Little Cow Creek?
Over the years, I have traipsed across the Ozarks on many an outing and had never heard of this drainage in Johnson County. When the Takahik River Valley Hikers announced they were leading a hike there, I pulled out my Arkansas edition of DeLorme's Atlas & Gazetteer to check it out.
A smile crept across my face as I viewed the tightly packed contour lines on hillsides bordering Little Cow Creek and the massive watershed feeding into the stream. I knew there had to be something in there worth seeing.
Sign me up.
The Takahik group is in Russellville, and the scheduled hike was in the mountains north of Hagarville and Fort Douglas and west of Big Piney Creek. Since I was coming in from the west, I chose the option to meet the group at the intersection of Arkansas 123 and Forest Road 1003.
When I arrived, two other vehicles had already pulled off to the shoulder of the dirt road. Temperatures were still below freezing, so everyone stayed inside their warm vehicles until the rest of the group arrived.
Glen Pagan was leading the outing. Soon his black Jeep Wrangler turned off the paved highway, followed by four additional vehicles. I grabbed my coat and joined the group gathering around Pagan to receive our marching orders.
He explained the forest roads we would be driving still had patches of ice and snow in the shaded areas but should not be a problem for an all-wheel drive vehicle.
Several in the group who drove small sedans hitched rides in fellow hikers' trucks or SUVs. I offered Allen Barnett a ride in my truck but explained there wasn't enough room in the cab for his Great Dane. Mojave would have to ride in the back. Barnett chose to ride in the back with his dog so he wouldn't get too excited. I presumed he was referring to Mojave not getting too excited.
Our merry caravan headed out on FR 1003 for about six miles, turned right on Pine Ridge Road and then drove another three miles. At that point, we maneuvered vehicles around in a clearing to the left of the narrow road until everyone had room to park.
LET THE FUN BEGIN
Pagan started down Pine Ridge's steep hillside with 13 happy trekkers trailing behind. This was bushwhacking at its finest, with little or no thickets and briars to trip us on our stroll through the forest. We drifted left until reaching the banks of a small tributary. Much like the water flowing in the stream, we then followed the path of least resistance. We took advantage of game trails and open corridors that appeared to be going our way.
We continued down the steep grade, losing more than 500 feet in elevation, until reaching the ledge of a 40-foot drop. We had arrived at Little Cow Creek.
Pagan paused at the bluff to count heads and ensure everyone had safely descended the mountain. After all were accounted for, we rambled along the rock ledge, enjoying views into the canyon below and being serenaded by the soothing melody of the fast flowing brook.
Over the years, the constant wearing of water had carved a polished slot through layers of bedrock. Soon the creek bed itself gave way, sending the stream over the edge of a cliff, crashing on a ledge some 10 feet below before continuing its journey to the pool 15 feet farther down.
This was Little Cow Falls.
As we inched our way to the ledge overlooking the falls, we were treated to not one but four tributaries pouring over the rim of a three-walled canyon. Pagan said he has visited the area after heavy rains and counted eight separate channels of water flowing over the canyon walls.
The opening was reminiscent of the missing tooth of a smile, the way the 30-foot-wide gaping crevice stood out in the otherwise smooth forest floor. Even Mojave appeared impressed, standing at the edge for a long time, peering into the fissure.
There was an unobstructed view of Little Cow West Falls across the gap. On that day, there was a nice flow of water from the main channel of the falls, along with a small trickle off to the left.
The view into the grotto from the top was spectacular, but everyone was anxious to explore the cavern from below.
We followed the bluff until we found a possible route down. It would be a steep and slippery path to reach the bottom. Doable but challenging. Luckily, Pagan had hauled in a rope to assist on the descent. He uncoiled the cord and tossed it down the slope. He asked Jorge Garcia to be the first to try it and straighten it out for others.
"I'll let the young guy do the hard part," Pagan said with a smile.
The rope provided the needed security and balance to make the descent easy and fun. One by one, hikers held onto the rope and cautiously backed down the hillside without incident.
LITTLE COW CREEK, TAKE TWO
Upon reaching the bottom of the canyon, we had an entirely new perspective on Little Cow Creek. Thirty-foot jagged rock bluffs now towered over us on each side. Our hike in provided a view of water dripping between layers of rock on the eastern-facing bluff. Now we could view the opposite side of the canyon, not visible from above. Having been shaded from the warm morning sun, rather than seeping water, dozens of icicles decorated the canyon wall.
The group scattered about to investigate the area, taking pictures and admiring this natural cathedral.
At the top of the west canyon, a ledge seemed to be reaching out to the opposite side. Pagan and I deduced that, at one time, this had formed a bridge across the opening. After more discussion, we decided that the entire grotto area we were standing in might have been a bluff shelter, with the water flowing farther downstream before dropping over the edge and creating the falls. Then one day, the hard rock stratum roof collapsed to create the canyon.
After a snack and pictures, it was time to cross the creek and continue our hike up the other side. We were fortunate that a slab of rock had washed across the creek to provide a natural bridge and dry crossing.
Another steep hillside greeted us. Only this time, we had to climb up rather than down. This seasoned party of bushwhackers didn't bat an eye. Digging their hiking poles into the hillside for traction, grasping rocks and trees, they climbed out of the canyon floor. Our efforts were rewarded with an even more spectacular view directly across from the mouth of Little Cow Falls.
We gathered at the top to enjoy the view into the grotto from the west ledge and allow everyone to catch their breath after the strenuous climb. Next, we explored the drainage feeding Little Cow West Falls. It wasn't long before we arrived at the base of yet another waterfall: 25-foot Elsie Falls.
By now, I'm sure you have picked up on the "bovine" theme in the names of area features. "Elsie the Cow" is the mascot of Borden Dairy Co.
Continuing up the drainage, we reached another fall that got its name from a famous cow: "Norman Falls."
Norman the cow co-starred with Billy Crystal in "City Slickers" I and II. He must have been a looker because Crystal himself picked him out of a herd of Jersey cows.
Returning to Little Cow Creek, we clambered upstream and discovered an even larger collection of ice formations that dangled below the bluff edge we hiked in on. The canyon walls were a-glitter with sunlight reflections within the icicles. I was reminded of orchestra chimes. Closing my eyes, I imagined hearing the faint tingling of tubular bells.
There were several creek crossings; however, everybody maintained dry feet by nimbly utilizing nature's well-placed stepping stones.
We passed "Queenie Falls," which was fed by the small stream we followed at the beginning of our hike. Queenie was a famous bovine who acquired notoriety by escaping a slaughterhouse in New York. Police chased her through the bustling downtown streets. After failing to capture her, they finally shot her with a tranquilizer. The department then had a big barbeque and invited everyone involved in the chase to partake in a bite of Queenie.
Just kidding. Queenie lived out her remaining years peacefully at the Farm Sanctuary.
Farther upstream, we reached yet another spectacular waterfall named "Cincinnati Freedom Falls." These falls were in a large, horseshoe-shaped box canyon, with deep, overhanging ledges encircling a large pool at the bottom of the falls. This would make a great swimming hole on a hot summer hike.
We could not have selected a more scenic setting for lunch.
JUST OVER 4 MILES
With full tummies and rested legs, we backtracked down Little Cow Creek until finding a break in the sheer bluff line. Pagan scrambled up the steep slope and secured his rope around a sturdy tree. It certainly made the climb out easier for everyone else.
The rope was a nice addition. It made the descents and ascents a fun adventure. Thank you, Glen Pagan.
Round trip, the hike was a little over 4 miles. I would rate it moderate in reference to effort and high on the "fun meter."
Hiking through open woods, scrambling down steep hillsides and picking a route on stones across creeks -- it had everything you would want in a bushwhack adventure. As for scenery, I was told this area has a larger collection of waterfalls than all of Middle Cow Creek and Cow Creek combined. It made for a very rewarding hike.
Oh yes, Cincinnati Freedom Falls was named after another famous bovine that escaped a slaughterhouse by clearing a 6-foot fence. She eluded traps, tranquilizers and the police for 11 days. I'm sure she enjoyed recounting these adventures to her herd of friends at the same Farm Sanctuary that adopted Queenie.
Little Cow Creek and other hiking destinations are described in Danny L. Hale's "Takahik Hiking the Arkansas Ozarks Central and Western Sections." You can also follow Takahik outings at takahik.com.
Bob Robinson of Fort Smith is the author of "Bicycling Guide to the Mississippi River Trail," "Bicycling Guide to Route 66" and "Bicycling Guide to the Lake Michigan Trail."