What a treat! The hiking/hanging bug was biting me again, so I scheduled a solo trip October 18-22 to western Arkansas to hike the Caney Creek – Buckeye lollipop loop (CC/B), followed by the Eagle Rock Loop (ERL). Both trails largely follow rivers and creeks, which makes it great for me as I don’t like to carry a lot of water (see Foothills Trail trip report HERE for another trail with little need to carry water). The hallmark of this trip was the large number of wet crossings – 25 – caused by a recent storm. I’ll share some observations on the trails in order to help anyone considering a similar trip, followed by a short blow-by-blow account of the adventure.
Leaf color: Trees were just starting to turn. It should be spectacular in the next one to three weeks.
Water crossings: Yes, 25 wet crossings, as well as several “lucky to not be wet” crossings, and countless rock hops. It rained buckets 3 days before I went out. This LINK shows 7-day rainfall totals for the area (zoom to Region: AR – Little Rock). For context, when I departed the rainfall totals were dark green (2-4”) across the whole area. The Little Missouri River (LMR) crested at 6.5 ft on the 15th (linked HERE), well above levels for safe crossing. The last (westernmost) nine crossings of Caney Creek were wet on the 18th, as well as the Cossatot River (x2 = 20 wet crossings because they’re along the repeated “stick” of the lollipop loop). Then, a couple days later on the ERL, Long Creek, Briar Creek, the easternmost crossing of Viles Branch, and the two southernmost crossings of the LMR were wet. If there’s no more rain, in a couple days I’d expect only the river crossings will be wet.
Vistas rated - best to least best:
1 – The side trail up the ridge south of Albert Pike campground. Southbound you climb up a ridge and have a modest view of the campground to the right (there’s blue paint on the rocks). 20 paces later, the trail splits with the ERL to the left. Drop your pack and go uphill to the right and the trail leads first to a couple big views up the course of the LMR. Keep following the increasingly indistinct trail to (I think) three more vistas with grander views. Well worth the side-trip.
2 – The far-reaching view right on the trail towards the WSW from Buckeye Ridge ~ 1 1/2 miles west of the Buckeye trailhead. This was close to the highest elevation point on the trip (about 500' higher than anything along the ERL). I didn’t explore for better views off the trail, but I’ll bet they exist.
3 – Brush Heap Mountain - There’s a rough side-trail to a viewpoint, with bigger views the farther east you go. There are lots of hawks here, as well as at #1. It’s a bit of a bushwhack and I paid the price, which you'll see when I post some pictures.
4 – Eagle Rock Vista - Short side-trail with a long view to the south. There is an established camp site with a fire pit and excellent trees for hanging with a great view possible from your hammock. I had hoped to camp up there, but the weather (lightning) that night kept me in the valley.
5 – Spirit Rock Vista – Short side-trail to a decent, but not very long distance, view. Worth the easy detour off the main trail.
6 – Big Tom Mountain along the lower extension of the Athens-Big Fork trail. I lost the trail at the crest (warning: don’t ever get the modified Beatles song “Yes, Yes You’re Going To Lose That Trail…” into your head). Maybe the view would have been better after leaf-off. If I was truly at the best vista, there are better views along several parts of the ERL proper.
Amenities: Bathrooms at LMR Falls and Winding Stairs trailhead. The facilities at Albert Pike were locked and I didn’t go to the buildings across the river. Trash bins at all three locations. Nothing at CC/B loop trailheads.
Wildlife: A bald eagle(!), many hawks, lots of deer, no bears or mini-bears. The eagle was seen flying low just after wading across the LMR at Viles Branch.
Bugs: mosquitoes – only a few, not a problem; gnats – mildly annoying, especially near the water; daddy long-legs – numerous and very friendly; spiders – many webs across CC loop (why do they seem to always hang at face level?); ticks – none! Bug netting was not necessary overnight.
Footwear: I wore Brooks Cascadia 8 trail runners, and took my Teva sandals for crossings. Luckily, the nine wet Caney Creek crossings were within a 2-mile stretch, so I just kept the sandals on in that stretch westbound, and then again eastbound. I wondered whether boots would have been more appropriate for hiking long stretches of novaculite (derived from the Latin word for razor stone), but the soles on the trail runners were adequate.
Bear bagging: I hung a bear bag the first three nights, as I sleep better that way. I did not hang it the final night in steady rain, but kept it under my hammock and I did not have a problem.
Trail impressions: I’m glad I wasn’t on the ERL on Friday or Saturday night. There were lots of established campsites and most that I saw had trash, probably left by weekend partiers. Quite a bit of trash along the trail, too. I picked up some of what I found along the trail – even a shotgun shell. But it’s a beautiful trail with a lot to see. It’s a shame it’s so popular. The CC/B trail was much more a wilderness experience – almost no trash and I didn’t see anyone until Saturday afternoon. It’s also beautiful, but frankly there’s more to see along the ERL.
Best sources of information:
Tim Ernst’s “Arkansas Hiking Trails”
Forest Service Map
Friday Oct 18th – Arrived mid-morning at East trailhead of Caney Creek Trail. Hiked to West trailhead and reversed to camp just west of Tim Ernst’s 12th crossing at established campsite with stone chair on south side of trail. Great dinner spot on crystal clear creek about 30 yards away. I didn’t encounter a soul on the trail the whole day.
Saturday – Eastbound, I turned left on Buckeye Trail and had elevensies at Katy Falls. I watered up here, anticipating dry camping atop the ridge (after the biggest climb of the trip). I was looking for the perfect hanging spot with a great view and didn’t find it. It was still early in the day, so I continued on back to the car along the 1 mile gravel road walk and camped on top of a small hill near the East trailhead.
Sunday – I drove down Rt. 106 to where the Athens-Big Fork Trail crosses at Blaylock Creek and went clockwise (northbound) on the ERL. Water was flowing in every valley. I stopped for the night where I heard (from the trail) the sounds of a ~6’ waterfall coming in from a tributary on the opposite side of the LMR over the river rapids. I hung along the river where I could clearly hear both - the best night I had on the trip (numerous nocturnal hammock exits aside).
Monday – I continued clockwise, through the Albert Pike and Winding Stairs areas. I went to the south end of the LMR Trail where it ends at Musgrave Hole. Backtracking to the ERL, I began to hear thunder getting closer. As I began to make my final ford of the LMR, it started to rain and the lightning bolts were coming uncomfortably close (that’s when I saw the bald eagle). I huddled under some short trees for a while, but it became apparent the rain was not going to stop. So I continued in sandles westbound on the Viles Branch Trail, which is probably a very enjoyable hike most of the time - but what I’ll remember is that it was mostly a slog through liquefied horse doot. It rained for 5 or 6 hours straight, during which I ended up making camp about halfway along the Viles Branch. Lucky for me, I had the company of an adult beverage (I won’t name-drop, but it rhymes with Black Granules).
Tuesday – It looked like it would be a clear day, so I decided breakfast could wait until I got into the sun where I could dry off. I hiked in sandals to the SW corner of the loop and went ~100 ft up a hill where the sun was shining. Took a good long breakfast there and decided to go south to the Athens – Big Fork trailhead. I only made it as far as Big Tom Mountain before reversing course and continuing north on the ERL. After a couple side-tracks and some bushwhacking, I got back to the car around 1:00 PM to begin the exciting 7 hour drive back to Houston.
- It would be less effort to park at the Buckeye trailhead if you intend to dry camp along the Buckeye Ridge, rather than schlepping water up from Katy Creek.
- Make sure your hanging trees are big enough to take the weight. It was a rookie mistake, but I was setting up in pouring rain, intentionally setting up away from a large tree because of the lightning. It made for a saggy hang the final night.
- Watch the speed traps in East Texas. I had a 32 year streak without a speeding ticket and now I have to start all over.
Sorry for the length of this. I’ll post a few pictures soon.