Ozark Highlands Trail Section 6 days 2 and 3
My intention was to get up at 530 for day two of my hike on Section 6 of the OHT. My alarm did not go off though, or if it did it didn’t wake me up. At shortly past 6am the light of dawn did the trick though and started moving around. To warm up in the morning I stuff my sleeping bag back into the compression bag even before getting out of the tent. This little ritual saves some time later on and gets my blood flowing. Once out of the tent I considered stirring a fire back up but since I had already overslept opted against it. I did not want to take time for it to die back out.
The falls I had camped by the night before were certainly a pretty sight. Haws Creek Falls is not too high but it is wide and very comforting. I downed a liter of water then got some pictures of the falls. I decided to wait until I got to the meeting spot with my friends before doing breakfast expecting that I would beat them there. I packed up camp and grabbed some peanut butter crackers then moved on down the trail.
Out of Haws Creek Campground the trail starts back up at the back end of the campground. It is well marked once you know where to look. I passed a nice stack of wood I wished I had known about the night before on my way out. The trail climbs up a little ridge that overlooks Haws Creek making for some more nice photo opportunities, then it disappears over the ridge and into the woods. The trekking from here is pretty easy and in a little over 30 minutes time I was exiting the forest and coming out at the old school house. This is a parking lot sitting right on Highway 123. The school house next to the parking lot is very old and open to go in and view. Seeing that my buddies weren’t in the parking lot yet I pulled out my jetboil and began heating up some water for breakfast there on the porch of the old school house.
Unbeknownst to me my buddies were actually there but on the other side of the one lane metal bridge that crosses Big Piney just around the corner from the school house. I heard their talking while I was making breakfast as mere echoes and muffled sounds somewhere around the river. I thought it must have been some other hikers or perhaps some hunters off in the woods. About the same time their truck came around the corner looking for me it dawned on me that perhaps they planned to meet me on the other side of the bridge where the trail starts.
I loaded into the back of Jonathan’s truck along with my still simmering food and water. He drove me over to the trail head where the rest of the guys were waiting. They graciously allowed me to finish my breakfast then we headed for the trail. Included in our group were names that have been seen before as I have recounted the sections of the OHT, Steve, Ty, Ben, and Rainer. Jonathan was the newest addition to our band of hikers.
The first portion of the Section 6 OHT trail into the Hurricane Creek Wilderness area is somewhat daunting. The elevation in the beginning is pretty steep with literal rock steps marking the entrance to the wilderness. It was not too bad but compared to the easy strolling I had just come from it got my attention pretty quick. I have found that no matter what hiking with a group is somewhat slower than by myself. That doesn’t mean the group is slow it just means the group moves slower. That is a change from the beginning. In the first sections of the OHT I found a group made me move faster. Now however, especially in the beginning when we are all getting acclimated to each others’ pace the group hike tends to be a bit slower.
We moved on into the hills of the Hurricane Creek Wilderness. Off to our right were a lot of really nice views that extended out over the valleys we were moving above. The plan for the day was not necessarily to finish this section but to make a loop out of it. Section 6 has a slight short cut for use when the water is high down below. At about five miles in you can cut left to stay on the trail or cut right to take the high water short cut. A few miles further down the two trails intersect once again and merge back into one. Rather than having to mess with shuttles we thought we would circle around on the trail and return on the short cut, camp and then have a fairly easy 5 mile stroll for Sunday morning.
As our trail elevation leveled out the thought occurred to me that if we were going to be returning on some of the ground anyway then there was an easier way. We could drop our gear and set camp at the beginning of the high water shortcut and then hike the rest of the way with minimal loads. The end result would be a faster pace on the loop back around to where we started. My primary concern was getting down to the Hurricane Creek Valley and seeing the Natural Bridge. I mentioned the idea to the rest of the guys and everyone was for it. We soon arrived at the shortcut and dropped our gear.
Ty and Jonathan each set up a hammock. The rest of us did tents. A fire ring was already located in the area and we were set.
From here the trail descended pretty steep down toward the Hurricane Creek. There is a lot of nice rock formations along the way to the creek here. This was the section I remember specifically from the Wild Sport book I read about Friedrich Gerstacker in the 1830’s. In fact, at one point he talks about the Natural Bridge and calls it the “the devil’s walk” with a steep fall on either side. I think this is where Irskin, his Indian friend dies in the book too.
It was a good ways down but we finally arrived at the Hurricane Creek. It was a bright, brisk sunny day and the water sparkled in both directions of the river. I don’t really know the difference between a river and a creek but this one sure looks too big to be simply a creek. We had lunch at a fire ring that had been built down by the creek. Whoever was there last left quite a mess.
After lunch we all agreed that no way around it we were going to have to do a river crossing. I took my shoes off but left my socks on. I had an extra pair in my pack. I didn’t bother looking for an easier or shallower crossing as usually these efforts have proven futile. As a result I crossed alone at a spot in front of our lunch location and ended up getting a lot wetter than anyone else.
Once on the other side we dried out for a few minutes and I put some foot powder on my feet. We then moved on along the trail. This is a really nice section of hiking. In fact, it may be one of my favorites on the OHT so far – at least in the top 5. To the right of the trail the Hurricane Creek runs for a while providing beautiful and distant scenes. To the left the side of the trail quickly turns into a bluff line with incredible rock formations and structures. In many places the bottom of the bluff hosts a cavern that stretches all along the bluff base through years of water erosion. At one point we found a tent and some old shoes that had been left at a makeshift camping spot in one of these caverns.
There were a lot of crevices in between rocks and bluff and turned into caves and my mind returned to the stories from Gerstacker’s book about hunting for bear in the caves in this creek area.
The natural bridge appeared almost out of nowhere. My eye was drawn to a large boulder that overhangs the bluff line like a canopy and it took a minute before I realized just to the left of it was the natural bridge much bigger and more pronounced than I imagined. The cliff wall was probably a hundred feet up to the natural bridge but we were able to retrace our steps on the trail to find another route up to the top of the bluff line. I won’t say it was easy. We still had to do some climbing and I was horribly uncomfortable with that. Once on top as we moved on the height of the bluff line reminded and informed me that I had not quite outgrown my fear of heights as I would have otherwise assumed.
We came back to the natural bridge from an above view and everyone took their turns walking across it. My turn was somewhat quicker than everyone else’s. We were very high up and could see far off into the distance. The natural bridge is worth the trip for anyone looking for a good day hike. This in itself is worth it and it was the highlight of the trip for me.
We continued on down the trail and grabbed some more photos here and there. Arriving back at Hurricane Creek we actually found a way across on some rocks and we all made it back without getting wet thanks to some ballet like moves as we danced and bounced across different stones and boulders in a corner of the creek.
The old rule of hiking is what goes down must come up and that was what lay in front of us as we had to climb the steep hill between our camp and the Hurricane Creek. It seemed longer going back up of course but we ultimately made it and collapsed in front of the fire ring at our camp. I have never finished a hike so early. It was 430pm and we still had a couple of hours of daylight left. Some of us napped while the fire was kindled. We all cooked our dinner as the sunset and then relaxed by the fire late into the night. It was a very starry night with another bright moon overhead.
The next morning we were up at dawn and took down camp. The hope was to be back at our vehicles by 9am. I did not realize how steep the hike in had been because it zoomed by as we hiked back out. We covered almost 5 miles in less than 90 minutes and were back to our vehicles by 830 am.
Section 6 of the Ozark Highlands Trail was a terrific hike and area for a day hike or a thru hike. Highly recommend it!
Only two sections to go now!