WATERFALLS, CAVES, AND WATERFALLS COMING OUT OF CAVES
On Monday we visited a waterfall dropping into a cave.† On Tuesday, we focused on waterfalls coming out of caves.†
Originally, we had planned to kayak a stretch of the Buffalo River, from Ponca to Kyleís Landing.† In the Spring, it is normally a class II run.† Class II is right at the extent of our skill level, but we thought it would be manageable.† Unfortunately, those heavy storms that were feeding the areaís waterfalls had also caused the river to rise.† The Buffalo River was running strong, and those class II rapids were now more powerful and dangerous.† At higher water levels, it is considered a class III run.† We felt like that was more than what we could tackle safely, so we scrapped our kayaking plans.† The good news is that we would have another full day for hiking.† That was great, because I had a whole list of destinations I wanted to hike to Ė way more than we would have time for.
While researching the trip, one destination that caught my eye was the headwaters of the Left Fork of Big Creek.† Big Creek is a major tributary of the Buffalo River.† In fact, the great views we had enjoyed the previous evening after our hike had been across the Big Creek valley.† The headwaters of the Left Fork features several waterfalls and numerous caves.† Unfortunately, the descriptions Iíd read indicated that getting there required a long bushwhack through briers and poison ivy.† That sounded like a pretty normal hike for me, but Christy would never go for it.
Shortly before the trip I stumbled upon a blog post about the area at http://benstarr.com/blog/big-creek-cave-falls-the-easy-way/.† The blog described an easier route.† Oddly, it was from the same trailhead, but on the opposite side of the creek.† On that side is an old road that goes almost the whole way.† Reaching it would require 2 extra creek crossings, each way, but we were expecting to get wet anyway.† Christy was up for this approach, so we headed that way Tuesday morning.
My only real concern was getting the Prius to the trailhead.† The blogís description of the first part of the dirt road sounded horrible.† It turns out that Google Maps gave us a route from the north, which was the opposite direction from the route described in the blog.† We decided to try that, in hopes that the road would be better coming from that way.
The road was actually pretty good.† It was a dirt road, and there were a couple of small stream fords, but it was pretty smooth overall.† We passed a number of farm houses and fields, but reached the woods shortly before the trailhead.† According to my info, the entire hike is in the Ozark National Forest.† Iím not entirely sure if that is true, but we didnít have any problems with access.
We parked near the gate described in the blog and hiked the old farm road.† We followed it to the East Fork of Big Creek and waded across.† On the far side we crossed a grassy field.† There were some nice views of the surrounding mountains here.† We headed straight for the West Fork of Big Creek and waded it.† We picked up the old road described in the blog on the opposite side.
I left the old road a couple of times along the way to check out cascades and waterfalls.† The blog mentioned a side trail, but we turned off to soon anticipating it.† That led down to some small but scenic cascades, pools, and rapids.† There was even something of a small slot canyon here.† A bit farther upstream was the area mentioned in the blog.† It was loaded with wildflowers, and featured a pretty cascade spilling into an opaque blue pool.† The water in these creeks is a grayish blue due to limestone sediment.
We returned to the old road, passed a couple of junctions, and reached a small stream crossing.† Beyond, we followed the road to a ford of the Left Fork of Big Creek.† We waded the creek and contemplated the route ahead.† The directions we had were confusing, but I eventually figured out that there are two streams emerging from caves a short distance downstream.† A third, larger stream provides most of the volume for the Left Fork.† It emerges from a large cave a short distance upstream.† Interestingly, while the main creek is shown on the topo map, the three main streams that create it do not.†
We went downstream first.† After a few minutes we reached a small tributary.† We followed it uphill briefly until we spotted a beaten path on the hillside above.† Thatís when we heard thunder.† The first rain drops began to fall as we hurried up the steep slope towards the cliff above.† We reached the entrance to a large overhang just as the storm hit.† Our timing was perfect!† The view was even better.† Directly across from us, the creek emerged from a cave 40í up in the side of the cliff.† It immediately tumbled over the ledge to form a beautiful waterfall.
We had lunch there, and by the time we had finished the storm had passed.† Accessing this cave would require free climbing the waterfall, which was way above our skill level.† Instead, we backtracked down to the main creek and followed it downstream.† After a couple of minutes we reached the next tributary stream.† We followed this one up to the base of the cliffs, where it emerges from a cave.† The cave entrance is massive, with numerous entrances and natural alcoves in the rock.† The creek is an eerie blue as it cascades down over rocks and logs covered in neon green moss.† There isnít a waterfall here, but the spot is just as scenic as the spectacular waterfall just next door.
I explored up into the cave as far as I could go.† I walked up the creek initially, and then into a dry tunnel.† After a few minutes I reached a dead end.† I doubled-back to where I had lost the stream and discovered that it was possible to continue.† However, that wouldíve required belly-crawling in icy cave water.† I didnít have a helmet or knee pads, so I skipped that part of the adventure.
From there we went back upstream.† I forded the creek a bit above where weíd crossed earlier and found a big stream (the main branch) tumbling down the mountain side.† It actually runs into a cave, but the water re-emerges in the main creek a short distance away.† I found a rough path along this stream, so I followed it uphill towards the cliffs above.† The path was blocked by an ancient gate, but it was easily bypassed.† Just beyond, I reach the base of small but pretty waterfall tumbling out of a huge cave.† Unfortunately the sun came out right when I arrived, which compromised the quality of my photos here.† There is also a sign stating that the cave is closed to protect an endangered species of bat.
We returned by the same route.† It was only late afternoon though, and I wanted to squeeze another short hike before we returned to camp.† We didnít want to do any unnecessary driving, but I spotted a sign for the Round Top Mountain Trail as we were heading into Jasper.† I wasnít familiar with it, so I did some quick research on my phone.† There is a whole network of trails on the mountain, which towers directly above Jasper.† There are a couple of viewpoints, which are easily accessible with a couple of miles of hiking.† We decided to check them out.
We chose the most direct trail, which climbs on switchbacks to the crest of the mountain.† Along the way we passed some impressive cliffs and overhangs, and the forest was loaded with wildflowers.† The Big Creek area had been full of wildflowers, but this stretch of trail may have been even better.† A species of trillium Iíd never seen before was particularly profuse.
Once on the crest of the mountain we climbed to the northern summit.† We followed the trail beyond the wooded peak.† A few minutes later we reached the overlook from a cliff at the north end of the mountain.† From there we enjoyed sweeping views of the Big Creek and Buffalo River valleys as well as the town of Jasper.
We doubled-back to the junction on the crest of the mountain.† Christy decided to get a head start on the descent while I hiked out to the southern viewpoint.† This view is less exciting, as trees are obscuring some of the vista.† It was still nice though.† The best part was actually beyond the end of the official trail.† A narrow spine of limestone continues among the tops of the trees growing far below.† I followed the razors edge carefully, hiking out to the end of the rock.† The views remained limited due to the tree cover, but this was still the coolest part of our evening hike.
Christy and I returned to camp and started working on dinner.† Clouds were building, and there were distant rumbles of thunder.† I checked the weather radar, and saw that a massive storm was approaching.† We cooked and ate quickly and managed to finish before the storm arrived.† It was a particularly violent storm, with abundant lightning and thunder.† We relaxed in our chairs by the fire pit for as long as we dared, enjoying the sound and light show.† Eventually the rain caught up with the pyrotechnics, forcing us to the tent.† This was less enjoyable, as it was stifling in the tent with the doors closed.† Fortunately cooler air moved in with the storm.† Eventually it cooled off enough inside the tent that we were able to sleep.† The rest of the night was delightful, as the storm raged into the wee hours.
Continue reading about our trip as I hike solo to Thunder Canyon Falls and we hike together to Eden Falls in Lost Valley.
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