My last post was from January of 2020: Highpoint #26 in Oklahoma. Then the world went into COVID lockdown. I did not have a chance to travel much during the COVID years, and the Highpoint trips were sidelined.
By January 2022, Kerry, Jason and I started planning a highpoint hike; Arkansas in April. Kerry backed out about 3 weeks before the departure date. One week later, I fell and broke my wrist (compound fracture requiring surgery) and had to cancel. Jason ended up going to see his kids in Chicago.
My new internal jewelry
in June, Kerry-working from home now-got the idea of a long thru-hike. She felt like she could take 3 to 4 weeks off. I hit the brakes on a long thru-hike; we three “older” hikers had not backpacked for a long time and needed to see if we could do a shorter trip before we jumped into a month long thru-hike. Hiking on a long trail that has an end point that is not near the start point means planning, logistics, and research. There are permits, shuttles, and resupply gear to arrange. Just thinking about the planning makes me tired. Instead, we considered about 4 different loop hikes, and chose a 4-day hike in Arkansas, not too far from the Highpoint, called the Eagle Rock Loop. And, if the backpacking was great we could consider going on another multiple day backpack on the Ozark Highland Trail. If not, we could do a lot of day hiking. We set our sites on October – Arkansas in the summer is just hot, humid, and buggy.
I haven’t been backpacking in a few years, so I started to gear up. I am happy to report that new gear is lighter and smaller than ever. I ended up with my pack weighing just under 20 lbs with no food or water. And that included a pillow. The plan was laid out, the dates were set, and I started training. When we were one month out we had a zoom call to finalize plans, and I purchased my plane ticket.
A week before departure, Kerry backed out of the trip. Again. This time, Jason and I didn’t let that stop us, and for the first time, I high pointed without Kerry. In early October 2022, I flew from Seattle, and Jason drove from San Antonio, to Dallas where we met up and continued driving to Arkansas.
Eagle Rock Loop
We drove straight through to Arkansas, only stopping for a light dinner. We drove to DeQueen, because we found a “CourtYard Inn.” But it was far from what you picture – it was a sketchy motel. It worked. Early the next morning, after having breakfast with the locals (read a bunch of old white guys outfitted for hunting or fishing), we set out for the trailhead and got a bit lost. After leading us down a private dirt road, we decided to not trust the navigation system in Jason’s truck and struck out for the nearest trailhead (there are several) we could find on google maps. That is how we ended up at winding stairs.
Day one on the trail began at 10am, hiking north past Albert Pike recreation area, and continuing west along the Little Missouri River. We stopped at the 11 mile mark, about 4:30 pm, because we wanted to stay near the Little Missouri River, but not too close to the Athens/Big Fork Parking lot. It was a great site, being close to the water and off the trail. But it seemed like every oak tree was dropping acorns, to the point it sounded like it was raining.
Day two was the tough day: the Athens/Big Fork trail section on the west side of the loop accounts for most of the 4,000 ft of elevation gain on the trail in the form of 6 ridges you hike up and then down and up and then down, etc… We set out at 8:30 am and we tackled the hills. By 4 pm we had covered about 11 miles, stopping on the south side of the loop near the Viles Branch river.
That left us with an easy 4.5 mi hike for Day 3, which was nice because this section is where we needed to ford the Little Missouri River (normally knee deep) and go past the “Winding Staircase” which is a set of waterfalls. This is a beautiful hike. You are hiking in a forest of maples, pines and oaks, next to a stream most of the 26.5 miles, with rocky outcrops all along the trail. But the water levels were so low, we felt we missed out on some of the beauty. In fact, we never had to take our boots off to ford any rivers, finding enough rocks to hop over every time we had a crossing. The Waterfalls were only trickles, if anything at all. We were back at the truck by 1 pm, and heading to our next destination.
Eagle Rock Loop is in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas and is one of the longest loop trails in the state at 26.5 miles. There are at least 5 trailheads, although there is no overnite parking at the Albert Pike Trailhead. This is due to a flash flood in the area in 2009. The elevation gain along the loop is just over 3,960 ft and most of it along the western edge. Although it could be done in 2 days, we enjoyed the scenery by taking 3 days to complete the loop. Camping spots are plentiful, water is plentiful (but bring a good filter) and check the local regulations regarding campfires. The trail is rocky, my well worn boots could have had better ankle support. We lucked out and didn’t encounter very many bugs, and no ticks, but still needed bug spray. Spring and summer are buggy. We spotted one deer and two big armadillos, but no other real wildlife. There are no amenities along the trail and cell phone coverage is spotty. There was good parking and vault toilets at the Winding Staircase trailhead.