Mulberry

_MG_7044This is one of my favorite spots in Arkansas. It is a pain in the butt to reach.

These falls and their hollow are part of a creek that runs alongside Mulberry Mountain, former home of the old Wakarusa music festival. I never came for the music, but some friends and I hiked to the nearby Mountain Creek a little more than four years ago (I posted about it here). I’ve wanted to go back since. It’s no 100-foot Cedar Falls, but it is a lovely, peaceful little swimming hole in the middle of Ozark National Forest.

The hike there, on the other hand, was not peaceful. The path is unusually steep and difficult, mostly straight down the mountain and therefore deeply eroded and rocky. But worse were the gnats and flies. I don’t know whether one group of them followed me or if I was just the baton in a relay down the mountain, but the dots darting around in front of my eyes and the whining buzz in my ears were literally, maddeningly constant. One big specimen pursued my camera lens no matter how much I swatted at it. Every now and then a metallic blue, sinister-looking wasp would fly in a straight line over the path, ignoring me. If only the rest followed that example.

There would be no relaxing until I got to the valley floor. And that’s too bad, because on both sides was a smorgasbord of fungi like I haven’t seen in years, if ever.

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Some toadstools glistened wetly, while others looked soft as velvet. All were just the most visible part of a network of fungal filaments busy decomposing things beneath the surface.

I couldn’t spend much time with many of these beauties because of the gnats, but the bug issue surprisingly died down a bit when I reached the creek, where that sort of thing can be at its worst. I guess the spiders are more effective down there, since there were plenty of those, too. It seemed like I was the first visitor in a good while. The rest of you are missing a genuinely idyllic place, once you get past the rude, buzzing neighbors.

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_MG_7024Thanks for looking.

Petit Jean

_MG_6811.JPGI’ve heard the name Petit Jean, a state park that’s pronounced “petty jeen” in these parts, for years. After a good dousing of rain hit the state, it was high time for the park and I to meet. It sits about two hours southwest of Fayetteville and seems small as natural areas in Arkansas go, stretching about four miles from end to end. But Petit Jean still has plenty to its name, including one of the most impressive waterfalls in the state.

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_MG_6662.JPGThe approach to the park is fairly flat, but the park isn’t, generally following a deep valley carved into a mountain by Cedar Creek. Rocky outcroppings called the palisades mark the entrance from the west.

In my eyes, rocks like this show a place’s personality. Much of the Badlands is jagged and crumbly, for example, while the Black Hills and Yosemite Valley are rounded and strong. The rock at Petit Jean reminded me of home in northwest Arkansas, with smoothed, wrinkled sandstone boulders and bluffs splashed with moss and lichen.

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This particular trail took me to the valley floor accompanied by a small stream with stair-step falls, then Cedar Creek itself. All of the recent rain had turned part of the trail into its own little waterway. But yesterday’s weather was beautiful, and I shared the path with dozens of people and tiny mushrooms.

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_MG_6777.JPGEven with the creek’s gushing at full strength, I could hear Cedar Falls before I could see it. The water tumbles about 100 feet, more than the Twin Falls at Devil’s Den and Eden Falls in Lost Valley. A constant, light rain dripped from the bluffs above.

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_MG_6827.JPGI didn’t have time to do everything I wanted at Petit Jean — there’s a whole other trail to the south that’s much longer than this one and includes hollows and formations called turtle rocks. But this trail by itself left me sweating and breathing hard, especially on the climb back up. Definitely a worthwhile first meeting.

Thanks for looking!

With flying colors

_MG_4271.JPGI got a dose of wildness right next to a Sam’s Club and an interstate highway in Fayetteville. A 121-acre wetland prairie called called Wilson Springs Preserve sits there, owned and managed by the nonprofit Northwest Arkansas Land Trust. It’s strange in some ways to call the place wild: A lot of human effort and machinery is almost done mulching trees and invasive shrubbery to get it back to its original state. But, to me, it felt wilder than some others I’ve hiked.

It might be because of the green and blue and white and gold-flecked dragonflies that continuously zoomed around me, or the vivid, metallic ebony jewelwings and dogbane leaf beetles. There were the tiny tadpoles that filled short-lived puddles to the brim and later emerged as toads the size of a fingernail. I heard the huffs and grunts of startled deer and carefully stepped over two box turtles. There was no avoiding the squads of ticks, some just a couple millimeters across, pulling themselves up my legs like gung-ho rock climbers scaling a cliff. And I had two experts with the land trust on hand to introduce the area and some its inhabitants to me Friday for a newspaper article. They’re probably the real reason for how I felt about the preserve. They helped me see it’s thick with life.

Speaking of that article, here’s what’s happening: The land trust works to either preserve or restore tracts around this corner of the state and is launching a campaign to bring 5,000 more acres into its protection in the coming years. The trust says wetlands like this one and other pieces of land, even farms, can clean rainwater and soak up its floods, protect rare species of fish and reptile and insect — the benefits go on and on. I’ve got a lot more information in the story here.

I didn’t have my camera with me Friday, and with all of these living things buzzing or growing in every direction, I had to go back. So I was up with the bugs the next morning.

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_MG_4229.JPGThe land trust holds tours here, but the preserve generally isn’t open to the general public; I had to sign a waiver to get in. Trust director Terri Lane told me it could open fully sometime in the next year or so. If you end up going one way or another, I’m not kidding about the ticks. I recommend a good coating of repellent, khaki pants to make the bugs obvious, and a thorough screening when you get home. That’d probably be a good approach for any hike, really, since tick-borne diseases are surging around the country. But don’t let the ticks stop you.

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_MG_4169.JPGThanks for looking.

Dan