Brush Heap Mountain is well worth the climb … and briers
Brush Heap Mountain is located on the Athens-Big Fork Trail, which is one of the hardest trails to tackle in the Ouachita Mountains. Most trails follow the ridges of the Ouachitas, located in southwest Arkansas, which run east to west. The ABF, however, is a mail route that was used more than a century ago and connected the towns of Athens and Big Fork. It runs across the mountains, north to south over eight mountains. Because of the elevation gain and loss, the trail is considered extremely strenuous by the U.S. Forest Service.
I have to admit I have only completed about one third of the trail because it scares me. It is also a 10.5-mile, point-to-point trail, so it is a long day hike and requires shuttling. The forest service’s trail description and map can be seen here.
The part I have done, I have been told is one of the best vistas in the area. The hike to the top of Brush Heap Mountain is no joke, but well worth the climb. The ABF crosses Forest Service Road 106, where there is a parking area to access the trail. From the parking lot, you head south and up to Brush Heap.The summit of the mountain, at 2,100 feet, is a little more than a mile and about 1,000 feet above the parking. What makes this section of trail so tough is there is only one set of switchbacks, so you have a steep and long climb. After a constant straight assent, you think you have reached the top but it is a false summit. That is where the switchbacks are, however it’s only a short way to the pass.
At the pass the ABF continues down the mountain, but a hard-to-spot spur trail will take you to the summit of Brush Heap Mountain. My friend Zach and I hiked this on an early fall, blue-sky day. The spur trail is hard to follow and at one point we ended up off the trail. We scrambled up a rock face and found the trail.
This was my third time to hike to the top of Brush Heap, and I kept promising Zach the view was well worth it. However this time on the mountain, it was covered in briers. They were so thick and so bad, that my dog, Caddie, kept looking up at me not wanting to go forward.
We had excellent views to the south and west, but the views to the north you can see miles and miles of the folds of the mountains. To see the northern views you have to hike along the ridge to the eastern point. I kept pushing forward through the briers even though they protested by grabbing my legs, clothes and bootlaces. It felt like the mountain was trying to hold me back. I would try to lift my leg to step, but it would be caught in the briers. We finally made it to the eastern point of the mountain and we could see excellent views, but to the north we had to looked through the trees.Even on the way down, we lost the spur trail and had to do a little climbing to get back to where it met with the ABF.
From the junction at the pass we continued southbound toward Eagle Rock Vista. Having met a pair of out-of-breath backpackers on their way up, I was not looking forward to the return trip when we had to climb Brush Heap again. However, when we did come back, hiking northbound to the pass, it was not nearly as bad as the southbound hike from the car to the top.
The trails drops down into a narrow, and extremely beautiful creek valley. In early November, when we were there, the light flooded in and illuminated the yellow leaves.After a little way the valley opens up and the tail crosses the creek before climbing to Eagle Rock Vista. I took a mental note that I want to camp here when I backpack the trail.
From the creek, there is a short climb to another pass and then the trail drops down again. This is as far as we went on the ABF. At the pass you can see a spur trail to the left. This trail takes you to the Eagle Rock Vista, and it is well worth the hike. Not as high as Brush Heap, the view still takes your breath away.
From Eagle Rock Vista, we traced our steps back to my car on Forest Service Road 106, opting out of the spur trail to the top of Brush Heap.
The ABF can be combined with the Little Missouri Trail and part of the Viles Branch Trail for a 26.8-mile loop through the area, called the Eagle Rock Loop. The forest service description and map can be viewed here. Because of the ABF and numerous river crossing of the Little Missouri River, the ERL is considered one of the most strenuous backpacking trails in the area. Someday (hopefully soon), I will hike the whole loop in one trip.
To find the trail head on Forest Service Road 106, go south from Glenwood on U.S. Highway 70. Turn right onto Arkansas Highway 84, and continue to Langley. From Langley, turn right onto Arkansas 369, which will end at Albert Pike Recreation Area. Albert Pike is only open in the day use area and camping is prohibited. Just before you to get to the day use area, a dirt road, Forest Service Road 106, climbs up the mountain. This is the road you need to take. A few miles up the steep and winding road is the trail head for the Winding Stairs Trail, which is part of the Little Missouri Trail, keep driving about five miles. When you pass a stone building on Blaylock Creek to your right, you are coming close to the trail head for the ABF. The trail head is marked with a hiker crossing sign and a parking lot.
One of my favorite things about this area is its remoteness. I highly suggest taking a map, as it can be easy to get turned around on the dirt road that snake through the mountain. But for those seeking the solitude and ruggedness of the mountains, this is an excellent choice.