Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Stories from the Road -- Lost Valley, AR

After taking the Ph.D. qualifying exam last August, I decided to reward myself with a long weekend in southwest Missouri and northwest Arkansas. This is a demonstrably underrated portion of the country, with scenic hills, beautiful forests, and an abundance of lazily flowing water. I was inspired by Rand McNally's photograph of Whitaker Point, located in Newton County, AR, slightly over an hour southward from Branson, MO.

There are several attractions in the Ozarks of northwest Arkansas, probably most notably Eureka Springs. Eureka Springs is a gorgeous tourist attraction. Dozens of shops and restaurants line the streets of the town, with roads clinging to deceptively steep inclines. Many of the buildings have the "old wood" look to them, giving the town more authenticity than it might otherwise deserve.

I used Eureka Springs as the jumping off point for a long day's double hike. The first hike was located in Lost Valley, which is 5-10 miles northeast of Whitaker Point. Lost Valley is known for the large boulders that line the trail a mile onward from the trailhead. It is an absolutely gorgeous hike.

However, this was northwest Arkansas in late summer. It was warm. Very warm. And the trees were respirating more than I was. (Given that I washed the clothes three times before I deemed them wearable again, this should be some indication as to how "grimy" the hike was.) Temperatures that weekend were in the lower 90s, and the humidity was often oppressive. Thunderstorms dotted the Ozarks in the afternoon, which provided nice photogenic backdrops for some of the photos taken later that day.

The Lost Valley hike intrigued me for a couple of reasons. First, I had never seen a waterfall in Arkansas before. Now, about the worst month to go hiking in Arkansas is September. Spring flows have long since ceased, and summer is not a particularly wet time of year in the region. However, Lost Valley features what I call a "seeping fall", where water drips off the sides of rock seemingly clinging for dear life. In relatively wet years, the seeping falls typically last through the year, and I was counting on the wet spring and early summer to help out in making that happen.

The second was that the hike ended in a cave. Now, I'm not a cave explorer, either. I'm severely claustrophobic in caves, especially those not lit and not guided (i.e., led by someone who is well-versed with the cave). This was a lone man's hike, and the tight spaces and dark places of this 200-foot-long cave were not particularly inviting to me. However, I've never taken a hike that has ended in a cave before, and I figured I would at least have good shots of the cave entrance.

One problem with late summer hikes in forests is the bugs. They were everywhere in the Lost Valley. I was chased by horseflies, wasps, and bees for much of the hike. Fortunately, I was never stung, but the buzzes of relatively harmless bugs kept me as jumpy as a meth addict (not that I'd know). The bugs were plentiful, but redemption was mine in the realm of butterflies. Beautiful blue and black butterflies were numerous and not very shy that day.

The hike in Lost Valley was sweaty but not particularly brutal. There was a pretty steep climb near the end of the hike, between the still pool and the cave. And the seeping fall was active, though barely. But what struck me most about the hike was the steep walls that lined the latter portion of the hike. The wall was easily 1000 feet high and made for beautiful "straight-up" photos. The colors of the rock against the sun and water were gorgeous.

The cave opening was also beautiful. The climb to the cave was rather steep but was enjoyable to view the steep wall of rock lining the west side of the hike. No, I didn't enter the cave. Each time I attempted, my claustrophobia angel said no. I also realized that crawling would be a requirement, and I was not wearing the clothes for that. What a wuss.

The Lost Valley portion of the hike ended with the sight of cumulonimbus. The heat and the terrain were too much, and storms had begun to develop in the area. This would prove to be a key ingredient in the next portion of the hiking day: Whitaker Point. My rendezvous with Mr. McNally was nearing.

Tomorrow: Part II

The Lost Valley trail guide
Gorgeous rock formations were plentiful on the hike.
This is a photo of the seeping fall. It's hard to see, but the rock is definitely wet. Below the rock wall was a very small pond.
This is a larger pond found about one mile into the hike, with the beautiful rock wall.
Looking straight up.
The cave entrance at the end of the hike. The cave actually is bigger than what it looks like here.
The western rock wall as seen from the steep slope near the cave on the opposite rock wall.
"Say hello to my little friend."