November 10, 2012
The forecast called for a warm and windy Saturday followed by a rainy Sunday. The fall colors are fading and the leaves are shedding, so I decided to drive three hours south to the Talimena Skyline Drive (now called the Talimena National Scenic Byway), which follows a crest of the Ouachita Mountains in southeast Oklahoma over into Arkansas, to see what colors of autumn remained. I’ve been on the Skyline Drive between Talihina, Oklahoma and Mena, Arkansas many times, the views more often than not obscured by fog. But this day promised to be warm and sunny with decent viewing. I decided I’d stop and see the vistas rather than take a long hike, having made two previous hikes along the Old Military Road at the west end in April 2011 and April 2012 and, 40 miles to the east, a hike in January 2011 along the Ouachita Trail between the Arkansas-Oklahoma state line and Queen Wilhelmina Lodge. I’ve also been on hikes in the vicinity at Cedar Lake in September 2009 and Lake Wister in December 2010.
The Skyline Drive was built between 1964 and 1969 by Arkansas and Oklahoma, connecting two truck trails originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Great Depression. The 54-mile drive along an east-west ridge of the Ouachita Mountains, one of the highest mountain ranges between the Appalachians and the Rockies, varies in elevation from 1,150 to 2,681 feet.
It took me 90 minutes to get out of town since I needed to get my trusty car’s tires rotated, its oil changed, and a breakfast in my belly. So I did not arrive at the west end of Oklahoma Highway 1 until 12:30 p.m. My first stop was Panorama Vista, where one can see the highway winding along the ridge. Autumn colors were on display at Deadman Vista, and Lenox Vista provided a nice view of the sharp long ridgeline to the south.
I followed the winding ribbon of highway eastward to where I could see Cedar Lake tucked into the woods to the north, and then stopped at Horse Thief Spring. It was supposedly once used by outlaws back in the days of Hanging Judge Parker of Ft. Smith, and the Indian Territory parts of the novel True Grit are set in this area, although the movie versions were filmed elsewhere in less authentic environs. The CCC built a stone enclosure for the spring, which I approached to find the lid pulled aside a bit to reveal some water, although I wasn’t tempted to drink.
I pulled over at Castle Rock Vista, even though the view to the south was not great. The online guide had mentioned a short trail to a rocky promontory. I found the Dwarf Oaks Trailhead and the dim trail led westward through stunted trees. The trail rapidly faded out, obscured by the fallen leaves and no trail maintenance. I bushwhacked my way eastward toward the promised promontory 0.3 miles ahead.
It was apparent few took this trail any more, but eventually I spotted a ridge of white rocks and climbed to find myself on the mountain’s long backbone, its rocky vertebrae projecting out of the thin soil. I was straddling one of the highest points in the Ouachitas and posed for a self-portrait. I then bushwhacked my way south down the ridge to the Skyline Drive to walk back to the parking area for a miniscule hike of 0.65 miles for the day.
I reached the state line, stopping to revisit the 1935 survey marker I’d hiked to from Queen Wilhelmina Lodge almost two years ago. I drove on to Queen Wilhelmina State Park, finding the lodge and restaurant closed, although the store was very busy.
I made a quick turnaround and headed back west along the scenic byway for a brief stop at Big Cedar Vista to take in the views, and then diverted onto faster roads so I could meet some friends for dinner in Tulsa.
Although the trees were too shorn of leaves for the full beauty of fall, I’d enjoyed the drive along the Ouachitas, if not the long trek there and back. I’m growing weary of long highway drives, so I may stick closer to home for a bit, waiting until I can make an overnight trip which will allow me to spend more time hiking than driving.