November 19-22, 2016
Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area
Ozark National Forest, Arkansas
Julia Rose and I undertook our second annual Thanksgiving Holiday Backpacking trip this year, again choosing the Ozark Highlands Trail. Our destination this year was a section that took us into the Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area, about 45 miles northwest of Russellville, Arkansas. We parked beside the Big Piney River and hiked in five and a half miles to camp beside Hurricane Creek.
The Ozark Highlands Trail runs 218 miles across Northwest Arkansas, from near Fort Smith in the West to the Buffalo National River. Last year we had tried the Richland Creek Wilderness, a few miles to the north, but after reading several reviews of the section through Hurricane Creek WA, believed by more than a few sources to be one of the most scenic parts of the Ozarks, i wanted to see for myself.
We started out on a Sunday morning, driving about two and a half hours to get to the trailhead. A few miles into the drive I realized I’d left my hiking boots in the dining room where we’d packed our backpacks. The temperatures were expected to fall into the low 30s, but it wasn’t supposed to rain until sometime during the day of the hike out, so I stopped at a Target and bought a couple of extra pair of socks and decided I’d be okay in my Tevas for such a short trip.
The trail starts beside the Big Piney river, a river with promising whitewater when there’s enough rain. I’d paddled it a few times in the 80s, but we’ve had very little rain in the last couple of months, so the river was barely a trickle. The drought has kept the fall colors down as well, and put a few counties on burn bans, but we finally got some rain the week before and it snapped the leaves to life, generating a last gasp of fall color, and wetted the woods enough that we had trouble keeping our fires going during our trip. Last year at Thanksgiving, the leaves were completely off the trees, which created wonderful vistas, but covered the trail like snow, making it difficult to pick a path among the ankle-rolling rocks that lined the trail. This year, the trail, though sparsely marked by blazes, was clear enough to follow and easier on the ankles.
The trailhead started with a mile and a half of switchbacks which led us mostly to the top of Wheeler Ridge, a climb of about 850 feet, before leveling off for three miles, and then dropping steeply the last mile into the Hurricane Creek watershed. The skies were clear blue and sunny, and the temps somewhere in the 50s, which made hiking comfortable. Our only problem was that the middle mile markers were missing, which gave us a little concern since we’d never been on that section of the trail before, and we’d frequently go several hundred yards without blazes to mark the trail. Most of the ridge was beech forest, a hardwood tree whose leaves tend to turn a lovely yellow color in the fall before, but rarely drop from the tree until late winter. Most of the winter they are a beautifully symmetrical brown in the shape of a paddle blade.
My arthritic knees held up during the climb and the level hike, but the descent into Hurricane Creek was painful. We hit the creek bottom with a couple of good hours of light left and made a nice camp beside the creek, which was about thirty feet wide and rocky, with canyon walls rising steeply on both sides. The camp had a well built fire pit and someone had stacked flat rocks with backrests beside the pit, so it was fairly comfortable. Julia Rose and I set up our tents, gathered firewood and settled in for a cold evening. We cooked tacos for supper pumped water for our bottles, and fought to keep a smoky fire burning for a couple of hours, but following a long semester and a long week, not to mention a good hard hike, we were both ready to move into our tents and our sleeping bags and read for a while before going to sleep. The temperature, around 30 degrees, was right at the limit for our sleeping bags, which are light weight backpacking models supplemented by fleece liners.
For breakfast we restarted the fire and cooked burritos with bacon, scrambled eggs, and cheese. We enjoyed the fire and read for a while, waiting for the day to warm a bit. I’ve always insisted on having a good book while backpacking, despite the weight. For Julia Rose, she spent the weekend in Jackson Mississippi during the Civil Rights era, reading The Help. For myself, 1923, wandering the streets of London looking to buy flowers with Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. We spent the early afternoon exploring the opposite side of the creek, hiking up to get a look at Hurricane Creek Natural Bridge (complete with a pulpit rock) and then lunch on a nice reading and contemplating rock in the middle of the creek. We closed out the afternoon relaxing around camp, enjoying hot chocolate and a warming fire as the temperatures fell. The night was warmer, closer to 40 degrees than 30, and we awoke to a light sprinkle of rain tapping at the tents.
The morning was overcast and smelled of rain. We breakfasted, burritos again, then broke camp and packed, for the hike out. The climb to the top of Wheeler ridge was tough, but we made good time on the hike out through intermittent showers. Overall, this was my favorite part of the hike, walking through wet woods, since the damp makes walking on leaves quieter, but the moisture brings out the deep smells of earth and decaying leaves and the tannins and lignins and bacteria and microbes carried on the denser air. We got back to our car and drove home in damp clothes, enjoying the feel of the heater warming our toes and flowing around us. We stopped in Russellville at the legendary Whattaburger drive in, across from Arkansas Tech, for burgers, fries, onion rings, and a cold Diet Coke and a strawberry shake for the drive home.