Trail Riding Reveals the Natural Wonders of the Ozarks

Viewing the natural wonders off the beaten path in the Ozark National Forest of Northern Arkansas begins with and Tall Pine Horse Resort, Norfork, Arkansas, owned by Debra Racheter. This was our second stay at Tall Pine Horse Resort and Debra guided us on ride we won't forget. On this brisk winter morning with temperatures in the 30's there were eight of us preparing for a day in the saddle. 

The four of us from Oklahoma, Jerry and Donna Perry and Raymond and Pat Dugger had our own horses and mules. I only ride a mule known, as "MY KATE". Sue McCarthy and Stephanie Klautzer from Missouri radio stations were riding horses from Debra's stable of rental horses. Debra works with her horses on a regular basis, they are all trained and well mannered. Sue hadn't been on a horse in 20 years and Stephanie for over a year, so you see how this is important for the safety and security of inexperienced riders. Sue and Stephanie were doing a promo to air on their radio stations for Debra and they had no problems operating their camcorder and camera while mounted on these gaited Tennessee Walking Horses. Debra would be riding her main guide horse Annie, also a gaited Tennessee Walking Horse.

The Ozark National Forest covers 1.2 million acres mostly in the Ozark Mountains of Northern Arkansas and contains many different districts within its boundaries. This day we would trailer over 20 miles to a forest road in the Sylamore Experimental Forest district and ride to an area known as Clifty Canyon. Located in Stone County Arkansas the Sylamore Experimental Forest was the site of many research projects pertaining to the management of upland hardwoods. Consisting of 3000 acres the Sylamore is dominated by oak and hickory stands interspersed with Pine. Numerous scenic streams are within this district and it has been the location of many hydrologic studies. There is nothing experimental about the natural wonders this area contains perfect pristine beauty you can't see from your car window driving the scenic byways.

This part of the Ozark National Forest has some interesting wildlife history. In the depression years the Arkansas whitetail deer population was all but extinct due mainly to people being awfully hungry. That, and the lack of hunting regulations, dwindled the state's whitetail population down to an estimated 500 animals state wide. A ten foot high fence, eight feet of field wire topped off with two feet of barbed wire was erected enclosing most of the Sylamore Experimental Forest's 3000 acres. I haven't been able to find out how many deer they enclosed in the fence but they flourished and some years later they were relocated to different areas. With controlled hunting, today the Arkansas Fish and Game Department estimates the state's whitetail deer population to one million. Successful project! Parts of the fence can still be seen in the area.

Long time friend and riding buddy of Debra's, Helen Elsners, was waiting for us when we arrived at the forest road. These two women are remarkable in their riding abilities and knowledge of the area. Riding is a way of life for them and they delight in sharing their discoveries. Helen has co-authored a book with L. R. Alexander, "The Buffalo River and Surrounding Watershed" complete with pictures and GPS coordinates. Both women ride double with their trail-riding dogs. Debra's Fox Terrier, Stubby has accumulated many trail miles riding on Annie's back, while Helen's, Jack Russell, Gigi, is a beginner and doing quite well riding on the rear of her gaited horse, Flash.

The ride really began when we left the forest road riding into the timber. Boston Ferns grew naturally on the forest's moist wooded floor. "MY KATE" tasted several and approved, and became ever watchful for the larger ones. Moss grew in abundance and this time of the year it's bright green mass added color to the forest. Helen and Debra told us in the Forest they had discovered 'Yellow Lady Slippers' a rare and protected orchid species blooming in the spring. These orchids do not survive being transplanted and due to being heavily collected are becoming more rare. It is best to enjoy them in their natural forest setting. Helen has shared a picture of this unique wildflower with us. It is one of nature's masterpieces.

Proceeding further into the Forest we came to Cap Fork Creek. Shallow water flowed over the moss covered limestone creek bed and as we followed it upstream to the sound of falling water anticipation grew. Then an amazing site as we entered a canyon surrounded by moss covered limestone walls. A waterfall, spring fed and falling some 20 feet over the limestone wall into an emerald green pool, estimated to be at 10 – 15 feet deep. I've seen a waterfall on T.V., but this one was right here in front of me. We were all focusing on this point of interest and eager to get pictures. "MY KATE" was not cooperating in getting any closer than necessary to the falling water and the hole it was falling into and after hearing the story of how they came up with the depth of the pool under the falls, I was appreciative of her caution.

Seems Debra and Helen along with Gary Green and Leon Cooper were at the falls sitting on their horses questioning the depth of the pool. It was determined that since Gary was on the tallest horse, old happy Magnum that measured some 17.1 hands, he should ride into the pool. The challenge was on and Gary proceeded to push Magnum into the water. You can still see the skid marks on a slanted rock that falls into the pool. Horse, rider and digital camera all went under and disappeared under several feet of water. When a no longer happy Magnum's back feet hit bottom he lunged forward and came swimming out of the water one way and Gary swam out the other direction.

Horse and rider survived, the digital camera is still at the bottom of the pool if anyone is interested. The clarity of the water is deceiving, but I don't think it would have been possible to force "MY KATE" into the pool. She wasn't even fond of the shallow edge around it, and since I can't swim; she was taking care of me.

Time to leave this natural wonder and onto the next. Following Cap Fork Creek downstream and back into the wooded area, a storm a few days earlier had left fallen limbs and small trees in our path. Annie is an amazing lead horse as she would bulldoze right into the brush and push it out of our way. She always did what Debra asked of her and never balked at the task. Stubby jumped tirelessly on and off her rump and she never flinched. In her off time Annie is Mommy to a six-month-old gaited Mule foal, Fannie. Fannie will learn from Annie and someday follow in her tracks. She is ponyed on short rides now. Pushing onward steep sided ridges, many with sheer vertical rock faces covered with moss would encompass us. As us Okies were not on gaited horses/mules and doing a great deal of sight seeing while not keeping up with the others, a couple of times we found ourselves not sure which way to go. A trail was not evident and the way not clear to those of us not familiar with the area. When Debra would miss us they would stop and wait. Knowing our mules/horses wanted to be back with their newfound friends they would lead us to the waiting group. Sue and Stephanie were doing great. This was no "Sunday Afternoon Drive" and they were being real troopers and enjoying the discoveries.

As lunchtime closed in we came upon Newcome Rockhouse Bluff. An amazing rock bluff overhang measuring 900 feet long, 100 feet deep and arching 75 feet high beside the creek bed. The scope of this would not fit into my camera lens. The Taj Mahal of the forest, we would eat lunch under it's ceiling. There were no signs of civilization here and if not for horse/mule back riding or hiking, one would never see this natural wonder. It has taken eons of time for erosion to shape this limestone rock formation into what it is today. What appears to be snow on the floor of this awesome sight is river rock so thick that dirt is not to be seen. It is said that a pioneer family by the name of Newcome once lived within the rock's structure, hence the name.

All this in one day's ride; it was time to head back. At Tall Pine we were staying in the Lodge and after a cold, full day in the saddle the whirlpool tub and hot tub was on everyone's mind. Donna and I had left a roast in a crock-pot so dinner was easy. While we finished food preparations, Raymond and Jerry cared for our horses/mules. Sue and Stephanie were in the cabin and after everyone ate and was refreshed we got together along with Debra for coffee and to reflect on the magnificent sights we had shared this day.

In the next installment we'll discuss the next great round of natural wonders enjoyed on our visit to Tall Pine.