Random Walking with John Muir in the Ozarks

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Detail of ice formations at the base of a bluff

I drove up AR 23 (AKA Pigtrail) to collect GPS waypoints for an article I’m working on with photographer and hiking friend, Eric Scowden. My only traveling partner today was Hiker-dog. It was a cold morning, but the sun warmed the air quickly. I enjoyed the “popcorn” ice formations that formed on roots and rock along wet bluff lines.

This morning was like many others over the last eighteen months. I have places to go and data to collect. Working on a trail guide to the Ozarks has been a wonderful experience, but every outing’s purpose has been to hike and collect information about specific trails. I had my to-do list for today though it was shorter than usual.

After hitting the required locations, I picked a random pullout spot on Morgan Mountain Road that I’d driven past many times. On impulse, I walked down an old jeep road just to see what was there. I didn’t jump over a fence but thought of John Muir’s statement that he would often “throw bread and tea in an old sack and jump over the back fence” to begin an exploration of nature.

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Large boulders at the edge of an open field

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the randomness of this walk. I formed my route by following what looked interesting to me. I arrived at an open, level field lined with large boulders along the eastern ridge. They bowed to the forces of gravity, drifting down toward the next bench fifty feet below.

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Hiker exploring the field on the eastern side of Morgan Mountain

I walked past a hollow filled with jagged boulders that begged me to enter, but they’ll have to wait for another day when I return with a dry loaf of bread, tea, and hours to spend. I’d like to apply Muir’s “method of study” and his ultra-light packing techniques to my next hike on Morgan Mountain.

“My method of study was to drift from rock to rock and grove to grove. I’d sit for hours watching the birds or squirrels, or looking into the faces of flowers. When I discovered a new plant, I sat beside it for a minute or a day, to make its acquaintance and try to hear what it had to tell me. I asked the boulders where they came from and where they were going. And when I discovered a mountain, I climbed about it and compared it with its neighbors. It’s astonishing how high and far we can climb in the mountains we love, and how little we require for food and clothing.” – John Muir

I look forward to spending an entire day meandering my way down that rugged hollow on Morgan Mountain. I look forward to simply sitting still to listen, watch, and learn. Maybe I’ll even ask a boulder or two where they came from and where they’re going. I think even Hiker-dog might enjoy a little less goal-oriented travel in the Ozarks.

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Ozark Morning at Natural Dam

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Early morning sun began to touch the tips of trees upstream.

I expressed embarrassment to local photographer Eric Scowden that I’d lived in the Ozarks for fifteen years without driving the short distance to see Natural Dam Falls. He’d photographed Natural Dam before, so we headed up AR 59 north of Van Buren to have a look before sunup. Typical of cold mornings, we had the place to ourselves.

We kept our ears open for approaching traffic while placing tripods on the nearby road. Natural Dam Road has led a hard life here in the path of the Mountain Fork of Lee Creek. We saw evidence of recent repairs from last month’s winter floods. When the creek reaches flood stage, the road and dam can literally disappear.

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Eric composing shots from Natural Dam Road

Eric is an outstanding photographer so watching him move around for different compositions and angles inspired me to experiment more than usual. He changed lens from zoom to wide-angle which wasn’t an option for me with my non-SLR camera. We both had our heavy tripods, essential pieces of equipment for scenic photography.

IMG_5740rrWilliam Larrimore came across this wide stone ledge while hunting in 1819. He built a small gristmill on the left (northwest) side of the ledge. Large rectangular rocks that formed the foundation still sit next to the creek. Natural Dam became one of the earliest settlements in Crawford County and by 1838, a post office and store were located in the town of Natural Dam.

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Eventually, we walked upstream to check out a small cascade across the creek. We agreed that this will be a great photo location in the spring and fall when colorful foliage is reflecting on the water. On this morning, the white bark of leaning sycamore trees sparkled nicely on the glassy surface of Mountain Fork Creek.

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Eric focusing on reflecting light

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We could have spent the whole morning at Natural Dam, but another trail was on the itinerary, so we finally pulled ourselves away as sunshine warmed the air and locals began to arrive.

Waterfalls are never the same twice. I look forward to future visits to Natural Dam.

 

Rock House on the Ozark Highlands Trail Revisited

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We began at Cherry Bend Trailhead on AR 23 hiking the Ozark Highlands Trail to the west and stopped at the Rock House before continuing toward Fane Creek. Today I remembered the cold and rainy day when Bob and I sought refuge here on our thru-hike of the OHT. Later in that trip we found Hiker-dog. I should probably plan a camping trip at the Rock House for her in the future.

Today, Bob and his wife, Dana along with Mary, Mike, and his granddaughter took a few minutes to pause and have a look. Below are a few photos from today’s visit that you might enjoy. For a little history of the Rock House, visit my earlier post, Rock House on the OHT.

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Hiker investigating the Rock House 

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Spring in the back corner

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Wondering how much longer this stone will stay in place. 

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Hiker seemed to be saying it was time to go. 

Exploring the Hercules Glades of Missouri

I enjoyed exploring the Ozarks of Missouri this weekend. The plan was to hike two trails in the Hercules Glades Wilderness Area. The Missouri Ozarks provided an excellent time on the trail, exceeding my expectations.

Hercules Glades

Hercules Glades

Friday afternoon, I hiked a 6.6-mile loop in the Hercules Glades. This wilderness area doesn’t use blazes, so I walked off of the trail following rocky glades on two occasions, but my mistake was caught before going more than a few steps. Hiker-dog loved the grassy glades and leaped with pleasure as she chased anything that moved.

A low water bridge is always a good sign when you’re looking to get out into a wilderness area. The clarity of the water was also a good sign.

Low water bridge on FR 544

Low water bridge on FR 544

Looking upstream from the low water bridge

Looking upstream from the low water bridge

In the Hercules Glades, deep woods alternate with open glades, punctuated with thick cedar groves. The contrast of temperatures and environments were surprising. The warmth of the glades wasn’t as surprising to me as the coolness of the wooded sections. The woods were also nice and open due to the heavily shaded canopy.

Hercules Glades wooded section

Hercules Glades wooded section

Crossing Long Creek late in the hike provided some much needed clear drinking water for Hiker-dog. The sun was getting lower in the sky, so I took a few minutes to enjoy the foliage reflecting on the surface.

Hiker having a drink.

Hiker having a drink.

Evening light

Evening light on Long Creek

Long Creek

Long Creek

Once back at the trailhead, I was preparing a for a quiet dinner, having seen only one small group and a solo hiker on the entire loop. As I was sitting there with Hiker, the parking lot began to fill up. By sundown, I had seen two groups of fifteen Boy Scouts enter the trail. I opted to sleep in my Jeep so I wouldn’t be sleeping in a tent when more vehicles arrived.

The scouts and the leaders were nice and seemed well organized. When one of the group of fifteen called out, “Who has the compass?” it gave me pause. Later one of the adults mentioned a young man who had loaded his pack with three extra pairs of pants and a double-D battery lantern, but only one small bottle of water. I’m sure some good learning occurred this weekend among those young men.

Fire tower at the trailhead off of Hwy 125

Fire tower at the trailhead off of Hwy 125

On day two, we drove to the east side of Hercules Glades Wilderness and hiked around Pole Hollow and down Long Creek to the falls. The trailhead includes a nice pit toilet, picnic tables and tent pads. There is also an abandoned fire tower.

This six-mile out-and-back was a pleasure every step of the way. When we arrived at the falls, a young man and his wife who entered the day before were looking for a campsite. He later reported that they camped that night with a large group of Boy Scouts. Not the solitude they’d envisioned, but still a good evening in the woods.

Hiking down Long Creek made me resolve to return during a wet season. This area is beautiful now, but must be several notches up on the “amazement scale” when the water is flowing.

Long Creek Falls

Long Creek below the falls

The depth of this overhanging bluff surprised me. The overhang must have been at least fifteen feet deep.

Overhanging creek bluff

Overhanging creek bluff

The hike back toward the trailhead was enjoyable because we could relax and enjoy the views having walked this route before. I let Hiker off the leash since we had this section of the trail to ourselves. She likes to run ahead and dart off-trail to explore. I’m a little envious that she sees so much more than I do with my two wobbly legs. Both Hiker-dog and I are looking forward to exploring more of the Missouri Ozarks.

Hiker-dog on the trail

Hiker-dog on the trail

No nonsense day hiking guide for the novice hiker

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What do I wear?

What do I take with me?

Where should I go?

When should I go?

What are the dangers? Will a bear get me?

Many questions come to mind when you consider taking a hike for the first time. We’re going to consider these questions and be sure we have some simple answers before heading out. A few good questions can keep us out of trouble and ensure that we want to continue hiking after our early experiences.

Disclaimer: This is not an all-encompassing day hiking guide. These are just my thoughts based on personal experience and a few mistakes along the way.

Oboz hiking shoes

Oboz hiking shoes

What do I wear?

You can wear almost anything and get away with it on the trail. Don’t worry about fashion, but function. We’ll look at this from the ground up since feet are very important to hikers.

  1. Socks are among a hiker’s most important pieces of clothing. I use SmartWool socks, but there are other options. Don’t wear cotton socks unless you like blisters and soggy, smelly feet. Any tennis shoes of reasonable strength are fine for day hiking. Don’t go purchase a heavy pair of hiking boots unless you just want to. I don’t even wear heavy boots when backpacking. I use low-top hiking shoes. I like Oboz right now, but whatever feels good on your feet should guide your decision.
  2. Pants – If the weather is nice, any pants will do. If it’s cold, I prefer anything but cotton pants. Cotton gets wet (making you colder) and then will not dry out in the humid Ozarks until a few days later. When hiking in the Ozarks I almost always wear long pants because of undergrowth, briars, and ticks.
  3. Underwear – For a short day hike, you can use cotton, but as you work up to longer hikes, you’ll want a pair of undies made from a fabric other than cotton.
  4. Shirt – A cotton shirt in summer is alright but if there is a chance of colder temperatures, something like an UnderArmor t-shirt will keep you warmer than cotton.
  5. Hat – A hat is good for sun protection and heat retention, depending on the weather. I accidentally left my hat in my car at the Grand Canyon once and was thankful I had a bandana to tie into a makeshift hat. In some conditions, a hat is a necessity!
  6. Rain protection (especially in cooler temperatures) – A light rain jacket can be wadded up in the bottom of your daypack and forgotten about until needed.
  7. Gloves – Anything but cotton and only if needed. I wear some cheap army surplus wool glove liners when I hike, and they’re fine. I also have some nicer gloves for colder weather but am nervous about losing them. They hook together which is nice for storage in my pack. Finding one glove is more irritating than finding one sock in the drawer.
Hiker-dog says,

Hiker-dog says, “The less you carry, the better you move.”

What do I take with me?

As little as possible is my short answer, but there are some essentials you’ll want to have depending on the conditions.  This list is drawn from the ten essentials that are published in many forms. Below is my list roughly by personal priority.

Filtering water from Spirits Creek.

Filtering water from Spirits Creek with a Sawyer Filer

  1. Water and access to water – Put your water in a bottle or a bladder in your pack. One expert hiker friend, Grey Owl, swears by carrot juice bottles. He gave me a couple, and I use them all the time. I carry a small Sawyer water filter in my daypack in case I run low. It doesn’t add much weight and has made me a few friends on the trail when others needed water.
  2. Food – Snacks that you’re used to eating are what you should take on the trail. This is no time to try something new in the food department.
  3. Extra clothing – Think protection from the elements. If it looks like rain, carry rain protection. If it looks like cold, carry an extra layer. My all-time favorite is an insulated vest. Stuff it in the bottom of your pack and it’s like a little insurance policy against a cold snap.
  4. Navigation – Don’t assume that you can’t get lost on a well used trail. Like Jeremiah Johnson, “I’ve never been lost, just confused for a month or two.” Fortunately, I’ve only been confused an hour or so, but it can be a little scary if you’re not prepared. A trail map of the area you’re hiking can make or break your trip. It doesn’t have to be elaborate. Sometimes I just copy the appropriate pages from a trail guide and put them in a zip-lock bag. A compass is important. Even a general idea about directions can save you some grief. Don’t count on the compass app on your phone or GPS. Batteries don’t last. I have a small compass/thermometer that ties to a belt loop or my day pack. It’s always there.
  5. Illumination – A small headlamp or flashlight in your pack can be a big help if a hike takes longer than anticipated and you’re walking the last part of your trail in the dark. I carry a small LED light in my day pack at all times.
  6. Sun and bug protection – A little sunscreen can make you a happy and healthy hiker. Bug spray around the cuffs of your pants can discourage ticks. A little spray around your hat area can discourage deer flies and mosquitoes if you’re hiking in summer. Check for ticks often. If they get attached and stay awhile, your chances of getting one of several tick-borne diseases increase. I can usually feel the little guys climbing up my legs and pick them off before they attach.
  7. First Aid supplies – I like a zip-lock with some bandaids and any medicines I might need if stranded for a while. Keep it simple and light and then forget about it until you need it. Avoid purchasing a first aid kit because it will not be customized for your needs and you’ll be carrying unnecessary stuff.
  8. Fire – I carry a lighter. Don’t smoke, but I always have a lighter with me just in case I need a fire.
  9. Emergency shelter – This is simple to do. Cut a 8-10-inch hole close to the bottom of a large trash bag. I stuff it in the bottom of my pack and forget about it. I can put the bag over me and sit inside for shelter. The small opening allows me to see and breath but protects me from the elements. I’ve never used this but it’s like that cheap insurance policy I mentioned earlier.
  10. Most ten essentials lists include repair kit, but for day hiking I don’t carry any tools other than a small pocket knife. One of my hiking poles has some duct tape wrapped around it for emergencies. I’ve used this twice to reattach a shoe sole for other hikers.

OHT Map

Where should I go?

The short answer is, “Hike anywhere your feet will take you.” The longer answer is to put in a little thought and planning before you head out. When in doubt, hike fewer miles. Begin with 1-2 trail miles. I say trail miles because hiking on most trails is more demanding than walking a track. I learned this lesson once on the Seven Hollows Trail at Petit Jean State Park. I figured we could do four miles in just over an hour since that was what it took on a track. Over two hours later as it was getting dark, my wife and I finished our exhausting hike. Even as an experienced hiker, I always allow about one hour for every two miles of hiking distance.

Pick up a Five-Star Trails guidebook that covers trails in your area. I collect guidebooks like my mother collected cookbooks. It’s fun to browse through to determine possible next hikers. If you’re traveling, Google the area to see what hiking trails are available. I came across a couple of hikers on the Lake Alma Trail who were from Nebraska. They’d checked the web and found our trail. They were delighted with the hike and looking forward to a meal in town before hitting the road refreshed and relaxed.

Fall leaves along the trail.

Fall leaves along the trail.

When should I go?

The short answer is to go as often as possible. In the Ozarks, we have a large hiking window. My favorite months are October through May. September is iffy due to possible warm days. Fall and winter are prime hiking months. June, July, and August are good months for early morning day hikes or some trips out west at higher elevations. Sometimes you’ll catch a cool snap in the Ozarks during the summer months, but that’s rare.

What are the dangers?

The dangers are few and not what you might expect. Bears and snakes are not a concern. Just don’t step on or antagonize a snake and you shouldn’t have a problem. Bear sightings are rare because of the noise hikers make, and our smell usually cues the bear to our presence. I’ve only seen one bear in Arkansas, and that was at a distance. I don’t carry a gun when hiking because it adds weight and addresses none of the real hazards of hiking.

Hazards to avoid through preparation (in no particular order): dehydration / heat exhaustion / hypothermia / ticks / mosquitoes

Deer season coincides with some of the best times of year to hike. I tie a hunter-orange bandana to my day pack year round and avoid impersonating a deer while in the woods. I’ve never had a problem.

One of my readers reminded me of the importance of telling a friend or family member your itinerary, even if it’s a short day hike. Do this whether hiking alone or in a group. I write my trail location and route on a note and leave it with my wife in hopes that she’ll want me to be found if I become lost. If my wife is with me on a hike, I’ll email my itinerary to a trusted hiking buddy.

A couple looking at Hawksbill Crag in the distance.

A couple looking at Hawksbill Crag in the distance.

Get linked up and get out!

You might want to join a hiking club in your area, but check the descriptions of their hikes carefully, so you don’t end up exhausted or with a stress injury. Most hiking groups schedule hikes suitable for novice hikers. The truth is experienced hardcore hikers still enjoy a nice scenic stroll with their camera. In my area, the Fort Smith Trailblazers do a lot of great day hikes. The Ozark Highlands Trail Association and Ozark Society also do group day hikes and backpacking trips of varying difficulty. Hiking with others is a great way to accelerate your knowledge about hiking and hiking locations to explore.

Hiking has enriched my life, enhanced my health, and connected me with some great folks. It’s a great big beautiful world out there. Get out and enjoy!

Small spring next to the trail in the Ozarks of Missouri

Small spring next to a trail in the Ozarks of Missouri

No Cookie Cutter Accommodations Please: If not a tent, then a B and B

Walnut Street Inn Bed & Breakfast

Walnut Street Inn Bed & Breakfast, built by Charles McCann in the 1890s at a cost of nearly $6,000

One of my hiking buddies always opts for a mom and pop restaurant over chains when possible. I’ve picked up this practice and have now applied this approach to selecting overnight accommodations. When not staying in a tent, I prefer a bed & breakfast over one of the chain hotels.

Becca and I recently made plans to celebrate our 36th anniversary, so something a little nicer than a tent was in order. We had never visited Springfield, Missouri and wanted to explore a little of the Missouri Ozarks.

Because of our wonderful experiences during repeated stays with Mike and Rhonda at Mountain Thyme B&B just outside of Hot Springs, Arkansas, we decided to look at the bed & breakfast options in Springfield. Pricing of bed & breakfasts are comparable to hotels, but the food, fellowship, and personal attention far exceed even the nicest of hotels.

Mountain Thyme

Mountain Thyme B&B, off Arkansas Highway 7, two miles from the Ouachita Trail

We were pleased to find Walnut Street Inn, located right downtown on historic Walnut Street. We enjoyed a wonderful breakfast and then explored Springfield by foot. A short drive put us in the Springfield Conservation Nature Center, with a variety of hiking trails.

We stayed in the Cottage, part of the Walnut Street Inn two doors down the street. A third building, The Carriage House, is located behind the Walnut Street Inn.

The Cottage B&B

The Cottage B&B

Here are a few photos from the Walnut Street Inn.

Walnut Street Inn

Walnut Street Inn

Inside the Walnut Street Inn

Inside the Walnut Street Inn

Outdoor dining area

Outdoor dining area

Antiques in the main house

Antiques in the main house

Porch columns in Victorian style

Porch columns in Victorian style

Detail of a window in the Walnut Street Inn

Detail of a window in the Walnut Street Inn

Walkway outside of our room

Walkway outside of our room

One benefit of staying in Springfield is hiking beautiful trails at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center and Lake Springfield. The Walnut Street Inn owner, Gary Blankenship, gave good driving directions to these areas. I would rise early and hike before breakfast, then have the day to explore the area with Becca. We walked several miles each day and had some wonderful meals together!

The Walnut Street Inn Bed and Breakfast – No cookie cutter accommodations, but a wonderful place to stay!

Springfield Conservation Nature Center

Springfield Conservation Nature Center

Springfield Conservation Nature Center

Springfield Conservation Nature Center

Weekly Photo Challenge: “Intricate” in the Ozarks

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Intricate.”

Tree bark

Tree bark

These intricate patterns caught my eye while hiking Saturday morning. I’m not sure of the tree name, but it’s located in the Ozarks close to Hobbs State Park in Arkansas. I snapped the picture and hurried on down the trail without trying to identify the tree by its leaves. Maybe someone with more tree identification skills can help.

Several photos from the past came to mind when I read the word ‘intricate.” Intricate patterns or designs in plants, rock, and water reveal themselves along the trails if I’m paying attention. Makes me wonder about the microscopic patterns I’m walking past without a thought.

Detail of rock formations in the Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area

Detail of rock formations in the Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area

Frosty hiking as temperatures plummet.

Frosty intricate pattern on branches on Hare Mountain.

One of the visual gems so easily missed along the Buffalo River Trail.

One of the visual gems so easily missed along the Buffalo River Trail.

The lip of Hare Mountain Falls.

The lip of White Rock Mountain Falls showing intricate patterns in the flow.

Winter Beauty on the Trail

McWater Falls on the Lake Alma Trail

McWater Falls on the Lake Alma Trail

I love hiking the Ozarks in winter!  No bugs, no sweat, and great views.  Add a little water, and you have the recipe for beauty!   These photos were taken this morning between 8:00 and 10:00 a.m. The temperature was 17-degrees at the beginning of the hike and warmed up to 24 by the end.

Little Frog Bayou on the Lake Alma Trail

Little Frog Bayou on the Lake Alma Trail

Frost flower next to the trail.

Frost flower next to the trail.

Hiker is a winter dog!  She snuggles up in her straw bed inside her little house, but is ready to hit the trail regardless of temperature.  She got a little impatient at this creek while I was taking photos.  She was ready to move on down the trail!

Hiker-dog

Hiker-dog