Friday, October 17, 2014

Hiking Mt Magazine, Arkansas State Highpoint

Mt Magazine is the tallest mountain between the major western and eastern ranges. Rising from the planes of the southern Midwest, it is a dominating feature of the oddly located Ouachita Mountains and the highest point in Arkansas.

A little alpine oasis in the Great Planes
Day: 29

My explorations of the Ouachita Mountains would not be complete without a visit to Mt Magazine State Park. This plateau-like summit has expansive views of all of the Ouachitas and most of the Ozarks which makes it a prime destination for outdoorsy types. Unbeknownst to me, there was also a massive lodge with full amenities. I came knowing the park would be pristine but I didn't know it would be posh as well. I'm all for the wilderness experience but I sure enjoyed the lodge...

Normally I don't like to hike mountains with parking lots and touristy type things at the summit but this state park was a nice touch. There was a full range of lodging and camping options. Staying in the lodge was obviously ideal but I noticed there were a dozen independent cabins which also looked appealing. Of course, there's also traditional tent camping and an RV site. Actually, the overflow area is cheaper and has better views than the formal campsite.

View from just outside the lodge

The western edge of the plateau
Despite the resort-like feel of the lodge and cabins, there's still lots of backcountry hiking and biking to be done. The best hiking/biking trail isn't even a trail though- it's a fire break! Brown Springs is an overflow camping and picnic area with a curiously unmarked trail leaving from the furthest parking area. The rangers told me it is one of the better trails because it has a dozen overlooks ending at the western tip of the plateau: a perfect sunset spot. It is a fire break but it feels like a trail and I had no problems mountain biking it. Most of the park's trails are only for hiking.

Mountain biking the fire break was a little precipitous in parts. Its only a few miles but I found myself stopping so much to take pictures that it took much longer than originally planned. The rangers gave me a trail guide which helped point out the better overlooks. I would like to come back during the wet season because there are several streams and waterfalls which were not running this late in the summer. Regardless, it was still pretty.

Cliffs of Mt Magazine

Fire break hiking trail
Another prime hiking trail is the trail to the high point. It doesn't have any expansive vistas that the other trails have but the satisfaction of summiting the Arkansas high point is enough. Well, it's also a nice walk through the woods. Like many isolated and relatively tall summits in the area, the "alpine" vegetation is stout and gnarled which is witness to the harsh environment. Its similar to the krummholz that is common at higher elevations in the northeast. At the actual high point, there's a rock-made map of Arkansas, a formal sign and a few trinkets from the Highpointers Foundation.
Summit of Arkansas
The Ouachitas have been delightful. From here I turned north and toured through the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri. It was far too late in the season to do any serious rafting on the Buffalo River which was disappointing. I did get plenty of information for a future trip. I felt a little sad that I didn't plan out my Ozark leg of the trip as well as I should have but next time I'll be better prepared.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Friday, October 10, 2014

Hiking and Exploring Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma

Robbers Cave is one of the favorite state parks in the state of Oklahoma. Its natural and human history have given rise to numerous hiking trails and legends surrounding its cave. For me, it had an uncanny resemblance to several parks out West.

Robbers Cave in the Oklahoma Mountains
Day: 28

Oklahoma continues to amaze as I drive through the relatively mountainous portions of the Ouachitas and Ozarks. This little gem was barely marked on my map but pictures of it flood Oklahoma tourism websites due to its uniquely rugged scenery. Robbers Cave has many legends surrounding it from famous American Outlaws Belle Starr and Jesse James. Certainly it would make an ideal hideout. These days, the large crevasses and precipitous cliffs make an ideal place for scrambling, hiking and rappelling. It reminded me of Joshua Tree, actually.

Robbers Cave State Park is a pretty large state park with hikes that can be up to 10 miles in length. The Cave itself is the most popular feature of the park but three lakes are open for recreation as well. Its a well run park which attracts visitors from all around the region and a few outsiders like me.


Driving the Talimena Scenic Byway, Arkansas and Oklahoma

An unlikely place for one of America's scenic drives is far from the Rockies or either coast. Located in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, the Talimena Scenic Byway is surprisingly mountainous and is a favorite drive for motorists and motorcycles on cross country trips.
This doesn't look like a typical scene from the Midwest, does it?
Day: 28

The further I'm going on this road trip, the further I come from all my previous perceptions of the Midwest and South. Oklahoma and Arkansas seem to have significant traces of both regional cultures and I don't know if I'd fully place either state in a single category. The Ozarks and Ouachitas are mountain ranges that run from eastern Oklahoma through northern Arkansas, southern Missouri and just briefly touch southwestern Kansas. Really, the area is its own region and functions somewhat like a state with similar heritage and culture. It is similar to how the Pacific Northwest is a multistate area with shared background and culture. I've enjoyed this part of the country immensely because both the topography and the people are much different than the way they are commonly perceived.

The Talimena Scenic Byway is a great way to experience the area. It runs along a massive and narrow ridgeline extending from the town of Mena, Arkansas to Talihina, Oklahoma and rides much like the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although not nearly the elevation of its eastern counterpart, the byway has a similar design with plenty of roadside pullouts with sweeping vistas and hiking trails.
Plenty of places for a picnic or campsite
The ridges and valleys of this area give it an Appalachian feel
Its so nice to be in an affordable part of the country for a road trip. I filled my tank in Arkansas for something like $40 and headed up the byway from there. I was actually the only person in a car on the whole road- most everyone else was on motorcycles. I could see how this could be a thrilling ride for those used to driving across the surrounding flatlands.

It was good to start at one of the visitors centers. There's a visitors center just outside of Mena known as the East End Visitors Center which was very helpful. (The West End Visitors center appeared to be closed). I didn't realize that there are over two dozen vistas just off the highway that serve as photography moments and tell the history of the area.

I decided to spend a leisurely day just visiting the vistas and hiking around the few side trails when they were available. Sure I would have preferred some more epic singletrack or hiking but I was contented with a more relaxing pace. This isn't to say outdoor adventure isn't available- right at the beginning is the Earthquake Ridge Trail too which is a somewhat maintained mountain biking trail. The long-distance Ouachita Trail also runs across the ridgeline and parallels the road. Parts of it were a little overgrown but its an up and coming trail. The area isn't as well developed for mountain biking as nearby Hot Springs and Mt Ida but there's potential.

A foggy morning below made for some great pictures

Yes, this is Oklahoma
The highest point on the drive is Rich Mountain which is nearly as tall as the highest mountain in Arkansas. A road leads right to the top and the historical fire lookout. You can no longer get to the top but there are some interpretive sites and buildings. The road continues on through Queen Wilhelmina State Park featuring a quaint lodge and ample camping. Like the Mt Magazine Lodge nearby, the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge is quite chic. There's also a couple of well-established hiking trails. I wished I had stayed here overnight!

Shortly after the state park, the highway crosses in to Oklahoma and the vistas are just as glorious. Horse Thief Springs supposedly has mountain biking trails but I couldn't find them. I came across another great campsite which served as my lunch break. Winding Stair Campground doesn't have the amenities that Queen Wilhelmina does but it is secluded enough to feel like a mountain retreat. Some of my best pictures were from those vistas.
Near Winding Stair
Things begin to taper off as the road gets closer to Talihina but I couldn't leave without visiting another famous Oklahoma destination- Robbers Cave State Park. I headed down into the valley and enjoyed the view of the ridgeline I just crossed by car. I certainly never call Oklahoma or Arkansas "fly-over" states again!

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Monday, October 6, 2014

Mountain Biking Arkansas' Womble and Vista Trails

Arkansas is an increasingly prominent destination for mountain bikers. Although well known to a more local scene for years, even western folks like me pine for epic singletracks out in the Ouachitas. The Womble Trail and Vista Trails are not to be missed.

Day: 27

All my friends from New England and out West thought I was joking when I said that I'm most excited about seeing Arkansas on my great Southern road trip. I suppose that most of the world is unaware that Arkansas/Oklahoma/Missouri have the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains which are a perfect adventure destination. There's everything here, mountain biking, hiking and river rafting. I could have spent a month here but I only had a few days to check everything out. Therefore I hit the Womble and Vista Trails on fat tires, per the recommendations of Parkside Cycle.

Interestingly enough, the greater Hot Springs area has been a tourist destination for the better part of a century. In the past, wealthy travelers came to the area for the cathartic and resort nature of the springs. Buildings and monuments have an odd Greek and Roman design to them. These days the area is heavily touristic but there's enough outdoor adventure to keep folks like me occupied and away from the city's hustle.
Bathhouse Row is a relic from the gilded age
Mt Ida is about 40 minutes from Bathhouse row and Hot Springs and serves as a centerpoint for all things mountain biking. The nearby Vista Trail is a relative newcomer to the area and is a tough trail for mountain biking. It stays near the perimeter of Lake (reservoir) Ouachita and ranks somewhere between a blue square and black diamond in difficulty. Some sections roll and travel quite nicely while others are twisted and loose. There are options for rides as short as a few miles and rides that could take all day. I didn't want to miss out on the more famous Womble Trail but I believe this one will suit a more technical rider than the Womble.
Thankfully, there are plenty of benches overlooking Lake Ouachita for amble rest periods.
The Womble Trail is the why-go-to-Egypt-and-not-see-the-pyramids trail of Arkansas. It is a 39 mile singletrack that's mid-level difficulty and well managed. There are several points of entry too which allow the biker to decide if they want to do the whole trail or just a section. Trail conditions are pretty good; most of it is well packed with some sections of scree and tough crossings. It wasn't as difficult as the Vista Trail but I actually liked having a more cross country ride. A few spurs offer sights of the Ouachita River too. Some spurs are just nice dirt roads-
Spur Trail off the Womble
Most of the womble was a relaxing ride
I really just scratched the surface of the booming mountain biking trails in Arkansas. Other riders had traveled as far away as central Texas and Tennessee for these rides. IMBA gives the Womble an "Epic Ride" status which is the highest honor a trail can receive. Perhaps as a Chicago resident I will have to travel down here on a semi-regular basis.

For now, I would leave the mountain bike trails behind and take a trip up the Talimena Scenic Byway for some great sights.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Hiking Driskill Mountain, Louisiana State High Point

Driskill Mountain is the third shortest state highpoint in the United States. Louisiana is a land full of adventure but most of it is flat. This isn't to say there isn't plenty to do but hiking the high point was a very brief adventure. The view was nice though!
Driskill Mountain Summit
Day: 26

I was disappointed that I wasn't doing a better job of exploring Louisiana. It is a state that shares a surprisingly similar cultural heritage to Maine where Acadian takes on a similar meaning. With all the swamps and "bayou country", I'm sure I would have had a better time on my kayak than simply driving through and hiking the high point. At least I visited the famous Duck Commander in West Monroe.

For its comparatively modest elevation, Driskill Mountain actually feels like a mountain in the low hills of Northern Louisiana. There are some fleeting views from both the hike and the drive. Here's a map-

The "climb" starts at Mt Zion Presbyterian Church off of State Route 507, southwest of Ruston, Louisiana. While it's all paved state roads to get there, it is in a particularly rural part of the state. There's no cell phone reception nor nearby services. Parking at the church is welcome and there's a sign at the parking lot noting the state high point.

In previous times the summit was difficult to reach because it involved traversing many unmarked trails and logging roads. One had to follow a very prescribed set of distances and turns to make it to the summit. Summitpost has an excellent article regarding this. These days an Eagle Scout project has made the hike very well marked and straightforward. The roads and trails are almost entirely on private land. To ensure access remains unrestricted, don't do anything other than hike and enjoy the scenery; no campfires, camping or harvesting wood/plants.

I wasn't sure what to expect in Northern Louisiana at first. Generally I think of this area as flat and mostly farmland but this part was heavily logged. It reminded me of my home state of Maine, actually. Logging trucks would fly right by and most of the smaller communities seem to depend on the industry as much as rural Maine.
Presbyterian Church and parking area
This isn't the summit but a sign marks the area
I really enjoyed this hike. The forest surrounding the summit has probably been logged in the last few decades but it still felt lush and natural. Views were occasional but not missed. It didn't take more than about 20 minutes to get to the top. The Highpointers Club maintains a great summit area and the Eagle Scout Project has contributed significantly to the aesthetics. 

Two additional areas can be explored. There's a little clear cut area that offers a little view towards a nearby summit that's just a tenth of a mile away. Another highpointer bench allows the hiker to spend a few minutes enjoying a rare view of Louisiana. Just south of the summit is perhaps the second highest "mountain" in the state. It can be semi-bushwhacked or one can take a faint herd path around the area. There isn't a view to be had but the forest is pristine. Make sure to follow the blue blazes and never cross a fence or any other area that appears to not welcome hikers.
Quite enjoyable for a 500' summit!
Summit Register and Markers
This was one of the more enjoyable "little highpoints" I've hiked. I look forward to exploring more of Louisiana in the future.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Hiking Woodall Mountain, Mississippi State High Point and Vicksburg National Military Park

Woodall Mountain is located in the very northeastern corner of Mississippi near Iuka. It is pretty much a drive-up high point with a little monument maintained by the Highpointers Foundation. On the other hand, Vicksburg National Military Park is maintained in pristine condition by the National Park service and serves as a fitting memorial for our Civil War.
The highest hill in Mississippi!

Day: 25

My 28th state high point would be my 2nd shortest after Delaware's high point. Alabama is often thought of as a flat state which is hardly the case. On the other hand, Mississippi is mostly low country. This isn't to say it isn't beautiful but it will leave the mountaineer something to be desired. I did enjoy several historical sites in the state though!

Highpoints such as Denali, Rainier and Whitney have been well known for perhaps hundreds of years. Robust climbing and mountaineering industries surround these high points. For lower highpoints, most are entirely maintained by locals in conjunction with the Highpointers Foundation. This group does a fine job of preserving these locations and promoting both local and natural history. Woodall Mountain is the only state high point to play at least a minor role in Civil War history. The summit monument and the locals of Iuka pay tribute to its role with the summit's monument.

Here's a map-

Getting to the top wasn't very difficult other than the fact that it was a long drive from anywhere. The last mile of the road is gravel and surprisingly steep in some sections. Most cars will be able to get to the top but you could potentially turn this into a 1 mile hike by parking at the Baptist Church in the summit's shadow. There are directional views at the top as a consequence of the radio towers and telephone lines. A summit register, historical monument and Highpointers bench are other inhabitants of the summit.

I signed the logbook only to find that a family from my hometown in California was there the day before. Small world.
Summit monuments
I watched the sunset from the summit and made my way south to visit a friend in Columbia. Although I don't have as much general information on the subject, I did enjoy the drive down Nanchez Trace all the way to Jackson and eventually to Vicksburg National Military Park.

This blog focuses more on outdoor adventure than history but the two intersect quite often. I couldn't even begin to explain the historical significance of Vicksburg Battlefield but it should be put as a destination on a road trip as frequently as Gettysburg. The battlefield is very well preserved and telling in the history of one of the key battles of the Civil War.

I imagine that many people would avoid such places in the south for fear of "the South will rise again" sentiment. This isn't communicated in this historical site. Instead, it is a very fitting yet haunting reminder of the loss of humanity that came with brothers fighting brother in our country's darkest time. Vicksburg was a key victory for the North in turning the tide of the war and controlling the Nation's largest river. Both sides paid dearly in this battle and every state that lost soldiers has erected monuments in their honor. Additionally, the USS Cario is preserved to remind viewers of the role and loss the US Navy played in this war.

Visiting this national memorial was a somber reminder of the real cost of being able to freely move and visit all the beautiful places of this country. It put my entire road trip into perspective. I hope that you are able to visit this important site in your travels.

Read. Plan. Get Out There!