It has been way too long since I’ve been out on a backpacking trip, and decide to break the ice with the Eagle Rock Loop trail in Southwest Arkansas. Mater of fact the last time I had been backpacking was some thirty odd years ago when I was in the scouts. A lot has changed since then, most notably… my weight! Round may be the perfect shape, but let me tell you… on this trail, it’s the wrong shape to be in. More about that later.
I was telling my wife about my planned excursion. She questioned the intelligence of my maiden voyage back into the backpacking world on Arkansas’ hardest trail. Ah, it will be fine I told her. It’s only 26.8 miles, and I’m giving myself a week to complete it. It will be a good test for me.
I load up my 80L backpack, print off my maps, grab my camera / video gear, and I’m ready to go. Well almost. I have to wait for a couple pieces of new gear to arrive from UPS tomorrow.
With the new gear stowed in my 80L backpack, I start my five and a half hour journey to the trailhead. Let me just say… it was an adventure in itself.
Since I had never been there before, I relied on my google maps app to guide me into the trailhead. This was “mistake #1” of this adventure. I should have known something was up when google said… “in a quarter mile turn right on goat ranch road.” Um, OK…. but where is the goat ranch? It’s nothing but woods as far as the eye can see. Then it said… turn left, which was nothing more than a dirt track. I did, and about a quarter mile later I hit this pretty yellow gate barring my way. I back the truck into the woods between a couple of trees and head back the way I had come.
Zooming out on the app shows another road (if you really what to call it that) farther down that heads to where I need to go. I hang a left, and after a little while I hear… “in a thousand feet turn left”. I reach the road and it’s not happening. There is another pretty yellow gate. I continue on the road I’m on, and a while later google tells me to turn left again.
This time there was no gate so I hang a left. The gravel road turns into a dirt track. Which promptly goes into a creek and up the other side. Notice I didn’t say “out the other side”. After driving into the creek you had to climb an embankment. I felt I had enough ground clearance, so I plowed ahead.
I can see on the map that I am steadily getting closer to my destination. I round a bend in the road (and I use that term very loosely), and up ahead is two barricades across the road. I slowly pull up to them and notice that the concrete culvert has caved in. I have two options… find a place to turn around and go back the way I came (what fun would that be?), OR find a way to go forward. Let me just say, that if I had been in a car I would have been pissed by now. Wait… A car wouldn’t have made it through the first creek crossing.
I happen to be in a jacked up 4×4 though, so I drop off into another creek and climb out the other side. Thankfully it was uneventful the rest of the way to the trailhead parking lot. I ended up having my choice of gravel to park on since there wasn’t another soul in sight.
I hefted my pack, locked up the truck, and head off into the woods.
The trail starts off beside a rocky creek with several small cascades. Ferns are dotting the landscape, and the soothing sounds of cascading water permeate’s the air, only to be interrupted by the occasional bird singing. It’s so nice to be away from the day to day worries of our everyday lives. The trail follows along the side of the creek for a little bit and then cuts to cross over it. For the next half a mile it is straight up. Not easy switchbacks, but pretty much straight up!
At some point, I stop to catch my breath and give my legs a break. Over to my right, I hear this god awful noise, and it’s moving quick. It’s kind of hard to explain. It was kind of a cross between a screech/scream and moan. Then I see it! Running in the valley below there is a baby deer being chased by an adult deer. Well, that was odd. Welcome to the trail ‘ol turtle.
Then about a minute later I see a lone canine hot on their trail. I wonder if that was a dog or a coyote?
I wondered if the baby deer was screaming… oh shit, oh shit OR if it was the momma deer hollering …. run forest run!
My chest is no longer heaving from the previous exertion of the climb, so I push forward. The trail bends this way, and then that, but the overwhelming direction is up. Something made me look to my right. Not sure what, because I was focused on not losing my footing on this climb. That is when my previous question was answered. It was a solo coyote that had given chase. He was close enough that I could see the texture and individual colors of his coat, and more importantly… he was working his way to get around behind me.
About a week before I left, an article was posted about a backpacker that had a run in with a rabid coyote. It had blocked the trail, and then attacked when he tried to scare it off. He ended up killing it with his pocket knife, but not without sustaining injury.
Great… what a way to start a trip. I start clanking my hiking poles together, and I lose sight of him. I figured now is as good a time as any to take a breather, and I scan my surroundings for the next ten minutes. I don’t see him again, but I wonder if he sees me. I head up the trail, and periodically check over my shoulder. I will admit that a solo coyote had me a little nervous, especially since they normally move in packs. Was it rabid? Was it hungry since it couldn’t even run down a baby deer? Did it think I would be an easy meal?
I couldn’t answer the first two, but the last is a definite NO!
I finally reach the top of the first climb, and drop my pack like a ton of bricks. A huge boulder sat off to my right, and the front of it was shaped like a chair. Or at least it worked out to be a chair.
Now granted, I haven’t been backpacking in a very long time, but I have been doing some day hikes. This climb, however, was a beast and kicked my butt. After a much needed rest, I heaved on my pack and headed down the back side of the mountain. Just like the front side, there wasn’t much in way of switchbacks, and it was a bendy trail that was more or less straight down. Thank goodness for the hiking poles, or I might have become a runaway freight train.
I hit my first real water crossing at the bottom of the mountain. Looking around I found a place that I could rock hop, and keep my feet dry. Just across the creek, and over to the right was a campsite that had been set up complete with a fire ring of rocks. I shrugged off my pack for a rest, and to replenish my water supply. I usually use a Survivor Filter Pro, but on this trip I opted to leave it at home, and instead brought a Sawyer Squeeze for the weight savings.
After filtering my water a quick check of the watch informed me that there was no way I would make my desired location by dark. It was already 7 pm, and I still had about a mile to go before I reached the west facing overlook. My goal was to capture some sunset images from camp, and maybe get in some Astrophotography as well.
I was taking in the view of what would be my camp for the night when I noticed a figure off in the woods. I picked up my video camera, and sure enough… I was being watched.
For a while, we watched each other, and then I cut off the video camera. The camp wasn’t going to set up itself.
Setting up my MSR Hubba Hubba tent was a breeze with it’s single pole design. My Nemo Cosmo sleeping pad, and pillow would give me a great nights sleep.
I glanced in the direction of my audience, and the deer had finally seen enough. He/she slowly sauntered through the woods without a care in the world (guess he hasn’t met the solo coyote).
Once my bed was set up, I went about gathering up some fuel for my twig stove. It didn’t take long and I had water boiling for my Mountain House meal. Off in the distance, the water rolled over some rocks in the creek creating a nice atmosphere as I leaned against a tree to dine.
The light was fading fast in the woods, and I had just hung my food bag when it hit.
It was slow at first, then became a heavier onslaught. Thankfully the leaves slowed down the initial barrage of raindrops, and gave me time to get the rain fly on my tent. There was absolutely no call for rain in the last weather report that I had seen. It’s obvious the weather guy doesn’t know his butt from a hole in the ground.
A quick look around confirmed everything was inside the tent that needed to be, so I retired for the night. Sleep came easily after all the exertion it took to get to this spot. However, it didn’t last.
At around 10 pm I was jolted awake by the sounds of a massive splash in the creek beside the camp. When I say beside the camp, I mean ten to fifteen feet from camp. That is the only part of the creek that had water deep enough to make that kind of splash as something went crashing through it.
Was it the deer? Was my stalker coyote back? Should I stick my head outside to see what it was? What if bigfoot snatches me up by the head as I pop out of my shell like a turtle? I better grab my camera, cause no one is going to believe it if he does.
In the end, I have no clue what was out there. I decided that as long as it didn’t try to get in the tent with me, I didn’t care, and went back to sleep.
And to prove that mother nature has a sick sense of humor, sometime after 1 am the critter was back for more splashing fun. Once again I’m setting straight up in bed from a deep sleep. I’m listening to see if I hear anything around my tent, but it’s hard to hear with the raindrops hitting the top of the tent.
At 6 am the rain has all but stopped. There is only the occasional raindrop hitting the tent. I step outside to take care of some business and notice that the food bag is still hanging unmolested. I’m guessing it wasn’t Bigfoot, he would have been able to reach it. I crawl back inside the tent, and I’m quickly off in la la land… sound asleep.
I finally roll out of bed at around 10:30 am. My twig stove is useless with all this rain-soaked fuel, so I break out my Dpower fuel stove for my morning cup of coffee. With this stove, I have a rolling boil before I even get my food bag down and find my coffee.
Coffee in hand, it’s time to figure out the rest of the day. As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t supposed to rain. Before I left the house I checked the water levels on the Little Missouri River. They were right about the stage where it’s advised to use caution when crossing. So I had three choices. I could turn around and go home, I could cross all the mountainous regions of the trail and hope the river was passable, or I could go in the other direction, and just cross over the creek/stream multiple times on my way to the river.
I didn’t want to give up that easy, so I decided to follow the low road to the river. I figured at least it would be easier if I had to turn around and backtrack. After yesterday, I definitely only wanted to do the mountains one time. I broke camp with a late start, and hefted my 80L pack on my shoulders for another day of hiking.
The trail couldn’t make up its mind over which side of the creek it wanted to be on, and we flip flopped back and forth. Each one of the crossings I was able to rock hop, and never got my feet wet. I was pleasantly surprised how well my Skechers hiking boots (my everyday footwear) were gripping the trail.
Then we hit a section that looked like someone had hauled in load after load of fist-sized rocks and dumped them on the trail just to mix things up a bit. I stopped for lunch near a section of the creek that dropped off into a small gorge. It was a challenge climbing down into the creek to shoot video, but my Skechers hiking boots never slipped. My lunch had re-hydrated by the time I had got done with the video, and I had forgotten all about going back down to take photos.
I grudgingly slung my pack across my shoulders, and headed down the trail. Along the way, I was greeted by yellow flowers, butterflies, and dragonflies. I have to wonder, were they there to try and take my mind off my aching legs, and painful shoulders? Either way, it was nice to see the beauty popping up in the middle of the forest.
My second campsite presented itself just before another creek crossing, and not a moment too soon. Mistake #2 was thinking I was ready to tackle Arkansas’ toughest trail with a fifty-pound pack. Now keep in mind part of that weight was camera/video gear. Another part was I packed way too much food. Even planning to possibly be out there for seven days, I still had too much food. I overestimated how much I would really eat. In most cases, I was just too tired to eat, or even snack along the trail.
I set up camp early, and just enjoyed the spot. My video and photos can’t do it justice. It was perfect! I had a rock fire ring (that I didn’t use), and a rock bench (that I did). There was easy access to the creek and a gentle slope into the water which turned into a deep pool. I changed into my camp clothes, and strapped the RedHead Ragin’ Water Shoes on and headed to the creek. The cool water was a welcome change to the hot humid day. At only 9.4oz the water shoes were a welcome addition to my pack. The added bonus is they will stay on your feet no matter what, and they were great hiking up and down the rocks in the creek.
There was a huge rock beside the pool, and I lounged on it while watching the fish and listening to the rippling water a little further upstream. On the far side of the creek was a wall that was covered in lush ferns, and moss. The water was so clear, you could see all the way to the bottom, and watch the fish as they chased their next meal. The birds were singing a constant chorus, and I was tempted to doze right there on the rock.
At around 6:30 pm I finally saw another human being. Actually, it was two… a couple was hiking down the trail and continued on past my camp. I was inside the tent getting the bed ready for later. I had the rain fly covering only half the tent so I could watch the leaves blow in the breeze. Dark brought on a whole new chorus for me to fall asleep too. The frogs were singing, and a pair of owls were holding a conversation way into the night.
At around 11 pm mother nature got her mischievous side again. The leaves right beside my tent went crunch. My eyes flew open, and I was staring at the screen separating me and it. I reached around behind me for the flashlight and only came back with a shoe. What the hell am I going to do with a shoe? One of my water shoes no less… it weighs less than a hummingbird fart!
I rolled over to grab the light, and the Nemo Cosmo sleeping pad made a noise. By the time I swung back around to see what was watching me, it was gone.
I was up at a chilly 7:30 am, and pulled my food bag down from the tree. Moments later my coffee was ready, and I headed to my favorite rock to watch the fish as I drank my morning cup and woke up. It was like I had my own personal fish tank, or more accurately, my own reflecting pool. While watching the fish, I came to the conclusion there was no way I would complete this hike in the time I had allotted. I had plenty of food to extend my hike, but since there was no cell service there I told my wife to send the Calvary if she hadn’t heard from me in seven days. So extending my hike wasn’t really an option either. I lingered around camp for a bit soaking in its beauty and then headed back toward the truck.
My plan was to make camp at my first location if I had to, and then finish it out the next day if needed. That would put me off the trail in four days, and give me a buffer in case I twisted an ankle and needed to lay up for a day or so.
I started off down the trail, and was becoming more proficient at using my hiking poles. My arms had started to help propel me along, or slow me down on the descents.
There was a muddy spot near one of the creek crossings. I had skirted the edge of it yesterday afternoon. Today it stopped me dead in my tracks. Before me was coyote tracks in the mud, and they were heading the same direction I was going. I guess el coyote is still hanging around, and I’m still not an easy meal. Before I knew it, I was back to my first campsite and it was lunchtime.
I broke for lunch and used the time to rest and refill my water bottles. Rested and determined to make this beast of a climb, I headed for the truck. Just like before it kicked my butt, but on the flip side… I had managed to do in one day what it had previously taken a day and a half to do. My pack wasn’t that much lighter. The major change was I was only carrying two liters of water instead of three. By the time I made it back to the truck I was well into that second liter.
I decided to take the trip as a learning experience and enjoyed the moments. I wasn’t going to dwell in the defeat. Arkansas’ toughest hike showed me that I need to work on my physical abilities, and learn ways to lighten the load.
I will be back, and next time… I will prevail over the Eagle Rock Loop trail!
Watch this trip on YouTube
Until next time…
head out and explore your world,
and maybe, just maybe
you will stumble across the
ol’ Turtle on the trail!