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.

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