Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Wild Cave tour at Blanchard Springs Cavern Recreation Area, Ozarks near Fifty-Six, Arkansas

7/30/2019 - Wild Cave Spelunking, Blanchard Springs Caverns

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Park for Cavern tours:  35.96392,  -92.17871  
  Park for Blanchard Springs:  35.95889,  -92.17539,  439 ft.
  Blanchard Springs:  35.95860,  -92.17740,  483 ft.
  Mirror Lake:  35.96349,  -92.17094,  416 ft.
  Gunner Pool:  35.99507   -92.21349,  461 ft.
Pet-Friendly: No dogs allowed in the cave.

Hiking Statistics:  For the first time in seven years, I have no idea.  There is no way to get a GPS track, so all I know is we were in the cave system for just over six hours.  Our guide said the Titan Room was about 0.6 miles from where we entered the cave, but between the ups, downs, overs, cutbacks, squeeze throughs, and corkscrews, it seemed like about a good eight mile bushwhack.  If I rate this as I do my other hikes, I would rate it as a difficult bushwhack based on the technical aspects.  I was so enthralled by what I saw and the ongoing conversation with our guide that I was never really fatigued.  I was still pretty jazzed at the end of the hike.

GPS files (.gpx format) - See maps at the bottom of this blog post
  GPS doesn't work in the cave, and you really don't need it for Blanchard Springs Falls or Mirror Lake; see the map below.

Rick and Tom in the Titan Room.
The columns behind us are 85 feet high.
Everyone knows by now how much I love waterfalls, caves and night photography.  It should come as no surprise that the Blanchard Springs Recreation Area is one of my all-time favorite places, particularly in the summertime.  When other creeks and waterfalls dry up due to lack of rain, Blanchard Springs and Mirror Lake Falls are still in full splendor, fed by the seemingly endless supply of water in the large cavern systems underground here.  When it is too hot and humid to explore new hollows or even hike most trails, it is 58 degrees in the most beautiful cavern I have ever seen.  In the Milky Way season of April through September, the Milky Way is perfectly aligned with Mirror Lake and Mirror Lake Falls for some spectacular astrophotography in a dark sky area.  So when my brother Tom and his wife Jeannette came up to spend a few days with us, what better place to go this time of year for Bethany and me to show them some of the best Arkansas has to offer?

Blanchard Springs is about a 2.5-hour drive from our home north of Dover, but fortunately, we have good friends that have a nice cabin right on the White River only 8.9 miles from Blanchard Springs.  For those driving to Blanchard Springs for a day trip, getting there is still easy.  The turnoff to Blanchard Springs is right off Highway 14, so this is one of those rare hiking trips in which you can stay on the pavement for the entire drive.  The turnoff is well marked with a sign, 1.1 miles east of the small town of Fifty-six, Arkansas (see the map below).  After you make the turn, there are signs on the paved access road to the visitor center, Mirror Lake, and Blanchard Springs.  Blanchard Springs is operated by the Forest Service.  There is no fee for entrance to Blanchard Springs Recreation Area, but there is a small fee for the guided tours.

This curtain is formed by air currents less than 1/8 inch thick
The Dripstone and Discovery Tours are $12 each, with a 50% discount if you have a "Parks Pass" - the interagency pass also called a Senior Pass or Golden Passport.  If you don't have one and are over 62 years old, get one.  It is a one-time fee of $80 for a lifetime pass that will get you into all the national parks and other areas run by the federal government agencies.  The Wild Cave Tour is somewhat more expensive at $86 each but is a much longer tour with much fewer people and all equipment is provided for you.  The Dripstone and Discovery tours have just a $1 cancellation fee, but there is no refund on the Wild Cave tour.  If something does come up you can cancel your reservation, but they keep your money and you have one year to reschedule your tour.

You can schedule all of the tours and pay for them online, and that is advisable.  I was able to get reservations for the four of us on the Dripstone and Discovery tours, but the Wild Cave Tours were sold out.  They only have one tour a day on the days they actually schedule them, so there are not a lot of slots to start with.  When we went on the Dripstone tour yesterday, I inquired about whether there was a cancellation list, and as luck would have it, they just had a couple of cancellations for the Wild Cave Tour the next day.  Tom and I snapped up tickets for those two slots before someone could get them online.  Woo-hoo! Bethany and Jeannette had decided to opt-out of the Wild Cave tour anyway, but Tom and I were now set!

Near start of Wild Cave Tour
We arrived at the visitor center a few minutes before our 9:30am departure time and met Aaron, our guide for the day, and the other four guys that would be in our tour group.  There is a separate space in the visitor center just for staging the Wild Cave tours.  Aaron gave us what we would have called a pre-job brief at the nuclear facility I worked at.  He covered basically where we would be going, what the conditions were, hazards involved, safety measures, and contingencies for rescue if that were needed.  This tour is much more strenuous than the Dripstone and Discovery tours of the upper and lower cavern systems, and since there were no nice cement trails and handrails, there are quite a few more hazards.  Aaron laid out the conditions and hazards in plain terms, then gave us a chance to back out if it seemed to be more than we bargained for.  They don't discourage anyone from going, but they do want to be realistic so there are no surprises.  I'll just say this; if you aren't in decent physical shape or if you have some kind of limiting medical condition, this isn't for you.  To put that in perspective, I'm almost 67 and I had the time of my life, I really enjoyed it.  But I also get out and hike a lot; you should know your body, you decide for yourself.

A cave salamander, the largest animal living in the cave
After our briefing, we suited up and I leaned my first lesson on preps for this hike.  The only thing you need to bring is an extra pair of shoes to wear out (I took my water shoes), water, and a snack or light lunch to eat when you stop for a break half-way through.  They supply overalls, helmet, headlamp, knee pads, gloves, and a pack for the stuff you are taking in with you.  I'm not sure what the overalls are made of, but I think maybe kevlar or something equally as tough.  They are also a little heavy and airtight, so after trying it on, I opted to go shirtless and left my t-shirt at the staging room.  After seeing how active we were, I'm glad I did.  Even though it was 58 degrees, there were parts that I was active enough I still sweated.  I would have overheated with a t-shirt on as well.  

Speaking of stuff you take with you, DON'T take a good camera.  I left my Z7 back at the cabin and took only my cell phone for taking pictures.  A camera will get banged up pretty bad, there is no good place to pack it, and it will make it really tough to keep up and maneuver in some places.  Leave it in the car.  I put the cell phone in the only velcro pocket inside the coveralls, and put my snack food and two bottles of water in the pack Aaron provided.  I only needed one bottle of water, your mileage may vary.  The extra shoes you carry in for walking out of the cave after the tour can be any style.  However, DO wear a good pair of hiking boots for the tour.  You need good ankle support and good traction.  There is damp clay throughout much of the area you will be hiking, and it can get slippery even with good soles like my Oboz Bridgers have.  They were pretty gummed up with clay by the time we completed the tour.

We started the tour by getting on a bus from the staging area at the visitor center and riding around to the airlock that the Discovery tour uses to exit the cave.  Aaron gave us another briefing here, we put our gloves and knee pads on and went in through the airlock.  We actually used the lower cave trail, which is pretty nice, until we got through the "ghost room" (more on that later), and further down just past the huge waterfall-like flowstone where they have benches for the Discovery tour.  We left our extra pair of shoes off the trail here and started the actual Wild Cave tour.  It only takes a few minutes to get to this point, and from here on it is off the lighted trail and into areas of the cavern with no trail and only the headlamps on your helmet for lighting.

To be honest, we made so many turns down various passages, so many ascents, and descents, that I completely lost track of where we were in relation to the outside world.  Aaron is an extremely capable and experienced spelunker and very knowledgeable about the history of cave exploration here.  He kept up a continuous dialog about where we were, the geology of the cave, what kind of formations we were looking at, and historical points of interest.  For much of the route we took, there was a line run to act as an antenna for the radio he carried in the event we had some sort of emergency.  The cavern system here is roughly divided up into three sections; the lower cave that is where most of the Discovery tour goes, the upper cave, where the big Cathedral Room of the Dripstone tour is, and the middle cave, which you don't really get to see unless you go on this Wild Cave tour.  During the tour, we transitioned from one section to another, and Aaron often pointed out places where you could see a distinct transition between the huge limestone layers that each section of the cave formed in.  

At the "Death Ledge"
After dropping below a huge tube that carried the ancient underground river that drained to expose the cavern spaces, we ended up at a precipice Aaron called the "death ledge".  It's just a big cliff over a large pit that you don't want to fall to your death in, but for folks like me with a fear of heights, the name sounded a little ominous.  Here, we all turned off our headlamps for a couple of minutes to experience complete, total, darkness.  Yes, I stayed well back from the edge.  Here, Aaron also pointed out the flat ceiling over the abyss, and let us know that we would be taking a passage directly above that.  He mentioned that because the ceiling was so thin here, we would just be crossing it one at a time to prevent a collapse of the ceiling.  I made a mental note to let my brother Tom go ahead of me to properly test the structural integrity of the ceiling.

The Titan Room
Continuing on with the tour, we made numerous twists, turns, ups, and downs. Along the way, there were all kinds of cave formations that Aaron discussed with us, and the occasional dead bat that had been marked - some were identified over nine years ago and still weren't fully decomposed.  There were also a few locations where biologists had brought horse poop to catalog the cave life that would come out to feed on it.  Bat guano is the primary source of organic material for the cave crickets and cave spiders, and they are the primary source of food for the cave salamanders, the apex predator of the caverns.  Of course, the primary points of interest were all the various calcite cave formation, the "dressings" and "decorations" of the cavern; stalagmites, stalactites, curtains, columns, and flowstones.  There were also helictite formations, a speleothem (cave formed mineral) that appears bush-like or moss-like because it grows at all kinds of angles that seemingly defy gravity.  The helictites also grow on the sides of walls, not just the floor or ceiling, which makes their growth mechanism all the more mysterious.  There were a lot of helictites along our Wild Cave tour, something you rarely see on the Dripstone or Discovery tours.

We eventually made our way to the Titan Room, a large room with huge columns resembling Titan ballistic missiles.  We paused at a ledge here to eat lunch, rest, and take in the beauty of the cave.  It seemed to me that there was a whole lot of cave past the end of this room, and Aaron assured me there was.  He has been down into the Titan Room and has explored some of the passages further on.  New passages, huge rooms, and connections to other cave systems are still being found, but the National Forest Service has a policy of conservation and protection, not exploration, so very little exploration is done compared to Carlsbad or Mammoth caverns, which are operated by the National Park Service.  Blanchard Springs is the only cavern system operated by the National Forest Service.  

The guides on the Wild Cave tour are very experienced cavers that are trained to assess the capabilities of the people in each particular group and have bypass passages and different routes that can be used for folks that may struggle in a particular area.  They have places where they can take people, and places where they cannot take people (apparently the other end of the Titan Room is a  "not").  By this time, Aaron had assessed our small group as we utilized tenuous footholds, ledges, and slick areas, and had decided we were fit and competent enough to get "the works".  Oh my, what a fun adventure.  I'm used to climbing, hiking rough areas, and utilizing my skills as a champion "Ozark butt slider" on bushwhacks in wilderness areas, but this is different.  

At one point we had to pull ourselves up and use our hands and feet to brace on walls and "spider crawl" down about 30 or 40 yards of a passage, eight or ten feet above the passage floor.  If you have ever watched American Ninja Warrior on TV, this is similar to the "Jumping Spider" obstacle.  I loved it.  There was also a passage called "The Corkscrew" that you can probably envision, and at one point a choice of two narrow passages, one called "Ham Sandwich" and one called "The Birth Canal".  I had my pack hung sling-style on my side, and I still had to take it off to get through, then have it passed forward to me.

Small wooden placards with the names of Boy Scouts
on early exploration.  Good stewards of the cave,
they left these instead of damaging the cave wall.
On the way back, we passed points that we had seen earlier, but for the most part, took an entirely different route.  We passed a large room that bats packed into for a couple of weeks every October to do nothing but copulate.  Yeah, bats are mammals, not birds, and they "do it" kind of like people do, except hanging upside down.  I'm still on the fence as to whether I want to come back in October to see that, but I think it would be interesting.  We also saw some signs of the early cave explorers.  After the Cathedral Room and Ghost Room were discovered in the early 1960s, the Forest Service essentially shut down all cave exploration and concentrated on developing the elevators, tunnels, and trails to open the caves up to the public.  The caverns here are among the most highly decorated and best-preserved caverns in the world.  

At the end of our off-trail adventure, we made one more descent down a slick clay surface where I basically put my boots together, squatted down, and skied to the bottom of the slope.  I think my form was pretty good.  To cap off our day, as we approached the area where the giant flowstone was on the Discovery tour, Aaron noticed the lights being turned on for an approaching tour group.  Knowing that part of the experience for the Discovery tour was to sit on the benches there and turn off all lights for that "complete and utter darkness" experience, he had us wait at the bottom of the large room there.  When the lights turned off, we screamed and yelled at the top of our lungs.  The next day, on the Discovery tour with Tom, our guides were talking to us about the Wild Cave tour, and when they found out we were on it the day before, said: "so YOU were the ones...".   No one cried or had a heart attack, so it was all good and added to the experience for those folks as well.

After getting back to where we left our extra shoes, we changed into them to get up on the lighted trail and carried our boots.  On the way out, Aaron gave us a really good tour and discussion of the best parts of the Discovery Tour, the giant flowstone and the Ghost room, a large room that is highly decorated like the Cathedral Room.  He also pointed out a small hole at the top of a clay mound, which is a recently discovered passage into a room as large as the Ghost Room, and as highly decorated with formations.  Aaron had obtained permission to take a couple of NFS employees into this room, called simply Ghost Room 2 after it had been charted and sampled by geologists and other scientists.  While in Ghost Room 2, he noticed yet another small hole that had airflow out of it.  Sticking his head and upper body into the opening, he found yet another large room about the same size with the same high level of fantastic formations.  This Ghost Room 3 is now waiting on proper sampling and charting before anyone is actually allowed into it, so as not to contaminate it beforehand.   

The Ghost Room
The point I am making with this is that there is probably much more of this cave system and many others waiting to be discovered.  One of the guides at Blanchard told me there are an estimated 10,000 caves in the Ozarks.  I believe it.  There are over 400 known ones just in Stone County where Blanchard Springs is, and who knows how many still unknown.   The Wild Cave tour is a great way to experience what it is like to get into a wild (unknown and uncharted) cave, with the benefit of going with a highly capable and competent guide to minimize the hazards.  I highly recommend this hike, with the caveat that it simply isn't for those not in decent physical condition or with medical conditions that might be prohibitive.  I can't believe we have lived in Arkansas for 28 years and this was the first time I took this tour.  It will certainly not be the last time.  

Blanchard Springs Recreation Area

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Mitchell Branch and Sinco Gorge area waterfalls, Ouachita National Forest near Danville, Arkansas

5/19/2019 Sinco Gorge Falls, Mitchell Branch Falls, Mitchell Branch Swimming Hole, and Seed Forest Falls

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Park - Sinco Gorge Falls:  35.010638,-93.669900
  Sinco Gorge Fall:  35.010200,-93.670700
  Sinco UNF #1:  35.010306,-93.670508

  Park - Mitchell Branch Falls:  35.025616,-93.641169
  Mitchell Branch Falls:  35.023693,-93.641298
  Mitchell Branch  UNF #1:  35.024770,  -93.641079
  Mitchell Branch UNF #2:  35.024408,-93.641285
  Mitchell Branch UNF #3: 35.024249,-93.641532

  Park - Mitchell Branch Swimming Hole:  35.024929,  -93.629051
  Mitchell Branch Swimming Hole:  35.024634,  -93.628846

  Park - Seed Forest Falls:  35.026628,  -93.613453
  Seed Forest Falls:  35.031800,  -93.620400

  Park - Kirkwood Swimming Hole and Falls:  35.051774,  -93.578222,  422 ft.

Pet-Friendly:  Dogs should be okay off leash.  This is a somewhat rugged area, but each waterfall has access to the bluff above on one side or the other.  That access may be somewhat steep and slippery so some smaller dogs may struggle.  Boomer was okay navigating the bluffline break on the east side of Mitchell Branch Falls, but not the other side.  I had some difficulty on that one myself.

Hiking Statistics:  Today, Boomer and I went to five different locations for short hikes.  The elevation differences were only 100 to 200 feet, and the distance ranged from 100 feet (Mitchell Branch Swimming Hole) to about 1.8 miles (Seed Forest Falls).  Collectively, we got a little exercise in today, but individually none of these are all that strenuous.  All are bushwhacks except for our stop at Lower Kirkwood Falls and swimming hole, which is a drive up and park kind of place.

GPS files (.gpx format) - See maps at the bottom of this blog post
  Mitchell Branch area waypoints
  Mitchell Branch Falls GPS track
  Seed Forest Falls GPS track
  Sinco Gorge Falls GPS track
Links to blog posts for other nearby areas:
  Kirkwood Swimming Hole and Waterfalls on Mill Creek

Unnamed Falls #2 at Mitchell Branch
- with Boomer and Rick
Boomer (our German Shepherd) was finally released from restricted duty, and he was itching to get back out there.  He had five tumors under his skin that our vet surgically removed (all benign!) and has been on a "no hiking" order ever since.  I had been wanting to check out a number of waterfalls in the Ouachitas that I had coordinates from the world waterfall index, but absolutely no other information.  Other than Mitchell Branch Falls, which is in Tim Ernst's Arkansas Waterfalls book, my diligent internet searching could turn up nothing on any of these others.  These were also on smaller, more rugged creeks that were highly unlikely to ever have been floated by kayakers, so I have no idea who identified them, named them, or anything.  If you know anything about these, please give me whatever backstory you can in the comments.  

Sinco Gorge Parking Location
Today, I wanted to limit Boomer to some short hikes with some varied ruggedness, just to see how he would do.  Bethany heard the keywords "bushwhack" and "unknown terrain" and opted out.  Smart girl.  I picked some that would be not too long, not too strenuous, and all along a route that I could park, hike, and move on to the next.  I'll give driving directions for going the way I went today, and completing the big loop starting and stopping in Danville.  You can pick which direction you want to go, or whether you just want to go to one of these five parking locations and back out the same way.  I'll start my directions in the center of Danville, where Hwy 27 intersects with Hwy 10 going east (8th street):
  • From Hwy 27 and 8th street in Danville, go 1.0 mile south on Hwy 27 and turn right (west) on Hwy 80
  • Go 18.0 miles west on Hwy 80 and turn right (north) on FS-18 (aka CR-28).
  • Go 3.2 miles north on FS-18 to the parking location for Sinco Gorge Falls.  There is a sharp drop off on the left, so you just have to do the best you can, pulling over to the right and park where other vehicles can get around you.
  • From the Sinco Gorge parking spot, continue north on FS-18 0.5 miles and turn right (east) on CR-519.
  • Go 2.2 miles east on CR-519 and park in the turn-out on the left just after you cross over Mitchell Branch.  This is the parking location for Mitchell Branch Falls.
  • From the Mitchell Branch Falls parking spot, continue east on CR-519 for 1.1 miles and pull off on the right.  This is the parking location for Mitchell Branch Swimming Hole.
  • From the Mitchell Branch Swimming Hole, continue east on CR-519 for 1.3 miles, and turn into the Jeep road on the left and park.  This was my parking location today for Seed Forest Falls.
  • From the Seed Forest Falls parking spot, continue east on CR-519 for 2.7 miles and bear right onto CR-518.
  • Go just 0.3 miles on CR-518 and turn left (north) onto a dirt road that will take you a few yards to the parking location.  This last turn is just before a nice, shiny, new bridge over Mill Creek.  This is the parking location for the Kirkwood swimming hole and Lower Kirkwood Falls.
  • From Kirkwood Falls, go back west the way you came on CR-518 for 0.3 miles and turn right onto CR-519.
  • Go 2.3 miles northwest on CR-519 and keep straight onto Jack Creek Road (still CR-519).
  • Go 0.8 miles on Jack Creek Road through some guy's pasture (it is still a county road!), and turn right onto Walnut Creek Road (aka CR-27).
  • Go 4.7 miles on Walnut Creek Road (first east, then it turns north) and turn right on Hwy 10.
  • Go east on Hwy 10 and you are back in the center of Danville where you started.
Sinco Gorge Falls
Whew!  That's a lot of driving directions, but remember, it is for five different parking locations and for getting in and out from two different directions.  Our first stop today was at Sinco Gorge.  As I mentioned in the driving directions, we had to just pull over as far as we could to the right and park.  There is still plenty of room for vehicles to get around, but we didn't see another soul on the road all day anyway.  Having absolutely no information on this waterfall, Boomer and I just found a good place to drop off the road and hike the very steep slope down to the creek.  We then hiked along the creek on the right side down to Sinco Gorge Falls and found a bluffline break on the right to get to the base of the waterfall.  There is another small waterfall on the way downstream.  Boomer, enjoying his newfound freedom after being cooped up for a month, had to go swimming in every pool we passed.  Today there was not as much flow as I had hoped for, but I could tell it would be a nice one with just a little more flow.  This is not the biggest or prettiest waterfall, but it's a quick hike just a hundred yards from where we parked, with only about 200 feet of elevation difference.

Unnamed Falls #1 at
Mitchell Branch
From Sinco Gorge Falls, we drove to the parking location for Mitchell Branch Falls.   This is the only one we visited today that we previous knowledge of.  it is well documented with photos and information in Tim's book, although for some reason few folks seem to visit it.  There are enough visitors to make a faint volunteer trail, however.  From the turn-out for parking, you can pick up a trail on the left side as you go downstream that will take you to Mitchell Branch Falls.  If you do this, however, you will miss out on three other waterfalls that are also pretty nice.  If you bushwhack down the right side of the creek, the first waterfall is about a hundred yards downstream.  Falls #1 is relatively small, maybe six feet tall.  Continuing downstream another hundred yards, you come to the top of Falls #2.  If you continue a few yards to the right, there is tributary drainage with Falls #3 spilling over the bluff very close to Falls #2.  Falls #2 and Falls #3 are almost close enough to be a twin waterfall, with each being in the 16 to 18-foot range.  Actually, with the flow conditions today Falls #2 was, in my opinion, the prettiest waterfall we saw today, so I'm glad we came via this route.

Unnamed Falls #3 at Mitchell Branch
 There is a bluffline break on each side of Falls #3, although both are somewhat difficult to see, especially with all the spring foliage.  After going down to the base of these waterfalls, I thought I would just stay on the right side of the creek as I went the last hundred yards downstream to Mitchell Branch Falls.  That turned out to be a bad decision, one I won't make in the future.  It is very rough and steep, and I had a difficult time coaxing Boomer into even trying to come down on this side.  If you do visit the other waterfalls along Mitchell Branch Falls instead of going there directly on the trail, it still behooves you to cross back over the creek at the top of the waterfall and descend through the bluffline break on the left side.  You need to go down all the way past the pool below the very bottom of Mitchell Branch Falls.  You could wrap around the bluff on the left side, but if you follow the bluff around you end up in a spot where there is a drop of a few feet to the bottom.  Going downstream past the pool below Mitchell Branch Falls gets you in a position where you can see the entire waterfall.  

Mitchell Branch Falls
in his Arkansas Waterfalls book, Tim Ernst describes Mitchell Branch Falls as one of the most beautiful waterfalls in the Ouachitas.  It certainly is beautiful, IF there is enough flow.  Mitchell Branch actually has two major prongs, and the one Mitchell Branch Falls is in is decidedly the smaller of those prongs.  The Mitchell Branch swimming Hole and Seed Forest Falls are in the longer prong with much more drainage area.  Mitchell Branch Falls, therefore, is one you will want to visit when conditions are fairly wet.  After taking some photos as best I could for today's conditions, Boomer and I hiked back to the FJ, this time being careful to ascend via the bluffline break on the right as you face upstream, and following the trail all the way back to where we parked.  The hike along the volunteer trail to Mitchell Branch Falls is less than a quarter mile from the road and less than 200 feet elevation difference.

Mitchell Branch Swimming Hole
After getting back to the FJ, we continued eastward on CR-519 to our next stop, the Mitchell Branch Swimming Hole.  I feel I should note some documentation inconsistencies here.  In the world waterfall database, what we know as Mitchell Branch Falls is called Mitchell Creek Falls, and the one I am now calling the Mitchell Branch Swimming Hole is called Mitchell Branch Falls.  Perhaps they called it that because it is definitely on the larger prong of Mitchell Branch, but I'm sticking with the naming in Tim Ernst's book.  Firstly, because he is Tim, and his book is the de facto bible of waterfall chasers in Arkansas, and secondly because Mitchell Branch Falls is by far the biggest and best waterfall on all of Mitchell Branch, and deserves that distinction.  After parking, we hiked downstream on the right side of the creek.  There is a faint trail here, but you really don't need it.  The waterfall and swimming hole are only about a hundred feet from the road, and there is very little in the way of undergrowth here.  The waterfall here is only about 4 feet high.  It has such a nice pool, one that looks like a natural swimming hole, I decided I would call it Mitchell Branch Swimming Hole to prevent any confusion with Mitchell Branch Falls.

Seed Forest Falls
From Mitchell Branch Swimming Hole, we continued on down CR-519 a short way to the parking location for Seed Forest Falls.  This is another one I was visiting for the first time today, so I had no idea what to expect in the way of terrain and hiking conditions.  I parked the FJ near the road after turning onto the Jeep road.  Not knowing what the old road would be like, I decided to just hike down it instead of driving into unknown space.  As it turns out, this is a relatively good Jeep road and I could have easily driven down it all the way to where I turned off for the bushwhack to Seed Forest Falls.    We hiked down the old road a half mile until we were about at the same elevation as Seed Forest Falls, then turned left off the road and bushwhacked about 1/3 mile laterally over to the waterfall.  I found a bluffline break that allowed me to get to a point about halfway down the bluff, overlooking the waterfall.  This will be a nice waterfall in the 18-foot range when there is better flow.   I bushwhacked downstream some on the way back before cutting over to the Jeep road but didn't find a better route.  I did NOT find the old road that one of my maps indicated should be there.

Kirkwood Swimming Hole and
Lower Kirkwood Falls
After hiking back to where we parked, both Boomer and I were starting to feel the heat of the day and it was starting to get a little late in the afternoon.  We had one more stop, however.  Kirkwood Falls was almost right on our driving route back, and there is no hike involved for the lower waterfall and swimming hole, so we stopped by to check it out.  A family was already there, enjoying the beautiful mid-May day and cooling off in the swimming hole.  After chatting a while and letting Boomer make some new friends, we loaded up and headed for home.  I have previously documented all the waterfalls along Mill Creek, including this one.  You can check them out in this blog post.  The driving directions I provided above take you all the way around a big loop, starting and stopping in Danville.  We headed north for home instead of going back into Danville.  All in all, it was a very enjoyable day in the woods.  Boomer got to get out and do his favorite thing, hiking with Dad, and I got to go explore some new waterfalls and visit some old ones.
Unnamed Falls #2 at Mitchell Branch
Mitchell Branch Falls Parking Location
Mitchell Branch Swimming Hole Parking Location
GPS Track - Mitchell Branch Falls
GPS Tracks for Seed Forest Falls (right) and
Mitchell Branch Swimming Hole (lower left)

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Kings River Natural Area, Ozark National Forest near Red Star, Arkansas

4/27/2019 -  Kings River Falls 

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Park and Trailhead - Kings River:  35.89422,  -93.58457,  1731 ft.
  Kings River Falls:  35.90186,  -93.57443,  1697 ft.
  Falls #1:  35.90184,  -93.57477,  1716 ft.
  Falls #2:  35.90178,  -93.57515,  1744 ft.
  Falls #3:  35.90200,  -93.57521,  1752 ft.
  Falls #4:  35.90233,  -93.57573,  1789 ft. 
  Falls #5:  35.90248,  -93.57601,  1802 ft.
  Falls #6:  35.90266,  -93.57613,  1809 ft.
  Falls #7:  35.90384,  -93.57744,  1882 ft.
  Road 3605 Falls:  35.86593,  -93.53076
Pet-Friendly: Yes, dogs on or off leash should be fine.  Be aware this is a Natural Area, and one of the few simple guidelines the ANHC has for public use of these areas is that "pets are discouraged, but if present should be under their owner's control".  That's their super-nice way of saying "don't let your dog be a pest or harm the habitat".

Hiking Statistics:  This is an easy hike, with a trail all the way to Kings River Falls.  It is just under a mile (4,958 feet by my GPS track) directly from the parking location to Kings River Falls.  The only elevation change is the natural slope of the river, and the trail runs right alongside the river.  

Links to blog posts for other nearby areas:
  Compton's Double Falls, Amber Falls, Owl Falls
  Bowers Hollow Falls

Kings River Falls
Today, I headed back to Kings River, one of those favorite areas that I don't get back to often enough.  I have written a blog post for the Kings River Natural Area before, but looking through it, it appears it could definitely use some updating.  This trip out, I went high enough in the tributary running northwest of Kings River Falls to find a really nice new waterfall high in the drainage.  This area also has another attribute that I needed to check out.  Ever since my night photography workshop last summer, I have become hooked on Milky Way photography and am always on the lookout for places with the correct orientation (shooting southward).  When I can put my two favorite subjects, waterfalls and the Milky Way, together at the same time, it's pretty much photography heaven for me.  

Falls #5
Kings River is one of those areas.  The river flows northward, so the waterfall faces northward and from in front of it, you can take a shot of the waterfall and catch the Milky Way in the southern sky above it.  Using the PhotoPills app to plan out such a shot, Kings River Falls appeared to be ideally suited for such a photo.  In my very short (less than a year) time doing night photography, I have learned that one golden rule is you must go to the set during the day and scope it out.  The satellite view you get on PhotoPills does not tell you the whole story, as I have found out.  So today's trip was primarily to check out Kings River Falls for a Milky Way shot.  The fact that this is a wonderful area to hike and that I needed a little exercise didn't hurt.  Bethany already had commitments, and Boomer was still on limited duty after his surgery, so I was on my own today.  

Falls #7
One thing I failed to point out in my previous blog post for Kings River is that this is a Natural Area.  There are many 'area' designations in Arkansas, and each comes with different sets of rules, so it is best to point out those rules to visitors.  There are 74 'Natural Areas' in Arkansas that have special protections for local features, fauna, and flora.  They are administered by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission to preserve and protect these natural resources.  It is public land, but they have simple rules for visitors, primarily that it is foot traffic only and camping or building campfires are not allowed.  To make matters a little more confusing, the Kings River Natural Area is not to be confused with the Kings River Nature Preserve, which is on 10.5 miles of the Kings River in Carroll County.  'Nature Preserves' are NOT public land, they are private land that has been donated or deeded over in some way to the Nature Conservancy, a worldwide non-profit organization for the conservation of natural resources.  The 'Nature Preserves' administered by the Nature Conservancy are generally open for public use, but they are NOT public land and they have their own set of rules for public use.  The Kings River Nature Preserve does not have hiking trails, and traffic is limited only to floating the river itself, so I won't be doing a blog post for that one.

As with most places in the Ozarks, there is more than one way to get there and I have traveled a couple of different routes.  Both ways are a little rough, but you should have no trouble taking either route in a normal vehicle, no 4WD is needed. 

My preference for a route to get there is to go north of Clarksville on Hwy 21 approximately 30 miles to Fallsville, and turn right (west) on Hwy 16.  

  •  Go 10.7 miles on Hwy 16 to the little town of Red Star and turn left (north) on Madison County Road CR-3605.  
  •  Go north on CR-3605 for 1 mile and bear left onto CR-3500.  
  •  Stay on CR-3500 for another 4.2 miles and arrive at the parking location.  This route is what I call a 'one lane plus' road, but in my opinion, is better maintained than the other route below.  
Alternatively, from Fallsville you can turn right (west) onto Hwy16 and:
  • Go 16.3 miles down Hwy 16 to the small town of Boston.  At Boston, turn right (north) on CR-3175 (Madison County Road).  
  • Go 2.0 miles on CR-3175, then keep right onto CR-3415.  
  • Continue down CR-3415 for 2.3 miles and turn left on CR-3500.  
  • After you turn onto CR-3500, in less than a quarter mile you will see a parking area on the right just before the bridge over Mitchell Branch. 
Madison 3605 Falls
Pro tip: another bonus to taking the first route is that you get a bonus waterfall.  After you turn off Hwy 16 onto CR-3605, you go around a curve and drive over a creek that runs across the road.  If there is even a little flow in the creek, there will be a waterfall where it falls off the road on the left side.  I call it Madison 3605 Falls for obvious reasons.  Here's another insider tip for the drive to Kings River; there are quite a few parking spaces laid out now on the right side of the road just before you cross the bridge over Mitchell Branch.  I didn't count them, but I would say at least a dozen parking slots.  Most people park here because this is clearly the parking location.  But you have to walk over the bridge across Mitchell Branch anyway to get to the trailhead, and at the trailhead itself is another couple of spots to park.  

Trailhead and prime parking location
the other parking spots on CR-3500 can be seen
in the background across Mitchell Branch
From the sign at the trailhead, get on the trail.  It starts out right along Mitchell Branch.  No, not that Mitchell Branch, it is not to be confused with the one in the Ouachitas that has Mitchell Branch Falls on it.  This Mitchell Branch is a nice running creek that is a major tributary of Kings River.  If you keep Mitchell Branch to your right, it soon flows into Kings River and the trail continues along the west side of Kings River.  From the parking area, it is less than a mile to Kings River Falls.  That is, it's less than a mile if you don't get distracted.  There is a nice tributary creek that you cross with some smaller waterfalls when it is flowing well.  The dogwoods were blooming today and I saw something I had never seen in the wild before, a pink dogwood.   There are also some cascades along Kings River and some other side drainages that generally don't have much flow.  This is a relatively short hike, and while the trail is somewhat rocky and has areas that always seem to be under a couple of inches of water, it is flat and easy hiking.  

Cascade along the trail on Kings River
The river itself had plenty of flow today, due to the recent rains and a fairly wet late winter and early spring.  Kings River Falls was beautiful today.  My primary objective today was to scope out the waterfall for a good Milky Way shot.  Kings River is not only oriented right for this, but the river at this point is wide and the river runs fairly straight for a good distance upstream of the waterfall.  This means there isn't a good deal of foliage over the river to block the view of the night sky, and the valley is open to the south for a great view of the lower part of the Milky Way, where the galactic core will shine in the summer months.  I did some night augmented reality views using the PhotoPills app, taking screenshots of the Milky Way overlaying my current view of Kings River Falls.  As it turns out, the best views of the Milky Way were also spots where I had taken photos before, from the rock bluff just below the waterfall on the same side as the trail, and a gravel bar just out in the river from the same (west) side.  After doing my night shot research, I hiked up the tributary drainage.

Falls #5
Just before you get to the top of Kings River Falls, look to your left, up the small creek that flows into the river.  Today, it had good flow, so I hiked up it to check out the waterfalls.  I like the big, tall, waterfalls with lots of flow just like everyone else.  But I'm a sucker for the small waterfalls I find along creeks in the Ozarks.  I had hiked up this drainage on previous visits, but I had yet to follow it to the top.  The hike along Kings River is a pretty easy one, with little elevation change and no big obstacles.  Today I felt the need for a little more exercise, so I ventured up this little gem of a creek further than I had before.  I had found six waterfalls here before and assumed there was not much else to be seen.  I was wrong.  

Falls #7 - with Rick for scale
About a third of a mile up this tributary drainage, I found the best waterfall of the bunch.  Falls #7 flows off a large bluff with a large shelter cave behind it.  I took a photo for scaling, with me (6 foot, 3inches) next to the waterfall so I can measure myself and the waterfall for a semi-accurate estimate of the waterfall's height.  I place myself next to the waterfall stream so we are both the same approximate distance from the camera, to eliminate parallax errors.  Falls #7 is just a hair over 31 feet tall, about twice as tall as Falls #5, the next largest waterfall in this creek.  Above Falls #7, I hiked further upstream to the point on the knob where the creek leveled out for a distance.  On BackCountry Navigator it appeared I was within a hundred feet of the ridge with very little remaining slope, so I turned around and made my way back to the river.  From Falls #7 back to Kings River is only 0.3 miles, so this is a nice creek with plenty to see in a short distance.  There is little undergrowth and bushwhacking conditions are pretty good, even in 'leaves on' seasons.

Falls #2, with Falls #3 in the background
This was a very pleasant Sunday, and I had been pleasantly surprised at the lack of people.  I am often the only person here on weekdays, but it is a popular hiking destination and on weekends there are often a few other folks here.  I had seen no one when I started my hike up the tributary creek, but by the time I got back to Kings River Falls, there were a couple of groups, maybe a dozen people enjoying the scenery at the waterfall.  On my way back to the parking area, I passed another three couples hiking down the trail.  This is a great hike to just get away and enjoy some Natural State beauty.  Kings River is a popular area since it is easily accessible by most vehicles and is an easy enough hike to take children along.  It is highly recommended anytime, but if you like a little more solitude you might want to try it between weekends.
GPS Track for today's hike

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Teapot Hollow Polyfoss Area, Ozark National Forest near Fort Douglas, Arkansas

4/25/2019 Teapot Hollow Waterfalls

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Parking Location:  35.650609,-93.227392, 516 ft.
  Falls #1:  35.650994,-93.228957, 643 ft.
  Falls #2:  35.650936,-93.229155, 694 ft.
  Falls #3:  35.650936,-93.229155, 700 ft.
  Falls #4:  35.651036,-93.229333, 734 ft.
  Falls #5:  35.650951,-93.229745, 801 ft.
  Teapot Hollow Water Slide:  35.651158,-93.230291, 893 ft.
  Falls #6:  35.651176,-93.230782, 818 ft.
  Falls #7:  35.651289,-93.231207, 865 ft.
  Hourglass Falls:  35.651276,-93.231596, 936 ft.
  Salem Falls:  35.651442,-93.232547, 1131 ft.
  Falls #10:  35.65160, -93.23307, 1192 ft.
  Falls #11:  35.65192, -93.23403, 1305 ft.
  Bluffline Break:  35.651853,-93.228863, 731 ft.

Pet-Friendly:  Dogs should be okay off leash.  This is a fairly rugged area, but each waterfall has access to the bluff above on one side or the other.  That access may be somewhat steep and slippery so some smaller dogs may struggle.

Hiking Statistics:  On today's hike, I logged 1.34 miles total round trip.  Distance-wise, it is certainly a short hike.  Teapot Hollow is 1273 feet from top to bottom, on the side of a mountain along Big Piney Creek, which it flows into.  Over that short distance up the creek, however, there is a 714-foot minimum-to-maximum elevation gain.  My total track time on this hike was 3:36 (hh:mm), but most of that was time taking photos and milling about various water features, which is not seen as "time moving".  My actual hiking time (moving time) was only 22 minutes for this hike.  Despite the short distance, due to the ruggedness of the terrain and steep climb in, I would rate it as a moderate to difficult bushwhack.

GPS files (.gpx format) - See maps at the bottom of this blog post
  Teapot Hollow waypoints
  Teapot GPS track
Links to blog posts for other nearby areas:
  Pam's Grotto Falls 
  Haw Creek Falls and Highway 123 Falls
  Bear Creek waterfalls

Falls #1
I made a trek through Teapot Hollow the first time just three months ago with my friend Dan Frew, and wrote a blog post about this nice polyfoss area then.  Today, I went higher in the hollow and discovered a couple more waterfalls, plus I had an opportunity to experience hiking it in "leaves on" season.  In light of that, and the fact that I have a bunch of photos with spring greenery, I decided to go ahead and publish another blog post with some updated information and pictures.  Today, I was solo hiking.  Boomer (our German Shepherd) had surgery recently to remove some tumors (all benign!), so he is on limited duty for a while until he is all healed up.  After that first hike here, Teapot Hollow went on my list of "go back and hike when there is some spring color" places, and we had that today.  Teapot Hollow; it's a short and stout little hollow, and steep!  See what I did there?  Therefore, you really need to go after a good rain, and the rain was just easing up as I was loading up in the FJ and leaving home.  

Parking location - next to road along Big Piney Creek
Everything is simple and easy for this one, including the driving directions.  Just pop the GPS coordinates for the parking location in your navigation system and go.  There is only one road to it.  
   (1) If you can't do that, from Hagerville, go north on Highway 123 for 15.3 miles and turn right on FR-1002 (aka CR-5861).  Go 2.5 miles down FR-1002 and park off the road at the end of the clearing here.  
   (2) If you are coming from the other direction, from Pelsor (Sand Gap), go south-west on Highway 123 for 11.3 miles, then turn left (south) on FR-1002.  Go 2.5 miles down FR-1002 and park off the road at the end of the clearing here. 
   Today, as I parked, I looked down the road and saw that Big Piney was high, but not even close to the road.  I considered driving on down a little more and checking out the hollow next to Teapot Hollow to the south.  Common sense got the better of me, and I decided to wait until I finished hiking to see what the creek level was like.  By the time I finished my short hike up Teapot Hollow and back, Big Piney Creek had risen up over the road and was rising fast.  Be careful out there, and don't allow yourself to get trapped by rising water.  One note about this parking location;  everything on this hike is on public land.  That being said, the patches of flat, cleared, grassy land along Big Piney Creek is usually leased by the Forest Service to folks in the area for grazing or cutting hay.  You could drive across the field to be a little closer to the mouth of the hollow, but please just park there along the road.  A few extra yards on flat land won't kill you.

Falls #3
As simple as the driving directions are, the hiking directions are just as simple.  With the spring foliage, you can't see the first (lowest) waterfall as we could back in January.  But you could sure hear it from the parking spot.  I could tell before I got out of the FJ that it would be flowing pretty well.  I hiked directly for the first waterfall, spent some time there taking photos, and climbed up around the grotto on the left, and there was Falls #2.  The base of Falls #2 is literally just a few feet from the top of Falls #1.  Likewise, the base of Falls #3 is only a few feet from the top of Falls #2.  I only gave numbers to the waterfalls that were large enough and/or otherwise 'photo-worthy'.  Those other water features in this little hollow were not all as close together as the first three.   In between the larger water features is a continuous parade of smaller waterfalls, water slides, and cascades, all very nice and all photogenic in their own way.  Back in January, the highest waterfall we visited is the beautiful Salem Falls, named for my niece Kate's son. Salem Moorehead.  On that hike, Dan and I looked at the topo map and didn't think there would be much of anything upstream.  

Salem Falls
The entire way up the hollow, you can see the next water feature from the previous one, so planning a good route from one to the next is fairly simple.  From the parking location to the highest waterfall is only a little over a half mile hiking distance, including the random lateral movements in and out of the creek area.  The more passable route on the way up to Falls #6 seemed to be along the left side.  The right side of the creek had the occasional sheer bluff that required crossing the creek or climbing higher on the bluff.  From Falls #6 on up, the right (north) side of the creek seemed to be the easier hiking conditions with better access to the base of the upstream waterfalls.  At Salem Falls, I was looking at the huge rocks and bluff on the right side and decided I should climb a little higher to see what might be there.  I climbed up on the left side as the right side appeared to have a sheer bluff higher up.  That was doable, but once above Salem Falls, I discovered that the route on the right side would have been much easier.  On future hikes, I'll just stick to the right after I get to Falls #6.  

Falls #10
Above Salem Falls, I found a steep cascade climbing up the hollow and another nice sized waterfall, Falls #10, pouring over the bluffline upstream.  The left side had been easy enough to climb to the next bench, but above the top of Salem Falls, it was very steep and slippery on that side.  Once I scrambled up to the base of Falls #10, I found the slope along the base of the bluff on the right side to be much more manageable.  Having found Falls #10 where I didn't expect to find any more, I decided to climb a little higher and found yet another bluffline with a waterfall where the creek flowed over it.  Falls #11 is not as imposing as the other major water features in this hollow since it just has a couple of smaller drops and much less flow.  I looked around upstream from it, and the hollow does seem to flatten out at that point.  The flow in the creek was also substantially reduced this high in the hollow, so I decided to call it quits for the day and head back down to the parking location.  

That small triangular hole in the center is where
the underground stream is running.  My trekking
pole is to the left for scale
As I was hiking along the base of the bluff to the right of Falls #10 on my way out, I heard the sound of rushing water.  I paused, trying to locate it, and finally saw that it was coming from a small triangular shaped hole smaller than my hand right in the side of the bluff.  I could hear the sounds of rushing and gurgling water deep inside the rock, but could not see far enough back into the hole to see any water.  Karst formations make water do weird things in the Ozarks, and this was yet another of those weird things.  I looked around above the bluff for an inlet, and below the bluff looking for an outlet, but I found nothing.  There is no telling where the underground stream comes from, nor where it goes to, but I suspect it comes out below the bluff at the top of Salem Falls and enters the creek at that point.  There is a cave back in there somewhere.  How big and extensive a cave depends on how much of the rock is sandstone, which is harder than granite, and how much is (or was) softer material such as limestone and shale.  The softer rock erodes over time and leaves a cave or water channel.  That's how karst formations work over the eons.  I'll put this in my mental bag of weird thing you see in the Ozarks.

Hourglass Falls
Somehow, after I finished shooting some photos at Hourglass Falls, the round ball-type mount for my Manfrotto compact-action tripod unscrewed from the bottom of my camera.  Fortunately, I had a spare in the pack, so I could keep shooting.  On the hike back down, I retraced my GPS track as well as I could, but with the leaf cover on the forest floor, the spring growth, and generally rocky terrain, I didn't have a prayer of finding it.  From Hourglass Falls, I went back up to the ridge on the north side and hiked down.  In spring, this was a little more difficult due to the new foliage than it was back in January.  Then, you could clearly see the slope down the mountain and pick your route as you went down.  It still wasn't all that difficult, as bushwhacking conditions go.  I ran into the occasional brier patch, but for the most part, I just picked the most open path in front of me and headed downhill.  I had marked a GPS waypoint for the bluffline break at the bottom of the mountain previously, and that helped me locate the right point to head toward.  At the bottom of the bluff, I saw a large flat rock, about three feet high, leaning against a tree that looked for all the world like Darth Vader.  Yet another entry for that mental bag of weird stuff you see in the Ozarks.  Maybe I should write a book, or a blog, or something about this stuff.

Darth Vader Rock
Make no mistake about it, this is a wet weather polyfoss.  We had a couple of weeks beforehand with relatively dry weather, but I think the area probably got a couple of inches of rain in the last 48 hours.  There could have been more rain locally, but based on the relatively good road conditions and the level in Big Piney, I doubt it was as much as we had prior to the January hike here.  It looks like it doesn't take a whole lot to make it look good.  Today, it had just the right amount of flow to make it look it's best.  At any rate, you need to know that it will need some wet weather.  Since the drainage area for this hollow is not very large, it will go away pretty quickly even after a good rain.  It's easy enough to get to and check out so I would recommend doing that after a good rain.  If it doesn't look all that good on the lowest waterfall, you can go elsewhere and not waste any time.  This little hollow has a whole lot of beautiful scenery, a very large payload for very little effort.  I was glad to see the bushwhacking conditions were still not that bad, even with the spring foliage.  If you can catch it on a wet day and don't mind a steep bushwhack, I would highly recommend this one. 

Falls #1
Falls #2 (foreground) and Falls #3 (background)

Falls #2
(photo taken in January)
Falls #4
Falls #5
Water Slide above Falls #5
Falls #6
Falls #6
Falls #6
Falls #7

Salem Falls
Falls #10
From the top of Falls #2
The top of Falls #1 is at the edge of the visible water
The parking location is at the right side of the clearing in the background
Big Piney Creek is immediately behind the clearing

(photo taken in January)
Teapot Hollow
Blue - today's hiking track