This is a piece I wrote for Backpacker Magazine. It was published in the November/December 2019 issue. Click here to see it on Backpacker’s website.
By Mara Kuhn
Sunshine sets the fall foliage around me aglow, each leaf casting a thousand shades of red and yellow against the blue sky on this rare, low-humidity fall morning in Arkansas. I’m about halfway along the 16-mile Little Missouri Trail, which follows its namesake river as it carves a narrow valley out of the hard novaculite of the Ouachita Mountains. I close my eyes to focus on the roar of the water as it cascades over massive boulders and into deep pools. That’s the sound of compromise between a persistent river and a stubborn rock. And this trail alongside both is the reward.
1) Follow the Little Missouri Trail, marked with white blazes, as it begins at its first river crossing. Note how small the river is here.
2) Immediately after crossing the river, veer east at the trail junction with the Athens Big Fork and follow the Little Missouri Trail 4.1 miles to Little Missouri Falls Recreation Area.
3) Continue along the paved path where rock outcroppings rise more than 50 feet above a series of waterfalls. The Little Missouri Trail snakes through these bald, knobby peaks dotted with pine trees. Camp in a nice flat spot at mile 7.5.
4) Next day, continue south along the Little Missouri Trail. At mile 13, veer south (hiker’s left) to stay on the trail. Need to bail? The shuttle car you parked yesterday is .1 mile to the north (hiker’s right) via a spur.
5) Continue south for 2 miles to the Winding Stairs, the crown jewel of the hike, and set up camp within earshot of the river.
6) Next day, retrace your steps but take a left toward the parking lot at mile 17.2.
Pitch your tent along this long, flat stretch of trail at mile 7.5, or hang a hammock under the old-growth pines and fall-perfect hardwoods. Bonus: The drum of cascading water echoes off the rock wall on the other side of the river, amplifying its hypnotic sound.
There are no designated spots, but impacted sites with fire rings dot the area around mile 15.1. Best bet: Throw down just before the trail climbs over a large boulder. This impacted spot is nestled between the hillside and a rock outcropping and offers an excellent view of the river.
The Little Missouri River cuts through a narrow belt of novaculite, an extremely hard, flint-like rock that is resistant to erosion. The effect: Deeply cut gorges and spiny ridges, which are uncommon in the Ouachitas.
Walk along this .5-mile stretch of river to take in the novaculite outcroppings, massive boulders, and cascades that make up the “stairs.” Here, the river’s narrow chutes and deep pools maneuver their way around 15-foot-tall rocks and the opposite bank rises 100 feet to a bluff. In the distance to the northwest, Blaylock Mountain rises nearly 1,000 feet above the churn.
DO IT Shuttle Car 34.3659,-93.9019; 2 miles southwest of Albert Pike Recreation Area on Forest Service Road 106 Trailhead 34.4340, -93.9738; 54 minutes (13.5 miles) northwest of your shuttle car on Forest Service Road 25 Season Year-round, but watch for high river levels in the spring Permit None