Between the briars slicing open my shins and picking off a couple of ticks, there was one thing that I failed to notice, something my hiking partner Craig noted.
“What’s great about this is we haven’t seen another soul.”
He was right. We’d been on the trail for a couple of hours, and the only non-insect beings we saw were a couple of snakes, a few lizards, and some turkey vultures riding the air currents high above a steep, heavily wooded ravine.
Solitude is something I expect in the remote parts of the country, but not in the South. Sparsely populated western states offer plenty of alone time if you want it. That’s tougher to find in states where small towns dot the landscape and paved highways take you to the tops of mountains.
So it was remarkable that this hike, going up the Magazine Mountain Trail in northwest Arkansas, was one in which we were the only humans around.
I’ll take that every time.
Looking out over a rocky outcrop three miles in, I uttered what became the de facto humorous slogan of the trip: “This does not suck.”
ARKANSAS’ HIGH PLACE
Magazine Mountain (alternatively, and interchangeably, called Mount Magazine) is the highest mountain in Arkansas, rising to 2,753 feet. It was named by French explorers who, after witnessing a landslide on its flanks, likened the sound to a munitions magazine exploding.
It’s the monarch of the Ouachita Mountains, an ancient band of east-west ridges and mesas that once soared to heights equal to that of the Rockies, back before tectonic movement pushed it away from the Appalachians and into the heart of the interior highlands of Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma.
The Ouachitas are separated from the Boston Mountains and the rest of the Ozarks by the Arkansas River. Clothing the entire region are dense hardwood and lodgepole pine forests filled with life.
The mountain itself dominates the skyline south of the river. It’s a long plateau crowned with a rim of rugged cliffs at the top, offering spectacular views of the Ouachitas all the way into Oklahoma to the east and the Boston Mountains to the north.
The mountain is mostly inside national forest land, though the top of the formation is land owned by the state, Mount Magazine State Park. The state park and the National Forest Service have a great partnership here, and part of that is maintaining a route that is one of Arkansas’ classic hikes, the 9.7-mile Magazine Mountain Trail.
Most people hike the peak from campgrounds at the top of the mountain down to Cove Lake, 1,500 feet below. But a downhill hike is not what Craig and I are accustomed to.
In some ways, Craig and I are similar hikers. We’re both flatlanders who have found ourselves at home hiking Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, and have a similar number of summits. But we have key differences, namely that he’s much faster at altitude and is seemingly tireless. Me? Not so much.
Thankfully, the altitudes of Arkansas aren’t nearly the factor that they are in Colorado. Otherwise I would have been eating Craig’s dust most of the way yet again.
A WALK IN THE WOODS
Our plan was to drive one of our cars to the lake, hike to the top, then use the other car to retrieve the first. The only other option would have been to do a round-trip hike that would have approached 20 miles. Both of us had done that before, but we were looking more for fun rather than something more demanding.
The trailhead at the lake is easy to miss, but a small parking area (big enough for two cars) revealed the start of the route. I had to remind myself that spring is the time where every fallen tree branch could be a snake. And that turned out to be true. Less than a mile in, a two-foot black snake sat in the middle of the trail, sunning itself, and not at all concerned with us. We were cool with that.
The trail was mostly an up-and-down affair, and then about three miles in, we climbed up to a cliff side that revealed some sweet views of nearby ridges and woodlands. Someone had set up a fire ring at that outcropping, so I suppose you could consider that place as a potential campsite. I guess that would be fine, but there wasn’t a water source nearby, and I’m all about having somewhere close to filter water so I don’t have to haul it all in. We were just passing through, so we snapped a few pics and Craig caught me saying something goofy on video.
“Say hello for the camera,” he said.
“’Sup, camera,” was about as witty as I could get.
I figured that our hike up the ridge was the start of ascending the mountain, but I was wrong. Every bit of elevation we gained there we quickly surrendered as the hike went on. As it turned out, this was just a stop along the way and we’d yet to reach the foot of the mountain. So while the maps showed the elevation gain from Cove Lake to the trail’s end at about 1,500 feet, you can easily tack on at least a couple hundred feet more, given this little feature and the constant up-and-down along the way.
Another thing we noticed: This was a very watery hike. For starters, route descriptions mention creek crossings, and there were several. You could cross some without getting your feet wet, but others, not so much. There was a lot of water coming down the mountain that day, a byproduct of frequent rains that had pounded this part of the state in the preceding week.
That also made the trail muddy in numerous spots. And in others, water flowed down the trail as if it were a creek itself. Any illusions of keeping our feet dry were quickly dispelled. Once you’re good with that, it’s not a problem. Otherwise, only high-top boots with waterproofing would have provided a chance at staying dry. And that would have been a big if.
The trail is well-marked. There were mile markers (though a few were missing), and white diamond-shaped blazes were nailed to trees frequently. The only tricky areas were, believe it or not, road crossings. The first one of those had the trail reappear in a grassy area across the road (they were all gravel access roads for National Forest Service work). The second one, however, gave us a little trouble.
About four miles in, we came to a road crossing that had one side of the road going uphill and the other splitting into a Y. One of those splits led to a gate, the other downhill. We looked up and down the road and saw no clear indication where the trail picked back up, and our map wasn’t altogether clear.
A fella in a truck pulled up, so we flagged him down. Looking at our map and compass, we took a guess, went up the hill and guessed wrong. We figured that out after Truck Guy drove back up the hill to tell us he saw where the trail left the road – down the hill, the opposite direction we were going. We were grateful for the assist. Who knows where we would have ended up had we kept trudging up the road. I made a mental note that I need to work on my orienteering skills.
With Truck Guy motoring down the road and us back on track, all signs of people vanished again. Every now and then, deadfall blocked our route. My guess is high winds from recent storms took down sick or dead trees along our path.
Somewhere past Mile 5, we hit another high point where two small clearings overlooked a steep, wooded slope. We could hear a creek rushing below us. The clearings also had a fire ring, and this seemed like a good place for someone to camp. The Magazine Mountain Trail is popular with backpackers, and some people turn the hike into a two-day, overnight excursion. We plopped down for some grub, did a tick check (we performed a few of those) and let the sounds of the rushing creek below wash over us.
We were in for one more “major” creek crossing where the map indicated a bridge. I saw footings for a bridge on either bank, but something tells me that structure is long gone. It was just another soggy creek crossing, but we were used to that by then. No biggie, just squishy feet for a few minutes (and the promise of really rank socks back at camp).
Shortly after that, the trail started heading uphill in earnest. Nothing too steep, but we did hit two sections of switchbacks that were reminders of some of the more formidable trails we’d experienced in the Rockies. After the second set of switchbacks, the trail ascended the mountain in a steeper – and at times, soggier – straight line.
We knew we hit the state park boundary once the nature of the trail changed. Instead of the partially overgrown singletrack we’d been on all day, more stone stairs appeared.
The “up” gave way soon after, and before long camp had arrived, and with it, the promise of a good nap, fresh clothes, and the best camp food of all time, bratwursts with mac-and-cheese made by yours truly. Not like I’m biased or anything.
I could tell you that the scenery stole the show, and indeed, this is a great hike. It’s not often you can trek on a longer trail in the South and have nearly absolute solitude in a place that was so lush, so green, and so alive.
But as is the case with most hikes, it’s often the company you keep that makes the trip. All along the way, Craig and I compared stories from the mountains, our solo ascents, or the more memorable peaks. We talked about how we first got into hiking the Fourteeners, who we met, and what mountains we’d like to climb next. A lot of times, sharing these mountain tales leaves many of those we know a little glassy-eyed. I think they’d rather see a couple of pics and move on.
But within our little fellowship, these stories are the spice of life. They often intersect with big lessons learned, shared experiences with family and friends, and time to process big ideas. It’s made easier when there’s no cellphone service, so any urgent texts, emails or notifications are held at bay, leaving room for good conversation or quiet reflection. We don’t get enough of that, you know.
And all that would indeed come. We’d go back to families, back to jobs, back to the noise of daily life beyond these ancient woods. But for a time we let the forest take us in, block everything else out and send us back in time before people tried to tame these lands. Wild places can be savage, but they can also soothe.
ABOUT THE ROUTE
From Cove Lake, start the hike at a small parking pullout near the dam. The trail is well-marked and easy to follow, with very few side trails, most of which are partially overgrown.
About two miles in will be your first road crossing. Tall grasses obscure the trail on the other side of the road, but it will be slightly to your right.
Continue another mile to reach a rocky outcropping. This is a potential camping area, but also a good spot to rest, eat and evaluate the weather, as the bulk of the hike still lies ahead.
Another 1.5 miles up the trail is another road crossing. To your right, the road splits into a Y, with the right-hand fork leading immediately to a gate while the other fork goes downhill. Take the downhill fork. The route includes a small section of the road, but less than 200 yards downhill, the trail will appear to your left and leaves the road for good.
From here, a general uphill climb begins, with some elevation loss and gain. About 5 miles in, you’ll reach two clearings that have been used as campsites. This is just past the halfway point of the route, so it’s a logical place to stop and camp if you’re backpacking. It’s also a good point to evaluate the weather as well as your progress, as the hardest part of the hike still awaits.
Past the campsites, the trail continues another two miles before going uphill in earnest. You’ll go uphill for a time and the route will flatten out and take you between two ponds.
Upon leaving the ponds behind, you’ll arrive at the first set of steeper switchbacks, of which there are four. The route eases for a bit, then hits another set of three switchbacks. Leaving those behind, the route eases momentarily, then steepens again. A series of rock steps will appear as you leave the Ozark National Forest and enter Mount Magazine State Park. Continue a steep hike for another mile before the terrain eases and leads you to the boundary of the Cameron Bluffs campsites.
Route length is 9.7 miles, all Class 1 hiking with minimal exposure.
Hike south through the campsite, cross the main road and go a half mile up the Signal Hill Trail to the summit of Magazine Mountain and the state’s high point.
Or, if you’re up for it, make it a bigger day by hiking from Cove Lake to the summit, then back down to the lake. 19-21 miles, depending on if you tack on the Signal Hill Trail hike.
THINGS TO KNOW
There is no motorized travel or biking allowed on the Magazine Mountain Trail. Hiking only.
The mountains of Arkansas are bear country. Talk and make noise to alert bears of your presence, and do not attempt to feed them (or any wildlife, for that matter). Give any bear plenty of room, especially if it is a mother with her cubs. If you’re camping, be sure to hang any food or fragrant possessions (toothpaste, deordorant, soap, etc) in a bear bag away from your campsite. Never store these items in your tent.