down a gravel road, but the road seems to be well maintained.  If you ride slowly and watch out for potholes, it should be fine.  If you ride, watch out for the first house right off Highway 16, as they seem to have about a thousand dogs.

GPS files:
  GPS track file for hike to Stepp Creek Falls (.gpx format)

Upper Stepp Creek Falls
Boomer (our German Shepard) and I set out today for a couple of different areas; the Stepp Creek area, and an Arkansas favorite, the Glory Hole.  We wanted to tackle Stepp Creek first, because we were going to take a little different route.  You never quite know how that will turn out.  This area has some nice little waterfalls and creeks, yet seems to be very rarely visited.   One note on the names of the waterfalls I am documenting - only the Upper and Lower Stepp Creek Falls had official names.  All the others are placekeeper names I made up because I dislike confusing nomenclature like 'Unnamed Falls #x'.  These names made some sort of sense for the location.

To get to the trail head, go to Highway 16 west of the Highway 7 junction.  Drive 9.0 miles west of Highway 7 (or 4.1 miles east of Edwards Junction), then turn north on NC-8908 (aka FR-1227).  Go 0.9 miles on NC-8908, then bear left onto NC-8910 (aka FR-1227 or Union Grove Road), go another 0.25 miles, and pull into an old logging road on the left to park.  There is a cattle corral on each side of the road just before the parking location.
Full size track at bottom of this post

If you have a GPS, reset it here.  This is where I decided to deviate a little from our previous directions, which was to follow the old logging trail for 0.25 miles, then turn off the trail to bushwhack down to the creek.  Looking at the maps, it appeared you could get a lot closer to the waterfalls staying on the old logging trail.  It did turn away from the creek at 0.25, but then turned back toward the creek in short order.  The logging trail was a pretty good hiking path, mostly on the level and clear of debris and undergrowth. So we kept on the logging road, staying on it until 0.6 miles.  At that point, my GPS showed us starting to move a little away from the falls.  So at that point we left the trail and bushwhacked down to the creek. 

At the point we turned left off the old logging road, my GPS showed 0.6 on the trip meter, and showed the waterfalls to be only 0.19 miles away.  Of course, that is 'as the crow flies', not necessarily the distance we would have to go to get there.  I was pleasantly surprised with the actual bushwhack at this point.  The slope of the hillside was very moderate and there was very little undergrowth and brush.  We hiked through a section of tall Pines, and made good time going straight downhill to the creek.  When we reached the creek at 0.84 miles, we were only 200 feet upstream of Upper Stepp Creek Falls.  So the decision to go a new route really turned out well in this case.  The hike down to the first of our waterfalls was what I would have to rate as an easy hike.  

Upper Stepp Creek Falls
From the top of Upper Stepp Creek Falls, there is a break in the bluffline on the right as you face downstream that you can use to get to the base of the falls.  This is a really picturesque 25 foot waterfall that tumbles down the face of the rock bluff.  There is a small shelter type cave to the left of the waterfall that we would come back to for lunchtime.  But for now, it was still fairly early in the morning.  We had made better time getting down to the waterfalls than I had expected.  So off we went downstream. 

Lower Stepp Creek Falls (12 feet)
Crossing to the left side of the creek as we went downstream, we followed the bluffline down on that side.  As the bottom of the bluffline goes past the top of the lower falls, there is a moderate slope down to the creek and the base of the waterfall.  Again, this is an easy hike all the way.  Lower Stepp Creek Falls is less than a hundred yards downstream of the upper falls.  In fact, if you look closely at the photos of the lower falls, you can see the upper falls in the background.  Lower Stepp Creek Falls is a typical Ozark ledge-type waterfall, dropping into a pool. 

Boomer Sized Natural Bridge
From Lower Stepp Creek Falls, we decided to do some exploring throughout the rest of this drainage.  On this upper reach of Stepp Creek, it actually has two branches with Upper and Lower Stepp Creek Falls both on the eastern branch.  The western branch of these headwaters is about the same size as Stepp Creek, and the junction of these two creeks is a short distance downstream of Lower Stepp Creek Falls.  For my documentation, I'll call this other branch 'Sidestep Creek' so I have something reasonable to call the waterfalls on that creek.

We followed the same bluffline on the left (west) side of Stepp Creek, staying right at the bottom of the rock bluff.  Boomer found a small natural bridge in this bluffline that was just his size. You never know what kind of weird rock formations you will find in the Ozarks.  Following this bluffline around to the right, it takes you right into the Sidestep Creek drainage and to the Lower Sidestep Falls.  

Lower Sidestep Falls
Sidestep Creek above the lower falls runs primarily on a long, flat, run of rock.  This makes for a stream bed that is relatively flat and wide, but only an inch or so deep so you can walk right up it if you have waterproof boots.  Continuing on up this creek you come to the Upper Sidestep Falls, a nice little waterfall with another cascade a few yards above it.  We explored a little more above this upper cascade, but didn't find anything interesting, so we headed back downstream to the main Stepp Creek.  

Upper Sidestep Falls and Cascade Upstream
We stayed high above Stepp Creek as we went downstream.  My experience hiking in the Ozarks is that you can usually drop down into an area when you need to, but if you go right down to the creek level, it is not unusual to find yourself in a situation where you have to climb back out.  So we stayed above the creek level as we went further downstream, scoping out the creek below to make sure of where we could move along at creek level.  

We went far enough downstream to find a series of long, fast cascades and water slides where Stepp Creek narrowed down quite a bit, falling into a long pool at the end of the water slides.  Downstream of this pool, I couldn't see anything of interest, so I decided to turn back at that point and go down to where we could go upstream at creek level.  It was now getting close to lunch time and I wanted to make sure we had time to go to Glory Hole this afternoon.

Stepp Creek Junction Falls
Going back upstream, we stopped at Stepp Creek Junction Falls.  This waterfall is on Stepp Creek right where it joins Sidestep Creek.  It is only about five feet high, but is a beautiful little waterfall in a really nice setting with the two creeks merging right after it's base pool.

From Stepp Creek Junction Falls, we went the short distance upstream past Lower Stepp Creek Falls to the base of Upper Stepp Creek Falls.  Boomer and I stopped here for lunch, just took our time enjoying our surroundings.  We both ate, hydrated, rested up, and then headed back.  For the return trip we retraced our path hiking down to the creek.  Going back uphill, it always seems more steep than when you came downhill, but it was not bad at all, especially by Ozark standards.  The old logging trail is a little faint at this point, so you might want to mark where you turn back on it (GPS coordinates above).  If you don't have a GPS, get one.  But for now, pay attention that you don't cross this trail inadvertently.   Once on the old logging trail, it is an easy hike back to the parking location.

This is a really nice little valley with some picturesque waterfalls.  I like it a lot, as it is mostly clear hiking without much undergrowth and briers.  It was a very enjoyable hike, not strenuous at all.  I would recommend this for any time of year.  While spring was just starting to be seen at this altitude, it did not look like it would be bad in late spring or summer.  
Stepp Creek Falls Hike Track

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