Cold Days & Hot Springs

The third day of our trip to Arkansas was as rainy as the second, which meant climbing was not an option.  We were moving from Jasper to Hot Springs that day anyway, so on the recommendation of David’s friend, we stopped at Petit Jean State Park on our way south.  Since we didn’t know much about the park, we dropped into the visitor center when we arrived to get some trail recommendations.

It seemed like there were three main “must-sees” at Petit Jean, and we started out at Rock House Cave Trail.  This short, quarter mile trail led us over an interesting area known as the Turtle Rocks, which was a cliff area covered in large, mound shaped rock formations.

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The Turtle Rocks were very unique, but they were also very slippery from the rain, so we hiked along them carefully, and in almost no time, we were at Rock House Cave, which contains 500-year-old Native American rock art.  The paintings were difficult to find since the cave is dark, but Meagan was determined and eventually she discovered a corner all the way at the back of the cave that was covered in art.

Although the cave paintings were amazing, Rock House Cave was a fairly short stop.  Soon we were on our way to our next stop, Bear Cave.  This was another short hike, but we ended up spending a lot more time at this spot.  Bear Cave Trail doesn’t technically have a cave.  Rather, it has a number of tall cliffs with narrow passages leading between them.  Despite it being a small area, the cliffs create a plethora of maze-like corridors to explore.

The seven of us scattered almost immediately as we approached the cliffs.  I wandered off alone and hiked the perimeter of the trail until I ran back into Meagan and Bonnie.  We found a passage that led upward from the trail, and scrambled up the rocks a little ways as the rainfall grew heavier.  Within a few minutes, the guys materialized out of nowhere and the seven of us began carefully climbing up the various walls that surrounded us.

About halfway to the top, we discovered that there were small steps carved into the rock, and Vince, Jordi, Bonnie, David, and I continued up from there.  We took it slow because everything was a little slippery, but eventually we made it to the top and gazed around at the sweeping canyon vista below us.

As always, climbing down was much more intimidating than climbing up, and I quickly began to regret all of the choices that had led to me having to descend a wet cliff face.  Although I made sure to be extra dramatic about the descent (one of my many specialties), we all made it down without incident and went in search of Travis and Meagan.  When we finally found them, it was time to tackle the longest hike of the day, Cedar Falls Trail.

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This trail started at the top of the canyon and wound downwards all the way to the bottom, hugging Cedar Creek until it dead ended at a massive amphitheater with a tall waterfall cascading at its center.

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Cedar Falls was an impressive 95 feet tall, and had a strong flow because of the rainy weather.  Rather than simply admire the falls from a distance, we followed a well-trodden, yet unofficial looking trail behind the cascade to admire it up close.  Afterwards we were all covered in water and mud, and shivering, but the experience was worth the discomfort.

It didn’t take long to hike the mile back out of the canyon.  Once we got back to our cars, we drove to our Airbnb in Hot Springs and spent the evening eating pizza, and having a bonfire.

The next morning we got out early to explore Hot Springs National Park, and it turned out to be unequivocally the most bizarre national park I’ve ever been to.  I’m not just including US national parks in that statement either.

We parked our cars at a couple of open meters in downtown Hot Springs, and started walking towards the visitor center.  Along the way, we stumbled upon the park’s main trail, which contains a few thermal pools and waterfalls bubbling from the side of a hill.

A short trail led us alongside the natural hot springs until we reached the visitor center, which is located in an historic bathhouse along Bathhouse Row.  The visitor center has a winding maze of exhibits to explore that show what the bathhouses were like in the early 1900’s.  After experiencing what Hot Springs used to be like, we walked a couple doors down the road to the Quapaw Bathhouse where visitors can still enjoy the thermal waters of the natural springs in temperature controlled pools.  Unfortunately they were at capacity, so we turned around and decided to hike uphill to the the Hot Springs Mountain Tower.

Since the mountain is rather small, it didn’t take long to reach the top where we found ourselves amidst a throng of tourists waiting for their turn to ride an elevator to the top of the tower.  A ticket for the elevator cost $8, and the line was extremely long so we decided to skip it, and check back in to see if the Quawpaw could accommodate us.  This time we got lucky, and after some lengthy instructions, we were in the bathhouse soaking in its thermal waters.

Quawpaw had four different pools with varying temperatures, and we spent a couple of hours relaxing in the hot water.  Eventually we were all bored, so we dried off and tried to come up with something else to do for the rest of the day.  We didn’t want to stay in Hot Springs because there wasn’t really anything left to do there, so Bonnie took to the internet and found a nearby park called Lake Catherine State Park.

Lake Catherine was only a half hour’s drive away, and promised hiking and another picturesque waterfall.  We set out on the 2 mile Falls Branch Trail, and hiked on varied terrain until we found the unnamed seasonal waterfall that we were searching for.

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I was surprised that a waterfall as pretty as this one didn’t have a name.  It dropped over a small cliff into a stunning aqua pool that was surrounded by mossy boulders.  Hot Springs may have been a bit underwhelming, but now we were finally in a spot that had something for everyone.  The guys, who were itching to climb something, immediately started scrambling on the boulders.  After taking some pictures of the waterfall, I turned my attention to climbing photography, and managed to get a few shots that I was really pleased with.

Bouldering kept us entertained until sunset, when it became a little too cold for my liking.  We hiked back to our cars, then spent our last evening in Arkansas at another bonfire back at the Airbnb.  The next day would be the last one of the decade, and we would spend it traveling back home to Michigan, wondering what 2020 has in store for us.

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