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


  1. Thanks for the details. Had the opportunity to see Cincinnati Freedom in full force glory during last weekend's rain. The creek was too high to cross the the other side to see both sides of the Cow falls, but it was totally worth every drop of rain we hiked through to feel the power of what we did get to feel.

    1. Glad you got to see it at full flow. Were you able to check out Queenie Falls? I have been there several times, but never when there was a lot of flow. It's geometry and height make me think it would be spectacular with a lot of flow.

  2. I liked the arrows for their help in organizing your notes.