Eye of the Needle and Indian Creek

 

With the high rainfall over the past two weeks, we jumped on the opportunity to take a waterfall hike in Northern Arkansas last Saturday.  We managed to have childcare for the day, so chose a much more strenuous hike than what we are normally able to accomplish.


The trail books describe a tough 4.2 mile hike down and back a creek bed (2.1 each way), just off the Buffalo River. However, after such heavy rain, and with an added excursion, this became a 7.5 mile, 8 hour day of hiking and adventure.

This is an unmarked and unofficial trail, not recognized by the NPS, partly due to the exceptionally high number of injuries that occur in this specific canyon. This hike is not for children, pets, or anyone with any doubts about their physical ability to hike, climb, and navigate increasingly trecharous terrain. We saw maybe a dozen other hikers this day, and only four others made it to the Eye of the Needle at the end of the trail. There are several opportunities to turn back, and no shame in doing so if it’s for one’s personal safety.

We parked at the Kyle’s Landing Buffalo River access on hwy 74 between Ponca and Jasper – there are signs. The road down to Kyle’s Landing is steep, rough, and recommended 4 wheel drive only. There were tons of floaters and campers at Kyle’s Landing, and we parked at the trailhead on the far left of the campground.

We used Tim Ernst’s guide to find out way to and through Indian Creek toward Eye of the Needle. This area is a maze of trails, as the Old River Trail (ORT) and Buffalo River Trail (BRT) intersect and wind through the wilderness right at Kyle’s Landing.

Once at the trail head (there are trailhead signs), don’t take the Old River Trail left right after the signs, follow the trail straight, across Bear Creek (dry). Next you will see two turnoffs on the left for the Buffalo River Trail, but continue straight.

This is a rough, rocky horse trail, and after the two BRT turnoffs, there will be a post marker that says ‘Indian Creek.’ Take that left. This will reconnect with the BRT and then comes to a creek which flows into the Buffalo River. This is Indian Creek, about a half mile from the trailhead.

From this point, there is no official trail, but many worn paths, often on both sides of the  creek, when you can find them. We ran out of clear trail, we would cross the creek and find it again.


After the good rains we’ve had this month, there were an unbelievable number of waterfalls along and flowing into this creek. Not too far down the creek, we decided to explore up a tributary and found an amazing series of falls. This detour took us a little over three hours of exploring, but with plenty of food and water, and without kids, we relished in the luxury of time.

Once at the top of this side climb, we came to a cliff face, small cave, and large falls. We went up to the top of those falls, and debated going further, or trying to find a different way down. We decided to go back the way we came to avoid getting turned around or stuck at the top of the canyon without a clear path back to the bottom.


On our All Trails app, our elevation change here was intense, but we made it safely back to the bottom of the canyon and moved on upstream.

The waterfalls kept getting more and more spectacular as the trail progressed. In places, we walked right down the creek. In other places, the water looked deep and had a blue milky hue. Above one of these pools, we watched a bat flying in circles low, just above the water.

Throughout this trail, you are problem solving and navigating complex terrain. More than once we doubled back a little to find an easier way upstream. In many places, the canyon walls were slick and the water was deep, so going up and around was the only option.


The trail alongside the creek went way up atop the bluff, overlooking the canyon. Several on All Trails suggested staying low, as this high trail had great views, but a very narrow ledge to walk along the steep cliff face. The views were great, but we tried to stay closer to the river coming back.


About 2.5 miles from the original trailhead (sans detours), the canyon closes in, and you will see Arkansas Cave on the bluff up and toward your left. The cave opening is shaped like the state of Arkansas and is a large, clear landmark in the cliff face, with a wet weather waterfall flowing out of it depending on the season. Indian Creek Falls coming out of the cliff on your right.

Just before this, there is a trail up toward the cave with signs asking people to stay out of the cave to protect the endangered Gray and Indiana Bats. This cave was once called tunnel cave. Prior to being closed, people would hike through the cave and out a tunnel on the other side, bringing them much closer to Eye of the Needle.


Now that the cave is closed, the route is more complicated. If you are facing the two falls, then directly behind you will (hopefully) be some rope. People will sometimes cut down the rope if it seems too weak, or tie up new rope if they brought some along. When we were there, a series of three ropes took us up to the top of the bluff. Without the rope, there is no way we would have made it up the steep and muddy cliff.


The top was still a rocky, muddy, and steep alcove cut into the side of the bluff. Walk around the back of the alcove to a hole in the cliff face. Through that hole, leads you to the top of Indian Creek Falls.

Continue upstream again, with no trails at all here. You will climb up and over giant grey, pink, and blue granite boulders, which were wet and covered in moss. The walk from the top of the falls to Eye of the Needle is only another quarter mile or so, but it was a tough go. Many times during the day, we would really need to think through the clearest route up the stream, to avoid the deepest water and highest rocks, and never more so than this last bit.

The Eye of the Needle is a giant, aptly-named opening in the cliff face with a large waterfall coming through the ‘eye’. We had the good fortune of arriving just as the sun was shining through the eye, making for some fantastic photos and a beautiful site before we turned to head back the way we came.


Tim Ernst speaks of hiking up and through the Eye during drier times, and coming up to a 50 foot waterfall on upstream, but the hike gets increasingly complicated and climbing gear is recommended on several other blog posts. There is also a way to get here from the top of the bluff, going down some gravel roads across from the Low Gap store. I am intrigued to see that waterfall, but also satisfied with everything we were able to accomplish in this day.

We felt fortunate to make it to the Eye of the Needle during a time when water is actually flowing (it usually isn’t), and we were content to turn around and head back after resting and taking several pictures and video.

The hike back was more difficult than going in. We had hiked 4.5 hours, and 5 miles at this point. We knew we wouldn’t take any detours, but going down those steep cliffs, rocks, and falls was far more technical than going up.


We stayed more in the creek going back, and stayed at a brisk pace because it gets dark in the canyon earlier than the valley. While focusing more on my footing on the way back, I was able to better appreciate the multitude of ferns and wild flowers growing all along the canyon walls and floor.

About a dozen other hikers were out in be region this day. We saw a family with a younger child make it over to the first falls in the creek. A group of four men, experienced hikers, met us coming back from the Eye. A friendly retiree met up with us several times going and coming. He stopped before the Eye, but rested and met up with us to hike a bit back alongside us. We saw three other couples, all overnight backpacking in the Ponca Wilderness.


We each brought day packs with camelback bladders full of water, wet shoes and dry shoes for the creek crossings, lunch, plenty of snacks, and our walking sticks. I brought my early Mother’s Day gift – a Lifestraw water bottle, which came in handy when I finished off my water well before the halfway point. Josh packed his camera gear and was able to get fantastic footage of our day.

If we were to repeat today, I would have started earlier and brought a topo map so we had a little more confidence in our detours and navigation. However, heading up a stream is pretty straightforward.

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This was easily the most difficult hike we’ve ever completed. I cannot think of another time when I have physically pushed myself this hard. The 4.2 mile there and back spoken of on many blogs is misleading. Our three hour steep detour certainly added to our day, but the strenuous level of the main trail is not to be underestimated. Although the water and mud made it significantly more challenging, I would have been disappointed to hike this in a drier time and not see as many falls in action. Indian Creek Trail was one of the most memorable and spectacular hikes I’ve completed in the Buffalo River Area.

This was easily the most difficult hike we’ve ever completed. I cannot think of another time when I have physically pushed myself this hard. The 4.2 mile there and back spoken of on many blogs is misleading. Our three hour steep detour certainly added to our day, but the strenuous level of the main trail is not to be underestimated. Although the water and mud made it significantly more challenging, I would have been disappointed to hike this in a drier time and not see as many falls in action. Indian Creek Trail was one of the most memorable and spectacular hikes I’ve completed in the Buffalo River Area.

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