20211114 Buffalo National River: What Goes Down, Must Come Up!

Awhile back I saw a Facebook meme for Backpackers Out Of Breath (BOOBS). That resonated with my Colorado posse, Delores and Kari, so we’ve kind of adopted that. This month we decided the BOOBS needed to backpack the Buffalo National River. We set out early on a Sunday in Rick’s way cool new Dodge RAM truck and drove straight through to JB Trading Company. The plan was to hit the Centerpoint trailhead, backpack to the bottom of the river, exploring the famous Goat Trail on the way, and stay there a couple of days to dayhike the area.

I rented a campsite at JB for the entire stay so I could keep my truck at the campsite instead of the Compton trailhead. JB was kind enough to run us over to the Centerpoint Trailhead.

We arrived late Sunday afternoon, just in time to pitch camp before dark. JB’s was the perfect jumping off spot. Campsites, RV connections, platform tents, platform huts, a restaurant, canoe sales, practically a mini-REI onsite in case you forgot something, great wifi and a fabulous bathhouse.

I started off with so many strikes against me! I’d been fighting a cold all week, and Saturday afternoon it took me down. FNP-C daughter Nikki called in some serious pharmaceutical reinforcements and when we drove away Sunday morning I was feeling passably decent, if not great. My phone also crapped out Saturday afternoon and the cure was to reset everything, so I spent my first evening in camp kicking everything back together. I succeeded, and had a pretty good night in the new ultralight hammock.

Monday morning dawned clear and cold. I couldn’t resist a shot of the Arkansas sunrise reflected in Rick’s shiny new truck.

After a great breakfast in the restaurant Jeff (JB) drove us to Centerpoint and took the obligatory trailhead portraits. We just love Jeff! Don’t we look fresh, confident and optimistic? (That will change later!)

The hike down was lovely, and it didn’t take long to shed our jackets. It was all downhill and nobody thought of the hike back up! We reveled in the crisp fall air and glorious fall colors! Before long we hit the intersection to the Goat Trail to Big Bluff, the tallest bluff in Arkansas. We knew the Goat Trail was going to be a little scary. The guidebooks said it’s perfectly safe but it’s NOT a place for horseplay. We went in with every intention of backing out if it got dicey. We hid our heavy packs behind a little ridge and took just the necessities. They’re right. This is no place for horseplay, or any other kind of play. We hugged the wall and took advantage of every handhold. The views were magnificent! There was nothing dangerous about the trail at all, it was wide, flat and solid. It’s just a LOOONG drop to the river beside the trail…

A big thank you to Kari for taking pictures of us. I get all caught up in the scenery and forget to shoot the people. Note in the last photo above, how far down the river looks. At this point we’re already halfway down. You’d think we would have looked at that and had second thoughts, but it never crossed our minds. We hiked blithely down to the river bottom.

The plan was to camp at Jim Bluff, but the trail to it looked pretty sketchy, so we continued down the Old River trail and found a lovely campsite beside Sneed’s Creek, just a short way off the banks of the Buffalo River. We had plenty of time for food and companionship, and everyone retired for a late afternoon nap. Napping didn’t work for me, so I putzed around camp and took a little walk up the creek. I love camping alone. For safety reasons I usually don’t, so it was quite delightful to cook and eat my dinner alone. Just before dark Kari came up for air and a visit, but we turned in again pretty soon as it was getting COLD.

We had passed a few dayhikers on the way to the Goat Trail, but past that we were completely alone on the trail. At camp in the afternoon a young couple wandered past, completely lost and looking for Hemmed In Hollow Falls, a VERY steep hike back up. We showed them our map, let them take a photo of it, offered them water and they were on their way. Moments after they left I realized I’d steered them wrong and hollered them back for corrections. I sure hope they got out all right. They weren’t properly prepared for what they were facing.

Later a couple of shirtless good ole boys came by on horseback. We chatted and got some local knowledge about the trails back out. The most important thing they said was, “Yeah, it’s steep. It’s really steep.” Yikes.

I’m accustomed to going to bed from sunset to sunrise when I’m camping, but that’s usually in the summer when the days are long and the nights are short. I hadn’t taken into account that this is not the case in the winter.

Twelve hours in a hammock is a long damn time. The long drive and the hike, coupled with the head cold didn’t help either. But the worst was an extended bout of bipolar body thermostat. In other words, hot flashes and cold chills. Getting old sucks. For twelve hours I’d get cold, tuck in all my down insulation and jacket and headwear and just as I finally got warm, the hot flash would kick in and I’d throw it all off. Over. and over. and over. I started to wheeze with every breath and immediately convinced myself I had pneumonia. NOW I remembered how far we had to climb to get back out and I got the midnight heebie-jeebies. I’m gonna die down here! I watched the full moon rise and set through my almost transparent tarp. I’m sure I slept. My watch says I did, but I don’t remember a wink.

Eventually the long night ended, and we all crawled shivering out of our beds. I was no longer the only one feeling unwell. Kari had the beginnings of a migraine and Delores thought her blood pressure was out of whack. Everyone spent a cold miserable night. Our forecast 50 degree night had turned out to be a little under 40 and the humidity by the river didn’t help a bit. I checked the forecast on the Inreach and tonight was going to be worse, likely with rain. We all agreed that I shouldn’t spend another night outside and nobody else really wanted to, either, so we decided we’d head back out on Sneed’s Creek trail and perhaps dayhike to Hemmed In Hollow tomorrow. The platform huts topside with a heater were sounding awfully nice.

As we were packing up to leave a delightful older man and his adult daughter came by on mules. We visited for quite awhile and learned SO much from them. Turns out the land we were camped on had belonged to his family for generations. The government did not treat them well when they took their land for the National River, forcing them to part with it for a mere $200/acre. The Forest Service regularly tries to ticket him for riding his mules on the hiking trails, but he tells them his granddaddy BUILT the damn trail, and nobody was going to stop him from riding it. They never actually ticket him. The Forest Service employees are local folks, too, and they understand. Learning this piece of history took a bit of the shine off my trip. I normally don’t appreciate dodging horse or mule poop on a hiking trail, but in this case, I hope they continue to let them ride their land as they always have, and I’m very grateful for their sacrifice.

He knocked a mile off our hike out by directing us back up his mule trail to his Granny’s cabin (Henderson Cabin on the map), where we could pick up the Sneed’s Creek trail again: “jus’ walk up the front porch and out the back door, the trail’s around back, cain’t miss it.” I don’t absorb verbal directions well and wasn’t quite comfortable with the plan, but boating taught me the value of respecting local knowledge. His directions were spot on. “Yeah, it’s steep. It’s really steep.”

No problem. If you’re a mule!

We spent a few minutes exploring Granny’s cabin then headed up Sneed’s Creek trail. The trail is clearly marked on the NatGeo map I was using, but the trail itself was faint and almost completely obscured by fallen leaves. At times it looked more like a game trail and trail markers are placed only at intersections. We were never, ever lost but there were a number of times I thought we were.

Let me tell you, this was a beautiful but oh-so-hard hike. The Buffalo River is no place for beginners. We had two ways to hike out, the short but steep 2.5 mile route, and the longer but less steep 4.5 mile route. We chose the less steep 4.5 miles out and there was barely a downhill anywhere. I cannot imagine making the steep ascent. The screenshot shows equivalent flights of stairs.

We dangled an imaginary pizza in front of ourselves the whole way up, knowing JB stops making pizza at 5pm. Kari stayed at the trailhead with our packs and Delores and I walked another mile back to JB to pick up the truck. We picked up Kari and the packs and made it back to JB with time to spare. Best pizza we’d had since Woodland Park Colorado last summer!

That night we all slept 12 hours in warm beds and woke up feeling 1000% better. No one had any desire to hike the other, very steep trail down to Hemmed in Hollow Falls and back up again. We hiked the Lost Valley trail to Cobb Cave and Eden Falls. According to reports, you can walk back into the cave, shimmy through a low passageway and view a 35 foot waterfall in a pitch black chamber. We brought headlamps, intending to give it a try but it was slick and treacherous. A local couple told us they’ve been back there many times, but they never attempt it when it’s slick like that. Local knowledge, can’t beat it! We skipped the dark waterfall! Delores walked a ways with an unzipped pack compartment and lost a fair bit of gear on the trail. A gentleman coming off the trail said he’d seen it, so she took off up the trail to recover it. 10 minutes after she left I found her gear where someone had brought it out and left it in the parking lot. No signal, no way to reach her, no way to catch up with her, so she walked a mile in before she gave up and headed back! We spent the afternoon driving scenic roads and visiting Steel Creek landing and a wildlife museum in Jasper.

Rain and cold were in the forecast and we began considering heading back south tomorrow, a day early. That night rain and hail pounded on the tin roof of our cabin, the temperature plummeted and the wind howled. We were toasty in our cabin as I contemplated what a lucky girl I was to NOT be on the banks of the Buffalo River this night! My temp logger was locked in the truck and recorded a low of 37 while we were loading up.

While we hiked down to the river and back out, fall was in full glory. When we woke up the last morning, the leaves were gone and the trees were bare. Fall was over. It was time to go.

We headed for Hot Springs, where we toured an antique bathhouse and had a nice lunch. I had shrimp and sausage gumbo prepared by the 2021 Northeast Arkansas Champion gumbo chef!

Heading south from Hot Springs, we planned to camp one more night along the way, but the closer we got to Texas the better our own beds sounded. We elected to press on and arrived back in Pinehurst a day early, a little after 9pm. Rick and the dogs were super excited to have us back!

I’m glad I went. I can’t say I’ll be back to hike. I think the window for winter backpacking adventures like this might have closed for me, but a professionally guided summertime paddle down the Buffalo National River sounds like a rocking good time!

This will be the last of my adventures for awhile. Our beloved Suki isn’t doing well and I’ll be staying home to soak up as much time with my precious pup as I can before it’s too late.

Where will I go after that? Don’t know, but I’m hoping Rick will be at my side!

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