Whitaker Point Trail to Hawksbill Crag, Ozark National Forest

The hike on Whitaker Point Trail to Hawksbill Crag is one of the most popular in Arkansas. Aside from the remarkable views of the Buffalo River Gorge, it’s a nice, easy four-season hike that offers wildflowers in spring and summer, and the bright crimson and gold leaves of fall. It takes a little work to get to due to the very remote nature of the location, but once found it is likely to draw you back again and again. I hiked the Whitaker Point Trail on Friday, June 8, 2018 beginning at 8:00AM and finishing about 10:00AM. My plan was to take the trail to Hawksbill Crag, and beyond, then return.

Total Length: 4 miles Hike Duration: 2 hours

Hike Rating: Easy. Just watch your step along the gorge edge.

Hike Configuration: Down and back up lasso Blaze: Occasional warning signs

Elevation Start: 2,254 feet Elevation Change: 385 feet

Trail Condition: Mostly good. Single track through hardwood forest. Plenty of rocks and roots to stumble on. Some stream crossings during wet season. Be very careful along the edge of the gorge.

Starting Point: Whitaker Point trailhead on gravel road #9560.

Trail Traffic: I encountered four other hikers on the way back.

How to Get There: From Ponca, Arkansas take Hwy 43 South to Hwy 21. Turn left. Go about two miles to the Boxley Bridge that crosses the Buffalo River. Turn right just before the bridge onto gravel road #9560 and go 6.1 miles. About 1/4-mile from the trailhead, you’ll pass the Cave Mountain Church & Cemetery on the right. On weekends the limited parking fills fast, so arrive very early.

 

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I started the morning in Springdale and drove just over an hour to the trailhead. This is really backcountry Arkansas. There are a few small hamlets of a couple hundred citizens or less, but you are traveling mostly rural roads. Once you reach gravel road #9560 for the final six miles to the trail, you are really out there. In fact, once I turned off Hwy 412, I never saw another car until I had finished my hike hours later.

The gravel road to the trail is really steep, and really curvy. Don’t plan on driving more than 20 mph. There are a few isolated homes once you reach the ridgetop, but this is mostly legacy forest land. Once you pass the white church on the right, you are almost there. Limited parking is available for this trail, and there are warning signs about private property, so I recommend getting there early, especially on weekends.

There is a very nice stone memorial at the trailhead honoring former Arkansas governor Dale Bumpers, and the trail itself plunges immediately into a dark forest. You descend at a gradual rate, nearly 400 feet total, buts it’s not too bad later coming back up.

It is 1.5 miles to Hawksbill Crag. Along the way you will pass signs warning you to be careful around the rocks at the cliff’s edge. There are a few small streams to cross that may be wet in spring, but were mostly dry when I was there in early June. The forest is hardwood, mostly maples… and dense, dark even.

About half way to the crag, the last stream, and the biggest, might be wet early in the spring. So be prepared to get your shoes wet, or wade across barefoot. Soon after crossing you have a choice of taking the crag loop along the gorge edge, or up above through the forest. I opted to go to the right, counter-clockwise, and follow the rim.

There were a number of ephemeral wildflowers blooming, even in the early morning dim. I found spiderwort, toothwort, and oxeye daisies. You arrive at the rim, soon after crossing the stream, and realize the rugged nature of the terrain.

 

The most colorful flowers in the forest, it’s hard to miss the spiderwort.

 

There are many large outcrops along the rim, nice spots for a picnic, or just to sit awhile and enjoy the gorge views. Just be careful around the edge. It’s a long way down. Judging by all the warning signs, there must have been a number of accidents in the past.

Then, at one viewpoint, you see it. Hawksbill Crag at Whitaker Point. It seemed a little smaller than I expected based on photographs. Still, it is a picturesque rock formation jutting out and over the gorge.

As you continue to get closer, there are more viewing spots. The best times to be here for photos are not when I was there. I arrived about 9:00AM and the sun was shining directly into the camera creating nearly impossible lighting conditions. The best time is either right after sunrise, between 6:00-6:30, or late afternoon to sunset. Were I to ever visit again, I would choose sometime in the late afternoon when the sun is behind you.

The best pictures that day were from the crag itself, looking down gorge, with the sun at my back. Don’t be tempted to crawl out on the tip of the crag. It’s a tragedy waiting to happen. There’s plenty of room on the flat part of the crag. Content yourself with staying safe there.

The trail continues farther into the woods beyond the crag for another half mile. It dead ends at a private property boundary. There are plenty of signs there warning you not to continue. There isn’t really much to see beyond the crag, other than a few more large outcrops, and what looked like a cave about a hundred feet off the trail.

When I got back to the crag, I took the other side of the loop. There are several campsites along the trail in this area. No doubt they are quite popular on summer weekends.

When I got back to the stream crossing, I encountered the first others I’d seen since leaving Springdale, a group of four hikers. They were tourists like me, and seemed quite excited to see Hawksbill Crag.

The rest of the way back was uneventful, just more wildflowers. When I popped back out of the woods at the parking area only two hours had passed. Actually when you think about it, it’s a pretty long drive for such a short hike. The thing to do here is come at the right time of the day, and plan on staying awhile and enjoying the outdoors.

Summarizing Whitaker Point Trail, this is an easy hike to a splendid view over the Buffalo River Gorge. You might want to leave the young kids at home because of the rim danger. It’s a pleasant hike no matter the season, one that provides a different perspective each time of year. Expect a big crowd on green season weekends.

 

 

This post was created by Jeff Clark. Please feel free to use the sharing icons below, or add your thoughts to the comments. Pack it in, pack it out. Preserve the past. Respect other hikers. Let nature prevail. Leave no trace.

 

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