My final day of hiking for Fall Break 2010 began with me checking out of my old hotel in Hot Springs. Next time I visit I’ll opt for a more modern budget hotel outside of downtown, since I did not like the miniscule shower in my cheap room, which came complete with no bath towels. The 1930 building had a retrofitted old ventilation system and original windows which left little to the imagination in the way of a nearby couple’s need for each other and noises from the park across the street, along with the noisy pipes from the building’s plumbing. Thankfully, as a light sleeper and insomniac, I’d packed some ear plugs. I was also annoyed by the lack of any sort of desk or table in the room, which left me propping up the netbook in a cabinet drawer. The hotel did have WiFi, but I could not reliably connect with it again after the first night. Oh well, you get what you pay for!
Naturally there was no complimentary breakfast either, so I drove once again over to the iHop, substituting pancakes for the previous day’s French toast. I ate heartily since I knew I had a challenging morning hike ahead of me and planned to have a late lunch at a restaurant somewhere in southwestern Oklahoma. My plans were constrained by a forecast of a stormy afternoon drive back home and a dinner appointment back in Bartlesville.
Given how beautiful the Little Missouri had been a couple of days earlier on the Winding Stairs trail, I drove back over there to take a section of the Athens-Big Fork trail which is part of the same large loop trail for backpackers. As I wound along a few miles of one-lane roads, I noticed a series of pickups parked in the pullouts. I wasn’t sure if shooting season had begun, so when I arrived at the trailhead I made sure to wear my orange vest. I saw one hiker today wearing a bright orange cap with “Don’t shoot me” scrawled across the front. I obligingly refrained from taking his picture.
The road was blocked since a flood had washed out a large tinhorn at the trailhead, but I maneuvered the car into a suitable parking position and headed north along the trail. It paralleled a deep creek which flattened into a series of leafy pools as I ascended, with me posing for a self-portrait in my vest. The trail took me up a steep gradient on the south side of Big Tom Mountain and I quickly broke a sweat despite the cool overcast morning as I rose 300 feet. From the mountain top I could look north through the trees and see the ridge of Brushy Mountain, which I would soon ascend to the Eagle Rock Vista.
The trail led me down the north side of Big Tom and eventually reached its low point along the Viles Branch, where it briefly followed the Viles Branch equestrian trail, a broad flat area which was a sharp contrast to the narrow mountain trails I had been negotiating. Then it began the ascent of Brushy Mountain. This portion of the trail was a wider old roadbed and no doubt the old postal route. My trail book had mentioned a cave below the trail somewhere on the south side of Brushy Mountain, but I was unable to locate it.
A sharp turn in the trail afforded a view towards Brush Heap Mountain to the northeast. One tree was a burst of yellow in the forest below me. The trail narrowed and steepened as it rose toward the top of Brushy Mountain. The morning sun glimmered off rocks above me and the trail passed by some of the crags I had viewed from afar earlier, with pink rock exposed by erosion.
I reached a trail junction and took a short spur to the southwest to Eagle Rock Vista, where I sat on a convenient log with my back against a tree, sipping a drink and cooling down. I was now at 1650 feet, 400 feet higher than the trailhead. I heard two shotgun blasts from the south and west while up there, so I was glad I’d worn my vest.
To the east I could see the Viles Branch valley etched between the Brushy and Big Tom ranges. My panorama of Big Tom Mountain doesn’t do justice to the broad sweeping overcast view. I zoomed in to catch the dim rays of sunlight filtering through the cloud deck. The overcast sky never cleared while I was at the Vista, although later as I descended Brushy Mountain the sky opened up for about five minutes of sunlight. The photographer’s lament – if only I had caught that brief window of good light when I was up top.
I walked westward on a rim trail for a bit and when I returned to Eagle Rock Vista two fellows joined me at the rim. They had no packs and were perspiring heavily, so I knew they probably were backpackers who had shed their load to come see the view. Sure enough, when I returned to the trail junction I spied their large packs. I placed my little pack next to theirs to illustrate one reason I’m a day hiker rather than a backpacker.
Retracing my path I returned to the Viles Branch horse trail and bushwhacked a few yards south to follow the Branch itself for a bit since it was fairly dry. Then I walked back over Big Tom Mountain. On my descent I encountered more hikers than I’d seen altogether throughout three days of hiking. A troop of scouts huffed past me. One portly fellow remarked, as he patted his ample stomach, that he might just have shed all of his fat by the time he reached the top. Many of them looked rather weary.
When I reached the car I was weary too since, although the hike was only four miles, I had climbed three mountainsides. I made sure no one was around and washed up, changing all of my garments in the backseat of the car. I knew I was a couple of hours from a decent restaurant and wanted to be refreshed. Then I drove west into Oklahoma and had a tasty pizza at the Mazzio’s in Heavener at about 1:30 pm.
A smattering of rain drops had fallen from the overcast sky along the drive, and as I drove past Cavanal Mountain just west of Poteau the clouds bulked up beautifully. I had to stop near Shady Point for some shots, since the clouds made it look like Cavanal was a volcano belching light ash. It was a magnificent sky.
Light rain accompanied for much of my trip back to Bartlesville, footsore but elated after three great days of hiking in the Ouachita Mountains.