Tag Archives: waterfall

Big Creek Cave Falls…the EASY way!

I’ve been exploring the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas since I was 19.  There’s no place on earth like it…ancient mountains, thundering waterfalls, pristine rivers, deep and mysterious caves.  After after 30 or so trips there, one might start to think that one had explored it all.  But recently I became intrigued by an image I found on Google Earth…a photo of a cave with a waterfall pouring out of it.  Now, this isn’t an unusual thing in the Ozarks.  I’ve photographed and explored a number of caves with waterfalls pouring out of them.  But I had never seen nor heard of this one.  Moreover, it was in an area of the Ozark National Forest that had NO trails.  This was up the Left Fork of Big Creek, a major tributary of the Buffalo National River, near its headwaters.  And a bit of intensive internet digging found reference to “Big Creek Cave Falls” and mentioned that OTHER waterfall caves were to be found in the immediate area.

No trails (ie, no people), wild country, caves with waterfalls pouring out of them…you don’t need to ask me twice!  So I headed there the very next day.

The few groups who’ve ventured into this area in modern times have been following a bushwhacking route up the west bank of the Left Fork of Big Creek, which is what I did to find the caves.  It’s hairy travel, you basically swim through poison ivy and greenbriar for an hour, thrashing your way up the creek.  But on the way back, I discovered an old, abandoned logging road on the EAST bank of the creek that whisked me back to my car in 15 minutes.  I laughed so hard I almost choked.

To access the trailhead, find the intersection of Arkansas Scenic 7 and Arkansas Highway 16, a few miles north of Nail, AR in the Ozark National Forest.  Drive north on Hwy 7 for 1.3 miles, to a small dirt road on the right marked NC6840.  (Google Maps and older maps show this road as CR 59.)  At first the road looks horrid, just 2 ruts, but give it a few hundred feet…once it passes private property and enters national forest land, it becomes driveable by ANY car.  Zero your odometer at the turnoff and take it slow on the road, especially when it starts to plummet STEEPLY downhill.  Drive 2.8 miles on dirt road, and you’ll see a single spot on the left side of the road to park, opposite a small dirt road that heads backward at an angle behind you to a locked metal gate.  Park in the spot, and head up to the gate.  There is an open entrance just to the right.  This is national forest land, you are not trespassing.  This is an old farmstead.  Continue on the old road past the gate through signs of old farming.  The road will take you down to the Right Fork of Big Creek, which you’ll have to wade.  (I was there in wet season and made it across on stepping stones without getting my feet wet, but YOU MUST BE PREPARED TO GET YOUR FEET WET ON THIS HIKE.)  Ford the creek and head up the opposite bank, and you’ll find yourself in a field.  Turn left and head into the field past a small line of scraggly trees.

The field opens up to stupendous views.  The commonly described route tells you to head uphill and to the right, to the top of the field, where you enter the forest and begin your bushwhack.  But you’re smarter than that!  Instead, head to the left directly across the field, making for the hill that’s across the Left Fork of Big Creek.

The field is typically overgrown, hiding the old road that crosses it, but as you get close to the tree line on the banks of Left Fork, you’ll find a clear opening where the road emerges and fords the creek:

The Left Fork is bigger than the Right Fork, and you’re gonna get your feet wet fording this one.  Once out of the tree line on the other side of the creek, you’ll find yourself in another field.  Head straight across it, turn right, and follow the tree line.  You’ll go through another small line of trees into yet another field, and at the top of this field, the road emerges again and heads into the forest.  Here’s an overview of the area:

Once inside the forest, the old road provides easy, fast hiking up the east bank of Left Fork Big Creek…free of poison ivy and greenbriar:

Soon you’ll come to a dim fork in the road where a rugged spur heads straight ahead and down toward the creek.  Take this fork down to the creek and bushwhack downstream a bit to see some pretty waterfalls, giant boulders, and blue pools.

Back at the fork, the main road turns left and heads up to yet another fork and an old cattle guard.  The left fork turns back north toward the field.  Instead, cross the cattle guard and continue hiking.  Soon, you’ll ford a tiny stream coming in from the left.  (Up this stream is a neat bluff area with a wet-weather waterfall.)  Here the road forks again.  The left fork curves around and heads straight uphill.  Don’t take that.  Instead, head to the right and the road will plunge down to the banks of Wolf Creek, which is what Big Creek is called here in its headwaters.  You’re right in the middle of waterfall cave country here.

Ford the creek here (you’re gonna get wet) and you have 2 choices.  After fording, the road turns left up Wolf Creek, but instead, you head back downstream on Wolf Creek.  In a few minutes, you’ll see a clear stream coming in from your left.  This is the spring branch from 2 waterfall caves.  Head up the left bank of this stream and quickly you’ll come to a fork in the stream.  The right fork heads up to what I’m calling Giant Cave, because it’s really massive.  The left fork heads up to Big Creek Cave Falls.  First, cross the left fork and head straight up the hill, toward what is obviously a gigantic cave in the bluff.  The creek roars out of this huge cave entrance, which is so big I couldn’t photograph it.  Inside the massive cave, the left-most passage is where the stream comes from.  Explore it to your heart’s content, though you’ll probably get wet!

The passage quickly splits in two, with a higher “dry” level and a lower “wet” level where you’ll find yourself crawling in the stream:

There are other passages in the cave, as well, which you can cross the stream to explore.  They will all require crawling, so be warned!  The view back out the cave entrance and down the cascading stream is mysteriously beautiful.

When you’ve had enough of Giant Cave, head back out of the cave.  You have two options to get over to Big Creek Cave Falls, which is very close by.  Scramble back down to where the two cave streams fork, and head right up the other fork.  You can immediately climb back up toward the bluff line (or just follow the bluff line directly from Giant Cave) through poison ivy and greenbriar, then follow the bluff line to the left around to Big Creek Cave Falls.  The easier route is to follow your instincts (and possibly a bit of flagging tape) up the hill to the LEFT of the stream.  The cave entrance will come into view up to your right.  There’s a little use trail that goes uphill and curves around, heading up to the left side of the falls, where you can reach the base.

There’s a LOT of water coming out of this narrow cave entrance.  And most of it disappears right into the rocks…only a trickle flows in the stream bed down to the join the stream from the other cave.  In the inky depths of the cave entrance you can see a chain hanging, indicating someone climbed up there at some point, somehow, to explore.  I wonder what they found?

There’s no way to access the cave unless you’re comfortable lead-climbing up overhanging ledges with icy water spitting on you from the falls a few feet away.  This is one to sit, ponder, and be stunned by.

When you’re done, head back down the stream all the way to where it joins Wolf Creek to make Big Creek.  Turn right and head upstream on Wolf Creek, and soon you’ll be back on that road you were hiking in on.  It will peter out on the banks of Wolf Creek below a seemingly-impassable pool and cliff.  Listen carefully.  You’ll hear a deep roar, like an airplane, from a waterfall that seems to be up on the mountainside across the creek.  But that much water would surely be visible as a stream entering Wolf Creek, right?


The biggest waterfall cave of them all is just a few feet from you, but you can’t see it, and you can’t see the water coming out of it because the water goes BACK INTO ANOTHER CAVE and emerges below the small cliff face in front of you to join Wolf Creek.  So ford the creek and head up the obvious route just to the left of that cliff.  You’ll immediately come to a big stream that disappears into a cave:

Follow the stream uphill and you’ll come to a random yellow gate strung between two trees…but no fence on either side.  But the gate is locked, nonetheless.  Just head up the stream on the right side of the gate, and soon you’ll be beneath a stunning, roaring falls fanning out from the mouth of yet another massive cave:

This is an important cave.  There was a gate (though no fence) and there’s a sign from the Nature Conservancy asking you not to explore the cave.  It is home to several species of bats, the most important of which is the highly endangered Indiana Gray Bat.  Exploring the cave in winter may wake the bats from their hibernation, causing them to use up their fat reserves and placing them at risk of dying of starvation.  Exploring the cave in summer may disturb mother bats from nursing their young, who may fall to the cave floor and die.  Spring is the safest time to explore a bat cave because there’s plenty of insects for them to eat outside, and they haven’t given birth to their young yet.  But there’s ANOTHER reason not to explore this cave at all.

A mysterious bat disease is sweeping the country, called White Nose Syndrome.  It causes white fungus to grow on the nose of the bat, and sores to open up on the bat’s wings.  The disease itself doesn’t kill the bat, but it typically wakes the bat up during hibernation, causing it to starve.  And why should YOU care about a bat disease?

Because without bats, all humans would starve to death.  Our relationship with bats is as important and symbiotic as our relationship with honey bees, that pollinate all the crops that we eat, and that we feed to our meat animals.  Bats work on the other side of the equation (though some species are also important pollinators) by eradicating crop pests like grasshoppers.  The bat population of a single cave can devour the equivalent of FORTY 18-wheelers full of insects IN A SINGLE NIGHT.  From just one cave’s bat population.  There’s not enough bug poison in the world to deal with the kind of insect swarms we’d be dealing with if the bats weren’t there to eat them.  Organic farming would impossible.  And the toxic sprays that would be necessary to keep pests off our crops would pollute our waters, killing many other species, and causing untold human health problems.

So THAT’S why you should care about bats.  They’re not evil, they don’t attack humans, they don’t live off human blood, and while they get a bad rap every once in awhile for being potential rabies carriers, dogs are responsible for FAR more animal-human rabies transmissions each year.  And besides…they’re super cute!

So the long and short of it is that, without bats, you die, your children die, all human life perishes.  So don’t explore this cave beyond its entrance.  And click here to find out how you can get involved in the business of helping ensure that we all stay alive by eradicating White Nose Syndrome before it’s too late.

The view out the entrance to the cave made me feel like I was in a tropical jungle, with the roar of the waterfall and the thick green forest all around:

(Again, I’m only a couple of feet back in the stream from the waterfall beneath the overhang of the cliff above the cave, not remotely inside the dark zone of the cave where the bats live.  Only the entrance of the cave should be enjoyed.)

If you’re okay with multiple creek crossings, rock climbing, exposure, and very slick rock, Wolf Creek is stunning if you continue upstream.  I found this abandoned mine beneath a high bluff just upstream from the cave:

And the creek is heartbreakingly beautiful, with turquoise pools, giant boulders, and the tropical-looking native umbrella magnolia:

When you’re done, get back on the old road, and you’ll be back at your car in 20 minutes…an unbelievably easy, fast access to what is easily one of the most stunning corners of this entire country, much less Arkansas.  Here’s an overview of the forest route after leaving the fields, with the traditional bushwhacking route shown in red:

Should you visit the headwaters of Big Creek, please respect this area of great beauty and significance.  None of the caves are extensive or particularly beautiful inside…or even particularly explorable, for that matter.  (Who wants to crawl in ice cold water?)  Which is why I feel it’s okay for me to write about the easy way to access this area.  It should be enjoyed and loved and admired by respectful hikers.  Its crystalline pools need to be gawked at and swam in.  It’s fuzzy inhabitants need to be loved and protected, so we can all continue to have food on our plates.  Big Creek is one of the most remarkable places I’ve visited.  I’m still on a high from being there…

Feel free to comment below, especially if you have memories of exploring the Ozarks!

Foraging for Morels in Arkansas


Anyone who classifies themselves as a “foodie” knows about morels.  These miraculous mushrooms are the most coveted table fungus on the planet, rivaling the reputations of even the black and white truffles of southern Europe.  However, unlike truffles, which CAN be cultivated and dependably harvested, the morel has resisted ALL attempts at cultivation.  Every single morel eaten in the world was foraged in the wild.

I’ve been cooking with morels for years.  They are ruinously expensive in Dallas, but I often travel to Seattle during morel season there, when they can be sometimes be had for $20 a pound from roadside vendors and occasionally at the Pike Place Market in downtown.  (Morels typically fetch between $50 and $100 a pound in gourmet markets around the world.)  Over the past few years, as I’ve grown more serious about foraging, I was shocked to learn that morels even grow right here in Dallas, with their southern-most boundary being the juniper-covered limestone hills near Austin, Texas.  Unfortunately, morels need a perfect balance of temperature and moisture to trigger their fruiting, and Texas often gets too warm early in the spring before the rains come, meaning a pitiful morel harvest.  This year I waded through endless tangles of poison ivy here in the Dallas area, frantically searching for morels.  But the rains came too late, and it was already too hot for these magic morsels.

Yours, Truly, leaping from a cliff into the Buffalo

So I headed north this past weekend to catch the end of morel season in northwest Arkansas.  Hidden in a deep canyon in the Ozark Mountains lies the Buffalo National River, a pristine mountain stream that, thanks to a special designation by Congress in 1972, flows completely free from its headwaters to its confluence with the mighty White River.  The Buffalo River has been my playground of choice for 15 years.  6 hours from my doorstep, the Buffalo is one of the best places on earth for canoeing, hiking, and caving…3 of my biggest hobbies that don’t revolve around food!

So any time I can visit one of my favorite non-food places, and get to include food on the itinerary, I’m stoked.  And I had a strong hunch that I’d be able to find at least a handful of morels after a recent cold spell up there, followed by several inches of rain, followed by warm days in the 80s…the perfect storm to trigger morel fruiting.

Chef Michael Chen and I drove overnight, arriving in the tiny mountain hamlet of Jasper, Arkansas around sunrise, and let me tell you, the valleys of the Ozarks are stunning at daybreak any time of year, with fog hovering in the depths of the hollows:

Jasper is about as quaint a town as you’ll find in the US.  It was founded in the mid 1800s and was burned to the ground by the North during the Civil War.  The charmingly decrepit buildings in downtown were built shortly after, and now house restaurants and galleries that are refreshingly un-pretentious and authentic.  Like, for instance, the Ozark Cafe, which has been in operation since 1909.  I have breakfast there every time I’m in Jasper.  For about $5, you get a belt-busting, no-frills breakfast of eggs, sausage, hash browns, biscuits, and the most delicious white gravy I’ve had anywhere.

After filling up, we headed to the banks of the Buffalo to start hunting morels.  I had a fragment of information from a friend who had been there the weekend before and found a few morels, but not enough to make me confident.  We started down a trail near the river, and when things “felt right” we slogged off the trail and into the woods, thick with thorny greenbriar and infested with ticks!

And in less than 5 minutes, at the base of a white oak tree, a golden morel poked its wrinkled head up out of the leaves and smiled at me.  And once I had calmed down after what was quite a spectacular freak-out…on the OTHER side of the tree was this massive cluster of morels.

I had a fan gasp that I had “pulled them up from the roots” so let’s chat a bit about mycology.  Mushrooms are the fruit of a fungus that lives in either dirt, leaves, wood, or dung.  The fungus consists of hair-like filaments called “mycelium” (pronounced “my-SELL-ee-uhm”).  The mycelium of morels lives in harmony with a host tree, and the type of tree varies from region to region.  Near Austin, morels grow almost exclusively with juniper trees.  Near Dallas, they like elms and cottonwoods.  Along the Buffalo River, it’s white oak trees and nothing else.  Mushrooms don’t have roots…they grow out of the mycelium, which are a far vaster network than you’d probably imagine.  Picking them with some of the mycelium still attached does no damage to the mycelium, and in fact if there’s a rain within the next 48 hours, the scarring of the mycelium from the pick can produce a second fruiting.  So there’s no harm if it looks like the mushroom has “roots” on the bottom.  But most mushroom hunters pinch the mushroom off at ground level so that the dirt doesn’t get all over the other mushrooms in the bag!

Image courtesy of the Northeast Mycological Federation

At this point it’s also pertinent to mention to you mycophiles that morels DO have a few poisonous look-alikes, but a true morel is very easy to identify.  The wrinkly cap is unmistakeable, but cut open your mushroom and look at the inside.  An edible morel will be completely hollow, like the one on the left in this image.  A poisonous false-morel will be solid or chambered on the inside, like the one on the right.  If your mushroom is hollow, it’s a morel!  Morels come in a vast array of colors, from blonde/golden morels to gray and black morels, and range in size from the tip of your pinky to massive specimens over a foot tall:

Photo courtesy of Scott Schmidt

Over the next hour, we gathered 2 pounds of morels, some of which were almost as big as my fist!  It was a magical morning, as the sun was at a perfect angle and lit up the hollow mushrooms so that they practically glowed above the brown leaf litter.  It felt completely surreal.  All the mushrooms were growing right at the base of white oak trees, except for a few growing seemingly nowhere in general along damp, sunken areas within a dozen feet of white oaks.  Some had been devoured by woodland creatures, but most were fresh and plump and begging to be plucked!

One of the great things about foraging in Buffalo River country is the scenery.  It’s not just endless forest.  It’s filled with waterfalls!  This is Twin Falls along the Buffalo near Camp Orr, a historic Boy Scout camp.  They named it Twin Falls long ago, before natural erosion split the stream into 3 separate cascades…I guess we should now call it Triple Falls.  I once swam in the pool at the base of this falls with a baby snake that was VERY aggressive and just didn’t want to leave me alone.  Luckily, it wasn’t poisonous, so it was funny watching him try his hardest to attack me.

Myriad other waterfalls are in the area, including this one in Thunder Canyon:

They call it that because the roar of the falls hemmed in between the cliffs is deafening.  In the video you’ll see at the bottom of this post, it took me HOURS to try to extract any useable audio from this section of footage because it was so loud.

After about 8 miles of hiking, mostly off-trail bushwhacking, Michael and I were completely exhausted, especially since we hadn’t slept at all the night before.  So we ended the evening back in Jasper at the Arkansas House, an inn and cafe that occupy historic buildings including the old Jasper mill.  The cafe used to be my favorite diner in all the world, but the new owners have taken the menu upscale and local.  Virtually everything they serve is from local farms, even the meat.  I ordered a burger made from wild-trapped razorback hog, which is an invasive species that does lots of damage to the forest floor.  (AND they eat morels!  Grrrr…)  Michael ordered elk meatloaf.  Wild elk are extremely common in the valleys of the Buffalo River, but they are also farmed locally.  I know first hand from my own restaurant how expensive and cumbersome it is to source local ingredients, so I give Arkansas House full props for trying to maintain an all-local menu.  Their prices reflect their avoidance of mass-produced, commercial ingredients.  They may want to send their chef for a refresher course at culinary school for a few weeks, because we did find the preparation, seasoning, and presentation to be a bit below the standards you’d expect in a big city at similar prices…(their premium entrees range between $25 and $45, but many things on the menu are cheaper.)  However, for a city of 500 in the middle of the mountains in rural Arkansas, it might as well be Noma.  I will happily return again and again.

After 14 hours of sleep, we were back to foraging in the same “honey hole” we found the day before.  (That mildly disgusting term is popular amongst morel hunters to indicate their secret spots they return to, year after year, for dependable harvests.)  We gathered an additional pound, before it was time to show Michael a few of the Buffalo’s more exciting natural features.

Lost Valley is the single most popular hiking trail on the National River, and it leads a mile and a half up a hidden canyon to spectacular wonders.  The first is a natural bridge, through which flows the valley’s stream.  This is cave country, the rock here is made of limestone, which is easily dissolved by weak acid.  Some of the most spectacular caves in the country are here, including Arkansas’s longest, Fitton Cave, with over 17 miles of mapped passage.  I’ve been in Fitton a dozen times, but not recently, as a mysterious disease called “White Nose Syndrome” is devastating bat populations across the country and is believed to be introduced from cave to cave by cave explorers.  So all caves with bat populations are being carefully controlled right now.  (This has prevented me from exploring many caves during my recent travels, but, like all responsible cavers, I refuse to enter ANY closed cave to protect the bats.)  I realize many people are scared of bats, but they are as important to our food supply as honey bees, and if bats become extinct…so do we!  The bat population of a single cave can devour enough grasshoppers in a single night to fill a dozen 18-wheelers.  Imagine the kind of toxic poisons that would have to be sprayed on our crops to keep them “safe” if we didn’t have bats to control the insect population!

At the head of Lost Valley is Eden Falls Cave, where the stream in the canyon originates.  This very wet cave isn’t home to a bat population, so it’s safe to explore by anyone who dares to climb back into its watery depths!  I’ve taken dozens of people into this cave over the years, because it has a very special secret in the back chamber.  But getting there requires either crawling on your hands and knees in the icy cold cave stream, or navigating a narrow side passage that would make a claustrophobe panic:

You’ll notice I’m not wearing a helmet.  All serious wild caving requires the protection of a helmet.  But as Eden Falls cave is scarcely 150 feet long, as long as you’re careful and enter with a buddy, you’ll be fine.

This side passage leads back to the final chamber of the cave, and you can tell what’s back there long before you get there, because the roar of thundering water gives it away.  A magnificent underground waterfall!

It’s practically impossible to get a good shot of this waterfall, because the air in this chamber is FILLED with spray from the falls, and the flash on your camera lights up every little droplet!  While this falls is scarcely more than 30 feet high, it feels like Niagara when enclosed by the cathedral-like walls of the cave.

After exploring Lost Valley, I had one more thing to show Michael before we hit the road home.  If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you know exactly how obsessed I am with waterfalls.  I’ve visited waterfalls on 6 continents, and if Antarctica (which I have also visited!) ever thaws out, you can be sure I’ll be hunting waterfalls there, too.  But there’s a waterfall in the Buffalo River country that is unlike any other on the planet.  It’s called “The Old Glory Hole.”

Located deep in a shelter cave in a hidden hollow, this waterfall pours from a hole in the solid rock.  Leaving the camera shutter open for a full second allows the falling water to show its motion in a beautiful display.  I’ve been to the Glory Hole falls a dozen times.  Sometimes, in the peak of summer, it barely drips.  In the winter, it is a magical landscape of ice.  After a good rain in the spring, it thunders.  But it’s always magical.  Once I ran across a strapping local mountain man with his handicapped son tossed over his shoulder, carefully descending the creek bed so he could show his teenage son the wondrous spot.  The Old Glory Hole is mostly a secret kept by the locals, passed down through generations, and has struck countless humans, young and old, by its unique beauty.  It is a perfect example of why this remote corner of Arkansas is truly one of the most spectacular and surprising landscapes on the planet.  These ancient hills have given up their morels and their waterfalls to lucky humans like me for thousands of years, back to the native Americans who inhabited them before European settlers even knew this continent existed.  If you’re lucky enough to visit here some day, remember that, and treat this incredible land with the same respect that those who’ve come before you have, so that thousands of years in the future, other lucky people can forage for delicious mushrooms in the river valleys, explore the depths of mysterious caves, and visit the Old Glory Hole to be awestruck by its beauty.

Enjoy this 8-minute video of highlights from the trip!  Feel free to comment below, and if you’d like to see me document an in-depth 6 month exploration of Western Australia’s culinary secrets, CLICK HERE to find out how you can help by submitting a pic or a 5 second video showing your support!