This would turn out to be a mistake.
It is expected in forested, mountainous areas to lose your cell signal. We thought we were prepared for that though. If nothing else, the Suburban has GPS. Kinda. Turns out you can only input degrees and minutes … and those seconds are kind important … but I digress …
We knew we needed to get to Langley and enter the forest just north of there. It turned out to be a pretty drive approaching the mountains. Our excitement mounted with each glimpse of deep green crests in the distance as we rounded switchbacks in the road.
A sign welcomed us to the Ouachita National Forest, and the Albert Pike “Campground.” I’m actually rather surprised it is still referred to as a campground, as parking is not allowed and overnight camping is forbidden. In June of 2010 a flash flood caught vacationers unawares in the middle of the night and 20 people were killed. The campground has been shuttered ever since.
It was eerie, passing through with everything basically left just as it was before the flood. Bathrooms boarded up with weeds and young trees overtaking the concrete. Forbidding rocks enforcing the slashed camping and parking signs. Information signs standing silent, their posters long since faded, degraded, unupdated.
We had been watching the weather for over a week. Part of the trail follows the Little Missouri, and the entire loop includes 28 water crossings. Only one of them is a bridge. There is a USGS water level gauge you can text which we needed to remain at 4.5 or below in order for the deepest crossing to be passable.
Flooding had already been on my mind. The abandoned Albert Pike Campground sent chills down my spine and made it very real.
Due to our backtracking at the start, we were later than we intended and decided we would camp in the car for the night. But we had to get to the trailhead first. The pavement abruptly ended, and we came to a Y in the road.
To the right, the gravel road continued. To the left, a well maintained low water crossing boasted a sign indicating you should not stand on or fish from the bridge. Both roads were unlabeled. Google maps confidently directed us to turn left. The low water crossing sealed the deal. This MUST be the way. It looks more challenging.
|As it turns out - This is NF-512|
|And this gravel road to the right is actually FS-73 ... which we came down a few days later ...|
|Typical of the many low water bridges we crossed ...|
There was a turnaround area - I’m still not sure what it was … a makeshift campground of sorts? Tim hopped out of the car and waded partway into the water. Still passable. So we pressed on.
Nightfall comes on quick in the mountains. There is no slow race to the horizon … the light doesn’t become long and lean, stretching shadows as if lingering ... reluctant to give this day up to the moon for the night. The horizon rises up to meet the sun, and the trees collude in obscuring it’s rays as it is swallowed by the earth earlier than conveyed by its hues.
The forest was growing more forbidding. Real or imagined, it was pressing in closer to the car with each moment that passed. The water crossings were each deeper than the one before. Always cheerful and sure, Google insisted we were getting close. Suddenly this no longer felt like the right way to go.
At the last low water crossing the water was over the small “bricks” that formed the edge on the downstream side. The next one might be too deep even for our heavy vehicle. The road was too narrow to turn around, and it was becoming too dark to safely back over the crossings we had already passed. The upstream sides dropped off sharply into deep water with culverts sucking whirlpools through to the other side. Backing over the side would mean getting stuck at best.
Tim took over the driving and got us turned around. We went back out the way we came, hungry and frustrated. We debated … do we drive all the way to Mena and use the verbal directions from the Forest Service? Do we try a different trailhead? Do we go back to Texarkana for the night (the last place we knew without a doubt had hotels and 24 hour restaurants)?
I tried putting GPS coordinates for the trailhead we wanted into the Suburban’s GPS only to find someone thought it’d be a good idea let you use latitude and longitude … kinda. There was no space for seconds. Which meant our location was “about” where we were looking for. Northwest of Hot Springs. At least it was in the right state … but the Little Missouri-Athens Big Fork trailhead is NOT Northwest of Hot Springs.
We opted to trust Google one last time to take us to a different trailhead. We wouldn’t be starting where we had planned to, but that would be ok. Right?