Monday, June 6, 2016

Thunder Canyon Falls, Buffalo National River, near Erbie, Arkansas

6/6/2016 -  Thunder Canyon Falls

GPS Coordinates:  (Latitude,  Longitude,  Elevation)
  Parking Location:  36.08335   -93.23358, 1020 ft.
  Thunder Canyon Falls:  36.08459   -93.25427,  1187 ft.
Pet Friendly:  They are decidedly unfriendly to dogs here.  This area is part of the Buffalo National River and is under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.  Pets are not allowed on trails within the Buffalo National River, with the exception of the Mill Creek trail, Tyler Bend campground trails and the Buffalo Point campground trails.  You can see the NPS policy here.

Motorcycle Friendly: No, not at all friendly to your cruiser or street bike.  The trailhead is several miles down a rough dirt road, no matter which way you go.

Hiking Statistics:  We hiked four miles round trip, with a lowest-to-highest elevation difference of only 220 feet.  The hike on the Cecil Cove Loop Trail is very easy, but when you branch off to go up Thunder Canyon I would have to rate it as a medium bushwhack.  There is a volunteer trail, but it goes up and down some slippery slopes.  The ups and downs are small; the medium difficulty rating is because of the slippery factor alone.

GPS files (.gpx format) - Maps of the GPS track are at the bottom of this post.
  Middle Buffalo Waypoints

Thunder Canyon Falls
with (L-R) Todd, Jason, Jim, Rick, and Dan
Hey...does Todd look completely wet?
Photo by Todd Sadowski
Let's face it, with a name like Thunder Canyon Falls, you want to go there just because the name is so cool.  The waterfall is better than cool, and for many it is their favorite waterfall.  I'm not going that far, Twin Falls of Richland is still my favorite, but this one is definitely in my top ten.   It is also a much easier hike than Twin Falls.  Today, I was hiking with old hiking buddies Dan Frew and Jim Fitsimones, as well as a couple of new friends, Todd Sadowski, and Jason Harris.  The trick with Thunder Canyon is just getting to the trailhead during good water conditions.  With the lack of rainfall this spring, we are already getting to the point where creeks are starting to dry up, so today the road trip was not really that big of a deal.  There are actually a few ways to get there, and today we actually drove on two of them.  I'll describe those as well as three other alternates if the Buffalo River is too high to cross.

Thunder Canyon Falls
  (1) The way we went in today was on what is called the Erbie Campground Road.  Going north on Highway 7, from where the highway makes a hard right turn in Jasper, continue north on Highway 7 for 3.3 miles and turn left (west) on NC-2500 (aka CR-79 or "Erbie Campground Road").  There is a sign saying Erbie Campground at the turn.  Stay on NC-2500 for 6.0 miles and bear right to stay on NC-2500.  In another 0.4 miles, NC-2500 crosses the Buffalo River.  If the water is too high, turn back.  There are other ways to the trailhead that don't require crossing it.  Today, it only had a few inches of water rushing over the low water crossing, so we forged ahead.  No 4WD was even needed today.  Shortly after the Buffalo, you also cross Cecil Creek.  If you cross the Buffalo safely, Cecil Creek should not be a problem.  In 0.2 miles from where you crossed the Buffalo River, turn left onto NC-2900 (aka CR-57).  Go another 0.7 miles on NC-2900, and turn left onto NC-2800 (aka CR-19).  About 50 yards further down the road, the Erbie trailhead parking will be on the right, across from the Erbie church.  Whew!  It sounds like a lot, but this is actually a pretty well maintained back road and is a very pleasant drive with a couple of picturesque old homesteads on it.

  (2) Probably the most direct route is to go to the small community of Compton, 8.8 miles north of Ponca on Highway 43.  The small Compton post office will be on the left (coming from Ponca).  Turn right on the gravel road across the highway from the post office.  This is NC-2700.  At least that is what the road sign says.  Agnetha, the young lady in my Cruiser's GPS that talks to me incessantly, insists on calling this road NC-2800, no matter how many times I correct her.  And my road map calls it NC-2250.  All I can tell you is that I'm going with the road sign. At the first intersection, turn right (to stay on NC-2700).   Stay on NC-2700, and go a total of 6.2 miles from the Compton post office.  You will see the Erbie church on the right, and the Erbie trailhead parking on the left.  Even though this is the most direct route, and the easiest one on paper, you probably don't want to go this way.  After the Hideout Hollow trailhead approximately 3.5 miles from Compton, this road is not maintained.  It is very rough.  Most folks can handle the roughness by just driving slowly, but it also has other hazards.  On a long section of this road, there is a stretch of clay that when wet just turns into a horrible, goopy, clayish, slick, quagmire.  So your conundrum is, you want to see Thunder Canyon Falls during wet conditions, but during wet conditions, even good 4WD vehicles will be challenged by this section of road.  Today, we actually went over this section of road to go to a second hike at Hideout Hollow and had no difficulties at all.  But that was today.  If I didn't know the road conditions, I wouldn't use this road.

Thunder Canyon Falls
This is very perplexing, right?  You want to go see Thunder Canyon Falls when there is lots of flow, and the roar of this waterfall really 'thunders' as it crashes down, but that also means both of the routes detailed above are going to be very dicey.  There are a couple of other routes to the Erbie trailhead that are north of the Buffalo River, so you don't have to cross it:
  (3) Go north on Highway 7 from Jasper, and just after Highway 7 crosses the Buffalo River, turn left onto NC-2890 (aka CR-80).  Whenever you come to a junction, keep turning left.  Follow NC-2890 for 4.6 miles, and turn left onto NC-2900 (aka CR-57).  Go 4.1 miles on NC-2900, and turn left onto NC-2800 (aka CR-19).  About 50 yards further down the road, the Erbie trailhead parking will be on the right.  The first half of this route is a little rough, and you cross several other small creeks before getting to the Cecil/Cove Creek crossing.  You should have a high clearance vehicle for this route.
  (4) Go north on Highway 7 from Jasper, and 4.1 miles north of where you cross the Buffalo River, turn left onto NC-2800 (aka CR-19).  If you are coming from the north, this is about 1.2 miles south of Mystic Caverns.  Go a total of 7.5 miles on NC-2800, and you will be at the Erbie trailhead parking.  There are a few intersections with other rural roads, so make sure you stay on NC-2800 all the way to Erbie.

  (5) Note that for these two routes north of the Buffalo, you will still have to cross Cecil Creek near Erbie.  If you were hoping you would find a way here that doesn't wash your vehicle's undercarriage, you are out of luck.  At least, I don't know a way, other than the really bad road from Compton.   If you can't cross Cecil Creek, you probably will have even less luck with that road.  Danny Hale pointed out yet another way you can get to Thunder Canyon without driving across either Cecil Creek or th Buffalo River.  You can simply park at the parking location for Paige Falls and Broadwater Falls, which is much easier to get to.  Hike down past Paige Falls, past Broadwater Falls, and continue on the trail through the bottom of Broadwater Hollow, where it intersects the Cecil Cove Loop Trail.  Then hike it downstream to Thunder Canyon.  It only adds about a half mile each way and is less than 300 feet elevation difference.  Plus, you get to see three great waterfalls instead of just the one.  You can see the Takahik map for this route here, and you can see my blog post for Paige Falls and Broadwater Hollow Falls here.

Trying to set up the shot without getting wet
with Todd and Jim
As I mentioned, getting to the Erbie trailhead is the hard part.  Once there, this is actually a pleasant, easy hike most of the way.  The Cecil Cove Loop Trail leaves the Erbie trailhead and goes along the creek for just under a mile and a half, crossing the creek three times before you turn left.  It then crosses Cecil Creek one more time and heads up into Thunder Canyon.  This is a very good trail, well-defined and on the level.  You might temporarily lose the trail when you make one of the creek crossings, as we did.  We are used to bushwhacking, so we just headed up the creek until we got to the mouth of Thunder Canyon.  This is quite a bit rougher.  My advice, if you should lose the trail when crossing the creek, is to go back and find it.  You will thank yourself later.  On the way back, we made a point of staying on the loop trail, and it was enormously easier.  

Slot downstream from Thunder Canyon Falls
After the Cecil Cove Loop Trail crosses the creek the fourth time, you turn left onto a volunteer trail that goes up the right (west) side of Thunder Canyon.  This trail goes fairly close to the narrow slot canyon the stream has etched into the floor of the canyon, sometimes veering higher to get around obstacles.  Be very careful along here, as this whole area is always slippery.  I slipped and fell at one point, almost sliding into the four-foot deep slot that the creek runs through.  I was having a heck of a time trying to scramble back from the edge and probably would have fallen in had Todd not given me a hand to get me back on firm footing.  Now, I have fallen many times out hiking, including slipping on ice at Longpool Falls and falling 12 feet off a bluff onto the rocks below.  So far, no permanent damage was incurred, and I probably would have survived this four-foot fall.  But apparently, Todd needs the extra points when he passes into the afterlife, so our official story is that he saved my life.  It can't hurt to have a good story to tell Saint Peter when the time comes.

Yep, it is very slick
Photo by Dan Frew
Thunder Canyon Falls is about a half mile up the slot canyon.  The slipperiness was not just confined to the Thunder Canyon trail.  When we crossed the creek for the first time, one of the things I noticed immediately was that the rocks in the creek bed were about the slipperiest I have ever encountered.  I don't know what kind of dragon snot they coat the rocks with here, but it is very slick.  I slipped several times today, plunging both feet into the water well above the tops of the boots.  If you are a regular blog reader, you know how I hate hiking with wet socks.  Around Thunder Canyon Falls itself, it is a solid rock surface everywhere, and it is all very slick.  At one point, Todd started slipping just a little, and could not stop the quick slide into the pool below the waterfall.  He went full in underwater and had a heck of a time just trying to get out without sliding back in.  I cannot emphasize enough just how slippery everything is here.  I have never seen anything like it.

After lingering quite a while at Thunder Canyon Falls, taking in this extra-special Natural State goodness and getting the group photo, we headed back toward the trailhead.  I slipped a couple more times in Cecil Creek, but we made a point of sticking to the trail on the way back, and it went much quicker and easier.  This is one of the marquee waterfalls in Arkansas, which says a lot for it.  I highly recommend this hike, just be careful when you go, and expect to get wet.  For my next trip, I am seriously considering just using water shoes instead of my hiking boots.  I'm not sure how well my feet might hold up going four miles in water shoes, but I'm thinking they would be less likely to slip.  If nothing else, I can take both and put the water shoes on before skirting the pool just downstream of the waterfall.
GPS Track - Thunder Canyon Falls


  1. LOL, I'm famous! Had a blast hiking with you, Rick. And I didn't slide in... I dove... it was voluntary I'm sure! ;-)

    1. Haha! That will be our story, Todd. Good times!

  2. Great overview. I had a solid tumble here a couple of weeks ago and slid into a two-foot deep slot. Thankfully it wasn't deeper, or my camera would have been ruined -- because I wasn't stopping myself.

    And, am I the only one who only crossed Cecil Creek twice before making the turn to the falls? Tim's book says cross 4 times, you say cross 4, but when I crossed the 4th time I ended up a mile further down the trail and hiking up the wrong drainage (although, there is a great falls there too). I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong (or right) to avoid the other water crossings here.

    Oh, there is also a 5th way to get to this spot that comes in from the North off the road through the Gaither Valley. I've never come in this way, but I think it may help avoid the Cecil Cove Creek Crossing if the water is high there....but again, take that advice for what it's worth since I've never taken that road. :)

    1. Thanks for giving me yet another route I can put in my bag of tricks. After looking at coming down from Paige and Broadwater Falls, I'm thinking I may try that next time. Doesn't look like that bad a hike. I updated the blog with that route. By your description, it sounds like you went almost all the way up to Broadwater Hollow. If you look at my GPS track, you can see where I crossed Cecil Creek 4 times. Maybe you bypassed a loop of the creek?

    2. The way down from Paige and Broadwater is nice -- plus you get to see more waterfalls! And there is a great camping area out that way just off the main trail.

      I think I'm not making the first creek crossing at Van Dyke Spring. After crossing the Beaver pond, there is another trail that runs in between Van Dyke Spring and the main creek so we don't make that crossing and come back. I've done this trail a half dozen times and that little area is still a bit confusing because everyone crosses the creeks in different places.

      Our fourth crossing was right after the stone wall and we went up a drainage there - -so still well before getting to Broadwater Hollow.

  3. Hey...what's Fred Flintstone (Jim Fitsimones) doing there with you?

  4. So thankful to come across this gem! #weekendplans

  5. A couple friends and I plan to visit Thunder Canyon this Friday or Saturday. From y'alls experience with this fall & 3-6" of rain forecasted today thru Fri AM, would it be best to go Fri after the rain? Or, will Daturday be a good flow, too?

    Also, any tips or tricks to prevent an injury due to a slippery fall?

    1. With that much rain, it will still be good on Saturday, should be even better as far as water quality. The best thing I have seen to keep from slipping is Yak-Traks, or something similar. They are meant for walking on ice. They stretch over your boot and provide as good a "bite" on those slippery rocks as you can get. The rocks around Thunder Canyon are legendary for their slipperyness, so you still need to be very careful.