Sunday, March 12, 2017

Middle Cow Creek valley waterfalls, Arkansas Ozarks between Limestone and Fort Douglas

3/9/2017 -  Middle Cow Creek valley

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Parking #1 (for Middle Cow Falls only): 35.73484  -93.30536, 1365 ft.
  Parking Location #2 (4WD only!):  35.72695   -93.30663, 1255 ft.
  Parking Location #3:  35.71682   -93.30549, 1622 ft.
  Parking Location today:  35.71886   -93.30402, 1607 ft.
  Middle Cow Falls:  35.73534   -93.30909, 1031 ft.
  Bluffline Break:  35.71996   -93.30312, 1423 ft.
  Falls #1:  35.71977   -93.30286, 1431 ft.
  Falls #2:  35.72022   -93.30292, 1392 ft.
  Falls #3:  35.72102   -93.30315, 1352 ft.
  Falls #14:  35.72100   -93.30296, 1356 ft.
  Falls #4:  35.72461   -93.30638, 1184 ft.
  Falls #5:  35.71921   -93.31180, 1148 ft.
  Falls #6:  35.71438   -93.31111, 1248 ft.
  Falls #7:  35.71322   -93.31046, 1259 ft.
  Falls #8:  35.71325   -93.30983, 1278 ft.
  Falls #9:  35.71324   -93.30822, 1387 ft.
  Falls #10:  35.71339   -93.30768, 1406 ft.
  Falls #11:  35.71323   -93.30666, 1479 ft.
  Wraith Falls:  35.71275   -93.30613, 1505 ft.
  Falls #13:  35.71291   -93.30615, 1501 ft.
  Logging road fork:  35.71759   -93.30394, 1654 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 bushwhacking.

Motorcycle Friendly: No, not at all friendly to your big bike.  The two parking locations today are several miles down dirt roads.

Hiking Statistics:  The Middle Cow Creek valley is only about 800 feet from top to bottom.  On today's hike, we covered most of that, with a highest-to-lowest elevation change of 730 feet.  Boomer and I hiked a total of 6.45 miles.  The terrain varied from relatively open, with a low slope along Middle Cow Creek itself, to very rugged and very steep in the prongs.  With the notable exception of Middle Cow Falls, almost all of the waterfalls are in the prongs.  I would rate this a difficult bushwhack.

GPS files (.gpx format) - See maps at the bottom of this blog post
  Cow Creek Basin Waypoints
  Middle Cow Creek - today's hike track

Middle Cow Falls
After some severe storms blasted through our area again, we again had minimal storm damage at our house.  We did get some much-needed rain, though, so Boomer (our German Shepherd) and I set out to do a little exploring in the Middle Cow Creek valley.  We only got about a half-inch of rain, and we need much more, but hopefully it would at least get the creeks flowing.  Middle Cow Creek is a fairly large drainage for the Ozarks, and as you might expect is the valley between Cow Creek and Little Cow Creek.  Little Cow Creek and Middle Cow Creek both drain into Cow Creek, shortly before Cow Creek flows into Big Piney, just upstream of the low water bridge north of Fort Douglas.  I didn't name these creeks, so I have no idea where the cow theme came from.  None of these valleys are particularly hospitable to bovines, except maybe the few acres at the mouth of Cow Creek where it runs into Big Piney.  That small area is the only privately held land in the Cow Creek basin.  All of Middle Cow Creek valley is public land, managed by the Forest Service.  Hopefully, I can explain this area without confusing anyone with the various "Cow Creeks".  Refer to the expanded map of the whole Cow Creek basin at the bottom of this post as needed.

Hiking along the creek in the east prong
I had been to Middle Cow Creek before, but only as far upstream as Middle Cow Falls, which is only about a half mile from the confluence with Cow Creek.  Through a lot of exploration and trial and error, I had picked an optimal parking location to get to Middle Cow Falls.  Among other lessons to remember from my previous hikes is that the logging roads, shown on the map for Middle Cow Creek, toward the top, are simply not there.  While there are old traces of logging roads that branch off FR-1216, they go only a short distance past berms and nowhere near where the map shows them to be.  The fact that they are shown as straight lines should have been my first clue.  Trust me, straight roads in the Ozarks are mythical.  The parking location #1 coordinates I listed above are the best spot for hiking down to Middle Cow Falls.  I did follow an old trace road all over the face of the spur between the mouths of Middle Cow Creek and Little Cow Creek.  The old forest service maps show a logging road there, but it is way, way, off.

Oops - Parking location plans thwarted
I had explored all of the area downstream of Middle Cow Falls and found a beautiful creek with some deceptively deep pools, but no more water features.  This is a very scenic area, but if you are chasing waterfalls, they are not there.  I was ready to turn my attention to the rest of this hollow and see if maybe there were some huge waterfalls like Cincinnati Freedom Falls next door on Little Cow Creek.  I had also found a pretty good parking location for exploring the rest of the Middle Cow Creek valley, which I have labeled parking location #2.  It is at the end of an old logging road starting at parking location #1, going all the way upstream to where the upper prongs branch off of the main creeks.  Unfortunately for my plans today, on my way down FS-1202A to this spot, there was a large tree down across the road.  There was a sharp drop-off to the right, and on the left other downed trees prevented me from getting around it.  Bummer.  I had actually thought about bringing a chainsaw in case the storms yesterday caused this situation, and took off this morning without it.  Fortunately, I had a backup plan, so we headed for a new parking location. As it turned out, this was a much better launching point anyway.

To get there, 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.   
Falls #11
- Go 1.0 miles on Pine Ridge Road, and turn left (north) onto FS-1202A
- Go 2.2 miles on FS-1202A, then turn left onto a Jeep road.  As you might guess from the name, when I say Jeep road, I mean it.  You need a decent 4WD vehicle with good ground clearance.  If you don't have one, park here. 
- Go 0.4 miles down the Jeep road and park.  This is Parking Location #1, and if you are ONLY going to Middle Cow Falls, this is the best place to park.  Middle Cow Falls is a quarter mile away, straight toward the creek at the bottom of the valley.

Falls #4
Today, however, we were going to explore the upper part of the Valley.  I parked at my best guess for my backup plan, and it turned out to be pretty good.  During my exploration today, I found what I believe is an even better location.  To get to this location, follow the directions above, but after you turn onto FS-1202A, go only 0.8 miles and turn left onto a Jeep road.  Again, Jeep road means have a good 4WD, or park it there and hike the rest of the way.  After you turn onto the Jeep road, go 0.3 miles and turn left at the fork in the Jeep road.  Go down this old road to a large berm and park there.  This is parking location #3 and is a good spot between the big east prong and the southeast prong.  I still have the middle prong and the southwest prong to explore, but the east prong and southeast prong were the two areas I found most of the waterfalls today.

Falls #1
Not knowing what I know now, I went straight down the Jeep road, as far as the FJ would go.  From there, Boomer and I hiked straight down into the east prong.  This area looks like it has been logged in the not too distant past, and there is a growth of hickory saplings along the top of the bluff.  This thicket only goes on for about 20 yards, but just squeeze through that, and then as you start down the bluff it clears up and the hike is much more pleasant.  As we started down the slope we immediately came to our first waterfall.  I found a break in the bluffline that is very steep, but doable, and we were able to get down it to the base of Unnamed Falls #1.  From the bluffline break, we could see another waterfall downstream less than a hundred feet.  Of course, once we were down at creek level, and headed downstream, I could see an easier slope downstream of Falls #2 that we could have climbed down.  The easier route would be to come down the slope downstream of Falls #2, then go upstream on that side along the base of the upper bluff to the base of Falls #1.  In other words, cut across the top of the bench above Falls #2.  From there, you need to go to the other side of the creek to go downstream and climb down to the base of Falls #2.  Both of these waterfalls are a pretty good size, pouring over tall bluffs at least 20 feet.  I didn't expect to find any water this high in the hollow, but they did have some flow even in our current dry spell.

Falls #2
Continuing downstream in the east prong, we found Falls #3 in a side drainage, and Falls #14 (yeah, I know; I missed it on my initial numbering of waterfalls) upstream of it about 40 yards.  This is a smaller tributary that will take a good deal more rain to get flowing.  From there, Boomer and I hiked downstream along the creek in this prong, in fairly open and non-challenging terrain.  As bushwhacks go, this is easy and pleasant hiking.  We hiked almost to the confluence of the east prong and Middle Cow Creek before finding the next waterfall, also in a side drainage.  Falls #4 is a two-tiered waterfall that is only about 15 feet tall in total, but really nice in its configuration.  Falls #4 is also very close to the parking location #2 that I had previously scoped out.  From here, it is only about 300 yards and a climb of less than a hundred feet to parking location #2.  If your hike is limited to hiking up the east prong and back, or up the east prong, then looping back down the southeast prong, this would be an excellent parking spot.

Small Shelter Cave in a side drainage
Boomer and I kept heading downstream and soon came to where this creek flows into Middle Cow Creek itself.   The hike along Middle Cow Creek is also not a difficult bushwhack hike.  The undergrowth is minimal and the slope is moderate.  Like most places in the Ozarks, it is still not a walk in the park but not difficult at all.  I kind of expected to find a huge waterfall flowing over a tall bluff somewhere around the 1000 foot elevation area, but I found nothing but a fast creek with a constantly increasing flow.  Next door on Little Cow Creek, the spectacular Cincinnati Freedom Falls was at about this elevation, and it makes sense that the big sandstone capstone would extend over into this valley.  That was not the case, but this is still a very nice hike along a beautiful creek that very few human eyes ever get to see.   If you have the time to hike this valley from stem to stern, as we did today, it is a great day in the wilderness.  When you get back up into the upper prongs, the climb will start to wear you out, but it is still well worth the effort.

Middle Cow Falls
From Falls #4, it is a little over a mile to Middle Cow Falls.   I believe this was named by John Moore; an old photo of his on Google Earth is the only evidence I could find that anyone else had ever been in this valley.  That's just another reason the Cow Creek basin is becoming one of my favorite hiking spots.  While there are a bazillion great waterfall areas in the Arkansas Ozarks, there is something special about having a huge chunk of the wilderness all to yourself for a day.  Middle Cow Falls was beautiful today.  This is a fantastic cascading type waterfall with a couple of smaller waterfalls feeding it at the top.  It is on the main creek itself, so always has a decent amount of flow, and today it had just about the perfect amount to make it look its best.

Falls #5 - with Boomer
After spending some time around Middle Cow Falls, we headed back upstream.  I had already hiked the areas downstream and along Cow Creek a couple of times, so we started back to explore a little more of this valley today.  A short distance upstream, there is a major tributary on the west side of the valley that had a substantial amount of flow today.  I didn't want to take the time today, but I will come back and explore this creek.  From the topology, it probably has at least a couple of good waterfalls on it.  Further upstream, we passed the confluence of the east prong and continued up the main creek toward the upper prongs.  Along the way, we passed another decent sized side drainage to come back and explore, with a small shelter cave near its confluence with the main creek.  We also passed Falls #5 and Falls #6, both on the main creek, before Middle Cow Creek splits into the three prongs at the upper end of the valley.  I refer to these collectively as the upper prongs, and individually as the southeast, middle, and southwest prongs.  Falls #6 is actually a small waterfall on the main creek with another small waterfall just above it in a side drainage.

Falls #7
There are just a few yards between where the southeast prong splits off the main creek and where the middle and southwest prong split off upstream.  Between those two prong splits, we found Falls #7, which certainly has one of the most unique geometries I have seen in Ozark waterfalls.  Of the three upper prongs, the southwest appears to have the most flow, and the middle prong definitely has the least.  While it was tempting to go up the creek with the most water flowing, today we were parked on the ridge between the east and the southeast prongs, so we started our climb out by going up the southeast prong.  Just a few yards up this creek is Falls #8, and less than 200 yards upstream from that is Falls #9, a really cool looking waterfall.  It has an initial drop of about three feet, then corkscrews down another ten feet or so.  

Falls #9
Upstream, the southeast prong rises very steeply, and the blufflines are sheer and grouped tightly together.  Above Falls #9, we found Falls #10 and Falls #11 in rapid succession, both of them well over 20 feet tall and both classic Ozark shelf-type waterfalls with water spilling over the bluffline to pools below.  Above Falls #11, we found Wraith Falls, not quite as tall as its two sister falls downstream, but still close to 20 feet tall and just beautiful, even with the relatively low flow today.  I can't wait to see this one with more flow.  This was Unnamed Falls #12 only until Boomer and I got back home and unloaded the camera.  As soon as my wife Bethany saw this one, she said, "Is there a Wraith Falls yet?  That looks like it needs to be named Wraith Falls."  And so it is.  When I started exploring this area, we started naming the major waterfalls after famous cows.  It is, after all, the Cow Creek basin.  That being said, I ran out of names of famous cows long ago, and have well over two dozen unnamed waterfalls in this area, so I had no problem with the name.  That, plus the fact that she is my wife and if naming a waterfall makes her happy, I have a lot more unnamed waterfalls where that one came from.  

Wraith Falls
Wraith Falls is almost a twin waterfall of sorts.  Another side drainage comes in right at the edge of the bluff cliff that Wraith Falls flows over, making a small waterfall on the left (east) side.  It was separated enough from Wraith Falls that I made it Unnamed Falls #13.  From here, I decided I was high enough in this prong that there probably was not much more upstream if anything.  We started hiking upstream and then veered over toward where I had left the FJ Cruiser since we were already about at that elevation.  From what we found in the southeast prong, I think I may well have missed a waterfall or two in the east prong.  I thought we had dropped down into it pretty high, but the last couple of large waterfalls in the southeast prong are at a somewhat higher elevation. 

Falls #10
Hiking back around the knob to where we had parked, we almost immediately 
came upon an old trace road.  It was going in the right direction, so we followed it to a small food plot, after which it turned into a fairly nice roadbed.  No tracks or anything, but it looked as if the Forest Service brush hogged it occasionally to keep it clear.  About halfway around the knob, there was a large berm, then it continues on to the old Jeep road we had driven down to our parking place.  In the future, I think it would be best to park at this berm, then go over to the east prong, and back up the southeast prong to make a quick loop of these two drainages that were just loaded with nice waterfalls.

Middle Cow Falls
We completed our hike down the old road to where we parked and headed for home.  Boomer and I had a great day in the wilderness and got to see a lot of new waterfalls.  We still need quite a bit more rain to get back to normal, but I'm hopeful that soon the spring rains will be here and the creeks will get back to levels they should have been all winter.  Boomer ended up injuring two of his legs on this hike, so Momma Bethany has grounded him until they heal up.  That means I'll be out with other hiking companions or on my own the next couple of weeks.  I have a plan for exploring the last two prongs, so I'll be back before too long to take a look at them.  At some point, I will come back and look at a couple of other major side drainages here as well.  All in all, I would call this moderate bushwhacking conditions.  It is definitely a lot easier along Middle Cow Creek than high in the upper prongs but overall not too bad.  I would recommend this to anyone in decent physical condition, but I would leave the kids at home for this one.
Orange - Forest Service Roads
Green - old trace roads ("Jeep roads")
Red - Hiking track
Cow Creek(left and top), Middle Cow Creek (middle, of course) and Little Cow Creek (right)
Orange - Forest Service Roads

Green - old trace roads ("Jeep roads")
Red - Hiking tracks
Blue - track for my initial Little Cow Creek exploration


    1. Wow beautiful waterfalls.

    2. Looks like you need to carry a chainsaw Henry.