I just couldn't let this last weekend go. It was the best weekend weather outlook of the year so far, and I haven't been on the trail in months. I decided on Wednesday last week that I was going, and told the boss and the boss Thursday that I would be out of pocket for the weekend. I didn't even try to find any tag alongs here on the forum or among my usual suspects around town. I just packed and drove...
Yeah, I did the loop again. So what? The Eagle Rock Loop is my favorite place to hike within 5 hours of DFW. It's easy in that water is everywhere and plentiful. It is difficult enough with the elevation changes. It's just long enough to scratch that itch I get about every 4 or 5 months to get trail-bound again.
Arkansas got a really good dose of rain last week, so even the smaller creeks were full and loud.
I arrived at the Little Missouri Falls trail head (N34 25.403 W93 55.27) at 2:30pm on Friday afternoon, changed into a pair of UA gym shorts, a UA t-shirt, short wools, and trail runners, put on my ULA Catalyst, and started taking those steps down the Little Missouri Trail. The weather was glorious (62 degrees and sunny with a slight breeze) and there was NOONE around. I hiked at a pretty good pace, but stopped for a lot of pictures. The dogwoods(?) were still all bright white and stood out so nice against the forest green. The creek crossings all required a shoe change... LOTS of water in the Little Missouri, some mid-thigh or deeper.
I did run into a few people set up in known and favorite camping spots. How they carry some of that gear in is beyond me. There must be roads close at hand. I swear one tent that a couple had set up would hold 20 people.
My hope was to cover 10 miles Friday afternoon, getting down to the Winding Stair area before dark. I ran out of gas around 6pm after 8 miles and ended up camping just across Blaylock Creek from the Winding Stair trail head (N34 21.818 W93 54.102). The campsite was great. Really close to Blaylock creek, and the noise from the water was like a lullaby. I got camp set up, gathered a bit of wood for a fire, then had dinner by said fire. It had cooled off considerably when the sun went behind the mountains and I was in every bit of dry clothing I had (hiking clothes were hung to dry). Wool caps are miracles and porch mode is just plain cool. I got into the hammock about 8:30pm to read a bit and passed out somewhere after 9pm. It got pretty cold Friday night - cold enough to push the limits of the GoLite 1+ season down quilt. Thank goodness for the 20* Incubator. Oh... a group of guys hiked through camp (?) with their headlamps on full bright at 12:15am. Lucky I didn't have a gun. Don't point your headlamp in someone else's hammock... ever.
Got up at 6:30am Saturday and had breakfast and broke down camp. No dew on the tarp - winner. It was still cold, but I put on the hiking garb knowing it would only take about 10 minutes to get warmed up and in the groove. Long and hard miles ahead. My plan was to get all the way through the Viles Branch and Athens-Big Fork portions of the loop and back down the Little Missouri Trail a piece- about 14 miles total from my starting point.
I got out of camp around 7:30am. It was a little less than 2 miles to Winding Stair. Love those miles. Lots of places to camp between my campsite and the end of the Little Missouri Trail, and none of them are bad spots. The two creek crossing in the Winding Stair were the deepest so far - let's just say the water was cold From Winding Stair, I did the 3.5 miles of the Viles Branch trail section of the loop, and got to the south end of the Athens-Big Fork trail at 10am. It's eye opening to see the debris from the 2010 flood still stacked like firewood up against the trees that remained upright along the lower portions of the Little Missouri. Shows you to take flash floods seriously.
With the 8 miles of the Athens-Big Fork trail ahead, I stopped to put on a little sound help to pass the time/miles ahead - listened to an audible.com book through my S3 - and began the first of 6 big climbs. The first climb was fairly easy and I stopped at the top for the first break of the day. Took about 20 minutes to sit, eat, hydrate, and try to call home. This "peak" is the only place on the loop I've ever gotten any cell service. I should take more breaks... Oh, and the weather... PERFECT. Upper 60's with enough breeze to keep you cool on the climbs. You could not ask for anything better. Ever.
On down the first descent to Saline Creek. This is one of my favorite little places on the whole loop. Such a perfect place to camp. Then on and up the second climb and down the second (and longest and steepest and hardest) descent. Since last October, it seems someone has driving a pickup truck with a front blade up the trail. It was wider, rutted, and much harder to walk. I hope they did the damage for a good reason. This second descent brought me down to Blaylock Creek, and it was lunch time, so... I broke out the gravity filter, drank up, and had a nice leisurely lunch creekside. A group of college kids came through. Watching them made me wonder how they got that far, but to each his own.
The third and fourth climbs/descents are the easiest of the set and went by quickly. I stopped at the bottom of the fourth descent at Long Creek for another break. I was starting to feel the miles, I was getting cranky, and I needed a Snickers. It worked.
All that was left was the two hardest climbs... WHOOO HOOO!!!! The fifth climb is LONG but beautiful, climbing up and out of the forest into a burned area so the views are tremendous. The sixth climb is just LONG, and when you have already done the first five, you are TIRED. That sixth climb was hard. For the first time, I stopped quite a bit going up. But I won the battle and finished the Athens-Big Fork trail at 2:45pm. In all the years I've been hiking the loop, I've never done this entire section in one stretch before, let alone doing 5+ miles just to get there first. I was kind of stoked. I made the right turn onto the top of the Little Missouri trail and headed downhill towards my first planned campsite, hoping no one had beat me to it. No one had.
(N34 25.933 W93 58.027) I took camp set up slow... my hip was hurting (small case of bursitis I think) and I wanted to stay limber but rest a bit. My campsite was about 5 feet off of the Little Missouri River, just below a little falls, so again the noise was delightful. While setting up, a group of hikers came through and asked all sorts of questions about my gear... my pack, the hammock, tarp, quilts, and water filter... basically everything they could see. I thought maybe I was being cased, but they took off and I never saw them again. It was hard not to take a nap, but it was too late to nap and still sleep later. I gathered some wood, filtered some water, and cooled my feet in the creek. It was nice to do nothing except fight off sleep! Not nearly as cool as Friday night, so just the wool cap was needed. I waited till the sun went behind the mountain to start my fire, then had dinner and sat and read until I began to nod. It did not take long, once in the hammock, to let go of this spectacular day.
Slept like a baby. Woke up at 5am and finally got out of the hammock just as it was getting light at 6am. Much warmer than last night. Had breakfast and was packed and ready to hike at 7am. Less than 4 miles to go to get back to my car at the Little Missouri Falls trail head. The weather again was off the chart. Not a cloud in the sky, cool enough to be comfortable, and very little wind. Although the hike was mostly southern, it seemed I was walking into the sunrise all morning. The colors were wonderful. These last 4 miles were easy and quick and I was at the car before 8:15am. I quickly changed back into real world clothes as a couple more hikers passed by talking about the perfect conditions. I just laughed. I was in desperate need of a cheeseburger and a hot fudge malt, and I had 100 miles of driving to get there, then another 180 miles home.
A few notes on gear:
This was my first real trip with my Dangerbird 11' x 68" hammock. I am so glad I had PapaSmurf put three pulls on each side of each cover. This thing is not an ultra-lite hammock to begin with, so this little addition of weight is inconsequential, but allows the user to enter/exit from either side using either cover.
The Dangerbird is so wide that I needed some aid to get my Incubator to hang where I wanted it. I bought a set of Clip-on Quilt Hooks from Dutchware and they worked perfectly with the quilt loops that PapaSmurf builds onto the Dangerbird. No more migrating Incubator.
I really thinned out my packing list for this hike, and I can truthfully say that the only thing I carried that I didn't touch once was extra food and my rain jacket. Pack was probably around 28 pounds with full load of food and 2L of water.
And... in all the years I've been backpacking, this was the first time I've gone out solo for more than a very short overnighter. I must say that going solo was much more enjoyable than I thought it would have been. Now, who wants to go hike the loop with me in October? No long mile days... I promise