For the more adventuresome hiker, someone who is not afraid to get dirty or hike a rugged sometimes non-existent trail, my all time favorite hike down Indian Creek fits the bill. Indian Creek starts high up on Mount Sherman in the Buffalo River National Park and winds through a steep canyon down to the Buffalo River itself. In all my years, I have mostly hiked this from Mount Sherman to the river and only once from the river up. Though technically more difficult (it is always more difficult going down than up) it is much easier on the lungs. The large majority of people and descriptions of this hike that I have found start from the river and go up… part way. Here is a complete rundown of the hike from top to bottom.
To access the top, you have to head northeast out of Ponca, Arkansas on U.S. Highway 74 and drive past the "town" of Low Gap. Past that around several bends, there is a dirt two track that leads north off the highway across a small pond dam and down into the trees. Though I have driven my little Honda Civic down to a clearing/parking area, it is extremely difficult to avoid getting high centered in the huge ruts that have washed out the road. I recommend a high centered vehicle such as a truck or parking up close to the highway and hoofing it in.
From the parking lot, I generally just start hiking down hill until I am gradually pulled by gravity into the Indian Creek canyon. When I first started going on this hike, the first part was extremely technical as you climbed down several areas where the creek has created large vertical drops from overhanging rock shelves. Not only was it kind of spooky but also it was very unsafe. Over the years, a trail has been formed that contours the east side of the creek for a ways before it drops down a very steep but not very dangerous nose down into the creek. I think the last time I hiked this, it had been extended further to a side drainage that was even easier to climb down and you entered the main channel right by one of the largest sycamore trees I have ever seen.
There is no trail once you enter the creek bottom because the easiest way is to hike around and over house-sized boulders lodged there. You wind your way down until a sheer rock face blocks the flow except for a large funnel shaped hole at the bottom leading through it. This is the Eye of the Needle. I have always wanted to "thread" the needle but it is too steep to do so without rope and so I take the alternate route which is a steep, root pulling, boot slipping scramble up and around this formation. At the top before you start down the other side, you can climb another thirty feet up directly above the "eye" where you have a commanding view of the valley below. I have spent many an hour sitting there eating lunch, contemplating the world and perhaps grabbing a little nap.
Above the Eye of the Needle
The backside of the Eye of the Needle is every bit as steep as it was climbing up. I prefer to sit down on one boot with another boot stuck at in front of me and commence and controlled slide grabbing onto anything I can to steady myself. Others choose to just plant their behind in the dirt and slide with all four appendages being utilized for control. Once down, I generally hike back upstream a short ways to the base of the Eye of the Needle and look back where I had been. It seems a shame to do all that vertical gain and then loss just to go around forty feet of slick rock.
Below the Eye of the Needle
The next formation you will come to if you don't miss it is the Bat Cave. If you do miss it, you will almost immediately be rim rocked by a 40 or 50 foot vertical drop and know that you've gone too far. For many years, you could hike down into it during certain months of the year when gray bats weren't weaning offspring. However, I have heard that it is now permanently closed all year long, as the gray bats are an endangered species. For a decade and a half, I would climb down in this cave as far as I could see and then climb back out. One trip, I thought to take a flashlight for a more thorough exploration and discovered that the cave is actually a tunnel that comes out of the Arkansas Cave (thus named for the shape of the opening) opening further downstream.
Bat Cave Entrance
Arkansas Cave Entrance (at the other end of the tunnel)
Since the "trail" through the caves is no longer an option and a rather larger vertical drops blocks all those that can't fly, the only option is to backtrack up the creek from the Bat Cave opening and find a trail contouring the bluff on river left. This trail contours around a bend to what has been named the Crawl Through. The Crawl Through is essentially that, a place where you can crawl through a natural arch in the bluff and into a large rock overhang. As you can see from the picture, you have to traverse some pretty narrow rock ledges at the edge of the overhang to get to a spot where you can climb back down into the creek bed. This climb is another steep hang on to anything you can hike down with the last 15 vertical feet ending at a little sheer cliff. This is the technical part about going down for you can't see where to put your feet. Fortunately there is a nice sized sapling that grows from an intermediate ledge about 5 or 6 feet below the rim and you can grab onto that and lower yourself down to the intermediate ledge. From there, you can grab onto its roots for some nice solid handholds and lean back to see where you need to put your feet to lower yourself down the rest of the way.
Again you allow gravity to carry you downhill until you get rim rocked once again. During really dry weather, you can hike in slots carved by the creek and pass by this obstacle but when the creek is flowing, the only option is to backtrack once again upstream looking for a trail on river left. This trail will take you up and around a 100 feet sheer bluff and down a nose downstream of the bluff back to the creek bed. Be forewarned though that this trail makes the Goat Trail that I described in an earlier post look like a freeway. Fortunately, it is among lots of vegetation that you can hang on to maintain your balance but keep track of where you place those feet.
Back where you rejoin the creek, you can hike back upstream a ways to a nice slick rock section of the creek where there are plenty of nice places to relax to the gurgle of passing water and perhaps nap some of the day away. At this point, the rest of the journey downstream is pretty easy and in the recent decade has a pretty well defined path that avoids the loose rocks of the streambed. You will eventually meet up with the Buffalo River Trail that you can follow to Kyle's Landing, one of the few access points along the Buffalo River. There is a little offshoot trail along here that leads down to the bank of the Buffalo directly across Gray Rock Rapids. Back in the day, Gray Rock Rapids was one of the most feared rapids on the river and I personally witnessed it eat many boats. I myself, a pretty good boater, got close enough to kiss it a time or two if I hadn't been too busy paddling for my life. However, a big flood has flushed out the inside of the bend by the rapids turning it into not much more than a riffle that even a novice can navigate. This is generally where I take my third and last nap of the day dreaming of the good old days.
A few hundred yards away, you walk into the campground at Kyle's Landing where you have conveniently paid someone (used to be $20) to have your vehicle shuttled there and waiting. You did remember to do that didn't you? If not, it is a long steep hike back up to the top of the canyon. This hike is an all day hike by the time you arrange for your shuttle, drive to the top of the canyon, hike the canyon napping along the way, and the long drive back up the mountain.