|Dam at Devil's Den Lake|
|Typical Boston Mountain stream crossing|
|Butterfield Falls from the top|
|View South across Blackburn Creek Valley|
|View North across Lee Creek Valley|
|Typical Ozark Mountain trail conditions|
Finally, a Saturday off of work. Initially I thought of hitting the Ozark Highlands Trail. Wanting to do the Eastern half of section 4, but not having a hiking partner, I decided on a loop hike. The Butterfield Hiking Trail(BHT) is a 15 mile loop at Devil's Den State Park in Arkansas. Interestingly enough, it was my first backpacking trip ever. Over 20 years ago, I hiked it with Boy Scout Troop 116. It was the trip that started it all for me. I have fond memories of the infamous "wrong turn" hike. I also remember whining that I couldn't go on after the 14 mile marker. It was ugly. Maybe not being able to hack it(I did anyway) was like hitting the wall. I overcame. My gear sucked, my legs were too short, my pack weighed way over 1/4 of my body weight. I had bad shoes and un-diagnosed asthma. But I had it good. There was one kid who had tied a 2 liter coke bottle full of water to his frame. It flopped around for the entire hike. We took a wrong turn around midday on the first of 2 trail days. We never figured out for sure, but we think we hiked about 4 miles out of the way. We camped 4 miles off the trail and probably had to make it up on day 2. It was ugly. But that was the trip when we wrote our troop hiking song. I won't repeat it here. Still, it is the single most memorable backcountry trip I have ever taken.
So when I decided to do this as an overnighter, it was exciting. I remembered it being a very rugged hike. I called the ranger and was told that I needed a backcountry permit. So I had to wait until they opened on Saturday at 8:00 A.M. So much for a dawn start. It was worth considering camping in one of their modern campsites, but the low was going to be in the 20's and I wasn't in the mood to deal with the car camping public. So I arrived shortly after they opened and got my permit. I asked about water conditions on Lee Creek and availability in the backcountry. He told me plenty of water, but to avoid crossing Lee Creek if possible. It was fairly high. He pointed out an alternative crossing (by paved bridge). Exit stage right. I parked at the main trailhead, put my permit on my rearview, and geared up. A topo map can be found online at Ouachitamaps.com
For those hiking the loop in a clockwise direction, the trail starts by crossing a suspension bridge over Lee Creek. The bridge was rebuilt (after washing out in a flash flood) in 1989 by the Corps of Engineers. It is very sturdy and wide. After crossing, turn right and head upstream. The trail follows the creek and passes by the Dam at the lake. It is absolutely gorgeous. After about a half mile or so, I met the road and took the highway bridge back to the other side of the creek. Immediately after the bridge, I took a left back onto the Devil's Den trail. This is the alternate trail the ranger was telling me about. Normally, you would cross the highway and walk another half mile or so to the crossing at campsite A. I just avoided the wet crossing. The trail I took followed the creek on the other side. It no trouble picking up my trail. Diamond shaped blue blazes tipped me off. Also, I remembered the impressive shale outcropping where the trail starts after the creek.
The BHT takes off up a large sheet of rock and up the trail. Conditions on the trail were a bit wet. Much of this area had rain in the last several days, and it was running down the trail in LOTS of areas. At many points, I was stepping from rock to rock to avoid sinking or splattering. I met up with a Boy Scout troop traveling counter-clockwise on the BHT in 2 separate groups. They were nice to talk to for a bit while I rested. Then, I caught up with 2 other hikers. One of them had a big load. They were good for a few minutes of chat as well. Talking about my craft with others is always fun. Those with the heart of a teacher want to share. Even if it is just about other areas to go play.
This section of the trail begins the climb out of the Lee Creek Valley. The creek was at about 1000 ft. elev. I had about a 700 ft gain in the next 3 miles or so. Some parts were straight uphill, then across some benches. All of this section was very rocky. By rocky, I mean softball to football, to medicine ball sized rocks. The views of the valleys through the trees were pleasant, when you had time to look at something other than your feet. The climb warmed me up sufficiently that I stopped to remove my baselayer pants. I might need them to sleep in. The fleece had to go too. I was feeling good. When the pants were off, I realized that there was about a buck and half in coins in my pocket. Not the kind of thing an ultra-lighter is happy about. Oh well, I'm $1.50 richer.
At about mile 3.5 the trail crosses HWY 74 which is one of 2 roads that lead into the park. This one exits from I-540 at the Winslow exit. There were about 10 cars parked there. The trail shares a forest road with several other trails for about the first 1/8 of a mile, then turns off to the left and heads uphill. Within another 1/4 mile it crests Mt. Olive at about 1560 ft. This is the highest elevation you will see on the trail. I crossed paths with another pair of hikers shortly after. They were from Tulsa. I stopped for a break and chatted for about 15 minutes, mostly about gear and the OHT. When I heard guys coming behind me I hotfooted it down the hill. The trail begins a descent of about 400 ft. over the next mile. It's pretty fast going if you can keep your ankles upright. My trekking poles helped here, though I began to regret not wearing my Vasque Sundowners. Shortly before mile marker number 5, you come to the top of a small bluff. Maybe about 35 ft. It is long and gives you a good view of the Blackburn Creek Valley to the South. You can also see the trail below you. I paused for pictures here. Also converted my pants to shorts. It was warming up.
Within the next 1/4 mile, I came to the bottom of the bluff at some un-named creek that was flowing wonderfully with small waterfalls. More pics as I camel'ed up and refilled my canteen. At the base of the bluff, there is a really nice crevice that had a fire pit and would make a great campsite if you were traveling counter-clockwise. Lots of nice bouldering to the climbers out there. Maybe even a bit of an overhang for shelter in a downpour. Like I mentioned before, the trail now works its way back across the bottom of the bluff. It's a real nice area to hike through. It turns downhill, dropping you down about 200 feet in the next 1/4 mile bringing you to the banks of Blackburn Creek, which was flowing pretty heavy. Not the kind of creek you want to cross. The next 4+ miles you will travel with this creek on your left, with no gains or drops of more than 100 ft or so. I really cruised through this portion.
I stopped to boil water for a late lunch about 1:00 P.M at the Rock Hole Camp. Mountain House Chili Mac is fantastic! For real, it is now probably my favorite freeze dried trail meal. I killed about 35 mins. with lunch and treating another canteen and was packing up when 2 more guys caught up to me from behind. They were young and moving well. I talked to them for a bit and then took off. They stayed behind to eat what appeared to be homemade GORP. It was nearly 2:00 and I only had about 2.5 miles to Junction Camp, where I planned on staying the night. I wanted to try out my new Golite Shangri-La 1 tarp style shelter.
I coasted through this section as well. Fast moving, though it is very hard on your feet with all the loose rocks and water moving in the trail. When I came to the turnoff for my campsite, I could hear ATV's running at full throttle(across Lee Creek) and the Boy Scout troop camped there as well. I knew I didn't want to stay there. So I looked at my map and decided I would either stop at Butterfield Falls to camp, or just press through. After stopping for a sit down water break shortly afterwards, the young guys caught up with me. They said they were staying at the falls. I made up my mind to just finish the trail and sleep in my own bed. Testing the shelter could wait for another day. It was only 3:30 and it was only about 4.5 miles to my truck. Very do-able.
The turn-off to the Junction Camp was at about 1000 ft. elev. The remaining high point on the trail was maybe 1400 ft. Several sections of steep uphills, but mostly a gradual rise over the next 2 miles before leveling off for nearly 2 more. So it was a pretty good hike up the mountain. Smooth going. A strategically timed breather at Butterfield Falls. This is a really neat place. There water running off of a sheer rock face, but it wasn't visible until it left the rock at the bottom. It is kind of in a thin crack, so it's like a faucet left running at the bottom. Really nice. The main falls usher from a spring and flow down over some rocks that you have to climb up to stay on the trail. There is a pool of water at the top and a primitive campsite. Too bad the other guys claimed it. Oh well, the Sealy Posture-pedic was calling me by now.
The trail here levels out after a bit and the conditions are actually good for the first time today. Good hard packed trail with only occasional rocks and water. Gorgeous views of the Lee Creek Valley off to your left through the barren hardwoods. Smooth sailing, except for the arch of my left foot killing me. I loosened my shoelaces several times, and it seemed to help. When bending over to re-tie, the hamstrings were hollering. So after some simple stretches, onward me and my trekking poles went. Shortly after mile marker number 12, the trail meets up in an intersection with 2 other marked trails. Very confusing. Even with all the flashing, I took the wrong one. It didn't take long to figure it out, but after looking at the map, I determined that they met back up in about a mile, so onward my feet went. The only bad thing about this strategy is that this new trail is apparently a horse trail. If you don't know what that means, then I'll just say that the manure isn't really the problem. They just destroy a trail. Worse than an ATV by far. ATV's widen the trail. Horses mash it all to smithereens. Man I hate horses.
At the next intersection where this trail rejoined the BHT, it begins a steep, rocky descent towards Lee Creek. 400 ft drop in 1/3 of a mile or so. With next to no switchbacks. Whoever blazed this trail should be shot. The erosion is bad in this section. Hard on your entire body to hike it. It eventually turns back to the Northwest as you meet the creek. Some fairly gentle ups and downs over the next mile or so back to the trailhead. The good thing is that you have some great views of Lee Creek for nearly the rest of the trail. And(at flood stage) Lee Creek is actually a whitewater destination for the more serious local paddlers. So it's nice to just sit and watch it flow. Not that I stopped this close to my post-hike Gatorade! The trail ends by passing a barn for the park's vehicles and then one of the cabins.
I knew 15 miles was possible as a day hike. Perhaps my old memories of the "wrong turn" hike made me think that the BHT had to be an overnighter. Or maybe it was the fact that my total pack weight was under 20 lbs. But as my new friend Marco Sanchez said,"halve the pack weight, treble the experience." He's right.