Summiting Arkansas’ highest mountain
I believe anyone who loves big mountains and lives in Arkansas needs to at least once hike bottom to the top of the state’s highest mountain, Mount Magazine.
My brother, Jacob, and I had planned to hike another trail, but after looking at the weather forecast, we decided we might want to camp in a place that has a bathroom because storms were expected on our second night.
Jacob said he had not been to Mount Magazine State Park since the lodge was built. I had previously researched the Mount Magazine Trail, maintained by the Ozark National Forest, so it was an easy switch. A map from the forest service can be found here.
We didn’t get on the road to make the two-hour drive until a little before noon, and I was worried about getting such a late start. The trail however is roughly 9.5 miles, depending on if you use the map or the signage for your reference, so I knew we could easily do that in two to three days, even with a late start.
If you hike bottom to top, the trailhead is located on Arkansas Highway 309 just before you get to Cove Lake Recreation Area coming from Mount Magazine State Park.
The first five miles of the trail are fairly level. Each mile is marked on the trail, which is nice to know your pace. We started out hiking through the open forest. It seemed the trail is not used very much because there are logs across the trail and briers reach out and grab you in some places.
Around mile four, the trail takes you above the narrow valley of Gutter Rock Creek. It follows the steep rock face above the creek for a while and there are several beautiful backcountry camping spots. Just be careful and not step off the rock face if you get up in the night to use the restroom.
It is here, that you also get your first glimpse of the mountain. It looks a little daunting, but don’t let that discourage you. After 4.1 miles, according to the map, you come to another trailhead, located on a dirt road near the town of Corley. There is another trailhead a few miles down, so the trail can be broken up into several day trips. At the Corley trailhead, the trail follows a dirt road for a little way before meandering back into the woods.
When Jacob and I came to mile five, we decided to set up camp for the night. We camped near a small stream and it was nice to listen to the water flow all night. Jacob set up his hammock and I set up my tent.
The low was supposed to be in the 50s the first night and even warmer the second night so I brought my 30-degree sleeping bag. I brought extra clothes to wrap up my dog, Caddie, because she is a cold-natured dog. Yes, she is a diva dog too. However, I got so cold that I had to end up wearing my extra clothes and poor Caddie tried to sleep in my sleeping bag with me.
Jacob built a nice fire and just before bed, we set off to hang our bear bag. Finding a tree with a limb at the proper height and distance from the tree is hard. We finally found one and it took us a few tries to get the rock and string over the branch, but we finally did.
The next morning we made oatmeal and had hot tea for breakfast and it was great to get hot food in my stomach and start to warm up. Jacob was afraid his socks were wet and asked me to feel them. Only after I felt of his sock, did the goof realize it was the pair he had worn the day before and were wet from sweat. Gross!
We set out from camp and I was a little worried because the first five miles were easy and I knew that could only mean the elevation was going to be more strenuous the second day. Between miles five and six, the map promised a bridge, however when we got there it was easy to see where a bridge had once been built but was no more. The creek was not too hard to cross, though. But poor Caddie did not like the rushing water and hopped from rock to rock.
From there we met our first set of switchbacks, and I felt my muscles were not warmed up for them. After we climbed a little way the trail levels out and swings wide to the east before hitting the steepest part of the trail.
We came across a pond of some sort. It was more like a bayou with water in the trees, but these were not water trees. The trail crossed a natural (or unnatural, who knows?) causeway between the flooded timber.
When we reached the last trailhead on Green Branch Road, we stopped for lunch. There was even a picnic table for us to eat on. From there we knew we only had two more miles, but they were going to be steep. When we crossed the road, the signage told us it was 2.7 miles, much to our disappointment because the map promised only 2.1 miles.
The last 2.7 or 2.1 miles are steep, but it is a well-built trail, and the incline isn’t as strenuous as I thought. About halfway there is a beautiful backcountry site near a water source when it’s not too dry out.
Just below the top, Jacob wanted a quick break to readjust his pack. I was tired and ready to be off the trail, so I said I was going to continue to where the trail curves and wait for him there; however, just around the curve I could see the base of the bluff and decided to push all the way up to the top. I kept yelling for Jacob, to let him know, but the wind had picked up on the top and he didn’t hear me. When he got to the top, he said, “I swear I thought I heard you say you were going to wait.” I had to confess that he heard correctly, but I kept going.
Just below the top, you cross into Mount Magazine State Park.
We got to the top just as the sun was casting long shadows in the valley, to make the texture of the terrain show up very well. It was such a great sense of accomplishment to look back and see how far and high we had hiked!
From the top, we hiked the short distance to the campgrounds at the state park. We set up camp in strong and cold winds. We worried about the storms that were supposed to move through. Jacob said he would rather hike the half of a mile to the lodge at Mount Magazine State Park and have a hot cooked meal than eat the M.R.E. he brought.
Because I had Caddie, I was worried about where we would eat because it was so windy and cold. At the campground, we had a little bit of shelter from the wind in the trees. We decided to eat on the patio … in the wind. However, the staff at the lodge were so helpful and took pity on us. They let us leave poor Caddie tied up outside the window so we could enjoy the warmth of the lodge while we ate.
After dinner, I felt sorry for Caddie who was so cold the night before, so I spent a whopping $50 on a blanket. I’m telling you, diva dog.
When we got ready for bed, Jacob crawled into his hammock, but the wind was so strong it was ripping his rain fly’s stakes out of the ground and blowing them everywhere. He decided to head to the bathroom and set up camp. About midnight, I began to see flashes of light and worry about the oncoming storms. So I gathered everything up and moved to the bathroom as well. I said to Jacob, “I’m probably a total wuss.” Then the bottom fell out of the sky.
The bathroom was actually nice because it was warm and very clean. Good thing I spent $50 on a blanket, huh? We listened to the storms come and go all night. There was heavy rain, wind, and lightning, so I didn’t feel like a wuss anymore.
About 5:30 in the morning, a random guy walked in trying to take a shower. He wasn’t camped in the campground and I assumed he was just passing through. I told him I would leave, but he said he would go to the women’s to shower.
The next morning there was a tree down across the road to the campground, so I was glad we went to the bathroom.
Jacob said he didn’t want oatmeal and he’d buy my breakfast at the lodge, so we made the half-mile hike again for breakfast. After breakfast, we hiked about 2.5 miles, via the North Rim Trail, to the visitor center to pay for our spot.
The North Rim Trail offers beautiful vistas of not only the valley below but also of Mount Magazine, showing us again how far we’d come.
After we got back to camp, we took a short break and then hiked to Signal Hill, the summit of Mount Magazine, the highest point in the whole state.
Our parents and Jacob’s wife, Katie, met us for lunch, where we ate in the lodge again! I cannot say enough nice things about the people who work in the lodge at Mount Magazine State Park. They really took pity on two weary backpackers and made us feel so much better.
We then all rode back down to Cove Lake to get my car. Katie got stuck between Jacob and me in the back seat and I felt sorry for her because I’m sure we smelled awful.
The trail is probably one of my favorites now. It would be great for a first-time backpacker. As long as you go slow, the steepness is not bad.