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(Staff Photo: Richard Davis) Looking into the sky on the Forest Trail at Withrow Springs State Park near Huntsville.

Withrow Springs provides inexpensive outdoor outlet

By Matt Bishop

TFW Contributing Writer

The last weekend in October was too nice to be inside, and going to Wilson Park didn’t seem wild enough. But with Sara, my sister-in-law, and I having two 3-year-olds, two 6-year-olds and a 7-year-old with us, there are limits to the wilderness we can venture into — not to mention afternoon nap requirements.
Where to go that’s not too far and not too strenuous, but gets the kids out into nature? We’d done Devil’s Den. I thought about Kings River Falls, but a five-mile round trip on stubby little legs for the youngest two might result in us having to carry them for at least half the trip.  Neither of us wanted that.
Then I remembered Withrow Springs State Park, just 40 minutes away from Fayetteville. I hadn’t been there in years, but got online and saw what looked like an easy two mile hike along War Eagle Creek and back.
We turned north off U.S. 412, then turned off Arkanas 23 after crossing a bridge over War Eagle Creek and unloaded at the well-marked trail head. The kids were fired up. The littlest ones were yammering on about everything they saw as if they’d never been outside before, bumping into each other and everything; the 6-year-old girls were looking for butterflies and singing Taylor Swift; the oldest wanted to know the exact mileage of where we were going, whether I thought that was enough, whether there’d be time for more and announcing his role as the leader to
the others.

The trail was easy to find, and we set off with the temperature about 60 degrees and the sun shining.

The War Eagle Trail runs east along the creek, anywhere from 10 to 100 feet off the water. There are cliffs, but the State Park Service has installed wire railing along the most dangerous parts. I’d still recommend keeping a close eye for the first two-thirds of the trip, and we had a hand on the littlest ones on the higher cliffs. These particular two, a boy and a girl, are always chattering with each other and not paying attention to where they are going. It’s rare they walk 50 feet without one of them face-planting or banging into something. So the words “focus on what you’re doing” were heard repeatedly on the trail.
Within the first 20 minutes we came to a cave about 4 feet high. We had only one flashlight, which normally would be the source of quite a battle. However, when it came time to see how far back the opening went, the three older ones become uncharacteristically generous with the leadership role and the light. It even appeared briefly that one of the 3-year-olds, who ordinarily would have no shot at the light and even less shot at leading the pack, was going to get the job of lead spelunker. Curiosity finally overcame the bigger ones, who crept forward a little further and then quickly turned around, announcing there was nothing to see and perhaps we should move on. Mild shoving to take the lead commenced, and we were off again.

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About a third of the way into the hike we came to War Eagle Cave, which appeared to be a good size cave with an opening room large enough to stand in.  Unfortunately, it was closed due to a disease infecting its bats. Disappointment was mixed with relief in our group as neither Sara or I were all that excited about the possibility of wrangling the herd while bent over and possibly crawling if we went very far inside. The herd, while curious and claiming to want to see bats, appeared happy not to have to try and prove their courage to each other with only one light.
After a brief semi-steep climb we came to a bluff 100 feet or so off the water with an impressive view to the south. It was a perfect spot for a break, so we stopped for a snack and threw rocks into the water below and enjoyed the sunshine. From there the trail turned north and away from the creek. The last few hundred yards of the trail are uphill, but the slope is mostly mild and all the kids made it without much problem. Large leaves were happily gathered, their origins debated and then packed away, as were what felt like pounds of acorns by the time they were all in my bag. I still don’t know why we have all the acorns.
The trail ends at Arkansas 23, and at that point, we had planned on retracing our steps to the trail head, but everyone was feeling fresh, so we decided to check out another trail we could see across the road. This turned out to be Dogwood Trail, which cut back and forth down a hollow. It’s appropriately named, and in the spring, is probably spectacular with blooming dogwoods but was still a pleasant downhill walk through the woods without the blooms. Dogwood Trail ended at a campground (with restrooms) on the Arkansas 23 Spur. We took a break to eat before traveling 100 yards south to a playground with slides, monkey bars and a spring-fed pond. There’s also a swimming pool which is open in the summer.
We took a break at the playground, before ambling down to the nature center another couple hundred yards away. By this time, our older three were wilderness experts and decided to cut their own trail through the woods rather than through the well-mowed park. We stopped at the nature center, checked out the books and gear for sale and collected coloring books for all. The rangers offered to drive us back to the trailhead, but we declined. However, as we left the center it appeared the only way back would involve walking on the highway for a half mile with minimal shoulder.  I was going to go myself and just drive back when across the road we spotted a wet weather creek.
We guessed the wet weather creek had to end up back at War Eagle Creek, so decided to give it a shot. We crossed the road, went down a short hill through some high grass and brush and a trail opened up on what appeared to be an old road. The littlest hikers were getting tired, and a little whining commenced from mine, but being perched on dad’s shoulders solved it. The older ones preferred the creek bed to the trail and happily climbed over downed trees and crawled through tangles of branches. There were the occasional loud objections to a bushwacking, coupled with the immediate response of “It was an accident!” where one could actually hear the smirk. There were some skinned knees from rocks, but getting to be “off trail” was clearly worth the various outrages. A fitting end was the four foot high drainage ditch tunnel under the road at the trailhead, which the eldest happily ran through.
It was truly the perfect fall morning, and we never saw another hiker. The hike took us a leisurely three hours, including a good hour at the playground, and everyone was still in a great mood. Possibly the only drawback to the trails is the noise from the constant stream of motorcycles headed to and from Eureka Springs, but I imagine on any day other than a Saturday there is significantly less traffic.  Even with that noise, though, the well-marked trails, frequent wooden benches to rest on and multiple bathrooms along the path make it a hiking loop that’s hard to beat if you’ve got little kids. The cliffs and slight slope also make it more enjoyable than the typical flat paved kids’ trail.
If you are with the kids, I would not recommend starting the trip at the pavilion or Dogwood trail head on Arkansas 23 because you’ll finish the loop going uphill.  The War Eagle trail head, the Dogwood Trail access from the Arkansas 23 Spur campground or the nature center would be better choices. I saw on the notice boards the park also has some guided hikes, which I think we’ll take next time because my knowledge of Ozarks flora and fauna is woefully deficient, and too many questions were answered with “oh sure, I think that’s an oak.”
You can find event information and directions at www.arkansasstateparks.com/withrowsprings.

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