Friday, May 5, 2017

Middle Cow Creek East and SE prongs, Ozarks between Fort Douglas and Limestone, Arkansas

5/5/2017 - Waterfalls in the East and Southeast Prongs of Middle Cow Creek

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Parking Location #3:  35.71682   -93.30549, 1622 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.
  Falls #26:  35.71198   -93.30493, 
  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 had a highest-to-lowest elevation difference of 598 feet.  Boomer and I hiked a total of 4.86 miles, in 4.5 hours.  The terrain varied from open to somewhat overgrown, with a low slope, along Middle Cow Creek itself.  In the prongs, it was very rugged and very steep.  In the southeast prong there was relatively little undergrowth, but in the east prong, it was pretty overgrown, making the bushwhack uphill all that more difficult.  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

Wraith Falls (21 feet)
I had spent some time hiking the Middle Cow Creek valley before, exploring most of the upper prongs and the main creek all the way down to its confluence with Cow Creek.  If you find the references to different "cow" creeks confusing, just look at the map at the bottom of this post showing what I call the Cow Creek Basin, encompassing Cow Creek (west and north), Little Cow Creek (east), and Middle Cow Creek (in the middle of those two, naturally).  My previous hikes in this valley were in winter "leaves off" season, and were during a period in which the Ozarks were suffering for rain, so the creeks did not really have enough flow to make the waterfalls as nice as they should be.  I had placed this area on my list of areas to go back to when things were wetter, and we have finally received enough rain to move the needle on Ozark stream flows.   So today, Boomer the Magnificent Mountain Dog (he insists I call him that) and I loaded up the FJ and headed north.

Falls #10
I was only planning on hiking two of the prongs today, the big easternmost prong and the southeast upper prong.  By "upper", I mean higher upstream, not north on the map.  I had refined my parking locations quite a bit, and now have four different parking locations, depending on which parts of this fairly large valley I want to hike.  Today, we headed for parking location #3, between the two prongs I wanted to check out.  There are some tributary creeks and another small upper prong that I have yet to explore fully, but from my previous visits I knew that most of the waterfalls were in the upper prongs, and Middle Cow Falls was way down at the north end of the valley by itself.  To see directions, parking locations, etc. for those other parts of the valley, you can look at my previous blog posts:
  - Entire Middle Cow Creek valley and eastern prongs blog post
  - Southwestern upper prongs and west tributaries blog post

Falls #9
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.   
- Go 1.0 miles on Pine Ridge Road, and turn left (north) onto FS-1202A.  This is also called Jimmy Ridge Road or Jim's Ridge Road, for Jim Stone, who had a homestead here.
- Go 0.8 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 and walk the rest of the way.  FS-1202A is a better road, and somewhat maintained, but depending on your vehicle you might want to park on Pine Ridge Road.
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.  

Small Cascade Above Falls #8
From this parking location, we could hike down either prong and back up the other.  On my last visit, I hiked down the big easternmost prong, down the creek all the way to Middle Cow Falls, and back up the southeast upper prong.  That worked really well, so of course, I thought I would mix things up and reverse my route, going clockwise around the prongs.  As another lesson learned, that turned out to be NOT the way to do it this time of year.  During "leaves off" season, the hike down the east prong is not bad at all.  It is still rugged terrain, but you are hiking downhill, not climbing, and without all the spring and summer vegetation it is not that unpleasant.  This time of year, however, the combination of very rugged terrain, climbing steeply, and undergrowth that is thick in parts of this prong, all add up to a not-so-pleasant hiking experience.

Falls #11
From the berm, Boomer and I hiked over to the southeast prong.  The old road we had followed to the parking location continues on to a food plot, which I am sure is why the forest service keeps the path brush-hogged.  On the other side of the food plot, there is an old trace road that does not show up on any of the old Forest Service maps and is barely discernible now.  It is easy to lose this trace road, but I told Boomer to "lead", and that's just what he does.  He knows the old trace road is the best path, and he will attempt to lead me down it.  It looked like this old trace road had extended around the tops of the upper prongs last time, so I decided to stay on it to the very top of the southeast prong.  The last time I was here, I found the trace road after my climb out from Wraith Falls.  When looking at the maps after that trip, I was wondering if there might not be more waterfalls higher up.

Falls #26
At the top of the southeast prong, the creek was just a trickle, and we started hiking right downstream along the creek.  I was surprised at how rapidly the flow picked up in the stream.  I was also pleasantly surprised with how little undergrowth there was along the creek, even high in the drainage where it normally gets quite thick.  We soon came to a new find, Falls #26, a smaller waterfall high in this prong about a tenth of a mile upstream of Wraith Falls.  We continued hiking downstream, and before long came to the top of Wraith Falls.  When I first found this one, it only had a trickle of flow over the waterfall but had streams of water dripping off the bluff on the right side.  My wife Bethany, who is also my "namer of waterfalls" (I long ago ran out of appropriate names) saw the photos of it and immediately said "That looks like Wraith Falls.  Is there a Wraith Falls?"  Well, now there is.  Out of all the picturesque waterfalls I have found in this valley, this one and Middle Cow Falls are the only ones with names.  So far, at any rate; stay tuned.

Wraith Falls (upper half)
The top portion of Wraith Falls, as it turns out, is quite spectacular looking by itself.  There is a shelf next to it that provides a good tripod spot.  After taking some photos, we continued down on the left to an easy break that allowed us to come back upstream to the base of the waterfall.  This is kind of a neat waterfall in that there are several perspectives it can be shot from, and none of them bad.  It almost looks like a different waterfall depending on where you shoot it from.  I should also note a couple of really nice features of this prong.  This is what I would call the main prong of Middle Cow Creek, with definitely the highest flow of any of the prongs.  It is also quite shady and open along the creek.  Today, we had bright sunshine all day, with low humidity and not a cloud to be seen anywhere.  Yet, I didn't have that much trouble with the sun blowing out the tops of the waterfalls in my photos because, for the most part, they were shaded.  Around each of the major waterfalls in this prong, there are large trees, primarily umbrella magnolias, that provide almost total shade.

Falls #13
We stayed on the left side of Wraith Falls as we hiked downstream just a few yards, where there is a really good bluffline break that slopes right down and around under the bluff.  After spending some time taking in this great little waterfall, we went just around the bluff on the right to Falls #13.  Falls #13 is a small waterfall, about nine feet high, flowing over the same bluff as Wraith Falls, just around the corner from it.  When you come down the bluff to get to the base of Wraith Falls, you can see it.  From there, we hiked downstream on the right (east) side to Falls #11.  Once you drop below Wraith Falls, I have found the east side of this prong to be the best for finding bluffline breaks and hiking in general.  On Falls #11 and Falls #10, you have to go quite a bit downstream to find the breaks, then go back upstream to the base of the waterfall.  The acoustics at Falls #11 is a little weird.  The bluff on the right catches the sound and redirects it back into the grotto, making it sound like the rumbling of a jet engine.

Falls #10
Heading downstream to Falls #10, Boomer and I found our bluffline break and headed upstream to the base of the waterfall.  The waterfalls are close enough together in this drainage that if you add up the hike down to an access point and back to the base of the waterfall, you end up hiking double the distance.  Unnamed Falls #10 may need a name pretty soon.  This one is only 26 feet tall but is one of the coolest waterfalls I have ever experienced.   I mean cool both colloquially and literally.  Almost cold, in fact, even though it was a warm sunny day today.  The grotto at the base of Falls #10 is very different than it was when I was here in winter.  The large umbrella magnolias completely shade the area, both shielding from the sun and hindering any undergrowth from sprouting.  The entire area is deeply shaded and very open under the high canopy of the trees.  As the waterfall hits the rocks below, it kicks up a fine mist, and the falling water creates a breeze that blows it out into the ground level of the grotto.  That provides quite a bit of adiabatic cooling.  It was noticeably cooler here.  Back in the day, when folks lived all through these hollows, what a great area this must have been to chill out at during the dog days of summer.

Falls #9
The mist I mentioned was not just at Falls #10, although it is more noticeable there.  If you look at several of the photos of waterfalls in this prong, you can see "God beams" of light making its way through the foliage of the canopy above, lighting up the mist in a beam.  Dragging ourselves away from Falls #10, Boomer and I went downstream to Falls #9.  This is a pretty cool (colloquially) waterfall as well, kind of corkscrewing down as it cascades steeply throughout its fall.  There are a number of smaller cascades just downstream that add to the whole effect.  Despite a lot of frothing water and about 3/4 inches of rain a little over a day ago, the water throughout this creek has been exceptionally clear.

Falls #8
Downstream from Falls #9, there is a small but incredibly picturesque waterfall before you get to Falls #8.  On my first trip through the area, I didn't think it was big or special enough to be "photo worthy", but it certainly was today.  Falls #8, as well, is relatively small compared to its brethren (sistren?) upstream, but today had enough flow to look great.  Just downstream of Falls #8 is the confluence of this southeast prong with the other upper prongs, flowing into the combined Middle Cow Creek.  I went upstream just far enough to photograph Falls #7 in the west prongs since it was only a stone's throw away.  Boomer and I then turned downstream to hike down Middle Cow Creek to its juncture with the large east prong.  

Falls #7
The entire hike down the southeast prong was not too bad at all, as the canopy of trees kept it all shaded, and there was minimal undergrowth because of that.  As you can see on the map below, the upper prongs all flow together at about the same point, but the east prong runs almost parallel to Middle Cow Creek, flowing into it a full mile below the juncture of the upper prongs.  In "leaves off" season, it is, of course, a lot more open and therefore much easier hiking.  This time of year, it is more challenging due to bushwhacking through the undergrowth, but we did find an old trace road running along the creek that makes the hiking at least a little easier.  It crosses the creek several times, going to the side of the creek that is inside the curves.  Boomer was able to lead and keep track of it much better than I could have.  This is a faint trace road from the days of mules and wagons, and not on any of the old Forest Service maps.

Falls #5
Along the mile of hiking along Middle Cow Creek to the east prong, there are a couple of small waterfalls along the way, Falls #6 and Falls #5.  Just downstream of the upper prongs juncture and Falls #6, there is another nice little waterfall, Falls #22, just up a tributary creek on the left (west).  I had intended to check that out this trip and forgot all about it until I was well downstream.  At Falls #5, there is another short waterfall in a side drainage just to the west.  After turning up the east prong, we immediately started noticing the much denser undergrowth and rugged terrain in this prong relative to the southeast prong we had just hiked down.  The half mile plus from the juncture of the east prong and Middle Cow Creek up to Falls #2 was twice as tiring as the four miles we had hiked up to that point.  

Falls #4
Falls #4 is about a quarter mile up the east prong, and we stopped to take some photos.  This is a pretty little waterfall in a side drainage that runs through foliage, preventing a good photograph this time of year, but nonetheless is nice to experience.  Heading back upstream, the east prong gets both steeper and rougher, and the spring greenery does not help the climb up this drainage.  We made our way up to Falls #3 and Falls #14, both in the same side drainage, and found the flow in them to still be disappointing.  Continuing upstream, we soon came to Falls #2.  This one is pretty but was very wet and slippery all around the waterfall on both sides of the grotto, as well as quite steep.  It is a real challenge to avoid slipping on your butt in the mud here, and I failed that challenge miserably.  To his credit, Boomer did not laugh.  At least, not out loud.

Falls #2
Continuing up to Falls #1, I remembered from my previous visit that the bench above Falls #2 on the west side was somewhat sloped, so we made sure we went up the left (east) side to get above the waterfall and to the base of Falls #1, just a few yards upstream.  Falls #1 does not have the flow that the big waterfalls in the southeast prong have, but it is the largest at about 42 feet tall.  The bluffline break between it and Falls #2 on the right (west) side was much more difficult to go up than it had been to come down through on my previous visit, but we managed.  I continued to go upstream from Falls #1 for a distance, just to satisfy myself that we had not overlooked another waterfall higher up in the drainage.  

Falls #1 (42 feet)
We climbed up the bluff out of the drainage and into the dense thicket of maple and birch trees I had run into on my first visit here.  It is even denser this time of year, but at least we didn't run into any briers or blackberries, and it is only 20 to 30 yards through the thicket until you get to the logging road.  After the amount of effort to climb up through the east prong this time of year, I'm re-thinking whether it is even worth it.  Falls #1 and Falls #2 are very nice, but are grouped closely together at the top to the drainage, and are much more easily accessible just by going down from the logging road and right back up after you see them.  The southeast prong is definitely the one to hike back UP through, as the climb is broken up more with big waterfalls and there is less challenging terrain and hardly any undergrowth.  The next time I do this hike, I will explore the center prong, which I have yet to do, or I'll hike down the southwest prong and back up the southeast prong.

Boomer - always showing off
We completed our hike down the Jeep road to where we parked and headed for home.  Boomer and I had a great day in the wilderness, and I got to cross another one off my "go back to when we get rain" list.  We still need more rain to get back to normal, but it all looked great today.  I will come back and do some more exploring, as well as check out the southwest prongs with wet weather and green scenery.  All in all, I would call this difficult bushwhacking conditions this time of year, and in winter I would rate it as a moderate bushwhack.  I would recommend this to anyone in decent physical condition, but I would leave the kids at home for this one.  As you can see by the photo at right, dogs should be just fine.  Boomer would always rather be in the water splashing and swimming, but when we see a log like this, we practice his "mount" command.  He puts up with me and does his best to keep me out of trouble.  He truly is The Magnificent Mountain Dog (TMMD).  There, Boomer, I said it.  Hopefully, he won't get all big-headed when he reads this.
GPS Track for today's hike
Red - Hike Track
Green - Jeep Road
Orange - Pine Ridge Road/Jim's Ridge Road (FS-1202A)

Previous Hikes in the Middle Cow Creek Valley
Orange - Forest Service Roads
Green - old trace roads ("Jeep roads")
Red/Blue - Hiking tracks
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/Blue - Hiking tracks

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