Eagle Rock Loop: Part 3, Conclusion

My alarm sounded at 6am the next day. It was still dark outside and I had known it would be when I set it so early the evening before. One thing I have wanted to make sure of this year is to do more early morning hiking. I find that to be the richest part of the day as far as scenic beauty and just a general freshness on the trail.

I had the camp torn down and packed up before sun up but the light blue sky was bright enough to head back to the trail. I was out of water having finished my last bottle with a good morning drink. I had figured out my location before going to sleep the night before. I was 99% certain that if I went back down the trail the way I had come and landed back in Albert Pike I would be able to find my way to the correct trail. At the very least, I would find my way to the river and then locate the trail from there.

Sure enough, as I got into the park the trail was easy to locate on the west side of the river. In fact, there was plenty of blaze there and had I looked just a little ways to my right the evening before I would have spotted it and saved some bit of heartache in that climb to the summit of Mountain Bluff Trail. I rolled my eyes at my own foolishness and moved into the woods and down the trail.

The blaze along the trees was a happy sight. Perhaps today would provide that easy stroll along the river that I had been looking for all of yesterday. I passed the rock walls that I had slept on top of the night before along with several springs coming out of the rocks. They flowed into puddles that usually connected to the river. Soon I was walking along the river bank and spotted a camp site up ahead. The tent was open but no one was home. I walked a bit further and found two guys having some coffee down by the river. I figured this was as good a place as any to have breakfast. I greeted the guys who were leaving at that time then took off my pack and fired up the JetBoil for some bacon and eggs for breakfast.

While I ate breakfast the two other guys moved on down the trail and I would not see them again for the rest of the day. I made myself finish off a full bottle of water then loaded my supply back up and headed down the trail. Once again, the blaze was obvious. It stayed that way for about a quarter mile and then I did not see a piece of blaze again for the rest of the hike. It was after that stretch of distance that the trail resumed the flooded conditions I had encountered all of the day before. All along the banks were washed up trees and rotted out wood. Absent was any sign of blaze or the trail for that matter. I knew that ultimately I only needed to stay in a northbound position along the Little Missouri River to get me to Little Missouri Falls but as I went along that became more and more difficult to do. If anything, the conditions along the river banks were even rougher here than they had been south of Albert Pike.

I kept crisscrossing the river partly in hopes of finding the trail and partly out of necessity just to find a place in the woods clear enough to continue northbound. Momentary relief came when a short clearing became available in the form of an old abandoned jeep trail. I continued along it for a while until it brought me to a road crossing and a bridge over the river. I kept thinking I would run into the other two guys I had seen at my breakfast stop but there was no sign of them at all. From the bridge the river banks got only worse. I thought I would try the road that actually went east and west over the bridge in the hope that it might provide an easier way to Little Missouri Falls. I had walked about two miles in the brush by this point and was pretty chewed up.

Whether that road made it to Little Missouri Falls or not, I can’t say, as for an easier path – no such luck. It was straight up for at least a half mile and probably longer. I was moving farther and farther from the river too. I kept an eye on the GPS unit and saw that I was increasingly moving to a whole new sector of the Ouachitas and it did not appear to include the Little Missouri River. The gnats had found my again by this time too. My shirt was soaked through with sweat. It was only 10:30am and temps were already in the 80’s.

Ahead, along the right side of the road I saw a turn off. I figured it would be as good a place as any to return to the woods and try to intersect with my original intent of staying northbound on the river. As I got closer I saw there was a Jeep with Texas plates parked behind some trees at the turnoff. No one was around so I passed it up and headed down a blocked off jeep trail and a downhill hike. I quickly came to the camp site of the owners of the jeep, Tommy & Brenda from Plano, TX. Tommy was sitting at his fire, Brenda was down at the water just a hundred yards or so from their camp.

I sat down for a breather with Tommy and introduced myself. We talked for a while. I was surprised this was the first sign of human life I had seen in the Ouachitas since my trip started except those two guys back at Albert Pike. Tommy had not seen any other hikers including the two guys I thought might have been in front of me somewhere still. He and Brenda had tried to go hiking the day before and they too had gotten lost on the trails due to the lack of markings and disorienting nature of the flood washed landscape.

I talked with Tommy for some time before finally making myself get up. I could hear the river from where we sat so I headed on down to it and began heading north. There were a lot of bluffs in the area that blocked the river banks so several river crossings were required again to keep moving forward. I eventually realized that I was not on the Little Missouri but on a different creek that pours into the Little Missouri. It might be Brier Creek but I wasn’t positive. To get to Little Missouri I had to start doing some climbing, up and over the ridge that stood between us. I headed that way and was pulling against thorns and briers already. I got tangled up a bit and had to dislodge myself. “Have to keep moving,” I thought to myself.

Then I stopped. Why do I have to keep moving? My mind thought back to the evening before and how if I had just paused and considered for a bit I might have saved myself that awful final climb and had a much more pleasant evening like I had looked forward to. So I stopped. I stopped and then I started considering. I was in the middle of the Ouachitas, far off the mark of my original trail. True, the GPS unit had me safe so I could find the river and my destination but that did not mean anyone could find me. All it took was a bite from a copperhead or a tumble along one of these bluffs and I could be in some serious trouble. If I got in trouble, I was in big trouble. As I considered these things I realized I was just one bad move away from a bad reality TV show. I thought of what I would want my son to do in this situation and realized, when backpacking alone, you have to take a few extra precautions.

I turned around right there and began heading back to Tommy and Brenda’s camp. Tommy had told me they were getting ready to leave that afternoon. I had hiked about a mile from his camp by this point but just maybe I could get back before they were gone. My pace was quicker now and I got a bit wet as I crisscrossed the creek again. After about 30 minutes I spotted their camp and realized they were still there but could also see they were tearing down the camp. I made as much noise as I could as I reapproached the camp. Tommy introduced me to Brenda who had been down by the creek when I was there earlier. I then popped the question, “Any chance I could get a ride from you guys to my truck?”

That was it. My trip was finished. What this trail had turned into was not my idea of fun and it certainly wasn’t safe anymore. Eagle Rock Loop had chewed me up and spit me out.

Tommy and Brenda were only too happy to oblige. I showed them where I was parked on the map and in another hour I was unloading my pack into the bed of my truck and thanking the two Texans for their help.

And that was my experience on the Eagle Rock Loop. I can’t say I recommend the trail in its current state to anyone but especially advise against it if you are doing it alone. Physically it’s draining but I have encountered that before. It’s an accident waiting to happen right now as far as I’m concerned.

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