Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Little Cow Creek, Arkansas Ozarks between Fort Douglas and Limestone

11/30/2016 - Little Cow Creek

GPS Coordinates: (Latitude, Longitude, Elevation)  
  Parking Location: 35.72578   -93.28148,  1318 ft.
  Bluffline break (east): 35.73007 -93.28952,  951 ft.  
  Little Cow Falls (5 Waterfalls): 35.72959 -93.28977,  961 ft. 
  Elsie Falls: 35.72975 -93.29030,  1016 ft.
  Norman Falls: 35.72983 -93.29095,  1053 ft.
  Cincinnati Freedom Falls: 35.72676 -93.28989,  995 ft.
  Little Cow Creek Cascade: 35.72624 -93.29025,  1006 ft.
  Falls #5: 35.72219 -93.29110  1118 ft.
  Falls #6: 35.72606 -93.29034,  1009 ft.  
  Bluffline Break (west): 35.72847 -93.28967,  968 ft.
  Queenie Falls: 35.72816 -93.28943,  968 ft.
  Falls #8:  35.72797   -93.28817,  1076 ft.
  Falls #9:  35.72986   -93.29051,  1029 ft.

Pet Friendly: Dogs off leash should be OK. If your dog needs to be on a leash, it is doable but difficult because this is all bushwhack. There are some steep
bluffline breaks.

Motorcycle Friendly: No, not at all friendly to your big bike. The parking
location is several miles down dirt roads.

Hiking Statistics: The Little Cow Creek watershed is just over 1100 feet elevation change from top to bottom.  Today I hiked 2.9 miles with a highest-to-lowest difference of only 423 feet. Due to the ruggedness of the terrain and the box canyon between Little Cow Falls and Cincinnati Freedom Falls, there were several climbs down below blufflines and back up.  This is a rugged area, and the bluffline breaks are somewhat steep, but manageable if you are careful. There are no trails, but it is relatively easy bushwhacking in most areas.  Overall, I would rate this a moderate bushwhack.  Even stopping often to take in the scenery and take photos, I finished the hike in only 2.5 hours.

GPS files (.gpx format) - maps with GPS tracks are at the bottom of this post
  Cow Creek area waypoints
  Little Cow Creek track 11/30/2016

Cincinnati Freedom Falls
I have only made a half dozen hikes into the Cow Creek Basin (Cow Creek, Middle Cow Creek, and Little Cow Creek), but it is becoming one of my favorite areas.  This was actually the third time I have hiked the Little Cow Creek valley.  When I first put it on my hiking radar screen, it was virtually a complete unknown.  I had seen a photo of Little Cow Falls that John Moore had put on Google Maps many years ago, and a more recent photo from Dan Nash.  But I searched extensively, and that was all I could find.  Little Cow Falls is close to the mouth of the drainage, less than a half mile from where it flows into Cow Creek.  My research turned up absolutely nothing on the rest of this rather large drainage.  On my first visit a month ago, we were in the longest dry spell I have seen in the 25 years I have lived here.  I was in the mode then of just exploring and looking for areas where waterfalls would be after we finally got some rain and got the groundwater back to normal levels.

Little Cow Falls
On that first trip, I ended up hiking over seven miles of what I would call very difficult bushwhacking.  I hiked from the mouth of the valley all the way upstream to where the creek split into two prongs.  The main creek was almost dry at that point, so I focused on exploring that main creek segment and the major tributaries on each side.  You can see a map of that initial exploration at the bottom of this post.  While I did find a number of really nice waterfalls, or what would be nice waterfalls when there was actually some water, all of the major waterfalls were grouped in a relatively small part of the valley.  In fact, once I found the best place to drop down to Little Cow Creek, all the major water features were within a quarter mile of that point.  Additionally, the main creek actually had decent flow, which a month ago was nothing short of amazing for the depth of the drought we were in.

Little Cow Falls
Yesterday, I decided to try it again since the area had received about a half inch of rain a couple of nights before.  I didn't really think it would get the creeks moving without a lot more rain, but I was pleasantly surprised.  Two of the nicest waterfalls are right on Little Cow Creek itself, and with a watershed covering as large an area as this valley the main creek seems to keep a pretty steady flow even in dry times.  After I looked at all the data from the first exploration, I thought for my hike yesterday I would move my parking location and explore the two major drainages around Cincinnati Freedom Falls for routes to and from the locus of all the major waterfalls.  That worked out very well, and I refined my hiking route dramatically.  Unfortunately, the new CP filter for my camera didn't work nearly as well.  After I got home, I found out it made most of the photos unusable, causing distortion and loss of focus at the periphery.

Cincinnati Freedom Falls
So that leads us to today, where I woke up still irritated at how nice the waterfalls were yesterday and how awful my photos of them were.  So back to Little Cow Creek I went this morning.  I threw the offending filter in the trash and headed back out, now armed with enough knowledge of the lay of the land to make the hike fairly simple and painless.  While the sun was very bright and the sky cloudless, terrible conditions for shooting waterfalls, at least my photos from today were in focus.  For the most part, anyway.  Additionally, let's face it - on days like this, it's great to just get out in the wilderness.

Parking location from just off Pine Ridge Road
To get to the parking location, the driving directions are not that complicated.    - From the community of Pelsor (Sand Gap), go 16.2 miles south on Highway 123, then turn right onto FR-1003, aka Johnson County CR-5741.  This is 3.3 miles past the Haw Creek Campground.  If you are coming from the other direction on Highway 123, this junction is 10.5 miles north of Hagerville.
  - Go north on CR-5741 for 5.7 miles, then 
  - Turn right on CR-5680, also known as Pine Ridge Road.  
  - Go 3.5 miles on Pine Ridge Road, and turn left (west) onto a Jeep road.  This area immediately off Pine Ridge Road has been used as a deer camp at some point in the past.  This is deer season and I have never seen anyone else in this valley.  Instead of following the Jeep road around to the left, bear to the right along an old trace road and park.  This was a logging road many years ago and has a berm across it now.  I park right at the berm.

Little Cow East Falls
From this parking location, head down into the drainage directly below you, away from Pine Ridge Road.  This is the large side drainage that flows over the bluffline at Queenie Falls, right between Cincinnati Freedom Falls and Little Cow Falls.  The top of the drainage is literally just a few yards from the parking location.  Unlike most small creeks, bushwhacking along this one is fairly easy.  Follow the drainage all the way down to the large bluffline towering over Little Cow Creek.  Along the way, there are numerous smaller waterfalls, and one, Unnamed Falls #8, that is about 10 feet tall.  Falls #8 had a big birch tree down in the middle of the pool at the base of the waterfall.  It needs a good gullywasher of a rainstorm to clear a lot of that stuff out.  The flow in this drainage is still somewhat subpar, but at least it has some flow going now.  After the length and depth of the drought, it will take a while to get the ground saturated again.  There is another smaller waterfall immediately above Queenie Falls that will look pretty good with normal flow.

Little Cow West Falls
There are large bluffs on both sides of the creek for the entire quarter mile between Little Cow Falls and Cincinnati Freedom Falls, and bluffline breaks are few and far between.  I have included GPS coordinates above for a bluffline break on each side of the creek, but be aware these are doable but certainly not what you would call good bluffline breaks.  To get below the blufflines, look to the right (downstream) of the top of Queenie Falls.  There is a break there you can climb down, then make your way along the base of the bluff toward Queenie Falls.  

Cincinnati Freedom Falls
You'll notice that many of the new waterfall finds already have names, which is something highly unusual for me.  The "namer of waterfalls", my wife Bethany, thought I should keep with tradition in the Cow Creek basin and name all of the waterfall finds for famous cows.  I don't know a lot of famous cows, but one I remember is the story of Cincinnati Freedom.  I'm a big freedom lover, so I gave that name to the waterfall I thought was the biggest and most impressive in this area.  I won't bore you with a lot of detail on these names, but you can follow the links to see where the names come from.  Queenie was Cinci's BFF at the famous cow refuge in New York, so I gave that name to this waterfall nearby.  Today, Queenie Falls did not have a lot of flow, but from its geometry and size, you can tell it will be impressive when creek flows return to normal.

Cincinnati Freedom Falls
Once you make your way below the bluffline, head upstream and you will be able to see Cincinnati Freedom Falls at the head of the canyon almost immediately.  The canyon has huge overhangs on each side that seem to amplify the sound from the waterfall.  This is a beautiful waterfall with a large pool and a couple of smaller streams spilling over the west rim of the bluff into the pool as well.  Being on the main creek, Cincinnati Freedom Falls gets all of the water in the entire drainage above it funneled over the waterfall so it will maintain a nice flow even in dry times like this.  I'll definitely come back for another look at this one with better flow, but today it was spectacular anyway.  On my first visit a month ago, there was much less flow, but the water was crystal clear.  The pool looked like it was 8-10 feet deep.  It's difficult for me to size the height of the waterfall without something next to it to scale it to, but I would estimate it to be in the 28-foot range.

Slot at top of Little Cow Falls
Little Cow West Falls in background
From my previous exploration, I knew there were only a few smaller waterfalls upstream, so I turned back and headed downstream to Little Cow Falls.  The top of Little Cow Falls is only a quarter of a mile downstream from Cincinnati Freedom Falls.  There are actually five waterfalls here, but the two on the west side are fed from the same side drainage, and one of the two on the east side is seepage from the same side drainage that feeds the waterfall outside of the grotto containing the other waterfalls.  So, depending on how you look at it, you could say there are three to five waterfalls here.  I simply refer to the one actually on Little Cow Creek as Little Cow Falls, and the others as Little Cow West Falls or Little Cow East Falls.  I'm a simple man.

Little Cow Falls
You can hike down the right (east) side of the grotto, cross the drainage, and look for the bluffline break just downstream of Little Cow East Falls.  Like the bluffline break at Queenie Falls, it is steep and slippery, but it is usable.  I have now slipped and fell on my butt at each of these so I can vouch for the steepness and slipperiness.  While not nearly as tall as the grotto at Cincinnati Freedom Falls, the one at Little Cow Falls is more enclosed.  You have to pass behind the other waterfall from the east drainage to get into and through the entryway into this circular style grotto.  I'm curious to see if you can get into it at all at higher flow rates, or if it will flood up the entrance to make that impossible.

Little Cow Falls
After climbing the bluff on each side to get back to the top of Little Cow Falls, I found that what works best for me is going back up the way I came down, next to Little Cow East Falls.  Circling back around, when you are opposite from Little Cow West Falls, look up and you will see Elsie Falls pouring over the next bluffline, much taller than the waterfalls below it.  Cross Little Cow Creek at the top of Little Cow Falls and head up this tributary to the west.  Check out Little Cow Falls from the top before heading up the side drainage toward Elsie Falls.  It has a slot at the top, causing it to jet out into the grotto.  I think this one looks better from the top than it does from the base.  

Elsie Falls
Elsie Falls, named for Elsie the Cow, is fairly tall, about 24 feet tall, and had decent flow today.  Keep in mind that this is just a side drainage and most of the creeks in the Ozarks still are suffering from the prolonged drought and still have very little flow.  On my first hike, I was surprised to find any flow at all here and followed this drainage for a good distance upstream.  It is fairly wide and goes a half mile back toward Jim's Ridge to the west, so it has a lot of area to collect drainage from.  From Elsie Falls, I made my way up above the bluff on the left and headed toward Norman Falls, another find from my initial trip here.  Norman Falls is only about a hundred yards upstream, and along the way, I found yet another small waterfall I didn't even notice before because the creek was dry at this point.  It's much smaller, but still "photo worthy", so I decided to name it Ormsby Falls, in honor of Maudine Ormsby, the prettiest little heifer to be made homecoming queen at Ohio State University.  I'm a big OU Sooner fan myself, but many of our relatives are from Ohio and are rabid Buckeye fans so they will get a kick out of this.

Norman Falls on 10/29/2016
Notice the trough eroded
into the rock from the normal
jet of water over this waterfall.
Norman Falls is named for Norman the cow, of course, and is only coincidentally the hometown of my OU Sooners.  Last month, it barely had a  trickle of flow, and today it looked much better.  It is still, however, very subpar and you can tell what a more normal flow rate for this drainage would be.  Look at the photo from last month and you can see where it has carved out the rock in the pool below.  That is where the flow coming over Norman Falls normally falls, jetting out a few feet more from the current base. It has carved a good sized bathtub in the pool, right out of solid sandstone.  This, at least, gives me an idea of just how great this area might be when we get back to wetter times.  

From Norman Falls, I headed back.  You can go right down the spur, keeping to the right of the drainage, and it will take you right to the top of Little Cow Falls.  You can cross the creek and either get above the next bluffline by climbing the embankment here or going back upstream to Queenie Falls and going up through the steeper bluffline break.  In either case, hiking back along the creek in the drainage culminating with Queenie Falls is definitely the way to go.  This is about as good as bushwhacking gets.  There is a minimum of undergrowth and briars and is fairly smooth with a low slope all the way back up to the parking
Norman Falls today 10-30-2016
Note the improved flow, but still much less than "normal"
location.  I literally hiked along the creek all the way to the top of the 
drainage and could see the FJ through the trees when I got to the top.

I have explored a good deal of this valley now, and although there are some nice water features and other scenery in the rest of the valley, I don't know that they are worth the extra effort.  But for the numerous waterfalls I visited today, this hike has a tremendous payload for such a short and relatively easy hike.  I'm sure I'll be back to this one many more times.  This is highly recommended if you are a "no trails" kind of hiker and don't mind a little bushwhacking.
GPS track for today's hike
Blue - GPS track for initial exploration
Red - GPS track for today's hike
Green - Jeep/ATV trail to upper prongs

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Wye Hollow Waterfalls, Arkansas Ozarks south of Fort Douglas

11/29/2016 -Wye Hollow Waterfalls in the Wye North Hollow and Southeast Prong

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Parking Location #1 (w/o a good 4WD):  35.65845   -93.19830,  1732 ft.
  Parking Location #2 (Wye North Hollow):  35.66276   -93.21097,  1044 ft.
  Parking Location #3 (Southeast Prong):  35.65063   -93.21123,  1002 ft.
  Log Roll Falls (Falls #1):  35.66304   -93.20877,  1070 ft.
  Falls #2:  35.66305   -93.20837,  1085 ft.
  Falls #3:  35.66356   -93.20635,  1240 ft.
  Falls #4 and #5:  35.65020   -93.21172,  988 ft.

Pet Friendly:  Dogs off leash may be okay, but there are some areas they may have difficulty getting in and out of.  This is a difficult bushwhack.  If you think your dog needs to be on a 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.  This is many miles on dirt roads, some of them not so good dirt roads.

Hiking Statistics:  We made three short hikes this afternoon, for a total of only approximately three miles.  We made several climbs in and out of hollows and waterfall grottos, but the highest-to-lowest elevation difference was only 240 feet.  It was still raining when we started out, so conditions were less than ideal.  Each of the three areas is the typical kind of bushwhack conditions in remote Ozark hollows, steep and rocky.  

GPS files (.gpx format) - Maps of the GPS track are at the bottom of this post.
  Wye North Hollow track
  Wye Hollow southeast prong track
  Wye North Hollow route to parking
  Wye Hollow southeast prong route to parking

Hole-in-the-Wall Falls
I was just hanging around the house getting a little lunch, and just enjoying the fact that we were finally getting some rain.  It has been such a prolonged drought, this was the answer to a waterfall chaser's dream.  By this time, however, it will take quite a bit of precipitation to get the groundwater restored and get the creeks back to some semblance of normal flow.  Then my friend and frequent hiking partner Dan Frew messaged me to see if I might want to get out for a little hike.  Normally, I hate hiking in the rain.  Today, it was so nice to see some water falling from the sky, I strapped my boots on and headed out to meet up with Dan and another hiking buddy, David Dedman, for a quick hike to Hole-in-the-Rock Falls.  

Log Roll Falls
Hole-in-the-Rock Falls is high on the side of Woods Mountain north of Hagerville.  It is a short bushwhack, but it's also on private land.  The property owners are okay with us hiking out to see it, but I'm not comfortable with giving out directions and coordinates to anything on private property.  At any rate, today there was not a lot of flow in this waterfall.  I think this area only got about a half inch of rain so it will take quite a bit more to get this one moving.  Hole-in-the-Rock Falls is a unique waterfall where the stream of water has eroded a hole in the shelf it used to run out over and now falls through the hole.  It is somewhat like The Glory Hole in nature, but with a much larger hole eroded out of the rock.  David had to head back home, but Dan and I still had a bit of the afternoon left and decided to check out another hollow on the way home that has been on my "go to when we finally get some rain" list.  That's a very big list now.

Falls #5
Before you try to Google "Wye Hollow", or try to find it on the topo maps, let me clue you in.  You won't find it because it doesn't exist, at least not by that name.  These two hollows are actually officially unnamed.  Dan had referred to this as the "hollow shaped like a Y" so often, we started calling it "that Y hollow", and it kind of stuck in my head that way.  My background in electronics many years ago made my head translate that as "Wye" instead of "Y", so when I sat down to actually write up a blog post, I decided to call it Wye Hollow instead of just another 'Unnamed Hollow'.  Too many Unnamed Hollows and Unnamed Falls in Unnamed Hollows gets very confusing when you try to discuss them.  So I'll refer to these two hollows collectively as Wye Hollow (the one that actually looks like a Y", and Wye North Hollow (you got it - the hollow to the north).  There are waterfalls in this area that are significant enough you need to be able to discuss the location by name.

Falls #2
Getting there is fairly straightforward, but does involve a bit of backcountry Forest Service roads.  To get there, from Dover, go north on Highway 7 for 28.7 miles to Pelsor/Sand Gap.  Turn left (west) on Highway 123 for 4.7 miles, then turn left (south) onto Meadows Knob Road (aka FR-1802, CR-5991, or Treat Road).  If you are coming from Hagerville, from the junction of Highways 164 and 123, go north for 22.6 miles, then turn right onto Meadows Knob Road.  Go 3.0 miles on Meadows Knob Road, then bear right to stay on Meadows Knob Road (still FR-1802).  Go another 2.3 miles and turn right (west) onto a local Jeep road.  You can go down this road as far as you feel comfortable to park but if you don't have a good 4WD vehicle with good ground clearance, you should just park here off Meadows Knob Road.  This is Parking Location #1.

Falls #4
The old Jeep road off Meadows Knob Road is more of an ATV trail than a Jeep road, but it is okay for vehicles like my FJ Cruiser, which we were in today.  Dan got out once to move a tree aside, but otherwise it was easily passable for the FJ.  Whether you drive it or hike it, this road is your key to moving around in Wye Hollow.  It goes down the spur and along the ridge between Wye Hollow and Wye North Hollow.  It then splits and goes north down into Wye North Hollow, or south across the prongs of Wye Hollow before dead ending in the southeast prong.  Today, we took the Jeep road down into Wye North Hollow and parked at Parking Location #2.  See the maps at the bottom of this post.
Falls #3 - with Dan Frew
From where we parked, it is only a couple hundred yards upstream to the first waterfall, Log Roll Falls.  Falls #2 is just upstream from that, and Falls #3 is another couple hundred yards further upstream.  All three waterfalls are nice, but Falls #3 is nice and tall; when scaled it, I estimated it to be about 37 feet tall.  There is another good sized waterfall upstream from Falls #3, but we chose not to hike up to it today.  There are towering blufflines on each side of Falls #3, and it is a chore to get up above that bluff.  We did not have a lot of the afternoon left and still wanted to check out the waterfalls in the southeast prong.  The waterfalls in Wye North Hollow were flowing, but not all that well.  As I mentioned earlier, it will take a lot more rain to get back to normal.

Falls #4 (foreground) and Falls #5
We headed back along the Jeep road, to where it had split, and took the other fork over toward the southeast prong.  You cross over a couple of the other drainages in Wye Hollow and eventually get over high in the southeast prong, where the Jeep road dead ends near the main creek in that prong.  From there, it is a very short hike down into the drainage to where two creeks flow together with a waterfall in each branch.  Wye Hollow Falls #4 and #5 are close enough together that I only listed one set of coordinates for them.  The Wye Hollow Twin Falls might be a good name for this pair.  They are each picturesque, but anytime you get two independent waterfalls together like this it is somewhat special.  

Falls #5
Getting to the base of Falls #4 and #5 is a little tricky.  We crossed the creek at the top of Falls #4 and took a narrow ledge from there down to the base of the bluff between the two waterfalls.  It is very slippery and you have to walk in the creek right at the top of Falls #4, so be careful if you take this route.  I'm sure that downstream there will be a bluffline break that would be safer.  There are also waterfalls upstream in each of these creeks, but we decided to save that for another day and get back out while we still had a little daylight.  

All three hikes we did this afternoon were short, and it even stopped raining for us early in the afternoon.  Wye Hollow is an area that I'll come back to for a lot more exploration.  Just the waterfalls I know of in the hollow make it worthwhile to spend all day here, and I'm sure there are more waiting to be discovered.  It is a rugged area, so except for the old Jeep road cutting across the hollow expect some challenging bushwhacking when you hike.  
Green - Jeep road crossing Wye Hollow and Wye North Hollow
Red - GPS tracks for today's hikes (see maps below)
Wye North Hollow GPS track today
Wye Hollow southeast prong GPS track today

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Illinois Bayou and Ouita Coal Company trails, Russellville, Arkansas

11/16/2016 -  Illinois Bayou Trail and Ouita Coal Company Trail

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude)
  Parking Location:  35.31990   -93.18431

Pet-Friendly: Yes, but it is a Russellville city park, so there are rules.  I know, I know, I hate that too.  Dogs are allowed on the trail but are supposed to be on a leash.  I left Boomer at home today as he gets no enjoyment out of our hikes if he can't roam freely.

Motorcycle Friendly: Yes!  There is a large paved parking lot, restroom facilities, and it is a very short (~400 yards) ride off I-40.

Hiking Statistics:  I hiked a little over eight miles today.  This is an easy hike, on a well-traveled trail.  The Illinois Bayou "wildlife observation" trail is a wide, paved, flat trail.  It does not get any easier than this and is only about a mile long if you count all the spurs.  The Ouita Coal Company trail is a dirt trail and a bit rougher, but still a nicely maintained trail.  There are a few ups and downs, but only 76 feet elevation change from highest to lowest points on the trail.

GPS files (.gpx format) - Maps of the GPS track are at the bottom of this post.
  Illinois Bayou and Ouita Coal Company trails track
View of Ouita Island from Illinois Bayou Park

If you are a follower of this blog, you know I make very few posts about trails and hiking within parks.  That's because I rarely go to parks to hike, and most of the places I do hike don't have trails.  Today, however, there were extenuating circumstances.  Three days ago, I managed to trip and fall on my knee while out playing with Boomer.  At the time, I got up, brushed myself off, and everything felt fine.  A couple of hours later, I even finished my exercise sets for the day, doing another 800 repetitions on a leg machine.  But by that evening, my right knee was starting to feel a little painful, and by midnight it was excruciatingly painful.  On the old 0-10 scale, I'm talking about an 11, and I have a fairly high tolerance for pain.  

Pelicans diving for fish in the Illinois Bayou
So the next day I dragged myself down to the doctor, got x-rays and ligament field tests, and was told there was probably no permanent damage but to "take it easy" for a couple of weeks.  "Take it easy" wasn't clearly defined, and after a couple of days of being a couch potato, my knee was feeling pretty good.  So, in order to not do too much too soon, I figured I would go do a little light walking on a nice flat trail.  The Bona Dea trails in Russellville were my first thought, but then I remembered the Illinois Bayou park.  The park had been built up and new trails opened about three years ago, but I had still never visited it.  Knowing it was along Lake Dardanelle's shoreline, my thinking was that this would be about as light and "take it easy" as it gets.  I could go stroll for a mile or two and see how it went. 
Parking Area

So I got my pack, jumped in the FJ, and headed to town.  Agnetha, our FJ Cruiser, was understandably confused about heading toward Russellville instead of heading north but got over it and we got there in a few minutes.  The driving directions for this one are super easy.  From the I-40 Interstate, take exit 78 and turn south, toward Lake Dardanelle.  If you are heading west, you are on Dwight Mission Road, and if heading east, the off-ramp exits right onto Highway 64.  Turn left on Highway 64, and in a couple of hundred yards turn left into the Illinois Bayou Park.  If you are on the causeway and water is on both sides, you went too far.  The park is on the left just before you get to the lake.  On the right is another boat ramp, and the former site of the historic Dwight Mission.  

Illinois Bayou Wildlife Observation Trail
As you enter the park there is a circular drive with picnic tables, barbecue grills, public restrooms, a boat ramp, a boat dock, and a huge parking lot.  The parking area can easily hold a hundred vehicles, but the FJ was the only one in it today.  Bethany had an appointment today, and Boomer would have had to be on a leash, so I spared him that humiliation.  The Illinois Bayou trail starts right at the restrooms, and my first impression was "Wow."  This is the Taj Mahal of trails; flat, paved, and it even had a line down the middle of lanes going each way.  This trail is easily usable by bikes, hikers, joggers, or wheelchairs, by people of any age or experience.  This part of the trail extends for 0.75 miles, with five spurs branching off on the right going down to the shore of Lake Dardanelle.  I checked out each of these.  The first one loops back to the main trail, but the other four dead end at the lake with nice benches.  Between the forth and fifth spurs, there is a volunteer trail that goes right along the shoreline.  The Illinois Bayou trail is called a "wildlife observation" trail, with signs along the way describing the various flora and fauna to be seen here.  I move fairly quietly when I don't have Boomer with me, but I didn't see any wildlife.  I did see tracks of deer, raccoon, possum, and even a bobcat, so I know they are around somewhere in this park.  
End of one of the spur trails

I also saw a lot of mountain bike tracks, so I know they frequent the area as well.  Today, though, I only saw one couple at one point in my hike.  It was just me out for a stroll in the woods by myself today.  At the last spur on the main trail, the paved trail comes to an end.  To the left, a dirt trail continues on eastward into the Ouita Coal Company mountain bike trail.  This entire park is sandwiched between Lake Dardanelle on the south and I-40 to the north.  As you proceed down the trail, it goes through a narrow spit of land sometimes only 20 feet wide, between the lake and the I-40 right-of-way fence.  Once past that area, the trail goes over a couple of low bridges put in for the mountain bikers and the area opens up into what is the bulk of the land in the park.  This was my first visit to the park, and for some reason, I expected just a big loop trail even though I knew this section was a mountain bike trail.  Before it's park days, this was known as the Sweet Spot trail, named for the abandoned convenience store you passed before you turned into the park. 

One of Several Mountain Bike Trail Map Markers
At one time, this trail was used for moto-cross as well as mountain bikes but was now groomed and maintained for mountain bikers.  It is a great jogging or hike trail also, but not exactly a typical loop trail.  It zig-zags all over this section of forest, somehow squeezing about nine miles of trail into the park area.  See the map at the bottom and the right to help visualize that.  I was over two miles into this maze before I saw a map of all the trails posted.  It is a quite useful map, detailing five different sections, all color coded with trail markings on trees of the same color.  It also had the "you are here" mark and three locations for emergency pickup points.  Note to the Russellville Recreation and Parks commission:  it might help folks if you put one of these maps before you enter the maze, so they not only know what they are getting into but also know where the emergency pick up points are.  I saw two more of these maps even further into the trails.

Pond on the Red Trail
By this time, I realized this would not be the simple, flat, easy mile or two strolling through the woods that I was looking for.  My knee was still doing pretty good, so I forged on.  About the time I got to the far eastern part of the orange trail, that knee was starting to feel a little twingey, but by then I was the farthest back in the park you can get.  By the time I got into the blue section of trail, the knee was giving me a little discomfort, and I knew I had probably already overdone it.  Even worse, Bethany had told me I would do exactly that.  I hate it when she is right, which seems to be almost always.  Looking at that color-coded map, I decided to bypass the blue trail and cut over to the green trail I had already hiked.  I went down the red trail on the way back, because I knew it went around a scenic pond.  At the point the yellow trail goes to the green trail, there is a volunteer trail that cuts over to the red trail.

Ouita Coal Company Mountain Bike Trail
Heading back on the trails, I made my way to the parking lot and clocked out at just over eight miles on my GPS trip meter.  My knee was giving me a little pain by this time, so that was giving me a little concern.  I'll know later today or tomorrow if this hike was a big mistake or if it just extends my recovery a little longer.  If you don't see any blog posts for a while, you'll know what happened.  I was pleasantly surprised with the trail system here, and highly recommend it to hikers, joggers, and mountain bikers of all ages and experience levels.  Whoever you are, this park will work nicely for you.  There are plans to extend the trail so that it goes under the I-40 bridge across Illinois Bayou and tie into the trail at Orbit Lane, opening access to the public land along the Bayou on the north side of the Interstate.
GPS track of today's hike
There are approximately two miles more of the 'blue' trail
that I did not hike today

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Sam's Throne Scenic Area, Arkansas Ozarks near Mt. Judea, Arkansas

11/10/2016 - Sam's Throne

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Parking Location:  35.87736  -93.04645,  1985 ft.
  Trail fork to Sam's Throne:  35.87263   -93.05020,  1792 ft.
  Sam's Throne:  35.87069   -93.05245,  1845 ft.
  Valley of the Blind Falls:  35.86221   -93.04597,  1825 ft.

Pet Friendly:  Dogs off leash should be OK.  If your dog is small or old, it might have problems coming back up the bluffline break from the base of the bluffs.  In addition, to get on top of Sam's Throne itself without rock climbing gear and experience, you go up through a bear crack in the backside.  At the top of the bear crack is an additional eight feet or so that you have to climb up.  Dogs, even Boomer the Mountain Dog, won't be able to make that climb and will have to stay below if you check out the top of the big rock.

Motorcycle Friendly:  Yes!  Highway 123 was paved all the way to Mt. Judea back in the late 1990s.  The short section of good shale road when you turn off into the campground is okay for any big bike.

Hiking Statistics:  Boomer and I ended up hiking 4.4 miles, with a highest-to-lowest elevation difference of a little less than 300 feet.  As usual, we went "off-track" to explore further along the bluff.  The actual distance from the parking location to Sam's Throne, including a lap around the base and a climb to the top is only 1.2 miles.  It is 0.33 miles around the base, including an ascent to the top.  So if all you do is go to Sam's Throne, look around and go back, it is a 2.4 mile roundtrip.  I would rate it a moderate hike only due to the steepness of the bluffline break going from the top of the bluffs to the base.  The rest of the hike is easy going.

GPS files (.gpx format) - Maps of the GPS track are at the bottom of this post.
  GPS track - trailhead to and around the base of Sam's Throne

View from top of Sam's Throne
I keep referring to Sam's Throne as a "scenic area".  To be more technically
accurate, it is one of a couple dozen "Special Interest Areas" in Arkansas.  The unique "special" feature here for the official designation just happens to be the scenery, and it certainly has that.  Expansive views of the Big Creek valley, soaring and colorful blufflines, and of course Sam's Throne itself.  I needed a short hike to clear my head today, and this is a good one for that.  I had hidden out on election day at Buzzards Roost, then spent yesterday watching the talking heads on TV wonder how they could possibly have gotten everything so wrong.  As I said, I really needed to get out and shake the 'jibber-jabber' out of my head.  Bethany wanted to "get things done around the house", which sounded kind of like work, so Boomer (our German Shepherd) and I packed up and headed north.

Getting there is pretty easy and straightforward.  From Pelsor (Sand Gap) , go 3.4 miles north on Highway 7 and turn right onto Highway 123.  Go 10.3 miles north on Highway 123 and the Sam's Throne campground entrance will be on your left.  The sign is hard to miss.  If you are coming from the other direction , from Mt. Judea (pronounced Mount Judy; don't ask), go 4.3 miles south on Highway 123 and turn into the campground entrance on your right.  

Along the trail at the base of the bluffs
There are some dirt tracks leading off into the woods to the right, but keep on the maintained shale road.  There is parking space there near the gate, but go ahead through the gate.  The road ends in a roundabout circling a couple of covered informational bulletin boards.  One of those bulletin boards has a map of the area and hiking trails.  A word of caution about this map; the hiking trails look accurate, but they show the road and the roundabout you are at as being at the bottom of the bluffs, and clearly you are not.  So if you use this map at all, don't start with "oh, that's where we are, right there".  

From the roundabout, Boomer and I made a quick trip down to the bluffs on the Chickenhead Wall loop trail.  This area is very, very popular with rock climbers of all experience levels, and I'm sure the name 'Chickenhead Wall' has some significance in rock climber parlance.  This is a short loop trail that goes down to the top of the bluffs overlooking Sam's Throne.  I felt the need to go check it out while we were here, but  I have to admit it is an uncomfortable hike for me.  I have an extremely heightened fear of heights, so hiking next to a real high dropoff drives me nuts.  Boomer has no problem scooting along a few inches from oblivion, but I'll be found trudging along in the brush a few feet back from the edge. 

Sam's Throne as seen from the bluff
I was hoping to get some decent shots of Sam's Throne from the bluff overlooking it, but this has been a weird fall and most of the hardwoods in this area were not only in full leaf mode but for the most part were still green.  Because of all the huge hardwoods growing up around the base of Sam's Throne, this makes it hard to see it for what it is, just a huge rock sitting out there, and makes it look more like a small mountain.  In 'leaves off' season, you can see the sheer rock wall extending up all around the sides of Sam's Throne.  So we hiked the loop back up to the cruiser and went down to the trailhead that would take us out to Sam's Throne itself. 

Along the trail at the base of the bluffs
Down the campground road, about halfway between the gate and the roundabout, you will find a trail leading over to the bluff.  There is plenty of room to park alongside the campground road there.  Immediately down this trial is one of the primitive campground sites.  Take the trail over to the bluff, and it goes right down through a steep bluffline break to take you to the base of the bluff.  Turn left onto the trail and keep the bluff to your left.  This is not a maintained trail, to my knowledge, but is well travelled enough that it is easy to follow and is a very pleasant hike through some spectacular scenery.  At 0.75 miles from the trailhead at the campground road, the trail forks off to the right.  If you don't have a GPS, there will probably be some trail flagging to alert you to the trail split.  It is also right where the bluff above comes to a point, and a huge rock has split off and is along the base of the bluff here.  

This is where the trail branches to Sam's Throne
The trail does go on along the base of the bluff, as rock climbers utilize lots of different features throughout this area.  You want to take the trail branch off to the right to go to Sam's Throne, but Boomer and I decided to check out some more of the bluffs and continued on around for a while before coming back to the trail fork.  It is a short hike along the top of the ridge from the base of the bluff to Sam's Throne, about a tenth of a mile.  When the trees are still decked out with full foliage as they were today, you can't see Sam's Throne until you are right on it.  Then, suddenly, there it is; a huge (I mean really huge) monolithic rock rising straight up from the forest floor.  It is one big, solid chunk of rock, about a quarter of a mile around the base with sheer rock walls 80 to 100 feet high.  

Bear crack - from top of Sam's Throne
The trail goes right around the base of the rock wall, and the valley floor away from the bluff line falls away steeply from the trail.  Sam's Throne appears to be the remains of a very large peninsula of that big bluff you just hiked along.  Over the millenia, the rock has eroded away between it an the bluffs, leaving just this gigantic chunk of sandstone jutting up in the forest.  As you hike around the base, you can see places where folks have camped and climbed the rock wall.  Fortunately, if you are like me and have no rock climbing skills and in insane fear of heights, there is a way to get on top of Sam's Throne.  On the backside of Sam's Throne is a large bear crack.  Two large bear cracks, actually, on each side of a large piece of the rock structure that has split off and settled a little.  You can hike up the bear crack almost to the top.  The last eight feet or so requires a little climbing and scrambling up the last of the rock until you are on top of Sam's Throne.

Along the trail at the base of the bluffs
Boomer could make it up and down the bear cracks just fine, but there was no way he was making it up that last little climb to get on top.  He mumbled something about how unfair it was that he didn't have opposable thumbs, but he seemed quite content to lay in the shade and guard the pack.  From the top of Sam's Throne, you can see forever up and down the Big Creek valley.  The views are very impressive, even for folks like me that don't get any closer than a few yards of the edge.  Even up on top, I found a spot where people had camped for the night.  If you are prone to sleepwalking, I would not advise this as a camping location.  

Bluffs past the branch to Sam's Throne
There is a lot of local history about the area, handed down over the generations.  I had heard that Sam Davis had climbed on this rock, his "throne", to preach to a congregation.  I always wondered who on earth would make a trek out into this wilderness to hear a preacher in the middle of nowhere.  Digging into local lore a little more, it seems that old Sam got dementia as he got older and kind of lost his mind.  He would climb onto the top of his throne and preach, but there was really no congregation.  He did have a booming voice, and it scared the crap out of people in the valley that heard him.  He actually used a pole to bridge the bear crack over to the broken off chunk of rock, and that was the pulpit for his sermons.  Sam Davis had come to the area from Tennessee in the early 1800s, following the trail of Indians that had kidnapped his sister.  He lost the trail after arriving in the Big Creek valley area, but found the towering bluffs and the large rock he called his throne, and decided to carve a home for himself out of the wilderness.  One story is that he heard a woman's voice answering one day while he was calling for a lost cow.  As they kept calling to each other, he found the woman, who turned out to be his long lost sister, now living as an Indian chiefs wife.  I couldn't verify that, and it does sound a little fairytaleish, but it does make a good story.

Going down the other bear crack
After looking around at the vistas from on top of Sam's Throne, I climbed down and Boomer and I went on down the other bear crack.  We continued on around the base of Sam's Throne and headed back the way we came.  As you go back toward the bluff, you will notice another well traveled path branching off to the right.  That follows an old trace road around the contour of the bluff,  but a distance away from it, until it goes up in the drainage east of Sam's Throne.  The road goes to a trail that zig-zags up the opposite bluff in the drainage, then comes back along the top of the bluffs to the Chickenwall loop and back to the roundabout.  As I mentioned, I'm not keen on walking the top of cliffs, and I think the scenery along the base of the bluff is somewhat better anyway, so we went back along the base of the cliff the way we had hiked down.

View from the top of Sam's Throne
There is a waterfall in the area, Valley of the Blind Falls, at the top of the south prong of that drainage east of Sam's Throne.  Had there been any chance of water actually flowing in it today, we would have made the trip over to it.  But alas, we are still in the throes of an extremely prolonged dry spell with no end in sight.  In my opinion, this is a better hike in the winter months, with cooler weather and 'leaves off' season really opening up the views.  

I highly recommend this hike.  Small children may have some difficulty getting up and down through the bluffline break, and probably can't make it up at the very top of the bear crack at Sam's Throne.  But the hike itself is great, with a lot of very pleasant scenery.  Be careful walking around the high bluffs, all of which are completely unprotected.  I joke about my fear of heights, but as you hike you may see some of the markers where people have fallen to their death.  So you don't need to be as paranoid about heights as I am, but it is no joking matter.  Be careful out there.  
GPS Tracks
Red - Parking location to and around Sam's Throne
Blue - Chickenhead Wall Loop