It has been a little over a year since I started camping, hiking, and trail running and it is time to up the ante. I've been considering a backpack trip to explore more of Arkansas, but I haven't had the courage to just go. All of that is changing in October. I'm planning my first overnight hike/backpack trip to Butterfield Trail at Devil's Den.
I chose Butterfield because it isn't that long, just 12 miles, and could be done in a day if someone so chose . I've read online where folks do the full hike in 7 hours (which seems a little too quick to enjoy) so it seems a good place to start. In fact, as long as things go well and I don't get eaten by a bear or mountain lion, I want to make a backpack trip an annual event in October of every year. I was born in October and I can't think of many better ways to celebrate, but to get out in nature.
I can admit, always being a "car camper" and "day hiker" so far, this trip (despite being relatively short), is a little daunting. Walking out into the woods with nothing but the pack on my back is something I've wanted to do for years, but never seemed like something I would actually do. The time, however, has come. So, you'll see a lot of posts in August and September about planning the trip. In fact, the first thing I thought about was, what will I eat, and those planning posts will start popping up on the website next week.
Not nearly as big as other parks like Devil's Den or Village Creek, Crowley's Ridge makes up for size by being a very pleasant place to pitch a tent and relax. One of the other cool things about Crowley's Ridge is that, honestly, it is unexpectedly forested. While I expect heavily wooded areas in NWA and around the St. Francis National Forest by Marianna, I generally think of the area leading into Jonesboro to be the flat delta, an area to farm not forage. I was completely mistaken about that, and it shows just how much I have to learn about this state. In fact, Crowley's Ridge State Park is built on what was an Indian campground
I got to the visitor's center, checked in to my campsite, got a map (and a couple stickers), and immediately went on a hike of the Dancing Rabbit Trail. Dancing rabbit is a 1.25 mile trail that swings down into a gully much like the mountain bike trails recently built in Bella Vista. It is a simple hike without any tough climbing involved, but was a fun little trip into the natural environment of Northeastern Arkansas. The high spot of the trail is a swinging bridge.
After hiking the trail I decided to set up camp. I pitched my tent on a tent pad, set up my fire in a fire ring, and cooked dinner. I was happy to have the campsite completely to myself until just before sundown when a couple other vehicles turned up and I had company. They were, thankfully, almost as quiet as me and I was able to settle in to sleep just after nightfall.
I awoke just as the sun was coming up, and used a sterno stove to brew a little coffee before tearing down camp and heading to my next destination. I'd like to stop in again to Crowley's Ridge and rent a kayak. I know the park hosts a 31 acre lake and I'd love to explore it next time.
My wife and I woke up early to get ahead of the heat as the weather forecast called for 90+ degree temps without a cloud in sight. I packed my daypack with a few granola bars and an ice cold hydration pack I'd taken from the freezer the night before. My goal was to not only take in the scenery and hike a trail, but to also check it out for a possible backpacking trip in the fall. I've never done an overnight backpacking trip, but it is something I've always wanted to get into.
In truth, besides being a chef and writer, I have been an avid skateboarder for over thirty years. Skateboarding has, for better or worse, always been the first and foremost activity outside of work and family for me. The downside of being absolutely devoted to skating is that I have let opportunities to do other things pass by me. Those things I always wanted to do but have not include camping, hiking (backpacking), trail running, cycling (mountain biking), and bushcraft. So, in August of 2019 I decided to fix that. I have done all of those things I didn't let myself do, and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I haven't, of course, quit skating. Instead, I've focused on freestyle and distance skating. I freestyle for at least an hour a day at least five times each week, and I compete in The International Distance Skateboard Association challenges each month. When all is said and done, I've become a much better skater and I've broadened my scope of life.
Anyway, back to Devil's Den!
We got off the interstate and made the drive down into Devil's Den, which you must admit, sounds really cool to say. It was about twenty minutes into the drive when we saw the sign letting us know we'd arrived. As we continued in we passed cabin sites, some of which already had activity bustling around them as campers headed out for hikes and cooked breakfast. It appeared that new camper cabins were being built as well, and the construction team was already hard at work.
We had to wait a few minutes for some folks to finish up in the visitor's center (only four people at a time during Covid-19), but I was able to get a hiking map and some Devil's Den stickers to commemorate the occasion. I always buy stickers at state parks I visit (although I wish I would have started that tradition from the first time I visited a state park). The visitor's center was very sparsely filled with items. I don't know if that is because of Covid-19 or if they keep it so sparse all the time.
After looking over the map, we decided to hike The Devil's Den Trail, which had a trail-head just behind the visitor's center. The Devil's Den trail is 1 1/2 miles of fun, rocky trail with interesting caves and caverns along the way. It passes by Lee Creek, but it has been so dry lately that there wasn't a lot happening. I will say that the creek was clear enough to see the fish swimming around. According to the Arkansas State Park website, this trail is, " This rocky trail is a perfect example of the rugged Boston Mountain terrain," and I'd say they are perfectly correct in saying that.
After leaving the trail we explored the park a little bit including hiking a little of The lake Trail and checking out one of the bridges. We passed by the pool which looked amazing after hiking in the July heat.
My plan is to backpack (or possibly bikepack) The Butterfield trail in late September or early October when the heat isn't as bad, and I can use my hammock set up
Just off highway 64 about an hour away from the Tennessee border is Village Creek State Park. Village Creek is somewhere around 7,000 acres with a lot to do including golfing, camping, and hiking. Not being a golfer (I just don't get the desire), I chose to camp and mountain bike during my brief visit. However, I must admit, it is very hard for me to write about my experience in a positive way because I never should have gone in the first place.
I lift weights every morning before I start my day during the week, and the Friday morning before visiting Village Creek I decided to increase my weights by a few pounds too much. I pulled a muscle in my lower back which I tried my best to ignore during my trip down from northwest Arkansas through Russellville, Bald Knob, and Wynne. I continued to ignore the pain as I checked in to my site, put up my tent, and took my mountain bike down from the back of the car. I even ignored the pain as I rode my mountain bike on the m.b. trail.
I could not, however, ignore the pain as I got off of the mountain bike. I could barely walk. Getting onto my sleeping bag and pad was a challenge, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to get up off the ground in the morning. In fact, I wondered how I might get an ambulance to help me, the pain was that bad. So, I was laying in my tent by 6 p.m. Friday night and didn't attempt to get up until 5 a.m. the next morning. And that was excruciating. It was equally as excruciating as I loaded my gear, took down my tent, and put my bike back on the car rack. Immediately after leaving, I went to Wynne and purchased pain meds, some instant ice packs, and a back brace. It would be two weeks before I could pick up another weight or go running.
So, with all of that said, how was Village Creek!
Village Creek isn't the place that you're going to get freedom from everyone like Lone Pine outside of Marrianna, and it isn't mountainous like Devil's Den. It is, however, a huge park with very friendly staff, an equestrian campsite, tons of places to hike, a 27 hole golf course, and two lakes. It is also very convenient to Wynne, a small and pleasant town on highway 64.
Just below Windsor Creek Dam and just off Lancashire Boulevard in Bella Vista, is a two mile circular nature trail called Tanyard Creek. Tanyard Creek is not only easy to hike or trail run (no bikes allowed), but it also boasts a beautiful waterfall and has access to the miles and miles of single track mountain biking trails. It might seem odd to have a no bike trail connected to MTB trails, but as a trail runner it is wonderful. You know you won't have any bikes along this part of the path, but you have the option to make your run much longer by skipping over the the MTB trails. In fact, this is my favorite place to run for two reasons:
1. I have great memories of getting turned around with my son and my niece on one of my first visits here.
Several summers ago I brought my son and niece to Tanyard Creek for a little dayhike. We walked the paved trail toward the first bridge then circled to our left to go up to the waterfall. We came back down and made our way around the trails until they were sufficiently worn out and ready to head home. I, however, didn't realize that there were two nearly identical bridges. I kept circling around to the same bridge, the whole time wondering how in the world we could be lost in such a small park (I'd never been on the other side of the trail by the way). Finally, I figured out my mistake and we were able to get back to my vehicle. I think about this memory every single time I step foot on the trail.
2. It is where I learned to trail run.
For the first several months of off-road running, Tanyard Creek was the only place I'd go. I learned the trails backwards and forward and pushed myself time and time again before branching off to start running the mountain bike trails. It is, after all, an easy trail to get yourself acclimated to off-road running. You will have to run on dirt with some very rocky areas. You will have spots where you may have to cross water (depending on rainfall). You have some elevation changes but nothing that will make you feel like you suddenly took up mountain climbing. And when all is said and done, you're right by Bella Vista proper if you want to run by Harp's Grocery for a snack or down to JJ's for a burger and a beer.
I pulled off of a gravel road and into my campsite just as the sun started to sink behind the tall pine trees to the west of me. As it was so late in the day, I hurried to get my tent set up before the sun was completely down. It isn't that I couldn't set up my tent with a headlamp and lantern, but the threat of rain was in the forecast and I didn't want to set up a tent in the dark during a downpour.
I did, however, take the time to light my sterno stove to get dinner heating as I worked on the tent. In fact, dinner was just heated as I finished the tent and got ready for an evening spent among the trees of Prestine Pines Campground, a hipcamp I had recently found.
What is Hipcamp?
Hipcamp is a website (and app) that provides a variety of campsites for rent around the country. Think of it as air b-n-b for campgrounds. I had recently signed up on the app and was eager to find my first hipcamp. Prestine Pines, which is located about fifteen minutes from Searcy, Arkansas, seemed like the perfect choice.
I chose Prestine Pines because I travel, back and forth, the length of Interstate 40 across Arkansas twice each month, and the proximity of Searcy to 40 isn't too bad. In fact, anytime I have an excuse to cut over to highway 64 or any other back road highway is a great thing to me. It is nice to slow down, enjoy the drive, and see the farms, wooded areas, and small towns I pass.
Prestine Pines is a primitive campsite in the opening of grove of pine trees not far from a field of cattle. While it is a little close to a main road (I could hear some traffic as I settled into my tent), you do feel alone in a peaceful environment. The site can host up to four people (although I go solo). It is set up for campfires and has wood for burning (that I didn't use since it is August and I brought my d.i.y. sterno stove to cook with). You will get a cell signal at Prestine Pines. You are provided a 5 gallon bucket toilet, however, you will have to pack out your waste and garbage.
After dinner, I settled into my tent with a book, relaxed, and finally fell asleep waiting for the rain to wake me up. Instead, I woke up to my alarm. The rain didn't happen, so I set the sterno stove back up, made some coffee, and watched the sun rise above the trees.
I've been thinking of riding the entire 36 mile Razorback Greenway trail from Lake Bella Vista to Fayetteville since I first rode the Lake Bella Vista Trail several years ago. And I'd made a few five mile trips from the lake to Crystal Bridges over the years since then, but I'd never gone beyond that trek.
So, I decided to explore some more of the Razorback Greenway on a longboard.
I started just after dawn. The fog was still moving along the surface of the lake as I kicked and began coasting along the trail. The Razorback Greenway into Bentonville, passing by Crystal Bridges, is a long, winding trail full of hills some of which were far to much for me on a longboard. Just before Crystal Bridges, I was forced to pick up my longboard and walk, the hill too steep to keep any momentum while pushing.
But, once into downtown Bentonville, the land levels out and I was able to push through, even making my way to an underground tunnel.
The south Bentonville portion of the trail, however, was a little on the lackluster side of things. The trail butts up against 14th street leading into I-49 and the border to Rogers about 7 1/2 miles into my journey), where I decided to turn around and head back to Bella Vista. In all honesty, I wasn't even sure if I was still on the trail anymore. It was basically a sidewalk along a very busy 14th street, and the sidewalk was full of pebbles. I wasn't sure how long the trail remained like that, so I decided to head back.
The high points of the trail from Lake Bella Vista to Rogers happen around Crystal Bridges (the amazing art museum of Northwest Arkansas). You'll see statues, greenery, possibly even wildlife along the trail at that point.
My favorite stopping point along this portion of trail is a monument of sorts called, "A Place Where They Cried," which commemorates the hardships of American Indians forced to migrate west across Arkansas. According to the signage next to the monument, the installation is nearly two miles south of one of the Trail of Tears routes.
I'm planning on picking up the trail from Rogers on my next Razorback Greenway ride.
Have you ever driven down a dirt road and thought to yourself, "I think I've gone too far. I must have past my destination?"
Just after asking myself that exact question, I saw the entrance to Lone Pine, a campground at the Mississippi River State Park just outside of Marianna, Arkansas (about an hour south of Memphis).
Lone Pine is one of several campgrounds at the state park, but it is the only primitive campground with no potable water and no electricity. Surrounded by a lake on three sides, the campground is quiet, nestled away from the RVs (and noisy RVers) at the campsites with water and electricity. In fact, it was the perfect place for me to brew a cup of tea on my sterno burner and read a book.
While you are in a primitive site, each campsite does have a fire pit and grill sitting next to a picnic table. An outhouse sits in the middle of the campground and the campsite does have a place to put garbage into strong metal receptacles with lids to keep any wildlife from scavenging garbage.
While I only spent one day and night at the campsite, but it was a great, relaxing experience surrounded by trees and peace. In retrospect, I would have spent some extra time at the state park. I would have gone swimming in the lake. I would have gone on a hike along one of the trails. Unfortunately, I was concerned about possible thunderstorms coming in that afternoon (they never showed up, btw). I was concerned about traveling to the site and putting up my tent during a downpour, so I opted to hit the campsite as soon as I got to the park. Then, once I had my tent set up, I didn't want to leave it unattended. So, for the next trip, I'm going to explore before I burrow in for the night.
David Thornton is a two time national award winning writer, chef, husband, father, and fitness enthusiast.