"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.
DRIVE TIME: Richland Creek Wilderness is in northwestern Arkansas, 173 miles from Little Rock.
THE WAY: From Russellville, take AR 7 north for 37 miles to Pelsor. Turn right onto
AR 16 and drive east for 10 miles to Ben Hur. Continue for 1.5 miles to Forest Service Road 1205 (on the left). The Richland Creek Campground and trailhead are 9 miles down Forest Service Road 1205.
TRAILS: Unofficial trails wind along Richland Creek, Big Devils Fork, and Long Devils Fork for a total of about 10 miles. With a map, you can add as many off-trail miles as you please. Note that stream crossings may be impossible after a heavy rain. For a longer hike on a maintained trail, the 165-mile Ozark Highlands Trail passes along the edge of the wilderness area. A good 20-mile-round-trip hike starts at the Richland Creek Campground and extends north to Dry Creek.
ELEVATION: Creek bottoms in the wilderness are as low as 1,000 feet, with high points topping out at just above 2,000 feet.
CAN'T MISS: Twin Falls and Richland Falls. Allow plenty of time for both.
CROWD CONTROL: Except during hunting season (November and December), finding solitude is rarely a problem.
GUIDES: Buffalo River Hiking Trails, by Tim Ernst (available from Cloudland. Net, 800-838-4453; www.cloudland.net; $16.95). USDA Forest Service Richland Creek Wilderness map ($3; see Contact below).
WALK SOFTLY: Camp at least 200 feet from the waterfalls, both to protect these fragile areas and to give others a chance to enjoy them.
CONTACT: Ozark National Forest, Buffalo Ranger District, (870) 446-5122; www.fs.fed.us/oonf/ozark/recreation/