Roaring Branch
April 25, 2007
I timed my first vacation in over two years to coincide with what I guessed would be the best week for waterfall hunting. Sure enough a system came through Tuesday night and dumped 4 inches of rain right on top of an Ouachita Mountain stream on my must-see list.
Roaring Branch is a small stream in the southeast corner of Polk County. Its length from birth northeast of Brush Heap Mountain to where it spills into Blaylock Creek is a mere 2 miles. It’s not even listed on the USGS topo maps. But it’s such a special place that in 1976 it was designated as a National Natural Landmark under a National Park Service program.
That’s not saying it’s a great place for a picnic or a leisurely stroll. The stream flows through a rocky,  steep-sided ravine with dense vegetation. And there are no trails. But I just had to see the place with my own eyes; had to find out what the big deal was.
The stream has been hiding in plain sight. I accessed it by hiking south three-tenths of a mile along the Athens-Big Fork trail toward Brush Heap Mountain. A hung a right where the creek crosses the trail to begin my bushwhack upstream.
There was too much water, actually. At every interesting drop the water rushed over in bright white waves, instead of gentle cascades. After 30 minutes of hiking I was beginning to wonder if I would ever find a scene I felt like photographing, until I came to a relatively flat and uncommonly open spot in the woods. Several large beech trees lined the banks.
After that it seemed like every time I put my camera away and hiked a hundred feet, another picture-worthy scene would come into view. As usual I was pressed for time, so I didn’t make very many stops to shoot pictures. Besides, with all the water, a lot of the scenes started looking the same.
For the first half-mile of my hike, the stream and ravine dropped steeply. Umbrella Magnolias, one of my favorite trees, were everywhere. Many of them had the big, creamy-white blooms. In several stretches looking upstream meant literally looking up. Each time I saw one of these areas my hopes for a big waterfall swelled. But I learned the nature of Ouachita Mountain stone on this hike. Rarely were there any ledges wide enough to form waterfalls. Most often the rock was in chunks with plenty of gaps for the water to flow between.
There were some tall bluffs on the opposite (south) side of the ravine, but the vegetation was so thick that I only caught glimpses.
I saw the biggest waterfalls a few hundred feet below the “saddle” portion of the stream, where it ran through a flat valley between two long, east-west ridges. The photo at the top of this page was my favorite. The tallest falls (six feet) wasn’t nearly as pretty and I didn’t feel the need to photograph it.
Once I got to the saddle, the stream took on a different character. The vegetation wasn’t so thick, and the stream bed in many places was large, flat rock. I started seeing cinnamon ferns with their brown central seed fronds along the banks. There was a beautiful 4-foot tall specimen next to a small waterfall that I just had to stop to shoot.
I turned around at this point. It was 4:30 and I knew I had a slow, tedious bushwhack back to the hiking trail. I had until 9:00 to make it to a phone to call and tell Stacey I was safely out of the woods.
One thing’s for sure.... Roaring Branch lived up to its name. I rarely heard anything over the sound of the water. Near the end of the hike I was glad to hear the nearby cry of a Pileated Woodpecker, what I like to call the indian war-whoop! And finally getting away from the roar after 8 relentless hours made the hike back down to the truck through the still forest just that much more peaceful.