Eagle Rock Loop is a nearly 27 mile trail loop located in the Ouachita National Forest in central Arkansas located about an hour southeast of Mena. The loop consist of three trails: Little Missouri, Athens-Big Fork and the Viles Branch Equestrian Trails and is often deemed the most challenging loop in Arkansas. Interestingly, the trail was developed on a 100-year-old postal route which I contemplated several times on our run; tough postal workers back in the day! There are many river crossings and steep, rocky climbs with a total elevation gain of around 4,500 ft. There is only one source of water located at the Albert Pike Recreational Area so it’s wise to bring a water filter just in case you will need to tap in to one of the many water crossings on the trail. There are five parking areas/ trailheads to choose from and runners can choose to go counter-clockwise (CCW) or clock wise (CW) from your parking destination.
Our ERL Experience
Since we were newbies to the trail we devised a plan to break the loop up over two days to account for unknowns even though I had done a lot of research on the area. One problem I encountered while researching is the fact that I couldn’t seem to find information about running the trail. There is tons of info for hikers so this left me feeling that a conservative plan would be best.
PLAN: (Note: Forest Service Rd 106 is not a part of the loop so that added mileage)
Saturday– Start at Little Missouri Falls Trail (LMF), run CCW, traverse the first four of six hills, hop onto FS 106 at Blaylock Creek, get back on the trail to cross the last hill of the day then head to Albert Pike to refill water, continue on to LMF where our car is parked to finish the day with about 21 miles.Sunday– Park at Blaylock Creek, head CCW over FS 106, traverse final two hills on the loop, check out Winding Stairs on the way back to the parking area for a total of about 13 miles.
Saturday: We left our rental home around 5:40 am heading for the Little Missouri Falls trailhead. The roads were mostly unpaved forest service roads that already required slow travel but the amount of rabbits and deer we saw further slowed us. Upon arriving to LMF we were elated to see composting bathrooms (pictured). After a selfie we set out only to realize we were on a one mile loop trail that lead to the falls themselves. Oops. Eventually, we figured out that the trail starts CCW in the overflow parking area and we were finally off!
We ran the first 4.1 miles which led us to the next parking area. This was our indicator that the hills were up next so we took a moment to get our trekking poles out of our hydration packs. While these hills don’t pack a huge elevation gain they are steep and straight up. The hills provide a great opportunity for a flatlander like myself to focus on power hiking and light, quick downhill running. I loved the sensation of focusing everything mentally and physically on efficiently getting up to the top and back down again! After covering about 1,325 feet in gain over 4.9 miles we arrived at FS 106. While this road is about 4 miles long it allowed us to skip the bottom 10 miles and save that section for day two. The road is a wide, unpaved road. There was a surprising amount of vehicle traffic but everyone was going slow and were respectful of us. There were even a couple of backpackers taking this route. The original plan was to get back on the trail on the Blaylock Creek parking area and run the trail for 2 miles to access Albert Pike Recreational Area. Since the road lead to Albert Pike Kelly and Edie decided to stay on the road while Justin and I opted for the trail. This is where things went kind of wrong.
Simply put, at the Blaylock Creek trailhead (eastern side) we took the trail in the wrong direction. Considering the trail is a loop this seems nearly impossible unless we were disoriented but there are, unexpectedly, a few different trails from that area. We knew that we should reach the Albert Pike Overlook ascent followed by a descent to a more populated, river area. As we journeyed on I noticed we had traveled over the 2.0 mile distance noted on the map above. Until that point, the maps mileage was perfectly listed so I mentioned this discrepancy to Justin. Since we had just ascended and descended into a populated area we thought the map must be a bit off for that specific section (not uncommon for most trails). When we were over 3.5 miles on this particularly section I grabbed my phone in hopes that a few topo maps I downloaded from the All Trails app would help our navigational snafu. I realized that although we had absolutely no service the tracking device on my GPS was working in sync with our every move on the All Trails map. Saved by All Trails! Seriously. In looking at the map we discovered we were nearly half way across the south part of the loop heading west on the Viles Branch Trail; exactly the opposite direction we intended to be traveling in.
At this point Justin and I both turned around and very slowly started crossing the several miles we had just run. The reality set in that our mistake had added eight miles to our day and would leave Kelly and Edie worrying about us. They had to travel only the two miles to Albert Pike Recreational Area to our now ten miles total (the eight accidental miles plus the two we intended to travel originally). After retracing our steps we decided to run on FS 106 to make up some time. This is the very spot we left Edie and Kelly hours before. Upon arriving to the bustling Albert Pike Rec area we refilled our hydration packs and sat for a moment to try to regroup. We happened to start explaining our situation to a couple of guys who eagerly told us how they talked to Edie and Kelly a couple of hours before. The elapsed time was enough that they would have arrived back to the car at Little Missouri Falls trailhead so we left the guys with information to give Edie and Kelly should they drive over looking for us.
We ran the remaining six miles to the car while offering up a pray to 8 pound, 7 ounce baby Jesus that Kelly and Edie would be there waiting for us. As we were coming off of the trail, Kelly was serendipitously driving back into the parking lot. Hallelujah! Though tired and achy, all things considered Justin and I felt good.
Sunday: After our unintended miles the day before we all decided to sleep in, have a slow morning on the porch of our beautiful rental home, and enjoy a 5 mile hike to Winding Stairs which is considered a point of interest on the loop.
- ERL is not well-marked. There are times the white blazes are in abundance and other times they are scarcely placed at all- especially with the numerous river crossings.
- Before leaving home, get the All Trails app and download the specific maps you might want to use. You can remove the maps after your trip.
- If going to an unfamiliar trail overpack food and water; this saved Justin and I that day. I had about 100 ounces of liquid plus way more fuel than I would normally need for a 21 mile run (our expected distance for the day). This kept a frustrating mistake and extra miles from turning into a potentially dangerous experience.
- As a group we packed two water filters and a headlamp just in case. When we split up all of those items remained with Edie and Kelly which brings me to my next point…
- Plan A: Don’t split up the group.
- Plan B: If it is necessary to split up, talk about an emergency plan and ensure supplies are evenly distributed. Luckily, we all concluded going to the car was the best possible solution but we hadn’t talked about this. Don’t depend on luck.
- Plan C: Earlier I mentioned that Kelly was driving back up when we ran out of the woods. She left to drive to an area with cell service to call appropriate authorities but changed her mind and decided to come back instead and wait a little longer. Before she departed she left Edie at the trailhead with food, water, flash lights and extra clothing. This may be a great plan C if that’s what your group decides.
- Due to the numerous water crossing and history of flash flooding in the area it’s important to check the water level before your run. The Rangers recommend not crossing over 4 feet. Just one weekend after our run the water was too high to cross. A few years ago 20 people died at the Albert Pike rec area campground due to flash flooding so please take this seriously. (Note: Camping at Albert Pike was closed after this tragedy.)
- This trail is not for beginner trail runners and I highly recommend running with at least one other person. Rescue efforts, much less communicating a need for rescuing, would be difficult on this remote trail.
- We ran in July and found the temperatures decent. Our group is from south Louisiana so we are very acclimated to heat and didn’t find the summer temps off-putting. We found only one tick on Justin and I ended the weekend with about 100 chigger bites but aside from that we didn’t have any bug or wildlife issues to report. The girls captured a picture of snake off to the side of the trail but it was not aggressive towards them.
- We will definitely run ERL again and I can’t wait. The trail offers such diversity of terrain plus when we finally complete the whole loop you get a patch from the rangers! Worth it! 🙂
If you are considering venturing out to ERL feel free to contact me with questions. This was my first time exploring the area so I don’t know everything about the trail but I can give you the beginner’s perspective and can direct you to resources online that I found helpful. This website was particularly useful and the admin even answered several questions I emailed over before our trip.