Posted: March 19, 2018 at 4:30 a.m. with permission of Bob Robinson

Slippery footing through a slot canyon made enjoying the beauty of Horsehead Creek a bit of a challenge March 1 for bushwhackers determined to see six waterfalls in one day.

Slippery footing through a slot canyon made enjoying the beauty of Horsehead Creek a bit of a challenge March 1 for bushwhackers determined to see six waterfalls in one day.

What do you do when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate with your outdoor plans? You change your outdoor plans.

After epic rainfall resulted in postponement of the Hazel Valley Gran Prix bike ride and after I heard JB Clark was leading an Ozark Society bushwhack hike into the Horsehead Creek drainage, I swapped my mountain bike for my hiking boots.

Horsehead Creek Falls has been on my bucket list since Tim Ernst added it to his second edition of Arkansas Waterfalls (Cloudland Publishing, 2011). Six waterfalls in the same area? That’s pretty special even by Ozark Mountain standards.

On my drive up Arkansas 103 north of Clarksville to join the hike, as I passed rain-swollen streams, my excitement grew with the prospects of the adventure ahead.

Turning west on Johnson County 4160 I drove to the community of Batson, then continued south on Johnson County 4101 for seven-tenths of a mile. At that point I turned right onto Forest Road 1445A and, after two-tenths of a mile, reached the barricaded, abandoned logging road that was the hike’s rendezvous location.

There I met up with Clark, another longtime hiking friend and a couple of soon-to-be new friends.

Clark led the group down the closed road to reach what appeared to be a wildlife management food plot. However, after spotting an iron post protruding 4 feet out of the ground, we decided that the area might have been cleared originally for a gas drilling rig and that the post was capping the gas deposit.

Hiking across bright green grass in the clearing, a member of our group asked where we went from there, and Clark pointed his trekking pole at the steep mountainside to reply, “Down.”

And down we went, as in a 700-foot drop within about a quarter mile.

A map showing the location of different waterfalls in the Ozark National Forest

Mark Harris (left) and Bill Steward scramble over Horsehead Creek in Johnson County.

Horsehead Grotto Falls makes a big splash March 1 after a very rainy February in the Ozark Mountains.

Horsehead Creek cuts through steep hills, as Bill Steward demonstrates March 1.

Exiting the clearing, Clark suggested the group plot a southeastern route across the hillside to reach the headwaters of a drainage that fed into Horsehead Creek. Reaching the stream, we found our first waterfall — a “bonus” waterfall, because this, as were many others we stumbled onto, were not among the six mentioned in Ernst’s book.

I was thankful we were hiking in the dead of winter, because the hillside was thick with underbrush that would have taken a lot more effort to penetrate during leaf-on seasons.

We proceeded downhill, keeping to the left of the drainage where the best footing was, until we reached comparatively level terrain at the bottom, which was along Horsehead Creek.

During the steepest stretches of the descent I employed a maneuver taught to me by a true woodsman, Bill Steward (who was also on this hike). That was to plant my hiking stick uphill and lean my upper body toward the stick while probing the near vertical hillside with my foot for my next step down. The stick trick made sure most of the weight of my body had solid contact with the ground at all times.

Over the years, any soil that might have covered the Horsehead Creek bed had been washed away, leaving behind a solid rock floor. During high water, such as on the day of our visit, this created a picturesque, continuously cascading stream for us to enjoy — between our hikes to the next waterfall.

Before continuing downstream to find the major falls, we detoured upstream for a short hike to a water chute. This chute was fed by a curtain of water that flowed evenly over the lip of a finely polished rock ledge to then pour into a pool some 12 feet below. The site reminded me of the vanishing-edge fountain at the Clinton Presidential Library — meticulously constructed to be level so an even flow pours over the length of its edge. Demonstrating once more Aristotle’s observation that art imitates nature.

Over the years a pair of massive boulders collapsed near the bottom of the spillway and blocked the water flow, resulting in a turbulent froth of water working its way around.

Even at these higher water levels, as we crisscrossed our way from one side of the creek to the other, we were able to avoid wading in over the tops of our boots. The tall, steep, rocky hillsides flanking the drainage caused a number of rocks to be scattered through the creek bed that provided plenty of options for rock-hopping.

When we turned around to begin our hike downstream, initially the banks were shallow and broad enough to provide ample area for our group to hike alongside the stream. Farther downstream, the water of Horsehead Creek flowed over a ledge to plunge some 35 feet. Erosion had collapsed the less stable creek bed to form a large, open cavity. This was our first big destination, Horsehead Creek Falls.

The sheer walls of the canyon surrounding the waterfall were too steep for our group to climb down to the base of the falls for a better view. We went past the falls until we reached a lesser incline for a more controlled descent to the creek, and then we hiked up the canyon to the foot of the falls.

I believe this was the most impressive waterfall we encountered in the drainage. If I counted the lower cascades at the foot of another cascade, Horsehead Magnolia Falls, that one would be the tallest; however, Horsehead Magnolia Falls is tributary-fed and lacks the water volume of the falls within the creek itself.

Even so, each of the falls along the hike possessed its own beauty.

Continuing down the drainage, we were soon scrambling through a scenic narrow-slot canyon and treading carefully along its slippery, rocky ledge banks.

LET’S EAT

Horsehead, Magnolia, Grotto, many bonus falls, and the slot canyon; one by one, we were checking off the picturesque sites we had come to see. It was time to select a cozy spot in the sunshine with a view of nature’s finest display to enjoy our lunch and some friendly conversation.

Following lunch, the scenery picked up where we left off, with still more waterfalls plus a scramble down into an even deeper canyon, with sheer, 60-foot walls bordering the banks of the creek.

After a pleasant stroll along the creek through the canyon we decided that we had satisfactorily experienced the polyfoss and it was time to turn around and begin our trek back.

LET’S WORK

On our hike in we had passed a couple of interesting drainages pouring down the mountainside that several of us decided warranted more exploration. So, I and a couple of other members set out in search of different scenery up what we decided was the most inviting drainage.

We had seen an old jeep trail on our map, running along the top of the mountain; that would take us back to the vehicles. So that was our destination. All we had to do was follow the stream that poured down the hillside.

It was exciting to explore uncharted territory, but the underbrush was so dense we couldn’t see what was in store farther up. Soon our progress was halted by a boxed-in bluff too steep to scamper up. We knew we could follow the bluff line to find a more surmountable hill; but figuring out a way to overcome an obstacle is part of the fun of bushwhacking.

Finally, we found a potential route up the bluff. There was a small tree growing on the hillside about 10 feet up the wall, and as far as we could see we “should” be able to scramble up the remainder of the hill from there.

I pulled out the 12-foot rope I usually carry with me on a bushwhack, and after a couple of attempts … well, maybe it was more than a couple … I was able to swing the end up and over the tree. I pulled it down with a hiking stick so we could reach it. With the added support of the rope, each of us was able to scale the bluff. And then it was clear sailing up the rest of the hillside.

We soon reached the expected jeep trail, and it did lead us back to our vehicles.

With the group once again reunited at the trailhead, over a round of cold adult beverages, we gave a toast to another enjoyable outdoor adventure in the Natural State.

Bob Robinson is the author of Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail, Bicycling Guide to Route 66 and Bicycling Guide to the Lake Michigan Trail (spiritscreek.com).

ActiveStyle on 03/19/2018