Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Cowan Hollow Waterfalls, Between Simpson and North Fork Illinois Bayou, Arkansas Ozarks

6/28/2015 - Cowan Hollow Waterfalls

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Parking Location:  35.58823  -93.02155,  712 ft. 
  Unnamed Falls #1:  35.60210  -93.04384,  941 ft.
  Unnamed Falls #2:  35.60230  -93.04516,  977 ft.
  Unnamed Falls #3:  35.60306  -93.04859,  1057 ft.
  Unnamed Falls #4:  35.60411  -93.05199,  1116 ft.
  Unnamed Falls #5:  35.60420  -93.05310,  1149 ft.
  Unnamed Falls #6:  35.60501  -93.05431,  1191 ft.
  Cowan Hollow Falls:  35.60585  -93.05594,  1258 ft.
  Cowan Hollow Falls bluffline access:  35.60540  -93.05603,  1284 ft.
  Cowan Middle Prong access:  35.61134  -93.04141,  1210 ft.
  Unnamed Falls #8:  35.61197  -93.04342,  1148 ft.
  Unnamed Falls #9:  35.61320  -93.04051,  1126 ft.
  Unnamed Falls #10:  35.60902  -93.03687,  984 ft.

Pet Friendly:  Dogs off leash should be fine.  This is what I would call a difficult bushwhack.  If you think your dog needs to be on leash, it will probably be okay, but you are in for a long day.  There is a lot of undergrowth and opportunity for entanglement.

Motorcycle Friendly:  Nope.  Unless you find a place to park on Highway 7 and hike down into the valley and back up.  The road at the lower end of the valley fords across the North Fork Illinois Bayou and has several large mud holes.

GPS files (.gpx format) - Maps of the GPS track are at the bottom of this post.
   Cowan Hollow, Cabin Creek, and Winter Hollow Waypoints

Cowan Hollow Falls - with Dan
"Dan's death march through the Arkansas wilderness".  Okay, maybe that's a little overly dramatic and not the real title of this blog post, but I was thinking it could have been.  When my friend, Dan Frew, contacted me about maybe hiking through all of Cowan Hollow, my first question was, "Where is that?".  After he told me and I scoped it out on the topo maps, my next question was, "Are you serious?".  Apparently he was.  

Unnamed Falls #2
Cowan Hollow is east of the community of Simpson on Highway 7, and stretches from there to where Cowan Creek flows into the North Fork of the Illinois Bayou.  The valley is only three miles end to end, but the topology is very rugged and very steep, with an elevation change of about 1100 feet.  Now, understand that this certainly looks less rigorous than many of the hikes I have chronicled in this blog.  But there are some extenuating factors; this would be a bushwhack the entire way, the area is heavily vegetated, insects and spiders are everywhere, and it's summertime.  It is hot and humid, not the best time to take on a very strenuous hike.  So yeah, it did sound like a lot of fun.  Of course I wanted to go!

Unnamed Falls #3
Three miles of valley generally means at least six miles of hiking, because we don't hike on a straight line anywhere in the Ozarks.  Given that, our first plan of attack was to take two vehicles, leave one at the bottom, then take the other to the top of the hollow at Highway 7 and hike down one way only.  We ditched that plan due to uncertainty about exactly where along Highway 7 there was private property and if any of it adjacent to the highway itself was public land.  This is where the Booger Hollow Trading Post is, and it appears much of it right along the highway is private property.  The entire Cowan Hollow itself is public land, but we didn't want to cross anyone's private property to get to it.

Unnamed Falls #8
 We decided to just take one vehicle to the bottom of the hollow and hike in and out from one point.  So Dan and I loaded up in the FJ and left for Cowan Hollow.  You really should have a 4WD vehicle for this trip, since you will be fording the North Fork Illinois Bayou.  The last mile of your drive is not a very good road.  As always, use your own judgement and know the limits of your vehicle.

To get there, go to the community of Scottsville, between Dover and Hector on Highway 27.  At Scottsville, turn north on Highway 164, and reset your odometer.  Here are your landmarks on the route after turning onto Highway 164:
  1.5 miles - Cross the bridge over the Illinois Bayou.
  2.9 miles - Highway 164 turns into Granny Gap 1 Road (bear right onto Granny Gap Road).
  3.7 miles - The pavement ends and Granny Gap 1 Road turns into a gravel road.
  4.7 miles - Cross the bridge over the North Fork of the Illinois Bayou.
  5.1 miles - Turn left onto FR-1310, aka North Fork Road.
  5.8 miles - Go straight through the intersection with Adams Mountain Road and stay on North Fork Road.
  17.3 miles - Turn left onto a local road (35.58785, -93.00794).  Go down this dirt road for about one mile to the parking location.  

Unnamed Falls #10
The road will ford the North Fork Illinois Bayou about 1/3 mile after you turn off North Fork Road,  then will curve to the right.  When the road turns back to the left about a mile from North Fork Road, pull over and park.  The road follows along Cowan Creek a short distance until it flows into North Fork Illinois Bayou.  If you come to another river crossing, you have gone just a little too far.

Unnamed Falls #6
Dan and I hiked up Cowan Creek, crossing the creek as we needed to for easier hiking.  The south side of the hollow had a number of side drainages, but at this time of year they were dry or had very little flow.  I suspect that during wet periods there will be a number of nice waterfalls in those tributaries.  Cowan Creek has four major "prongs", or branches, in the top half of Cowan Hollow.  When we came to the first major fork, we hiked up the southernmost of these prongs.  

Unnamed Falls #1
We did not find our first waterfall until we were over half a mile up the south prong of Cowan Creek, almost two miles from where we parked.  This waterfall was in a side drainage, and did not have a great deal of flow, but again looked like it would be great during wet seasons.  Just upstream of this waterfall is Unnamed Falls #1, the first waterfall we encountered on the main creek itself.  This was not much of a waterfall, but was a good sign.  At least now the creek was getting steeper and starting to cut across layers of rock.

Unnamed Falls #2
Continuing on the south prong, we came to Unnamed Falls #2 just a hundred yards further upstream.  This is the first of what I would call really pretty waterfalls, only about six feet tall and a double waterfall.  At last, it looked like we were getting into the kind of waterfall territory we were hoping for.  Unnamed Falls #3 was similar in size, approximately a quarter mile upstream.  An additional quarter mile upstream was Unnamed Falls #4, about 12 to 15 feet tall.  This one was more of a large water slide than a waterfall, flowing into a large pool on the creek.

Unnamed Falls #3
Hiking another hundred yards upstream, we found Unnamed Falls #5 in a tributary creek off the main Cowan Creek.  The canyon we found this waterfall in was choked with fallen trees, many of them appeared to be recent victims of very strong sheer winds or tornadoes.  Unnamed Falls #5 looked great, even with the low flow in the tributaries this time of year.  It has a high, arching overhang that was a good sign for what lay ahead.  Somewhere upstream, the main creek had to flow over the capstone that this waterfall flows over.

Unnamed Falls #6
Continuing upstream on the south prong, we came to Unnamed Falls #6 where the main creek flowed over that layer of hard sandstone.  This was a spectacular cascade falling about 18 to 20 feet into a large pool.  The bluff closes in on both sides, making a box canyon with overhanging ledges.  We had to backtrack downstream a short distance to find a break above that bluffline and continue upstream. 

Cowan Hollow Falls - with Rick
Photo by Dan Frew
I had halfway suspected that Unnamed Falls #6 would be the highest significant waterfall we would find on this prong.  I was wrong.  Just a couple hundred feet further upstream, we found the one so nice we decided to name it after the Hollow we found it in.  Cowan Hollow Falls is a large waterfall, both in height and breadth.  Even though creek flows are typically low this time of year, water was pouring off a broad expanse of the overhanging ledge.  At the time, I thought it was around 40 feet tall.  Doing some scaling after I got home, using a photo of the waterfall with me next to it, I estimated the height to be 50 feet.

Unnamed Falls #4
We had crossed the creek and approached Cowan Hollow Falls on the right (north) side.  Where we found a break to get below the bluffline just downstream of Cowan Hollow Falls, there is another good sized waterfall where a tributary creek flows over the bluff.  Today, there was not much flow, but you could tell it would be a good one in wetter weather.  

Cowan Hollow Falls
Leaving Cowan Hollow Falls, we climbed up through an access point on the left (south) side of the waterfall.  Above, we crossed back over the creek and continued upstream.  We went approximately another 300 yards upstream, to the point that the creek was falling rapidly, causing numerous small cascades and waterfalls, but with no large bluffs for a significant waterfall.  At this point, we decided to hike over the ridge to the north to come down into the middle prongs of Cowan Creek.

Unnamed Falls #5
We attempted to maintain the altitude we had and simply hike around the mountain and into the valley with the next prong, with the intention of staying high and hiking the entire creek going down the first of the middle prongs.  This is one of those things that is much easier to see in retrospect when all the data is loaded on a PC than it is out in the wilderness looking at the little screen on a handheld GPS.  We ended up thinking we needed to head down to creek level a little early, and descended almost 400 feet down to a point where the middle two prongs flow together.  

Unnamed Falls #8
Hiking up the southernmost of the middle prongs (see map below), we soon came to Unnamed Falls #8.  This is a nice little waterfall in a closed-in grotto that reminds me of Fuzzybutt Falls.  This is one of the most beautiful canyons I have ever seen, with the creek winding through steep concave walls and Unnamed Falls #8 tucked away in a blind canyon in the end.  We backed out of that canyon and kept to the base of the bluffline, coming around and into the other middle prong.  We found Unnamed Falls #9 falling over that same bluffline.  

Unnamed Falls #9
At the time, we thought we were fairly high on the middle prong of Cowan Creek and weren't really sure if it would be worthwhile going further upstream or not.  At that point, my GPS trip meter showed we had hiked 6.4 miles, so we made a command decision; head back now and come back for more exploration another day.  That would be another day with cooler weather, more water, and less bugs and spiders.  I swear, there were already thousands (nay, millions!) of spiders cursing my name for taking out their webs with my face.  I know Dan had taken just as many spider webs out as well.

Unnamed Falls #10
So we headed back downstream on the combined middle prong.  This is a fairly tight canyon, causing us to hike mostly at creek level, crossing frequently to the side we could find a route downstream.  About a quarter mile downstream from where the two middle prongs flow together, we found Unnamed Falls #10.  This was another of the many small but beautiful waterfalls in this hollow.  This prong of Cowan Creek has numerous small cascades and short falls, and one very large pool below a short waterfall that looks deep and wide enough for a swimming hole.  But not today; it was waaaay past lunchtime and I was ready to get back to the car.

Unnamed Falls #6
Continuing downstream a short way from Unnamed Falls #10, we passed the intersection of the easternmost of the four major prongs on Cowan Creek.  Yeah, I know.  A whole other major part of this creek, and we weren't exploring it today.  You can count on me returning to Cowan Hollow.  There are enough unexplored areas to take up another long day of hiking.  In addition to the eastern prong and the upper parts of the middle prongs, there is a very sizable tributary creek on the north side of the hollow only a half mile from where we parked.  The south side of the hollow seems more steep, and there are several tributaries that probably have nice waterfalls in wetter times.

Unnamed Falls #2
We eventually made our way back downstream along Cowan Creek to the FJ.  My GPS trip meter showed a total of 8.83 miles of hiking for the day.  I have done more on a day trip, but this was all bushwhacking, mostly in thick undergrowth and rugged terrain.  At the highest point in our hike we were about 900 feet above where we hiked.  And yes, at least the return hike was mostly downhill.  In this kind of country, that does not always mean easier or less strenuous.  I would have to rate this a difficult bushwhack, but well worth it if you are up to it.  Just like Arnold in the Terminator movies, I know I'll be back.
GPS Track - Cowan Creek


  1. So cool to see this. Thank you for posting! My great grandfather and his brother grew up here. As far as I know... this Hollow was named after our family from their stay there. I haven't been there since 1983 to visit the old homestead. The foundation and chimney are still there, I think.

    1. It's certainly a beautiful area, if a little rugged. Almost all of Cowen Hollow is public land now, just a little at the top near highway 7 that is still in private hands. I'm always interested in the history of these areas.

  2. I can be reached at DCCowan@gmail.com