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February 2001

Arkansas’ Waterfall Paradise

If you're a fan of waterfalls, then Arkansas's Richland Creek Wilderness is your dream trip.

“One of the most scenic areas in this country. And I do mean the United States.” That kind of praise usually is heaped upon famous national parks and skyscraping mountain ranges. But this glowing description, from trail guru Tim Ernst, honors Arkansas’s little-known Richland Creek Wilderness, an 11,800-acre parcel of creek-creased Ozark Plateau, turquoise pools, terraced bluffs, and waterfalls nestled within the Ozark National Forest.

Richland Creek’s lack of notoriety has kept it off the radar screens of most hikers. The swath of spellbinding wilderness is as wild as it ever was, and it has no maintained trails or signs. Although it’s only 3.5 miles from the wilderness’s boundary to Richland Falls and Twin Falls, the tough going and route finding make it feel twice that.

The creekside path I’m on writhes, drops, climbs, and sometimes disappears while it serves up tantalizing glimpses of inviting water and soaring bluffs. This unofficial path, known as the Twin Falls Trail, is most easily followed in winter, when thick brush and foliage don’t obscure it. Winter is also the best time to see the many waterfalls in full flow (though you may have to cross icy streams along the path).

The turquoise-green Richland Creek tumbles through boulder chutes and over minifalls flanked by 60-foot limestone cliffs. As I follow it, I have to shuffle across craggy rock outcrops and crawl under fallen trees.

At the confluence of Richland Creek and Long Devils Fork, I splash across the shallow water and clamber uphill a half mile to the terraced Twin Falls, which is formed by the junction of Long Devils and Big Devils Forks. The two 20-foot falls are opposites: The left branch gushes water like a hydrant, while the right floats down in a delicate, lacy sheet.

Richland Falls, on the other hand, roars down in a 100-foot-wide curtain of cascading water. The unofficial Twin Falls Trail, such as it is, ends there, but I continue on into one of the most captivating wilderness areas in this country. And I do mean the United States.

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