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

1 comment:

  1. I love this area. And in a normal year (which this is not) the fall color here is spectacular with not only the hardwood colors, but also just enough pine to have a nice green hue as well. I try to make a point to get here every fall....