Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Stepp Creek and Coon Hollow, Ozarks Northwest of Deer, Arkansas

2/15/2017 - Stepp Creek Valley and Coon Hollow Waterfalls

GPS Coordinates: (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Parking for Stepp Creek:  35.85506,  -93.30045,  2080 feet
  Leave Logging Trail:  35.85071,  -93.30704,  2047 feet
  Upper Stepp Creek Falls:  35.85771,  -93.30904,  1820 feet
  Lower Stepp Creek Falls:  35.85773,  -93.30963,  1805 feet
  Stepp Creek Junction Falls:  35.85846,  -93.31128,  1750 feet
  Coon Hollow Falls #1:  35.86068   -93.32029
  Coon Hollow Falls #2:  35.86246   -93.31872
  Coon Hollow Falls #3:  35.86287   -93.31800
  Coon Hollow Falls #4:  35.86287   -93.31785
  Coon Hollow Cascade:  35.86368   -93.31663
  Stepp Creek Falls #1:  35.86417   -93.31391
  Stepp Creek Spring #1:  35.86429   -93.31242
  Stepp Creek Spring #2:  35.86780   -93.31243
  Stepp Creek Falls #2:  35.86678   -93.31054
  Stepp Creek Falls #3:  35.86673   -93.31046
  Stepp Creek Falls #4:  35.86625   -93.31018
  Stepp Creek Spring #3:  35.87057   -93.31110,  1534 ft.

Pet Friendly: Yes.  Dogs on or off leash should be okay.

Motorcycle Friendly: Marginally acceptable.  It is a little over a mile down a gravel road, but the road seems to be well maintained.  If you ride slowly and watch out for potholes, it should be fine.  If you ride, watch out for the first house right off Highway 16, as they seem to have about a thousand dogs.

Hiking Statistics: The Stepp Creek watershed is just over 1000 feet elevation change from top to bottom, but today we stayed in the upper reaches of the system, just north of Highway 16.  If all you do is go to the more popular Stepp Creek Falls, it is only 1.2 miles each way and a highest-to-lowest elevation change of 331 feet, a fairly easy hike with about half of it being bushwhack.  Today's hike also hit neighboring Coon Hollow and much more of the Stepp Creek valley.  We went 6.81 miles in about five hours.  The highest-to-lowest elevation change was 600 feet, but we did several ascents and descents in rugged territory, which will flat out wear you out.  I would rate today's hike as a difficult bushwhack. 

GPS files:
  GPS track file for hike to Stepp Creek Falls (.gpx format)
  GPS track file for today's hike in Stepp Creek and Coon Hollow
  Stepp Creek and Coon Hollow area waypoints

Upper Stepp Creek Falls
Finally! We finally got a little rain.  Here at the Henry homestead a little north of Dover, we only got about an inch of rain.  Further to the north and west, the rain totals were a bit higher, so when my friend Dan Frew asked if I wanted to get out in the woods for a little hiking, I jumped at the chance.  It has been a long, long, dry spell here in the Ozarks, and it will take a good deal more rain to get the water tables replenished and all the creeks and streams back to normal winter and spring levels.  I was trying to keep my expectations down but was hoping we would have some decent waterfalls.  In any case, I had been working on cleaning up some acreage at home, cutting and burning brush and undergrowth.  I was about ready for a day out in the woods anyway.  I met Dan and David Dedman,  another frequent hiking companion, early today and we set out for Stepp Creek.

Coon Hollow Falls #4
On today's hike, we planned on checking out the upper and lower waterfalls at Stepp Creek, then kind of figure out what we wanted to explore from there.  A lot of folks have visited Stepp Creek Falls since it is in Tim Ernst's excellent guidebook.  I see that my blog post from the last time I visited the area, almost three years ago, has also seen a lot of viewer traffic.  If you only want to go to these more popular waterfalls, you can follow the link to that blog post for more information.  Today, after visiting the two Stepp Creek Falls, we decided to do a little more exploring in the same area, as long as we were here.  

Coon Hollow Cascade
To get to the trailhead, go to Highway 16 west of the Highway 7 junction.  Drive 9.0 miles west of Highway 7 (or 4.1 miles east of Edwards Junction), then turn north on NC-8908 (aka FR-1227).  Go 0.9 miles on NC-8908, then bear left onto NC-8910 (aka FR-1227 or Union Grove Road), go another 0.25 miles, and pull into an old logging road on the left to park.  There is a cattle corral on each side of the road just before the parking location.  The old logging road you parked on will be your trail for over half of the hike to Upper Stepp Creek Falls.

Coon Hollow Falls #3
If you have a GPS, reset it here at the trailhead where you parked.  instead of bushwhacking down to the creek early, just stay on the old logging trail that starts at the parking location.  In this area, there are a lot of hickory and beech seedlings higher in the hollows, making for not-so-easy bushwhacking.  Whenever you can find a nice trail like an old trace road that will get you closer to your destination, take it.  In this case, it is easy hiking on the old logging road and you can get to within 0.17 miles of Upper Stepp Creek Falls.  At 0.6 miles from the parking spot, the old road gets about as close as it will get to the waterfalls, and if you turn left (southwest) off the trail here, the slope is not too bad and the undergrowth is minimal as you go through a section of tall pine trees.    

From the top of Upper Stepp Creek Falls, there is a break in the bluffline on the right as you face downstream that you can use to get to the base of the falls.  This is a really picturesque 25-foot waterfall that tumbles down the face of the rock bluff.  There is a small shelter type cave to the left of the waterfall.  Today, the rains from yesterday had made this waterfall about as picturesque as I had ever seen it.  In my mind, the day was already a success.  

Lower Stepp Creek Falls
Upper Stepp Creek Falls is in the background
Crossing to the left side of the creek as we went downstream, we followed the bluffline down on that side.  As the bottom of the bluffline goes past the top of the lower falls, there is a moderate slope down to the creek and the base of the waterfall.  Again, this is an easy hike all the way.  Lower Stepp Creek Falls is less than a hundred yards downstream of the upper falls.  You can see both Lower and Upper Stepp Creek Falls at the same time, but finding a spot where you can photograph both is a challenge because of the intervening trees.

Stepp Creek Junction Falls
We went downstream to a small waterfall that I had named Stepp Creek Junction Falls on an earlier visit.  This is at the junction of a good-sized drainage on the left as you go downstream.  If you decide to explore this drainage, stay along the bottom of the bluffline on the left as you go downstream, and it will take you up into this tributary to a small waterfall.  More details on this drainage can be found in my previous blog post for Stepp Creek.  There are a couple of small but nice waterfalls in the 5-6 foot range in this tributary.  Since I had already explored there, we decided to look into some uncharted territory in the area.  Coon Hollow and Watson Hollow drain into Stepp Creek as it flows to the north.  Further (much further) downstream, Horseshoe Branch and Gum Branch flow into Stepp Creek before it, in turn, drains into the Little Buffalo River.  I had seen some photos Patrick Caple had taken along Stepp Creek, but could find nothing in Coon Hollow other than the tracks of some old logging roads at the higher elevations.So after a brief discussion, Dan, David, and I decided to venture over into neighboring Coon Hollow.
Coon Hollow Falls #2
We went due west, heading straight up the mountain between the side drainage and Coon Hollow, and on top of this mountain, we found yet another old logging road.  The old road actually wraps around the top of Coon Hollow, mostly on the level, and goes all the way around the top of the Coon Hollow drainage.  David and I went all the way around the top of Coon Hollow while Dan broke off the trail early to check out the main creek in the drainage, and a smaller side drainage.  See the map for this track below at the bottom of this blog post.  Finding nothing, we came back around the road and dropped down to the creek, where Dan had also found nothing.  Not to be deterred, we headed downstream.  On the topo maps, this hollow actually looked more promising at the lower reaches, and that's just what we found.  

Coon Hollow Falls #1
The first new waterfall we found was less than halfway up Coon Hollow from where it drains into Stepp Creek.  In retrospect, it would have been much easier to just go downstream on Stepp Creek to the mouth of Coon Hollow, then hiked up to the five waterfalls along the way.  That's one of the reasons I write this blog; so you readers can learn from my explorations.  Another reason is because I'm old and need to remind myself what I found when I come back to it years later, but let me sound magnanimous for now.  From Coon Hollow Unnamed Falls #1, it was another fifth of a mile downstream to Falls #2.  I have previously checked out the section of Stepp Creek between Stepp Junction Falls and Coon Hollow.  There are a series of long, fast cascades and water slides where Stepp Creek narrows down quite a bit, falling into a long pool at the end of the water slides.  

Coon Hollow Falls #4
Continuing downstream in Coon Hollow, the last four waterfalls are all within a little over a quarter mile of Stepp Creek.  Falls #2 is small but very picturesque.  Falls #3 is a tumbling waterfall that is actually just above Falls #4 but is hidden behind a large boulder.   It also flows perpendicular to the creek and Falls #4, making it impossible to photo the two waterfalls together, but being there yourself you can experience this truly beautiful work of nature.  Falls #4 is what I would consider the best in this drainage, with a wide, flat, shelf for a long waterfall that today had enough flow for four separate waterfalls, all flowing into a large pool.  There is another small cascading waterfall where the pool drains into the creek. 

Coon Hollow Cascade
For reference, I am 6'3" tall
Photo by Dan Frew
A short 150-yard hike further downstream brought us our fifth waterfall find, one of the prettiest cascading water slides I have ever seen, and one of the longest as well.  Dan called this one Coon Hollow Cascade, which is a fitting name for it.  After looking at my photos at home, I realized none of them really showed just how big this waterfall is.  Fortunately, Dan had a photo of me next to for reference and allowed me to use it.  Even with this perspective, a photo really doesn't do it justice.  Once again, being there is just much more awesome.  Although the rains yesterday really didn't have the creek flowing that well after our long drought, this was one fast, frothy water slide down to its big pool at the bottom.  I can only imagine what it will look like with a normal flow of maybe two or three times this much water.

Stepp Creek Unnamed Falls #1
Proceeding down to where Coon Hollow flows into Stepp Creek, we found three more pretty cool water features right there at the junction of the creeks.  On the Coon Hollow creek, there was a small waterfall and a picturesque slot carved into the rock bluff where it empties into Stepp Creek.  On Stepp Creek itself, we found Stepp Creek Unnamed Falls #1.  With the rising sun, it was becoming almost impossible to get decent photos of the waterfalls unless they were mostly in the shade, so I did the best I could on this one.  One of these days, I'll get some lessons and learn how to use my circular polarizing filter.  

Stepp Creek Spring #1
Running into Stepp Creek directly opposite from the mouth of Coon Hollow we found Unnamed Spring #1.  This spring had a significant amount of flow and came gushing out of a hole in the rock just above creek level.  Later on our hike, we found some waterfalls in a drainage high in the bluff, about 200 feet in elevation above this spring.  That drainage was completely dry where it flows into Stepp Creek, so it stands to reason that after the water in that creek flows over the three waterfalls we found, it goes underground and comes out in this spring.  That's kind of the way the Ozarks work.  If true, it could also mean there is a rather extensive cave system back in the mountain.  That all just depends on how long, geologically, all this hydrology has been going on, and how much of the mountain is soft rock like limestone.  

Stepp Creek Spring #2
We decided to explore a little more of this valley, so went downstream another half mile to see what was there.  Across from the mouth of Watson Hollow, we found another spring coming out of the tall rock bluff on the right (east), about five feet above the creek.  Further downstream another quarter mile, we found yet another spring on the same side of the creek, gushing a good stream of water out a couple feet above stream level.  The number of similar springs draining water out of the innards of the mountain between Stepp Creek and Dismal Hollow makes me think even more there could be a good sized cavern system somewhere in the mountain.  Geologists say there are over 10,000 caves in the Ozarks.  There are some really nice ones we know of, but I often wonder how many are hiding from us because they don't have a person sized opening above ground.

Stepp Creek Falls #2
Falls #3 can be seen just upstream in the background
We decided to call it a day and head back, so we angled back up the east slope toward the old logging road.  We went through that small drainage I mentioned previously, and soon found Stepp Creek Falls #2 about halfway up the slope to the old road.  Falls #3 is a small waterfall just upstream of Falls #2.  We hiked upstream on this drainage and found Stepp Creek Falls #4 a short distance upstream.  It was mid-afternoon by this time, with brilliant full sunlight, so, unfortunately, my photos of these aren't the best.  From Falls #4, we hiked up the slope to the old road, and from there it was pretty easy hiking along the old logging road back to where we parked.

Stepp Creek Falls #4
This was a great day to be out in the wilderness with friends, finally enjoying some waterfall chasing after a very long drought.  With the extent of our drought, the streams will soon dwindle away again.  At this point, it will take quite a bit of rainfall to get the Ozarks back to normal water levels.  In the meantime, we have days like this that we can at least get out and see some nice waterfalls.  These are not the biggest or most spectacular waterfalls, and they certainly are not the easiest to get to.  That being said, there is something a little exhilarating about exploring the hollows that no one has been in for decades and finding waterfalls that no one else has photographed or documented.  More than anything, I just like getting out there in the woods.  
Red - GPS track to Upper Stepp Creek Falls
Blue - GPS track for Stepp Creek and Coon Hollow today


  1. Ah of my very favorite areas. The East Fork Little Buffalo is a fantastic watershed that would do well as a Wilderness Area.

    1. I'm all for wilderness areas. Keeps the mechanized crap out and doesn't allow for trail maintenance, which means a better class of people will be all that go in.