Monday, July 6, 2009

Come Hike With Me: Big Bluff/Jim Bluff Traverse

When I want to take someone on a classic hike in one of my favorite places in the Midwest, the Buffalo River National Park, I will take them on what I have termed the Big Bluff/Jim Bluff Traverse. It's big on beauty and something that someone in half way decent shape can do albeit at a slower pace than someone in better shape.

The hike normally begins at the Center Point trailhead up the mountain from the small town of Ponca, Arkansas and directly across the road from where Fire Tower Road (locals pronounce it Far Tar Road) T's into the main highway. From there, it is almost all downhill, at least until you want to return. The trail itself mostly follows an old road that inhabitants to the area used before the area was turned into a Wild and Scenic designated park. The road itself was blocked off and for the last forty years it has been a foot trail. It winds down the mountain and eventually down to a pass where you have two options. You can see this trail marked in red from the upper left of the picture above to where it branches. The ex-road/trail continues on due east dropping off one side of the pass and there is a little single-track trail dropping off the south side. I normally drop off the south side in the direction of Big Bluff on what is locally known as the Goat Trail.

The Goat Trail receives its name due to the steepness and exposure you will find on this trail. Within a couple hundred yards, a vertical face hems you in to the east and a vertical drop of around 300 feet just a few paces to the west. With a good jump, you could perhaps make one bounce and end up in the river below sure to feed the fish population with what remains of your mortal body. About this time, you come to an alcove in the rocks where the ancient river eroded a layer of softer rock and thus left the Goat Trail. The alcove is generally my first stopping point on the tour after having walked about three and a half miles downhill at this point. You get a nice commanding view to the west, both upstream and downstream of the river. If you are lucky, you can sometimes glimpse some of the local elk or deer populations using the old river trails to cross the stream below.

Continuing on south along the Goat Trail from the alcove, things narrow up fast. Soon, there are several places where the trail narrows down to about three feet wide. You definitely want to mind where your feet are being placed and hug the cliff during this portion. After about 50 or so feet of this, the trail slowly begins to open up and you find yourself contouring around to the nose on the southeast side of Big Bluff. I generally follow the trail down the nose a short distance and then head due east as I have marked on the above map. The trail itself winds off to the west and down to the river at the base of the bluff but there isn't much to see except a hard bushwhack through tangled river debris so I take my shortcut.

The big caveat to the shortcut is that you must find a specific spot or you will end up rim rocked with no way down but to backtrack up and around. But at one spot along the 20-foot ledge or rock that stretches around the backside of Big Bluff, a chunk of the ledge has slumped off away from the rim a couple feet. Over the years, gravity, rain and dirt has silted in this crack creating a natural ramp. I call this feature Abbey's Crack. Holding your backpack above your head, you can turn sideways and shuffle down this ramp to the forest below. From there, it is a short though bramble filled hike down to the flood plain where you come across the remains of an old farmhouse. When I first pioneered this route, the house stood and you could go inside. It has long ago collapsed and is quickly being consumed by the surrounding flora but still obvious to the passerby. Below the house you quickly come to another trail that follows the river bottoms and is mostly used by horse packers. You follow it north until where it crosses the Buffalo River and then staying on the same side, bushwhack through an open forest to Jim Bluff.

Jim Bluff is a bench of layered rock that butts up against a deep pool on the Buffalo and is overhung by a huge shelf of rock. I don't know who Jim is/was but someone has painted that name on two of the larger flat rocks that have fallen from the overhanging portion onto the shelf portion. Years ago, there used to be a cable tied to a tree on top of the overhanging shelf that allowed people to swing out over the deep pool and release yourself at what seemed an absurdly high distance above the surface of the water. Probably for legality reasons, it was long ago removed. The Abbey's can sometimes be found there during the dog days of summer swimming and trying to soak up generally as much water as possible.

I have several memories of this place that I will quickly share. On one of my first trips to Jim Bluff when my dog Ted was along, he misjudged the crystal clear water for being shallow and attempted to run across it. He was quickly submerged and I can vividly remember him below water still running and a stream of bubbles coming out of his nostrils. Fortunately he was able to reach the far side in the swift moving current and after finding a shallower spot further downstream, able to swim back across. The second memory was hiking down one winter day and soaking in the south facing exposure that acts just like an oven when I found a tomato plant growing in a crack of the rocks with one ripe tomato, probably grown from a seed dropped from a sandwich of a passerby. I picked that tomato and ate it later in a sandwich of my own and think of that every time I am down there. The last remembrance happened on a hike down there one winter morning to find huge, sometimes twenty feet long, icicles clinging to the overhang. I think I about died and went to heaven chucking rock after rock up at them and listening to the resulting boom of a ton of ice shattering upon the rocks below echoing up and down the canyon.

On the northeast side of the bluff, there is a straight up rock scramble up and around the backside of the bluff where you rejoin the trail that led down from the previously mentioned saddle had you kept walking east instead of south. You can follow it a couple hundred yards on downhill to another cabin that is remarkably well preserved and former home of one of the last occupants in what is now that park. It has a beautiful view, a large orchard and rich river bottomland so I can see what attracted the former occupants. From there you can hike onto the largest waterfall between the Appallation and the Rocky Mountains but that is a through hike so we turn around and head back up the trail to the Center Point Trailhead 4.5 miles away. Round trip, this hike it about ten miles and can be done in an easy short day. It is a spectacular hike during leaf color or generally any nice sunny winter day when highs reach into the 50's.


Ron said...

"Round trip, this hike is about ten miles and can be done in an easy short day."

Ha! That's funny. :)


Murf said...

Geez, when I started reading this I thought this was one of those nice Sunday morning strolling kind of hikes. Remind me never to ask you to take me on a 'classic hike'. :)

R. Sherman said...

Just the other day, I came across some Buffalo River float and hiking photos, including several of Big Bluff. I've been up on that goat path a few times, though always from the river and never overland. I'm starting to feel the itch to return to Newton County.


Ed Abbey said...

Ron - Actually I was being serious. I usually figure on about an hour and a half each way and a couple hours loitering which comes to five hours, six tops.

Murf - Strolling kind of hike? What's that?

R. Sherman - I've been scratching that itch now for almost 28 years. I hope I have that many years left to continue scratching it.

Murf said...

You know...meandering. Non-sweat producing. I can wear my cute Converse that have no arch support and be o.k.

Beau said...

I think I've been there... but it didn't seem so involved! I hardly remember the trip, but spent a nice few days on that river.

Ed Abbey said...

Murf - I don't think any place with mountains qualifies.

Beau - You probably have. I would guess 99.9% of the people who have visited the Goat Trail hiked up from the river and those that saw Jim Bluff also floated to it from the river. There are a few people who know how to get to the Goat Trail and Jim Bluff overland because I see signs but to date, I have never seen a sign that anybody but myself has done the traverse between them through Abbey's Crack.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Abbey's Crack? Come on man, change the name to Ramp Abbey or something... anything but that. Sorry man, but i just couldn't let it go. Really, forgive me.