All Systems Go!
Eagle Rock Loop Shakedown Hike
It’s time to hit the trail!
…well kind of. This is my last shakedown before the start of my CT hike. It’s a time to test gear, but also myself to make sure that I’m prepared for the challenges ahead. However, I felt it was more valuable as an introduction to trail life, to help me become comfortable with living in the outdoors. I was lucky enough to be accompanied on this trip by one of my awesome friends, Chase, and so here’s a summary of our 30-mile Eagle Rock Loop hike.
But First, a Bit About the Trail
Eagle Rock Loop hasn’t been covered much on this site before, so I thought I’d put my “elevator pitch” up for it. I’ve done this bite-sized trail three times now in three different seasons, and it remains one of the most magical hikes I’ve ever taken in the southeast. The trail could best be described in four distinct segments, each bounded by trail junctions/trailheads. The first (from the NW corner counterclockwise) is the difficult mountain section. In this rugged stretch, the trail goes up and over six ridges, each with 500-1000 feet of elevation gain. This section is full of quiet creek scenes and beautiful vistas.
From there, you enter the Viles Creek section on the south end, in which you follow a charming creek through quiet forest for a long amount of time. You cross the creek over twenty times in this section! While it may feel boring, the scenery is still tranquil and magical feeling.
After that, you enter the Winding Stairs/lower Little Missouri River section, with incredible views of the river and its rapids. There are incredible swimming holes, waterfalls, springs, and bluffs here. This is the section I’ve always enjoyed most– the hiking is easy and the beauty is just unparalleled.
And lastly, there is the upper Little Missouri section, including Little Missouri Falls and the younger forests of the north side of the loop. This section is less climactic.
A Trail Dialogue
Day 1: Arrival
The trail began for us at the North Athens-Big Fork Trailhead (which I wouldn’t recommend). This trailhead is actually about one mile off the actual loop and connects via an approach trail. From the junction at the trail, we headed south into the mountain segment. The first few climbs were hard, but they were quickly forgotten as we rolled into our campsite at Blaylock Creek. We were deep within thick forest here and could just barely hear the sound of the creek. I didn’t have much appetite, but still managed to make a groundbreaking discovery– peanut butter mixed with mac & cheese is actually pretty good. Crazy right? We hung our food, snuggled up in fluffy sleeping bags, and talked for a while. I fell asleep laughing, and before I knew it, it was morning.
Day 2: Hike Day
We woke up, and the clouds of the day before had dissipated. Overnight oats is an awesome meal to eat while moving, and so the first few miles flew by. Maybe it’s my hiker amnesia, but my first solid memory is standing on the top of Brush Heap Mountain feeling the breeze on my sweaty face. Thankfully, the climb I can’t remember is the hardest on the trail (lucky me?). The remaining mountains in the first segment flew by quickly, and in no time we were sitting up at Eagle Rock Vista, looking over the huge valley that held the next section of the trail. The variety and vigor of the wildflowers in this spot was incredible, and Chase decided to start collecting one of each type we came across. And the bees– we are both beekeepers, and there were bees trying to find a new home here. If only we could’ve taken them with us!
From there, we descended and met the first other hikers on the trail. Up to this point, I was starting to think we were the only ones out there– a rarity on such a popular trail. The Viles Branch section came and went quickly in comparison to the grueling mountains before it. The creek is incredible, yes, and there were moments where we stood struck by the intimacy of the beauty there. However, the trail is wide and flat, built to be shared with horses and the lack of hardship made me feel tired. The creek was too shallow to swim in, something we had hoped we could do there.
In no time though, we made it to Winding Stairs, the highlight of the trail. The river here is wide and deep, with spotty rapids and some of the best swimming holes in Arkansas (which is saying a lot). It was in one of these we decided to stop for lunch and swim a long while. The water is unbelievably clear and cold there, and made for awesome swimming.
From there, the next set of miles came easily. We passed through Albert Pike, a place which has always felt eerie to me. This campground was the place where 20 people died in a massive flash-flood. Since then, the campground has been abandoned, yet the trail still goes through it. The crumbling asphalt and boarded up buildings echo the memory of the pain this place witnessed. We left Albert Pike, passing through a section right beside the river. Perhaps four miles later, we swam at a (much less idyllic) swimming hole. From there, it was only a few more miles to our campsite.
We stopped with two hours of light left, but that was good because we had plenty of chores to do. Before we did that though, we went and explored around a beautiful, spring fed waterfall.
We (naturally) swam some more in the nearby river, washed our clothes out, and made some dinner. Chase was not a fan of ramen noodles.
Looking out from our tent, the stars were beautiful that night. A technicolor array of swirly stars made up the Milky Way, rising high above our campsite. Chase and I just sat watching for a while, and I was thankful to have him to talk with as we fell into exhausted sleep.
Day 3: Hike Out
Waking up the next morning hurt a little more. However, I felt better this time than previous times I’d done the trail. Good sign? I hope so. After a quick breakfast, we were off to Little Missouri Falls. When we arrived there, it was deserted. In the past, the magic of this spot has been limited by the multitude of sightseers.
The remainder of the miles came and went quickly, save for the awful approach trail. “Why is this my hobby choice?” I wondered again and again as we climbed that last mountain, overgrown with grass. But even that passed quickly, and we were back at the car. Naturally, we had to take some silly pictures to commemorate the moment:
We stopped in at Hot Springs on the way home and ate some awesome hibachi food from a food truck. From there, it was just the long drive back home!
Why Was this Important?
I struggle to explain the importance of things like this in words. What Chase and I did out there on the trail was simple– we walked, we swam, we ate, we slept. Somehow though, it was incredibly meaningful. Perhaps it’s just the intense quality time with someone I love dearly. Maybe it’s just living in the same space for a few days. It could just be the beauty and the moments of being awe-struck by nature. Who can really say?
This shakedown got me really excited for my CT thru-hike. To be able to do this every day for a month brings tears to my eyes as I think about what I’ll get to experience. However, it also brought a tinge of sadness into my thoughts. Before now, I never really considered that venturing out on my own would mean leaving behind people I love. Yes, I’ll meet awesome people out on the trail, but I’ll miss my friends and family back home. I’ll probably feel quite lonely at times. Such is the nature of thru-hiking I guess, but it doesn’t make the reality easier.
I’m so thankful that I was able to do this shakedown hike, and I’m so excited for what’s to come on my Colorado Trail thru in a week! Be on the lookout for more trail updates soon. Thanks Chase, for letting me drag you out on the trail with me!
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.