Jack Creek Criminals on the Ozark Highlands Trail

As I hiked east from Dockery Gap to check my section of trail a dad and his four sons approached from the opposite direction.   They had a haggard and disheveled look as they lumbered up the trail loaded down with one-gallon plastic milk jugs filled with cloudy water and overloaded backpacks.  One of the sons carried a rifle presumably for protection from wild bears.

The gun made me nervous, but I relaxed when the dad spoke.  He explained that they had camped at Jack Creek with plans to hike to White Rock Mountain, but now they were wondering how to hike out and where they might get cell phone service to call mom to come get them.  I took my map out and showed them the road they were approaching and how to walk toward civilization.  They explained that their water filter wasn’t working correctly, hence the murky water jugs.  They’d not slept well, were overheated and exhausted.  As I continued down the trail, I thought they’d made the right decision in exiting the forest.

Approaching Jack Creek less than a mile later, I saw smoke and a burning campfire.  There was a hammock tied between two trees next to the creek and trash everywhere.  Thinking someone must still be occupying the site I called out, but there was no response.  It gradually dawned on me that this was the camp left by my exhausted friends who’d just asked for directions.  I extinguished the fire, kicking a large aerosol can of insect spray out of the coals and then collected the trash.

I continued down the trail picking up more trash at each creek crossing.  It appeared that these young men and their dad deposited trash at every rest stop.  After doing a little maintenance I returned to the trashy camp, scattered the now cooled fire ring, and bagged the trash I’d collected earlier.  Then I noticed scaring on a tree next to the creek where they had chopped it with an ax for no apparent reason.  This began to feel like a crime scene.

Some of the trash collected at the site.  Notice the burned aerosol can.

Some of the trash collected at the site. Notice the burned aerosol can.

I had visions of driving up on these fellows as they walked along the road and what I would like to say but then considered the rifle and thought a more diplomatic approach might be best.  As I hiked up the trail away from the scene of the crime, I rehearsed the discussion I would have about the beauty of the Ozark National Forest and how important it is that we care for it and pass it on to our children.  I wished for words to help these men discover a better way to treat the wilderness but, in reality, it seemed futile to try to convert remorseless criminals who enter the forest for recreation and harm it by their very presence.

As it turned out, by the time I arrived at the trailhead to throw my bag of trash in the Jeep, the father and his sons were nowhere to be seen.  I do wish I could have that conversation, but I take comfort in the knowledge that I probably witnessed the conclusion of their first and last backpacking trip on the Ozark Highlands Trail.  If I just had some assurance that they don’t have access to four-wheelers I’d feel a whole lot better.

Lake Alma Trail: A Trail for All Reasons

By Jim Warnock – Published in the @Urban Magazine (now Do South Magazine) of Fort Smith in October, 2012

Lake Alma Trail at sunset.

Lake Alma Trail at sunset.

Whether you’re a parent looking for an easy day hike to introduce your children to the gentle pleasures of nature or a trail runner looking for a heart-throbbing, rock-hopping, scrambling good time, Lake Alma Trail is for you!

Chuck Dovish, of Exploring Arkansas with AETN, said, “It’s amazing that so much variety and diversity of scenery is found right inside the town of Alma.”

Step onto this little 4-mile trail and your eyes are in for a treat. You’ll see bluff lines and moss-covered boulder fields up close.  You’ll walk beside clear streams, rocky cascades and small waterfalls.   Situated within a diverse mixed hardwood forest, you may spot deer, rabbit, fox, great blue heron, and a variety of songbirds.  Watch your step and give right-of-way to the many terrapin turtles that call Lake Alma home.

On any given day you’ll find families out for a stroll or a nature walk and picnic lunch at McWater Falls, just twenty-minutes into the trail.  Said one father, “I want my kids to know how beautiful and fragile our environment is.  When they see Little Frog Bayou and realize this is the source of our drinking water, they’ll become caretakers and protectors of places like this.”  History buffs will enjoy exploring rock structures located just past mile one.  Mystery surrounds the “when” and “why” of these structures which include a small hexagon rock house with fireplace.

Old homesite hexagon house

Continue down the trail and you’re likely to encounter trail runners soaring up “little bluff scramble” and churning around the whole loop in preparation for competition.  “I love this trail!  It allows for an intense workout in a short amount of time and the scenery makes even the hills enjoyable!” said Tommy Griffin, a local runner.  Hike early and you’ll see locals trotting slowly and carefully along the rockier paths preparing for future marathons or just enjoying a morning workout and quick dose of nature.

Trail runners

Trail runners

Harry visiting with Chuck Dovish at Lake Alma as trail volunteer,Laura Seal, looks on.

Harry visiting with Chuck Dovish at Lake Alma as trail volunteer,Laura Seal, looks on.

The beginnings of Lake Alma Trail can be traced to longtime resident, Harry McWater.  The idea of a trail around the lake occurred to him during the late 1990s as a member of the Alma City Council.  He mentioned the possibility several times only to be told that money for such a project wasn’t available.

Then, about a year ago during a conversation with the mayor he asked, “What if I find volunteers to get that hiking trail built?”  Mayor John Ballentine said, “Go for it!”  With that, Harry sought expertise and labor from the Arkansas Master Naturalists, Ozark Highlands Trail Association and local volunteers, including Alma School District student organizations and scout troops.  Students were enthusiastic about the project.  Nathanael Mickelson, then a senior Student Council member said, “I can’t believe I have a hiking trail three minutes from my house!”

McWater Falls (approx. 12-feet)

The actual work began in March of 2012 and the forward momentum that followed was undeniable.  Since that time well over one-hundred pairs of helping hands have spent time making this trail a reality.   Volunteers blazed and cleared the route.  There was side-hilling, raking, and general cleanup to be done.  With each workday, a deeper beauty was revealed.  As the route became established, hikers’ feet helped firm up the tread and keep it open.  One volunteer said, “It’s like remodeling your kitchen.  You use it before it’s finished.  Maybe it’s never really finished.”  The work continues as constant improvements are made.

The best trail maintenance is use!  Give your concrete-weary feet a break or drop the cumbersome baggage of civilization for a few hours.  Relax beside a clear, cool stream or let your mind wonder about the early inhabitants of the “hexagon house.”  Whatever your reason, Lake Alma Trail is ready to greet you in all its beauty and variety.

Logo design, Ashley Campbell

Getting There Take Alma Exit 13 off I-40, then drive north on Hwy 71 to the first light. Turn right onto Collum Lane East then left onto Mountain Grove Road.  Go north past the Alma water tanks on the left then a quick left into a picnic area.  The trail begins at the fishing dock.  Walk the paved Nature Trail north with the lake to your left.  The Lake Alma Trailhead is at the north end of the paved trail where it turns sharply back toward the picnic area.  Read the information sign built and installed by volunteers with some help from the City of Alma.  If you hike the whole 4-mile trail, you’ll come back to the fishing dock from across the dam.   A shorter family-friendly hike is the forty-minute walk to the waterfall and back.  To get more information about Lake Alma Trail and volunteer opportunities, follow updates from the Lake Alma Trail Facebook page.



Springtime reflections on Little Frog Bayou

Bridge over west creek built by volunteers, Joe and Laura

Lake Alma fishing dock

Lake Alma fishing dock

The Irresistible Pull of The Grand Canyon


I’ve done multi-day hikes in the Grand Canyon on five or six different occasions.  The first trip in June of 2002 was memorable for the heat.  We went from the north rim to the south camping at Cottonwood and Bright Angel.  I learned many lessons on that outing, especially related to packing light, dealing with heat, and estimating distances to cover each day.

A few years later I teamed up with some good guys and hiked The Canyon in December.  What a treat that was!  We hiked down the South Kaibab Trail on a cloud of fog which gradually gave way to crisp canyon walls as we walked along the Tonto trail and viewed the soft clouds against the South Rim.

The very next winter another trip to The Canyon and then another.  I realized this was looking like an addiction but in fact, it was more like a natural magnetic pull I felt toward those majestic walls and their infinite variety of light, texture, and air…THE AIR! It is like visiting a beautiful cathedral without ceilings, as spiritual as physical…as worshipful as it is beautiful.

There have been trips to Colorado and New Mexico along the way and I look forward to returning to those locations for more adventures but there’s nothing like the positive addiction I feel toward the Grand Canyon.  I’m looking forward to getting my “Canyon fix” again this winter with a great group of hiking buddies!

Here’s a link to our packing list.  Backpacking List Grand Canyon

Making Time for Marinoni


Making Time for Marinoni

story and images  JIM WARNOCK

Published in At Urban magazine of Fort Smith (This magazine is now named Do South)

There’s a treasure waiting for you in Franklin County, near the small town of Cass. One local backpacker recently said, “Hiking there is like walking through a beautiful cathedral!” Those who have experienced the Marinoni Scenic Area would completely understand this statement.

Imagine a place with twisting waterfalls, arching rock bluffs and towering trees. Walk along a gentle stream that flows over rocks into quiet, clear pools. The sounds of gurgling water, windblown trees, and a variety of songbirds will soothe your soul. Leave your cell phone in the car because there’s no coverage here; who wants to hear cold digital sounds in this acoustic setting?

The Marinoni is beautiful in every season. Fall colors glisten and shimmer,appearing as stained glass atop pools of water. Winter brings the possibility of stunning ice formations and frozen splash patterns around waterfalls. Spring brings dwarf crested irises peeking out from the most unlikely cracks and crevices. Their violet-to-purple hues sparkle against damp stone walls. During any season, you’ll find lush green moss-covered sandstone and lichen-speckled bluffs. Your greatest challenge on this hike might just be keeping your footing as you gaze up, entranced by the beauty.

Access to this jewel of a place used to be difficult and limited to strong, long-distance hiking legs. The Ozark Highlands Trail Association (OHTA) held a weeklong work camp in March of 2011 and built a .6 mile spur trail that connects to the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT) just west of the Marinoni Scenic Area. You’re now able to hike a couple of miles and find yourself in one of the most beautiful places in Arkansas.

“Well worth a 3-hour drive,” says Dale Fudge, a hiker from Oklahoma City. Dale goes on to say, “The Marinoni Scenic Area is one of the most intimate and inspiring sections of the OHT. It’s secluded and packed full of dramatic landmarks. The area is now more accessible than before with the addition of the Dawna Robinson Spur Trail at Indian Creek, making for one of the best day hike opportunities in the entire region.”

It’s fitting that this area feels like a sanctuary and that it memorializes the lives of two special individuals. Paul A. Marinoni was from Fayetteville and was involved in volunteer efforts with Tim Ernst’s father. Tim, renowned outdoor photographer and author of the Ozark Highlands Trail Guide says, “My dad had his first heart attack when I was only six, so he was unable to take me to the woods like he would have wanted to. When I was seven, I began spending a lot of time with Paul Marinoni, hunting and camping during annual retreats into the woods. Paul was a real character, one of the most down-to-earth and honest people you would ever meet.” Given Tim’s sentiments, it seemed proper to name this area after a man who influenced others to appreciate the Ozarks.

The short trail allowing us to enter this natural area is named in memory of Dawna Robinson. Dawna and her husband, Bob, spent years maintaining sections of the OHT.  She was well known for her love of the trail and her desire to share it with others. “When the new Indian Creek Spur Trail was first proposed, Dawna’s spirited personality and dedication came to mind as a fitting tribute to memorialize how the entire trail came into existence through the hard work and perseverance of volunteers,” says Mike Lemaster, President of the OHTA.

In many ways the Marinoni Scenic Area reflects qualities of these two lives. Sitting at the edge of Briar Creek, you’d think these bluffs had always been as they appear today but this valley was shaped by centuries of water and ice. There’s an honesty and straightforwardness in its beauty. Giant rocks stand like monuments of strength where they folded down to the creek years ago. Although fragile, there’s a sense of permanence here and although subtle, the beauty is deep and unmistakable in any season.

If you’ve never visited the Marinoni Scenic Area, it’s an experience not to be missed. If you have hiked the area, you will want to return again and experience an even deeper appreciation of its beauty. So, lace up your walking shoes! Let’s go visit an Arkansas natural cathedral and pause there as it becomes our own special place of sanctuary and reflection.

Getting there:  From Hwy 23 just north of Cass, turn onto Hwy 215 east. Travel 7.4 miles to Indian Creek Canoe Launch and OHT Access. The trail is on the north side of Hwy 215 and begins at an opening in the fence directly across from the Indian Creek OHT Access sign. The spur trail is marked with 2×6-inch blue metal blazes. You’ll hike .6-miles to the OHT and then turn right, hiking another 2 miles to the Marinoni Scenic Area marker at the base of a bluff. Hiking out-and-back gives you approximately 5.2 miles. With a shuttle you can hike through to the Lick Branch Trailhead which will be a 5-mile hike and cover even more scenery.

For more information:

Ozark Highlands Trail Association  ozarkhighlandstrail.com

Ozark Highland Trail Association Facebook page

Ozark Highlands Trail Guide by Tim Ernst