The Hike: The Eagle Rock Loop just may be the best hike in the Ouachita Mountains, combining rugged hill climbs though the mixed hardwood and pine forest with strolls along crystal clear streams. The loop is made of three trails and, with 5 trailheads, offers a multitude of hiking options. The hardwoods in this section of the Ouachita National Forest are oak with some maple. The pines are short leaf and loblolly. In the winter the smaller but evergreen holly trees are a striking contrast to the gray brown of the forest floor.
This trip starts near the north end of the Highway 369 at the Albert Pike Recreation Area. The recreation area has a campground and showers ($10 without utilities) and makes a good place to camp if you come in late after work and want an early start. Follow the Little Missouri Trail (white blazes) north along the Little Missouri River. The trail is fairly level but crosses the river three times and two significant tributaries making it impassible when the water is high. Call the ranger station if there has been heavy rains or take note of the water level when you cross the bridge at Albert Pike. A small hot spring has been reported in this area about 5 minutes south of the Crooked Creek crossing, between the trail and the river.
At 6.3 miles you will come to the scenic Little Missouri Falls, its namesake picnic area and the second trailhead. The trail swings west and continues its level march along the river for another 4.1 miles and 3 more crossings. The first crossing is an old bridge and the other 2 are usually dry boulder hops. At the third trailhead the loop turns south and follows the Athens-Big Fork Trail. Over the next 4.9 miles the trail crosses four prominent east west trending ridges formed by Ouachita thrust faulting, each with relief of 400 to 500 feet. The rocks supporting the ridges and cropping out along the river are Arkansas Novaculite, a sequence of black and near-white chert-like rocks that underlay this portion of the forest. After the fourth ridge, you will cross Blaylock Creek and reach the trailhead on Forest Road 106(mile 15.3). The Blaylock crossing is wide and can be done with dry feet across a long stretch of stepping stones if the water isn’t too high.
There are two more ridges to cross on this section of the loop, including an 800 foot haul up Brush Heap Mountain. Look for the spur trail to Eagle Rock Vista on the second ridge taking off to the right. The vista gives you a great view of Viles valley and Big Tom Mountain to the south..
At mile 18.5 the trail drops into the valley of Viles Branch and intersects the Viles Branch Trail (yellow blazes). Turn left (east). The trail runs flat for the next 3.5 miles but crosses the creek 11 times. If the water isn’t high, they are easy and dry. Watch for wild turkeys and river otter.
At mile 22, the Viles Branch Trail crosses the Little Missouri River and the loop rejoins the Little Missouri Trail. This is a wet crossing, year-round. Heading north you will reach the bluff overlooking Winding Stairs, a scenic area formed by a narrow water gap through one of the novaculite ridges, and a great swimming hole. Shortly, you will have another wet crossing across the Little Missouri, but don’t put your boots back on. You are on a gravel bar and have another crossing in about 50 feet.
The fifth trailhead is the Winding Stair Trailhead located at mile 24.8. There is a short spur trail to the parking lot on FR 106. The loop finishes off with a 300 foot climb to a narrow rocky ridge overlooking Albert Pike and a steep decent to the parking lot (26.8 miles).