Ouachita Mountains backpacking, or how I will never backpack east of the Rockies again. Part I.


There are times in your life when you think you have come up with fantastic ideas. Like really, really, good ones. Someone must have thought that the mullet was a good idea for instance. Me cooking up a four day backpacking trip in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas with my husband was one such idea. We were going to test some new gear on the trail, get our feet wet with some "mountain" backpacking before our (then) planned backpacking trip on a portion of the John Muir Trail, and I was going to scope out some potential field stop locations for a geology field trip I was planning for work. It was going to be the best. It really was.

First, there are really no maps to speak of for what we were interested in. We scoured the internet, spent a silly amount of money for an alltrails.com membership (which has been languishing, forgotten, until about 5 seconds ago) doing research, and turning up just small jpg's of what appeared to be scans, of a photocopy, of an original trail map written on the back of a napkin. The scales were off, markers were largely absent, and distances were very "meh". But I'm a dogged geologist, and I make maps for a living, right? I stitched together a glorious google earth map of what appeared to be the ring trail in question, ran it through the plotter,  then taped the shit out of it for weather proofing.

Weather proofing. It was late May, and during this time in Oklahoma and Arkansas we were seeing some serious flooding. Like, taking out roads and bridges kind of flooding. The ring trail in question was littered with small creek water crossings, and a few major river crossings, which I had discovered in my research had gotten rather flashy during a storm and killed some hikers. Just things to note. We bought rain pants in preparation for monsoon conditions. Don't want your legs to get wet while you're drowning!


We set off. My husband and I drove the five or so hours to the national forest and spent the better part of the next morning looking for the trail head. Not off to a great start. We finally found the trail head after driving down nameless unmarked logging road after road, thoroughly confusing the GPS on the Jeep.  We finally set off on the N-S section of the trail which boasts being the hardest trail in Arkansas with 8 mountain summits in just 7 miles. We scoffed at the idea of this being difficult, I mean, we had just done the Rim to Rim hike in the Grand Canyon last year in 14 hours. Arkansas can't touch us. 

Being a reader of a photography blog (which is starting out nicely as a hiking misadventure blog) I don't expect you to know what novaculite is. It's a type of microcrystalline quartz that is particularly sharp, slippery, and generally nasty. The first few miles of the trail is only novaculite. We are basically hiking on wet arrowheads. Trail conditions didn't so much as deteriorate as we traversed further north, as they didn't really exist to begin with. The goat path of a trail that we were following shot straight up the first mountain, and disappeared off into the green tunnel of doom we would spend the next three days trying to escape.

My husband and I are not cranky people by nature. We sorta like throwing ourselves into challenging hikes and situations, then in the middle of it look at each other like, "well, time to get ourselves out of this nonsense now". Let's just say that there has been more than one self rescue in our relationship. But shit we were cranky about our current situation.

Giant mosquitoes hovered around us, just looking for a spot that we missed with the bug spray and occasionally throwing caution to the wind and going for a sweaty throbbing vein on a forehead. The humidity was unbearable. I already sweat through and soaked my pack after the first mountain ascent. A 35 pound back with camera gear and camp supplies weighed heavily on my shoulders. I had already developed the plodding upward hiking walk of a pack horse. We didn't look up as we hiked, because there wasn't a damn thing to see. The trail was a green tunnel of overgrown trees crowding the trail, choking out any chance of a breeze, or any sun had it been shining. Because it was sprinkling off and on of course. We were already so wet with sweat that it didn't matter if it was raining or not, there was no way we could get any wetter.

And the views, the glorious views we didn't see. We summited three mountains that first afternoon. Straight up one side, summit with trees, straight down the other side, pointless water crossing. Repeat. No switch backs, no good resting rocks with pretty little vistas. Just the buzzing of the mosquitoes and our heads hungry for some sort of reward for all this effort. 

3 miles down. 40 to go. Total pictures taken: 10. All crap.