Ozarks Road Trip
October 24, 2011
Spending an entire day cooped up in a vehicle doesn't sound very fun, but I thoroughly enjoyed a day-long drive through mountains and valleys in the Buffalo River area. I was determined to start off the first day of vacation with a bang. I got out of bed at 4 and managed to wake up and get all my gear together and leave the house by 5. I returned to Ponca and searched for another potential sunrise overlook and once again the spot had too many obstructions. I was tired and cranky so I drove down to the Ponca low-water bridge and crawled in the back of the Tahoe for a nap. I slept for over an hour then got back in the driver’s seat and headed back to the highway. I drove to the southern end of Boxley valley looking for elk but didn't have any luck. As the fog started to break up to allow sunlight to spill into the valley, I turned around and headed north and stopped to photograph two horses grazing in a pasture. It was nearly 10 o'clock by then.
I headed east on Highway 74 and drove as slowly as I needed to enjoy the scenery. Whenever something caught my eye, I'd pull over to see if I could take a decent picture. And I'm always on the lookout for places to view the sunrise or sunset; when I see one I'll save the location on my GPS receiver.
At Jasper I turned south onto Highway 7. Just past Round Mountain I headed east on Highway 374 into one of my favorite areas. The fields, pastures, and wooded mountainsides of upper Big Creek valley and upper Cave Creek valley contain many gorgeous scenes, but most of the land is privately owned and few outsiders have discovered this beauty. I found colorful fall foliage to be very spotty. Some places were coming along very well, a few spots were spectacular, and then others were almost completely green. With the bright sun so high in the sky at midday, most scenes didn't photograph well; though I did stop to shoot a thicket of cane above Big Creek outside the Vendor Community. I'm still surprised how some plants that we normally overlook can be so pretty in the fall.
Past Vendor I turned south onto Highway 123 and drove to the Mount Judea community, where I turned east onto Highway 74. I drove up and around another Round Mountain, and was surprised that it maintained the same profile from a quarter mile away as it did from my usual vantage point up on Highway 7, 9 miles away. I drove down the mountain into the valley of Cave Creek and to the Bass community, then headed south on Cave Creek Road and up into the mountains. This route was a reverse of the one Stacey and I took in 2006 when we accidentally discovered the spectacular valleys.  I was pretty amazed at the depth of the hollow of East Fork Cave Creek, which I'm now realizing is the home of Dogwood Falls.
Cave Creek Road ran in to Lurton AG Road, which I took west to Highway 123. I headed south to Pelsor, where the mountainside across the highway from the old store was covered with the prettiest fall foliage I'd seen yet. But as I drove west down into the Big Piney Creek drainage, the fall foliage faded to dull greens. At Fort Douglas I turned north before crossing the bridge, and followed the Big Piney. It was almost 3 o'clock by then, and the sun had fallen enough to backlight the leaves and cast some shadows behind the steep mountains on the west side of the creek. I stopped to shoot a cluster of goldenrod plants in a field next to the road.
I turned east onto Parker Ridge Road and headed back into the mountains. I stopped for a soda and snacks at a convenience store in the Deer community, then drove Highway 16 west to Edwards Junction. I took Highway 21 north  to complete a huge circle back to Boxley valley, where the low angle of the sun created beautiful scenes in the mountains along Beech Creek and Moore Creek to the west.
At Ponca I turned east onto Highway 74 then turned north and headed to the Steele Creek recreation area. I parked the Tahoe near where Steele Creek flows into the Buffalo, and hiked downstream along the river. One of my most favorite places in the world is where a giant boulder sits in a deep pool below Steele Creek. And the light of the sinking sun made it one of the most beautiful places in the world that evening.
Just downstream of the boulder was another amazing sight. At some time in the last several months, a section of the steep hillside one to two hundred feet above the bluff had broken off and slid down and into the river. All trees and vegetation in the path of the slide had been destroyed. Directly above the river bank, three small trees still stood upright; I imagine they only survived because the debris from the landslide must have flown over them and into the water.
I stayed to enjoy my favorite spot until the sun sank below the distant mountaintops to the west, and then I hiked back to the Tahoe for the drive home. After eating dinner I went online to catch up on the day's events and discovered I'd just missed a major geomagnetic storm that caused visible northern lights in the Ozarks. Knowing that my camera can pick up more light than the human eye can, I grabbed the camera bag and headed back out the door. I drove to Shores Lake, where I took a few shots to confirm the camera was picking up a bit of auroral activity. This was around 10:30. I put a timer on the camera to continuously take pictures, then I walked back to the Tahoe for some much-needed sleep. I woke up at 2:30 to check the camera and review the pictures, and decided the pictures weren't going to get any better. The most colorful shot was taken at 10:49, and shows a conspicuous red spike in the sky above the north horizon. The sky above that had a definite green cast, with a wide arch of red above. I've been on a quest to see or photograph the northern lights in Arkansas for seven years now, and it's nice to know I'm getting closer.