Arkansas hiking: Checking the scenes on the King’s Bluff and Pedestal Rocks trails

Jen on an outcrop on the Pedestal Rocks Trail.

High on a lot of hikers’ priorities is to see are waterfalls. And given the amount of moisture and the abundance of cliffs in the Ozarks, you can imagine there is a lot to choose from in northwest Arkansas.

One of my local hiking buddies, my sister-in-law Jen, did some research and spied out a couple of loops that we hoped would give us that visual payoff. Not far from the town of Pelsor is the Pedestal Rocks Scenic Area, part of a larger national recreation area in the Ozark National Forest. We arrived on a cool, breezy morning to a quiet trailhead and looked at our options.

There are two trail loops here. One is the King’s Bluff Trail, the other the Pedestal Rocks Trail. Neither are terribly long, and except for some sloshy spots on the trail, they are pretty straightforward routes that most hikers can handle.

We chose the King’s Bluff Trail first. After a short uphill section, the trail gradually makes its way down its namesake bluffs, a long series of cliffs overlooking a deeper ravine below. You can hike down to the bluffs’ edge where fencing has been built and peer down into a view of a slim but high waterfall that plunges from a shallow creek about 80 feet into the foot of the cliffs below. In drier times I imagine the waterfall is sparse, but we’ve had plenty of rain lately, so it was flowing nicely.

This creek fed the waterfall we came to see.

A short scramble led us to the bottom of the waterfall.

Behind the waterfall.

You can go back up the trail a bit to where the fencing begins and scramble down into the ravine if you want to see the falls from below. There will be a little bushwhacking, and it’s steep and slippery in spots. So, watch your footing. But seeing the falls from below – and behind – is worth the extra effort. As a bonus, you’ll also get to see a smaller waterfall that flows into a rocky grotto fairly close to where you start your descent. It was a cool place to visit, but there was plenty more to see.

Rocky overhang leading back up to the trail.

A smaller waterfall around the corner from the overhang.

We hiked out of there and finished the loop close to the trailhead. From there, we took on the Pedestal Rocks Trail – slightly longer, and without the high waterfalls, but other interesting sights awaited.

The Pedestal Rocks are a geological formation common to the Ozarks. I mentioned this in last week’s post about Hawksbill Crag, but I’ll go ahead and offer this again. The Ozarks aren’t like most mountainous areas in that they formed differently. The region is basically a large plateau, and over time erosion has carved out deep ravines, transforming what was likely a large, broad and flat landscape into something much more rugged and steeply sloped.

What happens to these slopes is interesting. As the sandstone is weathered by water and wind, long, slender chunks of the rock calve away from the hillsides not unlike what you see when glaciers dump icebergs into the sea. Gravity will eventually topple these towers, but for the time being, you get to enjoy viewing them from cliffside trails along the loop. It’s a heck of a visual, and there are many scenic overlooks to see the formations and look out into the broader Ozarks landscape.

An example of the Pedestal Rocks.

Now that’s a view. Seen on the Pedestal Rocks Trail.

An arch!

At one point, we even saw some arches, and sure, there were some small, drippy waterfalls to boot. Eventually the loop makes a turn and you head back toward the trailhead in a more conventional way, that is, hiking through the woods. These are pretty trails in the winter, and I can only imagine in the spring when everything is green, or in the fall when the leaves turn that these routes are spectacular.

ABOUT THE ROUTES: Both trails are roughly similar in terms of route difficulty and elevation gain, which is pretty modest. Both routes also skirt high cliffsides, so be careful if you’re hiking with kids or pets. The King’s Bluff Trail is a 1.7-mile loop. The Pedestal Rocks Trail is a 2.2-mile loop. Both are Class 1 hiking, and if you do them both, you’ll have just shy of 700 feet of elevation gain.

Bob Doucette

Arkansas hiking: Hawksbill Crag via Whitaker Point Trail

Hawksbill Crag, Ark.

It’s no secret that northwest Arkansas has become a popular place for outdoor enthusiasts. Mountain bikers in particular have come to know a number of trails in the area, and towns like Bentonville have embraced it. Hilly countryside, thick woods and loads of trails to explore have helped this part of the state grow in popularity for the MTB crowd.

Generally what’s good for mountain bikers is also good for hikers. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the variety of trails — from short, easy walks to long slogs — leaves something for everyone. And in most cases, all these trails offer a high degree of visual payoff.

Such is the case for the Hawksbill Crag Trail, also called the Whitaker Point Trail, near the town of Jasper. That’s where me and my sister-in-law Jen (my partner in crime on Mount LeConte, Tenn.) went on a recent three-trail hiking day.

A little about that name: The destination of the trail is a rocky outcrop overlooking a set of wooded ravines. It resembles, as you might guess, the head and beak of a hawk looking out over the ravine below. There are a number of places to see the crag, and it’s a popular place to take a photo of someone standing atop the crag, looking out into the scenery with a bunch of air underneath. In the age of Instagram, Hawksbill Crag may as well be Horseshoe Bend. Just as many people hike this trail for that shot as those who come for the views.

A couple enjoys the late afternoon views on Hawksbill Crag.

Like a lot of Arkansas trails, it begins at the top of a plateau and descends to follow a line of ledges. The trail is easy to follow and offers some nice overlooks before you get to the crag itself. Intermittent creeks mean that you’ll have a few crossings, but you can get through most of them without having to worry about getting your feet wet. Those creeks will flow higher and faster if there have been any good rains, however. Choose your footwear accordingly.

That said, you’re not going to find many trails as accessible to hikers of all kinds as this one. It’s a short trip, a 3-mile out-and-back round-trip. Going along with one of the creeks is a small waterfall you can see from the top. I imagine there is a way to get to the bottom, though it may take some doing. The mix of pines and broad leaf trees means there will be at least some greenery year-round.

Winter trees, blue skies, and you can barely make out the moon to the upper left.

As for the crags: One of the reasons why the Ozarks offer so many rocky overlooks has to do with how they are formed. The Ozarks are really part of a large, broad plateau that covers sections of northwest Arkansas, northeast Oklahoma, southeast Kansas and southern Missouri. As the eons have passed, rivers have cut into the sandstone, digging out steep, rocky ravines and hollows that make the plateau appear less flat and more like mountains. Erosion causes some of the slopes and cliffs to collapse, often leaving behind odd, free-standing rock pillars and jutting crags at the edges of the bluffs. Hawksbill Crag is one of those overlooks, the remains of a rock rib whose bottom collapsed long ago.

Selfie.

The crag, and the many smaller ones similar to it, make for great places to stop for photos, have a snack, or just chill. Hawksbill Crag is broad enough to fit more than a dozen people.

As I said earlier, the site has become popular. Unless you get there at dawn or sunset on an off day, you’re unlikely to get that solo shot everyone is looking for when they come here. It’s a busy trail. As such, don’t expect this to be a hike with much solitude.

But it is worth doing because the scenery is top-notch, the trail is easy to get to and the hike is not difficult. The only downside is that you’ll be hiking mostly uphill for the last half mile or so back to the trailhead parking lot, which might be a bummer if you’re already tired. But most people can manage it just fine. It’s a short trip.

A neighboring crag, which ain’t too shabby either.

Hiking buddy Jen enjoys the views.

ABOUT THE ROUTE: The trail is marked with blazes and is easy to follow. Class 1 hiking with a total elevation profile of 413 feet. Expect some minor creek crossings, none of which are deep. Exposure along the ledges is significant, but easily avoided; be careful when hiking with kids. Route length is 3 miles.

GETTING THERE: South of Ponca, Ark., on State Highway 21, go past the State Highway 43 intersection 1.2 miles, turn west on a county road, just before you get to a bridge over the Buffalo River. The dirt road starts steep and has rocky spots but is fine for passenger cars. Go about 6 miles and you will see a parking area on both sides of the road. The trailhead is on the left.

UP NEXT: Two more northwest Arkansas trails with fewer people and big visuals. Coming up next week.

Bob Doucette

 

Rather than bail, go ahead and take that hike

Sweet trails at Loveland Pass, Colo., on an iffy weather day in 2015.

I got pretty stoked at last weekend’s forecast. It called for snow, which we rarely get anymore here in northeast Oklahoma, so my plan was to get my weekend chores out of the way, head to the trails and see what the woods looked like with a fresh blanket of snow on them.

I woke up to the snow ending, and just barely enough to pockmark the grass with dots of white. A dusting, and not the three inches I’d been expecting. It seems like the last few winters have merely been an extended fall that hurry themselves into spring earlier than I’d like. Part of that whole “hottest decade ever recorded” thing, I guess.

Anyway, I bailed on the hike and watched football instead.

But part of me wonders if I missed out, even without the scenery I expected. After all, some of the most memorable hikes I’ve done have come at times when the weather seemed to be saying “no.”

A few that come to mind…

In the summer of 2015, forecasts called for relentless morning and afternoon storms in the Rockies. I’d already been chased off Longs Peak earlier that week by bad weather and route conditions. But I desperately wanted some alpine time, so despite the ugly prediction I headed up to Loveland Pass to see what I could get.

It wasn’t a huge hike, nor was Cupid a prestigious summit. But the summit views and the way the clouds weaved around and over the mountaintops was so worth it.

Huron Peak emerging from the clouds, as seen from the northwest ridge of Missouri Mountain in 2013.

Two years earlier, terrible rains were flooding the Front Range and northern Colorado when I was supposed to join a group for a climb of Capitol Peak. The trip was jettisoned, but here I was in Denver and having spent a bunch of time just driving there, I couldn’t let it go. I took a chance on the iffy forecast, headed to the Sawatch Mountains and car camped at the trailhead of Missouri Gulch Basin. The next morning, with things looking as dicey as ever, I started marching uphill toward Missouri Mountain.

The weather held off. I was treated to surreal scenery and solitude on what was probably the most memorable summit hike I’ve ever done. It wasn’t a particularly difficult mountain but doing it solo on a day like that made it special. I wouldn’t trade that day for anything.

Rewind three more years. One weekend I had some free time and decided to head to the Wichita Mountains of southwest Oklahoma. I unintentionally ignored the forecast, but when I got there, it was apparent it was going to be a stormy day. Having driven more than two hours already, I said, “to hell with it” and marched down the trail.

A break in the weather going up a ridge in the Wichita Mountains in 2010.

I didn’t get to my objective that day (too stormy), but I did see some amazing things and got to know the range in a way that most of us never get to see: Enveloped in a historic squall, wearing the weather’s colors in a manner that was almost mythic. I’ll never forget that day.

I’ve had a few friends tell me that when it comes to big hikes and climbing mountains that you just need to go, even if the forecast sucks. It might turn out accurate, and you may have to bail. But you also might catch a window that allows you to have a memorable adventure. If you bagged it prematurely, you never know what you may have missed.

So, I suppose when I get my heart set on some snowy scenery and it doesn’t pan out, maybe I should go hike anyway. Something else might await that makes it worthwhile.

Bob Doucette

Looking back on my last ten years: A storm, but with rays of light

Looking forward to whatever lies ahead. (Johnny Hunter photo)

At the end of the year, everyone got reflective on the previous ten years. I decided to wait until my next trip around the sun came to pass.

Or something close to it. Next week, I’ll hit one of the milestone birthdays. The Big 5-0. Yeah, I know. A strong fear of ageism gives me pause even mentioning the number, partially because I still feel like a 30-something and admitting otherwise might (erroneously) bring on a bunch of “OK, Boomer” darts hurled my way. I’m Gen-X, ya knuckleheads. Get it straight.

The fact that I’m getting off-track might, indeed, be a sign of advancing age. So, let’s get past all that. Some thoughts that are rolling through my head right now go something like this…

I spent the first full decade of my adult years working lots of hours for low wages, all to build a resume and reputation that would land me a better gig. By age 28, I got that job, and my career got much more interesting and profitable.

That allowed me, in my 30s, to take a whole different path. That decade was all about exploration. I rediscovered by love of hiking and the outdoors and hiked my first 14er. I took up jujitsu and eventually became an instructor. I traveled to China, Thailand and several places in the Caribbean. I won’t lie, my 30s were awesome.

And then my 40s showed up. Like a storm.

That promising job turned sour. My oldest brother – a friend, mentor and confidant – got sick. Then I got laid off and spent four months looking for work just as the country was coming out of its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. And my brother ultimately succumbed to cancer. All that happened within 16 months of what was the worst time in my life.

Finding new work meant uprooting from the community I’d lived in for two decades. Even with a new gig, bankruptcy became a real possibility. To this day, the relatively good times, financially speaking, of the prior decade are just a memory. The middle class ain’t what it used to be.

But it wasn’t all bad news. Amid the storm, there were rays of light.

I took up running. And then trail running. I met some fantastic people in the running community and eventually ran my first half marathon. And then seven months later, my first marathon.

I still found time to hike, camp, take road trips and climb mountains. I met more great people in these endeavors, from many states. Tougher, more rewarding ascents followed. And solo road trips and hikes.

In 2011, I was looking for an outlet to write about these experiences, so I started this blog. I wasn’t expecting it to be anything more than an opportunity to practice a craft I love, and hopefully people would get something out of it.

Seven years later, I wrote and published a book. I’m not on any best-seller list, but it is by far the best thing I’ve ever done in my writing career.

As my next milestone approaches, I’ve got plans to do more. And looking back, I know there is value in the struggle. I’ve found that I write better from a place of pain, and if not for the wounds I suffered in my 40s, I’m sure anything I produced would have been less than what it is. I mean, you can appreciate the blues to a point, but you don’t really get it until you’ve suffered. That’s the weird thing about the human condition – those sufferfests might break you, but if they don’t, they will make you. Struggling through the storms gives me a better place to see other people, too. I see your gray areas, your flaws and your tragedies and I get it.

I’ve got this thing in my head that believes age is just a number, that I can run and hike and bike and live out loud and as hard as I want, even when the AARP comes knocking at my door. I’ve always had a bad case of Peter Pan syndrome.

But I’m OK with that. Because it means I’m going to run trails, line up for races, lift hard, camp in the cold, exhaust myself on mountain ridges and seek solace and understanding in lonely, wild places. I’ll keep trying weird foods, especially those in other lands, if I get that opportunity again. And I’ll sit down for a beer or three with just about anybody, because all of us have only so much time, and really, we’re in this thing together, like it or not.

And above all, I want to be a better human. How many crises could I have avoided and how many people could I have blessed by just doing that.

What will the next ten trips around the sun look like? Who knows? Each decade has been vastly different from the others, so I can only imagine that will be the case again.

So off I go, toward the second star on the right and straight on till morning. I don’t know any other way.

Bob Doucette

The trails were busy on Christmas, and that’s a good thing

I wasn’t alone on the trails on Christmas Day. This cyclist, a hiker in the background, and scores of others were there, too.

This has been a strange holiday season for me, mostly because I worked through both Christmas and New Year’s. It’s hard to get the holiday spirit when it’s just another workday.

But I did have time on Christmas Day to get on the trails. The weather was sunny and mild, and I had time to kill before my shift started. I figured most people would be at home with relatives, soaking in the holiday largesse, and maybe watching “Elf” or something.

I’d have the trails to myself!

Uh, wrong. I showed up to a mostly full overflow parking lot. People on mountain bikes, couples walking dogs, parents herding children… you get the idea. I’d be sharing the trails that day in a big way.

I dig the solitude of trail running. It’s a stark contrast to my city routes, where I’m dodging people, looking out for cars and otherwise surrounded by all the sights and sounds of a busy urban center. Don’t get me wrong, I like my city runs. But trail runs have their place, too. So, I might have been somewhat put off that my trail miles would have to be shared.

But as I thought about it, I changed my mind. As it turns out, the trail system I visited was working exactly as planned. And that’s a good thing.

When I moved to Tulsa in 2011, I’d heard a little about Turkey Mountain, but didn’t know much about it. I spent the next couple of years exploring its trails, and in terms of health, fitness, friendships and quality of life, I can say that the Turkey Mountain Urban Wilderness changed my life for the better. I’ve been advocating on its behalf for more than five years now.

Why it’s so important to my city has a lot to do with where Tulsa is, the health problems the community has, and the opportunity these trails provide. It’s a sorely needed venue for folks to get active. Oklahoma is smack in the middle of America’s Stroke Alley, so you understand the importance of things that help combat the increasingly sedentary nature of the society we live in.

When you think about it, the folks that set aside this land as a wild space decades ago were visionary. They saw the possibilities of what such a landscape could provide the city, other than being a tract for commercial or residential development. There is plenty of that to go around, but not much in the way of a true natural woodlands that people in the city could enjoy.

What’s encouraging is that many communities across the country are seeing the wisdom in setting aside land for human-powered recreation. I’ve seen it in the Denver metro area, and in a big state park south of Nashville. And so many more places. We need it, and folks are recognizing that fact – and acting on it.

So, what the heck. I didn’t get that solitary trail experience, but I got my run, nonetheless. And a bunch of people were out there with me, enjoying the woods, and getting some fresh air outside. I’ll call it a win.

Bob Doucette

Walking to the doorstep of heaven

Near the summit of Cupid, Loveland Pass, Colorado.

I’ve been going through some old photos lately, and have found myself drawn to a particular set of images. They’re the ones depicting mountain scenes, but those in which the mountains and the clouds mix in ways that bring together a sense of mystery and foreboding.

There was one hike I did about four years ago when the summer monsoons were on full blast, bringing rain and storms daily, often from morning until sunset. It was hard finding a day to go out when the weather gave me a window where a summit hike was even possible.

But it worked out on that day, even for the briefest amount of time. The hike was short, just a few miles round trip, and the summit was a minor one, a mountain simply called Cupid that tops out at 13,117 feet in Colorado’s Front Range.

On that day, heavy clouds were moving in, at times covering the sky. Only occasionally did any blue peek through.

At those altitudes, the clouds themselves don’t hover very high over the mountains. Sometimes they even pass below.

The more I thought about it, the more I could appreciate these places where the elements of earth and sky meet, and sometimes intermingle.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience this a few times. Lucky in that I was able to take it in and not suffer from the dreary and sometimes dangerous aspects of storms. There’s a sweet spot here, one in which the skies are painted gray and white, but the fury of the atmosphere is mercifully held at bay. In those times, the mountains become otherworldly, even ethereal.

I understand why ancient people felt that it was in the mountains that the gods lived. Most people never ventured that high. The inaccessibility of the heights and the sorcerous dance of the mists above seemingly drew wonder and fear.

Summit ridge, Missouri Mountain, Colorado.

Moses went up Sinai to see God and receive the Ten Commandments. The ancient Greeks looked toward Mount Olympus and its lofty heights as the home of their deities. In the Himalayas, the mountains themselves are seen as gods.

The mountains and their massive bulk, their imposing ramparts, and in some cases, fiery calderas only fuel dreams of the supernatural.

These days, we’ve climbed these peaks and have seen that there are no divine palaces on their summits. Zeus cannot be found. We’ve prayed to the mountains and consistent to their nature, they’ve answered with stony silence.

But that doesn’t mean their misty heights can’t inspire awe.

Years before that Cupid hike, I was up on Missouri Mountain in Colorado on a day in which the weather looked dicey. Clouds swirled all around, but for some reason, the rains and snows never came. I hiked up the mountain’s northwest ridge, then walked toward its summit in a cloud bank, the trail disappearing into a gray haze. It was otherworldly.

Once on its summit, I looked around. The surrounding mountains were in the midst of the same dance, like a giant ballroom of clouds writhing and floating around the high peaks, steely spirits at times graceful, and other times more urgent in their movements, depending on the nature of the winds. Below me, were miles of alpine tundra, willows and forests.

Everyone reacts differently, but to me, I felt close to God. Intimately, and maybe dangerously close.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

I’ve felt that a few times, times when hiking the Loveland Pass peaks, times when I’ve wandered in the Smokies, times when I’ve watched the sun rise over a cloud inversion in Rocky Mountain National Park. And yes, that day on Missouri Mountain, on my own, with nothing but me, my thoughts, and the dance of God whirling around me in the grandest scale.

It’s where heaven and earth meet, a window into another world beyond our own. Only rarely does this opportunity rise for me. It’s an honor just to be there.

Longs Peak Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Bob Doucette

Mountain reads: ‘Running Home,’ by Katie Arnold

I’ll admit to being a sucker for New Mexico landscapes. So when I started turning the pages in Katie Arnold’s memoir “Running Home,” I got treated to big dose of it. And then there was this zinger about running:

“People think long-distance running is about speed, about getting from point A to point B as fast as possible, but really it’s about slowing down. In the quiet of prolonged effort, time stretches, elongates. I look around at the hot blue sky, summer settling down on northern New Mexico, and feel my legs moving automatically and do what comes naturally. I run.”

And that’s all it took. I was hooked.

Much of Arnold’s book is about running, and it skillfully loops her earliest running experience back to a more recent memory, tying together a lifetime of experiences involving family, running, and how people evolve.

Like any good memoir, Arnold allows for vulnerability, admitting doubts and fears. And she’s transparent about her family history, which is at once heartbreaking but also common to the experiences of many in her generation: growing up like most families, then seeing things change, balancing jolting new realities while not totally understanding why things turned out as they did.

In the midst of this is her account of a fascinating but complicated father who, during a battle with cancer, must go through the pains of reconciling his own decisions and how they affected his children.

And woven into this is the mechanism that serves as Arnold’s tool to work out her past – mostly questions about her family – and her present, becoming a writer, a wife, and a mother. For her, it’s running, and she’s accomplished more there than most could in a lifetime.

Arnold has been a podium finisher at several ultramarathon trail races, including the grueling Leadville 100 trail race in Colorado where, in 2018, she was the women’s champion. The outdoors has long been an integral part of her life, but it’s in trail running that she found the medium in which to work out her biggest challenges. In between the description of her non-running life are accounts of casual mountain runs, the labors of training, and all the joy, doubt, pain and elation that comes with races, many of which are set in the mountains in and around her New Mexico home.

Arnold paces the story well, not rushing through anything, but providing the right amount of punch to give you a sense of the magnitude of what she’s describing. It’s a common theme among trail runners – using the sport to stay at even keel. But it’s uncommon to see it told so naturally. Nothing is overstated or melodramatic: Life events are told as they are. Her prose ranges from essay to conversational, and that’s not an easy mix for most writers, but Arnold pulls it off.

There are plenty of running memoirs out there, and they all have their merits. As an athlete, Arnold is a person who has accomplished a great deal. But in reading her story, she feels like one of us.

Bob Doucette