Friday, February 19, 2016

Blanchard Springs, Arkansas Ozarks near Fifty-six, Arkansas

2/18/2016 -  Blanchard Springs Cavern, Waterfall, and Mirror Lake 

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Park for Blanchard Springs:  35.95889,  -92.17539,  439 ft.
  Blanchard Springs:  35.95860,  -92.17740,  483 ft.
  Mirror Lake:  35.96349,  -92.17094,  416 ft.
Pet Friendly: Yes; dogs on or off leash should be fine.  Just not in the cave.

Motorcycle Friendly: Yes; there are good paved roads right to the visitor center, as well as parking locations for Mirror Lake and Blanchard Springs.

Hiking Statistics:  We did a number of short hikes today, all of them easy, and on some of the best trails you will find anywhere.  The upper cavern hike is only half a mile, and hikes to either Blanchard Spings or the base of Mirror Lake  are only about a quarter mile each.  There are some ups and downs in the cave but easily managed.  If you go when the lower cave is open (summer), that trail is about 1.2 miles long and somewhat more strenuous, but still not bad.  Read the info at the visitor center before you go.

'Main room' in the upper cavern
about 90 feet from floor to ceiling
No rain, no waterfalls.  At least, that's a common knowledge.  We had a huge rainfall New Year's weekend, but basically nothing in the six weeks since.  Fortunately, there are those places that defy common knowledge.  We went to Big Creek Cave Falls a couple of weeks ago, and today Bethany and I decided to go to Blanchard Springs, another cave waterfall.  The main event at Blanchard Springs, however, is the cavern.  We left Boomer at home since we were going through the cave system, and we were pretty sure dogs weren't allowed.  I never did see a sign to that effect, though.

Mirror Lake
We took the adventurous route out and took a lot of back road detours in our trip to Blanchard Springs, ending up on many one-lane dirt roads and eventually making our way there.   Unless you really want to exercise your 4WD vehicle, you don't need to do that.  The turnoff to Blanchard Springs is right off Highway 14, so this is one of those rare hiking trips in which you can stay on the pavement for the entire drive.  The turnoff is well marked with a sign, 1.1 miles east of the small town of Fifty-six, Arkansas.  After you make the turn, there are signs on the paved access road to the visitor center, Mirror Lake, and Blanchard Springs.

Blanchard Springs Cavern - with Bethany
Our first stop was the visitor center, where you can get a walking tour of the cave.  We wanted to go through the cave and had no idea of when the tours were scheduled.  At this time of year, you can only get a tour of the upper cave, since the lower cave has a bazillion bats hibernating this time of year. Well, Okay, our guide said 420,000 bats, but I don't think they count every one.  The 'Dripstone Tour' of the upper cavern system is awesome, and highly recommended for all.  There are some steps, but they can be bypassed and the Forest Service folks will accommodate wheelchairs on request.  Today, we got lucky.  After our 4WD adventure on the back Forest Service roads, we got to the visitor center at 1:25 pm and a tour was starting at 1:30 pm.  Score for the guy (me) that hates waiting for anything!  Not only that, but winter weekdays are very slow.  We only had a few folks go with us and the guide gave us some bonus guiding.  It should be a one hour tour, and we took closer to two hours.

Blanchard Springs Cavern
The caverns are very restricted, and you are only permitted in on a scheduled tour.  I would rather roam around on my own, but our tour guide was very knowledgeable, very patient as we went through the cave, and willing to let us do anything short of touching the cave.  The trail through the cave is very well constructed, going within view of all the many, many, formations while keeping the impact to the cave itself to a minimum.  It took 10 years to construct this trail, the elevator systems, and the two sets of bleachers at each end.  The bleachers are used for "caroling in the cavern" every Christmas.  Google it.

Reflections on the Lake
in the Blanchard Springs Upper Cavern
The extent of the cave itself was not even known to exist until 1960.  The entrance to the lower cave was known, about a half mile from Blanchard Springs, but was so hard to descend into that it wasn't done until 1960.  It was known as "half mile cave" for quite a while.  Once a couple of locals managed to descend into the cavern, they found a massive cave system with huge rooms, columns, curtains, stalagmites and stalagtites, and all that other cave stuff.  Over 10 miles of passages have been mapped out in this cave system.  They also eventually found a vertical
wall of rock 60 feet high that had gravel washed down from above.  In 1963, two local teenagers made it to the top of the wall, squeezed through a tight passage, and discovered the upper cavern, the one we toured today.  This upper cavern may be smaller, but it is still huge.  There is a small fee for the tour, but well worth it.  Entrance to the cave is via an elevator, so no gymnastics are needed like the first explorers had to endure.   Air locks protect the cave environment itself, and disinfectant pads at the exits keep visitors from spreading White Nose Syndrome out of the cave on their shoes.  So far, the efforts at this cave in that regard have kept it exempt from the five year ban on cave entry in effect in the rest of the Ozarks.

Blanchard Springs (10 ft)
After our cave tour, we got back in the Explorer and drove down to the trailhead for Blanchard Springs.  It doesn't seem right even calling it a "trailhead"  This is the nicest hiking trail in existence, a wide, pebblestone paved trail that you can literally take a wheelchair down, all the way to where the spring can be viewed.  The paved part ends there, but you can descend some short steps and explore the rock-strewn valley here.  Access to the cave that Blanchard Springs spills out of is prohibited, but you can roam around the rest of the area.  Blanchard Springs itself flows out of the cave in a waterfall about ten feet high.  Like many cave waterfalls, it seems to keep a pretty good flow through dry times.

Mirror Lake
Leaving Blanchard Springs, we went down to Mirror Lake, which we had just passed on the way to the spring.  There is parking next to the road at the spillway for Mirror Lake, and from there you can walk down a long boardwalk to the handicap parking.  It would be nice if you could park here, but it's for handicapped folks.  There is an area next to it for dumpsters, but it has a "no parking" sign.  So we park at the spillway, go all the way down the boardwalk to the handicap parking, and from there you can hike at creek level. 

Mirror Lake Falls seen through
the windows of old grist mill
Going back upstream toward the spillway, you pass the ruins of an old grist mill, operated up until 1928 when the original owner sold the property to the Forest Service.  Mirror Lake itself is formed by a masonry dam created to supply the water head to power this mill.  Since Blanchard Springs feeds the creek that flows into the impoundment, this one also has good flow even in dry times.  It may be a man-made waterfall, but the Mirror Lake spillway forms one of the prettiest two-tiered waterfalls anywhere.  Having the remains of the old mill there as well makes for a photographer's dream setting.  I'm really surprised I don't see professional layouts done here.  

Blanchard Springs Cavern
This area is about a two hour drive from our house, closer to three hours takingthe torturous route we took on the way there.  During wetter weather, there are many more great hiking areas much closer to home.  That being said, there are many wonderous areas like this in Arkansas that we have yet to visit.  Blanchard Springs is in a corner of the state a good distance from most of the population, but is well worth a little driving time.  I have never been in the lower cave system, and look forward to hiking through it in the summer months.

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