Friday, September 2, 2016

Blanchard Springs Cavern Discovery Trail, Mirror Lake, and Gunner Pool, Arkansas Ozarks near Fifty-Six

8/30/2016 -  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.
  Gunner Pool:  35.99507   -92.21349,  461 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.  Gunner Pool is another matter; it is three miles down a dirt road off Highway 14.  While it is a pretty good road, it has loose gravel.  If you do take a bike, be careful on the turns.  It is easy to skid and is a steep drop off the side.

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 lower cavern hike, the Discovery Trail, is 1.2 miles long, 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.  The upper cave hike, the Dripstone Trail, is only about a half mile long.  Gunner Pool is right next to the campground road.

Even though we have had a much wetter August than normal, the creeks were still barely moving.  Mind you, many of these creeks would be dry in a normal August, so I'm not complaining.  But the low creek flow, hot weather, humidity, ticks, spiders, (need I go on?) etc. makes the dog days of summer a particularly unattractive time of year to hike the Ozarks.  This time of year we typically do a lot of back road trips in the FJ Cruiser, or we go to a handful of places that are more "climate controlled".  Blanchard Springs fits that bill nicely.  Not only does the spring have good flow all year, the caverns themselves stay at a perfect hiking temperature of 58 degrees all year round.  I take a light jacket for hiking through the cave.

Mirror Lake
Getting there is easy, but for most of us in Arkansas, it's a long drive.  We live just north of Dover, and it is a 2.5-hour drive for us.  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.  There is a fee for the various tours, currently $10 each with a 50% discount if you have a "Parks Pass" - the interagency pass also called a Senior Pass or Golden Passport.  If you don't have one and are over 62 years old, get one.  It is a one-time fee of $10 for a lifetime pass that will get you into all the national parks and other areas run by the federal government agencies.  Blanchard Springs is operated by the Forest Service.  There is no fee for entrance to Blanchard Springs Recreation Area, but there is that small fee for the guided tours.

Gunner Pool - with Rick
Our first stop was the visitor center.  We left the house early enough so we could make the 11:00am 'Discovery Tour' of the lower cavern.  This 1.2-mile trail is only available from Memorial Day to Labor Day each year.  The other nine months of the year, this huge section of the cave is left to the bats.  Literally.  The over 400,000 bats that call Blanchard Springs Cavern home were already showing roosting activity.  That is very early in the year; I'm sure that means something about the upcoming winter, but I'm not sure what.  There were quite a few bats flitting about the cave passages today, one even brushing our guide's head as he flew by.  Labor Day is this coming weekend, so our window for going on the lower cavern tour was rapidly closing  The tours are at set times during the day, so we make sure we get that done first, then go see all the other attractions in the area.

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.  My wife, Bethany, and I were the only ones that showed up for the 11:00am Discovery tour, so we got our very own private tour.  The maximum group size is 35, which to me seems an almost unmanageable number.  Fortunately, groups are rarely that big, probably averaging in the eight to ten range.  Having the ranger all to ourselves was great; we got a highly personalized guided hike, and got a lot of inside information that I doubt he would share with a larger group.  He also spent more time discussing features and history, so our tour extended to about two hours long for the 1.2-mile hike.

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 
The 'natural' cave opening
with 70 ft drop into the cavern
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 stalactites, 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.  This upper cavern is smaller, but it is still huge.  It is a geologically much older section of the caverns, so is literally packed with features caused by the slow drip of water and minerals over the millennia. 

Blanchard Springs had been under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service for decades before people had ever entered the cave, so they have been able to control it fairly well and prevent it from being ruined.  The early expeditions to try to map it our were generally very respectful of maintaining the sanctity of the cave, but in one location used as a camp for multi-day expeditions, they did graffiti names onto the walls.  Other than that
one spot and the walkways made for the tours, the caves are pretty much just as nature created them.  There is much more that is still unseen, to be sure.  As holes have opened up after major rains and flooding, some initial looks with borescopes show more large rooms yet to be explored. 

In the first section of the lower cavern, we passed a passage where a much
 earlier explorer, a Native American, had perished over a thousand years ago.  For a while in the 1970's, his bones were recovered and on display at the visitor center.  Some members of Indian tribes found that understandably disrespectful.  Since no one could determine which current tribes may have been descended from his, a big meeting was convened with Tribal leaders from all over the country to perform a ceremony to re-inter his bones where they had been originally discovered.  That area has since been cordoned off and restricted to all, even the Forest Service rangers.  There is an unexplored section of caverns past that passage, but it looks like that will stay unexplored.

Continuing on into the lower cavern, we went through giant rooms, along the underground river that eventually flows out of Blanchard Springs, and eventually past the natural opening that the early explorers used to initially enter the cave system.  The lower cavern system is geologically younger than the upper cavern since it remained flooded with water for millennia while the surrounding countryside slowly eroded to form the valley and Blanchard Springs opened up to drain the lower caves.  So it doesn't have the density of columns, stalactites, stalagmites, etc. that the upper cavern does, but it still has plenty.  There is also much more cave to get through than the upper cavern has.

The "Wild Cave" tour goes even further back into the lower cavern system, where absolutely no walkways or other development has been done.  The rangers will do one of these tours on demand, but you have to schedule it with a group of at least three and no more than eight.  They supply headlamps, coveralls, kneepads, hardhats, etc. and take you on a rigorous five-hour tour in this undeveloped area of the lower cavern.  Since the entry is in the air lock used to exit the Discovery Trail and bypasses the area of the cave where bats are roosting, this tour is also available all year long.  The fee for this one is currently $75, much steeper than the other guided tours.  I have not been on the Wild Cave tour yet, but it's on my list.

Largest Flow Stone in the U.S.
We eventually made our way down into the lower cavern to a huge room with the largest flow stone in the country.  From there, you go up a flight of stairs in a tunnel bored through the solid rock into the "Ghost Room", so named because the ranger that discovered it saw a large white alabaster column in his headlamp that he thought was a ghost.  From the Ghost Room, a passage has been carved through the rock to an airlock going to the valley outside.  A bus was waiting on us there to take us back to the visitor center.  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
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.  There are numerous maintain trails in 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. 

Ruins of old mill and Mirror Lake spillway
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.  This mill was used to grind corn and gin cotton for decades.  The CCC undertook an effort to build the stone walls for the mill that you see today.  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.  The upper part 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.
Gunner Pool
Gunner Pool is also close and is one of those cool areas you should see if for no other reason than rule #1 ("... but honey, we were in the area anyway ...").  From Mirror lake, if you take the road along the creek coming out of Mirror Lake past where you turned coming from the visitor center, to where this creek flows into North Sylamore Creek.  At this junction of creeks, you will find one of the nicest campgrounds that I never see used.  It has nice facilities, access to the creek, and is in a beautiful setting.  It's curious that we rarely see it being used.  From this campground, there is a hiking trail going upstream along North Sylamore Creek.  Roughly three miles upstream, you go under a bridge across the creek and Gunner Pool is a few yards up a tributary creek on the left.

"Trail" to Blanchard Springs - with Bethany
You can also drive directly to Gunner Pool as well.  From the west end of the town of Fifty-Six, turn north on CR-93 (aka Gunner Pool Road) and go three miles to the Hedges Campground.  This campground was also empty today.  If you go over the bridge across North Sylamore Creek, you have gone too far.  As you go through the campground, turn onto the last road to the left.  Gunner Pool will be on your right; you can park and follow the volunteer trail down to the base of the dam.  This is a small masonry dam built by the CCC, known for their rockwork projects all over the country.  Today, it didn't have a whole lot of flow, as we suspected, but was still worthwhile stopping to see it.

This area is about a 2.5-hour drive for us.  I wish it were closer, but it is well worth the drive.  I have been to a lot of caverns in my life, including the likes of Carlsbad Caverns.  This one is my favorite, and having additional water features in the area makes it all the more enjoyable.  I highly recommend this to everyone.  In fact, I would recommend you visit as many times as you can.  It never fails to amaze me and fill me with that feeling of awe you get when confronted with God's best works.

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