This 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.
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.
Thanks for looking.
I’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.
The 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.
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.
Even 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.
I 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!
I 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.
The 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.
Thanks for looking.
I daydream sometimes about cutting loose, traveling the country and world to make amazing photos and write captivating accounts of them and somehow make a living with it all. If that’s ever going to happen, it’s a long way away. The idea can feel unattainable, like I’ve failed to grasp its secret, after years of galleries and art shows with only a handful of sales. I can’t afford the newest camera or travel for weeks or months at a time like Thomas Mangelsen or Ed Cooley, whose gallery is just down the street. It’s a bitter feeling that author Tom McAllister happened to describe perfectly in an article yesterday. Even after three books and prestigious reviews, his book reading events drew depressingly tiny audiences. He asked his wife before one reading if he could simply leave.
But just in the last couple of days, McAllister and my dad and others have reminded me of a different perspective to take on all of this: We write books or pursue some other creative work first for ourselves, because we love and need to do it. I’ve realized that my bitterness ignores a lot of important things, like the support I have gotten from loved ones and a few strangers, the blessing in having any of this to worry about, my gratitude for people like you who give me some of your time and attention. It ignores the old joy in the doing, the joy in my search with no end for new places and new points of view on familiar ones.
This post is about that last part. Some of us last weekend hiked and camped around Devil’s Den State Park and the surrounding Ozark National Forest, which are like old friends at this point. I sought different perspectives and explored them a little further than I have before. I did my regular hunt for new shapes and colors of fungi. In literally the last few minutes of the trip, I also found a spectacular reminder of why I do this.
I saw this vivid, foot-wide fungal behemoth just off the Devil’s Den Trail, gasped absurdly loudly and exclaimed a profanity a few times to myself. The prize seemed to glow in the undergrowth. It was easily the most magnificent fruiting body I have ever seen in person. I breathed quickly, terrified of not getting the perfect shot of it. I excitedly pointed it out to everyone passing by. I couldn’t help but smile for the rest of the hike. It’s ridiculous and nerdy, and I loved it.
And I’ve still only just begun. Thanks, as always, for looking.