Note: The following is a guest post from a friend and colleague, Cary Aspinwall, who also happens to be a big fan of spending time outdoors. Check out her bio at the end of the post.
Last year, my friend Courtney and I decided to start an annual tradition of a destination hike.
Though I was born in the mountains, I’ve always been a bit of a chicken about hikes, preferring to stick to easier trails closer to home.
Then in 2014, I read “Grandma Gatewood’s Walk,” by one of my favorite writers, Ben Montgomery (who happens to be an Okie and all-around nice guy).
Frankly, Grandma Gatewood made me feel like a wimp.
She hiked the Appalachian Trail alone, in Keds. In the 1950s.
I should be braver, I realized.
I made Courtney read the book, too, and we picked out a fun and challenging hike that we could do in a day with a short drive.
Last year, we chose Robber’s Cave State Park near Wilburton — I liked the story about the outlaw hideout in the San Bois mountains.
I looked at the trails on maps ahead of time, and saw several reviews that said detailed trail maps were available for purchase at the Robber’s Cave visitors’ center.
When we got there, however, the woman running the shop said they were out of official trail maps they usually sold. There was a crappy, free black-and-white copy of something barely legible, and a hot pink bandana with a not-to-scale map available for purchase. (It was made by a Skiatook company called Trail Hankie, and I’m now obsessed with collecting these from places I hike).
So Courtney and I set out with our pink bandana for what ended up being a nearly 7-hour unplanned adventure (we had water and popcorn balls for food. It was the day before Halloween, and we were planning on a simple three-hour hike).
We had a cell phone, but you can imagine how great reception in the rural San Bois mountains is. The trails were poorly marked with faded paint splotches on trees that were hard to distinguish. (Lest you think we’re just terrible at hiking, Courtney recently heard from some trail running friends who said they also got lost at Robber’s Cave.)
Lucky for us, I have a really good internal compass, so we finally made it to the Robber’s Cave feature and then our car in a parking lot several miles away. But the hike took way longer than planned and was a little stressful.
I don’t recommend navigating from a souvenir bandana unless you have to.
We didn’t care to relive that experience this year, and chose to head to Arkansas to explore Devil’s Den State Park. It’s south of Fayetteville and is a testament to the beautiful legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps programs from 1933-1942 as part of the New Deal.
We printed several maps in advance, but to our delight, there were plenty of free, detailed maps at the visitor’s center and friendly park rangers to go over them with you (we bought another Trail Hankie for fun, however).
We had originally toyed with the idea of hiking part of the Butterfield Hiking Trail, which is named after the old Butterfield Overland stagecoach route. The entire thing is 15 miles and stretches far outside the state park’s boundaries. It begins and ends at Devil’s Den, but much of the trail is actually in the Ozark National Forest.
After talking to the park staff, we decided to start out with the beautiful Devil’s Den trail right by the visitor’s center (it’s a 1.5 mile loop, but it has some steep elevation changes). The caves are currently closed to protect the bats living in them, but you get an idea of their depth from the crevices and views on this trail. There are also several waterfalls that are likely spectacular during rainier seasons (we went on a dry, sunny November day).
I can’t recommend this trail enough. It’s truly a CCC masterpiece and even with the elevation changes, suitable for most levels of fitness and hiking ability. It’s well-marked, easy to follow and there were lots of families hiking together while we were out there.
Instead of heading out to tackle a piece of the Butterfield after that, a park ranger instead steered us toward the Fossil Flats Trail, which is inside the park and just under 6 miles, if you take the full loop. There are trails that cross over and allow you to shorten it to a 3- or 4-mile hike).
Fossil Flats is a multi-use trail designed for mountain bikers as well, but it loops around beautiful Lee Creek and we only saw hikers and campers.
The entire trail is well-marked with color-coded pieces of plastic fixed along trees and posts, we never once got lost.
The view of Lee Creek is the best thing about this trail — we were able to stop and eat a snack on a bench overlooking the water. Farther up the trail, we explored a dry creek bed for fossils and interesting rocks (the hazards of hiking with your geologist friend).
The Racer’s Hill portion (this is the loop that extends it to the full 5.6 miles or so) was the least interesting in terms of scenery, but added a nice fitness challenge. It’s more geared toward mountain bikers (even the trail markers are placed closer to where bikers would see them) and so I might skip that portion on any return trips.
If you start Fossil Flats from the campground like we did, you’ll have a small water crossing at the end, which was really fun (you might want to plan on keeping a dry pair of shoes in your car, though).
The Devil’s Den and Fossil Flats trails were so lovely and fun that now we’re really wanting to come back and try the full Butterfield trail next time, with the proper supplies.
I can’t say enough about the Arkansas State Parks system. From the website to the park rangers and free maps, everything was functional and helpful.
Part of our plan in traveling to Arkansas for this hike involved stopping at AQ Chicken House on the way back to Tulsa, which worked out well. We were starving by this time and devoured an embarrassing amount of fresh rolls and fried chicken, but je ne regrette rien.
Getting there: From Interstate 540, take the Arkansas Highway 74 exit (West Devil’s Den Road) and go west. The road will meander southwest and lead you to the park.
Cary Aspinwall is the creative director and a writer for The Frontier in Tulsa. She enjoys walking her dogs and hiking, and has reluctantly run a couple of races and half marathons in between all the reading, writing and wine drinking. You can follow her misadventures on Twitter or Instagram or on her blog for the Frontier.