Saturday, December 18, 2010

Hamilton Pool Preserve, Texas Hill Country, Near Austin, TX

Distance: 1.8 miles (2.9 km) roundtrip
Elevation: 820 - 690 feet (250 - 210 m)
Difficulty: Easy
Time of Year: Any Time

Hamilton Pool Preserve is located in the Texas Hill Country about 30 miles west of Austin. It is a spectacular site with a 50-foot cascading waterfall dropping off a ledge into a beautiful turquoise pool with a deep alcove behind it. It is a Travis County Park and is a very popular place for swimming in the hot summer months.

We were camping nearby during our visit with my high school buddy Samy and his family and decided to check it out. The entrance fee is $10 per vehicle. While that seems steep at first, once you hike down to the pool, the admission price suddenly becomes worth it.


The trail leaves from the parking area amongst an arid live oak/juniper savanna. As you walk across this grassland and down the limestone slope, you have no idea what is in store for you.

Within 1/4th of a mile, you descend down to the bottom of the ravine. Upon arrival, you will encounter towering bald-cypress emerging from the creek bed. These cypress indicate that you are in the transition zone between the humid swamps of the southeast and the arid landscapes of the southwest.

The main reason the landscape above seems so arid is because the limestone bedrock is so well drained that even with sufficient rainfall, it drains so rapidly that it is arid for the plants. But, down in the cool ravine with ample water, not only can bald-cypress and palmettos grow, but epiphytic air plants can survive on the humid summer air.

Once you arrive at the pool, the trail will loop under the alcove and all the way around the pool. Giving you every angle for photography.

After admiring the pool and cooling down in the waters, if it is hot, then you can take the trail following the creek 0.6 miles down to the Pendernales River. The trail follows the rocky edge of the ravine past large live oaks, aromatic red bay, juniper, and hackberries.

The trail will come near several stagnant areas with large bald-cypress. Watch for Spanish moss and other epiphytes growing on the branches. These epiphytes are not parasites and they are not lichens or moss. They are in fact flowering plants in the Bromeliad family. They do not harm the tree in any way and acquire all of their moisture from rain or the humidity in the air, plus nutrients from blowing dust.

As you arrive at the Pendernales River, you will encounter a shallow sandy bottomed creek with large boulders sticking out of it. If the current isn't too strong, this would be another great place to go swimming in summer.

All you need to do is backtrack from the river the way you came and back up to the parking area. You can leave the lush environment of the creek bottom and return to that arid environment of cactus and grass on the ridgetop to be reminded of where you really are.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Summit Loop, Pinnacle Mountain State Park, Arkansas

Distance: 2.7 miles (4.3 km)
Elevation: 300-1011 feet (91 - 308 m)
Difficulty: Strenuous (yet our not quite 3 year old did the whole thing)
Time of Year: Any Time

So, when have I ever rated a 2.6 mile loop trail as strenuous? Well, I haven't rated a hike before that is nearly vertical and climbing directly up a talus slope before! But, Pinnacle Mountain just outside of Little Rock offers one of the most panoramic views in all of Arkansas and is well worth the effort.

The initial trail is pretty easy
I highly recommend you do the East Summit Trail up (the steeper side) and do the West Summit Trail down. But, we did the reverse, not knowing any better, so that is how I will describe it here. The trail starts out as a gradual climb through a pine/oak/hickory forest with well placed rocky steps guiding the way. It really is no problem for the first nearly 1/2 mile as it climbs up.

The beginning of the talus section
But, about 1/4 of a mile from the summit, things get a lot rockier and steeper. The rocks are still well placed as stairs through the talus slope. But, it is here that you start to see many people starting to huff and puff as it steepens, even if you have only come 1/2 mile at this point. Many of these folks though are not regular hikers, as is obvious from their footwear and body form.

The view of the Arkansas River through the trees at the talus slope
At the first major talus slope on the west side, there is a lovely view through the trees and down to the Arkansas River below. The trail then starts up a steep section in every increasing exposure until arriving at the summit. It is this stretch that most people struggled with the most. It was steep enough that Hilina had to get on all fours to climb up the rocky steps because her little legs were not long enough to walk them. But, she made it all the way to the top on her own and faster than some of the people.

View to the northeast of the Arkansas River and flat Deltalands beyond
The summit is relatively flat and a great place to relax, eat lunch, and enjoy expansive views across much of Arkansas. You can see Little Rock, the Arkansas River, the eastern ridges of the Ouachita Mountains, and the flattening landscape of the Delta Rivers region of eastern Arkansas. There were dozens of vultures circling around, but I just couldn't get a good picture of one against the dark green backdrop of the forest below.

Looking northwest toward the Ouachita Mountains and the Arkansas River

The view 700 feet down to the valley below
Now for the descent. This is where the word strenuous really comes in. We were surprised at first to see so many people climb up and return the same way. Why not make a loop out of it? Were they really so lazy that they would make it a 1.5 mile trip instead of a 2.7 mile loop?

It turns out, because the descent down the east summit trail is really hairy. Most people who do the loop come up this slope and down the other. We accidently did the reverse. It is basically a rocky talus slope all the way down, very steep, and not recommended for kids. Away went the hiking poles, because we needed all fours as we crouched, hopped, and crawls down the slope. Hilina would actually slide down some of the slippery slabs to me waiting below.

Yet, for some reason we pressed on. Hilina was actually having a ball coming down, despite our stress. I would go ahead to pick the route and Linda would hold Hilina's hands to prevent her from going off into a rocky hole. I'd come back and help lift Hilina up and over some of the trickier spots.

You have got to be kidding me?!?
It may only be 1/2 mile in total distance down the 500 feet of talus. But, I highly recommend you do it in reverse and start at the East Summit Parking Area. It is always easier to climb up this kind of slope and descend it. Anyways, we survived the ordeal and have some great photos to show for it. This became Hilina's first successful summit ascent and descent on her own 2 feet. So, all is well that ends well.

We need a rest!
Once you arrive at the bottom, there is a bench to rest at and reflect on your journey down. Then, you will continue to follow the red/white blazes for a short ways more until reaching the East Summit Trailhead and the Base Trail. The Base Trail is a 3.5 mile loop all the way around Pinnacle Mountain and it is marked with green blazes. You can go either way. We chose to go to the right (the shorter way) and followed it 1.2 miles back to the West Summit Trailhead where we were parked.

A view of Pinnacle Mountain from below
The Base Trail basically just heads through pine and hickory forest and is really easy getting back.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunset Trail Loop, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

Distance: 8.8 mile loop (14.2 km)
Elevation: 370 - 1485 feet (112 - 452 m)
Difficulty: Moderate
Time of Year: October - May (avoid heat/humidity of the summer)

Located within Hot Springs National Park, the Sunset Loop is a 17-mile trail that circumnavigates the entire park from Bathhouse Row to West Mountain to Music Mountain and then back via Hot Springs Mountain. 17 miles is probably not a reasonable length for most people, but I have a found a way to make a loop that is only 8.8 miles around while still seeing the best the park has to offer.

Since the summers are so oppressively hot and humid, it is recommended you do this hike either in the fall or winter. This is the best time because the weather is so perfect, the leaves are either changing colors, or when they drop off the trees, the views open up. Plus, you do not have to deal with those nasty, ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, and other critters along the way.

You can access this route via numerous trailheads. But, for this post I say a great place to start is the parking area at the summit of West Mountain. The Sunset Trail starts right from here and heads west. The trail is wide, gentle, and of good surface the entire way. It is good enough that you could use this for running as well. There are just a few places where the gravel surface is a bit loose.

The trail starts at about 1100 feet elevation and gently follows the ridgeline, rising and falling no more than 100 feet at a time. The forest is primarily red oak and hickory along the summit, with white oaks along particularly exposed areas. There is lots of novaculite, which is the native chert/flint-like rocks that make up this area. It is mined nearby for furniture and household use.

The views are sporadic along the ridge between the trees. They become better as the leaves drop from the trees. But, the views are not what this hike is about. It is the solitude. It is being in an oasis of nature surrounded by a sea of humanity. Since this is about the easiest 8+ mile trail I have hiked, it is for almost everyone. Yet, we saw no other hikers on the trail this day.

The trail passes below some radio towers, returns to the ridgetop and then heads uphill to the highest point in the park at above 1400 feet. The trail turns to the north and then back east and gradually descends down to Blacksnake Road at 2.9 miles from the start. At this stage, you could actually take this road to the right all the way downtown. But, just cross the road and continue on toward Cedar Glades Road another 2.8 miles further.

The trail will descend and then climb through dense forests and then into a scrubby open oak stand on the rocky ridgeline. After 1.6 miles miles you will arrive at the sign for "Balanced Rock 0.2 miles". Turn left and follow this short spur out to some rock outcroppings and nice views of the landscape. The actual "balanced rock" is nothing special and hard to photograph, but the landscape views are what matter here.

Back track to the main trail and then continue for the next 1.2 miles to Cedar Glades Road. Here, you will turn and walk down this quiet road into town. As you approach Hot Springs, you will see lots of seemingly abandoned houses, businesses, and eventually hotels. This part of town is almost a ghost town. Even the sidewalk you are on is broken up and covered with grass. At an intersection, take Cedar Road into downtown. Upon arrival in downtown on the strip, took for Canyon Trail heading up the slope right next to the Mountain Springs Water shop to the right. If you want, you can continue to Bathhouse Row to get some lunch or refreshments before beginning the final 1.2 miles and 700 foot elevation gain to get you back to your car.

Hot Springs Tower across the valley
The Canyon Trail will ascend 0.2 up several switchbacks on an old 1800's carriage road. At an intersection bear right and follow it another 0.2 miles to the road. Cross the road and follow the road another 0.3 miles until arriving at West Mountain Road. You can either walk the road up to the parking area for the last 0.7 miles or follow the West Mountain Trail back, which parallels the road.

The Old Magestic Hotel
The Sunset Trail Loop is a great way to experience the solitude and fun of Hot Springs National Park without exerting too much effort. Just pick the right day to do it, as if it is too hot and humid, it would be miserable. But, on this November day with temperatures in the mid-60's it was just about perfect.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Hemmed In Hollow, Ponca Wilderness, Buffalo National River, Arkansas

Distance: 5.1 miles (8.2 km) or 6.8 miles (11.0 km) with optional side trip to the river.
Elevation: 2300 - 985 feet (700 - 300 meters)
Difficulty: Strenuous
Best Time of Year: October-May (watch for ticks, insects, humidity, and storms in summer and ice in winter)

Many people have described Hemmed In Hollow, in the Ponca Wilderness of the Buffalo National River as perhaps the highlight hike in all of Arkansas. Since our exploration of the state has only just begun, I can not say that definitively. But, I can say it is a spectacular hike which provides both an interesting cross-section of the geology and ecology of the Ozarks, but also some interesting parallels to the riparian canyons and formations we've hiked in the Mogollon Rim of Arizona.

Oak/Hickory Forest
To access the trail, drive on Highway 43 toward Ponca, AR. When you get to Compton, AR just north of the river from Ponca turn west (a left if you are coming from Harrison) and drive 0.8 miles to the Hemmed In Hollow Trailhead.

The trail begins in an oak/hickory forest with scattered shortleaf pines and eastern red cedars. The trail is pretty level at first as it slowly descends. But, once you reach the edge of the hill, it begins to descend much more rapidly, with numerous rock steps there for your convenience. When you arrive at an intersection less than 1/2 mile down the trail, stay straight. There was a sign there, but it was laying on the ground when we went past. This is the "bluff trail" you are crossing.

From here the trail steepens even more and in addition to the rock steps, there are some steep drops over the rock formations. Along the way, there are tantalizing glimpses of the wilderness and rocky cliffs of Hemmed In Hollow between the trees. But, no place to actually take any pictures of it.

Trying to see the landscape through the trees

A better glimpse
Well, that is until you reach the 1.6 mile spot. Then, the trail arrives at a rocky outcropping with an excellent view across Hemmed In Hollow to the falls below. There was virtually no water when we arrived, so the falls were nothing more than a wet part of the cliffs. But, it is probably pretty spectacular when the falls are raging.

View of the falls from the overlook
A little bit lower beyond the overlook is the trail junction. To the left, you can head 0.7 miles to the Hemmed In Hollow Falls and to the right you can descend down 0.8 miles to the Buffalo River. Most trail descriptions ignore this side trip to the river and thus talk about Hemmed In Hollow being 5 miles roundtrip. But, if you have the time, I recommend this side trip to the river. It's a beautiful area.

The view along the river
The trail down passes through some interesting forest types and rock formations.
There is a column of rock with cacti on top and some open pine/cedar stands.

Interesting rock formations along the river
Once you arrive at the river, turn left and follow the river a few hundred meters down stream to see the neat cliffs and rocky ledges pictured above.

Shagback Hickory along the trail
OK, once you are done eating lunch at river head back up the slope and then at the trail junction, head down to Hemmed In Hollow. There is actually a route directly up from the river, which would allow you to make a loop instead of backtracking. We walked on it a bit on the way back when we did a wrong turn. But, it requires you to cross the river from the bottom. It would have been possible now, but if water was flowing more heavily, I am not sure how easy it would be. Some people we talked to said they use it when they are floating the river.

It's hard to capture Hemmed In Hollow on camera because of the trees
On the way down to Hemmed In Hollow, you will be passing through some beech stands. Beech are fairly rare in Arkansas and this is an exceptional stand with some really large specimens. The trail descends into the hollow and then into the back of an amazing amphitheater hundreds of feet high. It is reminiscent of formations we've seen in Utah.

Approaching the falls
Unfortunately, the waterfall was just too high to capture by camera, given we were standing directly under it. But, it certainly was an amazing place and I highly recommend visiting. This is the highest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachians at 240 feet tall. The water just just trickling now, but I am sure it is a torrent after a summer thunderstorm.

Rocky cliffs along the sides of the trail
Just remember, what goes down must come up. You now have some 1200 feet to climb back up. That is why I call it strenuous. It isn't so bad really, except I did have a nearly 3 year old on my back! But, it is well worth the effort to see these amazing sites in the Ozarks.

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