We lost count on stream crossings somewhere around 15 to 20 early in the first day. The sandals got a lot of use. It was a great three day, two-night trip.
I had wanted to backpack the Eagle Rock Loop in the Ouachita Mountains for years. It is one of the few overnight loop trails in the state and at 27 or so miles long it would make for a nice long weekend. My wife and son had been wanting to go on a backpacking trip for awhile so we watched for a window of good weather and off we went.
Eagle Rock Loop is formed by three trails, the Little Missouri Trail which follows the Little Missouri River, the Viles Branch Trail and the Athens-Big Fork Trail. Located in western Arkansas just west of Glenwood, the area feels very remote yet is only about 2 hours from Little Rock.
We had planned to start hiking on Sunday but as the weekend neared it looked like the weather was not going to cooperate. Snow and rain was forecast for Saturday and it looked like it would be just plain rainy on Sunday. I caved and moved our start date back a day. This time, it was the right call. The weather for our trip was in the 60’s during the day and 40’s at night. For me, perfect backpacking weather.
We arrived at the trailhead just north of the Albert Pike Recreation Area, a US Forest Service area that is very popular and being further developed. We found that our hike would begin with a low-water bridge crossing on the Little Missouri River, “The Little Mo”. The water was about 8 inches deep and since we didn’t want to start the hike with wet feet this was our first chance to don our sandals. Now, for my bonehead move of the trip. I brought the nice camera and as I raised it to take our obligatory starting photo I realized that I had a fully charged battery for it sitting at home on the charger. Nice… luckily we also brought the waterproof point-and-shoot so the trip would be documented but not the high-resolution shots I would have liked to have. Oh well, at least we were still near the car and I was able to hide the camera under the seat and not carry the dead weight for the whole trip.
Most trail descriptions of the loop take a clockwise direction so we figured that would be best. We followed the rock trail along the river for about half a mile until we reached the Albert Pike camping area. Lots of new construction here, more RV sites going in along the river. Out of the campground we headed up, up, up until we came to a beautiful overlook above the campground. Over half an hour into the hike and we could still see our car. Time to get moving.
And moving we did. The trail took us along some ridge line occasionally dropping us down for small creek crossings until it was finally time to recross the Little Mo. We came across a group from Illinois that seemed somewhat inexperienced. They stayed with us until one of the river crossings and after watching us go across they opted for finding another place. That was the last we saw of them. After just under 5 miles of hiking and a few more crossings and we came to the Winding Stairs area of our trip.
What a cool place! We decided to have our lunch there on a rock next to the river. Some peanut butter and honey on flatbread hit the spot as we wandered around gawking at all the unique rock formation in and along the river. This is one of those places that defines the Arkansas Wilderness and is a must see for Arkansans and visitors.
After lunch, we had one last crossing of the Little Mo for the day as we made the turn onto the Viles Branch Equestrian Trail. We met three girls on a day hike. Ouachita Baptist University students who my son was more than willing to direct across the river and then offer up his towel for drying their feet. Funny thing I’ve learned about Arkansas, we have only two degrees of separation. That is, everybody knows somebody who knows somebody. I think there are a couple of reasons for this, (1) Arkansas is not heavily populated and (2) Everyone is so nice it’s easy to know a lot of people. In the case of this chance meeting at a river crossing in the Ouachita Mountains, a couple of the girls knew a guy my son went to high school with and one of them knew the daughter of one of my wifes’ coworkers. Since it is Arkansas we had taken the time to chat and quickly figured out these connections.
We then turned our attention to the trail before us. The Viles Branch Equestrian Trail is truly a horse trail. A good bit wider than the Little Missouri Trail we had been on all morning and following along Viles Branch Creek with several stream crossings. We hiked this area for about 3.5 miles until we met up with the Athens-Big Fork Trail that would take us north over six ridges. It was getting later in the afternoon so we decided to cross the first ridge and possibly camp at Saline Creek on the other side. We climbed the 700 to 800 feet to the top of the ridge and then took a break by dropping our packs and going out on the Eagle Rock Vista. We didn’t want to miss the namesake of the trail. We hung around for about 15 minutes but were ready to get back down and set up camp. Hunger may have played a part in shortening our visit at the top.
We got to a campsite in about 15 or 20 minutes and it was beautiful. Two sites near the stream we opted for the one farthest from the trail. There was plenty of room for our two tents. Using my filter we pumped some water out of the stream, got a fire going and Lisa made dinner. Yes, the obligatory, Mac & Cheese with Summer Sausage! Hey, some traditions die hard and some don’t die at all. Dinner hit the spot and was followed by some Rice Krispy Treats for dessert. We played cards for about an hour and watched the fire for awhile. I love watching the fire. We were afraid that if we went to bed to early we would get up too early, but by 9 or 9:30 we called it a day.
Our fear of waking early was a bit unfounded but we needed the rest for the day ahead. Five more ridge crossing, a lot more stream and river crossings, busted equipment and more friendly people were ahead. I’ll cover all that in part 2.
Quick pitch to Charlie at OuachitaMaps.com. Great service on our maps for this trail and others in Arkansas.