The Natural State

An all-too-loud hissing sound greeted us as we stepped out of Vince’s car at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch.  We’d just managed to limp his Kia Optima up a very steep, very gravelly hill that it was completely unsuited for, and now we were suffering the consequences.  Vince crouched beside the front driver’s side wheel, a look of frustration set on his face.  I pursed my lips as I stalked over to join him.  I didn’t even have to bend down to hear the air leaking from the tire.  We definitely had a problem on our hands.

After a solid thirteen hours on the road the previous day, nobody wanted to derail our plans for our first day in Arkansas (the 31st state I’ve visited).  We’d gotten up early to ensure that we would be amongst the first to the crag at the ranch.  We wanted to spend as much time climbing as we possibly could because the weather forecast was promising rain for the rest of our trip.  We made a quick decision:  prop up the car with a jack and ignore the tire problem for the time being.  Later, we would figure out where to get it patched.  For now, it could be a future problem.

With our decision made, the group, which consisted of me and Vince and our friends Travis, Meagan, Jordi, Bonnie, and David, started the hike to the crag.  We were laden with backpacks bursting with heavy climbing gear, but the hike was short.  After crossing a wobbly suspension bridge, we hiked up a hill past some large boulders, and we were at the cliffs.

The first thing we noticed was that the ground was completely blanketed in a thick layer of goat poop.  There were scarcely any poop-free places to set our gear, and once I had changed into my climbing shoes, I made an effort to hop around on rocks and tree roots to avoid coating them in excrement.  While the smell was unsavory at best, if a flat tire wasn’t going to deter us, a sea of feces certainly wouldn’t either. So we all geared up and started climbing.

I hopped on a route first and rigged myself a photography perch once I had finished the climb.  I was excited to get video footage in addition to photographs on this trip because Vince had gifted me with a new GoPro Hero7 for Christmas.  I previously used a Hero4, and the new camera is a dramatic improvement.  I hung out on the rope as everyone else climbed and filmed and photographed them.

When I finally rappelled back to the ground, a newcomer had joined our ranks.  A dog had appeared from the fog that engulfed the surrounding forest, and there were no other people to be found.


About ten minutes passed, and still no one had appeared to claim the dog.

“Where did it come from?” I wondered.

Jordi gave me a contemplative look and countered, “Where did it go?” and soon we were all referring to her as Cotton Eye Joe.

Eventually it came to light that Cotton Eye Joe was one of the ranch dogs.  She hung around us all day, and we discovered that she loved chasing rocks, but not sticks.  I made a point of trying to keep her entertained by tossing rocks into the woods for her to chase.

The rest of the day was spent avoiding goat poop, playing with Cotton Eye Joe, and of course climbing.  Travis led a 5.12 with a really tricky start, I led my first trad climb since June, and Meagan led her first sport climb since spraining her ankle in April.  Vince and I split off from the others around 4:30 so we could figure out the tire situation.

We happened to have an air compressor in the car, so Vince refilled the tire as I called local tire repair shops to see if they could help us out.  There was a Walmart an hour away that was still open, so we got there as fast as we could, stopping to top off the leaky tire once along the way.  Luckily the tire was patchable, and the whole ordeal was over within a couple of hours.

The next morning was rainy as predicted, so we decided to hike instead of climb.  Our first stop of the day was to a local icon, Triple Falls.  I can’t honestly classify this as a hike because it took less than five minutes to get to the waterfall from the parking lot, but it was definitely a beautiful spot, and the foreboding weather meant we had the area entirely to ourselves.

While Triple Falls was nice, the best part of the day was yet to come.  Next on the agenda was Lost Valley Trail, one of the most popular trails in Buffalo National River.  Again we were lucky enough to be visiting on a low-traffic day, and were alone for much of the 2.5 mile hike.

Lost Valley Trail started out on relatively flat terrain that ambled past a dry river bed.  There wasn’t much to see until we reached the first major point of interest, the Natural Bridge.  This is a deep rock arch with a creek flowing through its middle that empties into a shallow pool via a small, but picturesque waterfall.

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Although the rocks were slippery, we all climbed up into the arch, and walked through it to meet up with the trail at the other side.

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We took off our shoes and walked through the bone-chilling creek inside of the arch, which was long enough that it was really more of a tunnel.  Once on the the other side, we were only minutes away from Lost Valley’s main attraction, Eden Falls.  Eden Falls is a 53 foot waterfall that cascades into a brilliant aqua pool at its base.

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Nearby the waterfall is Cob Cave, a large rock overhang.

Beyond Eden Falls, a spur trail leads up a steep hill and dead ends in a cave, which visitors can opt to crawl into in search of an underground waterfall.  Naturally, we went inside, and squeezed through narrow passages until we found ourselves in a large dome with a waterfall tumbling from its ceiling.  The noise of the water crashing in the chamber drowned out our voices so we enjoyed the sight without much conversation, then crawled back out of the cave.

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Rain had finally begun to fall by the time we made it out of Lost Valley and to our next destination, Mystic Caverns.  This was perfect timing since we would be inside of two different caves, and safe from the rain.  It didn’t take long for us to notice that Mystic Caverns was a bit of a tourist trap, but we purchased tickets and waited for our tour to begin, looking through a wall of pamphlets advertising other nearby tourist traps in the meantime.

A couple more groups joined us as we waited, and eventually it was time for the tour to start.  A guide came and led us into Crystal Dome after reciting an extremely long list of warnings about the strenuous nature of the tour.  We followed her into the cavern, and down a staircase that descended about 100 feet into the earth.  The pathway was lit so we could see where we were walking, but the cave itself remained dark until we reached a large viewing area at the base of the steps.  Then our guide turned on the lights which illuminated a massive dome with a striking dripstone formation.

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We had some time to admire the dome before climbing back up the steps.  Once we were back up on the surface, another guide met us to take us into the eponymous Mystic Cavern.  We spent much more time in this cave, and learned a lot about its history, including how it was once used for brewing illegal moonshine, and operated as a secret speakeasy.

The most striking feature in Mystic Cavern is a large calcite formation called “The Pipe Organ.”  This formation is hollow, and apparently emits different tones when struck with a stick, a trick that wowed historical cave visitors but is no longer done today because of damage to the feature.

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At the end of the tour, our guide turned out the lights so we could experience total darkness.  I’ve experienced this on every cave tour I’ve ever taken, but it’s still an unusual sensation.

Overall, I have to say I prefer a more adventurey brand of caving, but Mystic Caverns was a good place to stay out of the rain.  By the time we resurfaced, we were running short on daylight.  We went back to the cabin to make dinner and hash out a plan for the next portion of the trip, in which we would be heading to Hot Springs.

Some of the new GoPro footage from the trip!

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