BIGGEST AND BEST
Thursday was our final full day in the Arkansas Ozarks. Originally we had planned to camp at Roaring River State Park in Missouri Thursday night. However, we really like our campsite on the banks of the Buffalo River. Instead of packing up and moving to a different campground for one night, we decided to extend our stay by an extra night. That meant missing out on Roaring Springs and a visit to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. That was regrettable, but it also cut a couple of hours of driving off of what was already a long road trip.
The final hike I had picked was a big one. Originally we had planned to visit Hemmed in Hollow Falls – the tallest waterfall in the Midwestern U.S. – with a short hike from river. That wasn’t an option since we scrapped our kayaking plans. There is a trail to the falls from the plateau high above. That was my top priority for our final day. Also, the hike to Big Bluff was high on my to-do list. Big Bluff features dramatic views of the Buffalo River and canyon.
Those two areas are actually close together. Thanks to an extensive trail network, it is actually possible to connect the two areas. I planned out a route combining those two attractions. I would start out at the trailhead near Compton and descend to the base of Hemmed in Hollow Falls. From there I’d follow the creek downstream to the Buffalo River to check it out. After a bit of backtracking I’d follow a trail over to Sneeds Creek. Then I’d pick up an old road that would take me to the Centerpoint Trailhead. Along that road is the goat path leading out to Big Bluff. I’d hit that near the end of the hike.
Christy decided to skip this hike, since long, steep, rocky descents are particularly hard on her knees. Instead she would spend her day mountain biking. She was pretty excited about riding in a new area.
When Christy dropped me off at the Compton Trailhead it was still windy and cold on the plateau. The sun was out though, and I warmed up quickly once I dropped below the rim and got out of the wind. I passed a crew doing trail work before reaching California Point. From the cliffs there I caught my first glimpse of Hemmed in Hollow Falls across the gorge. It was a spectacular sight, but I was looking forward to seeing it from the base.
I resumed the descent and eventually bottom out at the creek. I followed the trail upstream, passing several pretty cascades and small waterfalls along the way. I was tempted to scramble down to the creek for a closer look, but I was itching to see the falls. I continued on and arrived at the base a few minutes later. Hemmed in Hollow Falls is sheer vertical drop of 209’. From the base, you really have to crane your neck to see all the way to the top. It was a sunny, blue sky day, but the light was actually not terrible for photography. I spent a few minutes cleaning up debris near the base of the falls before taking some photos. Then I ate lunch and enjoyed the view. Incredibly, I spent an hour there without seeing another person.
I hiked back downstream, but I quickly abandoned the trail to follow the creek. This allowed me to visit each of the small waterfalls and colorful pools I’d seen from the trail earlier. All of these drops were 10-20’ high, but in their own way, they were just as pretty as their big brother upstream. The creek eventually flattened out, and I picked up a spur trail for an easy stroll down to the river. The Buffalo River was raging! The water was over the banks, and the current was ripping along at least 5 miles per hour. This was the day we had originally planned to go kayaking. Cancelling that may have been our best decision of the trip.
The Ozark River Trail continues on the far side of the river. If there had been a bridge I could’ve continued in that direction, but there is no bridge here. Needless to say, fording the river was not an option. My backup plan had been to backtrack from here to the main trail I had descended earlier. I’d follow it out of the hollow and then follow the Ozark River Trail down to Sneeds Creek. I’d rejoin the river briefly before picking up the old road out to Centerpoint. However, a third option materialized. From the confluence of the Buffalo River and the stream draining Hemmed in Hollow, I noticed an impressive line of cliffs rising above the river. There is a faint path following the base of the cliffs away from the river, roughly parallel to the stream draining Hemmed in Hollow. That was going in the right direction, so I decided to follow it.
The path climbed away from the river, hugging the base of the cliffs. I kept expecting it to fade away, but it continued. As I climbed, the cliffs dwindled. Eventually there was just a short section of open hillside between me and the official trail. I climbed up to it and followed it up to the junction I’d passed that morning. I continued straight there, following the Ozark River Trail. This stretch of trail runs through heavy forest high above the cliffs guarding the river below. At one point I bushwhacked down to the brink of those cliffs in hopes of getting a view. I had to hunt around a bit, but I eventually managed to find a clear view of the river below and more cliffs on the opposite side of the canyon.
I rejoined the trail and descended gradually to Sneeds Creek. I took a break at an idyllic campsite along the creek simply because the spot was too pretty to rush past. Afterwards I hiked down to the river. I followed it briefly before reaching the junction with the old road to Centerpoint. I climbed up it for a few minutes and reached a junction. I was passing through when I met some other hikers. They told me not to miss the old homestead, which is down a short side trail. I didn’t even know about the homestead, which is quite impressive. If it hadn’t been for that chance encounter I would’ve missed it completely.
The hike out was a trudge, but this hike still had one final highlight. I reached a camping area in a gap and followed an unofficial “goat trail” out to Big Bluff. The trail doesn’t lead to the top of the bluff. Instead, it runs around the southwest side to a point due south of the summit. The scenery is impressive right away, as the path hugs the base of impressive cliffs. The cliffs got taller and more dramatic as I hiked. Before long I reached a spectacular viewpoint. The cliffs above towered overhead. In one place they were overhung, giving the impression that I was inside a massive cave. Meanwhile, I was hugging the brink of a sheer cliff. The river was 300’ directly below. The bluff is positioned in at the center of a sweeping “S” curve in the canyon. Due to its location, it provides long distance views upstream and down. This part of the river is bordered by impressive cliffs on both sides. Words can’t really begin to describe how spectacular this spot is. It was one of the most breathtaking views of my life.
Shortly after I arrived I heard voices. I looked around, but I had the whole place to myself. It was a rather mundane conversation, but I could clearly hear every word. I looked down and saw several canoes on a beach directly below. There were people there setting up a campsite. If I’d jumped, I would’ve landed in their campsite, which was on the opposite side of the river. I listened again to the ongoing conversation, and realized it was coming from those people camping on the beach. The cliff must’ve been funneling the sound directly up to me.
I followed the cliffs until the path faded away. It may be possible to push the route further, but it was beginning to get sketchy, and that 300’ sheer drop was impossible to ignore. I returned to my favorite perch along that run of cliffs, under an impressive overhang. I sat there and took it all in. This was an extremely difficult place to leave. I knew Christy would be waiting for me if I lingered too long, but I assessed how quickly I could hike out from there if I managed to maintain maximum pace. I decided I could stay another 10 minutes if I jogged part of it, so I had another snack and relaxed.
Finally the need to leave was urgent enough to get me moving. I gave that view one final, reluctant glance and started back. And yes I jogged some of the flatter sections. I even managed to do that whole climb without stopping, almost. When I came around a bend and spotted a giant wild hog I had to pause to grab my camera. Unfortunately he bolted into the woods before I could get a photo.
Christy was waiting for me at the trailhead. Unfortunately her day had been less awesome than mine. She was a few miles into her ride when part of her bike broke. She wasn’t able to repair it, so she had to hike her bike back to the car.
We returned to the campground and enjoyed another campfire, dinner, and the last of our beer. This wonderful little corner of Arkansas is in a dry county, so if you plan a trip here, bring plenty!
Continue reading about our trip as we drive to Missouri and hike to Cave Spring in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways.
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Please remember to Leave No Trace!