Kings River Falls awakens natural spiritedness
By Matt Bishop
TFW Contributing Writer
It was the first pretty Sunday of the year, weather in the high 50s, low 60s. Maybe it was all the snow, but winter was weighing heavy and it was time to get outside.
The beasts were mine, as mom was out of town, and it would be a long, trying day for all concerned if we didn’t get out of the house.
But where to go? I wanted to go somewhere with a trail easy enough for a 3- and 6-year-old, yet wouldn’t be crowded so I wouldn’t have to watch them quite as close. Then I remembered Kings River Falls, the headwaters of the Kings River that runs through Madison and Carroll counties.
I got my Tim Ernst “Arkansas Waterfalls” book and confirmed the location — about an hour and a half from Fayetteville with a 1.25-mile walk. I’d done it a few years back, so I knew the 6-year-old could handle it, and the tiny terror of a 3-year-old is pretty hardy, so I figured she could as well. Worst case scenario: I might have to carry her part of the way back.
So food and water packed, we took off in the truck. As soon as we passed Elkins and hit Delaney where the rural Ozarks really opens up, I could smell the spring in the air. The river running along Arkansas 16, the pastures backed up by mountains with exposed cliff faces, the girls mooing lustily at the cows as I’ve taught them to do “so they’ll know who’s boss.” I couldn’t help but smile, especially after I convinced them to tolerate some classic country music as well.
By the time we hit St. Paul, the squeaks of “how much further” were starting to kick in, as were the requests for Taylor Swift, but I managed to hold off until we hit the dirt road off 16. I don’t know what it is about being jostled in our old pickup, maybe it’s just the dirt road signaling fun up ahead, but they perked up and started paying attention to everything around them. The older one put her new alertness to what she deemed good use by drawing pictures of everything she saw on notes and sticking them on the back windshield.
The trailhead is a couple miles down the dirt road. I probably wouldn’t take a car I cared much about, but it’s no problem in a truck, even a two-wheel drive. We parked at the trailhead, and I checked and loaded the backpack. The kids ran numerous excited circles around the truck shouting “WhichwayDad-HowfarDad-Where’sthewaterfallDad-CanwestarteatingnowDad?” before I could point them in the right direction and get us under way.
The trail started off easily enough on the raised edge of a long field. Across the field was a barn with a gaping hole in the roof, a little house that might have been unoccupied and a small cemetery. If I was a better writer I’d come up with a perfect metaphor for my life in that, but as it was I just thought it was pretty. It was sunny, but in the woods just cool enough that every time the sun hit my face it warmed me head to toe.
The children skipped ahead and at first I called them back whenever I lost sight of them for more than a second or two, but I quickly gave up and just tried to catch sight of them every minute or so — at least the older one. Three-year-old legs can only get so far ahead of me, even when I’m ambling.
I tried to get a few pictures but the oldest has had her picture taken so many times she poses unnaturally every time I pull the camera up, and the tiny terror of a 3-year-old insists on intentionally looking away or widening her eyes like saucers or just being surly in every picture. It was fruitless, so I put the camera away and hoped they’d forget about it so I could sneak up on them and get a good candid.
The trail for the first half was perfect for their age. The state has put large flat rocks to even out some of the dips, so the 3-year-old could handle it, but it’s still rough enough that it’s more adventurous than typical paved park trails. The tiny terror fell a couple of times, mostly due to rank inattention as a result of trying to keep me from passing her. No scrapes of note, though, and just a few cries of frustration.
Her older sister was all over, on and off the trail, climbing car-size rocks, chasing squirrels, wandering over to the stream beside the trail, ignoring my request to not get her feet wet, then ignoring my instructions to complain to someone else if her socks were wet and just generally being as pleased as a little girl can be in the woods.
For some reason being near water always feels right to me. I’m not sure why, so the fact there was a creek next to the trail never more then 30 feet away was soothing. The trail gets right up on the edge of the water in several spots, and one can walk out to small waterfalls of 8-10 inches. I tried to get a few pictures there, too, but they thwarted my efforts. The little one’s estimation of her own coordination being a little high, I couldn’t really get far enough away to quietly take good pictures while they weren’t paying attention. While it was a warm day, it certainly wasn’t warm enough to dry out a sopping wet preschooler, and I did not want to carry her crying, wriggling, wet body all the way back to the truck after she fell in.
I don’t wear a watch, so I don’t know how long it took us to get to the falls themselves, but before we got there we passed several sets of rock shelves with water cascading a foot or two down each. As we got closer to the falls, the trail varied from dirt to rock and back again. Around 100 feet or so away from the falls, the trail opened up, and you could see where the creek fell off the main falls.
Having been there before, I knew there was a pretty good drop, so I did have to call the 6-year-old back as we got close. As you come up to the main falls — Ernst’s guidebook has a few pictures — to the left is a small valley with two or three waterfalls several feet high. The star attraction, though, is past that to the right. The trail opened up on a rock embankment with three or four falls coming off a wide ledge, dropping 5-10 feet into a pool. We stopped for lunch on a shelf just below the falls and about 10 feet above the pool, with access to a lower shelf just a foot off the water.
By now, my attention was fully focused on keeping the big one from falling in. She’s a brave one, and I love her for that, but she’s also twice the weight of the tiny terror and we were the full 1.25 miles from the trailhead. A sopping, whining 6- year-old on my back was not going to happen. So we did the dance of “get back from the edge” … “didn’t I just tell you to get back from the edge” … “if you go over there don’t get near the edge” … “I’m not joking that if you fall in I won’t fish you out” until I could get their lunch out and get them focused on eating.
Sitting there, them happily munching and chattering, the sun beating down on our faces, you could sense spring coming. I took their shoes off to try and get them to dry and pulled the little one’s toes while she giggled and tried to escape. For the next hour they explored barefoot around the rocks, the big one trying to skip rocks and the little one trailing happily behind her as the audience for all sorts of knowledge I didn’t even know her sister possessed. Things felt normal again. Peaceful.
However, as any parent with someone who still utilizes naps knows, peace is a fleeting thing, and we were about to hit the early part of the nap period. You simply don’t risk it when you’re far from a place to lay down. My tiny terror came by her nickname honestly, and I didn’t need or want to be reminded of how. I did want to see more of the falls we’d passed as we came to the main falls, as according to Ernst, there were several more a short hike up the holler.
There was no trail, but the brush was thin enough that with an occasional guiding hand even the little one could keep her balance on the slope. There were three or four falls above, some 20 feet high. I would suggest going soon or immediately after a rain, as I doubt they show much by late May/early June. The water is clear, and from the cliffs, it meanders down between the rocks in what felt at the time like one of those perfect photographs you see of the Ozarks in guidebooks. The clear water, the blue-gray stones, and the boulders strewn about a narrow valley. The trees hadn’t bloomed so the views of the falls were unobstructed.
It was finally time to head back though. There was some initial reluctance and tears, mostly due to late-afternoon-post-lunch-missing-my-nap-tiredness but it faded as soon as we got back to the main trail. It had been a long day, and we had to take several rest stops on the way back to sit and discuss the prospects of Dad carrying one or both. The offers were not sweet enough to justify it though, until the last quarter mile when the truck was in sight. Even then I only had to carry the little one for about 100 yards before she wanted back down to explore. We arrived back at the truck about 4.5 hours after we took off that morning from Fayetteville, with the tiredness just setting in on them.
On the way back to Fayetteville, the little one was asleep before we got to the paved road, and the big one was in a chatty mood, telling me all the things going on with her in a way we don’t often get to do with all the time demands of school, sports, dance and the busyness of her life. As we pulled in to the house, despite all of us being exhausted, the requests for the next trip had already started.