Winding Stairs Scenic Area
November 17, 2007
This was the third year in a row that I planned a trip to the Ouachita Mountains hoping to catch the colorful fall foliage at its peak. It's suppose to occur later down south, so after the color has faded in the Ozarks I head to the Ouachitas. I'd always wanted to visit the Winding Stairs scenic area on the Little Missouri River, but hadn't done so because I thought it was a long, difficult hike. I picked up my well-worn copy of Tim Ernst's Arkansas Hiking Trails to see what was involved in getting to the scenic area, and I realized I'd been wrong all this time; the hike to Winding Stairs was an easy one.
What wasn't easy was dragging myself out of bed at 3:30 in the morning so that I could get to the scenic area soon after sunrise. I drove the Poteau route, which took me toward Acorn, next Mena, then to the community of Vandervoort, where I headed east to Langley. After a few miles on dirt road I reached the parking place south of the scenic area. The trail followed the Little Missouri River, though it was far enough up in the woods that I rarely actually saw water. In a little over half an hour I reached the southern end of the Winding Stairs scenic area. I had to hop over a pretty little stream, Raven Branch, that emerged from the mountainside and joined the Little Missouri. It's just now dawned on me that many of the streams in the Ouachitas are named "branch", unlike their Ozark cousins named "creek".
The first major landmark was a huge rock outcrop, which can be seen in the background of the top picture on this page. I was disappointed that the foliage was drab, and the overcast sky wasn't helping. Also I wasn't so chipper from getting up that early. I climbed or crawled all over that outcrop but I didn't see anything I felt like photographing; I told myself "I'm not feeling the love" from this place!
I paused for a cereal bar and a couple of swigs of Code Red Mountain Dew and the sun started breaking through the clouds. I moved upstream a short ways to a bend in the river with a nice view of a small cascade in the foreground, behind which was a calm pool overlooked by a nearly vertical bank studded with pine trees. In the distance loomed Blaylock Mountain, whose rugged appearance of bare rock and evergreens was so alien to me compared to the hardwoods of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley.
Just upstream was the heart of the Winding Stairs area; on the north side of the river were rock outcrops whose strata tilted down toward the river. Bright orange lichen speckled the bright rocks, which were nearly white in many areas. The bank was a beach of small, colorful, rounded stones. The southern side was flanked by that vertical wall of dark gray rock. Through the middle the river flowed into narrow, deep pools of clear water.
I spent a long time at the upstream end of the scenic area. The southern wall of rock receded from the river bank and was replaced with a collection of rough boulders overlooking another neat cascade spilling over loose rocks in the river bed. I scrambled up on top of the largest  boulders, and the view downstream was awesome.
On the way out of the scenic area I veered over to the hiking trail up in the woods to the north, and passed a tiny cave-like shelter. Further downstream the trail went past some neat overhangs near Raven Branch.
About mid-way through the hike back to the truck, I left the trail and headed down to the river to a spot I'd marked with my GPS receiver. An old map published by the state tourism department as part of the "Arkansas Floater's Kit" showed a location named "Winding Stair Falls". On the way I had to bushwhack through a thick tangle of young Sycamores and vines about 50 yards wide. It was obvious that the river flooded this expanse quite often. The river itself was just gorgeous, running wide and shallow over a bed of large rocks of various colors, many of which had their tops above the water. The terrain on the opposite bank rose to join a nearly vertical mountainside, similar in appearance to Blaylock Mountain beyond Winding Stairs, yet much closer. I didn't see anything that even remotely deserved the name "falls" though. I decided to go upstream a hundred yards to see if maybe my coordinates were off. I tried climbing up the rocky bank to the tangle of young Sycamores, but the going was so tedious that I instead returned to the river and waded upstream. The rocks were slick, which made the upstream trek pretty slow. After a hundred yards or so I still didn't see any kind of falls so I headed back to  the trail and returned to the truck. (Later when I got home I checked my topo map on the computer and I think possibly my coordinates were a quarter mile downstream from where they should be, so some day I'll give "Winding Stair Falls" another shot.
I got to the truck around 3:30 and instead of heading straight home I went driving around. I found myself at a serene Shady Lake right around sunset. The surface of the water was smooth as glass, except for the wake of a duck that occasionally swam by. I waited around and was rewarded with some colorful clouds illuminated by the sinking sun.