As a lover and avid explorer of the Ozark mountains, I was surprised recently to find myself in personally uncharted Arkansas territory.
Just four hours south of northwest Arkansas sit the Ouachita mountains, a must-experience for outdoor enthusiasts. Distinct from the Ozarks in their shaping through plate collision rather than water carving, the Ouachitas offer a unique magic and array of trails of their own.
The first time I visited the Ouachitas was last summer for a leisurely weekend of camping. While heading to swim in the river we bumped into a couple, carrying hefty packs on their back. They were in the middle of backpacking a 26.8 mile loop. Inspired, we vowed to make it back during the colder months.
A weekend trip in late January finally brought myself and two others back to tackle the multi-day hike we’d been dreaming of. The Eagle Rock Loop is a connection of three trails — Little Missouri, Athens, Big Fork, and Viles Branch Trail — each with its own unique challenges and jewels.
For those looking for an alternative to the Buffalo River Valley, or other Ozark Mountain classics, I’d highly recommend this trek. Close enough for a weekend trip, this mountainous loop offers a fresh perspective on our state resembling the ecosystem of the lower Rockies.
The Eagle Rock Loop is one of thick evergreens and recurrent river crossings. It is one of steep climbs and spacious views, of physical challenge yet mental freedom, and offers those who take on the feat a rich reward around every corner. Trails carved into the faces of six different mountains, the loop leads its visitors to six unique panoramic views.
The mountains are only fully appreciated atop these peaks, vistas where the landscape is fully revealed through 180 degree scopes. While this loop is technically defeatable in one day (sunrise to sunset status for ultra inshape individuals), I was certainly happy that my group decided to split the loop across two and a half days.
Day One: Northwest on the Little Missouri
Day one of our hike began around 5 p.m. at the Albert Pike Recreation Area, a great starting spot just off Highway 369. We started counter-clockwise, or North, on the Little Missouri Trail, following clearly marked white trail blazes alongside the Little Missouri River. We quickly realized that this loop would include regular river crossings, and so we carefully forded (shoes off, kneedeep) the Little Missouri four-plus times in that first evening.
As there is no better time than the present, I will take this moment to caution had we done the trail during the rainy season, overall loop duration would have been significantly more challenging as the 20+ river crossings would have been much more time consuming, or at worst, impossible to ford. Check water levels with park rangers before start of the loop.
At dusk of day one, we had chalked four miles, a nice jump start to the full day we had planned for sunrise the next morning.
Day Two: Consecutive Summits on Athens-Big Fork
Day two started at a nice pace. From our camp we traveled northwest for 6 miles of nearly flat land.
When we arrived at the 10.4 mile marker, the junction of the Athens-Big Fork Trail, the loop turned south and picked up quickly. We set our stride and began climbing toward our first summit, Hurricane Knob. Elevation gain from valley to peak was 410 feet within half a mile. This rigorous climb set precedent for the following five peaks of the Eagle Rock Loop, each gaining great elevation over short distances of trail.
The Athens Big Fork section takes hikers over five prominent east-west trending mountains. After descending from the fourth ridge we surveyed our energy levels at Blalock Creek. A restorative hammock-over-creek nap and food break inspired for one last climb for the day up Bushy Heap Mountain. After a most challenging 800-foot haul to the summit, we rested our packs and set camp at the base of a spur trail awaiting sunset.
The short spur trail led to Eagle Rock Vista, which, according to a fellow loophiker is, “the best spot in Arkansas for sunset and sunrise watching.” Despite a long day on our feet, we were pumped and made no hesitation up the short-yet-steep climb to the vista.
The sunset’s display was absolutely incredible, leaving us feeling rejuvenated by the ease of our surroundings. Views of Viles Valley (the hike to come) and Big Tom Mountains were displayed. At 1,760 feet, the wind swept fast and we watched the sun nestle between two distant valleys. Later that night, after a warm campfire dinner and general unwind, we went back up the spur trail to soak in the grandiosity of a clear night sky.
Day Three: River Forging toward the Finish Line
The next morning, with 10.4 miles remaining we packed up camp and continued the loop. This remaining mileage was far less strenuous than day two’s mileage, and we only had one large climb left to accomplish. At the 18.5 mile marker is the junction of Viles Creek Trail, which was marked by yellow trail blazes. Here the trail runs flat, but crosses the river 11 times. At mile 22, the trail turned into Little Missouri River, a deep and wet crossing no matter the season. Afterward, the trail connected to the southern tip of the Little Missouri Trail. After stunning rest stops and possible swimming holes, the trail finished with a rocky 300-foot climb overlooking the Albert Pike Rec Area start.
Down for the Hike? Next Steps:
Like I said, I would highly recommend backpacking this loop. While I have hiked demanding trails before, this was my first full-weekend backpacking trip and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. If you’re in relatively good shape and up for a challenge, this loop should not be a problem. Always check weather conditions and water levels before taking on the loop. No matter your experience level, this loop will challenge the mind and body, but is well worth it for the incredible vistas and chance to experience a new Arkansas landscape.
For more information check out the Ouachita Maps Trail Guide or the Backpacker’s Guide to the Eagle Rock Loop. Resources that were particularly helpful for us included the Waterproof Trail Map (available at PacRat Outdoors Center) and a copy of the trail-mile marker. Be safe & adventure on!
Ashleigh Rose (@aroseprice) is a Fayetteville native, yoga instructor, and blog producer for Fayettechill Outdoors Co.