Lost Valley
May 2, 2009
It's hard to believe that Grant and I could have the best hiking spot in the state all to ourselves on a Saturday afternoon in early May, but that's exactly what happened. Even though Lost Valley is one of the most popular hiking trails around, a day of spring thunderstorms drove out most visitors. We arrived just as the rains finally stopped.
We stayed home that morning while the rain system moved through. Originally, Cliff was going with us, but he and Grant had been arguing all morning and Cliff decided to stay home. We finally left the house around 1:30 and followed the edge of the rain storm east.
We stopped at the Dairy Freeze in Clarksville for burgers and shakes. As we drove north up into the mountains, we entered heavy fog, though we could still see far enough to tell that all the creeks in the area were flooded. All the little streams on the mountainsides were running, and every temporary waterfall on the bluffs was having its day.
Thankfully we dropped below the fog as we entered Boxley valley. As we passed over the Highway 74 bridge at Ponca, we looked down to see that the low water bridge below was completely under the raging waters of the Buffalo River. We drove the short distance to the Steele Creek recreation area; I knew this would be our chance to see the tall pouroff waterfalls running over Roark Bluff. There were two actually; I got a photo of one of them, while a second one behind the camping area was mostly obscured by trees from our vantage point. Before leaving we drove by the canoe launch, where the river was up to the side of the road.
We headed back to Boxley, where we saw a group of elk in one of the hay fields. We turned off the highway onto the gravel road leading to the Lost Valley campground and trailhead. About two-thirds of the campsites were occupied. With two and a half hours of daylight remaining, we set off up the trail. Clark Creek was running swiftly underneath the wooden foot bridge. We met three groups of people walking out, after which we were alone the rest of the evening.
Our first stop was at the Jigsaw Blocks, a group of ancient moss and lichen covered boulders with matching voids in the bluff above. Next we paused to admire the natural bridge, where the creek has drilled a tunnel through the stone and exits as a beautiful waterfall. It occurred to me that this scenic spot alone would draw a lot of visitors, yet there are so many other incredible sights upstream.
In the photos I shot, Grant is sitting right in the middle of the distinctive band of red rock that's part of the St. Joe limestone. I learned to recognize the red rock from reading Kenneth Smith's books on the Buffalo River. The red band helps us geology laymen see how deep the river has cut through the terrain from Lost Valley to the Goat Trail on Big Bluff, where the river is several hundred feet below the band of red rock.
A tall pouroff waterfall ran over the bluff just below tunnel falls, but I didn't take any pictures of it.
The trail ends at the back of the canyon, where Eden Falls drops through a slot in the bluff on the left, and Cob Cave extends underneath the bluff on the right. I talked Grant into climbing up onto one of the huge boulders in front of Eden Falls while I shot photos. Then I carried him across the creek and we explored inside Cob Cave. Grant took one of my flashlights and searched for indian artifacts, while I took pictures looking out into the lush green canyon. The water from Cob Cave Falls, another pouroff, was falling through mid air to splash on the jumble of rocks just outside the cave opening.
Grant was chomping at the bit to go inside Eden Falls cave, which required a brief but steep climb up a trail to the left of the big waterfall. We then had to crawl on our hands and knees about 50 feet through a low, wet passage into a tall chamber with a roaring 30-foot waterfall. I had dragged my camera backpack behind me, hoping to capture my own version of a spectacular photo taken by Mike and Karla Hall a few months earlier. I went as far as getting my camera set up on the tripod, but there was so much mist swirling around in the room and immediately coating my lens that I said "the heck with this"!
A later correspondence with Mike reveals how they were able to pull off such a difficult task: "It's actually a team effort from Karla and me. She framed up the shot and clicked away while I painted with the spot light....It takes a team to pull off this image. Lots of spray from the waterfall, wiping the lens, etc...." Mike's photo gallery is at http://www.pbase.com/mikehall, and Karla's is at http://www.pbase.com/kshall.
The experience inside the cave was unforgettable. The roar of the waterfall resonated in the small chamber and seemed to go right through us. We had to shout just to be able to hear each other, and the falling water created a strong wind.
We had to keep our flashlights on when we emerged from the passageway; the heavy clouds, deep canyon walls and thick forest canopy didn't leave much light to see by. The first part of our return hike was on an upper trail, which took us beside a small but beautiful waterfall. We were wet, cold, and hungry, so I didn't even think about getting the camera out to try a shot in the near dark.
We got back to the Tahoe at 8:10. Fortunately we packed a set of dry clothes; Grant changed in the back while I took advantage of the nice full-sized restroom at the campground. It was a foggy drive back to Clarksville, where we pulled in to McDonald's around 9:30. Grant was out 20 minutes later!