Ozark Winter Travel Part II: North Central Arkansas

Part II in our January off-farm travels; read Part I here.

After spending a day relaxing with Joanna’s parents in NW Arkansas, we headed southeast toward the core target of our trip: Buffalo National River, deeper in the Arkansas Ozarks and a very familiar area from Joanna’s upbringing. Taking some back roads where possible, we enjoyed the rugged scenery highlighted by traces of snow.

We spent the afternoon hiking a long loop around and over Rush Mountain, home to a once-booming mine district. Starting in the 1880s, large deposits of zinc drew miners and companies to this remote area, lacing the hillsides with mine shafts, roads, buildings, and more. Most traces are still there, a cruel temptation to two geologists who nevertheless know better than to sneak in:
The road into the Rush area drops steeply from a nearby ridge line, and hadn’t been plowed since the recent snowfall. We considered it for a minute, and decided that the presence of other straight tire tracks leading down (or up) and the fact that the temperature hadn’t risen above freezing since the snow fell, meant the road would provide sufficient traction. With the help of 4WD, it was no problem in either direction, and we had the valley to ourselves.

The town of Rush still contains numerous buildings remaining from the collapse of the local mining industry, starting in the 1920s. We enjoyed poking around various foundations and remnants, such as this blacksmith shop:

Overall, the Ozarks are very difficult to photograph at a wide scale. From higher elevations, broad panoramas of river valleys, sheer limestone bluffs, and steep topography are clear to the naked eye, but are mostly seen through screens of trees that render cameras useless. So if you haven’t been here, you’ll just have to imagine the enjoyment of following slopes and ridge lines through the seemingly endless rugged terrain. With the light recent snowfall, every subtlety of the topography stood out sharply in the clear sun, a bonus for our landscape-trained eyes.

That evening we headed for our chosen accommodations, a small cabin at Buffalo Point, on a high ridge overlooking the Buffalo River itself. If you look closely in the photo below, you’ll see several small buildings on the far ridge, though our cabin was set just to the left along the ridge without a direct river view. Same difference. Note also in the photo below just how low the river is for this time of year; the huge exposed gravel bars are impressive.

This cabin was perfect for us, essentially one room with a small but adequate kitchen complete with stove, oven, and fridge. This latter never worked while we were there, but the outdoor temperatures hovered around freezing during the day and hit the teens at night, allowing us to keep all our food in coolers in the truck with no ill effects. They must have been spending a fortune on electricity, as the one electric heater seemed to have two settings: sauna or off.

The next day, we headed for the Blanchard Springs area, a portion of the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest including an impressive cavern system, beautiful flowing spring, and excellent hiking. We spent the morning taking the only winter cave tour, which turned out to be one of the best-run tours we’ve ever taken. Our guide, a Forest Service employee, was thoroughly knowledgeable about cave history and biology, clearly referencing various studies she’d been involved in recently and generally being professional and well-informed. We’ve taken many cheesy and uneducated cave tours, mostly in private caves, but including a real doozy in a Missouri State Park in which our guide attempted to explain how different layers of the cave walls correlated to The Flood (yes, that one). It was a real thrill to follow a professional through a beautiful cave, and we took our time enjoying each others’ company (we got the sense she enjoyed us as much as we did her).

The road into the valley was closed to vehicles due to snow/ice, though it was much clearer than the unblocked road into Rush. Odd to see the USFS more concerned about road conditions than the NPS. Thus we decided to hike down instead, and had a great time. After eating a light lunch at the truck, we secured some basic maps from the cave staff and headed off for a long loop hike down into the Sylamore Creek valley. Reaching the valley floor, we first headed up a side branch to the outflow of Blanchard Springs, which drains the cavern system in a very nice setting:
Following this, we headed off on our loop, which slowly climbed the ridge overlooking Sylamore Creek while offering excellent though unphotographable views of the region. This took the rest of the day, under perfect sun on powdery snow, and was just a lovely way to spend a day. Oh, yes, and we stopped by the impressive rock shelter near the Blanchard Springs campground. Appearances are deceiving; the opening is around 30′ high and that’s a huge bluff above it.
The following day, we left directly from our cabin to hike down in to the Panther Creek valley, heading for the Indian Rock House, a giant bluff shelter. On the way, we thoroughly enjoyed some of the more subtle geologic features, such as this sculpted creek bottom:
And this freshly-forming ice pile at the base of a waterfall, mimicking the development of cave features in fast-forward:
We took no photos at Indian Rock House, as we’d forgotten to change camera batteries and it was dead by then. I don’t think we could capture it anyway; the feature is a truly massive bluff overhang that feels the size of an airplane hangar. Facing south, it was warmly lit by the brilliant sun, and we could relax against a rock spire and eat a needed snack. On one side of the shelter, a cave stream emerges briefly into the open before flowing back into an underground passage, providing the soothing rush of water echoing throughout the chamber. We explored a short distance into several small caves leading off in various directions, but not far enough for concern or to disturb any bats deeper in their recesses. I even Googled other images of the shelter, but found nothing that remotely captures its size or the sense of awe you feel standing within it.

From here, we hiked up and over a steep ridge to the entrance of Bat Cave, which was impressive and tempting but also closed in winter (as most caves are) due to concerns about disturbing hibernating bats and the concerning spread of White Nose Disease. We didn’t like the route of the trail up, so took our own route back and thoroughly enjoyed seeing a different and little-visited landscape.

We finished this loop with time left in the day, so headed down to the Buffalo River itself to enjoy walking the gravel bars. We found a small rock shelter along this bluff (below), out of the wind and warmed by the sun, where we settled in and spent several hours reading, sipping tea from our thermos, and snacking. Despite an overall air temperature around freezing, this little pocket was so warm we took off half our layers and ended up napping. Several kingfishers were active along the river, and we enjoyed listening to and watching these neat birds.
This was our last night, and we headed for home the next day. These three days and three nights in the Arkansas Ozarks were nearly perfect, though. Ideal weather for hiking, with clear skies and temps no higher than freezing, making hiking plenty comfortable but keeping everyone else away; we saw effectively no one for three days. Light snow on the ground to bring out the topography; active birds & wildlife foraging; a diverse mixture of hikes, landscapes, and history. Despite our cabin’s mild flaws (broken fridge, tiny shower with head at chest height, hellish heater), it was cozy and perfect for our purposes, making cooking good meals a breeze and offering plenty of comfortable settings for relaxing reading (I finished Volume 3 of Will Durant’s History of Civilization and started Volume 4 of Dumas Malone’s biography of Thomas Jefferson). Just a perfect finish to the trip.

We’re glad to be home, though, back in our own bed and back to work on our long winter to-do list. The weather has been seriously wintry ever since we returned, forcing our focus onto the indoor tasks. With over 8″ of snow outdoors, up to 5″ more forecast through the weekend, and temp not going above freezing for the forseeable future, we just work on the indoor stuff and hope February will clear up some. Though given how cloudy it’s been for the last few months, I’m going to have to start taking down dead trees for firewood within a few weeks.

Good to be home.

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