The Last Shakedown: Eagle Rock Loop, Arkansas

Eagle Rock Loop

Last weekend I hiked 26.6 miles in the Ouachita National Forest with a group of friends from REI. It was my last shakedown hike before the Continental Divide Trail in less than two weeks. I packed everything just like I plan to for the New Mexico Section of the trail, sun-brella included. What started as a routine hike quickly turned into a whirlwind adventure with rain, lightning, freezing temperatures, high winds, and blazing sun. It was a perfect storm of conditions to test my gear and experience the extreme highs and lows of backpacking with my friends.

Malea, Christian, and Tyrus contemplating how to keep our feet dry.

The Crew

I am so lucky to work at REI, not just for the advice or the access to great gear, but also for the people. There is always someone willing to go on a bike ride or chat about backpacking recipes for hours. Last month, Malea asked me about hiking Eagle Rock Loop. Soon we picked a weekend and added Tyrus and Christian to the group. Before I knew it, we were all in the car with nothing but our backpacks, and very different experience levels, heading to Arkansas.

Day 1: Athens-Big Fork Trail

Eagle Rock Loop is three separate trails that all connect to form the 26.6 miles around some of the prettiest parts of the Ouachita National Forest. The Athens-Big Fork Trail is where we started our journey. This section consists of several steep climbs up and over beautiful peaks. It’s the most grueling part of the hike but offers the most sprawling views. On day one, we set out with clean gear and high expectations.

On the drive up, we had done a last look at the weather forecast. It called for lightning and thunderstorms starting around 6 p.m. We planned to make it over as many of the major climbs as possible before the rain came. We did not want to get stuck on a ridge with the risk of lightning looming. Luckily, the weather held, and we made it four or five miles before the sky turned a scary shade of gray. The first few sprinkles came down just as the last stakes were in the ground and the tents (and tarp) were set up. We huddled around Malea’s tent eating dinner until finally the rain grew heavier and we retreated into our tents.

Malea hiding from the impending rain.

Day 2: Little Missouri Falls

I am so thrilled with how well my tarp held up! Even though the rain was constant for most of the night, I stayed perfectly dry. We all packed up our gear and took off into the cold morning. Fog and cool breezes followed us as we climbed over the peaks. We were able to complete all the steep stuff before lunch, so the rest of the day promised to be a bit more relaxed. Unfortunately, the weather never quite let up. Despite all our encouragement and high hopes, the clouds and cold persisted.

A few miles after lunch, we came upon a glorious sight: pit toilets and a trash can! What a luxury! We all dropped off some weight and then continued down the trail to Little Missouri Falls. Thanks to the rain and the high-water levels, the falls were spectacular. On a sunny day, we definitely would have stopped to enjoy them, but with a few miles left to go and cold wet feet, we pushed on.

Little Missouri Falls, Ouachita National Forest.

There were a few more water crossings in our last few miles of the day. We were able to hop across the rocks for the most part, but eventually, we gave up keeping our feet dry and just charged right across the water.

Our priority when we got to camp was to build a fire. Everything was wet from the rain, but we were able to find a few dry logs and pine needles and get a small blaze going. The fire pit looked like a garage sale with all our shoes, socks, and gaiters laid out to dry. Before we knew it, our eyes were drooping and our sleeping bags were calling. I convinced Malea to cowboy camp with me since we didn’t feel like setting up wet tents. We settled down and watched the stars as we nodded off.

Day 3: The Winding Stair

The night was cold, but the sun in the morning helped chase away the chill. We were all excited to have a warmer day, especially with the promise of more water crossings. We packed up, stuffed our faces with oatmeal, and then meandered along the Little Missouri River to the old Albert Pike Recreation Area. The trail became a bit more interesting with some washed-out stretches and confusing crossings. I had gotten lost along this stretch on a previous trip, so I did my best to keep my eyes open.

We ate lunch late in the afternoon at one of my favorite viewpoints. It’s a beautiful bend in the river complete with pebbled beaches leading to the water, cliff walls casting shade, and the deep blue water that is perfect for a swim on warmer days. We took advantage of the sunshine and sat down right in the water. Lunch tasted great with the water cooling us off and the sun warming us back up.

The last stretch of trail before we made it back to the car seemed to take the longest. We crossed over the river one more time, and then there was nothing left but a winding trail that led us back to the trailhead. We were sore, tired, and ready for some hot showers and warm food. After one last hill, we made it! Then began the process of removing our packs and transitioning back into reality.

Home Again, But Not for Long

The crew is back at work now. We’ve all been sharing stories and photos and looking forward to our next adventure. For me, that’s the CDT in less than two weeks! I’m confident in my gear and myself. My brain and my body are already in thru-hiking mode. All that’s left is to pay my taxes, say farewell to friends and family, and get my butt from Mexico to Canada.

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