Updated: Sep 22
You were probably first exposed to the Ozarks when you tuned in to watch the Byrd family and their hit TV show, "The Ozark's." Coincidentally, if you ask most people outside of Arkansas or Missouri where the Ozark's are located, they literally have no idea! The local community has done a great job of keeping this area their best kept secret.
If you're looking for a breathtaking hiking experience, the Ozark Forest is definitely worth a visit. However, before you head out there, make sure you're prepared! These tips will help make your trip safe and enjoyable.
The Ozark Forest is Massive
Before we started packing for our end-of-Summer adventure, we did a little research regarding which trails we wanted to hike and what attractions we had hoped to see. It was during this research that the full scope of how large the Ozark Forest actually is, I had no idea! The Ozark Forest is massive! It covers 1.2 million acres of land throughout central and northern Arkansas.
The first thing that quickly became clear is that we did not have enough travel time available to visit every single place we had hoped to see. Therefore, it became necessary to scale down our options and look for an area with lots of opportunities. We only had two full days of hiking available so we chose Sand Gap, Arkansas to explore.
Sand Gap is located nearly two hours north of Little Rock and it boasts some of the most iconic bluffs and overlooks in the forest such as the Pedestal Rock/ King's Bluff Loop and there you can find some of the most beautiful and elusive waterfalls in the state.
We were presented with two options, camp in a tent or stay in a nearby hotel. Because we only had a couple of days to explore (plus, we were both getting over a little head cold), we decided not to rough it. I searched all over for a hotel in Sand Gap to no avail. The nearest commercial lodging was actually located about 45 minutes south of Sand Gap, right off the interstate in a town called Russellville.
GAS STATIONS/ SNACK STOPS
If you elect to book a hotel in Russellville, please understand that you will be traveling in your vehicle for a minimum of two hours a day to reach your destination to and from Sand Gap. This is important to note because the only gas stations available to fuel up are located in either in Russellville or in the small town of Dover, located about 10-15 minutes north of Russellville.
Hold up! Before you decide to snack up in Russellville or Dover, there is another store en route to the trails that will have a better selection. This store has a ton of history behind it too! Plus, it's a roadside attraction unto itself. Therefore it's highly recommended that you save your snack run for the legendary Hankins Country Store.
The Hankins Country Store has been a landmark for travelers on Arkansas Hwy 7 since the 1920's. Located in Pelsor, AR, it is the only historical commercial building from this area. Fun fact: its original owners were responsible for bringing in open trade to the early trappers and farmers in the area. The store has also served as both the original post office and voting poll for the local community!
When you walk into the store, there is a great selection of delicious food including baked goods, sandwiches and pizza. It's definately worth stopping here for lunch or to just pick up some snacks for your backpack! They also have plenty to choose from in terms apparel too - I highly recommend grabbing a hat or t-shirt to commemorate the visit. It's an iconic stop, but keep in mind... no gas pumps.
On the day of our visit, the current owners had set up a 100th year anniversary party for the store! Neighbors gathered to watch the Arkansas Razorbacks opener, there were vendors selling burgers and snowballs, as well as pies that you could take home. We even saw someone out there sharpening knives... It was great to get to be a part of that small town celebration, even just for a few moments. Everyone was so nice!
For our first hike in the Ozark Forest, we wanted to check out the Pedestal Rocks Scenic Area. This is a really beautiful area with two loop trails that take you to see both Pedestal Rocks and Kings Bluff.
Averaged together, this is a 4.6 mile loop that includes insane rock formations, caves, and breathtaking views of the
This trail has an elevation change of near 600ft and, it is suggested by AllTrails that it should take the average hiker 2 hours to complete. I suppose this is true if your plan is to stay on the trail 100% of the time. Which, we did not.
If your plan is to hike multiple trails in the area during a single day, cancel them.
We spent a little over 8hrs exploring the areas off the main trail and could have easily dedicated another 4hrs had we more daylight. For this reason, if you know that you are the adventurer type, it's suggested that you begin your hike as early in the morning as is reasonable and pack lot's of water.
Going off the main trail here isn't a big problem. The "unofficial" paths here are well worn and will lead you towards some incredible views of the caves that you would have missed otherwise. These paths also give you an opportunity to view the pedestal rocks from their base. This perspective, in my honest opinion, is far more exciting than looking over from the bluff!
Some serious things to consider:
-If you are going to venture off trail, make sure that you are physically capable of climbing. You should also be wearing hiking footwear. Some other challenges you will face are steep inclines and declines. Many of these areas are covered in moss. They can be very slippery
-Chiggers and Horse Flies are everywhere. If you're unlucky (or unprepared) and get bitten, these bites will itch literally weeks after you return home. Permethrin is the best repellent to keep them away. If you forget the Permethrin, make sure to stockpile some Chiggerex. Chiggerex is made with benzocaine to help instantly relieve the itching from a broad spectrum of insect bites. *Chigger bites are maddening. This stuff is magic.
- Watch for poison ivy during the warm weather months. It literally covers the main trails and cannot be avoided off trail. For best practices, check out "Identifying Poison Ivy: A Hikers Worst Nightmare" before you hit the trails.
On day two of our trip, we had plotted out a road trip to see seven waterfalls in the area. According to what we thought was a "carefully laid plan", this loop should have taken us 4hrs to complete.
It's important to note here that cell service seems non-existent in the Ozark Forest. While there are some patches of service near the trailheads and near the Hankins Country Store, you can expect to be without the internet. This means no using hiking apps to get you through this adventure. Chasing waterfalls proved to be a very difficult task...even with screen shots of available maps.
The first two waterfalls we tried to locate, Pam's Grotto and Car Wash Falls, took us on a 3hr back country adventure. We drove through terrain that required the use of 4-wheel drive, we drove on single lane roads with a 70ft drop, and we hiked wild forest without trails. And.... we found no waterfall.
We could never find any of the trails that were supposed to lead to our destination. There were no trailhead markers. We were completely at a loss. However, we did find some amazing crystal clear creeks and beautiful sea green rivers.
Once we called No Joy on locating our first two attractions, we wasted no more daylight in trying to locate the others.
In order to reach the Richland Creek Recreation Area, you will need to drive up Richland Creek Road. It's incredibly scenic (We saw a few deer). The road itself is like other roads in the area... dirt road with sharp drop offs and barely enough room for a passing vehicle. There are also deep potholes in the road, single vehicle bridges to cross and areas that look like a landslide could take out the road at any minute. If you get anxiety in these conditions, this drive is not for you. To the off-road jeep clubs out there, you guys would love it!
The trailhead to the waterfalls is located in the developed campground area. it's not exactly obvious where it begins. We had to ask for directions... twice. We were so excited to finally get some waterfall action! We started following what we thought was the path to Richland Falls. This trail is not well worn, therefore it is not very obvious. We had read online that it crosses over the creek at some point, so if you can't follow the pathways, you're going to miss your moment to cross.
The water was extremely low during our visit, so we just followed the creek, figuring this hike would take us directly to the waterfall. It was fun climbing the boulders and walking over river rock anyway. It kind of felt like a hobbit adventure!
After hiking the creek for 45 minutes, we ran into a lovely couple that were chilling on the rocks and casting lines out for fish. Assuming they were locals, we asked them if we were close to our destination. With a sad look of disappointment, they explained that they were not locals but campers who had come to the area with the same agenda and that they had now spent two days trying to locate the elusive waterfalls with no success.
Hindsight is 20/20. We later found out that we were following the wrong creek system. Richland Creek splits off just north of the camp ground area. We were following the offshoot, Falling Water Creek. The trail we were supposed to be following would have crossed Falling Water Creek and led us over to Richland Creek.
In the spirit of all things I wish I'd known then what I know now, I wish I had listened to well meaning advice and invested in The Arkansas Waterfall Guidebook by Tim Ernst. Apparently, we aren't the first, nor the last people to go searching for waterfalls and go home empty handed. Tim Ernst is a wildlife photographer and thought to be the #1 authority on waterfalls in the area. His book features photographs, coordinates and detailed instructions on how to reach each waterfall successfully. This would have been a great manual to plot out out trip considering our lack of internet.
While we were now 0 for 5, the last two waterfalls on our list were easily located. You could easily see them from the road that had led up to Richland. Back in the car and heading back down the hill towards Six Finger Falls and Falling Water Falls !
Finally! Our first waterfall of the day! Six Finger Waterfall It's an impressive tiered drop spot in a creek with "fingers" that result from its separation, creating multiple waterfalls!
At the time of our visit, the area had been experiencing very little rain and all of the waterways were running very low. Because of this, we were not able to see the waterfall in all of it's glory but it was still very exciting to explore! One of the benefits of the creek being so low was that we could easily cross the top of the waterfall and climb down below it. We were actually able to navigate over some rocks to an area, dead center in the middle of the creek. The opportunity to view the falls from this perspective was a rare treat.
As the sun was setting, we made our way over to one of the Ozark's most beautiful falls. The Falling Water Falls is an impressive cascade that ends in a pretty natural pool, often drawing people near and far! There, you see friends and family sit around make-shift picnic tables near the pool and above the falls. Above the falls, you can listen to the calming hum of the flowing stream crash against river rocks, all while taking in amazing views of nature's beauty up close. This is the kind of place they sing about in country songs, when they reminice on simpler times.
The Ozark Forest is filled with developed recreation areas for travelers who prefer the camp site experience. These recreation areas have modern plumbing and electrical hook-ups for RV's or tent campers who prefer a less than primitive camp. People have reported that these sites are limited and can fill up quickly, especially during nice weather or holiday weekends.
If you are a tent camper and don't mind a primitive camp, it's important to note that you are not restricted to only camping in these recreation areas. The Ozark Forest is massive. There are opportunities to pitch your tent any place you feel safe enough to do so.
During our two day adventure, we witnessed tents set up in nearly every area we explored. Some people set up near creeks, some people set up on side of the road. We even saw camps set up a mile in and off trail. And, by the amount of smoke damage we witnessed in the caves in the Pedestal Rock scenic area, it's clear people are camping out there too.
It's your adventure! Camp where you want. Leave no trace behind :)
Hiking the Ozark trails is the perfect way to spend a weekend. Whether you’re searching for waterfalls or a creek to cool off in, these tips will help you make the most of your time in the Ozarks.
Have you ever been hiking in the Ozarks? What was your favorite part? Let us know in the comments!
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~ Tiffany...with tim
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