Lost Valley is a hiking area near Ponca, Arkansas at the Buffalo National River and is operated by the National Park Service. It’s an extremely good hike, featuring many, many things.
This hike is easily the most trafficked in the BNR area, as well as the state and possibly the entire Midwest. Depending on how you do it, the total distance for the hike can range from close to 2.5 miles, to 1.5 miles. Either way, the payoff for the amount of effort required is unmatched by anything else I’ve ever done. This trail is perfect for anyone, and on any trip there you will see an interesting assortment of folk. That guy in his mid 20’s who doesn’t really get out much, but his mom is making him go on an “adventure” with her and his elderly grandmother? He’ll probably enjoy it! The couple in their early 30’s who have twenty kids all under the age of 5? It’s doable!
I’ve probably done this hike close to a dozen times now, and every single time I go it’s just as cool, and I have no problem finding something new each time. On this occasion I did the trail with one of my friends, Morgan, who hadn’t done much hiking before. She’s also apparently some sort of photographer (with a dead camera, but an iPhone 7), however she is actually a much better writer than I am.
“Hike” should be used loosely when talking about this trail. For people who haven’t really done much hiking before, I guess this probably fits the bill. However for anyone who’s done any hiking on real trails, this should feel like a stroll through the park. AllTrails categorizes the trail difficulty as “moderate”. Well I say Alltrails is full of crap! More on that later.
Getting to the trailhead should be fairly painless. Coming from the north (Harrison) the best route is just to take Highway 43 straight there. Taking Highway 7 from Harrison to Jasper, then 74 to 43 also works, but is a bit longer. It should be noted that once you’re past Compton on Highway 43 (Or Jasper if you come in on Highway 7) you’re not going to have any cell service. The trailhead is well marked off Highway 43, and there’s a good chance you’ll be able to spot some elk near the turnoff.
If you’re going on a weekend during the summer or fall, it's likely the parking lot will be full and you’ll have to park in a field maybe a quarter of a mile away from the start of the trail. Otherwise, the trailhead has a large picnic pavilion, flush and vault toilets, and a map. Which, if you didn’t read this article, you would probably want to look at, but since you have, you can just walk by and laugh at the touristy looking old people studying it intently instead of just taking a picture of it on their phones.
The first half mile or so of the trail was rebuilt a couple of years ago. Railroad ties holding in a few feet of crushed gravel made up that first portion of the trail. It was super nice! Then it rained a few times. The trail is at the bottom of the valley, and runoff washed out pretty sizable sections of gravel. It’s still very easy going compared to a standard hiking trail.
When you reach the end of the gravel trail a sign will direct you right to the natural bridge or left to Cobb Cave/Eden Falls. Obviously, take a right. The natural bridge is cool, it’s a good warm up to what’s to ahead. The creek goes through it, out a small waterfall into a pool. You can climb up on the side of the waterfall into the tunnel (or “bridge”), or if there’s not much water, just on the waterfall itself.
On the exit of the natural bridge you’ll be in the creek. Unless it’s rained a lot recently or is raining at that moment, it will be dry. There are large boulders to climb on and several small caves that you can crawl into along this portion of the creek. The trail is to your right when you exit the natural bridge, if you would prefer an easier and more direct path to Cobb Cave.
After climbing through the creek for a while, you’ll meet where the trail crosses over to Cobb Cave. Both words and pictures don’t really describe how huge this cave is, it’s nickname is “the auditorium” and it really feels that massive. You can walk along the outside or climb up along the back wall as well. The views here are cool.
Continuing on past Cobb Cave is Eden Falls. It’s a tall waterfall. What you see from the base is actually only half of the falls, draining from a small pool that is fed from a waterfall from the cave up above. Depending on how wet it’s been, there could be a pretty decent swimming hole here at the base of the falls. It had been pretty dry around the time we had been there, and there was only a trickle over the falls.
If you’re still itching for some adventure, and have a flashlight (no, not your phone, come on people you need to bring real flashlights with you on adventures, just keep it in your car) you should head up on the switchback trail up to the cave above the falls.
The trail is going to bring you in on the left side of the cave opening. You should be able to see in, there’s a pretty decent gap over to the right side of the cave. Jump it! Or just take a very big, well placed step. It’s super slick here anyways. When you’re on the right side, just keep heading back, staying as far right as you can. It’ll get tight, and there’s a spot or two where you’ll have to do a bit of crawl-crouching (why it’s helpful to have a real flashlight that can get wet and banged up).
Eventually you’re going to get to the back room of the cave, which is honestly probably among the coolest places you can hike to anywhere. This room is probably 30 or 40 feet wide and 50 to 60 feet tall. In the middle will be a waterfall, which sprays most of the room, and creates a pool near the middle. Turn off your flashlight, enjoy how dark and cool and quiet it is. Super cool place. Also, there may be bats. I’m not sure how it is that there are only SOMETIMES bats here, like, where do they go the rest of the time?? Is this just a cool clubhouse for them?
Crawl back out. Hike back down the way you came, along the falls and cave, or take a bypass trail that will take you back to the first fork you came to. That’s it!
So, you’re only going to spend a couple of hours here. You’re probably not gonna have the adventure of your life here, but you should still go. Regularly. It’s an awesome place to be, with awesome things to see, and it’s all so easy.
If you’re down in the Buffalo for a day or two for some floating and camping, Lost Valley is a must do. Easy to get to, accessible for everyone (even that first half mile is rated as handicap accessible. “Moderate” my ass AllTrails!) there’s nothing holding anyone back. I highly recommend doing this with Whitaker’s Point if you have the time and ability to get up to it, which makes for a day of cool hiking at two iconic spots. A review of Whitaker’s Point will be out next week, btw.
If you’re interested or worried about the logistics of doing a day trip like that, you shouldn’t be, because anyone can do it, but there will be a trip outline for that out soon. In the meantime, get out and go on an adventure, here or anywhere else, I don’t really care.