Rock Creek
November 1, 2008
The first day of vacation I kept the promise I'd made to myself nearly a year ago to see what scenic wonders were waiting to be discovered up Rock Creek in the Big Piney Creek valley.
This would be my first time to see how I liked driving to a location the night before and sleeping in the back of the Tahoe. After Halloween festivities wound down around our house, I loaded my gear. I had a new lightweight air mattress and sleeping bag I'd bought for backpacking. For the all-important morning dose of caffeine, I packed several cans of Starbucks DoubleShot.
I drove I-40 to Clarksville, then Highways 21 and 123 to Big Piney Creek near Fort Douglas. I travelled north beside the Big Piney and parked next to Hurricane Creek. I didn't sleep well at all...it was hot and cramped inside the mummy bag, the air mattress seemed to be sliding out from under me, and I just didn't feel at ease with the odd surroundings. But morning came quickly so I must have slept a lot more than I realized.
The Starbucks did its job and I dressed quickly and hopped in the front seat. I forded Hurricane Creek then drove up Parker Ridge Road hoping to find an overlook of the Big Piney valley I'd noticed back on that sunny morning in December. I parked the Tahoe at the wrong spot and got quite a workout walking up and down the steep road until I found my bluff overlook. I was hoping for a pretty sunrise scene but the sky was full of thick fog. I climbed up to the vehicle and drove back down to the Big Piney, turned right and drove a short distance to park near a low-water bridge.
I set out on foot up Big Piney Creek Road to the mouth of Rock Creek, six-tenths of a mile north. Somewhere along the way my senses seemed to wake up and I started finding myself at scenes that I had to stop and photograph.
As I reached the top of a hill above of where the road crossed Rock Creek, a strange animal call rang out down below. I had no idea what was making the loud sound, but it was exciting! I slowly eased down the road toward the creek, then suddenly a group of ducks flew up from behind the brush along the creek and zipped away toward the Piney. When I reached the creek I found a nice teal pool below a small bluff. I never associated ducks with classic Ozark pools.
From there I began exploring upstream. I encountered several fantastic boulder piles at the beginning of the hike. These things were huge! After the first or second boulder pile, the creek bed appeared dry, but I think the water was close underground.
The terrain was surprisingly flat for an Ozark stream, but my progress was still slow because all the rocks were slick from the heavy dew. Mid-morning the fog burned off which allowed the sun to light up the colorful fall leaves. The Beech trees were especially nice; their leaves were in the middle of turning and the colors ranged from green to yellow to orange to brown, side-by-side on the same limbs.
The clear midday sky was a beautiful bright blue, but the overhead sun cast deep shadows that made it impossible to take very many pictures. At some point as I progressed upstream I started seeing water in shallow pools in the stream bed. I'd told myself I'd better turn around and head back by 2 o'clock, yet right around that time I rounded a turn and was amazed to hear a waterfall up ahead. We were having a typical dry fall and I didn't think there'd be any waterfalls anywhere in the Ozarks. Yet I proceeded to find a gorgeous teal pool lined with big boulders on one side and a small waterfall pouring off a ledge on the upstream side. The sun was shining directly on the waterfall, so there was no way I could photograph it, but I saw a few clouds in the distance that looked like they might eventually move in front of the sun. I hiked upstream to kill some time, and found some more great stuff. I came to a spot with a fault in the bedrock where the stream bed suddenly dropped 10 feet. There'd be a nice waterfall here in the spring! Above there the stream bed was a solid stretch of bed rock over 700 feet long. I figured the upper end of this was a good spot to turn around. I returned to the running waterfall and it looked like those clouds were making their way toward the sun. I waited for 20 minutes and, sure enough, the clouds moved in front of the sun and I got to snap some photos.
By then it was 3 o'clock and I was faced with bushwhacking one and a half miles back to the road and hiking another six-tenths to the vehicle. While within sections with water in the stream bed, I walked along the bank. At one location I needed to cross over to the southern side to avoid an upcoming obstacle, and picked a relatively dry spot between pools. I stepped on what looked like a pile of wet leaves on the water's edge, but what was actually a mass of floating leaves. Down I went! In what seemed like slow motion, I landed flat on my back, my feet came up out of the water and launched a wad of stinky wet leaves and mud that arced high into the air and then came down right in my face. I could just hear the woods laughing at me.
As the sun sank lower it lit the colorful foliage from the side and created some beautiful scenes.
I made it back to the Tahoe at 5:40; the sun wouldn't set for another 40 minutes so I drove back to the overlook I'd visited that morning. By the time I climbed down to the vista, the sun had already dipped below the ridges on the west side of the Big Piney, and the foliage in the valley seemed to be way past peak anyway. I'll have to give it another shot next year.