When I first heard about Eagle Rock Loop a couple years back, I was really excited to give it a try for a weekend backpacking trip. It would be nice to have a backpacking trip that was relatively close. This past weekend I finally got around to giving it a try. I started at the Little Missouri Trailhead on the NW side of the loop (where the Athens Big Fork Trail and Little Missouri Trail meet) and did the loop counter-clockwise. I’ll give an outline of each day below and then some overall thoughts at the bottom, along with some pictures, of course 🙂
I left OKC around 1:30 P.M. on Thursday, and got to the trailhead around 6:00 P.M. About the last 9 miles of the road are gravel. It’s in good shape with the exception of a few potholes. I was the only car at the trailhead when I got there. I was going to camp next to the parking lot, but there was a no camping sign posted, so I ate dinner and then got my stuff and crossed the river. Someone already had the established camp spot right across the river, so I started up the hill and found a (non-established) spot a couple minutes up the hill. While I was setting up camp, I noticed a tick crawling on my stuff. I was already nervous about ticks to begin with, so it didn’t help seeing one that quickly. Haha. After I got camp set up I went back down the hill and did some reading next to the river. While I was reading Rebecca came over and we chatted for a little while. Rebecca was the person at the established camp spot. She is from New Orleans and out of a job right now due to Covid-19, so she is doing a bunch of hiking around the area. She was at the end of her first day hiking the loop. After chatting for a bit we went back to our camps. I got ready for bed, finished reading the chapter, and then went to bed.
Friday morning I ate breakfast, got camp packed up, and hit the trail at 8:00 A.M. I took the side trail at the top of the first ridge (Hurricane Knob ridge), which provided a great view. After that it was down into the valley with Straight Creek, and then up to the top of the ridge of McKinley Mountain. Then it was down into the valley with Long Creek. I used my sandals to cross Long Creek. Of all the camp spots I saw along the Athens Big Fork (ABF) trail, the camp spots next to Long Creek were my favorite. After that it was up and over the ridge for the Brier Creek Mountains, and then down to Brier Creek. That was followed by the ridge for Leader Mountain, and then down to Blaylock Creek. I used my sandals to cross Blaylock Creek and then took a break for a few minutes. The crossing for Blaylock creek was a really neat spot. The trek down to Blaylock Creek, and then the trek back out, were the most difficult of all the valleys though. The next ridge was the ridge next to Brush Heap Mountain. I took the side trail that headed toward the top of Brush Heap Mountain. Part way up the trail, I realized I should have left my backpack at the bottom of the trail. I guess I thought the trail would be a little shorter. I turned around before I reached the top, but there were still some great views. I’ll have to go to the top next time I do the loop. After that it was down to East Saline Creek, and then up to Eagle Rock Vista.
I reached Eagle Rock Vista at 1:00 P.M. My plan was to camp at Eagle Rock Vista, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to kill that much time there. It was fairly windy there as well. I thought about continuing down to Viles Branch, but eventually decided to go ahead and camp at Eagle Rock Vista. I was completely worn out by the time I got there. I was really glad that was the last hill for the day. According to data from Charlie Williams’ website, it had been a combined elevation gain of ~2,150 ft. and elevation loss of ~2,000 ft. over seven miles for the day.
There were three camping spots that I saw along Eagle Rock Vista. I grabbed the middle one. I ate some trail mix and then got camp set up. I expected to have a lot of people come through during the afternoon, but actually had very few. I typed up some notes from the day, laid down for a while, and then did some reading. I noticed Rebecca walk by at one point, so a little while later I went and chatted with her for a bit. While we were chatting she mentioned she had cell service. I checked, and sure enough I had it as well. I resisted the urge to check anything since the point of doing the trip was to get away, so I turned my phone back to airplane mode. Haha. After chatting with her for a while I came back to my camp spot and worked on getting some pictures with my good camera.
I had quite a few people come through during the late afternoon and evening. Both of the other camp spots got occupied. I was hoping the wind would die down once the sun went down, but it stayed windy most of the night. I knew it would be a tough day, and it definitely was. I would put it right up there with the harder days I have had on trips in the “big mountains” (aka Rockies). It was fun seeing the different ridges and valleys, and Eagle Rock Vista was a nice reward at the end.
I have to admit that I did take advantage of the cell service on Saturday morning before I left Eagle Rock Vista to check the weather and make sure there still was no rain in the forecast. Thankfully that was still the case. I hit the trail at 7:40 and headed down to Viles Branch. I ran into Rebecca one last time at her camp spot shortly after getting on Viles Branch. We chatted for a minute and then I continued on. There were a bunch of stream crossings along Viles Branch, but thankfully I was able to cross all of them without having to change into my sandals. I really liked the hike along Viles Branch. That was my favorite stretch of the loop.
Shortly before reaching the Little Missouri River I caught up Nick, another person backpacking the loop. We chatted as we hiked along the trail. He was also from Louisiana, and had hiked the loop several years back. We got to the river around 9:45, and that was a definite sandal crossing. As I was going to tie my boots onto my backpack, I noticed that Nick had clipped them onto his backpack with caribeners. I had some spare caribeners, and had one of those “why didn’t I think of that” moments. So thank you to Nick for helping me out with that. It was definitely handy the rest of the trip. Once we got across the river I knew we were supposed to start going upstream, but Nick started walking downstream. Since he had done the trail before I figured he knew where he was going, but after a minute I asked him if we should be going upstream. Then he mentioned he was going fishing, so I turned around and went to find the trail. While going back to the trail, I managed to get a stick between my trekking poles and my legs, which ended up tripping me and I fell. Thankfully I didn’t hurt anything. I’m sure I made a great first impression with Nick though. Haha. I took a break for a few minutes before hitting the trail again.
After that I was on the struggle bus for a while. I knew I was supposed to cross the river again, and got to a point where I couldn’t see an obvious spot where the trail kept going straight, and it looked like a good spot to cross the river, so I crossed the river. I found out pretty quick that was not the right choice, so I had to go back and cross back over. Once I kept going straight I found where the trail was. Had I actually put myself in the right spot on the map, I would have known that was the wrong spot, but I didn’t have myself in the right spot, so that was mostly my fault. Shortly after that I went through the Winding Stairs area and crossed the river at the appropriate spot. The Winding Stairs area was a little anti-climcatic for me, so that had me confused as well. The stress/frustration about trying to follow the trail probably didn’t help. There were a ton of people there, which made me think I was closer to Albert Pike than I was, which also got me really confused. I found out after I got home there is a parking lot fairly close to Winding Stairs, thus why there were so many people. But that got me really confused as I was hiking through there. A while after that I came to a stream crossing that had blue markings and double diagonal white markings. The trail markings up to that point had been a single white rectangle. That got me really confused. After I crossed the stream there was a sign for a parking lot. Once again, I had no idea about the parking lot near Winding Stairs, so that again made me think I was close to Albert Pike, but a sign said it was still 2 miles to Albert Pike. So between the first river crossing and Albert Pike, I was all sorts of confused. Once I actually got close to Albert Pike and was next to the road, I finally realized where I was on the map. I got to Albert Pike at 1:00 P.M., and it was time for a much needed break and a reset. I was already fairly worn out, but knew I wanted to get farther down the trail that day.
I took about a 30 minute break at Albert Pike, during which I let my feet sit in the river for a few minutes, ate some trail mix, drank some water, and looked at the upcoming trail on the map. Then it was back to the trail again. There were a couple creek crossings shortly after that where I had to put on my sandals to cross. At the next river crossing I met Rainey and Gary from Dallas. I spent a few minutes there chatting with them. They had been on the trail the whole week and were on their way out. Gary recommended I check out the Ozark Highland Trail, so I’ll have to check that out at some point. Just before I left they pulled a couple packets of applesauce out of the river, which I thought was a pretty genius idea. I’ll have to keep that in mind for future trips. I was a little nervous to cross the river with them watching after what happened earlier with Nick, but I made it across fine. Haha.
While I was talking with Gary and Rainey, they mentioned they would likely camp near the double crossing down the trail. I had no idea what they were talking about, but it ended up being the next crossing. It was a creek crossing followed by crossing the river. I didn’t realize it was the double crossing though, so I put my boots back on after crossing the creek, and then headed down a social trail that went who knows where. After a short walk, I figured it wasn’t the correct trail, and then went back and realized I was supposed to cross the river at that spot, so I had to put my sandals right back on. I made it across there and kept on hiking. I found a decent camp spot shortly after 5:00 P.M. and decided to call it a day. I was really worn out again. I got camp set up and then took a dip in the river to rinse off. I’m usually not one to hop in a river, lake, etc. since I’m really not a fan of cold water, but I knew it was going to be a warm evening/night, and I felt gross, so I wanted to get cleaned off. It was definitely cold, but I felt a whole lot better once I got dried off and warmed back up.
After that I went and talked to Nick and Nicole. They were camped in a spot just up the hill from me, and had got there right after I arrived. They had driven up all the way from Houston. They hadn’t planned on doing the whole loop, but someone talked them into it after they started hiking. They didn’t bring any sandals with them, so they had done all the river/creek crossings barefoot. These are not nice, soft dirt bottom river crossings. These are rocky, slick, really hurt your feet river crossings. I’m sure I would have called it quits after the first couple crossings, but they had powered through, so kudos to them. I chatted with them for a few minutes then went and ate dinner. After dinner I got my good camera out to try and get some pictures since I hadn’t had it out since Eagle Rock Vista that morning. After that I read and then went to bed.
I knew Saturday night was going to be warm, so when I set up camp I unzipped my sleeping bag and had it available to use as a blanket, and slept straight on my sleeping pad. It actually worked out really well. I should have done that the prior night. Made me glad I got a sleeping bag that can unzip all the way.
All the river/creek crossings throughout the day that required sandals were a huge pain. I would estimate it easily added an hour to the hike. I will admit that the cold water always felt good on the feet though. Haha. It ended up being a 15 mile day, which I’m pretty sure is the longest I have ever hiked in a day. The only other day I can think of that comes close is a day in Utah that I believe was in the 13-14 mile range.
I hit the trail at 7:45 Sunday morning. About a 1/4 mile or so up the trail I reached Little Missouri Falls. I figured I was close, but I didn’t realize I was that close. That was definitely one of my favorite spots along the loop. Farther down the trail I saw some sort of large cat looking animal run off. If I had to take a guess I would say it was a bobcat, but I didn’t get a great look at it. It didn’t appear to be a mountain lion. I passed three different pairs of people between the falls and the trailhead, two of which I knew I had seen previously on the trail. One pair had camped up at Eagle Rock Vista the same night I did, and the other pair I had passed in Viles Branch. It was fun to see them again. I got lucky and met one of the pairs at what appeared to be a spot where I had to cross the river, but they let me know I could stay on the side I was on. Sure enough, I hiked about 20-30 yards and ran into the trail again. It looked like flooding had washed the trail out at some point. Huge thanks to them for the tip. I got to the trailhead at 9:40 A.M., which was the only place I had to use sandals for a stream crossing that day. I cleaned myself off a bit, changed into some clean clothes, ate a Clif bar, got gear loaded into the car, and then hit the road. I got into Mena, AR just after 11, so I stopped at Wendy’s and got a BBQ cheeseburger for lunch. That and the sweet tea tasted wonderful. Haha. After that it was back to OKC.
For not being a “big mountain” hike, I was actually quite impressed. You don’t get the grand views of the granite peaks, cirques, and alpine lakes, but it is a different kind of beauty. There are some pretty cool views from the ridges along the ABF, but other than that you are in pretty dense forest most of the time. The creeks and Little Missouri River have some really pretty spots. It was also really cool to cross the “little” Little Missouri River and the “big” Little Missouri River, and see it change from big to little along the hike. And for not being a “big mountain” hike, I was actually quite surprised with how difficult it was. If you don’t do ABF, it really wouldn’t be too bad, but the ABF adds a lot of difficulty to it.
If you do this hike when the weather is nice hiking weather, don’t expect to get away from people, although if you do it during the workweek the crowds would likely be smaller. Outside of the Winding Stairs and Albert Pike areas, the traffic really wasn’t too bad though.
Speaking of weather, be sure to be aware of what the weather has done recently, and what the forecast is. Heavy rains can cause the creeks and river to rise very quickly, and make crossings dangerous or impossible. Back in 2010 a flash flood of the Little Missouri River in the Albert Pike area killed 20 people. Charlie Williams has some good advice in the “Water Crossings” section on his page.
The trail is fairly easy to follow most of the time. There are definitely some confusing spots at stream/river crossings and where there are a bunch of social trails though. I never felt like I was completely lost, but I was definitely frustrated at times that it wasn’t marked better in spots. Be ready to go around, over, or under trees. There were lots of downed trees across the trail. Some appeared recent, but most of them looked like they had been there a while. Trekking poles were a tremendous help for the stream crossings. I probably would have used sandals at several more crossings if I didn’t have my trekking poles to help with balance while crossing on rocks, so I would highly recommend those. Also, bring sandals or some sort of shoes for water crossings. I wouldn’t recommend doing the whole trail in sandals, and I doubt many people will want to hike in wet boots. I talked to several people who saw at least one snake. Thankfully I never saw any. I never found any ticks on me, much to my surprise. I didn’t wear sunscreen at all. Between having pants, a long sleeve, a hat, and the trail being in the shade most of the time, I didn’t need it. That would probably be a different story if I did the hike in winter when the trees didn’t have leaves. I’m not going to be surprised if I start breaking out in a rash from poison ivy, oak, etc. I think I may already be starting to get a rash in a couple spots. Big question is probably how bad is it going to be. Haha.
There were definitely lessons learned on this trip that will hopefully make any future trips much smoother. I’m not sure if I would do it the same way next time or not. With all the different trailheads, there are many, many different ways to do the loop. I may try starting at Little Missouri Falls next time, go clockwise, camp in Viles Branch the first night and camp at Long Creek on ABF the second night. That would split up the ridges over a couple days, and spread the mileage out a little more evenly. Not really sure there is a best way to do it. The vast majority of people I talked to started at Albert Pike. With all the different trailheads, you can easily split the loop up into different day hikes if you’re not a fan of backpacking.
Finally, I hope I got everybody’s names correct. If not, I’m sorry. I tried to jot them down in my notes as soon as I could. Haha. Thank you to those who chatted with me for a bit and kept me company on the trail, even if it was just for a few minutes. I always enjoy getting to know fellow backpackers along the trail, especially when I’m hiking by myself. If you have any questions about the hike, don’t hesitate to reach out. I’ll do my best to try and answer. Also, just do a google search for “Eagle Rock Loop Arkansas” and you’ll be able to find plenty of other great write ups on the loop. I have placed some links to other write ups below.
I will likely get pictures posted from my good camera early next week. I’ll post on my Facebook page when they are up.