The rain stopped before we got up on Wednesday morning. It was cool and overcast, and more rain was in the forecast. That fit perfectly with my plans for the day. My primary goal was to visit Thunder Canyon Falls. The waterfall is in a slot canyon, on an unnamed tributary of Cecil Creek. Cloudy weather would be ideal for photography, and the creek would be running strong from the rain.
We cooked and ate breakfast before setting off on the day’s first mini adventure. I wanted to hit Twin Falls, as it is on a low volume stream. During periods of high water, it is actually a triple falls, with three waterfalls side by side, created by separate streams.
The hike to Twin Falls is short. My only concern was getting to the trailhead. It is accessed by a rough dirt road that would be a challenge in the Prius. The directions I found online said “To get here, take Hwy 74 from Ponca to the Kyle's Landing turn-off on Mount Sherman. About 1 mile down this dirt road is a spur road to the right with a sign pointing you to Camp Orr. About 2 miles down the mountain is the boundary to Camp Orr (an official Boy Scouts of America camp) and a small parking area. The trail is across the road with the wooden sign pointing the way.”
These directions are horribly written. First, it mentions the spur road to Camp Orr, but it doesn’t actually say if you should turn on it or not. Was that the route, or was the spur road only mentioned as a landmark? It didn’t help that we didn’t know exactly where the waterfall was, or even what creek it is on.
We guessed that we should turn. We had already traveled a mile, and the directions said that the trailhead was 2 miles down the mountain. So we went another mile and pulled into a small parking area (ok, a wide spot on the shoulder). There was no trail sign, but signs have a tendency to disappear. There was an actual trail heading starting on the far side of the road, so we followed it. The map showed a creek in that direction, too. The hike is allegedly only 70 yards. We went much farther than that, and when we finally saw the tiny creek we knew that couldn’t be it. We doubled-back to the road and followed a spur road in the opposite direction towards a different creek. We quickly realized that this wasn’t it, either.
At that point we figured that we went wrong when we turned onto the spur road. So we drove back a mile to the main road and went down it another mile, toward Kyle’s Landing. After another mile (2 miles down the mountain!) we found a small parking area. The Buffalo River Trail crosses the road here. There was still no sign, but the map showed that the trail crossed a creek after a short distance. We walked it in that direction, reached the creek, and realized that wasn’t it, either.
Due to time constraints we had to give up on Twin Falls. Unfortunately I needed to spend some time online that morning. Permits for backpacking trips in Zion National Park in June become available on April 5th at 11am Central Time. We wanted a permit for the Virgin River Narrows. Those permits sell out quickly. I did more research later, and found out that taking the spur road is correct, but that the total drive “down the mountain” is 3 miles, not 2. Also, the hike is ¼ mile each way, not 70 yards. I thought I might get a chance at another attempt later in the trip, but I never had time.
We drove back into Jasper and found a café with WIFI. We ordered coffee, which was pleasant after spending the morning out in cool, damp weather. I was able to pull up Zion’s website on my phone and claimed a permit for our chosen campsite on the ideal day. Or so I thought. It wasn’t until a week or so later when I found out that their website crashed, and our permit didn’t go through. So we were actually zero for two on Wednesday morning.
I still had high hopes for Wednesday afternoon. Thunder Canyon Falls was my #1 priority for the whole trip. My friends Spencer and Stephanie had hiked there back in September. At the time there had been no water, but the slot canyon looked fascinating.
There are three ways to get to the trailhead near the former community of Erbie on the Buffalo River. One is a horrible dirt road that is only passable to high clearance 4WD vehicles. Another fords the Buffalo River. Both of those routes were completely out of the question. The third route is a moderately rough dirt road that is 7 miles long. The Park Service recommends 4WD for that road, too. Based on my pre-trip research, I thought we could get there in the Prius, but I wasn’t certain. My fear was that we would drive 3 or 4 miles and get stuck. At that point it would still be too far to walk, and the day would be completely ruined.
Fortunately, my pre-trip research had revealed another approach, from a different trailhead. It would require a slightly longer hike, but a much shorter drive. That would be on another rough dirt road, but it was only 2 miles. I could walk that if necessary. Plus, the other approach would take me past 2 bonus waterfalls and a couple of cave entrances. That made the decision easy.
Christy had decided to skip this hike because I was expecting it to be a hardcore adventure with lots of scrambling and wading. It turns out that she could’ve handled it easily.
We drove a ½ mile down the dirt road. There were several rough spots in succession, and we were afraid that it would continue to deteriorate. We were driving so slow that I figured I might as well just walk. I got out and gathered my gear. Christy headed off to town to do a little shopping and do some research on mountain biking in the area.
The road walk took 30 minutes. I reached the stream in Broadwater Hollow and forded it. On the far side I picked up a primitive trail. It took me downstream, passing above a neat sliding cascade. Just beyond were some cool rock formations. Below that was the small but pretty Paige Falls. Here the creek freefalls 10’ into a large pool. Just downstream is a long run of cascades and small waterfalls. That run ends with Broadwater Hollow Falls. Neither of these waterfalls would be the focal point to a hike, but they added some nice scenery to the day’s adventure.
A bit below Broadwater Hollow Falls I passed a couple of cave entrances. Getting into them looked like a technical affair, and I was eager to get to Thunder Canyon. I followed the trail downstream until the I reached Cecil Creek. The crossing was an easy wade despite the high water. A bit farther on were two more fords. The creek grew significantly before I reached them. The area is loaded with caves and springs, and all of them add volume to Cecil Creek. Those last two crossings were completely flooded. The creek was waist deep and probably 30-40 yards across. The water was muddy too, making it impossible to see rocks and other obstacles. I had to continuously check the depth ahead of me using my hiking stick. Luckily, the current was mild. If it had been stronger my hike would’ve ended there. As it was, the fords were nerve wracking. I was highly motivated though, and I was able to get through. I just had to hope that the water level didn’t continue to rise. If it did, I could get trapped.
I reached the confluence with the stream coming from Thunder Canyon a few minutes later. It was raging! The view down Cecil Creek from the confluence was stunning. The entire valley was flooded. Hiking through it would’ve been impossible. In fact, driving to the trailhead at Erbie would’ve been impossible in anything less than a tank. The irony here is that if we had driven Christy’s Honda Element, or probably any other “regular” car, we probably would’ve taken the 7 mile dirt road to the Erbie Trailhead. So, I never would’ve successfully completed this hike if I hadn’t been driving a Prius.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Whether I could successfully complete the hike was still to be determined. There was a tremendous amount of water coming down Thunder Canyon. My pre-trip research had indicated that reaching the waterfall required scrambling and wading up the slot canyon. That looked dubious in the current flood, but I’d come too far to turn back without trying.
I waded the stream and picked up a goat path on the far side. I followed it upstream for a while, until it crossed again. This crossing, like the first, was reasonably safe even at high water. The goat path on the far side was dicey in a few spots. Early on I had to scramble across a sloping wet rock directly above the lower slot canyon. That lower slot is only a couple of feet wide, and the water was raging through it! I was afraid that the goat path would die out on me and I would have to get into the creek to reach the falls. Luckily, that never happened. I was elated when the waterfall came into view!
Thunder Canyon Falls is tucked deep in a slot canyon. It starts as a series of narrow drops and ends with one final, dramatic plunge. The canyon opens up somewhat at the base of the falls, but sheer cliffs extend downstream a good distance. Because of the heavy volume, the waterfall was living up to its name. The sound of the waterfall echoed off the canyon walls as I approached the base. I passed a bonus waterfall on a minor tributary and found a somewhat dry spot to put my pack.
I spent over an hour taking it all in and attempting to photograph the waterfall and canyon. Eventually I had to pull myself away, since Christy would be picking me up. I was tempted to climb around the cliffs to get above the slot canyon for an aerial view, but the rocks were wet and I didn’t see a safe route.
I returned the same way. Fortunately the water hadn’t risen further since I’d passed through earlier. I returned to the road and followed it back to where Christy had dropped me off. She wasn’t there, so I kept walking. I was wet from hiking in the creek and the rain. Although the rain had stopped, the temperature had plummeted and the wind was picking up. Sitting around waiting for Christy wasn’t an option! Unfortunately, when I reached the main road she wasn’t there. The wind was really howling, so I took shelter behind a small tree. I was mildly hypothermic when she arrived 10 minutes later. She made up for being late by bringing hot coffee! The heat was cranked up, too, and feeling returned to my hands and feet before we reached our next destination.
Despite the morning follies and the resulting late start, we still had some daylight to work with. Christy hadn’t done much all day, and the rain had stopped, so she was up for a short hike. That was good, because one of my main priorities for the trip was Lost Valley, and this was our only chance. Lost Valley is the most popular hike in the Buffalo National River. It’s short (2 miles), fairly easy, and packed with cool features including the Clark Creek Natural Bridge, Cobb Cave, Eden Falls, and Falls Cave, which features its own subterranean waterfall.
We passed a herd of elk in a meadow on the way to the trailhead. When we reached the parking lot it was completely empty. It was late evening on a cold, damp weekday – the perfect recipe for solitude. Christy and I enjoyed an easy stroll along Clark Creek. We reached the natural bridge, which is an impressive sight. There, Clark Creek emerges from a huge, dark opening and tumbles down a pretty cascade. From the base it appears that the creek is coming out of a cave. However, the trail passes behind the natural bridge, where there is a view of the creek running under it.
Just upstream is Cobb Cave, which isn’t a true cave. It is actually a massive overhang – sometimes called a rock house or rock shelter. The final drop of Eden Falls is just upstream. At the bottom of the falls the creek runs along the base of the sheer cliff that forms Cobb Cave. The final drop of Eden Falls is a 40’ beauty, but there is a lot more upstream. Unfortunately, there is no safe way to view it. The only way to see all of it would be to canyoneer the whole thing. That would require multiple rappels. If you plan to attempt that, bring a lot of rope.
Christy decided to head back from Eden Falls. I continued up to Falls Cave. There, a major tributary of Clark Creek runs out of a cave in the side of a cliff and tumbles over a waterfall. At the base it joins Clark Creek for its final run of waterfalls. I explored up into the cave by following the creek and then a narrow, twisting passage. At one point I thought I’d hit a dead end. However, it looked like I could crawl under the wall in front of me. After a quick wriggle I found myself back in the creek. I was able to stand back up and walk upstream. After a short distance I reached the chamber with the subterranean waterfall. I was in complete darkness, and my attempts are photographing the falls were laughable. That was ok though. It was a great experience to sit in the darkness and listen to the roar of the water and feel the spray on my face.
I exited the cave quickly, but carefully. At the mouth you have to cross the brink of the waterfall and scramble up wet rocks to regain the trail. I hurried back and met Christy at the car at dusk. We drove straight back to the campground from there. We enjoyed a roaring campfire and a late dinner before falling asleep to the peaceful sound of the river rushing by.
Continue reading about our trip as Christy goes mountain biking and I hike solo to Hemmed in Hollow Falls, the tallest waterfall in the midwestern U.S., and Big Bluff.
Back to Arkansas
Back to Hiking and Backpacking Trip Reports
Please remember to Leave No Trace!