Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Wolf Creek Cave Falls and Big Creek Cave Falls, Arkansas Ozarks

 01/26/2015 - Big Creek Cave Falls

GPS Coordinates:  Latitude/Longitude/Elevation
  Parking:  35.87684, -93.16071,  1162 feet
  Big Creek Cave Falls:  35.86318, -93.15447,  1294 feet
  Wolf Creek Cave Falls:  35.86063,  -93.15244,  1297 feet
  Underground Falls:  35.86074,  -93.15257,  1281 feet
  Cave Creek Cascade:  35.86384,  -93.15439,  1267 feet
  Mine shaft:  35.85954,  -93.15322,  1309 feet
  Unnamed Cave Falls:  35.85954,  -93.15350,  1300 feet
  Unnamed Wolf Creek Falls #1:  35.86265,  -93.15121,  1292 feet
  Turn off trail to Cave Creek Cascade:  35.86472,  -93.15319,  1239 feet
  Rock Peninsula Falls:  35.86666,  -93.15417,  1214 feet
  Turn off trail to Rock Peninsula Falls area:  35.86736,  -93.15412, 1223 feet

Pet-friendly: Yes.  One word of caution - if your dog needs to stay on leash, it should be OK unless you venture off trail and do any significant bushwhacking.  There are a lot of briers and underbrush in this area.

Motorcycle-friendly: Not really. It is 2.8 miles down a marginal gravel road.  I wouldn't take mine on it, but I know a lot of you riders don't see that as a challenge at all.  As one of my nephews puts it, "my driveway is longer and rougher than that".

GPS tracks: I split these up into five different track files.  Maps of the GPS tracks are at the very bottom of this post.

Update - a blog post from a more recent visit, with even more to see and an alternate way back can be seen here.

Big Creek Falls (29 ft)
Big Creek Cave Falls was actually the very first waterfall I visited at the beginning of 2014, when I decided to write this blog on my hiking adventures and provide as much information on these wonders of nature as I could.  You can see that very first post here.  I was a little surprised at the thousands of folks that read my blogs.  Apparently, many of you share my love of waterfall chasing.  This particular blog post was very popular, so apparently many of you also really like caves and the combination of caves and waterfalls.  Caves, waterfalls, beautiful Ozark wilderness - what's not to love?  One of the reasons I write it is to help those that are looking for the same sense of serenity and excitement that I get out of chasing waterfalls.  Once you do it, if you are indeed human, you will be hooked.  

Turn off Highway 7 here!
1 - First creek to ford - Right Fork Big Creek
One of those that read that first blog post and decided to hike to Big Creek Cave Falls was Ben Starr, who also writes a blog.  Ben, as it turns out, hiked out the old way, through the briers and brambles and poison ivy.  But after exploring above the Wolf Creek juncture, Ben found an old trace road that provided much, MUCH easier hiking all the way back to the parking location.  Ben was nice enough to leave a comment on my blog and point me to this route, and ever since I have been itching to give it a try.  After torrential rains to start the new year, we have had almost no rain the last three weeks.  For whatever reason, waterfalls that spill out of caves always seem to have a relatively constant water flow, so today seemed the perfect time to try out the new route.  Boomer and I have been primed and ready for this hike for quite a while, so we loaded up into the Explorer and set off.

2 - Big field after first small field.  Instead of old
route to the right, go straight across the field
toward Left Fork and mountain behind it.
This is one of those areas that once you have hiked it going this new route, you will be able to find your way around in your sleep.  But if it's your first time in this area, a GPS is recommended and good directions are a necessity.  So please bear with me while I make the directions as complete as I possibly can.  I know some are more 'directionally challenged' than others, so I'll try to spell it out as definitively as I can.

3 - Ford across Left Fork Big Creek
To get there, go north on Highway 7 another 1.3 miles from the Highway 16 intersection going to Deer. Turn right onto NC-6840.  There is a one story frame farmhouse here on the right and this looks like a couple of ruts going behind the guy's house as if it is his driveway.  It isn't.  It actually turns into a decent one-lane forest service gravel road. Go 2.8 miles from Highway 7 on this road and park on the right by a metal gate. The power line ends there at what was an old homestead many years ago. There is no trace of a house left, but there is a rock storm shelter remaining. There is a metal gate here across an old road leading past the homestead site and you can park in the small loop off the road by this gate.  Note that NC-6840 is the 'new' Newton County road number.  Old maps will have that as FR-1224 or CR-59.  NC-6840 is the only road sign you will see when turning off Highway 7.

4 - Field after fording Left Fork.  Go to far side
of the field and follow edge south.
For today's hike, the new route starts exactly like the old route.  Follow the old road behind the gate.  It goes south past the old homestead, and you can see an old stone berm wall along the road for the old home site.  The road will lead to a small creek, actually Right Fork Big Creek (which I'll simply call 'Right Fork').  Ford across this creek and that seems to be the end of any actual trail.  But it isn't!  That's the good news for those that have gone to Big Creek Cave Falls via the old documented directions.  As it turns out, there is a lot more of the old trace roads for easy hiking where you are going.

5 - Looking into last small field before
the trail goes into the woods.
A quick note about the names of these creeks to be technically correct; the name of one of the waterfalls we are going to is indeed 'Big Creek Cave Falls'.  However, the creek it feeds is not technically 'Big Creek'.  The water running over the falls flows into 'Cove Branch' which, along with Wolf Creek, forms 'Left Fork Big Creek' just downstream of the falls and the feeder creek I call Cave Creek.  The creek you ford at the end of the primitive road is technically 'Right Fork Big Creek', even though it runs into 'Left Fork Big Creek' and not 'Big Creek' itself, which is quite a ways downstream.  The REAL "Big Creek" is in a drainage system to the east, and Left Fork of Big Creek (which I'll just call 'Left Fork') runs into it just downstream of the town of Mount Judea.  About 4 miles after this juncture, Big Creek flows into the Buffalo National River.  

6 - Trail leaving last open field and heading into woods.
Likewise, the other major waterfall on the agenda today is Wolf Creek Cave Falls.  However, water from it does not flow into Wolf Creek.  It flows into Cove Branch, which has a juncture downstream in which Cove Branch and Wolf Creek flow together to form Left Fork Big Creek.  Whew.  Confused?  Don't be.  Just use the map below and/or the GPS coordinates above and we'll walk through the way you get to them.

Anyway, continuing on;  after crossing Right Fork, you come into a small open field.  Turn left (east) and head straight across this field.  You go through a line of trees into a much larger field.  Here's where we deviate from the old route in Tim Ernst's Arkansas Waterfalls book.  This excellent book has been my hiking bible and was my guidance for previous visits here.  However, if you read my original blog post for this hike, you know I complained vociferously about the briers and brambles, which are very thick in the area the old route takes you.

Cave Creek
Instead of taking the old route and bearing right in the big field, head straight across this field (east) toward the mountain on the other side of Left Fork.  You will lose the old trace road going across the field, but that's OK.  Once across the field, you will see that the trees along the east side of the field are bordering Left Fork and right in the middle of that east border is another ford where the trace road goes across Left Fork.  Go ahead and go across the creek here.  I went upstream a little to find a spot I could rock-hop across, but depending on water level that may not be possible.  You might need to wade or use water socks here.  Or use one of my other tricks - I keep a couple of large, durable trash bags to pull over each leg and tie up.  They aren't all that durable, but they just have to not leak for a short wade.  Today, the trash bags just weren't needed.

Boomer practicing the "mount" command
we use for log walking.
On the other side of Left Fork, the trace road opens up into yet another open field.  Go across this field as well, and follow the east side of it, which will take you upstream (south) along Left Fork.  You will go through another line of trees into yet another field, albeit a much smaller field this time.  Continue south along the east side of this field and this is where the old trace road leads up into the woods.  The road has remained fairly well defined, clear of briers and poison ivy, and is easy to follow.  The old road runs mostly on the level, staying fairly close to Left Fork.  Sometimes it moves away from the creek, but for much of the hike you can see and hear the creek to your right.  

Confluence of Wolf Creek and Cove Branch
to form Left Fork Big Creek
More than a mile from the parking location, there is a fork in the trail with a rugged track going straight down to the creek.  Pass that up for now, and bear left at the fork to go to Wolf Creek Cave Falls first.  We'll come back to the rough spur to the creek on the way back.  After bearing left at that fork, you come to yet another fork almost immediately.  Going left takes you back in the direction you came, so bear right at this fork, go across the old cattle guard, then continue on (south) down the trail.

As you continue upstream on the trail, keep looking toward the creek on your right.  At one point, the trail almost goes right to the creek and you can see where a creek flows into it on the other side.  This is the juncture of Wolf Creek and Cove Branch; I listed a GPS coordinate for it above.  Why is this important?  We'll be coming back to this point to hike back, after visiting Big Creek Cave Falls and Cave Creek Cascade and it's associated cave.   But for now, just stay on the old trace road and continue upstream.   Now, the creek on your right is Wolf Creek.

Unnamed Wolf Creek Falls #1
In another couple of hundred yards, the trail crosses Wolf Creek.  Remember this point, because you come back to this point in order to access three different areas. Before it crosses the creek there is a branch off the trail that follows further along Wolf Creek.  Boomer and I went up this trail first, knowing there were some wet weather waterfalls further up Wolf Creek.  This trail crosses Wolf Creek and continues right up to a small wet weather waterfall that I'm just calling 'Unnamed Wolf Creek Fall #1'.   This is a pretty little waterfall, about 10-12 feet tall, during wet weather.  Clearly, that was not the case today, as there was only a dribble of water spilling over the ledge into the pool below.  

Further upstream in the Wolf Creek drainage, there are more wet weather waterfalls and some more caves.   If you have time, it's a fun place to explore.  Today, however, Boomer and I didn't get started until after noon, so we turned back at this point and went back down the trail to the point of the trail branch where we turned left instead of crossing the creek.  From that trail branch, we went across Wolf Creek and continued on the main trail upstream.  At this point, you are hiking the old trace road upstream between Wolf Creek and Cove Branch.  Soon, the trail crosses Cove Branch, then continues on upstream, and crosses Cove Branch again.  

Wolf Creek Cave Falls
At this point, you are very close to Wolf Creek Cave.  Again, that's the name, but it flows into Cove Branch, not Wolf Creek.  You can probably hear Wolf Creek Cave Falls and what I call Underground Falls, but won't be able to see it yet.  The mouth of the cave is somewhat hard to see until you get close to it.  Heading up the hill from the creek at this point, you will come across a gate, chained and locked.  But that's it.  Just a gate, no fence, no nothing, and the faint trail goes right around it.  Just beyond the gate is Wolf Creek Cave and it's associated waterfall spilling right out of the mouth of the cave.  

One of the first things you will see here is the white sign the Nature Conservatory bolted to the rock on the left side of the waterfall.  This cave is closed to protect the bat population.  I'll expound on the reasoning behind that at the end of this post, but for now please read and heed, and stay out of this cave.  Wolf Creek Cave Falls itself is not that tall, maybe eight feet or so, but it is always beautiful.  Today it did not have as much flow as it normally does, which kind of violates that rule about waterfall caves, doesn't it?  Nonetheless, it had more than enough flow to be well worth the trip.

Underground Falls
After leaving Wolf Creek Cave, we followed the stream from its outlet just a short distance downhill to what I call Underground Falls.  Cave waterfalls are all pretty cool, and all have the waterfall spilling out the mouth of the cave.  Except for this little waterfall.  Underground Falls itself is not underground, but from the base of the waterfall, the creek flows into a cave going underground.  It emerges again under a huge rock right at Cove Branch and runs from under the rock into Cove Branch.  

Old Mine Shaft
One of the things I had planned on doing this trip was to further explore the Cove Branch drainage.  Boomer and I set off upstream and went quite a way back into the drainage.  It had been over a week since I had sustained a pretty bad laceration on my left leg with a chainsaw, and I was wanting to stretch my limits and see what I could do without actually busting any stitches out.  This was a pretty good workout for that leg.  We went about a mile and a half further up Cove Branch, staying to the right when other creeks merged into it.  There is no trail past Wolf Creek Cave, and it is a rugged bushwhack in several places.

Old Mine Shaft
We did find a couple of interesting features only about 500 feet upstream from where the underground creek re-emerges from its cave.  On the left, directly under the overhang from the bluff ledge above, we found an old mine shaft.  I'm not sure what they would be mining for here, but it looks like they did the original shaft cross bracing so it would last.  At the bottom of the shaft, it does look like it branches off horizontally.  I decided not to go in; no telling what may be down there, or if it might be on the verge of collapse.  Boomer is highly intelligent but still, can't talk.  For that matter, he couldn't drive the Explorer back to civilization, either.  At least I don't think so, but at any rate that was not a chance I felt like taking today.  

Unnamed Cave Waterfall
Following the bluffline from the mine shaft a little further upstream, there was yet another cave waterfall high on the bluff face just a few yards further.  There is a steep spur built up between the bluff face and the creek here, and this waterfall spills out of a small cave about 40 feet above the peak of that ridge.  Today, this did not have a whole lot of flow, but certainly had a lot more than the previous unnamed waterfall we visited which was right on Wolf Creek.  The next time I visit the area in wet weather, I'll be sure to check out this one.  As high up on the bluff face as it is, it probably depends on surface water for a fair amount of its flow.

After exploring the main Cove Branch drainage, we headed back down the way we came.  Passing by Wolf Creek Cave Falls, we went back down the trail the way we had come to that same trail branch that went upstream along Wolf Creek, only this time we will stay on the west side of Wolf Creek.  Remember this point in the trail I told you to remember earlier?  Well, this is why.  From here, instead of back across Wolf Creek to that trail branch, turn around and head west off the trail, straight up the mountain.  You will cross Cove Branch and find the steep canyon that leads up to Big Creek Cave Falls.  Go up the embankment on the right, and follow it right up to the waterfall.  It is not far, and you should be able to hear the waterfall almost from when you leave the trail and start the bushwhack uphill.  It is quite steep, however, so be careful and be sure of your footing.

Big Creek Cave Falls (29 ft)
Big Creek Cave Falls is one of those waterfalls that seems to always have good flow, even in dry times such as today.  It is one of those natural wonders that make you just sit there for a while absorbing it.  And like many of the natural wonders in the Ozarks, very few people ever see it.  This cave isn't posted, but then again, it obviously is not one that can be accessed without some special climbing gear.  Just inside the mouth of the cave, you can see a chain hanging.  Someday, I'll find someone who can tell the story of how that chain got to be there and why it's there at all.  And once more - the name is Big Creek Cave Falls, but it actually flows into Cove Branch, which flows into Left Fork, which eventually flows into Big Creek many, miles north of here.

Cave Creek Cave
From Big Creek Cave Falls, the next major feature on our hike was what I refer to as Cave Creek Cave.  This is a very large cave but is another that is somewhat hidden until you come right upon it.  Instead of going all the way back down to Cove Branch and back up Cave Creek, from Big Creek Cave Falls follow the bluff around to your right (as you face the waterfall), staying high above the creek.  It will cut around the mountain on a bench right to a point over Cave Creek Cave.  There is a point where you can cut down the bluff right to the base of the cave.  If you are on the bench hiking along the edge of the bluff and see a creek running out of the bluff below, you have gone too far.  That's Cave Creek below you.  Back up a few yards and look for the way down.  It's a little steep cutting down beside the bluff, but easily doable. 

This is a large cave system and has a lot of water coming right out of the mouth.  Most of the water flowing from Big Creek Cave Falls goes underground, with little or none actually flowing down the canyon below it.  I'm convinced that all that water goes into yet another cave system and comes out at Cave Creek Cave.  The cave itself is huge and has several branches, most of which are fairly shallow except for the one the creek flows out of.  Looking back into this branch of the cave, you can see it goes back pretty far.  A few yards back, there appears to be a 'natural bridge' across the middle of the cave.

Cave Creek Cascades
Cave Creek Cascades tumbles down the hillside at the outlet of the cave and continues on down past some small waterfalls to flow into Cove Branch.  The easiest way to get back out and on the trail back is to simply follow Cave Creek downhill, then follow Cove Branch until you get to where it runs into Wolf Creek to form Left Fork.  This is not very far, and there is very little of the briers along this creek, making the bushwhack very easy.  There was even a large log over the creek, giving us a chance to do some refresher training on Boomers "mount" command.  At the juncture of Cove Branch and Wolf Creek, simply cross Wolf Creek and voila - a few feet on the other side of the creek you will find your old trace road home.  Turn left (north) and you are on your way back.

Rock Peninsula Falls
There is one other area on Left Fork with some really nice water features that is worthy of checking out, either on the way out or on the way back.  On the way back, after crossing the old cattle guard, remember to bear left to take the old trace road down along Left Fork.  Immediately after turning onto that, there is another fork with a rugged spur going down to the creek.  There are a couple of ways you can get to this last area on Left Fork, and this is the more difficult one.  If you go down to the creek here, you can then bushwhack down to the area that has Rock Peninsula Falls and several large picturesque pools and cascades.  

Azure pool with a tree that Mr. Beaver took care of.
That's Rock Peninsula Falls in the background.
If you have a GPS, I have marked a waypoint that is further on down the trace road toward where you parked.  From here, you can head toward the creek and this area is only about 250 feet off the trail, with minimal undergrowth, briers, and brambles.  Turn at the turnoff point, then head directly for Rock Peninsula Falls.  This waterfall is only about five or six feet high but is very picturesque.  As the name implies, it is a large rock 'peninsula', and in wet weather, the creek spills over it on all sides.  Today, there was just enough flow to create a small waterfall in one corner, but that was still quite nice.  This area has a number of deep azure pools, large boulders, and smaller cascades and waterfalls.  

After spending some time here, Boomer and I headed back up the way we came to the trail, then continued on back to where we parked.  This was a fantastic day in the wilderness, my injured leg held up really well, and we were both happy and not all that tired at the end of the day.  I would have liked to explore some more up the Wolf Creek drainages, but the sun was already getting low in the sky and it would be dark soon.  My wife knows I avoid trying to hike back in the dark at all costs and would probably call out the SAR folks if we didn't get back in cell phone range and contact her by nighttime, so we decided to save that for another day.

Posting outside Wolf Creek Cave
Now, what about those bats?  Firstly, why do we care?  Bats are good things.  Very, very, good things.  They do not want to suck your blood, they do not spread rabies as much as other animals species. They are voracious insect eaters.  A cave full of bats can eat literally truckloads of insects in a single day.  Without them we would be in dire straits, overrun by hordes of insects.  So, how do we humans figure into this?  Contrary to popular belief, bats are not birds, they are mammals.  Bats are hibernating mammals, at that.  Humans hurt bats in two ways.  If we awaken hibernating bats in the winter, they don't just go back into hibernation, they go out and try to replenish their fat reserves.  Unfortunately for them, there are no insects to eat in winter and they can easily die.  Humans can also spread a disease known as White Nose Syndrome.  While WNS does not directly kill bats, it can disturb their internal thermostat, causing premature awakening from hibernation.  And we know how that ends.  So, be nice to bats.  

GPS Track - entire hike
GPS Track - Zoomed on waterfall/cave areas

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the information. Went there yesterday, it was awesome after the big rains, almost never found it. The turn off form hwy 7 is 6830 not 6840. You don't intersect 6840 for about a mile at the bottom of the hill.