Taking on the Athens-Big Fork Trail
If you are up for a challenge, or umm maybe death march, you need to try the Athens-Big Fork Trail. I have been told this 10.5-mile trek located in southwest Arkansas is the hardest hiking trail in state.
I can believe it. The Athens-Big Fork Trail is a little more than 10 miles one way and climbs up and over eight mountains. That’s slightly less than one mountain a mile. And these aren’t rolling hills. This is some of the most rugged terrain Arkansas offers.
What makes this trail unique – and difficult – is that it is a 125-year old mail route between the towns of Athens and Big Fork. The Ouachita Mountains are a mountain range that runs east to west. Most of the trails follow the ridges and valleys. But the Athens-Big Fork Trail runs north to south, climbing up and over the mountains along the way.
Another aspects that makes this trail harder than most is that it has very little switchbacks to ease the steep inclines.
Directions and logistics
Click here for the trail description, map, and trailhead information from the U.S. Forest Service. The southern trailhead is located just south of Shady Lake Recreation Area. The north trailhead is located about a mile and a half from Highway 8 near the town of Big Fork. They are both pretty hard to find, so you might want to print the forest service’s map and instructions. There are also two trailheads located on Forest Service roads 25 and 106.
If you chose to shuttle between the southern and northern trailheads in order to hike the entire trail in one day, give yourself ample time to leave a car and drive to the other trailhead. I tested it this way and it took me about two hours to get from one trailhead to the other. But I also got lost, umm … twice.
I have hiked the entire trail from both directions, but never the entire trail in one trip. If you want to do it in one trip, one thing you could do is leave a car the night before, and camp out at Shady Lake or somewhere in the national forest. That way you can get an early start and don’t have to use up your time to shuttle.
The forest service suggests you give yourself eight to 10 hours to hike the entire Athens-Big Fork. Normally I hike faster than the suggested time. I generally hike about two miles an hour. But on this trail I was slower than my average. With the average pace that I hiked while enjoying this trail, it would have taken me about eight hours to complete had I hiked it all at once.
I hiked the Athens-Big Fork Trail in four section, out-and-back hikes. First I hiked from the trailhead at Forest Service Road 106 south to Eagle Rock Vista and back. Then I hiked from the same trailhead to Spirit Rock Vista and back. I then hiked from the southern trailhead to Eagle Rock Vista, and finally from the northern trailhead to Spirit Rock Vista.
Southern Trailhead to Eagle Rock Vista
The Athens-Big Fork begins in a narrow beautiful valley. The trail follows the little creek in the valley before crossing it. I got a little confused at this point, and seemingly stepped over logs that were there to deter hikers who missed the 90 degree angle curve in the trail. I soon realized I was not on the trail but only had to retrace a few steps.
After the trail crosses the creek it begins to climb steeply up the first mountain. It’s a beautiful hike to the top but will definitely make you pant. The trail goes up and over the mountain, but there really isn’t anything spectacular at the top, except no more climbing.
On the descent, or north side of the mountain, you hike through forest with a novaculite glade underfoot. It’s beautiful seeing the rocks, but be careful because they roll under your feet.
At the bottom you cross the Viles Branch Horse Trail. The Athens-Big Fork briefly follows the same path as the Viles Branch, but once you cross the creek you are back on the Athens-Big Fork. There is a sign directing which way the trail goes.
The next mountain was full of false summits. As I hiked, I thought I was close to the top a few times, but would only round a bend to keep climbing. But as you get close to the top you can see beautiful views to the east, or right, of the trail.
At the top there is a spur trail to Eagle Rock Vista. This is one of my favorite views on the trail. You don’t have the sweeping vistas like other parts of the trail, but you see the rugged terrain up close. You can also see the first mountain you climbed looming over the valley.
Eagle Rock Vista to road 106
From Eagle Rock Vista the trail descends down into my favorite valley of the trail. The Athens-Big Fork drops down to a creek and then follows one of its tributaries before making the climb up to Brush Heap Mountain. On this section and the next, I hiked with Zach.
From either direction the climb out of this valley is probably the easiest climb on the trail. I loved being deep in the narrow valleys.
When you get to the top of Brush Heap Mountain, the trail to the summit is to the east, or right, of the trail. The views from the summit of Brush Heap Mountain are worth the extra climb to the top. But I have to warn you, the last time I was there the briers were awful. And the vegetation had grown up and choked out some of the view.
If you want sweeping vistas for fine art photography, you may not get it. But, in the leaf-off season, you can see through the trees, and it has the best views that show the rugged folded mountains in the area.
If you park at Forest Service Road 106 and hike south up to Brush Heap, it is one of the hardest climbs on the trail. It is steep and just keeps going up. To read more about this section of trail check out my Hiking Brush Heap Mountain post.
Road 106 to Spirit Rock Vista
If you start at the forest service road 106 trailhead and hike north, you cross Blaylock Creek right off the bat. This was the largest water crossing we had on the entire Athens-Big Fork. It took some strategy, careful footing, and waterproof boots but I was able to cross it without getting my feet wet.
The trail follows the creek a little ways before turning and steeply ascending the next mountain. I had to take a few standing breaks to catch my breath, which was fine with me because the this section of trail is really pretty.
The next mountain on the trail was not too terrible of a climb going north. But as we went down it, I thought “this is going to be a beast to climb.” And it was on our return trip.
After the trail levels out in the valley, it follows a beautiful tributary to Long Creek in a narrow valley. We at our lunch at Long Creek, and it would make a beautiful campsite if you backpack.
After we crossed the creek we began to climb again. A storm must have moved through the area a while back because most the the trees had fallen. We were a little choked by the briers, but the lack of trees opened up the view making it worth fighting them. There were also a lot of loose rocks and we had to watch our footing.
The next hill we climbed was more open woods but had the same rocks underfoot. This mountain was a beast to climb, but the view from Spirit Rock Vista on it is worth the climb.
At the vista, Zach and I turned around and hiked back the way we came. Normally when you get to a vista, it’s all down hill from there. But not on the Athens-Big Fork.
Spirit Rock Vista to northern trailhead
From Spirit Rock Vista you are a little more than half a mile from the Little Missouri River and the trailhead that is located on Forest Service Road 25. The incline on the trail, like all others on the Athens-Big Fork, is steep.
But it takes you through beautiful woods. You can see through the trees the next mountain you will go over. They are beautiful views and give a since of how high you climb and descend.
The Little Missouri Trail keeps following the river here. For the Athens-Big Fork you cross the river.
Where the trail crosses the Little Missouri River, it is actually smaller than Blaylock Creek. After you cross the river and Forest Service Road 25, you begin a beautiful climb. This climb is actually not bad compared to other climbs on the trail. When you get close to the top it gets steep, but only for a short while.
On this part of the trail it follows under some power lines, which I did not particularly like. At the top, officials have cleared the land for the right-of-way for the power lines and it was thick with briers.
The descent down to the northern trailhead isn’t as pretty as other parts of the trail. But toward the trailhead, it goes through a pine forest that I thought was peaceful.
If you are really ambitious
There is actually a half marathon on this trail. I could barely hike it, but some people chose to run it. I can’t even imagine how tired I would be if I ran this trail, but there are those who can do it. It is a beautiful trail to have a race.
You can also loop the trail with the Little Missouri Trail and Viles Branch Horse Trail for an about 26-mile loop. Click here for information from the forest service on Eagle Rock Loop. Some day I will hike the entire Eagle Rock Loop in one trip.