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.

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