Ozark Highlands Hiking Trail Section One – Day 2 – Lake Fort Smith to White Rock Mountain
We didn’t oversleep on Day 2 as much as we were just slow to get around. Dawn broke over the camp and Joseph had been up most of the night shivering and trying to figure out ways to get warm. One by one we each got up and made our way to the fire. At just about the time the coffee pot was done percolating no one thought to stand by it for monitoring and the water boiled over causing the pot to fall into the fire. So of course we had to get another pot going and wait for that. In all of our enjoyment of the fresh morning air and campfire coffee we ended up not getting off until around 1130, surprising even ourselves by our slowness. We marched up the creek we had camped near until we found some water deep enough to fill our bottles up, then onward we went.
We would end up paying for this late start. The day would end with a final trek up the White Rock Mountain Summit in the dark with our headlamps on. This is definitely NOT a recommended way to do this.
For those who follow this path in the dry season I will recommend one thing here. Somewhere near mile 9 we crossed Jack Creek. It was as dry as all of the others we had passed the day before but there was a little water source not too far away. The main thing about this location was that it was flat, probably the only piece of flat ground we had come across since leaving the lake. If we were repeating the journey and it was dry, this is the place we would have chosen to camp and not had to do as much clearing of brush as we had at our makeshift camp a half mile or so earlier. At Jack Creek you actually hike down into the creek bed where it is a flat limestone throughout and then back up the edge on the opposite side, doing some minor climbing.
This section of the hike was a lot of up and down, up and down. The hills were not too steep yet and we kept our hopes up that perhaps the guidebook was exaggerating what was ahead in the elevation chart. Our pace continued pretty fast. The trails remained well marked and cleared. We passed two hikers near Jack Creek and that would be it until around mile 17 when we passed a father and son out on a day hike.
I should go ahead and touch on the water issue now. We were told at Lake Fort Smith and at White Rock Mountain during the course of our shuttling of vehicles the day before that the water supply was sparse on the trail due to lack of rain and were advised to bring water. No problem. We all had water bottles and/or camelbaks. Remember that dry lake bed back at Lake Fort Smith? Most of us were ill prepared for just how dry it was going to be. The guidebook warns of several river crossings that are dangerous if the water is moving too fast. We did not have that problem. We were camping in these. There was also supposed to be a waterfall at the Lake Fort Smith section of the trail. Never saw it. I kept expecting to run into a big creek or stream. We were hiking up the side of a mountain in the Ozarks for goodness sake, surely there would be running water. The realization finally hit me when we made it to Hurricane Creek for lunch. I have heard of Hurricane Creek from a lot of different sources. It is wide, flowing, and plenty of water. According to the dimensions on the map it is one of the largest sources of water on this section of the trail. We were all kind of stupefied as we walked out onto those dry white rocks that make up the bottom of Hurricane Creek and found no water, zilch! It was dry as a bone. After lunch we had to start rationing the water supply. I had two water bottles. As we left lunch we did end up finding a small pool of water just before making our ascent. I was able to fill both bottles up and planned to drink 1 cup every mile. That was not nearly enough water and my body paid the price by the end of the trail.
After the relatively tame up and down travel from Jack Creek we eventually hit a forest road that leads out to Dockery’s Gap. This is just past the 10 mile marker . There is another trail head located here if anyone wanted to cut in further east than Lake Fort Smith. In fact there were two vehicles parked up the road and I was slightly concerned of deer hunters out for the first day of bow season. We never ran into them though. After crossing the dirt road we were quickly back on the trail and a very steep descent into the Hurricane Creek Valley. When I say steep I’m not kidding and it seemed to go on for quite a ways. We had decided to do lunch at Hurricane Creek and I kept expecting for the trail to finally level off and give way to a flowing creek of which I had intentions of immediately dunking my head into. Each turn gave way to a new drop down and then another and the flowing creek would not be found that day.
We finally hit the bottom of the valley and emerged out into the middle of Hurricane Creek, or the bed of what was once Hurricane Creek. We checked our map several times to be sure of where we were, finding it difficult to believe that this barren bed of rocks was what we had looked so forward to. There was no doubt about it though so we shed our packs and settled in for lunch in a shady spot.
Speaking of shade, I should mention that this was one of the few luxuries of the first section of the OHT. All but perhaps a half mile total of our two day trek was under the shade of the forest canopy. That was a surprise but much needed treat.
We reviewed our maps over lunch and realized that the next 4 miles of the trip were pretty much straight uphill and there was no way around it. We agreed to pause every mile for water and a breather and tried to slow the pace up. Once to mile 15 it was supposed to level off and then take it easy until the last ¾ mile or so up the White Rock Mountain summit. With a plan in hand and water bottles filled at the surprise shallow pool found as we departed Hurricane Creek, we made our way out.
The trip became far more physically demanding from this point forward and it had already been pretty incredible up to that point. There is no way to get past the strain of steep uphill hiking in 80+ degree weather though. That said, we had psyched ourselves up for it and managed to hit a pace that worked for everyone. Ty had a radio headset on and was giving regular updates to the Arkansas/Texas football game as we moved along and that served as a diversion from the strain. The trail remained well traveled and taken care of at this point but I can’t provide a whole lot of specific sights or scenes I saw as my mind was focused entirely on the journey by then. In my guidebook the map shows a Rattlesnake Hollow that we were to have passed through at that point but there was nothing too memorable there and certainly no snakes – thank goodness. The view in the initial ascent from Hurricane Creek was nice and the trail was fairly narrow with a steep drop off.
It wasn’t long before my body also began wishing for more water. I was drying out.
Hurricane Creek was just past mile 11 and mile 12 came quick enough. At mile 13 we were feeling pretty good. This might not be too bad after all. We were halfway up what we thought was the hardest part.
And that’s when it really got hard.
The terrain seemed to get a little steeper but more than that it just got rougher. The well travelled paths disappeared as we seemed to reach the boundaries of where prior seasons’ day hikers had tread. No one had been out to clear this area in some time. The brush by itself was bad as there were some sections where we lost sight of the trail and were literally hiking in brush that went over my head (I’m 6 foot 2 inches). I learned to follow the dog here. Plus, the brush was full of thorns and sharp bushes that would grab into our clothes and packs and pull against us even while we were trying to move up. But the brush was not alone. There were also fallen trees, not just logs across the road but literal trees that we had to climb up and over to get around as the side path was too overgrown or too deep a drop. The physical aspect of the hike became much more grueling. We kept pushing, and pushing, and pushing until we finally came to a clearing in the trail just past mile 14. One more to go.
We were all beat. We paused and took our packs off to drink as we had done at the prior two markers. Sweat was rolling off of me and stinging as it hit my eyes. To our right was a nice view of the valley below. According to our map we were at Richardson Mountain. The hardest part was to be the next mile according to the map as the elevation charts entered an almost 45 degree angle from miles 14-15. Then it would level off until the last bit of journey at White Rock. I drank my water and cheated a bit on my rations. I kept eyeing my bag lying on the ground. I put my hands on my knees and hunched over just to give my body a breather. I was worn out. I looked at the trail. It looked a lot like property for chiggers to nest in. I could not resist though and finally laid down with my head on the pack. Just a breather was all I needed. The guys would encourage me to get up and move on when they were ready I was sure. After a few minutes I peaked out from under my hat that I was using to block the sun from my face and realized everyone else had done the same thing. We were scattered out across the trail like dead men just past the mile 14 marker.
Miles 14-19 – The Final PUSH
Apparently our elevations charts were way off. Mile 14-15 was really not that bad. About half of it was up hill and that was the last half. That was the good news. The bad news was that there was nothing close to leveling off between miles 15-18. It wasn’t that it was all uphill but it was either up or down almost every step of the way. And in that up and downing was almost nothing but brush and downed trees. Our group began to separate at this point as we all hit our own pace. I was still out front charging ahead more out of a fear that I would not move if I slowed down too much. The briars were pulling me back constantly. We were going over trees and under trees, literally having to crawl on our hands and knees under some fallen giants presumably victims of the spring storms. On many occasions I lost track of the trail and any sign of blazes but I was pretty sure I was on still on the trail simply because of the big drop off to my right and the high bluff to my left. The path was not necessarily narrow between the bluff and the drop off but there was not necessarily a path either. My body was exhausted. I could feel strain and fatigue in my thighs like I haven’t felt in years. I kept pushing. On several occasions I considered how fast I was moving through the brush and how easy it would be to come upon a rattlesnake by surprise as I hopped through the downed trees and prickly bushes. I pounded my hiking stick hard on the ground with every step hoping to alert any would be crawlers ahead but at the same time I did not care too much. I just wanted to get through this thing. Those who have read previous posts and know of my lack of fondness for snakes of any sort might appreciate how big a deal this mindset was.
Ben was pulling up the rear and falling behind. He had gotten blisters on his feet the day before during his side excursion when taking the wrong turn at the lake to find us. The pained feet were hurting his progress. Joseph was surprisingly doing fine keeping up with no socks and Chacos through that brush. I still don’t understand that. Ty and Rainer were pushing seemingly with no problems whatsoever. I believe Ty does a lot of conditioning workouts like running and biking. My conditioning is more along the lines of nachos and sitcoms. That could explain why I was perfectly willing to crawl the last few miles while Ty and Rainer kept beebopping along.
Despite the pain and fatigue, this was a good section of the hike mentally. We soon came into view of White Rock several miles away across the valley. Sight of the end picked up our spirits. This is usually where I find a second wind and indeed I did. A lot of reflection and thinking time partnered with my hustle through the brush.
We stopped at mile 16 for our last major stop of the day. We took off our back packs, drank the last of our water (the cheating on the water rations prior to this had us empty early) and chomped down on whatever high calorie treats we could get to. We rested for about 20 minutes. The trail was supposed to be flat going ahead but we would soon learn that was not the case. There was some good discussion here and then we loaded back up again and took off. Joseph and Ben were put in front shortly past this point. This changed the pace up a little and I learned here how much more difficult it is to bring up the rear. Mentally it hit me hard at about 17.5 miles into the trail. I was bone dry dehydrated and needed water badly. Physically I was nearing the end of what I could handle.
We crossed over the road that leads down to Shores Lake and after battling so much brush I was happy to follow that path the rest of the way to White Rock Mountain. Joseph was in the lead though and he continued across the road and remained on the official trail. The brush remained high here but at least we could spot the trail for the most part. It was a greener more leafy brush with less thorns and the one thing I remember was coming across a big pile of bear poop at one point and my mind making the mental map bear poop -> bear pooh -> pooh bear -> Winnie the Pooh. I was pretty thirsty and fatigued.
Just short of the White Rock Summit and mile 18 we came out to a clearing in the brush where someone had done some recent weed whacker work. It was nice to have an unobstructed trail at last. We could see across the Ozarks here and the sun was setting in a big clear sky putting off a pretty pink hue. We paused for a moment and grabbed some pictures. From where we stood we could clearly hear voices from above on the summit at White Rock as campers or tourists were enjoying the same view from an elevated vista. It looked really high and I was curious how we were going to get up there in such a short distance.
By mile 18 it was pretty much dark. We continued on a little more and then hit a literal rock wall as the summit sat in front of us. Those of us who had easy access donned our head lamps for the remainder of the hike. It was not safe doing it this way but we had little option and regretted now more than ever the morning’s late start. Step by step we made our way up the path of the summit. It was not as steep as I had thought it would be and what a relief it was when we finally came out in the parking lot at White Rock.
It was full dark outside and we trudged into the center of the park toward a water fountain we quickly found to be out of order. Joseph got into the car he had left up there the morning before and we threw our backpacks on the roof then coasted into the White Rock campground. We must have looked like the Beverly Hillbillies with all our gear on top of the little Subaru as heads turned throughout the camping spots as we drove by. We soon discovered the campground was full. A small group of guys from Dallas, up for the weekend to hike invited us to share their spot so we pulled in. I made my way over to the campground’s water spicket and quickly downed two full bottles of water only to regret my haste about 5 minutes later when I began to feel a little queezy in the stomach. This passed though.
Once camp was up we joined the guys from Dallas at their campfire and made our dinner. Joseph was wiped out and fell asleep for the night in my tent (not braving another night without a sleeping bag under his tarp) before the food was even done. While setting up camp we learned that parts of the coffee pot had been shed presumably among the brush somewhere in our day’s hike. I had kept a good eye on it most of the day so it had to have happened near the end. With no coffee to look forward to in the morning we all agreed after a good dinner cooked by Ben that we would rise early and drive down the mountain to find a rewarding batch of pancakes for breakfast.
Post script: Check out the complete set of photos from this trip at the Photos page.