Waterfalls, gushing currents slicing through rock highlight overnight trip
I recently guided 14 hikers into Bear Creek Canyon to explore the waterfalls and rock formations in this steep and beautifully rugged area.
I had been looking for something new and wanted an off-the-beaten path (literally) hike to discover together with the group.
It was a perfect winter’s day, and I was even more excited to find this seldom-trekked area. Four members of our group decided to day hike, while the remaining 10 wished to camp overnight in the wilderness and continue exploring the area the next day.
From the turnout, we walked west down the old forest service road and along the edge of a small open field. We crossed a small wet spring and continued a few yards farther before turning right into the wilderness, heading into the drainage.
The drainage became steep quickly, giving us two options for maneuvering it. We could choose to walk down the drainage, giving us an opportunity to check out the numerous smaller waterfalls up close.
Alternatively, we could hike along the east side of the drainage, following the deer trails into Bear Creek Hollow. We stuck with the chance to see the waterfalls up close, and we were not disappointed.
It was clear, however, that either way would provide great views and opportunities to explore the creek as it flowed over and around great boulders, rock ledges and small slots.
As we continued down the steep terrain, we saw the bluff lines to the west and realized just how deep the canyon was. (This was also about the time that group members began realizing that at some point we would have to go back up.) Following the main drainage, we passed two other drainages, each pumping more water into the main drainage, and each producing waterfalls of their own.
After navigating approximately one mile of steep terrain, we could (finally!) see the bottom of the canyon and heard the roar of the main drainage as it poured over a ledge into Bear Creek, creating Swamp Falls. The sounds of Bear Creek itself also reached us, as it cascaded down Sidewinder Falls just east of Swamp Falls.
Walking down to Bear Creek, we got a clear idea of just how dramatically the creek had carved away the rock, creating a deep, steep slot — a perfect vessel for water as it continued to rush with amazing force.
As we traveled upstream, we located another great waterfall that dumped into an emerald green pool, reminding me of THAT scene from the film “The Blue Lagoon.” Brooke Shields did not appear, despite my desire, but the pool was amazing.
We then headed downstream past Swamp Falls along the steep canyon hillsides, which were at times muddy and slick. A quarter mile south of Swamp Falls, we came to the V-Slot, a canyon that Bear Creek itself runs through, blasting fast-moving water downstream along the moss-covered boulders and vertical slot walls.
The slot canyon seemed to run on and on, and we were careful to enjoy the beauty of the moss and rocks, recognizing that a fall into the slot would most likely be fatal.
As we reached the end of the V-Slot, we climbed down to check out Bear Creek as it sped out of the canyon. Just a few steps farther downstream, one large and majestic waterfall fed by three smaller ones cascaded down a huge bluff line to the west. For the waterfall and nature lover (all 14 of us), this area was spectacular.
At this point we said goodbye to four members of our group as they retraced our earlier route and headed back to their vehicles. The rest of us watched them disappear into the forest, and then we continued downstream, exploring Bear Creek for another couple miles. Along the way we followed the flow of the creek, inspecting tracks from raccoons, fox and coyotes that used the creek as a food and water source.
Two miles south of the V-Slot, we found a flat spot on the east side of the creek that provided enough room for several tents, plenty of dead wood for a campfire and great views and access to the creek.
After setting up our camp, we cooked over the fire and told tales of other adventures and talked of other places we each wanted to visit, all in addition to our usual happy banter and good laughs that always seem to follow a great day in the woods.
During the night, a weather front moved in and produced a steady rain and a small amount of thunder and lightning that, at times, would light up the inside of our tents. When we woke in the morning, Bear Creek was infused with new water, making the waterfalls even more amazing.
A low hanging fog created another magical aspect to the adventure.
We retraced our steps upstream, until it was time to navigate the steep one-mile ascent out of the canyon and back to our vehicles. On the way out, we used the game trails on the east side of the drainage to lessen the chance of injury from the slick and muddy terrain.
We made it back soon enough, reveling in the aftermath of such a beautiful hike, stunning waterfalls and stone carved by water, knowing we were covering land that so few people get a chance to experience, and remembering that if water could carve stone, we were even that much more fragile in nature’s path.
Bear Creek Canyon, getting there:
From Harrison, Ark. take Arkansas 7 south through Jasper to Pelsor, at the intersection of Arkansas 7 and Arkansas 123. Head west on Arkansas 123 for approximately 4.7 miles and then turn south on Treat Road (also known as No. 1802). Travel south on Treat Road for 2.2 miles, and park on the right at the turnout. This area is part of the Ozark National Forest. This is an area that has no maintained trails and requires good navigational skills and the ability to move safely on steep and rough terrain. If you are unsure of your abilities, hire a guide.
Dan Nash founded Hiking the Ozarks in 2007, after spending most of his life in the outdoors, backpacking, hiking, rock climbing and camping. As the CEO, Dan coordinates the various programs offered by Hiking the Ozarks, along with instructing various outdoor education classes, participating in the guiding program and testing and reviewing gear for various outdoor companies and places like the Gear Institute, Backpackers Review and Backpacker Magazine. Dan is also the founder of Satori Adventures and Expeditions, a provider of adventures around the world, which include high altitude climbing, trekking, backpacking, rock climbing and cultural exploration in some of the world’s most rugged, wild and unique places. Dan has backpacked, climbed and guided on 5 continents and in both the Himalaya and Ande ranges. Dan is certified as a Level III Backpacking Guide through the Professional Hiking Guides Association (PHGA), along with being on the board of directors for the PHGA.
(Photography for this article furnished by Dan Nash)