Hike to the Penitentiary
May 2, 2010
I wondered if I'd ever get to visit the scenic area in the Buffalo River drainage known as The Penitentiary. The photographs and descriptions in Neil Compton's book, The Buffalo River in Black and White, were tantalizing: "The significance of the name is that once you get in it's a challenge to get out".  I would have made a trip to see these sights a long time ago, except they lie on private property. When I got an email from the Ozark Society, which I joined at the first of the year, listing a hike to The Penitentiary as one of their spring outings, I quickly signed up.
We met at the landowner's property in Boxley at 9, and started the hike 30 minutes later. My fellow hikers were Don and Vicky Bridges, Bob Cross, JB Clark, Alison Finn, Doug McKinney, Jonathan Moore, Curtis Presley, and Trudy Quakenbush.
Bob lead the hike and set a quick pace north up Whiteley Creek. I was prepared for this and only packed my small point-and-shoot camera with a tiny table-top tripod. We soon found ourselves in amazing Buffalo River area scenery. We hiked beside bluffs, shelters, clear pools and small waterfalls. Wildflowers abound; we saw lots of Columbine, Shooting Star, Hyacinth, Widows Cross, and Jack in the Pulpit. I noticed a few white Canada Violets along the trail too.
I didn't have time for much photography. Every time I stopped to shoot something, I'd fall behind and have to double-time it to catch up. But since two-thirds of the hike was on fairly level ground with almost zero debris or sticker vines, and I wasn't lugging around a heavy backpack, it was fairly easy to catch up.
I also didn't have time to note the exact location of where I took the photos, and I took many of them on the return hike. That means the pictures on this page aren't necessarily in a downstream to upstream order.
Several places that would probably have beautiful waterfalls in wetter weather were instead dry. On the other hand, I bet the hike would take three times as long and be a lot more dangerous if all those waterfalls were running.
We actually didn't have too much trouble getting to the Penitentiary area. Below it, the stream bed formed an impassable rock canyon with a dry waterfall at the top. We simply hiked around it by going uphill to the right and walking along a steep hillside. That was the scariest part of the trip for me, and had I slipped and fallen the worst outcome might have been a broken leg.
Next we crossed the stream below a tall bluff with a trickling waterfall. After a big rain, no doubt this would be the biggest waterfall on the route. I took a photo of Don and Vicky there. That bluff curved around to join the famous Pipe Organ Bluff. We were able to climb up to the base of Pipe Organ Bluff, where we stopped for lunch. The 2.4-mile hike had taken exactly 3 hours. I made sure to get a close up view of Pipe Organ Bluff, to examine its features as described by Dr. Compton : "The travertine flutings on this bluff face were deposited by running water which now comes out at the bottom. (The flutings resemble bars of a jail.)".
I can understand why the spot was called the Penitentiary. We were surrounded by tall bluffs on three sides and could not go farther upstream.
On the hike back, I made sure to stop and take a picture of a rock formation with a big see-through hole in it. At another one of my favorite spots, tall bluffs of layered rock arched out over the stream. This bluff had been undercut by the water through the ages, and just above the undercut I noticed a thick layer of the red rock that's part of the St. Joe limestone formation.
We were back at the cars at 3:20, after a return hike that took a little under two and a half hours. For me it felt odd to have traveled so much ground in such a short amount of time. Surely if I had gone by myself with my big camera, I would have stayed until dark exploring and taking photos.