At the tail end of January the weekend forecast said highs would reach the 70s in western Arkansas, so I made plans for a lengthy day hike. The target would be Queen Wilhelmina State Park just across the Arkansas border along the Talimena Skyline Drive.
Knowing how cloudy the Skyline Drive can be, I took lower and safer roads for my night drive to the park. Thankfully I’d researched the route in advance, so I noticed when Trixie the GPS lived up to her name and tried to steer me 10 miles east of Mena. That couldn’t be right, as the lodge is only about five miles from the Oklahoma border. But Trixie did take me right by the turnoff from the low road that would climb up to the Skyline Drive and the Lodge, so I just followed the signs.
Online reviews had correctly pointed out that the lodge had a nice staff but a ho-hum facility. This is the third lodge atop Rich Mountain, which projects about 2,600 feet above sea level, about 100 feet lower than Mount Magazine, which I visited seven months earlier. The first lodge was built in 1897 by the Kansas City, Pittsburg & Gulf Railroad as an unusual retreat for passengers. The railroad was largely financed by Dutch interests, which may explain the decision to name it after Holland’s young Queen Wilhelmina. The lodge was only open for three years and then abandoned and left to fall into ruin.
In 1957 Arkansas purchased the area for a state park and the stones from the original lodge were used to construct a new lodge which opened in 1963 but was destroyed by fire in 1973. So today’s lodge dates to 1975. It has no grand spaces, but a comfortable lounge and restaurant with picture windows affording a south view from the rim of Rich Mountain. I’d reserved the cheapest room and the friendly lady who took my reservation over the phone had warned me it was on the second floor with no elevator service and only had one small window. That suited me fine, since I’d be on the trails all day.
My room was compact and clean and throughout my stay I was impressed with the hospitality of all of the staff. After a large breakfast I set out to take two of the park’s three small trails – the Lover’s Leap and Reservoir Trails. The park straddles the immense Ouachita Trail, so that is also an option allowing you to walk as far as you like east or west out of the park. I first strode over to a little garden area with a windmill and lounging frog sprinkler.
Across the way I could see another of those nice signs Arkansas has at every park, this one for the Lover’s Leap Trail. The actual trailhead was down the slope next to the train track, which wound its way off around the rim of the mountain. Each trail had its own blazes, although the trails are so straightforward that blazes are superfluous.
I encountered a couple I’d seen in the restaurant and told them I was glad they had decided not to leap. The trail changed levels with the help of some wood steps and then I reached a platform for the trail’s namesake vista, where I shot a panorama. From there I could see the anchoring ridge rock before turning downslope to reach the intersection with the Ouachita Trail headed out east along the ridge. I turned to remain on Lover’s Leap, reaching a nice section of trail where a rocky bluff had been reformed into a trail bed. I knew this park was built long after the CCC era, but someone worked hard here, and I was glad to find a marker stone crediting a 1996 trail crew. I suspect they did some additional work farther along.
The trail crossed a bridge and the lodge loomed above me where Lover’s Leap met the Reservoir Trail. I followed it on westward down the mountain’s southern rim to a walk-in campsite and then down some older stone steps which were serviceable but hardly up to CCC standards. They quickly led to the old reservoir for the original lodge. Then I retraced my steps and climbed up to the lodge.
Outside was Old Glory and inside I came across a portrait of Delta Meador, evidently a resident of the Ouachitas but not a known relative of mine. I took advantage of the outdoor WiFi signal to upload my trail track and associated iPhone photos to EveryTrail.
That took an unreasonably long time, so I decided to head into the lodge for the burger special for lunch. I was well nourished for my more ambitious afternoon hike along the short Spring Trail and then westward along the Ouachita Trail for as long as my feet or the sunlight would allow.
Nearby was the Wonder House, which is really two houses which are joined together by a rain roof. Inside are reportedly park historical displays in buildings with nine levels, a 21-foot long bed, a trap door, and ice-free stairs – whatever that means. However, it was locked up tight.
The Spring Trail began behind the park amphitheater and ran to a spring which I’ll admit was so unimpressive I never even noticed it, popping out at the other end of the trail after half a mile. I spotted the heavily marked trailhead for the Ouachita Trail, which winds 225 miles eastward from Talimena State Park in Oklahoma to Pinnacle Mountain State Park west of Little Rock, Arkansas. Remember how the trailhead on the east end of the mountain had only the one stone marker? Evidently that is equivalent to four post markers, one of which said a pioneer cemetery was 1.25 miles down the trail – that sounded promising.
I spotted a quadruple tree by the trailside and a sign pointed out a nice vista, although there were noticeable unexplained smoke plumes out across the forest below. Soon the trail ran alongside old stacked rock walls, which traced out a lost pioneer community on the ridge of Rich Mountain. A fallen tree had left the world’s largest splinter sticking up beside the trail, and then I exited the park across a wooden bridge.
A small rivulet carried iron oxide across the trail, and then I spotted the low wood rail fence surrounding the old cemetery. Various gravesites were decorated with flowers, including one more recent stone for Bill Hefley, who passed in 1952. The forlorn artificial rose at one grave site called to mind the great song Only A Rose by Geraint Watkins, an old Welsh boogie-woogie player, joined in performance below by friend Nick Lowe on the guitar.
I’d noticed that trail ran just south of the Skyline Drive, and a short trail led up to the highway from the cemetery. A sign pointed out that the Oklahoma state line was only about three miles farther westward. That would stretch my hike, but I decided to go for it.
I saw a rock ledge above me alongside the trail and clambered up for a respite. I was listening to the last part of the immense The Pillars of the Earth, and a broken branch on a nearby dead tree reminded me of the hangings which bookend that long tale of medieval England.
With that happy thought I ventured down the trail, where at the Mile 49 marker I spotted an immense boulder field down the hillside from me. I relied upon a malfunctioning trekking pole to help me negotiate the rough hillside to admire the immense spread of stone.
Back up on the trail I passed a tree perch and then the sky above me was pierced by a large microwave relay, which dwarfed even a big tree beside the trail. I passed a thick rock shelf and finally reached the state line, where a trail sign gave distances to distant landmarks.
I ascended to the Skyline Drive, where a sign informed me I was in the Upper Kiamichi River Wilderness. I crossed the road to a turnout, where I discovered a sign about how an 1877 survey found that the 1825 survey for the border of Arkansas had been too far west. They left the line where it was, robbing the Choctaws of 136,000 acres. Good old Uncle Sam. A short trail led north to the supposed 1877 marker, but damage made it undiscoverable. However, I could easily spot a 1935 survey marker.
I only strayed far enough into Oklahoma so that Arkansas could welcome me back, and quickened my pace to beat the sunset back to the lodge over five miles away. Back in the park I followed the narrow rails of the miniature train track to the shed where the Rich Mountain Scenic Railroad’s train was hidden away. A cute sign proclaimed this was the Southern Belle Depot, but like at so many other depots in this part of the country, there were no passengers. Perhaps they were frightened away by the tree ghoul lurking alongside the track.
I reached the lodge as the Golden Hour approached, with the Arkansas state flag flapping in the breeze. The Queen silently greeted me and I hurried to my room for a much-needed shower. I had walked over thirteen miles and was footsore but happy.
I had a little steak dinner with a scoop of ice cream for dessert in the lodge restaurant, after stopping at the front desk to retrieve my iPad. I’d loaned it to the restaurant manager as I left for my afternoon hike, as he was considering purchasing one but had not had any hands-on experience with one. Yes, I was careful to shut down my personal services and wipe the histories on the iPad before loaning it out. He wasn’t the only one who commented on my device in the restaurant – no Apple stores in the Ouachitas. My obvious use of electronics paid off, since as I returned to my room the desk clerk stopped me and held out my set of ear buds, saying they’d been found on the stairs and she figured they were mine. Darn pockets!
I had to upload my EveryTrail track and iPhone photos from the long afternoon trek, and then had oodles of photos from my superzoom camera to edit. I was slowed somewhat since I was using Aperture, a popular Macintosh photo app, for the first time. My Windows version of Adobe Photoshop Elements had protested about another installation on my Macbook Air, so when the new Mac App Store went online I took advantage of a good deal on Aperture so I could have a native app for photo retouches on the road. It wasn’t too hard to figure out and gave good results, although it can’t stitch together panoramas and GPicSync won’t run on my up-to-date version of the Mac OS. So I used Parallels to run Windows Live Photo Gallery for panoramas and used the Windows version of GPicSync to add geotags to my photos. It all worked well, although I never managed to finish the post that day as the lodge WiFi was t o o s l o w.
Sunday morning I awoke to find a dozen or photos had never uploaded. Hotel WiFi is the bane of the blogger. I had breakfast down in the restaurant, finding the entire mountain top shrouded in a cloud. I moved out of my room and tried finalizing this post using the lounge WiFi, but that too was far too sluggish. So I hopped in the car and drove down the mountainside through the cloud. Thankfully the low road was clear, although it was overcast and cold. I zipped home to finish up this post and do some laundry, knowing that in a couple of days we might have a heavy snow – what a contrast to a warm day of hiking on a mountain ridge.