This past weekend, the Extreme 15 patrol from Boy Scout Troop 15 of Oklahoma City had a backpacking trip to the Ouachita National Forest east of Mena, AR. We backpacked part of the Eagle Rock Loop trail.
Summary: 21.1 miles in very hot and humid conditions, significant altitude gain. The posted trail mileage is wrong!
I posted the photos from this trip to Picasa.
We got out of Oklahoma City about 1500, stopped to gas up the van, and headed east. We got to Mena, AR about 1930, had a quick dinner at a Subway in the local WalMart (and picked up the peanut butter the hike leader had forgotten!), then headed the 18 miles to the trailhead. We had five Scouts and three adults.
The plan had been to get to the trailhead, hike about 1.5 miles to the top of the second ridge and camp, then do half the remaining trail Saturday, and finish up the rest Sunday, probably mid-afternoon.
None of this worked out. It was almost a real issue.
We got out of OKC an hour later than planned, and then spent longer on dinner, and then the last six or seven miles to the trailhead took a lot longer than we thought due to the roughness of the roads. We got into the trailhead well after dark. We needed to do a final prep (load fuel into the stoves, pump water, etc.) that meant at least 30 minutes of work before we could hike, and I wasn’t thrilled about hiking in the dark (no moon). We decided to camp at the trailhead and start early the next morning.
The people who were camped by the nice stream at the trailhead told us there were not any more campsites there. Here is an example of when getting into camp before dark helps. Glen went off a bit, and discovered a very nice camp pretty much right in front of where we parked the van. There were at least two more camps on the west side of the parking area as well. We got camp set up, and everyone pretty much crashed.
Notes on the area: there are no trash cans or any potable water at the campsite. The stream had excellent water flow.
The next morning, we got everyone to breaking camp, having breakfast, and getting ready to go. We got out of camp around 1040 – way later than we wanted.
I usually put this towards the end of a blog post, but it needs to be here. It’s the altitude plot for this adventure.
We wanted to do the loop counter-clockwise. The first day is a series of decent ridges. On post-hike analysis, we did more than 2400 ft of altitude gain! That huge amount of gain was exacerbated by the 90F temps and 90% humidity. We were sweating buckets. There wasn’t very much in the way of breeze to help cool us off, but we did have most of the hike under the tree cover. There was good water in every one of the valleys, also.
We also had one problem. One of our adult leaders was completely out of energy after the first ridge. We had an extended rest but he was not recovering. We both felt it better if he returned to the trailhead to rest, so he went back with the van keys. FORESHADOWING: This would turn out to be very lucky for us on Sunday.
There are a number of side trails to overlooks and the like. I never saw a trail marker pointing to the side trails. At the top of one ridge, we stopped for a short rest, and I just happened to notice that a faint trail ran off to the west. Some markers would be nice.
One thing I was really disappointed about. We stopped for lunch between the third and fourth ridges, in a beautiful camp next to the confluence of a stream and a river, with a lot of tree cover. While eating lunch, I noticed smoke from a fire ring. There was active heat and fire burning in that ring! Someone had camped there Friday night and left a fire burning. Another fire ring nearby (about 10 ft away) was full of partially-burned pouches that used to contain dehydrated backpacking food, and it was also smouldering. It’s really lazy to partially burn stuff just because you are too lazy to pack it out. One of the Scouts and I dumped about 10 bottles worth of water on the fires to put them completely out.
This was a very hard hike. Our packs were at their heaviest, of course, with food and water. You can see from the altitude plot that we did no less than six ridges that first day. It made for frequent rest stops and a slow pace overall. There were wonderful views at many of the locations along the trail.
There was an amazing camp on the last ridge, at about the 8 mile point. It has wonderful views to the west and east. It’s a dry camp, so you can either walk back north about 3/4 mile for more water, or carry enough up to begin with.
At the 10.05 mile mark we made camp. We were on the Viles Creek trail, which is the south part of the Eagle Rock loop. The creek/river had plenty of water.
That evening we made a wide variety of backpacking food to try out. We didn’t eat nearly all of it, but we darn sure packed out everything!
The walk along Viles Creek was much faster. We got out of camp an hour earlier than Saturday morning, and made much better time. There are amazing rock formations all along this area.
A note about rocks. The variety of rocks was amazing. This illustrates:
The rock on the left is a soft, chalk-like specimen. The center piece is a slick piece that was one of two that flaked off a larger rock. The piece on the right is almost translucent. There were veined pieces (white rocks with black veins, black and brown with lighter veins), many varieties of marbles and granites, and polished river rock. That part of Arkansas must be very geologically interesting.
One example of the rock veining is on the Picasa site. If you look around that rock, there are several other types of rocks in the frame as well.
At the end of the Viles trail (about Mile 13), you cross the Little Missouri River. Most of us took our boots off, used water shoes if we had them, and waded. The water was about 18″ deep max. At this point, we started up the trail, and got to a “T”. We didn’t realize it was a “T” and headed south. After about a half mile, we realized something was wrong. It was next to a very pretty, perfect swimming and fishing hole. We turned around and headed back, picking up the north trail and getting back on track.
We came through the Winding Staircase area, which is really neat. The trail passes a cave. Right before that, we took another wrong turn and gained about an extra half mile of hiking. The Winding Staircase area featured beautiful river swimming holes. One thing we found out was that the parking area for this area is about a mile away, so you have to walk in with all your stuff (we saw the usual tents, but coolers, cots, and lots of other semi-portable infrastructure that had to be carried in). We had lunch here, and a couple of the boys took a swim.
Just upriver of here is a second river crossing, requiring another wade. You also head up into the hills again, so make sure your water is filled up. This is a moderately hard hike segment.
Eventually we made it into the Albert Pike area. It shows on the maps as closed, but it’s open for day use, and there are commercial cabins there. There is also very nice swimming. We were at Mile 20+ at this point.
We also had a rude surprise. We had expected to be about six miles from the van. Looking at a map there, we were 10+ away! So it was about 1600, and we were looking at three to four hours of hiking, in the dark, with an already tired crew. A park ranger drove up, and I asked him to drive to the trailhead we had used, and ask Glen to drive the van back and get us. Was this the wrong thing to do? I don’t think so. The safety margin while hiking drops when you go after dark. Walking rocky trails with heavy packs, when we were already tired, was just too much of a risk. So THANKS! to the Ranger for helping us out.
It took a bit over an hour, but Glen drove up in the van. It took a good 45 min to get back to Mena. The van was gassed up, we got a quick dinner, and headed for home, getting to the church at 0045.
We saw three other groups on the trail. One was a group of three trail runners that were doing the entire trail in a day (WOW!). We saw a family, and a Venture crew from south of Houston, TX, which was really neat (we first ran into the Venture crew as we passed through the ridgetop camp I mentioned above).
Trail notes: Overall, the trail is rocky. This is not for sneakers, folks. You need boots. The water crossings are much safer with water shoes instead of barefoot. On the south and east sides of the trail, it’s pretty wide open for the most part. On the west side, the Ridges, many parts of the trail have brush right next to the path. We found a number of ticks, all of which met instant death. There was quite a lot of poison ivy as well.
The advertised mileage for this trail is 26.5. The actual trail mileage has to be around 32. Trying to do that in two days is just too much. Even if we had done the Friday part as planned, we still would have been in a world of hurt Sunday afternoon. So that’s why it worked out for the group as a whole when Glen needed to return to the trailhead.
Most of us carried too much. We didn’t coordinate on food as well as we could have, and ended up carrying quite a bit of re-hydrated food back.
Water wasn’t really a problem. Most every creek/river had enough to filter.
There are real restrooms and trash cans at Albert Pike.
We had two of the relatively new Sawyer Squeeze filters. They worked really well, and light, and fill water bottles fast. The kits come with three bags; one will fill about a Nalgene and a half, the medium one fills one Nalgene, and the small one does about half of a Nalgene. I think I will carry all three bags – they are almost weightless when not filled, but can be filled and used to carry water to a dry camp if needed. One thing about the Sawyers: they really need running water to fill. Since they collapse, they have no air in them, so submerging them won’t really fill them. Flowing water, especially a small waterfall, works well. We also used a cooking pot to scoop water and pour into the Sawyer bag.
As a shakedown for a New Mexico trip later this summer, this trip was very successful. It was a good shakedown. It was very hot and humid. We did some serious altitude. I would have liked to do the loop, but I think that the loop is three days, or even four! Three 10-mile days is doable. Something like 9/8/8/5 would be a good option that leaves the last day short to enable a decent drive back home (if you start at the Little Missouri trailhead in the northwest, that first 9 will put you on that on-the-ridge camp).
Below is the trail we hiked overlaid on a Topo and Google Earth terrain.
I’m looking forward to going back and doing the last ten miles!
14 June 2012 update:
I looked at the altitude profile again, and saw some interesting data. The GPS clearly shows the river flow levels. Here is an annotated plot.
While we were walking Vines Creek, it didn’t fell like we were walking that steeply downhill, but the GPS altitude clearly shows it.
The really amazing number is the altitude difference for the Little Missouri River between our trailhead, and down to the Albert Pike area first, and then going farther down to the confluence of the Vines and Little Missouri. That drop is about 650 feet total. If we had tried to hike that last segment, we would have added 400 ft more to the 250 ft+ along the river, and on top of the 450 ft that we got from going up the last two ridges. That would have been a total days climb of more than 1100 ft. That just reinforces my thought that we were lucky that the Ranger had come along when we were at Albert Pike. Thank you again, sir!