After a somewhat disappointing outing at Sequoyah State Park the prior week, I was determined to make the next expedition more rewarding, especially since I’d be passing the 400-mile mark since I began my series of day hikes in July 2009. The weather was sunny and warm for December, rising into the 50s, although a chilly north wind constantly reminded me that winter was only a couple of weeks away.
Still leery of hunters, I scoured the map for state parks and at first considered a hike at Arrowhead on Lake Eufala. The state once had twin lodges on that lake, Arrowhead and Fountainhead, with their own decorative motifs maintained throughout their respective parks. All of the state lodges lost money, but those two really bled it, and the state finally disposed of them. Fountainhead Lodge was sold to the Muscogee (Creek) tribe a couple of years ago for $2 million. They’ve emptied it out to build a resort and casino – big surprise. Arrowhead Lodge was sold off in 2000 to the Church of Scientology, of all things, which uses it as a Narconon drug and alcohol abuse treatment center.
I’d visited both parks back in high school and, while I liked the decorative motifs at the parks, I didn’t remember being impressed by the trails. Lake Eufaula State Park and Arrowhead State Park each have a few short hiking trails and Arrowhead has several long bridle trails. They’d do in a pinch, but I wanted something better. My eye wandered eastward on the map to Robbers Cave State Park. I was last there in September 2009, scrambling over the impressive cave area formations on a hot day with oodles of kids and climbers about. While I had no real desire to explore the cave area again, I knew the park had some other long trails, although I had never followed them for more than a few hundred yards near the cave area. A little web research convinced me to drive three hours to that park’s north end for what would become an 8.2 mile hike to Lost Lake, Cattail Pond, Lake Wayne Wallace, and Rough Canyon.
The drive was uneventful, although there were many little road construction projects along each phase of the journey. A combination of toll fees and federal stimulus money at work, I suppose. I’d driven the Muskogee Turnpike down to I-40 many times for day hikes in Arkansas, and was glad to be turning west for once for the jog over to Highway 2. Here a bridge project, rather than simply reducing lanes, turned the narrow two-line highway into a one-lane road for a spell. A stoplight at either end allowed cars through in waves. You know you’re in the mountains when they take that approach.
Reaching the park, I drove over to the cave lot, opting to handle the weather by layering an undershirt, heavy microfiber button shirt, and jacket. Unsure of how near the trail strayed to the adjoining Wildlife Management Area, I added a fourth layer in the form of my orange “don’t shoot me” vest and quickly scrambled up through the eastern edge of the cave area on the old CCC trail until I found the trail sign and blue blazes of the Lost Lake/Rough Canyon Trail.
It led northeast around the rear of the cave area, forming a rocky path protruding through the fallen leaves. A mix of pine trees in with the deciduous prevented the landscape from looking too denuded. None of my online maps showed the bridle trails, so when I came across one I followed it a bit to see if it led anywhere interesting (no) and then doubled back. Eventually the trail reached Lost Lake.
I had not seen another hiker and the little lake was a lonely spot. Part of the surface featured lily pads, and a fallen pine tree was still alive, although it projected out from shore at about 30 degrees above the horizontal. The low concrete dam was aged and cracked, with an old CCC pump house at one end. The pretty rock work was holding up, but the abandoned building’s wood was rotting away. It was almost time for lunch, but Lost Lake was too depressing, so I forged onward.
The trail soon featured a greater abundance of pines, providing a lovely cushion of needles for the trail. I reached the junction with Cattail Pond Trail and decided to take it and have lunch at the pond. Near the trail junction I bushwhacked my way down to the rocky bed of the stream that was dammed to form Lost Lake. I liked how a small boulder was propping up a rock ledge down in the bed, and nearby a tree was serving a similar function.
A sign announced Cattail Pond, where I spotted a sunny picnic area on the opposite shore. I bushwhacked my way over there, finding it to be a camp on a bridle trail. I enjoyed my usual turkey sandwich, this time a tasty one I’d purchased at a Bartlesville QuikTrip. It was a welcome break, with a relaxing view of the grassy shore and nearby tree blooms.
I followed the trail across the earthen dam, which had been planted with pines. It had merged with a bridle trail, but as I tread onward I noticed that the blue blazes for my hiking trail were absent. I had missed a turn. I backtracked and had a difficult time locating the turnoff, which was overgrown. The section of the Cattail Pond Trail between the pond and the junction with the Lake Wallace trail was clearly seldom used. It was quite faint and overgrown in places, sometimes only discernible by the frequent blue blazes on the trees. I presume many people camping in the south portion of the park follow the Mountain and Lake Wayne Wallace Trails northward, but then turn off eastward to take the Rough Canyon Trail to Robbers Cave. Few choose to instead travel on north to Cattail Pond.
Soon the trail was running beside a deeper rugged canyon created by the stream flowing from Lost Lake into the northern end of Lake Wayne Wallace. I later realized that this section of Cattail Pond Trail parallels the Rough Canyon trail, travelling along the northwestern edge of the canyon, while the eponymous trail travels along its southeastern side. I could not resist bushwhacking down to the stream bed. This steep descent marked the only time on the hike when I used my trekking poles. I memorialized the victorious descent with a silhouette shot of myself holding my poles aloft over the stream.
A series of fallen trees across the stream made me think back to the series of bridges across the Chicago River I remember seeing in the credits of the original Bob Newhart show as a child. It was warming up and there had been no sounds of hunters, so I stripped off the hunting vest and had fun scrambling over the huge slabs of rock, posing for a self-portrait. Clambering back up to the trail, I followed the gradually descending canyon rim and as the canyon ended I made another descent to the stream bed. In the distance I could still see the series of “tree bridges” which I had now passed.
I reached a trail junction and noted I had just enough time for an out-and-back trip to the north end of Lake Wayne Wallace before I needed to head down the Rough Canyon Trail back to the cave area. Along this stretch of trail I finally encountered other hikers, a group of six or more outfitted with small day packs like my own, but sporting some long wood staves as hiking poles. Stumbling past them, I slunk onward to cross Ash Creek Road and a rock ledge ford across a stream. Near here I heard the sound of a powerful engine laboring away. A side trip showed it was a compressor for high-pressure gas pipeline. I don’t envy the workers and engineers who installed that pipeline through the San Bois Mountains.
I finally reached the northwest end of the biggest lake in the park. A bridle trail ran along here and the water level was down, so the shoreline was a muddy mix of stones, twigs, and the remains of many tiny mussels which crunched beneath my boots. I paused for a macro shot of one and then reversed course, noticing that the trail blazers had gotten a bit carried away at times. Pausing only briefly to capture a shot of a particuarly nice trail stone, the trail forded the stream I’d followed for much of the day across a broad ledge of rock.
I eventually reached the Rough Canyon Trail. Before following it east back to the cave area, I walked northward far enough to reach a scenic portion of the canyon and bushwhacked my way down to the stream bed. I was not surprised to find that I was only a few yards south of where I’d visited earlier via my bushwhack from the Cattail Pond Trail. Climbing back up, I found a fallen branch of a pine tree, with a cone still attached.
At one point the eastward trail descended a rough slope. A nearby section of bluff had what appeared to be a small cave, but a short bushwhack showed it only to be a crevice. The trail made a stony descent to Fourche Maline Creek (Wicked Fork in French), which is the main flow into Lake Wayne Wallace and headwater to the Poteau River. Here I encountered a family of hikers. The father asked if I had just seen the two bald eagles flying past above the creek, but I confessed I had missed the opportunity, durn it.
After four-and-a-half hours out on the trails I was back at the cave area with the sun setting behind me. I needed to run back to Tulsa for dinner with friends, but I’ll definitely return to Robbers Cave later, as in the southern part of the park there is still a Coon Creek loop trail and much more of the Mountain Trail to explore.