The Goat Trail
October 29 & November 1, 2007
The Goat Trail, on a narrow ledge high above the Buffalo River, has been one of those places I've always wanted to see. Way back in my early twenties, long, long before I took up hiking and exploring the Arkansas outdoors, I enviously listened to some guys I worked with tell stories of their visit to the amazing place. Somehow even then I knew where they were talking about. In recent times as I've browsed books by Kenneth Smith and Tim Ernst I've been reminded of that lifelong desire to hike the Goat Trail, yet I kept failing to add it to the list of "Places that Must Be Seen" that I keep on the computer.
I had a week of vacation coming up, timed to coincide with the peak of fall colors in the Ozarks, when I received an old copy of a book by Arkansas photographer Matt Bradley. His color picture of hikers on the Goat Trail was what it took to make me say "I WILL see that place for myself this fall."
A concentrated read of a couple of guidebooks revealed that the route to the trail was a simple one. All this time I thought it would be difficult and complex, mainly because there are so many different intersecting trails in the area. A similarly-named Goat Bluff Trail down river added to the confusion.
My vacation began with Stacey and I spending the weekend in Eureka Springs celebrating our anniversary, then I headed to the Buffalo first thing Monday morning.
I left the house around 5 and pulled into the parking area for the Center Point trail about 2 hours later. I thought about driving around in search for an overlook first. I’d caught glimpses of heavy fog in the valleys, and the hazy sky to the east was a soft peach color I wouldn’t have thought possible had I not seen it for myself. But I stuck to my original plan of getting to the Goat Trail as early as possible. As I hiked down hill the heavy layer of fog down in the valley to my right gave me the impression there was a lake below.
The trail ran atop an old dirt road that was closed when the National Park Service acquired all the land along the river. I made the mental connection between this road and Granny Henderson's cabin down in the valley and I imagined her and the other residents of the area walking or riding the road on a foggy fall morning such as this. I also realized this was the same road I mistakenly hiked up back in April when I was trying to find Rocky Bottom on Sneed's Creek.
As the trail descended into the fog, I stopped to snap some pictures at a flat spot beneath towering trees lit by the rising sun and shrouded in mist. When I reviewed the photos on the camera's screen I was horrified to see that there was something badly wrong with the camera. The pictures were filled with strange reds and blues. I went ahead and hiked to the Goat Trail and followed it out over the river. Down below I spotted a bald eagle gliding up the valley. The scenery was breathtaking, but the sun had come up and was filling the valley with harsh light that made the shadows dark. I couldn't have taken any good pictures even if the camera was working. I explored the area for about an hour, then made the long hike back to the truck and was home by early afternoon.
Lucky for me I still had my old camera and was able to return even earlier Thursday morning. I needed to be at the Goat Trail before the sun got too high and ruined my chances to take any decent pictures.
I'd bought a light that attached to the bill of my hat and allowed me to hike the Center Point trail hands-free. I stumbled on the rocks a little more than usual but otherwise the light worked out great. It got light enough to see about the time the Goat Trail emerged from a thick stand of cedars and ran along the ledge. Low clouds and haze in the east subdued the rising sun's effects and gave me more opportunities to take pictures while I enjoyed the exhilarating views. At one point I noticed tiny shapes crossing the river far below. They were deer, I realized. Many of the things I saw were much more meaningful because the night before I had read the passage in Kenneth Smith's priceless Buffalo River Handbook describing the Goat Trail. I knew the history of the metal-roofed structure at Center Point near where the deer crossed below. That band of red rock was part of the St. Joe limestone. Those twisted, ancient cedars were really the elusive Ashe's Juniper. I knew how the hole-in-the-wall got there, and I knew to look for the travertine stalagmites.
The Goat Trail exceeded my twenty-plus year's worth of expectations, and I was shown once again that those places I've always wanted to see are probably a lot easier to get to that I imagined.