After months in quarantine, an escape into the wilderness was much-needed. Our family vacation plans to Portugal or Poland were shot thanks to coronavirus, so we again settled for – drum roll, please – Branson. It isn’t exactly my scene, but desperate for an adventure, I started looking to Ozark National Forest. It was barely an hour away from where we were. A friend visited me from Arkansas a few weeks prior, and it got me into researching things to do in Arkansas.
One of the things that caught my eye was Hawksbill Crag and Whitaker Point. Following Branson, my sister and I decided to take the extra detour down through Arkansas for a much-needed foray into Ozark National Forest. It would be our first time in Arkansas, despite our parents living just a couple of hours north in small-town Missouri.
So for the first time in months, I filled up my Osprey backpack, filled up my gas tank, and laced up my hiking boots. I didn’t have too many expectations, but was eager to just get out and away from endless quarantine. We camped overnight just seconds away from the famed Whitaker Point, and we were able to catch a beautiful sunset and an unforgettable sunrise.
Getting to Hawksbill Crag Trailhead
The trailhead for Hawksbill Crag is in the mountains and only accessible by dirt road. We drove down from Branson so our route involved passing by the tiny town of Ponca. It seems to be the main home base for trekking, camping, and other outdoor activities in the area. From Ponca, head south along the main road until you see the signs pointing to Hawksbill Crag. Turn onto the dirt road and chug along for six miles up the mountain. There’s no signal in this area, so make sure to have it marked on an offline map.
I drive a Chevy Cruze which isn’t particularly equipped for mountainous dirt roads, but it did just fine. There are a few big potholes and rocks that could do some damage so stay focused on the road and don’t go too fast. The ride is beautiful as you’re surrounded by canopies of trees nearly the whole way up. There’s a parking lot with a decent amount of parking spaces, but you can also just park along the side of the road as long as you don’t block traffic.
The Hike To Whitaker Point
Once you reach the parking lot, take the trail heading east into the forest. There’s a big sign on the right side of the parking lot that can be misleading, since it looks like it might be where the trail begins. As soon as we parked, a guy came out of that trail and asked us where Whitaker Point was. Since we weren’t from around here, we had no answers. It was only a bit later I realized that the big trail map tricked him into believing that led to Whitaker Point. Make sure to head east from the trailhead so you end up at Whitaker Point. I’m not sure where the other trail goes.
The hike to Whitaker Point was mostly flat and downhill. It went by much quicker than I expected. The first half hour or so is well-shaded under the lush, green forest. Eventually, you reach a little creek. It might be dried up so keep an eye out for the reddish-orange triangle markers. Follow the creek or markers to the right until you reach a drop off that either is or was a waterfall depending on water levels. Turn left and within a few minutes, you’ll reach your first of the many viewpoints. It’ll be about 10-15 minutes before you reach Whitaker Point, but you’ll know when you see it. It is unmistakable.
Finding A Campsite Near Whitaker Point
Camping is allowed in most places in Ozark National Forest, including dispersed camping at Hawksbill Crag. However, I couldn’t find anything online about anyone who had done it. Deciding we’d figure it out along the way, we brought all of our camping gear with us to Whitaker Point. The hike wasn’t too bad. Even with all the stops to ooh and ahh at the scenery, it took us only an hour. We eyed some potential campsites along the way, but I was hoping to get one close to Whitaker Point so that I wouldn’t be far away from a sunrise adventure.
To say that we lucked out is an understatement. Once we reached the main attraction, it only took about 30 seconds to find a campsite near Whitaker Point. About 20 meters behind Whitaker Point and just up a small hill, there was a stretch of flat ground for the tent and some trees for the hammock. There was already a fire pit there, so the campsite must have been pretty established before we got there. I couldn’t have dreamed up a more perfect spot. We were literally seconds away from Arkansas’ most famous attraction and the only overnight campers in the entire area.
The Sunrise at Whitaker Point
Now, the part that I’ve been waiting for. My sister and I have been somewhat insomniacs during quarantine. For some reason, we’re both usually awake at 8 AM while the rest of our family slowly starts to wake up. The prospect of falling asleep before sunrise seemed even more unlikely than waking up for sunrise. Thankfully, the long day of hiking and driving was just enough to wear us down.
Outside of a terrifying wake-up call at 1:24 AM from what sounded like a supernatural banshee, we slept through the night. I still have no idea what that screaming was. It was enough to leave me paralyzed in fear in my tent and enough for my sister to leap out of the hammock and into the tent for a minimal extra layer of security. Ozark National Forest is renowned as a hotspot for Bigfoot sightings, so that was my dad’s theory. The screaming lasted 15 minutes or so, regularly in 5 second intervals. To me, it sounded like someone jumping off a cliff every five seconds. My sister said it sounded like a pterodactyl, not that any of us really know what that sounds like. I’m getting off topic here so moving along, but anyway, if anyone knows what that sound could have possibly been, let me know!
(Update: Scott commented possible culprits below, and after listening to the videos he provided, we’ve realized that screaming sound was a bobcat.)
Somehow, we made it up for sunrise. All I can say is damn. It was absolutely stunning. The clouds blanketed the forest in a soft, misty layer. The sun was behind the mountains for about 45 minutes, but through the brightening pinkish-purple skies, it made its presence known. I ran back and forth from Whitaker Point and a nearby viewpoint about five times. Nothing turns me on quite like the ever-changing morning lighting. Only two other hikers passed through for the entire sunrise. They served to be my models since my sister fell back asleep after I woke her up. It was pure serenity and solitude for nearly two hours before packing up camp to head out before the sizzling Arkansas heat.
It was one hell of an adventure, and more beautiful than I imagined Arkansas could have been. Until international travel becomes possible, it looks like several trips down to Ozark National Forest will have to do. No complaints from here, though.
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