Summary: 17.4 miles over two days of hiking, along with 2,400 ft of altitude gain (and loss).
The Extreme 15 patrol of BSA Troop 15 had a great 18 mile backpacking trip from Cedar Lake to Horsethief Springs to the Billy Creek trail system a couple weeks ago.
We met at First Presbyterian Church at 1600 and left at 1630 on Friday. After a dinner stop in Sallisaw, we got into Cedar Lake at 2030, and stumbled around a bit to find a campsite. We ended up on the north loop near a boat ramp and got camp set up quickly. Everyone was crashed by 2200. There is no cell service for AT&T down there.
We were up the next morning at 0800, packed up, and had trail breakfast to include tea, hot chocolate, and coffee. We left at 0930 and stumbled around a bit to find the trailhead. The maps and directions are not the best. For reference, the trailhead is here:
The trail generally bounces around up and down until you cross Holson Valley Road, and then it’s a nice slope up. We took the east side of the Horsethief Springs loop trail, which goes down into a valley through which flows Cedar Creek. The Creek had plenty of water and would have been a good water source.
There is an extensive network of horse trails that look like they would be good for day hikers as well, in the valley and at some points closer to the springs.
The trail contours around, generally heading south. We passed one or two small creeks that had good water, but several other creeks that were dry.
There is a decent climb of several hundred feet up to Horsethief Springs. Trail maps provided by the USFS are not terribly clear, and even Google Maps representation of the Ouachita Trail is not correct. Once you are up near the springs, you cross the Ouachita trail, and keep going up another couple hundred yards to get to the springs. Just a note, we came back this way the next day, and then took the Ouachita west to the west loop, and maybe a half mile along the trail is another spur that leads up to the springs in a west approach.
Anyway, we had lunch up there and pumped water from the springs to refill water bottles. The springs are surrounded by a big wall, but there wasn’t much flow so it wasn’t full. Another area about 100 ft downhill was full and would be much easier to pump from. There is decent AT&T cell service there. We had coverage until we went back north over the ridge the next day.
We saw a Venture crew from OKC there, doing the whole loop with backpacks as a shakedown for a Philmont trip this summer.
After lunch, and seemingly innumerable visits to the potties, we headed out on the next let. The trail down into the Billy Creek system is not marked. You have to walk to the west end of the parking area, cross OK 1, and then walk farther west just a bit to find the trail down.
It’s fairly steep heading down the south side of the ridge. We came to a nice camp area next to a small stream at a trail junction. There was excellent water about 200 ft farther along the trail. In retrospect, I think we would have been better to set up camp at that good water area. Our camp was very near the trail where we were. We had some nice steepish areas to our south, and we were completely out of the wind, which we could hear up in the trees.
We built a fire right before Sun went down, had dinner, and then hung a bear bag. We hung around the fire for a while, and everyone hit the sack about 2100. This day was a hike of 8.5 miles.
We had been watching the weather very closely for more than a week. We had tried to do this same trip in May 2015, but 10+ inches of rain in the week before, then several more inches during the week, had cut off the trail at Cedar Creek, and perhaps some of the crossing creeks, so we didn’t even try. There had been heavy rain forecast for Saturday evening and all day Sunday a week out, but as we got closer, the storm system slowed down, and the rain was forecast to start Sunday anywhere from 1000 on. So we decided to shake everyone out at 0630 Sunday, and we broke camp first, before breakfast. That way we had a good chance of not packing in a rainstorm, even if we might be hiking in one.
We hit the trail for the return at 0730, and started the 600ft climb back up to the Skyline Drive. It was pretty sweaty climbing up. The air felt quite humid, and there wasn’t a lot of wind until we got up on the ridge. The guys ate some snacks and rested a bit after the climb, and then we hoisted our packs again and headed down the trail.
When we left the springs area, we walked several hundred yards down to the junction with the Ouachita Trail, and headed west for a bit over a mile. This part of the trail contours along the ridge, with some up, some down, some flattish.
Once we got to the junction with the west loop of the Horsethief Springs trail, we turned right and headed downhill. 90% of this was downhill. We passed a number of equestrian trail junctions. At one point, there was a “scenic loop” off to the left, that rejoined the west loop right before the loop junction. We hiked past some tall Ozark rock formations that I would guess the Scenic Loop goes up and over. I would have tried to have us take the loop, but the sky to the west was steadily darkening, and the wind was getting stronger.
One thing I’ve not seen before: The Scouts were hiking along, and the adults were bringing up the rear. We were hiking through a burned area, and came upon one of our Scouts, lying on his back, wearing his backpack. We started talking smack to him, but shortly realized that he was… asleep. It took some cajoling to wake him and get him on his feet. He completed the hike just fine, but passed out cold in the car for the ride back.
We rolled back into the trailhead parking lot after having walked in drizzle for about a half hour. We quickly changed into dry clothes, loaded our gear, and headed out. We got lunch at Braum’s in Heavener and ran into the incoming deluge close to Warner. The hike back in was 8.8 miles, since the west part of the loop is a bit longer than the east part.
So the backpacking worked out well from the weather standpoint. Highs were in the 70s and lows in the low 60s, no significant rain, and mostly cloudy so no sunburn. Little problem with bugs. Good water when we needed it.
Several of the Scouts earned the Backpacking Merit Badge on this trip. We had a couple new backpackers on this trip, who did well in spite of getting a bit on the tired side (one of the new backpackers was the guy we found asleep on the trail).
This was a very nice trip. I think that next time we might go down into the rest of the Billy Creek system, as our campsite down there was quite pretty.