With Jana and I both being off for Thanksgiving, we wanted to try to get in a few nights of backpacking during the week. Due to other plans, the Ozark Highlands Trail was close enough to fit the bill. We have hiked part of the trail, but had not been on the OHT since the new section starting at the new Lake Fort Smith State Park was opened. We decided to hike sections 1 and 2 of the OHT for our 3 day, 2 night backpacking trip.

As with many longer trails, if you are not backtracking or hiking a loop, then some sort of shuttle or extra vehicle is necessary to return to the starting point. We did not want to backtrack or drive two vehicles, so we researched our shuttle options. I contacted both Paula White at White Rock Mountain and the Turner Bend store. Paula was available, so we had her reserve a slot to shuttle us on Saturday, November 21, 2009. Her shuttle pricing is one dollar per mile driven. We also called Paula the day before to make sure that all was in order for the next day.

We left our vehicle at the Cherry Bend parking area on Highway 23 just north of Cass, Arkansas. Coming from I-40, the Turner Bend store was on our way to the parking area, so we stopped and had a couple of wonderful home made sandwiches there Saturday about noon. The Turner Bend store has been open for many years, and only closes on Christmas. We highly recommend a stop there when traveling Highway 23. Paula met us at the Cherry Bend parking area and shuttled us back to the Lake Fort Smith State Park visitor center. The Ozark Highlands Trail starts behind the visitor center, and it was well marked with a sign next to the visitor center. We had a nice visit with Paula during the drive of more than an hour. She has been running the White Rock Mountain area for 19 years now. On several occasions, she has been iced in or lost power up there for weeks at a time!

We started hiking about 2:30 PM, hoping to get well past the north end of the lake by dark. The weather was overcast, but around 60 F, so it turned out to be wonderful hiking weather for the afternoon. The original start of the trail was at the old Lake Fort Smith State Park site, so not a lot of information was available about this new route. The trail runs north along the lake to the north end of the lake, where it crosses Frog Bayou. Since it is not very far from the lake, the elevation change is minimal for these first several miles. We passed two old rock chimneys fro

m old homesteads within the first two miles of the beginning. We passed a couple of day hikers on this stretch, and almost thought that their large black dog was a bear when we first saw it from a distance! The crossing at Frog Bayou (about 2.5 miles in) was wide, but not too deep. The water was quite cold – somewhat expected for late November. This would be a difficult or impossible crossing if the water was very high. The trail then turns south and follows the lake shore again, but not as close this time. Before long, the trail turned back east and left the lake. We did enjoy seeing a beautiful sky and sunset as we hiked into the Jack Creek drainage.

There were not any mileposts after mile 3, so it was hard to know exactly how far we had gone. We hiked until just after dark, hoping to find a good camping location. We boiled water on the alcohol stove for our dehydrated meal, and then setup the tent while the meal cooked.

Once inside the tent, we made notes about the day and looked at the maps and trail guide again. We were using the OHT Guide edition #5 by Tim Ernst. This guide is a must have for anyone hiking the trail. Both Tim’s guide and a few other things I found indicated that the new start of the trail was about a mile shorter than the original trail start. Based on the guide, our topographical map, and looking at the terrain around us, we estimated that we made it to about milepost 7.5 – or about 6.5 miles of hiking. Once back at home, the GPS track we took showed 6.43 miles of hiking this first day in about 3 hours – not a bad pace. Since it was dark so early, we turned in about 8 PM to try to go to sleep.

It was not hard to wake up early the next morning, having gone to bed so early the night before. It had gotten down to 39 F last night, but we stayed pretty warm under the Jacks R Better down quilt. We had also purchased two ¼” insulating pads from Gossamer Gear that we used under the Therm-A-Rest Neo Air pads to insulate us from the cold ground. We started to pack up about 6 AM, while it was still dark. I boiled some water for hot chocolate, while Jana packed up what she could in the tent. There was some condensation on the inside and outside of the tent, so I shook the water off as much as possible and stuffed it into the stuff sack for travelling. We finally got back on the trail at 6:50 AM, and it was getting fairly light. The clouds lifted during the night, and it was now clear this morning. Our plan was to hike nearly 17 miles to camp at Spirits Creek for the second night. We were not sure we could cover that distance with the short amount of daylight we have in November.

Soon after starting, we passed milepost 8, indicating that we had camped near milepost 7.8 the night before. So, it appears the new trail start is a little more than a mile shorter than the original route. All future milepost references will be relative to the trail markers, not our actual distance travelled, which will be slightly shorter. We were able to cross Jack Creek dry by rock hopping at milepost 9.4. We met a father and two sons who had camped there the night before. There were a few nice tent spots near the creek. From Jack Creek, the trail climbs about 500 feet in the next mile or so to cross FR 1007 near Dockerys Gap. There is a small parking area here if needed to access the trail. The trail immediately drops off the ridge again, losing the 500 feet over the next mile or less to reach Hurricane Creek. We met two other backpackers at Hurricane Creek that had camped there the night before after hiking down from White Rock Mountain. We managed to cross dry here as well on some rocks, and we started the 1000 foot climb over the next 2 miles on our way to White Rock Mountain. We definitely had to slow our pace for this climb, as many short sections were quite steep. Once we had reached an elevation near 2200 feet, the trail continued to have short up and down sections as it worked its way around the south side of White Rock Mountain. We stopped at milepost 17 for lunch that day. We could see the bluffs, still high above us, through the trees that had lost their leaves. Although the leaves were gone, and there was not much fall color, the leaf off did provide nice views out across many valleys and hillsides.

After lunch, we continued down the trail, encountering a Boy Scout group of about six people near milepost 18. They had stopped for lunch, so we talked to them briefly. They were here from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The day had warmed up nicely, and it was 60 to 65 F and sunny for much of the afternoon. We did not need to actually hike up the spur trail to the White Rock Mountain campground, so we continued on the OHT at the spur trail and headed downhill toward Salt Fork Creek. We are now on section 2 of the OHT, as described in Tim Ernst’s guide. The trail descends about 1200 feet over less than 2 miles to the crossing at Salt Fork Creek.

This was a wet crossing, so we removed our socks and insoles to keep them dry. We refilled water, which had been exhausted by now, and started up toward Potato Knob Mountain. This is a climb of about 1100 feet in 2 miles to the crossing of FR 1510. After a break here at the top, we started our descent back down toward Spirits Creek. It was on this section of trail about 18 months ago that we saw a black bear cub in a tree and heard the mother in the bushes below!

We did not see any bears, or other large wildlife for that matter, on this trip. In fact, with so many leaves on the ground, I am sure that animals could hear us from a mile away. It was also deer gun season in Arkansas, so we wore blaze orange while hiking, just to be safe.

The trail down to Spirits Creek was not too difficult, and we arrived at the creek crossing at milepost 24.6 at 4:45 PM – so it was still light this time! We found an established campsite not far from the crossing with a rock fire ring, so we setup camp there. This is a wonderful area with the creek down in a small valley, and many rock ledges and shelves all around. Many of them had water trickling over them, which then fell ten or twenty feet into the creek below. If the water had been higher, there are several waterfalls nearby, but this area had not had much rain in the last week or more, so the waterfalls we had seen were barely running.

We boiled water for our dehydrated meal, and I started a fire in the fire ring to dry out our damp socks and shoes. It also was nice to have the fire going while we ate dinner and took care of our tasks around camp. According the GPS track, we had covered 16.6 miles today in 10 hours of hiking. Jana’s knees were feeling much better after this day than they did on the Ouachita Trail last spring. We had been more diligent about taking glucosamine for several weeks before this trip, and we were taking ibuprofen at our meals as well. We went to bed again about 8 PM, with plans to get up at 5:40 AM and be on the trail the next morning at 6:30 AM.

We slept better this second night, and got up fairly easily at 5:30 AM or so. The temperature only dropped to 49 F last night, since clouds had moved in during the night. As a result, we did not have any condensation on the tent in the morning. I again boiled water for hot chocolate, and we started packing up gear from the tent. However, with the cloud cover and being in the valley, it was not light enough to start hiking at 6:30 AM. We waited a little longer, and were able to see well enough to hike by 6:50 AM. We would have to cover approximately 12.5 miles in order to reach our vehicle at the Cherry Bend parking area.

From Spirits Creek, we had to climb again up, but only about

600 feet this time to FR 1509 (Ragtown Road).  A few miles later we are at the start of my favorite trail section so far – and not just because it is flat and level. At milepost 27.2, we are at the start of a section of trail on old railroad bed. Yes, I said railroad bed – even in the middle of the Ozark Mountains! Back in 1915 or so, there was a Cass to Combs railroad spur. This was a narrow gauge railroad line that was used for logging in this area in the early 1900s. The rails are gone, and the ties have been removed or have rotted, but you can clearly see how the railroad bed was built up or cut down through the hills. At milepost 27.2 where the trail joins the railroad bed, there is a wonderful rock retaining wall, and many concrete piers and large bolts from the trestle bridge, which are still visible as you hike around a ravine to join the railroad bed. We follow this old bed for more than 2.5 miles, leaving it occasionally to go around an area that used to have a trestle bridge.

The hiking is still pretty good after leaving the railroad bed, but does work its way downhill and a good pace sometimes on the way to Fane Creek. At mile 31.6, we came to Fane Creek. We did look around for rocks to cross on, but even when low, this creek turned out to be a wet crossing. Where the trail meets the creek, there are large slabs of flat rock. So, we decide to just cross barefoot on this flat rock, rather than get our shoes wet. We wanted to keep them dry for the big climb coming up later in the day. We did take a short break here to enjoy the creek, refill water bottles, and snack on trail mix.

Soon after leaving the creek, we cross FR 1520, and begin the 1500 foot climb up Whiting Mountain. It turns out that this climb is broken into two parts. After about 700 feet of climbing, the trail does run generally level for about a mile, before turning up again for the last 800 feet of elevation gain. We stopped for lunch at milepost 33, which was in this generally level area. While enjoying our tuna on crackers, we did encounter another day hiker and his beagle. He said he would drive his truck out and park at a trail access point, and then he would hike out so far and turn around and return. He had done several portions of the trail this way.

We finished lunch and headed off again – dreaming of a fresh sandwich from Turner Bend! The additional climb this afternoon was strenuous,

but manageable. However, there was one area of the trail, near mile 34 to 35, that was very overgrown and in worse shape. There is an area that I would definitely not want to hike in the summer when the weeds were growing well! By mile 35 the trail had improved. It was obvious that some major work had been done to trim things back. Before long, we could hear Highway 23 in the distance.

Our last interesting landmark was a rock house shelter at mile 36.7. This is a large overhanging rock shelf that had been enclosed by loggers in the 1920s to serve as some sort of shelter.

Soon after this pause, we arrived at the spur trail to the Cherry Bend parking area. We were at the truck at 2:30 PM, exactly 48 hours after we started! This last day turned out to be 12.11 miles from Spirit Creek back to our vehicle. Very soon, we were stopping again at the Turner Bend store for bottles of soda pop and a turkey sandwich. We were tired, but not exhausted – success!

I always like to take a look at our hiking speed, including breaks, as this allows for better planning on the next trip. I compiled the table below to summarize our three days.

Day

Distance

Time

Speed

Nov 21 6.43 miles 3:00 hours 2.14 mph
Nov 22 16.6 miles 9:55 hours 1.67 mph
Nov 23 12.11 miles 7:40 hours 1.58 mph
Combined 35.14 miles 20:35 hours 1.71 mph

 

I am a tester for backpackgeartest.org, so I took a few items on this trip that were being tested. These were the PROBAR fruition bars and the Montbell Extremely Light Down Vest. See the link above for more information on those tests.

After the trip on the Ouachita Trail last spring, Jana was not sure how she would do on these long backpacking trips. Our first day last spring was very hard on her knees, so there was some concern about this trip. However, it seems that the glucosamine and ibuprofen help tremendously, and we both did very well regarding our knees and legs. I also wanted to reward her for her willingness to travel with me, so I arranged for a night at the Beland Manor Inn Bed and Breakfast in Fort Smith. I knew that a shower and hot bath soon after leaving the trail would help both of us to feel much better. This was a great alternative to just jumping in the car and driving for several hours after hiking. For those of you with a spouse that may not be as enthusiastic about backpacking, consider a night at a hotel or bed and breakfast after leaving the trail.

Mike and Suzy at the Beland Manor Inn were wonderful hosts and very understanding of hikers. Mike told of some other great hiking locations in Arkansas that we plan to check out when we can. Suzy made a wonderful breakfast with fresh fruit, sausage, and French toast with homemade bread, maple glaze, and pecans. Delicious!

If you are considering a hike on the Ozark Highlands Trail, I can certainly recommend it as a beautiful hiking destination – after all, the journey is the destination. In fact, we are planning a hike with the whole family, kids and all, on the OHT early next spring. Maybe we will see you in the woods sometime!

Happy Trails,

Shawn

PS: Topo and satellite maps follow for those interested ;-)