Soul Of The Trail
Finding peace and inspiration in the Arkansas wilderness
Story & Photos By Spencer Griffith
Several years ago, I had a moment of reflection where I stopped and took stock of where I was spending all my time. I was so focused on building a career, establishing myself in a new community and starting a family that I completely lost track of why I moved back to Arkansas. I had spent almost two years back in my home state and barely set foot out of the city. Looking up at a clear night sky on the banks of the Buffalo River I made a commitment to myself that I would take the time to wander. That night I promised myself to spend at least one day a week exploring and finding new adventures throughout the state.
There’s something restorative about getting away from the daily grind and getting out in nature. Arkansans are blessed with a vast network of trails offering legendary thru-hikes, numerous loop trails, excellent out-and-back experiences and fantastic spur trails. You don’t have to hike the Appalachian Trail or have the endurance of the Pacific Crest Trail to enjoy a remarkable pilgrimage—the Natural State abounds with journeys that will awaken your senses and bring you back to more primitive actuality. The beauty of each backpacking trip is its unique set of challenges.
The Buffalo River Trail and Eagle Loop Trail offer some of the best backpacking in mid-America—if not the whole country. At the heart of the western Buffalo National River wilderness in northwest Arkansas, you will find the upper portion of the Buffalo River Trail (BRT). The upper BRT is 37 miles that stretch from Boxley Valley to Pruitt. It is a short enough thru-hike that it can be completed in a long weekend, but has plenty of convenient access points for backpackers to define their unique point-to-point adventure. The Eagle Loop trail is 26.8 miles in the southwestern portion of the Ouachita National Forest. This two-to-three day hike is so unique because of the vast amount of different terrains you will encounter.
BUFFALO RIVER TRAIL
The Buffalo National River is our nation’s first national river. Thanks to Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Arkansas Nature Conservancy, Ozark Society and a multitude of state and federal politicians, this wilderness area was preserved for us to explore. It narrowly escaped being blocked by one of the over 75,000 dams that have been constructed across our country since the early 1900s. The Buffalo River Trail treks through wilderness that would have otherwise been underwater. It is only after you experience some of the superior scenic beauty, encounter the vast array of wildlife and visit some of some of the historic home place remnants that you can appreciate what would have been lost.
For our 2016 BRT backpacking trip, we decided to take a three-day weekend and hike from Ponca to Pruitt. This trail crosses some of the state’s most spectacular vistas, Civil War-era historical sites and some of the region’s oldest frontier homesteads. The trail starts across the low-water bridge outside Ponca off of State Highway 43. Our group drove up from Little Rock early in the morning on the first day of our hike. Before setting off, we went to the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca to arrange a shuttle for our vehicle. For a reasonable rate, BOC will go pick your vehicle up from your starting point and store it at their facility until they drop it off at your final destination the morning of your last day.
We finally got on the trail around 10 a.m. after taking some time to observe some of the elk that live in Boxley Valley and were spending the morning in a small grove of trees next to the Ponca River access area. Our plan was to take our time hiking from Ponca to Kyles Landing (9.9 trail miles) where we would meet up with the rest of our group. Most of the upper portion of the BRT travels parallel to the Buffalo National River. There are countless scenic vistas and overlooks that give gorgeous vantage points of the river below. If you are fairly familiar with the river or if you bring along a guidebook like Buffalo River Hiking Trails by Tim Ernst, you will be able to pick out some of the landmarks like Grey Rock and Roark Bluff.
After hiking through Steel Creek, we climbed to a scenic spot that looks back at Steel Creek towering over the vantage points you typically see from Roark Bluff. This section would make for a good out and back day hike from the Steel Creek campground. A short way down the trail took us to Big Bluff, then, at Beech Creek, we began a steady climb to Slaty place followed by a rapid descent down into Indian Creek. Between Indian Creek and the trail down into Kyles Landing campground, there are several fantastic primitive camp sites. Our group pushed into Kyles Landing since we had friends joining us that night.
The next morning we left camp around 8 a.m. with plans to hike just past Erbie to our day-two camp on the river. We took a more direct path back onto the trail by hiking the road out of Kyles Landing for about .9 miles where the trail crosses the road along the ridge line. The section from Kyles to Erbie doesnít have nearly the elevation change. This section of the trail ventures further away from the river, but is littered with trailside waterfalls and historic landmarks. Some of the most notable spots along the trail include an overlook of the Camp Orr Boy Scout camp, Triple Falls, the Bath Tubs at Rock Ridge Creek 2.9 miles in, the rock formations and river overlooks around mile 4.3, and the historical cemeteries and homesteads. Shortly after the Parker Hickmann Homestead we climbed up and around the Erbie river access area. Our group hiked back down into Erbie to meet up with some paddlers from our group that spent the day on the river. From there we hiked a mile past Erbie to a section of the trail that had a river access spur and set up camp along the river with the paddlers from our group.
The best part of meeting up with the paddlers for camp was the fresh dinner and cold beer. We made hobo meals with chicken, cauliflower, potatoes, onions and seasoning wrapped in aluminum foil and cooked in the coals in the fire. After a hot meal and a long day on the trail, the peaceful sounds of the river made for a good night's rest. We woke up to some slight rain and packed our gear to hit the last seven miles.
Day three took us from just past Erbie to Pruitt, right along the river. In this section, the riverbanks flatten out more, and the river begins to widen. If you stop by Adair Cemetery, you can find some graves that date back to the 1840s. Some records say at least one Confederate soldier is buried there. Cedar Grove Picnic Area is a great spot to take a break above the river before you travel on past the Ozark campgrounds. Around a mile out from Pruitt you will pass my favorite area of this section. It is a neat stream whose moss-covered rocks journey around a small pond that flanks the trail along as it follows the ridge. It makes for a nice place for a final break to recount your time on the trail before making the last trek into Pruitt. Do yourself a favor and refuel at Ozark Cafe with a good burger and milkshake before you head home. After all, you earned it.
EAGLE ROCK LOOP TRAIL
The Eagle Rock Loop Trail has one extremely understated quality—in a 26.8-mile hike, you have the opportunity to experience some of the Natural State’s most difficult and easiest terrain. The loop is made up of three trails: the Athens Big Fork Trail, the Little Missouri Falls Trail and the Viles Branch Trail. For our spring 2016 trip, our group left out of Little Rock early one Friday morning. We met the rest of our crew for breakfast at Mt. Eda Cafe before getting on the trail. We traveled west of Mt. Eda into the national forest past the Albert Pike Recreational Area and up and around the mountain to the Athens Big Fork (ABF) northern trailhead. We opted to start with this section and travel clockwise around the loop.
The Athens Big Fork section is a technical and strenuous set of rugged climbs through mixed hardwood that goes up and over unsurfaced rocky ridges. Over the 4.9-mile trail, we crossed four mountains and an untold number of water crossings. In fact, the first crossing, at Blaylock Creek, is within sight of the parking area, meaning we started out with our water shoes on. A good pair of water shoes and a pack towel made the frequent water crossings easier. The frequency of water crossings will tempt you to continue hiking in your water shoes. There are certainly sections that crossings are frequent enough that it is a good idea. A quality map and marking the water crossings ahead of time will help you to plan those periods. However, more than one member of our group regretted hiking too long in water shoes on these slopes and their feet paid for it days later.
The ABF trail follows an old equestrian postal route. It has very few switchbacks. It is mostly steady uphill climbs littered with false summits. The four mountains on the ABF mean plenty of beautiful vistas along the way to stop for a minute and catch your breath. The difficult climbs will make it easy for you to want to skip the short spur trails, but don’t miss the view at Spirit Rock Vista. After all, you came all that way—what’s another .4 miles?
After Hurricane Knob, the ABF Trail gives way to the Little Missouri Falls (LMF) Trail. The intersection of these trails is one of the five trail access points. If you aren't paying attention, the transition from ABF to the Falls trail could easily be missed. All that is marking it is the sight of the parking area and a few rocks at the water crossing marked with the trail names. Once on the LMF Trail the landscape begins to level out. For the most part, you are traveling right alongside the Little Missouri River. There are plenty of amazing sites along the river to set up camp, but the further down the river you make it, the better to make the second and third days shorter.
We set up camp a few miles in so that we could enjoy the golden light coming in through the trees and hitting the river. We woke to a beautiful mist rolling through the falling along the river as the light kissed through the trees. After coffee and a hot breakfast, we set off to the Little Missouri Falls. As we hiked along the river we found amazing beds of moss and crystal-clear pools of water. The trail goes right along the falls, but it is worth hiking down and getting a closer look.
Once you get your fill of the cascading falls, you head back up into pine forest and track away and back to the river several times before you come to two water crossings at Crooked Creek. Trekking poles and water shoes make the crossings a safer and more pleasant experience, but they tend to be knee-to-waist deep. During heavy rains, they get even worse. After the crossings, we traveled along the forest floor for several miles until we reached another deep water crossing. Two more miles down the trail you will run into another trail access point. The goal for our group was to get several miles past this area and onto the Viles Branch Trail before we set camp. The Albert Pike overlook is certainly the highlight of this section. There are several premium campsites where the trail descends to the river if you can push on to those areas.
Day three was spent on the Viles Branch Trail. The first three-to-four miles of this trail stay pretty level and have frequent water crossings. There are several that can get very deep in the middle and become impassable or extremely unsafe if there are heavy rains leading up and during your trip. The rock-hopping water crossings become welcomed sights as you get closer to the VBF and ABF trail intersection. The water near this junction is the last good spot to refill your water supply before pushing on to complete the loop.
The last section takes you up atop Eagle Rock Vista. The elevation gain is 420 feet and is a great spot for a camp if it isnít too windy. If you expect wind, there are some nice spots along the saddle. With a little over three miles to complete the loop, you have the option to take a spur trail up to Brush Heap Mountain if you have any gas left in your tank. Completing the loop is both rewarding and odd. You have traveled over 26 miles to end just where you began.
Making sure you are aware of weather conditions on this backpacking trip is key to being successful. Warmer temperatures can make the already challenging mountains even more daunting. Even more important are water levels. Monitoring rainfall for weeks leading up to your trip and expecting rainfall during your trip are key to being safe. This area experiences rapid changes in water levels that can make certain water crossings along the trail impassable or unsafe.
While this is a loop trail, keep in mind that there are four other access points along the trail. Parking an extra vehicle at one of these points on the opposite side of the loop can be a good safety net in case you need backup supplies or someone gets hurt on the trail and cannot continue for the full loop.