Thursday, December 16, 2010

Trip Report: Ozark Highlands Trail Section 2(18.9 miles)

     If you remember, from my last post, that my brother Cory and I actually hiked sections 1 and 2 consecutively. We arrived at White Rock Mountain on Monday, November 29. We spent the night in a cabin to dry out our clothes and gear since the temperature was going to drop to around 20 degrees, and the Honduras Kid was afraid of Hypothermia(he should have been). 
     I woke up with the sun and dragged him out to the lookout point. I wanted a few pics of the view at early morning, since the fog prevented pics the previous day. It was gorgeous. I recommend driving out to White Rock if you have never been. It is one of the 2 best viewpoints in Arkansas to see the Ozark Mountains in all of their glory. The wind was whipping around at about 20 m.p.h. or better and it was very cold. The air was still moist from all of the rain. All in all, the kind of morning that you are wearing every piece of clothing in your pack. And wishing you packed more.
Views from White Rock Mtn.

Cory Willits

Jake Willits

     We went back to the cabin and got warmed up. There was a real stove and running water, so we put the kettle on. It was nice to sit down and enjoy hot oatmeal and a steaming cup of joe(Starbucks Via, instant). Strangely enough, we were in no hurry to break “camp” that morning. We cleaned up the cabin and re-layered, and were on the trail by 10a.m. 
     To rejoin the OHT from there, you return by the same trailhead you arrived on(1/3 of a mile), and you have a steep(1000ft.) descent from about 2000ft elev. to Salt Fork Creek(1000ft. elev.) over about 2.1 miles. Salt Fork is a legit creek, so even though we were able to negotiate with our boots dry, it may not always work out for you. Tim Ernst suggested in Ozark Highlands Trail Guide that in high water, there is a forest road bridge about .5 miles downstream. I despise that kind of detour, but it really is better to be safe than sorry.
    Once again, my heart was broken to have to regain our lost elevation so quickly! Now we had a 1000ft. climb in front of us again in order to regain the lost altitude over the next 2.2 miles. This area is known as Potato Mountain. It has some nice views to the South still, but just looking up at the mountain is pretty. It was kind of a grind. The trail does twist and turn a bit, but make no mistake, it is a climb, and you know it the entire time you are doing it. At about mile 22.3, you will cross a forest road that runs through the gap(or saddle) atop the mountain ridge. 
     Once across the road, the trail begins another drop. It's like a see-saw, I tell you. My knees were not holding up well at this point, and it was slow going for us. We began the next descent in earnest, dropping about 900 feet to Spirits Creek over the next 2 miles or so. This part of the trail took us on a long diagonal route across the benches. It wasn't as bad, but only had a couple of switchbacks after the first 500 feet or so. There is some time spent on old forest roads in here. I knew some of this area and terrain from my ATV riding days, though the ATV and dirtbikes stay off of the OHT. You will notice some ATV tracks on some of the cross trails for the next 10 miles or so. This area is about 15-20 miles from the Mill Creek OHV area. We noticed that there would be short stretches of difficult trail followed by nice smooth and flat sections. This is because of the incorporation of old logging roads into the OHT, I suspect.
     Spirits Creek is a camera ready picture. There are several 1 foot falls, with large stones interrupting the flow. It really is pretty, and typical of the Ozarks. I always feel at peace when I can sit at the edge of water like this. We crossed, boot dry once again(trekking poles rule!), after a lunch break. I had needed off of my feet. We hadn't covered much ground today, because of the rapid ups and downs. Something told me this was very likely to be our last hill of the day. The trail now takes us up about 600ft. within the next mile or so before we come to Ragtown Road. Now we're in my old ATV stomping grounds. That's the only reason I knew the name of the road. Our map identified it as FS Rd. 1509. 
     From there, the trail once again begins a descent and takes you around the side of Black Mtn. and the hillside is steep, but the trail doesn't drop fast at all. This now begins the easier stretch of this section. The drop is only 650 ft., but it stretches out across 5.8 miles. We were toast for the day, so we started looking for an area with a firepit. The temperature hadn't risen above 40 degrees and we were now in the shady valleys. I blame it on the big climbs, but both of us had sweated thru our layering. So, shortly after mile marker number 27, we found our firepit, and stopped for the day. We had only covered a bit over 9 miles, but my legs were jelly, and we needed fire to help dry our clothes. Our camp selection really was too close to the trail, but both of us prefer to use pre-existing fire pits. We knew we were going to build a "barn-burner". 
     We're both Eagle Scouts, so have plenty of fire building experience, but it was actually challenging to get one going. A bit of lint usually does the trick, but the downed wood was still pretty wet. After 1 failed attempt each, we settled down and did it right. I was using a pocket knife to make fuzz-sticks and wood peelings from the inside of a piece of dry oak, and Cory did the magic. We had our gear dry by 7pm. We decided on trying the Mountain House Beef Stroganoff for dinner, and it was fantastic! For real, I think it's worth a try. After dinner we spent forever trying to get a bear-bag up for our food. We never really got a coon proof setup, but a bear wasn't going to get it. Before we fell asleep, we could hear small animals moving about, but we slept anyway. 
     I awoke early and checked the food. We were lucky to have it. We broke camp quickly, and were on the trail by 7:05a.m. Within 100 feet, we were on an old railroad grade. No rails or timbers, but it was level and smooth going. We covered this ground fast. 4 miles in 1hr, 20 mins. It warmed us up quickly. It is a drop, but very gradual. By 9, we were staring at Fane Creek. It is a much wider valley than most we have crossed. And there is gravel roads all over the area. At this point, we were about a mile from Cass. We were able to cross boot dry once again. Normally, I wouldn't have even chanced it, but we were 5.5 miles from our truck. We had the biggest climb of the trip in front of us, but we knew there was a cheeseburger and a hot shower at the end of it. 
     We looked at the map and figured the climb at 1500 feet in 4.1 miles. Yuck. Normally this kind of climb would not have been that much, but the rocky trail we had seen in the last several days told us it would be ragged. We were wrong. The trail begins by climbing up to a road running along a bench that follows the line of the creek. There is some kind of road building or something going on right now, but the trail skirts it to the South. After you get past this, the trail seems to follow a line that runs maybe 50ft. lower than the ridgeline, all the way up Whiting Mtn. There is some rocky stretches, but mostly, the trail is wide and groomed. There are some downed trees, but in general, this climb was the easiest we had done so far. We stopped after about 3.5 miles or so for some Backpacker's Pantry Mueslix, which is fantastic eaten cold. I needed the hill climbing fuel. The one disappointment about this part of the trail is that the best views are hidden by the ridgeline to the left. If I were a hardcore photographer(meaning=had batteries in the camera), I could have easily bushwhacked a bit and got some great pics. But, as it were, my legs were jelly and I was on a mission to get a cheeseburger.
     At the top of Whiting Mtn.(mi35.7), we crossed another pipeline area, then began descending the backside of the mountain. This section of the trail is pretty decent, but watch your step. This is steep terrain. The trail has a few switchbacks, and lots of downed trees. Lots of briars and such. In summertime, I would not like this kind of action. When you know you're on the home stretch, your momentum carries you well. We passed the old CCC rock house, but just kept scooting down the trail. In hindsight, I regret not checking it out, but it was uphill from where I was, if you know what I mean. Shortly down the trail from there, we came to a trail intersection. Pay attention here if you are hiking just this section of the OHT. We didn't. If you wish to reach the trailhead parking at Cherry Bend, you should go right and follow the blue trail blazes and cross Hwy 23 near the parking area. If you proceed on the OHT, you will cross the highway much further down the trail and continue down the OHT, missing Cherry Bend altogether. We did this. In fact, if I hadn't recognized the built up road foundation, we might still be hiking. After crossing the highway, we were scooting along, so we had to backtrack to the crossing and follow the highway back to our truck.
     We finished at about 5 minutes after noon. Not counting our missed trail, we had hiked about 10 miles in 5 hours. Another good outing. Our legs were jello and our hearts content. Such is the way of the wandering legends.

What we learned in this section:
1) Extra batteries for the Camera are worth the weight!
2) Read the Trail guide very carefully so you know how to get off of it!

You can find the OHTA here                                             
You can find the Guidebook here                                       

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Trip Report: Ozark Highlands Trail, Section 1(18.5 miles(

     Fellow Legends Patrol Member (and my younger brother) Cory "Will"(or "Gimp") Willits and I recently completed a 3 day hike of sections 1 and 2 of the Ozark Highlands Trail. I will separate the sections into 2 posts, but will tell the story in continual form. The planning for this trip was started several months ago. Cory is enlisted in the USAF and is currently stationed in Honduras, so needed to take leave in order for us to complete the hike. We planned on hitting the trail by noon on Sunday the 28th of November.
     Our shuttling plans didn't work out, so the backup followed us to Cherry Bend on Hwy 23(end of section 2) to drop our recovery vehicle. We piled into his 4WD truck for 40 miles of gravel roads westward to Lake Ft. Smith State Park, the Western Terminus of the OHT. It's funny now, but I had initially thought that taking the gravel shortcuts would save time. With the old man driving 2 of his sons, it evolved into a sightseeing trip quickly. But who complains about quality time with their brother and Dad? We arrived at Lake Ft. Smith about 4pm, and were on the trail within minutes. Let me give some advice here. In your haste to catch up to your time frame, NEVER just grab your pack and roll out! One of my Nalgenes had dislodged from the side pocket of my pack and was left behind in the truck bed. Fortunately, it was my third bottle, and we were able to make do with Cory's 3 and my 2 for the trip.

Cory at the trailhead

     The trail starts on the North side of the main building at Lake Ft. Smith down the sidewalk towards the visible lake. There is a very large sign(pictured above) hanging at the trailhead. It's almost as if the park is proud of their status as the beginning of the trail. 100 yards down the sidewalk, the trail heads North, along the Western side of the lake. The reason I point this out is that since the last time I hiked this section(15 years ago), they have had major construction within the park. Lake Ft. Smith got a new dam and now incorporates the old Lake Shepard Springs into it. So, instead of the trail going around the lake to the South, it now goes to the north. The trail is very well marked with white flashes, but after mile marker 1, you won't see another for at least 6 miles. We only had about an hour until dark, so we dropped pack about 1.3-1.5 miles into the trail. I'm sure this is a no-no, but we stealth camped near one of the old homestead rock chimneys, within sight of the lake. The temperature dropped down to about the freezing mark overnight, and we had some 10+ m.p.h. winds. We weren't sweaty yet, so it was a warm enough start.
     We were up before dawn and broke camp with a breakfast bar in hand by about 7a.m. Within minutes, we felt the first drops of rain. Yuck. We proceeded at a good pace. At the North end of the lake we filled our canteens and had a "foot wet" crossing at Frog Bayou. It was at fairly low depth and speed, but I imagine this would be exciting at higher water. Onward we went, and it continued to rain. I also want to point out that from Frog Bayou until we left the park (about 3 miles), the usual white 2"X4" flashes seem to have been abandoned in favor of round ones with a white arrow. Just an FYI, as they are still very easy to follow. The trail curved back South and stayed within sight of the lake pretty much until mile 6 or so, then meets up with the old trail and heads up the Jack Creek drainage. So far the trail had been mostly flat, with elevation gains of no more than 75 feet from lake level(elev. 1000).
     For the next 4+ miles, the trail will stay within the Jack Creek "hollow" while climbing about 600 feet or so. There is a handful of "boot dry" crossings within this section, but somehow, my boots weren't dry anyway. We crossed Old Locke Road at Dockery's Gap (elev 1600ft, mile10.4), then began a steep descent to Hurricane Creek, dropping nearly 500ft within 3/4 of a mile(with some switchbacks). This is probably nearly always a wet foot crossing, but with the careful use of my trekking poles, we risked it and crossed boots-dry. I can see why they call it Hurricane Creek. In high water, a hiker might consider heading a half mile or so upstream to use the road bridge. Pretty, though. We stopped and had lunch(Enertia Trail Foods) by the creek, and refilled our water. There is no reliable water between this point and White Rock Mountain, and we were planning on setting up camp long before that. From there, you begin a 800ft + climb over the next 3 miles. About 1.5 miles after the creek we came to a gas pipeline(buried), and stopped and had a rest on a downed tree. I was about tuckered out. Feeling lightheaded and nauseous. For real, us old guys need to digest a bit after lunch if we're going to hike uphill like that.
     It was about 2pm, and we had covered 11 miles already, with dense fog to our South(blocking some great views), and a steady drizzle still falling. It was about 40-45 degrees, and we were soaked. I sat on that log for at least 20 minutes before Cory said we either needed to make a fire and setup camp or press on to White Rock in hopes of scoring a cabin for the night. We sucked it up and headed up the trail. I guess that was where I hit the wall that day. In the next 2.5 hours, we progressed the rest of the way up the climb towards our new goal. At about mile 14, we crossed the first of 2 forest roads and the trail had for the most part leveled off around 2000ft elev. This area seems to have been cleared out by a controlled burn within the last several years, because it is clear of most undergrowth except thorns. I have to say that there were some very tempting campgrounds that we passed by.
     After the second forest road, we entered the only section of the trail we didn't like. the thorns were much more prevalent and there were many trees laying across the trail. I hate to complain about it, because I have yet to volunteer for trail maintenance, but this section needs it. On a map, the area is identified as McMinn Gap, and it runs from roughly mile 14.2 to mile 16 or so. Also, I noticed that the entire trail through there runs kind of off-camber, making me feel like one leg is too long. We crossed the third forest road at mile 16.2 and headed up towards White Rock Mountain. After crossing this road, the trail goes up a bit, then down a bit, then up a bit, and when it goes down again, we found ourself cursing the trailblazing Gods since we could see the bluffs of White Rock coming up. "Why must we go back downhill? Bah!" But, with the prospect of a warm fire in our immediate future, we trudged on.
     The trail takes you by a spur trail that leads to Shores Lake and also one that makes a loop around the plateau. Then you are at the eastern end of the bluff for the walkup. It's steep, but not too bad. Up we went and came upon the trailhead parking and cabins on top of the mountain(elev 2200, mile18.7). We made a beeline to the custodian's house only to find that there was nobody home. We bought some candy bars($1 each X4) from her honor system refrigerators, and settled in to wait, hoping for her swift return. We were disappointed when she didn't make it after 1.5 hours waiting. We walked over to the campsite and began building a fire(and had a decent one started) before she arrived to save the day!
     We had just enough cash on us for the rental($70), so we got settled in very quickly, with a roaring fire going inside the woodstove within minutes. All of our wet gear was hanging on the woodbox, chairs, and anything we could find to get them dried out before morning. Before we went to sleep, the fog lifted and we could see the sky for the first time all day. Our day was complete, after hiking 17 miles that day, in about 8 hours of trail time. Not bad.

So, what we learned in section 1 of the OHT is:

1. Always have at least $74 cash on you

2. There's no shame in renting a cabin in hypothermic conditions

3. Be nice to Miss Paula at White Rock Mountain

4. Don't start the trail with more than 1 liter of water. Instead, refill before leaving sight of the lake.

Forestry Service pamphlet for the OHT