I’ve hiked a handful of trails in the Boston Mountains of the Ozark Plateau, and added two more to my list on a warm Saturday in early October. The trails were both close to the Buffalo River, which I’d already visited twice for day hikes and a canoe float trip since my day hiking mania began in the summer of 2009. One of this day trip’s trails was quite popular, with dozens of fellow hikers on the trail with me, while I only saw one couple on the other trail. Both hikes are featured in the 50 Hikes in the Ozarks trail book.
I had an early breakfast at Eggbert’s and purchased a trail lunch at the QuikTrip and then hit the road. The sun rose as I slid down US 75 to Tulsa. Driving east on US 412 I encountered a fellow teacher and a former principal with their wives at a pit stop on the Cherokee Turnpike. The administrator just shook his head in sorrow and proclaimed my hiking plan was far too healthy; they were headed to Eureka Springs to eat! I threaded through Springdale, past Huntsville, and finally turned south on Arkansas 21 towards the Buffalo River. My first hike would be to one of the most photographed spots in Arkansas: Hawksbill Crag, also known as Whitaker Point.
I exited 21 just before crossing the Buffalo, heading east up County Road 5. It was a narrow gravel road and very steep, putting the 11% grade on 21 to shame. Thankfully I did not encounter any cars on the ascent to the bluffline where you could tell the Buffalo must stretch along below to one side although the forest blocked any views. The road kept winding and climbing through the start of the autumn colors until I reached the trailhead, where I found a dozen cars already parked.
I geared up and was glad to find a side trail leading back to a homemade pit stop and then returned to the road where a trailhead stone commemorates former Arkansas Senator Dale Bumpers’ support for wilderness areas. Some readers will remember Bumpers from his passionate closing defense argument in President Clinton’s impeachment trial.
Autumn has been kissing the trail, its red leaves like lipstick traces. The trail splits at the first major drainage and I followed the trail book’s proper recommendation to head south toward the bluffline. I scented tobacco from a couple of hikers ahead of me, who upon reaching the bluffline began working an offtrail descent. I left them to their business, but if one can descend there to walk alongside the high bluffs which carry the trail, it should be a nice walk indeed.
Upon reaching the bluffline the trail headed southeast towards the point, named after Whitaker Creek which turns and forms a big valley.The trail has a number of social trails looping repeatedly over to the edge of the bluff for valley views. I could see the valley below me intersecting the Whitaker Creek valley. I passed a huge stone perched out on outcrop and a passing hiker told me he’d put that for me earlier in the morning. It had been quite a job, but he hoped I appreciated it.
I soon came to a larger turnout and caught my first glimpse of Whitaker Point. From this vantage point it reminded me more of a snake’s head than a hawk’s bill. I knew a later view would be the classic one seen in so many brochures but this wide spot was a great place for lunch beside a big tree leaning back from the bluff’s edge. Looking back northwest I could see the tall straight bluff. I shot a panorama of the Whitaker Creek valley and snapped a blurry self-portrait.
A big group, composed mostly of girls, had driven up in a van as I began my trek and they passed me on their way to the crag. As I was eating a couple of very fit women came by for a glimpse of the rest of their party over on the crag. They were both leery of the edge, so I offered to take a shot of their group from the bluff’s edge as heights don’t bother me too much. They were quite grateful, and I was amused to later observe how one of them walked out onto the broader flat surface of the crag without too much trepidation. Walking out on the broad crag is not terribly intimidating, while other perches which actually have greater support under them are more problematic to those with touches of acrophobia.
I captured wide angle and telephoto shots of a lady peering out from the crag’s heights and a braver fellow peering from the edge, and then walked along to find the classic viewpoint of the hawk’s bill. I returned to this point several times for long waits over the course of an hour but never found a time without someone perched atop the crag. So I used shots with them camouflaged by foliage and a bit of photoshop to create landscape and portrait beauty shots. I only strayed out on the point itself briefly to shoot a natural rock pile shelter on a point farther southeast and the view northwest up the bluffline.
The far side of the crag brought the term Whitaker Point alive by gesturing straight up the turn in the valley. Most of the flowers along the trails were asters, which wiggle in the breeze too much for an easy macro shot, but I managed to pull one off. Wandering beyond the point on a sketchy trail led me to a rock wall alongside a small drainage and I bushwhacked over to the primitive camp above the point. I took one last shot of Whitaker Creek valley and then headed along a higher trail loop toward the trailhead.
A dozen cars were there again, mostly different from when I’d headed out, and I enjoyed the fall colors as I returned to highway 21. I followed it nine miles south as the crow flies to another scenic spot. While Hawksbill Crag is appropriately descriptive, thankfully Dismal Creek wasn’t. The trail book calls this hike The Glory Hole, but that term carries connotations I’d rather not think about. It refers to a spot where Dismal Creek runs over a overhanging rockhouse to flow through a hole it has carved in the roof. I knew our recent drought would mean little or no water flow, so here are some nice shots of what Glory Hole Falls looks like when it is actually running.
The trailhead is completely unmarked these days and my GPS tracker couldn’t maintain a good lock during this hike, presumably due to the mountainous terrain. There’s an abandoned house on the north side of Arkansas 16/21 and to the south is a very rough road leading down to Dismal Creek. The side road was too washed out for my Camry, so I parked off the road up top and walked down, winding around to an abandoned trailhead sign. Sure enough, Dismal Creek was dry albeit beautiful. I reached the first overhang upstream from the Glory Hole and clambered down to the creekbed, following it downstream.
I went upslope for a shot of the creek as it descended and then returned to the bed, following it past a bathtub formation and then climbing again for a shot of the descending rocky bed. Soon I encountered the fabled hole, shooting it from multiple angles. Perhaps the hole has mysterious powers, because now my superzoom camera also lost its GPS location for several minutes.
Looking out from the overhang I could see how the creek led on down past huge boulders and high bluffs, so I followed a bluffside trail. I posed by a high wall and later spotted a walkingstick insect in the leaves below the bluff. One bluff adorned by a large patch of moss or lichen towered stories above me as the trail petered out at a fire ring. I passed trees tortured by nature and by humans while others sported fall colors.
A profusion of color beside the trail caught my eye as I headed back to the car, passing an elderly couple who had never been here before either. I assured them they were nearing their goal and then drove back west to dine in Springdale and then plunged into the setting sun.
My traveling companions on this day trip were the old Agatha Christie thriller They Came to Baghdad and the first chapters of Life Itself, the autobiography of Roger Ebert. For the drive home I listened to selected favorites of Teddy Thompson.
I’ve now hiked many of the well-known short trails in the Boston Mountains, with notable exceptions of Lost Valley and Round-Top Mountain, which were closed by flood damage. Lost Valley re-opened in June without its footbridge and camping while to my knowledge Round Top is still closed by a rockslide. I’ve only been on brief sections of the 164-mile Ozark Highlands Trail and Buffalo River Trail and there are many more trails stretched out along the Buffalo River. So I’ll be back in this area again, but if I do take a hiking trip over Fall Break (a trip with friends to Kansas City may not occur), I’m thinking more along the lines of unfamiliar terrain in southeast Missouri or a return to hike more in the Ouachitas in southeastern Oklahoma and the central part of western Arkansas.