Saturday, June 7, 2014

Bear Skull Falls and Slot Rock, Arkansas Ozarks

6/8/2014 -  Bear Skull Falls, Slot Rock

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude, Longitude, Elevation)
  Parking Location:  35.66608,  -93.34695,  1499 ft.
  Upper Bear Skull Falls:  35.66965,  -93.36212, 1203 ft.
  Bear Skull Falls:  35.66987,  -93.36220,  1173 ft.
  Slot Rock:  35.67600,  -93.36318,  985 ft.

Pet Friendly: Yes, this area should not be a problem for dogs on or off leash.

Motorcycle Friendly: No.  It is almost five miles of road.  While the road is fairly well maintained, there are still too many rocks and potholes to take a street bike or heavy cruiser on.  

Bear Skull Falls (22')
We had a real gully washer at our house north of Dover yesterday and today looked like the only time for a few days that would NOT be raining.  There was only a 40% chance of rain today, so Boomer (our German Shepard) and I decided to head up to the Bear Skull Falls area.  My wife Bethany is starting up a new business, so was a little too busy to be joining us today.

To get there, I checked out the directions in the waterfall chaser's bible, Tim Ernst's Arkansas Waterfalls.  Tim's directions looked like a little more dirt road
Parking Location
than I wanted to run on, so I mapped out a different driving approach.  Usually when I do that, I end up getting into trouble.  This time, it worked out pretty well.  Take Highway 123 north of Hagerville (junction of Hwy 123 and Hwy 164) for 9.2 miles and turn left (north) onto Johnson County road CR-5550.  Follow CR-5550 for 3.3 miles, then bear right onto CR-5671.  Stay on CR-5671 for 1.5 miles and park on the left.  There is a parking spot where you can pull off the road just a few yards south of where the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT) crosses the road.  In the photo above, the OHT is just before the bend in the road.

Heading west on the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT) from CR-5671, the first part of the hike is mostly on the level as the OHT winds around the hillside, then goes downhill into the drainage where Bear Skull Falls is at.  At about 0.92 miles on the GPS trip meter, we passed mile marker 95 of the OHT.  The Ozark Highlands Trail is, in my humble opinion, a national treasure.  It is a very well planned and constructed hiking trail running hundreds of miles through the heart of some of the best hiking country in the world.  This particular section of the OHT appeared as if it had not seen a lot of traffic lately.  The trail was still great, but you could tell the 'Arkansas jungle' was encroaching on it.

Upper Bear Skull Falls
Continuing on the OHT down into the drainage, at 1.42 miles we came to a nice unnamed waterfall above Bear Skull Falls.  I'll refer to it as Upper Bear Skull Falls.  The OHT goes very close to this waterfall and Bear Skull Falls itself.  If you continue on down the trail another 20 yards, there is a trail going back toward the base of the falls.  There is a blue trail blaze tag on a tree next to this side trail.  There was not a lot of water flowing over the falls today, but it was still very pretty in the grotto at the base of this waterfall.  Boomer had a good swim in the pool at the bottom of Upper Bear Skull Falls, then we continued on down the OHT.

Photo Boomer and Bear Skull Falls (22')
Bear Skull Falls was just downstream, at about 1.5 miles on the trip meter.  As with it's sister waterfall upstream, it is very close to the OHT and you can see the top of the falls from the trail.  Directly adjacent to the waterfall on the OHT, there is a break in the bluffline that looks like you could descend to the base of the falls at that point.  You probably could, but don't.  There is a much better and safer trail to the base a short distance further, where the OHT goes down through a break in the bluffline and gets close to creek level.  Look back up toward the waterfall at that point and you will see another blue trail blaze on a tree for the path to the base of Bear Skull Falls.  This is another beautiful waterfall grotto, but again there was not as much flow over the falls as I had hoped for.   

The creek downstream of Bear Skull Falls was dry.  In fact, all the water coming over the falls hit the rocks below and literally disappeared, all of it going underground instantly.  Continuing on down the OHT, the trail crosses an old road before crossing Lick Creek.  This is where we left the OHT and turned right onto the old road.  The old road follows along the creek, and Slot Rock is only about a quarter mile further after you turn off the OHT.  

Slot Rock (8')
Slot Rock is a different kind of waterfall.  This is where Lick Creek narrows down and goes through a large groove it has cut in the the face of a large boulder, falling about eight feet into an emerald pool below.  The pool is big enough for swimming and I was actually a little surprised not to find anyone here on a warm Saturday afternoon.  If you stay on CR-5550 instead of turning onto CR-5671 to get to our parking location, it goes out to Lick Creek.  That's where county maintenance on the road ends, but a road of sorts continues on upstream alongside the creek.  This is the old road we hiked on to get to slot rock.  It is way too rough for most vehicles, but ATV's and serious 4WD vehicles can make it up to slot rock on the road.  

Lick Creek
The large rocks on both sides of the pool at slot rock were very slick.  Even if you don't intend to go swimming, you need to be very careful here or you will be in the pool.  After slipping a couple of times and being saved by tree branches I grabbed, I ended up hiking up around the rocks.  I still managed to slip on the rocks in the creek downstream of the pool, coming down pretty hard on the rocks there.  I banged up my knee and shin, and went into the water up to my knees.  Uggh.  Worst of all, I had Bethany's Nikon D90 slung on my shoulder and it hit the rocks pretty hard.  The lens cap got swept downstream and I never did find it.  The camera seemed to work OK, but the threaded ring on the lens that filters and such screw onto got scrunched.  Oops. 

After my exercise in clumsiness at Slot Rock, Boomer and I debated the merits of continuing on upstream.  On the one hand, I already had an air splint on my left arm, and now I had a banged up knee and shin.  Also, the water flow in the side creeks where the waterfalls were had just not been all that much, so Sunset Falls and Discovery Falls would probably not be much to write home about.  On the other hand, I'm stubborn and somewhat dense.  Not even Boomer could argue with that, so we hiked on upstream.

To get to Sunset Falls and Discovery Falls, you continue on the old road we had been on.  Where it crosses Lick Creek, you can start bushwhacking up the right side of the creek.  I prefer to stay on the road if Lick Creek can be crossed, and the water level was certainly low enough for that.  So we crossed the creek there, hiked upstream, and where you cross the creek again is where you also start your bushwhack up the side creek that comes in at that point.  Or creek bed, as it was today.  

There was not a drop of water in the creek, but further upstream some surface water reappeared.  Not enough water to convince me to finish the difficult bushwhack up to those falls, however.  It's a steep, rugged, climb and my knee was still bothering me.  Not to mention it was oppressively muggy and hot and we had to hike through wet foliage.  I know - whine, whine, whine.  But it was a three mile uphill hike back to the Explorer and I was already soaked in sweat, so I let Boomer talk me into turning back.  

We stopped at Slot Rock and took a break, then continued on.  That's when I discovered I had not packed an extra water bottle.  Fortunately, there's a lot of water in the Ozarks.  We stopped at Bear Skull Falls again and refilled my water bottle, then headed back to the parking spot.  Good thing we turned back when we did;  not 30 seconds after getting back in the Explorer, it started raining. 

The day didn't go exactly as planned.  I did get banged up, and I did bang up my wife's nice camera.  But even at that, you can't beat a day in the wilderness chasing waterfalls.  I'm putting this one on my list to come back to in winter time after a good rain, when Sunset Falls and Discovery Falls should be running good.  Can't wait to get out and do it again.

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