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Bowers Hollow
May 16, 2009
The tall waterfall in Bowers Hollow is one of the classic icons of Arkansas wilderness. Somehow I get the feeling that hikers and backpackers have known about it long before it appeared in any books or magazine articles.
My longing to someday find the hollow began some time between 1998 and 2002, when one of my Christmas presents from Stacey was a copy of the "Buffalo River Wilderness" coffee table book, which featured paintings by artist William McNamara and pictures by photographer/author Tim Ernst. One of my favorite images was McNamara's watercolor of Bowers Hollow Falls, painted in 1988. Back then he didn't have the benefit of a guidebook, considering the first general directions weren't published until 1991 in Ernst's Buffalo River Hiking Trails. I eventually acquired detailed hiking directions and GPS coordinates when I bought Ernst's Arkansas Waterfalls Guidebook not long after it was published in 2002.
I don't know why it took me until 2009 to finally visit Bowers Hollow. For sure I was intimidated by the "difficult bushwhack" rating of the 5-mile round-trip trek as detailed in Ernst's guidebook, so there were opportunities I passed up because I didn't think I was in adequate shape. But mostly it came down all those other waterfalls calling my name.
This Spring I put Bowers Hollow at the top of my list, but I realized last winter's ice storm had probably downed too many trees to make a trip into the area realistic. Then I found out otherwise; I read reports online about a few hikers and photographers that were successful in making the hike. When the weatherman forecast a Friday night of rain, I knew my time had finally come.
I made sure to get a good night's sleep and didn't get up until 6 Saturday morning. I checked the radar to confirm the rain had passed, then finished packing. I left the house around 7:30.
I made it to the parking area for the Upper Buffalo Wilderness in southwest Newton County around 10. As I began walking southeast up an old dirt road leading to the wilderness area, I approached a familiar Toyota pickup parked off to the side. I wasn't surprised to see Bill Dark putting on bug repellant in preparation for a bushwhack to Bowers Hollow. He's one of the best photographers I know, and he excels at getting to the right shooting place at the right time.
After saying hi I continued up the muddy road toward Kapark Cemetery, about a half mile away. The path was clear and I made good time. But at the wilderness area border, the road dead-ended and the trail to Bowers Hollow began along an old pioneer road trace.
The trail was just awful. It's got to be the muddiest trail I've ever hiked, but the real challenge was going around the countless downed trees, which I encountered at least every 50 feet. At an elevation of 2,200 feet above sea level, the trail is one of the highest in the state, and it received some of the worst ice storm damage. It took me almost an hour to go a mile.
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I ignored the guidebook directions and turned left off the trail and walked downhill a short distance to explore the stream above Bowers Hollow. Who knows what I might find there? Turns out the scenery was pretty average (actually pretty, but average) with a narrow, shallow stream running among small rocks through a small valley. The downhill trend was so slight that I didn't even notice. A half mile farther, at the confluence with another small stream coming in from the north, the water rushed over a beautiful little cascade. I took my first photo of the day at 11:30.
At that point I was only 200 yards above the big falls. I picked up a faint trail on the north side of the stream. 100 yards farther I began hearing the load rush of falling water. When I reached the rim of the horseshoe canyon, I spotted Bill already down below near the base of the falls on the southern side. He must have hiked hard and fast to get so far ahead of me! I was probably messing up the picture he was trying to take so I quickly moved in a downstream direction to get out of the way. I found a vantage point looking back at the falls and stopped to take some documentary photos.
I had to follow the rim of the canyon another quarter mile before finding a spot to climb down. A couple of tiny ledges in the otherwise vertical bluff face were just big enough for me to use as steps. The footholds were wet and slick but I made it down okay. As I headed upstream the bluff became a vast overhang, long before I reached the waterfall. I recalled reading
somewhere that indians once inhabited this huge shelter.
The area just below the waterfall lived up to my expectations. It had an unspoiled quality to it... lots of ferns of different varieties, big Beech trees and green moss everywhere. Bill and I took turns taking pictures from the best locations. He left around 2 and I had the hollow to myself the rest of the day. Just as I got the camera set up for a shot underneath the north overhang, the sun came out to fill my photos with hot spots. I stayed in that same place for probably an hour waiting for some thick clouds to pass in front of the sun.
I moved to shoot photos from several spots on the stream just down from the emerald pool below the falls.  By then a slight breeze had kicked up and kept moving around the leaves and branches, so I had to wait patiently for an occasional lucky break. The time just flew by. When I snapped my last photo of the day from the south side of the falls, I checked the clock on the camera and realized it was 5:45.
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On the way out I followed the bluff line on the south side. The structure mirrored the north side, with an overhang that turned in to a vertical bluff wall as I got farther away from the waterfall. I had to navigate around or through many downed trees, but I did pass four nice waterfalls pouring off the bluff. I found a break in the bluff to climb out of the canyon right at a quarter mile below the big waterfall. The walk back seemed to take forever. The trip in had a slight downhill trend to it that I hadn't really noticed, and it made for a tough hike back out. I got to the Tahoe a little past 8.
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