8.6 miles and 800 ft of altitude gain over two days of backpacking on a beautiful trail along a stunning river.
I posted the photos from the trip on my Google+ site here.
The Girl Scouts of Western Oklahoma (GS-WEST) High Adventure Team (HAT) backpacked part of the Cossatot River Corridor Trail in Arkansas 20 – 23 March 2014.
The Cossatot River flows from the Ouachita Mountains southeast of Mena, AR south into southwest Arkansas. The river flows between two ridges in the trail area, is narrow in places, and has a decent drop in altitude, making it a fine kayaking and canoeing river.
The crew left Oklahoma City at 0900 Wednesday and traveled to Mena for lunch. From there, we went south to the Cossatot River Visitor Center. The Center is a very nice nature center, a small shop, and an excellent staff.
There are four campsites below the Visitor Center right on the river. Each site has a raised platform filled with shale chips (for drainage, I imagine), a picnic table, and a fire pit. There is tons of decent firewood laying around the site – there area is obviously flooded frequently (see later in the post) and lots of wood gets carried in. What the sites do not have is water or trash cans. The trash part is easy, carry your trash out. But the water adds a logistics issue – you have to bring it in or take it from the river and filter or treat it. By the time we had camp set up and were thinking about dinner, it was close to 1700. We took everything we had that would hold water (including pack bladders) and the center staff allowed us to fill them up in the janitors closet.
There is no cost to use the campsites below the Visitor Center.
Dinner was spaghetti and salad – excellent! We had brought a couple Coleman stoves for this purpose.
We had pitched tents all over the place at the campsite. One of the Rangers let us know the next morning that tents were only supposed to be pitched on the shale surfaces. Some of the tents were on flattish surfaces above the camp area, and that wasn’t cool. Note this also applies to the Cossatot Falls area.
The next morning we got up in a most leisurely fashion, had pancakes, did a final pack, and loaded up. We stopped by the Visitor Center and topped off water bottles using the water fountains there, and drove in our three cars to the north trailhead at the Brushy Creek Day Use area (there are composting toilets there, but no water). Two of our leaders were staying in camp as a base, and they shuttled the cars back to the south end of the trail.
We hit the trail and headed south. You very quickly head away from the river and up a decent distance. We had the usual pack adjustments as we walked which necessitated stop and go. We found a nice place up on a ridge and had lunch on a long fallen tree.
Our plan had been to hike all the way (7 miles) to the Cossatot Falls area for our overnight stop. We got started about 1220, though, and we were taking it easy, so we decided to change our plan and stop at Ed Banks, which was about 5 miles in.
We got there about 1700 and got camp set up quickly. This was a beautiful camp, a lot of tall trees with lots of open space around them, and nice soft ground. We found two fire rings. It actually took a bit to find the camp; we had to recon west and south a bit to triangulate on the site.
We all went out on a rock bar to wade and skip rocks in the river; it’s a very nice place. Camp was about 150 meters from water, and down a bit of a hill, but NBD. Dinner was a mix of dehydrated beef stew, noodles, and rice. We made a nice fire. Again, there was a lot of dead wood around. This area has a lot of evidence of flooding, so that’s something you would want to keep an eye on.
We had a decent rain overnight, maybe a half inch. The ground soaked all of it up. Breakfast the next morning was mainly oatmeal. We got out of camp at 1100 and headed south. The foot bridge across the river at Ed Banks was high and dry.
On the east side of the river now, you wind to and away from the river, and mainly stay pretty high. As we had seen the day before, about 1 of every 3 creeks we crossed had water that you could filter.
Crossing creeks: all but about three of the crossings have really nice bridges over them. Many of the creeks had nice waterfalls.
At one point we passed by a group of Boy Scouts from Texas; they were doing a yo-yo of the trail.
We got to Cossatot Falls area about 1400 and had lunch. There is a composting toilet here also, but no water other than the river. They have four campsites; one south of the parking lot and the rest north. There is also a picnic area just south of the first campsite.
After lunch, we decided to go climb the rocks in the Falls. It looked from the map like the trail was right down on the river, but no, we climbed about 150 ft before deciding to go back. We dropped our packs and headed down again. It was starting to get a little dark, so we took our rain gear.
The Falls are a set of uplifted rocks that the river rushes around, making a series of stairsteps all the way across the river. We climbed down and up and out into the river for a while, at which point we realized it was 1500, and we had five more miles to go. We decided to head back to our packs.
At this point the sky opened up and a steady rain began that turned into a deluge that lasted the next five hours!
We were now reversing on the suddenly very slick rocks; we had one of our girls slip 15 or so feet right off the rock, but she landed in river rock. While not soft, it beats solid rock. By the time we got to our packs, it was pushing 1600, and we were reconsidering the wisdom of hiking five miles in the rain with no campsites. The rain continued, with steady downpours, and near constant lightning and thunder. The lightning also made us reconsider hiking, as the first couple miles are on a ridge.
So we quickly decided that we were spending the night at the Falls area. We took two campsites; the larger one was for the Scouts, and the smaller one for the adults. We got out our Kelty backpacking tarp and had the girls hold it up over their heads, and we lashed the thing up to trees, the rail around the campsite, and trees. Pretty soon we had it up and keeping the rain off. We sent some of the girls up to the composting toilet as it had a roof, and others started putting their tents together under the tarp, moving out from under the tarp as the flys were put on. This kept the majority of rain out of the tents.
Everyone got in their tents to put on dry clothes, and we fired up a couple stoves and started making hot cider, cocoa, and soup for everyone to drink. We also inventoried the dry food, and distributed it to the Scouts for an inside-the-tents dryish dinner. By the time all this was done, it was 1900, and we were done for the evening/night. The rain continued. We had 4+” by the time it was done, sometime around 2300.
Our plan had been to send everyone down to set up camp, and then Blair and I were going to power-hike the five miles to the baser camp to let them know our situation and coordinate the next day. We were helping with setting up camp, and it was getting dark, and we were not enthusiastic about hiking in the rain, in the dark, on a ridge in a thunderstorm. About this time, the Boy Scouts we had seen on the trail came back through, and mentioned they were heading on to the base camp area. They very graciously agreed to take our message to base camp, and did so in spite of having to go out of their way to do so.
So THANKS to the Scouts and leaders for doing us a huge Good Turn that rainy evening. I tried to look up the Troop in Palestine TX using what I thought was their unit number of Troop 110, but couldn’t find a Troop with that number. If you are from that group and reading this, please contact me so I can thank you properly.
A Ranger came by several times to check on us. I also asked him to pass the same message to our base camp crew, and he did.
The next morning, we woke up to mainly clear skies, warm temperatures, and a river that was way high. We strung rope for clotheslines, got stuff started drying, and the Scouts cooked the dinner we skipped the night before, for breakfast. It was great!
We also got a good look at how far the river rose with the rain. These two photos give some perspective on how far up the river rose:
We found out that the base camp crew had been evacuated the night before as the river was up into and through the base camp area.
The base camp crew showed up at the Falls area around 0930. We did the car collection while the camp dried out. Eventually, we loaded up and headed out, leaving the last five miles for a future hike.
Cell service along the river is iffy. Erin had service on her iPhone 4S at Cossatot Falls, and there was some service next to the Visitor Center. I was annoyed that Erin had 2G and intermittent 4G service, while my Galaxy SIII had squat. The Center has pretty good Wi-Fi.
The staff and Rangers at Cossatot ROCK.
Those camp sites with shale chips are tough on tent bottoms. I have a bathtub bottom on mine, but I wish I had brought a tarp to protect the tent.
There is NO water at any of the campsites except for the river. If you car camp, make sure you bring enough water, or you can purify enough. The center staff was kind enough to allow us to fill our bottles, but they close at 1700, and there is no guarantee you would be allowed to do the same.
We were super happy to have brought our lightweight fly; using it to pitch the tents under and provide shelter for our campers made a huge difference in comfort.
There are no established campsites between the Falls and the south trailhead at the Visitor Center. I think there are some areas it would be possible to camp, but water might be an issue, and I don’t know that the Park management would necessarily approve.
Some signage is needed at the Ed Banks campground. There is one of the platforms with shale chips near the river, but the actual campsite is farther along the trail, about 300 meters south of the that platform. It looks like there are two campsites there from the fire pits we found.
The web pages for the trail should be explicit in mentioning that you have to bring water to the Falls and Visitor Center campsites. I also think the situation with the parking tags needs to be explained. It would suck to drive up to Brushy Creek and start hiking, and get your car towed or locked in there.
The Brushy Creek area at the north end of the trail (no water there) is really nice. I think the park should consider letting backpackers camp in the area. My suggestion would be to open the “delta” between Brushy Creek and the Cossatot to camping. That would be out of sight of the day use areas. If crowd control is an issue, a capacity permit system is no-cost.
This was a perfect first “serious” backpacking trip for our HAT Scouts. While we didn’t complete the trail, the distance was on the money, I think. It is a beautiful trail, with a mix of hardwood and softwood. The river is an amazing companion as you hike along. There was plenty of water.
I would be happy to go back and hike this trail again.