Ouachita Trail 0-160 Miles with More to Come

Take a five-minute photo tour of our first 160 miles of the Ouachita Trail. We’re looking forward to adding the final 60 miles soon!

On Sunday, February 11, at 6 p.m., I’ll share preparation, packing light strategies, and a visual tour of the first 160 miles of the Ouachita Trail. This free event is open to the public. There is a time of fellowship, so bring some snacks to share.

Who?: Ozark Highlands Trail Association and guests

What?: The Ouachita (Wash’-i-taw) Trail: Preparation, packing to travel light, and a photo tour of the first 160 miles. Bonus – Children’s book, Gift From the Ozarks, telling Hiker-dog’s story.

When?: Sunday, February 11, at 6 p.m.

Where?: Washington County Extension Office at 2536 McConnell Rd. in Fayetteville, Arkansas. To get there from I-540 take Exit 66 south on AR 112 (Garland Ave), turn west at Drake Street stop light to reach McConnell Rd, turn south to WCES near the fair grounds. For gps users: 36.098 latitude 94.180 longitude

The Ouachita Trail: Just Add Water

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Early morning vista from the trail

Ouachita (Wash’-i-taw) is a word I’ve heard all my life. As a child, I knew “Ouachita” as the name of my parents’ college. The Ouachita was also a large river that flowed through Arkansas and close to my home. It was imprinted in my memory due to a very cold dunking I took during a winter float trip.

With this hike of 70+miles, Ouachita’s Native American translation as “happy hunting grounds,” resonates with me. I would add “VERY BIG hunting grounds.” Again and again, I found myself pausing in awe of these massive woods.

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Bob approaching one of many large pines in the Ouachitas.

After completing a very dry 51 miles of the Ouachita Trail using several pre-planted water caches, we decided to skip 37 typically dry miles and begin at the Buck Knob Trailhead close to mile 88. We had wished for rain during our last hike in hopes that creeks would collect water for our next outing. On this hike, our wish was more than granted!

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Day 1 (Dec. 16) We placed one water cache with our names and dates of travel written on the side of the plastic jugs. Then we hiked from Buck Knob Trailhead to Big Brushy Shelter as the sun went down. I’d tossed an Arby’s sandwich in my pack for a quick supper. I threw the meat on the grill and toasted the buns. A fast food sandwich never tasted better. There was a light sprinkling of rain that night.

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Gage fixing breakfast

Day 2 – 3 (Dec. 17-18) Woke to a soft fog and hiked to Fiddler’s Creek Shelter with occasional light rain and drizzle. Temperatures were warm, so wetness wasn’t a concern. As the evening fell, Gage joined us at the shelter. He was thru-hiking from east to west, and we enjoyed visiting around a warm fire. He would be the only backpacker we saw during our eight days on the trail.

The next day was a short distance to Suck Mountain Shelter. We arrived at 1:30 p.m. after walking an extended ascending roadbed.

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The Suck Mountain Shelter completed the series of structures covering the length of the Ouachita Trail. The newer shelters include extended front covers and shelves as well as gravel surface in the porch area. We marveled at the amount of work and funding it must take to prepare sites, transport materials and complete the construction. The final structure is solid and meant to last!

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We considered ourselves visitors to the shelters. Permanent residents included mice, dirt daubers, and barn swallows. We saw evidence of wasps from warmer seasons. During the night stereophonic coyote calls bounced around in the valleys below.

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Barn swallow nest

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Sunset at the Suck Mountain Shelter

Day 4 (Dec. 19) We had a rainy 14-mile walk to the John Archer Shelter. It was one of the earlier designs and perched unobtrusively on a hillside away from the trail. Dry clothes felt good when we arrived, and it didn’t take long to eat and crawl under my down quilt. It rained all night with periodic rounds of hard rain.

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Ranger John Archer Shelter

Day 5 (Dec. 20) We began our walk in a drizzling cloud wearing our wet clothes from the day before. Later in the day, we caught some of the only sun we’d seen in three days.

A concrete walkway across Irons Fort allowed us to cross high and dry. We spent a few minutes enjoying the views upstream and down. I later learned that in 1981, John Archer and a group of Ouachita Mountain Hikers came to this concrete bridge that had recently been built by two men from Mount Ida.

Archer wondered if the bridge withstood recent flooding of Irons Fork. He wrote, “When they came to the bridge the first comment I heard was, ‘Isn’t this a beautiful place!’ The hikers were looking up and down the creek. That made my day.” Read more in John Archer’s concise History of the Ouachita Trail 1970-1997.

Following Irons Fork crossing, we came alongside a tributary with small cascades that called for more exploration. I could have spent a whole day walking up that stream with camera and tripod, but we had trail miles to walk.

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Irons Fork concrete bridge built in 1980

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The view up Irons Fork

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Tributary to Irons Fork

After covering 12 miles, we arrived at the long downhill spur trail to Big Branch Shelter. We were relieved to find good water, though I had to backwash my Sawyer Filter between every filtering session. During the night, we listened to distant coyote calls, but our thrill came from the howls within our very own Big Branch valley. Amazing sound!

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Big Branch

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Glancing skyward while huffing and puffing my way up Blue Mountain.

Day 6 (Dec. 21) We had good weather for our hike from Big Branch to Blue Mountain, passing through great open woods. I was smitten with nostalgia during the climb as I thought back to hiking this section as a four-mile out-and-back over twenty years ago. I was surprised and a little disappointed in how difficult today’s climb felt. I chalked it up to carrying a loaded pack and the fact that I’m twenty years older than the last time I walked this trail. I looked forward to seeing the shelter that I visited then and was relieved that, unlike my body, it didn’t show its 20-years of wear.

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Blue Mountain Shelter

Day 7 (Dec. 22) It rained all day with only one pause as we got our water cache close to the Ouachita Pinnacle. It was a cold walk but only 8 miles to Big Bear Shelter, next to a small seasonal stream labeled as having “fairly reliable water.” After the rain of the past four days, it was flowing nicely, but we were glad to have our water cache and avoid lost time filtering. I privately plotted another hike to this area in the future to explore rock outcrops in this valley and to place a new journal in the shelter.

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Rock outcrops across the seasonal stream at Big Bear Shelter

During the night temperatures dropped, and rain raged strong. We were thankful to be inside the Big Bear Shelter! I slept warm under my down quilt with slight feelings of dread as I anticipated having to put wet clothes on the next morning.

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One of several vistas from the last day

Day 8 (Dec. 23) We enjoyed a 9-mile walk to the Highway 7 Trailhead. It was cold, and my feet were wet, but the big woods of the Ouachitas were beautiful every step of the way. The miles clicked off steadily as images of a big post-hike meal filled my thoughts. A hot, crispy catfish dinner from The Shack in Jessieville filled the bill as we planned our next excursion on the Ouachita Trail!

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Equipment fail but high praise for True Grit Running Company: I’m sorry to report a shoe fail. I had high hopes for my Altra Timp trail running shoes, but with only 125 miles of the Ouachita Trail completed, they must be retired. I’ve liked the wide toe box, sticky soles, and platform, but they’re not built for dirt and rock trail hiking.

When I returned these shoes to True Grit Running Company, owner Melissa exchanged them without hesitation and set me up with another pair of shoes that will meet my needs. I’m thankful for locally owned businesses like True Grit, and helpful service-oriented people like Melissa!

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Altra Timp Trail Runners with holes worn through the upper fabric.

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Replacement shoes from True Grit Running Company

Ouachita Trail’s First 51 at the (Im)perfect Time

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It’s too dry, too warm, and a busy time with the job. It’s the im-perfect time for hiking the first 51 miles of the Ouachita Trail (pronounced: Wash’-i-taw). But, wait too long, and I’ll hear Jimmy Buffett in my head singing, “someday I will.” So, thru-hiking the Ouachita Trail has been on my to-do list long enough. Perfect time or not, now’s the time to do this!

Bob Cable completed the Ozark Highlands Trail thru-hike with me, so I contacted him about doing this. He was ready to go, and we hoped others might join us for some of the sections.

The plan developed to do the first very dry 51 miles over a week in late November, planting water caches where needed. We’d continue our hike over Christmas break.

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Our first steps on the trail at Talimena State Park were met with a cool, sunny morning, and a pine needle carpeted forest floor. Early on, we passed through a glade-like area that reminded me of the Missouri Ozarks.

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Sometimes, mile markers were missing but usually shown with placards. Less often, we’d see USGS metal markers. 

Thanks to Michael Reed for his Ouachita Trail Map linked from his blog, The Compulsive Hiker. A portion is shown on the heading of this post.

We were surprised to see water pockets in a small creek as we approached Dead Man’s Gap where we’d stashed couple of gallon jugs the day before. I didn’t schedule Hiker-dog for this trip due to water concerns and my lack of familiarity with the trail. She was missed, but will join us on later sections.

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Small water pocket covered in leaves.

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I hadn’t planned to use the shelters regularly, but the modest distance between and the reputation of a rugged Winding Stair Mountain led me to schedule the first 51 miles around their locations. The novelty of experiencing these shelters was also a factor. It turned out to be a good plan because miles were just right and allowed some exploring time upon arrival each afternoon.

IMG_4136rrThe Rock Garden Shelter got its name honestly. The next several miles involved careful stepping. We were impressed with how different the Ouachitas felt from the Ozarks. Part of it was the increased number of pine trees, but I think the foundations of the differences stemmed from geology. The Ouachitas were formed by the colliding of geological plates while the Ozarks developed from a volcanic uplift, both followed by many years of shaping from erosion.

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The shelters included a fire ring and picnic table, luxuries by our standards. The fire ring grill and plenty of dry wood made cooking easy. I used instant potatoes as a base for each dinner. The biggest challenge was getting those handles without burnt fingers.

On a couple of mornings, I used my fuel tab stove for oatmeal and coffee since no simmering was needed.

We arrived at the Holson Valley Shelter in the early afternoon and watched the view into Holson Valley as darkness fell. Beautiful coyote howls and owl calls filled the cool night.

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We were puzzled by this lone rock structure a few yards from the trail. It appeared to be a smoker or grill, but there were no other indications of civilization in the area.

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It was smooth sailing on this old abandoned roadbed leading up Winding Stairs Mountain toward the shelter by the same name, placed close to the footings from a now absent fire tower. We enjoyed reading through shelter journals. What follows is one of the more artistic entries from this mountain peak journal with a popular quote by Shanti Devi.

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I woke during the night and could barely see the picnic table through the thick cloud that enveloped Winding Stair Mountain. The next morning we began our hike with soft lighting provided by a gently lifting fog.

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Red Spring got its name honest. The red of iron tainted water puddled around the PVC pipe. A covered concrete cylinder captured the spring water that trickled steadily from the end of the pipe.

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Rock gardens greeted us occasionally but less frequently than the miles earlier in the trail.

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We scouted Big Cedar Creek before beginning our hike and determined that no water stash was needed. The water was clear and easily filtered. We filled all containers and enjoyed lunch next to this beautiful creek’s rocky shore.

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Big Cedar Creek

Both signage and maintenance are impressive on the Ouachita Trail. We saw signs at important junctions and examples of recent work to keep the trail clear of trees. Thank you FoOT (Friends of the Ouachita Trail). The stone footings for this sign appeared to have been there for many years.

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The State Line Shelter was perched just below the trail shortly after crossing into Arkansas. There was just enough space behind the shelter for Bob’s tent. Powerful winds blew through the night.

The next morning we enjoyed stopping at the Pioneer Cemetery. Bill Hefley’s stone was the only granite marker.  All others were native stone with illegible lettering. We were interested in the coins and small rocks placed on many of the headstones. I later learned that it’s common for veterans to leave coins paying tribute to the deceased.

A sign at the entrance shares the legend that during the Civil War a young girl was collecting firewood for her family (other sources say water from a nearby spring). She never returned. Her frozen body was found in a tree where she sought refuge from wolves. It is said that her spirit continues to haunt Rich Mountain, evidenced by strange lights seen in the trees. I thought of the previous nights’ coyote howls and starlight peeking through stunted oaks on the high ridges of Rich Mountain. It’s easy to see how the story of haunting continues today.

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As we approached Queen Wilhelmina State Park, we passed several impressive rock walls on this fast level section of trail, hindered only by occasional green briers that arched across our path.

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Walking through the campground at Queen Wilhelmina State Park with the Lodge uphill in the distance was a joy, knowing a high calorie meal was in our immediate future.

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Queen Wilhelmina State Park Lodge

Our next steps will continue following the trail toward the east. This first dose of the Ouachita was a treat, so we’re looking forward more Ouachita Trail miles to come!

Links to other sections of this the Ouachita Trail project:

Ouachita Trail: Just Add Water

Ouachita Trail: Just Add Ice

Ouachita Trail Completed 

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An excerpt from Michael Reed’s map #13 east of Queen Wilhelmina State Park, our next section.