Summary: 17.3 miles over three days, decent altitude gain of about 1300 feet, beautiful but dry terrain.
I’ve been wanting to hike the Butterfield Trail for many years. The Girl Scouts of Western Oklahoma (GS-WEST) High Adventure Team (HAT) decided to backpack Butterfield for a long weekend, and so how could I resist? While most of the crew headed over toward Arkansas last Thursday morning, work and personal commitments kept me in OKC until Friday morning. I got to the park around 1445, had my permit by 1500, and was on the trail by 1515.
A word on the permits. They are no cost, but those folks are apparently serious about getting them back. When you sign in, you put an expected return time, and a time to start SAR. No kidding. I said I didn’t want that, but got a nope for that. I appreciate folks wanting to look out for me, but it makes me wonder if there is a problem around there that isn’t generally known. I kept an eye out for skeletons and such regardless.
I parked by the trailhead, fired up and zeroed my GPS (more on this later), and loaded my two Nalgenes with Red Diamond Sweet Tea I had bought at a gas stop in Springdale (I like water, but that tea is amazing on the trail).
I started off in grand fashion by going the wrong way. I booked it up the trail, and then realized that I was headed the counterclockwise way around the loop, turned around, and backtracked to the trailhead, then kept going, hoping no one had noticed :). The (correct direction) trail takes a bridge over Lee Creek, then goes along the creek almost a mile before crossing over near the walk-in camp. Lee Creek, BTW, had pools of water, but OTOH, the campsites on the west bank have potable water.
I had a minor screwup here. I assumed the Butterfield crossed Lee Creek a couple hundred yards before it actually did. The trail I was seeing across the creek actually heads up to Twin Falls. I had hiked up to Twin Falls with some of my Troop 15 Scouts a couple years ago, it’s quite pretty. It’s a little more difficult with 30+ lbs of backpack. I looked at my GPS to see where I screwed up. At this point, the GPX of the Butterfield Trail I had loaded the previous evening was not in evidence. I quickly realized that when I zeroed the GPS, I did a Select All, which naturally includes downloaded tracks… Oh well.
I pretty much knew where I was, and instead of hiking back the 1/4 mile or so to the trailhead, I bushwacked NNW and found the Butterfield right after the point it crosses Lee Creek. I continued north. Pretty soon I passed the walk in camp. I was making good time, I was loose and fresh and booking. At the point the trail turns sharply to the east, you start climbing. Not so much using switchbacks, just UP. It’s about 800 ft of climb over about a half mile, so it’s decent. It was in the 70s, so a good temp for a bit of a workout. I stopped twice on the way up to rest a minute.
At the top, you turn sharply south, and over the next four miles you lose all that altitude through some stunning Ozarks terrain. There is some cell service up there, but it is intermittent. I called Raegan and let her know I was on the trail.
While I saw a couple watercourses on this part, they were bone dry. After crossing another trailhead at AR 170, the next major place is Quail Valley. You should plan on spending some time in this area. There are a number of overlooks, and amazing rocks and bluffs. This would be a good campsite. There is water on the east side (but not much), and decent water on the west side.
I continued on and met the crew at Rock Hole camp. The trail parallels a creek that is maybe a hundred yards to the east after making a jog from WNW to SSW; the water was in large pools. Near Rock Hole camp, the trail comes down to the shore. This is a nice set of campsites.
The trail follows that creek (again, with water in largish pools) all the way to Junction Camp, but you would need to bushwhack down a couple hundred yards in places. We headed down the trail to Junction Camp maybe a hundred yards, then had lunch, and left our packs to walk down (pretty steep) to the creek to pump water.
From there, you pop up about 200 ft and contour for the most part. You get above some bluffs and a nice overlook at one point, and you hike through Butterfield Falls (dry for us). It was all very pretty.
Our plan was to find a horse trail that looked like it switchbacked down to Lee Creek for camp for the night. I was watching the terrain for a bluff that was on the other side of the reputed trail; we never saw it. Eventually, we crossed a road a half mile farther on, and followed it 3/4 mile to a nice campsite on Lee Creek. Again, water was in big pools.
The next morning we all crossed the creek, and followed a series of trails and roads back to the trailhead. The maps we had were not a good match to the actual trails.
After reflection, I would almost have rather just followed the bed of Lee Creek back to the main part of the Park.
We had a latish lunch in the Park, turned in our permits to ensure SAR was called off, loaded up, and headed back.
The Park was *packed*. If I were management there, I would have had the cafe and store open.
There was little water on the trail in the Fall. It’s probably better in the Spring.
The “easy” way to hike this trail is clockwise. You have the gradual climb to the ridge along MM 2. Going the other way, you have steep climbs in two place (MM 12 and Quail Valley), and a gradual to steep climb along Blackburn Creek.
The maps of the area that are given out by the Visitor Center have little detail on them. If I had a couple weekends on my hands, I would consider hiking the entire park with a GPS, and giving the map to the Park. The trail signs that show mileage are not right in at least several cases.
Camping in the State Park is in designated sites only. Once you enter the National Forest that envelopes the Park to the east and south, you can camp pretty much anywhere that is 100 ft off trails and water.
I loved this trip. For a 14 or so mile loop, you could spend a couple days in the middle of it. I would not mind leaving my car at the AR 170 junction and hiking down to Quail Canyon, and basecamping there a couple days.
We saw little wildlife, doubtless due to the dry conditions.
The leaves were just starting to turn colors, I would bet they are stunning in a week or so.