I got off to a later start on Sunday morning, recovering from a late night of photo editing. So I did not arrive at Sam’s Throne, a popular Ozark National Forest location in the Boston Mountains for rock climbers, until around 10 a.m. I was surprised by the drive along Highway 123 south of Mt. Judea, which was extremely steep with sharp turns and 10 mi/h switchbacks. Clearly this was an old forest road they had not improved to highway standards, and later I verified it was a gravel road until 1997. But at least it was paved and had guard rails!
Sam’s Throne itself was only announced by a simple wooden sign at the entrance and there were none of the typical trailhead maps. I’d guess that climbing enthusiasts are responsible for marking and maintaining the trails and reportedly there are about a hundred climbing routes around the bluffs. I would spend the morning hiking around the base and then up on the rim of the bluffs north of the throne itself, a slightly lower sandstone capped mount to the southeast. They say buffalo herder and farmer Sam Davis lived in the valleys of Newton County in the 1820s and would climb up to the rock and preach fire and brimstone sermons, motivated by anger at losing a sister he believed kidnapped by Indians.
I did not drive past the gate into the camping area, so I began the hike without finding the yellow blazed trail mentioned in my guide book. I just took a random trail down the hillside from the first campsite, quickly landing on the edge of the long bluffs for my first glimpse of the throne and a panoramic view to the west. The trail soon led down through a tumble in the bluff to its base. I soon encountered two teenagers examining the bluff face, looking for a place to climb.
I marched onward along the base, passing a large pedestal and noticing that I was already perspiring heavily in the heat and humidity as I clambered along the trail, passing overhangs and a small cave formed by a split in the bluff. I passed towering projections and trees, eventually realizing that I must have missed the turn to head along the ridge to the throne itself. Why, oh why, can’t these trails have better signage? The trail became much rougher and less used, but I wasn’t in the mood to backtrack and try to locate the unremarkable trail I needed. Instead I just clambered on, challenged by the ever-rougher base trail. Once I spotted two climbers with gear prepping overhead for a descent.
A narrow vault towering several stories in the side of the bluff was a welcome cool spot where I could escape the sun’s rays and have a drink while I pondered what to do. I decided to continue on until I found an easy way to the top of the bluff. By now I knew I was on the eastern side of the bluff. I spotted a climber’s chain left in the rock face and passed more caves until I finally found a way up top.
It was cooler, more scenic, and far easier going on the upper rim trail. I could look southwest down the east valley and shot a panorama. I was ready for a break and up ahead saw a promising promontory. It afforded a view back of the bluff edge I’d been strolling along and a shaded rock where I could sit and enjoy the turkey sandwich and cookie I’d bought the day before at the Neighbor’s Mill Bakery. I clambered out against a tree for a self-portrait, and shot the tree against the background forest.
Then I strolled on around the bluff until Sam’s Throne hove into view. There was no way I was clambering back down the bluff to make it over there in the heat and humidity. Part of the bluff had a peculiar cobbled form which I figured must be fun for climbers. I could look up the west valley now with its farmland bottom and shot another panorama.
I encircled the bluff top with all available trails and then returned to my car tuckered out by the weather and earlier rough trails even though I’d gone less than three miles. My next goal was what promised to be a better-marked hike at Round Top Mountain just south of Jasper, where I’d had lunch yesterday. But when I drove down the steep grade toward Jasper I found the entrance to Round Top Mountain blocked off. Just as Lost Valley had been closed due to flood damage, so was Round Top Mountain.
That cinched it – I was calling it a day. I drove back to a not-so-scenic viewpoint and cleaned up and then drove down into Jasper and ordered the same pizza I had yesterday. It was just as delicious and gave me the energy for the long drive home, passing one particularly pretty mountainside home near Jasper. While I enjoyed the superior scenery on these latest hikes, I think I’ll avoid the humid heat of Arkansas for the remainder of my summer break, concentrating on less humid areas of Oklahoma in June and heading to New Mexico and Colorado in July.