Buffalo Wilderness Backpacking
May 15-16, 2011
When I passed an amazing boulder-filled pool of water known as the Pickle Hole during last fall's backpacking trip, I realized I wanted Stacey and the boys to someday see it. This spring when conditions looked good for a family camping trip, the destination was an easy choice.
The weather turned unseasonably cold; it was 49 degrees Saturday afternoon when we pulled off Highway 21 above Boxley. We parked at a gate across an old road on the unnamed mountain between the Buffalo River and Smith Creek. At one time, many homes and farms were located along the road, which ran along the northwest face of the mountain for over two miles. My USGS map shows over a dozen structures near the road. I assume the residents either sold their land to the forest service in the early 1900s, or were bought out by the park service when the Buffalo National River was established in 1972.
But any hints of past settlement were easy to overlook by us hikers as we walked down the old road. Except for the occasional rock fence or open field remnant, it seemed we were passing through age-old forest. I kept my camera outside the pack, hanging around my neck in case I wanted to take a quick picture. Several times I let everyone else get ahead of me, so I could snap some photos illustrating how small we all seemed in the big woods.
I almost didn't notice the stone foundation at the old Whiteley School site, seven tenths of a mile into our hike. It was just a 20-foot wide section of rock wall set into the sloped hillside, and was hidden by saplings and foliage. At the one-mile point, we crossed a scenic spot where a small drainage, full of huge boulders, ran down the mountainside. I found it interesting that everyone in our group had the same reaction, that this was a beautiful spot we must stop and enjoy. The boys went uphill to scramble among the boulders, while the adults sat beneath a big old Beech tree beside the trickling stream.
Half a mile farther down the path, we turned right onto a secondary road leading downhill. Three tenths of a mile farther we came to the Hedges home place, on a wooded bench 200 yards above the river. Harold and Margaret Hedges, who helped the Ozark Society in the battle to preserve the Buffalo as a National River, built a home here in the 1960s. When the preserve was created, they secured a 25-year use and occupancy reservation from the park service. But on New Year's Day 1991, while they were away for the holidays, the house was destroyed by fire, an act of arson according to most accounts.
Two chimneys and the foundation of the house were still there. Nearby a no-frills wooden outbuilding still stood; a metal mailbox bearing the Hedges name drove home the idea to me that they really did occupy this incredible patch of woods.
We walked downhill on a rocky roadbed, passing a rock fence whose rounded stones told me we were near the river's floodplain. We came to a clearing with a huge old barn in disrepair. It's amazing that I'd never read anything about the structure, but then again, not much has been written about the Buffalo River upstream of Boxley. Although I prefer completely natural locations, I suggested we set up camp in the clearing behind the barn; everybody agreed.
Stacey snuck off to fish while the rest of us put up tents. Cliff and Garret had lugged a heavy Wal Mart tent the whole way, I suppose because they wanted more room. Grant and Fisher were in one tent, and Heath set up little one-man shelter. When I finished putting up my backpacking tent for Stacey and me, I headed down to the river to find her. Grant and Fisher stayed behind; they couldn't wait to build a fire in a stone ring, built by previous visitors, beneath a huge old Boxelder tree. I found a trail heading down river and followed it a hundred yards to the Pickle Hole, my ultimate destination for the trip. It occurred to me that the barn might have been built by the same W. P. "Pickle" Edgmon that the hole was named after. Once again I found the pool to be spectacular. Nine or ten massive boulders sat in, or on the bank of, a tranquil pool of blue-green water. The water was cloudy, yet still colorful, and the trees on the opposite bank were a fresh deep green.
I could have stayed there fishing for hours, except the wind picked up and I got cold and hungry. Besides, the fish weren't biting. I returned to camp to hear the tragic news that we didn't pack any bread for the hot dogs. How many times has that happened! I filled up on hot dogs, Pringles, and roasted marshmallows, which I found hard to stop eating.
The next morning I got up a couple of hours before sunrise, made some coffee, then set off hiking back up the old road in the dark. I went all the way to that scenic spot where the road crossed the drainage running down the mountain. Topographic maps showed a good possibility of tall waterfalls down the drainage, and I wanted to see for myself. But not far below the road, the stream cut in to limestone and the water just disappeared. The streambed became a deep, treacherous canyon with walls that appeared 80 feet tall from above. I stayed safely above the edge, yet I was able to get enough looks down at the drainage to be pretty sure there weren't any true waterfalls on it.
A couple hundred yards above the Buffalo, I was able to drop down to the stream. Beneath some bluffs on the west side I found gorgeous patches of ferns and hydrangea. The stream bed there was neat too. It flattened out, and was full of rounded rocks and boulders of various colors and sizes.
I headed down to a wooded bank above the river, and turned left to head upstream toward camp. I should have known better. The hillside became too steep to walk along, and I had to haul myself back up 300 feet in elevation to the road, then hike back to camp.
We stayed until nearly 11. Everyone had gone down to the river at one point to do some fishing, and Heath said he caught a nice smallmouth bass. The worst part of the return hike was the steep, rocky section just above camp. Though the temperature was still in the 40s, everyone was shedding clothes. It didn't seem to take long at all to get back to the vehicles. On the drive back, we stopped at the Burger Barn in Ozone for lunch.