The Eagle Rock Loop in November 2022

The 27-mile Eagle Rock Loop (ERL) in the Ouachita National Forest in southwest Arkansas has been on my “list” for several years. At nearly 400 miles from Houston, it is our closest multi-day trail in hills. I was thrilled in early November when I suggested to Samuel that we do it over the Thanksgiving break (Sunday Nov 20 to Wednesday Nov 23) and I received the most positive response possible from a teenager: “yeah, sure.” Neither of us had much time for preparation, but this loop was ideal for little preparation given our level of experience.

It was a fantastic trip with great weather, warming campfires, a chorus of coyotes, just the right amount of food, and only two wet (yet painfully cold) crossings. Read on for more!

Houston is not the best area for hiking in hills. ERL is located at the number 1.

Planning and Preparation

My primary planning resources were Charlie Williams’s website, the Eagle Rock Loop Trail Reports Facebook Group, the Forest Service’s Guide, the AllTrails map, and the FarOut Guide. I discovered some blogs and videos that were extremely well made and provided entertainment and some useful background. I hope this blog can fill a gap while complementing the other resources!

Trail Map
AllTrails shows the route and elevation, and we chose the same starting point and direction

My first decision was a start point and a direction. Things to consider include when to do the hills, getting feet wet, and where you can park. We chose to start at Winding Stair trailhead (the green and black circle above) near Albert, labelled NFW106 SW Parking in Google Maps, and hike counterclockwise. Alternative start points include Little Missouri Falls trailhead on the northeast side, the Little Missouri/Athens-Big Fork trailhead at the northwest corner, the Blaylock Creek West Trailhead on the west side in the hills, and the Athens-Big Fork South Trailhead at the southwest corner. Overnight parking and camping are forbidden at Albert Pike Recreation Area after a catastrophic flash flood in 2010 when 4.3 inches of rain in 3 hours led to twenty deaths. (see Official USGS report and photos).

Coupled with the start point decision is how long to take. At 27-miles, some can do the whole loop in a day (it’s only a marathon!) We wanted a relaxed and enjoyable hike so aimed for 2 nights. This plan allowed a 12-mile, relatively flat first day along the very scenic Little Missouri, with our first campsite by the river just before the northwest corner. The second day would cover most of the hills, camping at Eagle Rock Vista after 8 miles at the top of the sixth and last ridge. This left a short six-mile final day with two wet crossings of the Little Missouri. We would not change the plan one bit as this worked perfectly for us. This starting point was also most convenient for arriving from Houston and heading to Louisiana afterwards for Thanksgiving. We had considered camping at a trailhead the first night as we were arriving late but chose to stay in Texarkana and drive the 1.75 hours at dawn the following morning.

The next decision was gear. Our most recent backpacking trip had been the Grand Canyon in May which was hot and arduous, so we had gone as light as possible, even ditching the stove. However, we had memories of being cold in Colorado in July 2021, and some ERL weather reports for Langley or Mena showed temperatures dropping to the low 20’s the week before our trip. The forecasts during our week did not go much below freezing, but this still convinced us to pack on the warm side. This meant we each brought a puffy and a fleece, sweatpants and thermals, and I brought 2 thermorests (one is the very light Uberlite which is comfortable but not warm). We also brought the stove for hot food and drinks, and I brought a Nalgene for a hot water bottle (which I ended up not needing). Our provisional equipment list is here, but we ended up leaving a few things behind resulting in starting dry weights of about 18 lbs which included some luxuries.

The next decision was food. The main lesson from Colorado had been to avoid monotony, and we needed something warming. The lower temperatures meant perishable items such as cheese and chocolate would survive. Our dinners were based around a cheese-and-cracker appetizer followed by one Mountain House and one Raman Noodle, and a side of either Velveeta Mac and Cheese or Idahoan mashed potato, with chocolate (both bars and hot to drink) to finish it off. Breakfast centered on oatmeal, Trader Joe’s coffee and hot chocolate, and more chocolate! We had a variety of snacks throughout the day, including a couple of sandwiches. For previous trips, I have planned food around calories, aiming at about 2500 calories each per day. With less preparation this time, I had thrown in too much, and fortunately we left quite a lot behind when we repacked at the hotel, the night before.

The final decision was about technology. While I am tempted to head out with ZERO technology, I like what I bring. I use an Iphone 13 Pro as my primary camera (shooting raw), and having downloaded AllTrails, FarOut, and GoogleMaps. I track our hike using my Garmin Instinct, though this time I also tracked using AllTrails which worked well. I brought my Garmin InReach Mini which we used the first night to check in with my wife, but we got some cellphone reception on several of the high points. I use an Ankar PowerCore 10,000 to recharge these as required. I also brought my DJI Mini 2 drone plus controller and 3 batteries which added nearly 2 lbs, but I wanted to bring it on a trip and this one seemed appropriate.

From the Little Missouri gauge at Langley. Over 4.5 ft means it is not safe to cross the river on the loop. The red circle was when we hiked, and we were lucky to miss the high water!

Before departing, it is essential to check the weather for rain and the level of the Little Missouri using this gauge near Langley. If the gauge is below 4ft, the deepest crossing on the loop in the southeast corner, just above where Viles Branch joins the Little Missouri, will be calf-to-knee deep. The crossing by Winding Staircase had a similar depth. If the gauge is 4-4.5 ft, sites advise that it is possible but dangerous, and they advise not to cross if it is over 4.5 ft. There was not an obvious trail to avoid these crossings and the route looks steep on maps. While there were several scenic campsites between these two crossings, we would think twice in case the river rose overnight. With the gauge at 3.2 ft, we were able to keep our trailrunners dry at all crossings other than these two.

This FarOut map of the southeast corner shows the two wet crossings with the “!”

Day 1: Winding Stair Trailhead to the Northwest Corner

In summary, we started hiking at 8:30am (sunrise at 7am) and finished at 3:45pm (sunset at 5pm) after 13 miles which included a side hike to the must-see “window rock.” Our feet stayed dry and we met only a couple of other hiking groups and saw no other tents except at the trailheads.

Our route from AllTrails, including the side trip to The Window. Distance seems a bit high, but elevation change looks good.

We arrived at the trailhead at about 8am. The parking lot had about 15 cars in it, with the majority from Texas. I don’t know where they all were as we did not see many people on the hike. We had been uncertain about bringing the extra clothes, but the temperature as we stepped of the car convinced us we’d need them. The trailhead pit toilet (with TP!) was a bonus.

A lovely crisp morning to start the hike.
The trail from the parking lot leads to this sign. The “Viles Branch” is confusing as this is different from the trail on the loop. There was a large tent by this river, and it would work well for camping close to the trailhead.
After a short time on the branch trail, we join the Eagle Rock Loop trail, and this signpost marks both our beginning and end.
After a short warmup on the flat, the hills start. It was a bit unexpected but it is one ridge between the start and Albert Pike. The photo shows where the side trail to The Window leaves the main trail on the left hand side up the ridge. It is not marked but is quite obvious, even under a blanket of leaves.
This map shows the side trail to The Window. The trail is on AllTrails and we followed it to the top, but Window Rock is before the top, marked by a blue dot painted on a rock from where it is just visible.
The views from the top of “Window Rock” trail were great and we got our first drone pictures. I tried to find the window rock using the drone and failed but got some great shots of the fall colors on the ridge and valley. My orange shirt and hat helped spot us from the drone!
On the way back down, we spotted the “obvious” marker and could spot the window rock down the hillside.
We enjoyed a fine lunch in “the window”
The graffiti is sad but does not take away the views.
It was time for the drone again. With no suitable flat spots, Samuel set up his hands as the launch and landing pad. Given my flying skills, this was pretty brave! We got some cool shots of us “in the window.”

On the way down from the window, we met a grandfather and his grandson climbing up. The grandfather hadn’t visited in over twenty years. Having rejoined the main trail, we met a group of two guys and two girls, with the guys carrying large daypacks, but only one of the guys looked happy! Onward to Albert Pike.

Albert Pike is quiet. While the camping facilities remain, there are many signs advising no camping or overnight parking.
The Eagle Rock Loop signs confirm we are in the right place, though navigation has been straightforward, especially with GPS maps.
The trail heads out of Albert Pike along the river. At first, there are signs of development like this wall, but soon we are back in the wild, enjoying great views of the river.

A multitude of tributaries flowing into the Little Missouri provided lots of rock-hopping challenges, but we managed to keep our feet dry.

Some lingering ice reminded us how cold the water was…
Apart from the stream crossings, the path was straightforward.
The path was adequately marked with white blazes, though it seems the wind might target such trees!

It was about 3 miles from the start to Albert Pike, and then about 6 miles to Little Missouri Falls, which was a perfect stopping point for a longer snack before crossing a fine bridge to the trailhead carpark. We saw a couple of families visiting the falls.

The trail called us onwards for the final three miles of the day.
A perfect campsite beside the river awaited us.
Samuel soon had a raging fire going that would keep us warm long into the evening.
There was a perfect spot right there for collecting water.
We had a little left in the day’s battery for a final drone flight, though the long exposure photographs with the iPhone below impressed us as Samuel played with fire…

Day 2: Little Missouri to Eagle Rock Vista

There was some ice on our tent in the morning, so it had dropped below freezing, but we had stayed warm. We’d watched Men In Black until we fell asleep. On waking up, hot drinks and breakfast were most welcomed and the puffy jackets appreciated! This day was a little over 8 miles with 3 side hikes, and the most climbing of the loop but without many river crossings. While the scenery was continuously great, the day treated us to two fantastic vistas.

Day 2’s route is straightforward.
The six ridges on the Athens-Big Fork trail defined day 2. We stopped for views and or snacks at the “top of the first” (Spirit Rock), “bottom of the second” (a nice river crossing), passed some hikers resting at the “top of the third,” we rested at the “top of the fourth,” we took the detour to check out Brush Heap Mountain at the “top of the fifth,” we filtered water at the “bottom of the fifth” in East Saline Creek, and finished at the “top of the sixth” at Eagle Rock Vista. You can see that that climb up the fifth is by far the most significant.
You might be able to make out the trail between our campsite and the river.
Close to our campsite were some pools, if anyone wanted to take the plunge!
In less than 1/2 mile, we reached the junction of the Little Missouri Trail and the Athens-Big Fork Trail
We said goodbye to the Little Missouri (for now), and we soon warmed up as we climbed the first hill.

At the top of the first ridge, there was an obvious path to the right. The path splits and rejoins at the viewpoint Spirit Rock. It was the perfect place to catch the view, fly the drone, and dry off any overnight condensation on the tent’s fly.

The steeper paths were rockier than the flat ones
Between the ups and downs there were several easy flat sections.
A campsite at the confluence of two rivers at the bottom of the second provided a fine location for a snack.
By the top of the fourth, we were ready to lie down…
… but the view remained fantastic!
The bottom of the fourth was the only substantial river crossing over Blaylock Creek. However, we did not realize that we were about to start the biggest climb of the loop up the fifth.
At the top of the fifth, there is an obvious path going left up Brush Heap mountain. AllTrails shows the path going to the top, but we found the best viewpoint was earlier before the path turned very rocky. There was just enough room for a tent and a fire ring with fantastic views. Our second favorite spot for camping (after Eagle Rock Vista). However, it would have been a long way to carry water and there wasn’t much room, and probably not much firewood.
It provided fine views for our snack!
It was also a perfect place to fly the drone, and this shows how small the clearing is, perched on the side of the mountain.
This video really captures the remoteness and views of this campsite.
Saline Creek, at the bottom of the fifth, is great for water. There are great campsites too which some prefer, but we are so happy we carried the water up to Eagle Rock Vista.
We reached Eagle Rock Vista at about 3:30 and were excited to find it empty. It was perched on the side of the cliff. Spot me in my orange shirt! I felt we were lucky to get the site when a couple with a dog arrived at sunset and were quite disappointed.
There was plenty of room for the tent and a fire. Samuel once again built a fine fire, though both of us had to drag a small fallen tree from the forests behind camp to have some firewood.
The setting sun enlivened the autumnal leaves.
The sky presented all shades of orange as the sun set
As Samuel tended the fire, some lights across the valley became visible. That campsite, with the view and the fire, is one of my most memorable evenings ever.

As we were settling into the campsite after the sun had set, I thought about how I hadn’t heard any gunshots. The only evidence of hunting had been an old sign about turkeys at the bottom of the second hill. Most other hikers were not wearing orange, so I was thinking that I had been making an unnecessarily loud fashion statement, as my photos have shown! However, I then heard some rustling in the woods and this man walked out with his hunting rifle over his shoulder and said hello as he walked through our camp. We also heard two gunshots the following morning after sunrise from across the valley.

The evening stars were fantastic, and no photo does them justice, but I was still impressed that my iPhone managed to take one that shows the North Star, and you can just make out some of the Big Dipper!

Day 3: Eagle Rock Vista to Winding Stair Trailhead

Normally on the final day of a trip, we just want to hike out. But we knew we were likely to be given an outstanding sunrise at 7am. So I woke up at 6 and I was not disappointed.

30 minutes before sunrise, the eastern horizon starts to burn.
A little early morning mist lingers in the valley. We still dream of camping above the clouds and looking down on the inversion in the valleys.
It was a special treat to witness the coyote dawn chorus. You might need to turn the volume up on this one!
We enjoy a cup of coffee as the drone captures the sunrise.
The morning sun shows off the campsite well.
I thought I’d got some pretty good drone photos until…
… I gave the controls to Samuel!
Though I took credit for bringing an amazing breakfast! But then we had to pack up and head out.
Drone Video of Eagle Rock Vista Campground
We were soon at the bottom of the sixth hill where Big-Athens Fork meets Viles Branch and we were back to hiking on the flat.
The river scenery resumed…
… with a bit of rock hopping. And then we had to finish our final snack!
We had arrived back at the Little Missouri, and wading was the only option. We changed into our water shoes and rolled up our pants. It didn’t look too bad!
Samuel’s expression says a lot! When you start wading, you feel some cold at first. The cold turns to pain which then intensifies, when you realize you are only halfway across. You keep going, pushing up the incline to get out on the other side, but it takes about 10 seconds for the pain to subside.
Just after crossing the river, this sign confirms we are on the final leg.
We soon come across the first of two fridges: stark reminders of the 2010 flood.
The views across the river periodically open up.

On this east side of the river, there were plenty of great campsites and some interesting caves. We would hesitate to camp in case the river rose, though it is possible to hike out via a different route.

The second wet crossing was neither as deep nor as wide as the first.
We liked this cool remnant of a burned tree trunk. I’m not sure if this was from a forest fire or a controlled burn.
With less than 1/2 a mile to go, the loop had to give us one final river crossing over Blaylock Creek. But we stayed dry!
We were back at our starting sign. We arrived at the car at about 12:30, just as some light rain started. And then it got heavier and heavier.
Within 24 hours, the river was impassable. In the ERL Facebook group, I read of many cancelled Thanksgiving trips because of the rain. We had timed our trip perfectly: just after the hard freezes, and just before the river swelled.

I hope you have found this information either interesting or useful, and ideally both. Please check out our other backpacking adventures at

Published by Peter Ireland

I am originally from England, and my wife Janet is from Louisiana. When we started Geocaching in 2002, we needed a name, and the Cajunlimeys were created, and that is the name I use for my blog. Even though Janet has no Cajun blood, her cooking is excellent! “Limeys” comes from the nickname for English sailors, who ate limes to prevent scurvy. We live in Houston, Texas, with Bailey and Samuel. We love adventures and want to share the experiences with others. When planning trips, I have found other people’s sites very useful, so I want to give back and add a different perspective.

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