October 31, 2010

Lost Valley, Buffalo National River, Arkansas

Yesterday was out last full day in the Buffalo River Area before moving on to other areas of Arkansas. So, as I went through the guidebook and asked for advice of one more place I had to see before moving on, the consensus seemed to be we had to hit Lost Valley near Ponca.

Hilina is excited that her Triceratops (named Sara) gets to go on its first hike
So, we headed on over. It is pretty popular, as the full parking lot with most of the cars being from Missouri attested to. But, there is a reason.  This 2.4 mile roundtrip is one people of almost any fitness can do.

A beautiful huge beech in full autumn splendor

At the pool near Natural Bridge
The trail starts out pretty level for 3/4 of a mile as it heads through a forest of beech, oak, hickory, and gum. There are some interesting rock formations on the otherside of the creek, including these layered sandstones.

Inside the Natural Bridge
Then the trail branches, with a trail to the right heading to the Natural Bridge and Eden Falls. Soon you come across an alcove with a big pool in front of it and a stream seeming emerging from the rock. Except, upon further inspection you realize it isn't an alcove at all.

It seems like a cave as you approach it, except again, you can see the other side. Not really a natural bridge in the traditional sense, it is more like a natural tunnel. Somehow the creek carved its way through the sandstone for form this tunnel. If the water isn't flowing too strongly, you can walk right on through, as we did and find the trail again on the other side.

 The trail then continues to Cobb Cove, which was named for ancient corn cobbs that were found there that dated to hundreds of years old, as this alcove was used by Native Americans. Just on the fall end of the alcove is Eden Falls, a 40 foot waterfall. I am sure it is spectacular when it is flowing, but unfortunately, it was just a trickle when we were there.

Cobb Cove

Eden Falls at just a trickle
Then, you climb up some fairly steep stairs to get to Eden Falls Cave. Here is where the real fun begins. You go into this cave to a 40 foot waterfall about 200 feet INSIDE the cave! It requires you to crawl on your hands and knees through a 3-foot high chamber about 100 feet or so to get to it. Then, you enter a huge chamber some 60 feet tall with a waterfall dropping from the ceiling!

As you enter the large chamber

Looking up at the ceiling. It is hard to capture the waterfall in this setting. But, the water is definitely falling.
Hilina was all gung-ho to go and with flashlights in hand, we went into that cave. It was low enough, even Hilina had to crawl. But, she kept saying she was a "baby bear" and we were bears heading in to hibernate. Even when the flashlights went off at the large chamber to experience the darkness she was not scared at all.
The cliffside
It was a nice way to cap off our Buffalo National River adventures. If you are ever in the Ozarks, a visit to the Lost Valley is definitely worth your time, especially since this 2.4 mile trip is pretty much suitable for urbanites and mountain men alike.

Lost Valley as you leave the area

October 30, 2010

Roundtop Mountain, Ozark National Forest, Arkansas

So, I was looking for a relatively close and relatively short hike to do on this day, since we were going to be delayed getting out and about. I have this guide book called Arkansas Nature Lovers Guidebook, which listed this 3.6 mile hike around the summit of Roundtop Mountain with excellent views. That sounded good.

Fighting the brush to get to the summit
So, we headed off and upon arrival at the trailhead, we could already see that something was wrong. There was no parking lot. The road just ended and a couple of cars were pulled over on the side. As we walked up to the visitor station, it was closed up and abandoned and the windows broken out.

Ouch, my shins...dang brambles!
Hmm, OK, so we started up the trail and right away I could see something was up. Clearly, no one had maintained the trail in a couple of years. It was all overgrown and brushy, with fallen branches from the trees above littered about. Unfortunately, I chose to wear shorts instead of pants this day and my shins were getting all ripped up with blackberries, vines, twigs, and other plants all across the trail. In addition, there were these old wooden benches for resting along the way that were moss-covered and falling apart and we could hardly read the old wooden trail signs for directions at various intersections.

I went through blackberries for this?
As we made it to the summit, we arrived at a deadend and no view. Just a forest of oaks. That was no fun. Well, as we began heading down, I noticed a small trail branching off in the other direction and what appeared to be a bit of a clearing. I said, maybe we should just give it a try and see if we could get a little view somewhere. I didn't want my bloody shins to have been scratched in vain. We headed down that way and ended up at an amazing rock-fin and 50 foot cliffs on all sides, with some nice views of the area.

Nice place to relax
We ate lunch on this rocky bench and enjoyed the views. We wandered out onto the narrow fin one at a time and found a geocache out there. After we had our fill, we just backtracked the way we came, rather than complete the loop. My shins had had enough. Needless to say, Hilina was on my back the whole way. Whenever I'd duck through fallen grapevines or under branches I told Hilina to be a turtle and tuck her hear and limbs into her shell (the backpack). It worked pretty well and she made it through unscathed.

View of South Gap valley below

The Fin

A view to the west
Well, since the hike went quicker than we expected, we went into the town of Jasper and visited the Arkansas Wildlife and Fish Commission Museum in town. When I told the lady at the desk about my experience at Roundtop Mountain, she told me "that's because that trail is closed".

A view to the east
Apparently, the parking lot and visitor station was sitting on a slump that was sliding and had become too dangerous to use anymore, so they closed it indefinitely until they can figure out what to do. I didn't really notice the slump, but the "parking lot" was covered in tall grass. It is amazing how quickly nature can reclaim things when they are left on their own for a while.

If you look carefully, you can see the curved striations of the ancient fossilized sanddunes in the top layer

Heading back down
So, no unfortunately there will be no Hikemaster's Trail Description post about this one...

A wildlife diorama at the museum

October 28, 2010

Big Bluffs and Ponca Area, Buffalo National River, Arkansas

Yesterday, we ventured over to the Ponca Area to explore that section of the Buffalo National River. This area contains some of the largest cliffs along the 150 mile length of the river.

First though, we went to visit the Ponca Elk Education Center. In the 1860's, the Eastern Elk was extirpated from Arkansas and was extinct from the entire eastern North America not long after that. The reason was that people essentially clear cut the forests in the entire eastern half of the continent, eliminating their habitat. Then, hungry settlers killed them off the rest for food. Of course, elk weren't the only species eliminated. Mountain lions and bison completely disappeared, while beaver and turkeys almost didn't make it.

So, in the 1980's, the state of Arkansas decided to bring them back by reintroducing elk from Colorado. Though these are Rocky Mountain Elk, they have done well and now 450+ live in this part of Arkansas. When we were hiking out of Hemmed In Hollow in the late afternoon, we heard a bull elk bugling.

The Elk Education Center is run by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and is very well done. It had excellent displays and information about all kinds of wildlife and a great kids discovery area. Hilina could have played there all day.

But, we had other things to do, such as visit the Big Bluffs area located next to Steel Creek Campground. We took the "Old Trail" which followed the river and criss-crossed it several times. This was the original route for the settlers out here until the Buffalo River Trail was built on the bluffs above. The river is really low right now, allowing us to rock-hop across it. But, if it were flowing more normally, we would not have been able to do it without wading. Many people actually use horses to do it.

Hilina walking across the shallow area of the river
We spent a fair amount of time forming channels amongst the rocks and making "beaver dams". Although, really we didn't do much that won't disappear quickly with the next high water flow this winter.
Low water on the Buffalo River
It was a tad cloudy and cool, but quite comfortable with highs in the mid-60's. These were just thin clouds and the sun peaked out from time to time.
Looking up at the 200 foot tall limestone/sandstone cliffs
We met a local on the trail who said its about as low as he's ever seen the river. It has been at "black" for over 2 months, which means it is unfloatable. It's been a long dry late summer and fall so far. Good for us I guess. Although, he said these dry conditions have muted the fall colors this year.

Definitely a beautiful area. It would be cool to get in kayaks and float down the river. He said it takes 9 days or so to go the 120 floatable miles. He told us it is a mad-house in June full of out-of-staters and the whole river can be full of boats and difficult to get in and out of. He said the best times are actually late winter and early spring. It may be chilly, but it is quiet and the water is good.

October 27, 2010

Adventures of Getting to Hemmed In Hollow, Buffalo National River, Arkansas

Yesterday, we decided to head out to Hemmed In Hollow, located in the Ponca Wilderness within Buffalo National River. We were told this area was perhaps the ultimate highlight spot in all of Arkansas. It was truly spectacular, and thus I will be writing up a hiking description on the Hikemaster's Trail Description site pretty soon. But, the focus of this blog post is simply the adventures of just getting there. It ended up not being very straight-forward.
Along the banks of Buffalo National River after the 1300 foot descent
It all started out when I plugged the trailhead into the GPS. It had us taking this long route going way around to get there from the campground. As I looked at the map, I noticed there was a designated county road that cut straight over there, cutting off about 10 miles from the trip. So, I overruled the GPS and off we went.

Dozens of abandoned shacks and some not abandoned were found along this dirt road
Well, we arrived at County Road 19 of AR-7 and it turned out to be a dirt road. It was descent enough at first, so we figured we'd drive the 9.5 miles to the trailhead. At first it passed by numerous mobile homes and shacks amongst small farms.

This is true Ozark backwoods culture right here
We couldn't believe what we were seeing. This was the Ozarks of legend. This was the Ozarks you thought only existed before the 1950's where you can imagine folks going out hunting squirrels and possums and collecting hickory nuts to survive.

The road had been getting rougher the further we went. But, when we arrived at the Buffalo National River park boundary there was an ominous sign that read, "No National Park Service Maintenance Beyond This Point"

At this stage, we are 5 miles from the trailhead, but there really isn't an option to turn back. So, we just hoped for the best. This extremely rocky road began to climb some 1000 feet from the river valley to the top of the ridge. Hilina asked us, as we bounced up and down, if we were "driving on the trail". We told her yes.
View Across Ponca Wilderness From The Top
Well, luckily for us, we have a big pickup, with off-road tires, and 4x4 drive and we made it. But, the adventures were not done yet.

Hilina ready to hike
A cold front had rolled through the night before, sweeping out the warm humid air, and bringing the first cool crisp morning we'd experienced in a while.

The trail itself is beautiful, but drops some 1200 feet in elevation using many strairs and dropping through interesting rock formations from the ridgetop to the river. Hilina did almost the entire descent, but of course, I had to haul her back up on my back.

It warmed back up into the low 70's by the afternoon, which meant it was a good time for a dip in the leaf-covered stream. We were told by the NPS that water snakes like cottonmouths were no longer out this time of year, for those who were wondering.

The Buffalo River is a popular canoe and float river. But, this time of year, it runs too low. In fact, it is easy to follow its banks to interesting cliff formations. This area really reminded us of some of the riparian areas along the Mogollon Rim in Arizona we've so enjoyed hiking.
A mix of fall colors and interesting rock formations
Then it was up from the river and then the descent into the famed Hemmed In Hollow

The nearly dry falls of Hemmed In Hollow
Most people just hike to Hemmed In Hollow to see the largest waterfall between the Appalachians and the Rockies. These 270 foot falls usually flow strong in spring and early summer, but now it was just a trickle. But, we added the extra segment to the river for Hilina to play, adding 1.8 miles to an already strenuous trek.

Approaching Hemmed In Hollow
After all the fun at the river and the hollow, it was time for me to haul Hilina 1200 feet back up. It was a pretty good haul, but we made it, but not before we made a wrong term (not paying attention) and added another 1/2 mile to the hike. Needless to say, we did not take the dirt road back, but took the longer paved highways back to the campground.

Look for the actual hike description and many more interesting photos on the trail descriptions page soon.

October 26, 2010

Exploring Buffalo National River, Arkansas - Part I

We have migrated down to a campground about 7 miles south of Harrison, AR to use as a home base to explore the Ozarks of northern Arkansas and most importantly the Buffalo National River. The Buffalo National River was America's first national river and is a 135-mile long unit of the National Park Service.

The bluffs rise 100-400 feet above the river
Movement to protect this wild river came in the 1950's as plans were laid out to dam every single river in the Ozarks region. Nearly every river had already been dammed, which is evident from where we were staying in Missouri previously. So, when the Buffalo River, which was a popular canoeing and float river, came to the drawing board of the Army Corps of Engineeers, many local activists, lead by Dr. Neil Compton and including Sam Walton of Wal-Mart fame fought to save the river.

The local congressman at the time, known as a master appropriator, wanted the river dammed, like he'd accomplished on several other rivers. But, when his bill was introduced into congress, it was defeated. Later, the entire river was established as an national park and several sections are designated wilderness areas.

Well, we started out visit by going to the Tyler Bend Visitor Center, located in the center of the National River area. Here we got some information about places to see and hikes to do. Those will be done later this week. But, for this day, we took a short hike along the high bluffs to get a flavor for the area.

There are some inholdings along the river, but most are just hay farms
The cliffs were actually overhangs and it was so high, that it actually caused a bit of vertigo. Obviously, we kept Hilina back several feet.

Conditions started getting really hot and humid, with temperatures approaching 80 degrees and then we could see a little thunderstorm developing. So, after one mile on the trail, we headed back.

There are prickly pears in the open rocky areas because limestone drains moisture so well

Hilina enjoying the fall colors on the trail

Back down by the river. It is low water right now because it's been such a dry late summer and autumn
So, look for more posts of our adventures within this national park unit in the days to come.