Haw Creek Falls is a beautiful place to wake up in the fall, with leaves turning colors seemingly before your eyes and misting water cascading over rocks providing a gentle roar all night long. Several large creeks surround the campground, but there are only a few that line the side of the creek, so get there early in the day to claim those.
Sun began peeking through the clouds early in the morning, promising warmer temperatures, but most of the day remained colder than the day before. As we breached hilltops and could survey the entire sky, fast-moving dark clouds threatened rain but never carried through. Hoping for lunch in a diner, we headed west toward Oark, down little forest roads that looked like this.
I was glad to have left the liner in my jacket that morning. It was still pretty cool when we stopped to take this picture.
Forest road 1003 snakes along Mulberry Creek from Highway 21, providing a gorgeous trail through falling leaves and great views down toward the rushing water. I started to not even notice the cold, and before I knew it, we were emerging onto blacktop just outside of Catalpa, almost to Oark on Highway 215.
The Oark Cafe is a interesting place, certainly one with a vibe it has maintained for over 100 years. For camper vans and sports cars (or anything else that doesn’t really want to get its tires dusty), it has an end-of-the-world feel about it. If you were drive by it heading east, the asphalt would soon give out and you would begin wondering if you should have purchased gas when you had the chance. More than a commercial oasis surrounded by beautiful farms and hills rising to wilderness, the Oark Cafe retains the charm of a one-room restaurant and grocery from years past, complete with some of the friendliest proprietors I’ve ever met.
After having lunch at the Oark Cafe (you have to try the hamburger with onion rings when you visit), we headed north and left the pavement behind again, heading into some hidden valleys, taking every chance we got to turn upon a smaller and smaller road. You can find some funny little private bridges in these parts, too.
Little streams trickle through the forest all over this area, especially after the weeks of on-again-off-again rain that we’ve had this year. Sometimes, you weren’t sure if you should keep the dual-sport motorcycle on the road or turn off and follow one of these streams to see where it came out.
There isn’t an abundance of signage in this area, but I was grateful for the foresight of the last major stimulus package to be spent in the area, during the 1930s and 40s, when the national forest roads were built. I think it would be hard to argue they weren’t a good investment, considering that the many county and farm roads that run off of them provide almost all of the vehicle access to this rather large area.
As the day continued, we took smaller and smaller trails, many times ending up in at someone’s backwoods cabin with no way to continue or emerging in a clearing with a cluster of camo-wearing bow hunters all clutching their beers. Everyone was friendly, though, and helped give advice to get us back to a bigger trail. I picked up a few off-road symbols that provided some lessons:
1) Never go down a road with a mailbox at the end of it, unless you want to turn around and come back out the same way. The mailbox is there because the mail person can’t make it down that road and come out somewhere else.
2) If you start seeing trucks with trailers attached behind them parked along a trail, it is about to get rougher.
3) If you start seeing trucks with no trailers parked beside the trail, it is about start getting really rough and the trail will narrow.
4) The Gazetteer will be wrong about the name of a forest trail or where it comes out about half the time. Deal with it.
5) You can’t trust any signs in the woods, so if you get lost, find a person to ask rather than relying on signage.
A lot of the roads that afternoon looked like this.
We ended up coming out of the woods near Deer, a small town 10 miles or so north of our campsite but more than 25 miles away by pavement. We were looking for a place to buy steaks to take back and cook at the camp, but the only thing open was a diner, so with the light fading fast, we enjoyed some catfish and warmed ourselves next to a small gas fireplace, listening to a recap of the tragic Arkansas-Florida football game earlier that day (#1 Florida won by a field goal after scrappy Arkansas missed 2 field goals and the officials blew 2 big calls that went against Arkansas and probably cost them the game).
Leaving the diner in Deer in nearly complete darkness, there was some debate about whether to head back via a more direct route over forest trails or take the sure-thing route via the paved roads. After not being able to find the trail head in the dark, we elected to take the more paved roads. By this time, the temperature was down to about 40, and the wind was icy while at speed. We finally made it back to camp, after pausing on the little one-lane bridge near Haw Creek Falls to take in the canvas of stars in near-total darkness.
Later, as we took the same forest trails the next day that we would have taken back that night, we realized that we would have never been able to find our way back on those trails and would have likely spent the night out in the woods, if we had found the trail head.