A couple of friends joined me for a planned 3 day hike of the 26.8 mile Eagle Rock Loop Trail in SW Arkansas. The loop is comprised of the Little Missouri Trail (LMT), part of the Viles Branch Trail (VBT), and most of the Athens-Big Fork Trail (ABF). Detailed GPS data for the loop can be found here.
This trip was a real test for a lot of new gear: ULA Catalyst pack and pack cover, TtTTG Light Hiker, Go-Lite 1+ quilt, Backcountry 700ml Ti pot, and my home made gravity filter. This was also the first trip I had packed with an ultralight mindset, so some gear selections and techniques were new to me.
Thursday, March 24 - After 5.5 hours of driving, we arrived at our planned starting point at the junction of Forest Road 106 and the ATHENS-BIG FORK TRAIL (N34.38193 W93.96241). There is a small but nice campsite right below the parking area besides Blaylock Creek. We got camp set up, and I immediately got some water to be filtered with my home made gravity filter while I cooked dinner (had a couple of noodles stick to the Ti pot - learning curve here). The low was expected to be around 40 degrees and it got close to that. I was completely comfortable with my 3S Incubator and Go-Lite 1+S top quilt in the Light Hiker.
Friday, March 25:
I got up as it began getting light - ~6:30am. We had overcast skies and cool temps most of the day. We began hiking north on the ATHENS-BIG FORK TRAIL trail at 8:15am. From our starting point, we had four big ups and downs on the ATHENS-BIG FORK TRAIL before hitting the LITTLE MISSOURI TRAIL. I powered up the first big gain, not realizing I had left my hiking buddies behind. This was the last time I walked in the front. (Losing weight and getting into shape makes backpacking easy and fun!) After a 10 minute wait, they got to the top of the climb and I took my permanent place at the end of the line. We finished the next three ups and downs and reached the ATHENS-BIG FORK TRAIL/LITTLE MISSOURI TRAIL junction at 11am and stopped for a quick lunch after having hiked ~5 miles.
Once on the LITTLE MISSOURI TRAIL, the hiking became MUCH easier - a mostly downhill walk through mixed pine and hardwood forests along the Little Missouri River. We took our time (one of my buddies is diabetic and has to monitor is blood sugar while backpacking), and reached the Little Missouri Falls area around 1pm. We made another short stop there, then hiked on south past the falls to a campsite at N34.40164 W93.89176, arriving around 3pm. This is a beautiful spot just up off of the Little Missouri River with a fire ring and lots of nice trees for hammocks. Our total mileage for the day was ~11 miles.
We had hiked the whole day under low clouds - no rain - and once we got to camp, the clouds burned away and we had a sunny afternoon with puffy clouds passing over. The gravity filter was a hit with my buddies, and they never pulled their pumps out for water. Sometime at camp, I mentioned that someday I'd like to do the loop in two days... Little did I know... The low overnight was around 50 and I was again warm all night.
Saturday, March 26:
Again up around 6:30am. We had some sprinkles overnight. We heard some thunder in the distance and saw some flashes of lightning, but we didn't get any big weather. I was hoping for a real test of the WB BMJ tarp, but didn't get it. We broke camp and got on the trail at 7:45am. We made to 4 miles to the Albert Pike Recreation Area in around 2 hours. The slow pace was due to multiple stream crossings.
As we left our campsite we began seeing evidence of the catastrophic flooding last year that took 19 lives at the Albert Pike Rec Area. Fallen trees were stacked like cord wood against trees that remained standing amidst the flood waters. Some of these piles were hundreds of yards away from the river and 10' to 15' above the normal river level. The force of that flood must have been something to behold.
After a quick stop we continued on the LITTLE MISSOURI TRAIL heading towards the beautiful Winding Stair area. As we started hiking again, it began to spit rain. We stopped for lunch around 11am at a high point on the trail just as the rain stopped for a while - perfect timing. After lunch we hiked on down the the Winding Stair area where we stopped to filter some water after having hiked around 9.5 miles so far today. We had planned on camping here, but my buddies took my desire to hike the loop in two days to heart, and wanted to push on. We still had about 7 miles left to complete the hike from here.
At the south end of the Winding Stair area, the LITTLE MISSOURI TRAIL ends where it meets the VILES BRANCH TRAIL. We reached the end of the LITTLE MISSOURI TRAIL around 1pm and began the hike west along the VILES BRANCH TRAIL. We completed the 3.1 miles of the VILES BRANCH TRAIL at 3:30pm. There are multiple stream crossings and a couple of nice campsites along the VILES BRANCH TRAIL.
We took a nice long break at the junction of the VILES BRANCH TRAIL and the ATHENS-BIG FORK TRAIL. We had come more than 12 miles so far and were getting tired, with two big ups and downs to go to get back to the car. At 4pm, we began the last part of our hike. We took our time on the first climb and decent. There is a really nice campsite there along a small creek, and a long flat stretch of trail before the second climb began. This climb was not as long as the first, but the decent was much longer and VERY steep. This last decent was the first time in two days and 26 miles that my legs said “ENOUGH!” Now I remember why I hate hiking downhill. We reached the car around 6:15pm.
We stopped by the Winding Stair trailhead to use the toiled there and change clothes, then we drove out of the Arkansas mountains. We had a quick dinner at Subway in DeQueen, AR, and then a 5+ hour drive back home. I finally got into my bed around 12:30am Sunday morning – tired and sore, but extremely content.
Comments on some of the gear I carried:
ULA Catalyst - I bought the 2011 ULA catalyst without ever having seen or tried on a ULA pack based simply on the feedback given by others here on HF.net. I cannot say enough good things about this pack. This pack is a big change from my Gregory Whitney, both in weight and packing style. For this hike, I got my base pack weight down to 18 pounds and my total pack weight with 2L water and 3 days of food was around 28 pounds - by far the lightest pack I've ever carried. The ULA suspension was wonderful. There were times I literally forgot I was wearing a backpack. I was skeptical about the outer mesh front pocket and the side pockets until I used the pack. Now I don't see how I could pack any other way. It is a perfect system to have the gear you need quickly in easy reach while the gear for camp is safely secured in the pack. Now I just need to whittle that 28 pounds down... dang it, I've become an ultralight thinker.
TtTTG Light Hiker - I've spent a few back yard nights in the hammock, but this was the first time I've used it in the field. I went to sleep around 9pm Friday evening on my right side in a semi-fetal position and stayed there until I woke up around 3am to the rain and lightning. It is a killer hammock.
Go-Lite 1+S quilt - This quilt is rated at 40 degrees. It is so light that I was skeptical of its rating. The temp Thursday night hovered around 40 degrees, and I was plenty warm with just a t-shirt and shorts on.
Gravity filter - From the directions on this site, I put together a gravity filter using a dry bag, a paper fuel filter, and a Sawyer in-line filter. I have two pumps and will never use them again. The gravity filter filtered 6L of water faster than I could set up my hammock. No muss, no fuss, no moving parts to break. Don't wait, just build one and be happy.