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.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Coy Bald Loop, Hercules Glades Wilderness, Mark Twain NF, Missouri

Distance: 6.7 miles (10.6 km)
Elevation: 880 - 1220 feet (268 - 372 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: Any time but October is the best!

View across the ridges from Coy Bald
Described by many as the greatest natural area in Missouri, Hercules Glades Wilderness in the Mark Twain National Forest certainly does provide for scenic beauty, ecological diversity, and interesting variety. At 12,200 acres, this wilderness is the 2nd largest in Missouri. It is located at the northern edges of the Ozarks and provides some interesting mixes of ecosystems due to its limestone/dolomite glades and balds. You can access this wilderness by taking MO-76 east out of Forsyth, MO, turning right onto US Hwy 160 and then turning left on Crosstimbers Road and following it to the end.

The trail begins in a forest of white oak and eastern red cedar. There are hickory, sassafras, and sugar maples mixed in, with plentiful poison ivy in the understory. When the trail branches shortly after entering the wilderness fence, bear left.

Within 1/2 mile, you descend down to Long Creek and to the beautiful limestone bluffs that rise on the far side. Along the sides of the cliffs, sugar maples add a brilliant hue of red. The waters are clear and cool and a great place to splash around on a hot day. Much of the creek bottom is a flat pavement of dolomite, covered with lots of small snails and fish darting all around the pools.

Some lichens are drapped from the eastern red cedar branches above the cliffs
After enjoying your time at the cliffs, you go upstream a little way until you find the trail crossing the creek. The trail will now climb gradually and head into the oak/hickory/cedar forest for about 1 mile. When you encounter an unsigned trail intersection, bear right. The trail coming in from the left is coming down from Pilot Knob, which is the highest point in the wilderness.

This route will then head approximately 1 mile slight downhill to the southeast before arriving at another trail intersection. A sign will say "Tower" to the left. That is the other trailhead access to the wilderness on the eastern end approximately 3 miles away. Turn right instead and soon you will at the creek again. Here, the creek is a flat limestone pavement. It is almost like some built a road down the middle of this hollow. It is lined with sycamores and maples and the pavement it broken up in sections to make little waterfalls and cascades. There was no water flowing at the time we were there. Just turn right and follow the creekbed less than a quarter-mile to the falls. If water is still flowing, the trail parallels the creek on the far side.

A break in the limestone pavement of Long Creek

Then you arrive at the waterfall. It is a notch dug into the layers of dolomite and an excellent place to eat lunch. It is fun to hope around on the slabs of rocks and explore the area.

In this region, these kinds of river features are called "shut-ins"
After you have enjoyed your time here, it is time for the final 4 miles back to the trailhead. Here you will backtrack up the creek a few hundred yards and look for the trail heading up slope to the southwest. The trail will climb to the ridgetop. As you approach the ridgeline, the vegetation will change over from the oak/hickory forest to an open grassy area full of large eastern red cedar. These are the "glades" that gives Hercules Glades its name.

Historically, these areas would have been larger and more open, providing excellent views, but fire suppression and the planting of these eastern red cedars by farmers as wind breaks has allowed for this invasion. These trees are not cedars, but actually junipers and they are a native species. But, they are far more common, even weedy, than they were historically. As you go from glade to glade, with tantalizing glimpses, but no real views across the landscape, it can get frustrating. But, fear not, as you approach the top of Coy Bald, those views will be there!

Coy Bald view across the wilderness, with Long Creek Hollow in the middle
These glades are formed because the soils are so shallow here with a solid limestone pavement below, that only arid adapted plants can grow here. The grasses are those typical of the tallgrass prairie and there are even some plants common to the southwest, including prickly pear cactus.
A nice view of the landscape
The trail will go in and out of openings for the next half mile or so.
As you look to the north, you can see the edge of the Ozarks and the flatter plains of Missori beyond
Eventually the trail reenters the oak/hickory stands with really beautiful stands of white oak. White oak is a fire adapted species that can survive in droughty soils. You can often find it in sandy soils up north, but it excels here in these limestone soils as well.

The trail will go in and out of forest and glade for the last 1.5 miles before returning back to the trailhead. This really was an enjoyable hike and if you are ever in Southern Missouri, you should check it out.

PS- If you don't really want to do the hike and/or the weather doesn't allow, there is an alternative for you. It is called the Glade Top Trail and it is a Forest Service Scenic-Byway that runs through the area. This 23-mile dirt road that runs from Bradleyville to Ava allows people to drive through the glades on the nearby ridgetops with excellent views as well!

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Scenic Overlook Loop, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Kansas

Distance: Approximately 8 mile loop (12.9 km)
Elevation: 1,200-1,495 feet (368 - 456 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: Year Round

Located in the Flint Hills of Kansas, is the 10,800 acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. It is owned by The Nature Conservancy, but operated by the National Park Service as the only national park unit dedicated to preserving and protecting the tallgrass prairies that once spanned some 240 million acres of the Great Plains. At over 10,000 acres, it is large enough that from the center of it, it looks vast and almost unending, much like it did before the homesteaders plowed the plains.

It was best described at Homestead National Monument in Nebraska that "once the homesteads were tiny islands in a sea of prairie, but now the prairies themselves are tiny islands in a sea of farmland". But, the Flint Hills retain the most extensive tracts of intact and semi-intact prairies left. The reason is that the Flint Hills are made of limestone and the soils here are very thin. Thus, homesteaders were unable to plow the prairies under. Instead, grazing cattle was the only option. While cows do not graze exactly the way bison do, they were a partial substitute for the loss of bison and less disruptive to the ecosystem than farming.

They released 14 bison in the preserve last year.
The first time in 130 years bison have grazed this prairie
The loop trail begins at the Visitor Center located in the old barn. There you can pick up a map of the trails. You will be following the "blue trail" on the map that takes you to the "scenic overlook". It labels it 6.4 miles roundtrip, but that is if you go out and back. If you jump onto the yellow trail from there to make a loop, it ends up somewhere around 8 miles. If it is May-July, I recommend using insect repellent to protect against ticks and chiggers. But, when we went in October, it is just fine because despite the hot days, the bugs were gone by then.

Limestone gravel road is the first part of the route
The trail follows a dirt road that is used by the NPS us that takes people on the tour to see the buffalo. At the fork immediately past the horse corral, stay right. It slowly climbs the hill to a ridgeline with excellent views of the landscape. You will cross a cattle guard, at which time you have entered the buffalo area called Windmill Pasture. If you encounter them, keep you distance of at least 300 feet. If they are on the road, then take off across the grass to go around them.

When you get to the first intersection labeled #2 on the post, bear right. The route follows the ridgeline and then goes up to a hilltop crest for the most spectacular view across the landscape. At the "scenic overlook", there is a large turnaround spot for the bus. At this stage, you have hiked 3.2 miles. From here, you can really image how the prairie stretched out for hundreds of miles in all directions.

Leaving the hilltop and walking on the "grassy road"
From this hilltop, the route turns into a grassy and definitely less used 2-wheel track that is covered in short grasses. There are some dusty sections that appear to probably be pretty muddy in the wet season. If that is the case, you may choose to return on the drier limestone road you walked on back. But, if conditions allow, continue to follow the grassy road to the east. The route will soon veer north and then come to an intersection labeled #17 on a brick on the ground.

Stay right and follow that as it takes you southeast toward the highway and fenceline. Along the fenceline there are a lot of trees. But, since they do not graze this area with either bison or cattle, the grass is noticeably taller. Also, the soils are a bit deeper down in the drainage bottom. You will cross another gate and marker labeled #16 and then head off toward the old school house and farmhouse woodlot on the distant hill. Upon reaching the one room school house, you can check that out and then follow the nature trail back to the visitor center via a bridge over the wooded creek bottom (watch for poison ivy on the trail here)

Solitude on the prairie

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Lookout Point Loop, Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

Distance: 4.5 mile loop (7.2 km)
Elevation:  3,900-4,480 feet (1190 - 1366 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: Any Time (be prepared for cold and snow in winter)

This relatively easy stroll across the prairie and down through a limestone canyon provides an excellent opportunity to see all of the main features of Wind Cave National Park, and if you are lucky (or not) a close up of Bison on the prairies.

Hidden amongst the prairie grasses are cactus
The trail begins at the Centennial Trailhead about 1/4 of a mile north of the junction of Hwy 87 and Hwy 385 within Wind Cave National Park. The Centennial Trail was built in 1989 to celebrate South Dakota's 100th anniversay and runs for 111 miles from Wind Cave NP through the Black Hills National Forest and up to Bear Butte State Park near Sturgis. This is its southern terminus.

Here, you can go either direction, but I will describe it by taking the Lookout Point trail first. The trail starts out descending to a creekside before climbing the grassy hills. Watch out for poison ivy along the rocky sections. As the trail climbs out of the drainage and onto the ridgetop, the views increase and you can see buffalo wallows and other signs of their presence on the prairie.

Approaching a large male bison on the trail

The bison on the otherside after taking a large detour through the woods
 The trail parallels the road for a bit before turning east and heading across the ridgetop towards Lookout Point. Be aware of Bison near the trail. For the most part, they ignore people, but are unpredictable, especially the bulls. If one is near the trail, leave the trail and make a wide route around them, keeping at least 150 feet away. If one gets aggitated, back off and give it lots of room and never challenge them.

Two more laying about 200 feet of the trail
The trail soon arrives at the highest point on the route at 4,480 foot Lookout Point. From here, their are expansive views across the 26,000 acre national park and out towards the Badlands beyond.

Beyond Lookout Point, you head across a grassy swale with large buffalo wallows and a colony of prairie dogs. In 2007, Wind Cave NP also reintroduced Black-footed ferrets, whose primary prey are prairie dogs. The Black-footed ferret, if you did not know, was thought to be extinct for decades before a small colony was discovered on a ranch in Montana. They were wiped out by ranchers who were poisoning prairie dogs and by their extreme sensitively to canine distemper.

From here, the trail enters a ponderosa pine forest and begins to descends about 400 feet into Beaver Canyon.  Once in Beaver Canyon, you follow the dry creek bed with high limestone cliffs above you. This grassy meadow also has nice riparian vegetation along its edges. At one point, you will come to a rocky cliff where you suddenly encounter water. The creek here suddenly drops into a cave and you can hear the rushing waters falling down below. Thus, it leaves the rest of the creekbed dry, except in high water.

Beaver Canyon

Continue to follow the canyon for another mile, crossing several rickity log bridges over the creek, until reaching the trailhead once again for a gentle and enjoyable loop around the heart of Wind Cave National Park.

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