Friday, October 31, 2014

Fern Falls, Arkansas Ozarks

10/30/2014 Hike to Fern Falls

GPS coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Parking location: 35.89291, -93.19023,  2045 feet
  Turn on trail: 35.89332, -93.19416,  2010 feet
  Fern Falls: 35.89748, -93.19249,  1851 feet

Pet friendly: Yes.  Easy open trail, with bypasses around downed trees and obstacles.  As always, be careful around the top of the waterfall.

Motorcycle friendly: Yes.  Just pull off Hwy 7 and park.  The ground there is low and may be a little soft, so be careful where you put the kickstand down.

GPS files:
  GPS track file for Fern Falls Hike (.gpx format) 

Fern Falls (42 feet)
After finally getting back out in the woods and hiking the loop trail at Alum Cove, Boomer and I decided to check out at least one waterfall, just to see how the creeks were flowing.  In the vicinity of Alum Cove, that meant Stepp Creek, Fern Falls, Lonesome Hollow, or Big Creek Cave.  In my experience, Fern Falls always seemed to have some water, even in the driest of times.  So we headed a little further up Hwy 7.

This is another of the few waterfall hikes you can actually drive on a paved road right to the trail head.  Go north on Hwy 7 from the intersection where Hwy 16 branches off to Deer.  Go 3.4 miles north from this intersection and look for the 'Highway 7 Scenic Byway' sign.  If coming from Jasper, it is 11.4 miles south of Jasper town square. Pull off the highway and park near the sign.  The drop off from the highway shoulder is a little steep right where the sign is, so be careful about the angle you pull your vehicle over.

From the sign on Hwy 7, go directly back from the highway, across the utility lines, and find the trail heading off directly away from the highway.  This is an old ATV trail, and apparently has not been used for ATVs for some time.  I have been to this waterfall several times and have never seen the trail so overgrown.  It looked like no one had been here in the six months since my last visit.  

GPS Track to Fern Falls
The old ATV trail was still easy enough to follow, but was considerably more overgrown.  In fact, I was looking for the turn off (about a 0.2 miles down the ATV trail) where you leave the ATV trail and head down to the creek and I missed it.  Fortunately, I had been on this trail many times and realized quickly that I was in unfamiliar territory.  I had almost left the GPS in the car, but I'm glad I took it.  A quick check of the turn off point led me back to it.  I had only overshot by a few yards.

Many years ago this trail was an old logging road that went from the ATV trail
Ferns (of all things) on Trail to Fern Falls
down to the creek, then follows along it downstream to the falls.  At the point you branch off onto it, it is now just barely discernible as a trail.  Once you head downhill, it does widen and become much more discernible.  There were quite a few downed trees on the old road, and at one point you have to go around a section of them on the trail.

East Fork Shop Creek is the creek that actually flows over Fern Falls.  As you approach the falls you will notice that there are actually several smaller creeks that converge on the main creek just before the waterfall.  One of these appears to be spring fed by a spring that has a fairly good flow, and that's probably why Fern Falls usually has at least some water flow.  Today, most of the feeder creeks were dry and the main creek was lower than I have ever seen it.  Still, Fern Falls is one of those Ozark waterfalls that will be very pretty even with substantially lower flow.

Boomer and I didn't hang around for long.  Oddly enough, while I was lamenting the lack of rain the sky clouded over and it started raining.  The afternoon temperature had warmed up to the mid 50's, so it didn't hurt us to get a little wet on the way back to the Explorer.  The entire round trip hike is only about 1.5 miles, and the elevation change is only about 200 feet, so I would rate the hike as easy even with the encroaching undergrowth.  This is one of the waterfalls I keep on my list to take friends and family to that provides a nice payload for minimal hiking effort, and one that almost anyone can make.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Alum Cove, Ozark National Forest, Arkansas

10/30/2014 - Alum Cove Trail Hike

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Parking: 35.86015,  -93.23279,  2110 feet
  Bridge (lowest point):  35.86317,  -93.23426,  1852 feet

Pet Friendly: Yes - the trail is easy, so even dogs on leash should have no problems.

Motorcycle Friendly: Yes - paved road all the way to the parking area.  Bring that heavy old cruiser if you want to.

Alum Cove - Natural Bridge
Picnic area at Alum Cove
We have been more than a little tied up with life lately, but were finally back home and somewhat rested up from an extended road trip all over the western USA.  Now that we were home and somewhat back to a normal routine, we were itching to get back out in the beautiful Arkansas outdoors and do a little hiking.  Despite the heavy rains earlier this month, most of the creeks were still pretty low.  So I was thinking of the non-waterfall type areas, like Alum Creek or Sandstone Castles.  Bethany had committed to doing a training session this morning, so I took her Nikon D-90 and her dog and headed north.  Well, technically Boomer is her dog since he was her birthday present.  But we all know who his BFF is, especially when it comes to running wild in the Ozarks wilderness.  

Crevasse/Cave at Alum Cove
I must be a little out of practice, or getting old, or both.  About halfway to Pelsor, I remembered what I forgot; my hiking boots.  Soooo, Alum Cove it is.  Sandstone Castles is about five or six miles round trip, and I didn't want to do that hike in the sneakers I wear while driving.  Alum Cove is a "National Recreational Trail".  I'm not sure what that actually means, but the trail is well maintained and there are some facilities at the parking area.  At least the trail at Alum Creek wasn't likely to do any permanent damage to my feet in tennis shoes.

To get there, go south from Jaspar or north from Pelsor (Sand Gap) on Hiway-7 to the junction with Hiway-16.  Turn west on Hiway-16 and go 1.1 mile, then turn north on NC-8766 (Newton County Rd).  Go three miles north on NC-8766 and turn right into the Alum Creek entry road.  This is a short, paved road to a large parking area.  There are some public facilities at the parking area; a large area with picnic tables, a pretty good size pavilion, and a primitive toilet.  It is maintained by the National Forest Service and is never closed, but is designated as day-use only.

Alum Cove - Natural Bridge
Alum Cove - Natural Bridge
The trail head is at the far left corner of the picnic area as you look at it from the parking area.  The first 0.4 miles of the trail goes down to the natural bridge, the area's landmark feature.  Unlike most "natural bridges", this one actually was used as a bridge.  Many, many years ago, at any rate when early Native Americans and settlers used it to cross the creek canyon below.  It has been in the National Forest system for a few decades now, and now has railings put up on each side for safety.  It looks much more impressive from below.  From the natural bridge, the trail actually consists of two loops.  The smaller loop simply leaves the trail from either side of the bridge, goes to the bottom of the canyon below, then loops back up to the other side of the bridge.  From under the bridge, you can see the structure itself.  The bridge was apparently formed when a large section of the roof of a large shelter cave fell in, leaving the bridge as a separate structure.  There is a waterfall that flows over the wall of the bluff and under the bridge, but it is a very wet weather waterfall and was only a dribble of water today.

First Cave
Both the smaller inner loop and the larger trail loop are well constructed, with stone stairs built into most inclines to make climbing easier.  The natural bridge is awesome, but there is much more to see in this area.  We headed west on the loop (clockwise around it if looked at from above).  The trail goes down into a creek canyon, spectacular with fall colors this time of year.  It crosses over a creek that is often dry in summer and early fall. It was dry today, with just pockets of water here and there.  

Second Cave
After crossing the creek, the trail goes up to the bluff on the opposite canyon wall and follows along it.  As soon as it goes up to the bluff, you encounter a large cave that you can walk in one end and out the other.  The far end is a bit of a tight squeeze, but the trail builders thought of that and built a nice trail around the bluff outside the cave for those that aren't, well, good at squeezing.

Third Cave
Further north along the bluff on this west side of the creek, you cross another creek that flows over the bluff wall in a pour-off.  This waterfall was also just a dribble of water flow today.  A little further is yet another small cave that someone built a half wall up on at some point.   Just a little further, still on the same side of the creek, is a large crevasse leading into another large cave.  This cave can also be hiked straight through, although there is a large (~3 foot) step-up at one point.  Again, if you aren't into the whole squeezing and stepping up/down thing, there is an easy trail outside the cave going around the base of the bluff.

Alum Creek - Fall Foliage at Bridge
Continuing around the trail loop, it goes back across the creek.  The bridge here is the lowest elevation on the loop, about 260 feet total elevation difference from the parking area, so that's the climb you have going back.  The trail goes back up through the canyon, climbing back up to the bridge again.  

Boomer - on one of many benchs
Even if it weren't for the caves and bridge, this trail would be a thoroughly enjoyable hike just for the other Ozark scenery.  At this time of year, it is particularly spectacular as all the hardwoods were at the peak of fall color.  The loop is only 1.1 miles long, and with the stone stairs built on most inclines, I would rate it as an easy hike.  In addition to good trail construction, they also built benches to rest on every 1/8 to 1/4 mile along the trail.  If you haven't hiked Alum Cove yet, I recommend it.