Rock House Cave: Petit Jean State Park
I'm certainly not a photographer, but here are a few shots from Rock House Cave at Petit Jean State Park. If you're passing by Morrilton and have an extra hour to spare, this is the place to stop.
I stepped onto the Pigeon Roost Trailhead at 4:45 P.M. on Friday June 25th, 2021. I had no idea the evening I was about to have.
I made it to my campground at about 6:10 in the evening. I was drenched in sweat (it was close to 90 degrees F that afternoon), and ready to rest in the woods for the evening. I set up my tent while listening to an audiobook recording of Tristessa by Jack Kerouac. When my tent was complete I settled in to have a beverage and make myself some dinner. It was a quick backpack meal of mashed potatoes and Spam. I love the single serve portions of Spam for backpack meals. It has a good amount of salt, fat, and protein. When added to a high carb dish like mashed potatoes, you quickly begin to feel like yourself again after eating. The rest of my food (oatmeal and coffee for the morning), I hid out in the woods far from camp so even if a critter finds it they won't associate it with my camp.
After dinner I sat down to write a rough draft of a poem and watch the day turn into night.
Around 9:30 I crawled into my tent to sleep. BUT! But, about ten minutes after getting into the tent I heard a visitor enter my camp. It sounded like a racoon or two, something small looking for food. After about ten minutes the noise went away and I started sinking into a light sleep.
About 11:00 I was awakened by my second group of visitors. From the sound of the footsteps, I am pretty sure this group was deer. They were around for a few minutes, just long enough to wake me up, before they galloped off into the woods.
About midnight I was awakened again. This one scared me. I mean scared me.
The footsteps on gravel were deep. This was a very large animal. A very large animal. And it wasn't keen to leave despite my speaking and noise making. It wasn't afraid of my voice or the noises I made. It looked through my camp for a few minutes and left.
Well, it left for a little bit, but it decided to visit my camp again about an hour later. I heard the same deep, weighted footfalls into my camp. I listened closely to hear where it was at any point, but just when the noise seemed to disappear, the scariest part of all happened. Four distinct sniffs then a pause before another four distinct sniffs just at the rear of my tent. It was sniffing me to see if there was anything (besides me) to eat.
Surprisingly enough, I wasn't petrified by fear. With my wits still about me, I calmly replied to the sniffs that there was nothing to eat in the tent. I then took my two knives and smacked the blades together to make noise. Deciding that nothing in the tent was worth going after, I heard footsteps move away from the tent and, eventually, out of my camp.
I laid back down in my tent. By now it was close to 1:30 a.m. I waited for the loud footsteps to return, but I finally fell asleep and I was able to seep through until about 5:00 a.m. when I woke up and waited for the sky to be light enough to pack up and leave.
When the sun was up, I left my tent to look for my food pack. It was nowhere to be found. Something found it in the night and had a treat.
With no coffee to get me going, I packed up my belongings, strapped them to my back and did the four mile trek to the Trailhead.
If I'm honest (and I'm going to be), Pigeon Roost Trail at Hobb's State Park was a little bit of a disappointment. However, I have to qualify why it was a disappointment. It was only a disappointment because it looks exactly like the forest around my home. Hobb's is the nearest state park to me, and the Pigeon Roost Trail, for all the great nature around me, looked like I was hiking the MTB trails around Bentonville and Bella Vista. I was, after all, still in the neighborhood, and if I have the option to run, bike, or hike a trail that is (or feels) familiar, I'm going with run as the first choice. I love trail running in places I know, and I felt like I knew Hobb's immediately because of the landscape. Much of the trail was a ravine just like Bella Vista's MTB trails.
Still, I had a great morning doing a four mile loop at Hobb's, and unlike Bella Vista, I was able to sit down and rest at an amazing overlook. One of the great things about a solo hike is hitting the point in the journey when you become a philosopher. There is nobody else around. You have run through all your daydreams. You begin to think about what you believe in and why you believe it. Sometimes it shows the flaws in your logic and gives you the opportunity to change.
I will say that this was supposed to be my weekend to overnight backpack, and I decided not to camp mid-week because they were calling for storms. I didn't want my first overnight backpacking trip to be miserable because of some strong thunderstorms. Just last year (13 months ago to be more exact), we had some storms that became torrential downpours with incredibly dangerous straight line winds that knocked down trees all through Northwest Arkansas. Those storms, and the damage I still see in the forests around my house, were on my mind when I canceled the backpack portion of my Saturday trip.
Of course, by Saturday morning the storms were out of the forecast, but I decided to return home Saturday afternoon and relax with a campfire in the backyard with my wife instead of putting up a tent or hammock at the park. I still want to do an overnight backpack this year, but this wasn't the right weekend. I'm considering something in November or even, temperatures permitting, a December trip.
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
David Thornton is a two time national award winning writer, chef, husband, father, and fitness enthusiast.