Last Friday, I was toiling away at the office and slowly counting down the hours until closing time. But around 10:00, I got a message from Zack asking if I'd be interested in going on a camping/hiking adventure with him up in the Ozark Mountains. He wanted to hike the Goat Trail, which sits high above the Buffalo River.
I requested, and got, the rest of the day off and just a short time later we were driving north towards the Buffalo. To reach the Goat Trail, you have to hike three miles along the Centerpoint Trail. We were going to camp along the trail that night, so we also had to bring along tents, sleeping bags, food and various assorted pieces of camera equipment.
The hike down was quick and easy, thanks to it being mostly downhill. We made good time, and finished the three mile hike in about an hour or so. We only passed four people on the hike, all of them coming back up the trail. One group said that they had hiked the three miles down, and then just turned around and came back up without going out onto the Goat Trail. We both thought it was somewhat strange to make that hike without visiting the trail's star attraction. But as odd as that was, seeing other people made bizarre hiking choices on that trail would turn out to be the theme for the weekend.
After three miles, you pass through a wide clearing that marks the spot where the Goat Trail branches off from the Centerpoint Trail. It is a perfect camping spot, and it came already equipped with some fire rings. We quickly set our camping gear aside and headed down the Goat Trail. It felt a lot lighter to just be carrying the camera equipment...
The Goat Trail runs for about a mile out to Big Bluff. At first the trail runs through the woods, but it quickly meets up with a bluff line. Trees block your view for most of the hike, but once you get out on the bluff the trees are gone and you are greeted with a panoramic and breathtaking view of the Buffalo River.
A view of the Buffalo River from the trail - note Zack in the picture for scale.
The Goat Trail runs along a natural ledge, which is almost as if someone put in a sidewalk along the bluff. Big Bluff is about 560 feet tall, one of the tallest on the Buffalo River (depending on which source you trust, the tallest is the 590 foot-tall Ludlow Bluff near Rush). The Goat Trail runs about 340 feet above the river. It's definitely high enough to make you a little scared of heights.
The Buffalo River curves around a large bend here, passing by a few (relatively) small bluffs.
The Goat Trail reminded me of the time I visited the Grand Canyon. The view here is so vast, so impressive, that it is difficult to really capture it with a camera. It's really something you have to see in person, since the sheer size and scale of the bluff doesn't translate well in a picture.
And the Big Bluff, like it's name suggests, is massive. At 560 feet it towers high over the landscape. For a bit of comparison, the tallest building in Little Rock is only 546 feet tall (the 40-story Metropolitan National Bank Building). The Goat Trail, at 340 feet, is taller than the fifth tallest building in Little Rock (the 331 foot-tall Union National Bank Building).
Now just imagine a bluff that is taller than every building in this picture....
Actually if you were able to magically scoop up the Arkansas State Capitol and drop it down along the Buffalo River at the base of Big Bluff, you would still have 110 feet of empty space between the Goat Trail and the top of the dome. It's seemed almost impossible to grasp the size of the bluff. The views were still awesome though.
As the Goat Trail makes it's way along the bluff, it is blocked by a foot-thick buttress of rock. To get around it, you have to either crawl through a hole in the rock, or bypass it by taking a trail that runs close to the edge of the bluff. The hole isn't a natural one, it was actually carved out of the rock around 1910, in order to make a somewhat safer trail for area school kids to take while walking to the Centerpoint School. Seriously, kids walked along the 340 foot tall bluff every day to get to school.
The Goat Trail runs past a few alcoves, which were claimed by several buzzards. They got angry when we approached, and they took off and flew in circles high above us. But speaking of animals, the Goat Trail did actually get named because of goats. Apparently in the 1950s, a few goats escaped from a nearby farmstead and wandered around the ledge. The stench from their droppings, it was said, lingered for many years. And on that pleasant note, let's return to our story...
As we were up there taking pictures, two kayakers appeared on the river. We waved at them, even if they looked like tiny dots on the horizon. When they got closer they waved back, and then pulled up to camp across the river from the bluff.
When I left Little Rock earlier that day, it was warm and sunny. But up at the Buffalo it was cold with a light rain/drizzle. There was a touch of fog drifting along the tops of the mountains.
We probably spent about two hours up there taking pictures and soaking in the scenery. But since it was starting to get dark, we reluctantly headed back to our campsite. I got one last picture before we left...
I bought a new tent that I was eager to try out. It's one of those one-person tents, which was light enough to make it a nice thing to have on a 3 mile hike. So I attempted to get it set up and no surprise, started having some difficulties. One of the things that I hate about camping are tent pegs. Those damn things never work right, and it's always nearly impossible to get them to go into the ground. I gave up on them, the ground there had maybe a half-inch of dirt before you hit solid rock. I tried banging the pegs with a rock, which only helped to bend them, before they would just lamely fall over.
I was ready to give up and just sleep in the tent without it being put up. But with Zack's help we were able to rig it up - using some nearby rocks to tie the guy lines onto. He only called me a noob a few times during this...
After that, we set out to build a campfire. It had rained the day before, and it was drizzly all of that day. So any firewood that we found was a little wet. It took awhile to get a fire going, but eventually we had a pretty good one blazing away. We sat back to relax, have a few drinks, and lazily look at the fire.
Occasionally, I heard some animals off in the distance. Coyotes! I could easily imagine them attacking the campsite and trying to eat my tent.
We were planning on going back out onto the bluff early the next morning, eager to catch an awesome sunrise. So by about 11:00, it was about time to call it a night. But suddenly, in the distance, I saw some lights. I immediately thought it was the light of the campfire reflected in the eyes of some blood-thirsty coyotes. Oh crap, here they are!
But no, the lights were from flashlights. It looked like someone was hiking down the trail towards the campsite. I logically assumed that it would be one of the following:
1). Sexy lady hikers who needed to warm up by the campfire.
2). A murderer.
3). Coyotes, who somehow learned how to operate flashlights.
4). A bizarre combination of the above.
It seemed like it took forever for the hikers to make it down into the clearing by the campsite. As they got close enough, one of them yelled out a "hello!" and we hollered back. It turned out to be about 15 teenagers, part of a church youth group from Tulsa. For some reason, known only to them, they decided to start hiking the Centerpoint trail at night. They didn't know where they were going, or what was on the trail. They seemed to be equally surprised to find out that they had hiked three miles, and that they were this close to the Goat Trail. They did also seem startled when we told them of the probable proximity of coyotes...
They came in and crowded around our campfire to warm up (it was about 45 degrees that night). They told a few ghost stories, and then turned around and began to hike the three miles back to the trailhead. It was about 11:30 when they left, so they probably got back well after 1 am.
I couldn't imagine hiking that trail at night, or just heading off into the woods without knowing what you were getting into. It was really bizarre.
The next morning we woke up before dawn and headed back out onto the Goat Trail. The hope was that we would catch some cool fog along the river, or at least a nice sunrise. But neither of these things happened. We did stay awhile and enjoy the nice view again. I did try to do a panoramic shot from there - this is three shots stitched together:
Then we hiked back up the hill and started to gather all of our camping equipment. With everything packed and ready to go, it was time for the long hike up back to the trailhead. What had been a deceptively easy hike the day before was now a long slog up the hill (with the added fun of the weight from the backpacks!). But we made it back to the car after about an hour and a half or so. We didn't see our friends from Tulsa out there still, so at least they made it back safely.
But the morning was cloudy and rainy, which was perfect conditions for waterfall photography. So after happily discarding the packs in the back of Zack's jeep, we headed out to visit a nearby waterfall...