Hiking The Ozarks' Lost Valley

Reader Contribution by Mike Mcarthy
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Hiking The Ozarks' Lost Valley - Where getting lost is part of the fun! By Mike McArthy of Photozarks

“Getting lost in the Ozarks is part of the fun!” 

 That statement can be no truer then when visiting the Lost Valley near Ponca, Arkansas. This region of the Ozarks is one of the most rugged and uninhabited. The area includes the upper reaches of the Buffalo River and, as natives have said — and visitors will agree — it is “one of the most beautiful spots on God’s green earth.” 

Large, wild elk are at home along the Buffalo River.

This part of canyon-cut, forested Arkansas is in the 95,700-acre Buffalo River National Park. Lost Valley Trail is situated on the upper reaches of the river, on the edge of the Boxley Valley where some farmers still till the soil using a mule, one row at a time, and wild elk roam the river’s meadows. This 2.1-mile hike, round trip, can take your breath away — in more ways than one! — and if you like waterfalls, this adventure is for you. 

Lower Eden Falls tumbles more than 50 feet into the canyon below near Cob Cave.

The name “Lost Valley” is actually a misnomer because it is not lost, nor is it a valley. It’s more of a gorge or canyon with steep walls and Clark Creek running through, under, over, into and out of caves, boulders and ledges. During wet spells the waterfalls are spectacular, and there are lots of ’em. Clark Creek itself is a “losing stream,” which means it disappears underground and then reappears on the surface again down the line, especially during drier periods. The bluffs here are dramatic and spectacular. 

Some are more than 500 feet high. The floor of the canyon is strewn with large boulders that have broken away from the bluffs and overhanging ledges that tower above. In fact, it is believed that at one time Lost Valley was part of a large cave system whose roof has collapsed in many places. 

A waterfall exits the tunnel cave at Clark Creek.

The hike also includes a natural bridge and tunnel some 50 feet or so in length created by the karst environment here. Some of the rocks have been exposed by erosion caused by the running water that has carved out this masterpiece. The limestone gorge is narrow and direct sunlight reaches the canyon floor only a few hours a day, especially when the tree canopy is full of leaves. \

Artifacts from early man and prehistoric life have been found in the caves and along the streambed. One well noted is Cob Cave, where corn cobs, basketry, broken gourds and other remnants of early Native American activities have been discovered. 

Seeing the limestone falls in Eden Cave requires some crawling.  

The major waterfall is Eden Falls named at different levels (upper, middle, lower). The top of the falls actually begin at the back of a cave in pure darkness, is 35 feet tall and can be seen only if you’re willing to get a little wet and do some crawling. If you intend on entering the cave, make certain each person in your group is equipped with a flashlight. For those not  quite so adventurous, there are several lower sections of the falls to see, including a portion that enters under the natural bridge and through a cave, an easier trek than hiking to the upper falls section. The first half of the hike up the canyon is an easy stroll. The second half is more strenuous but if you’re in fair shape, you can make the trip. It’s well worth the effort, for the rewards are fantastic! 

The ideal time of the year to visit is middle to latter springtime. In addition too the running water, this is when you can catch the wild flowers, trees and other plants in bloom. The trees that inhabit these moisture laden woodlands include pawpaw, basswood, cucumber and beech, just to name a few. Autumn can be a beautiful time of year too, catching the fall colors in their brilliance during late October and early November. 

Mossy falls can be seen along the hiking path.  

Mosses, ferns and lichens also love living here in addition to wild hydrangea. Give yourself plenty of time to explore because once you’ve been lured down the trail by the magnificence, you won’t want to hurry away. The hiking path, which begins at the parking lot, is clearly marked. If you veer off the  main path, there are many other interesting sights, but be careful because you can actually get yourself lost in here. It’s happened to many folks before! You also need to take caution when approaching the steep ledges and entering the caves. 

A cave salamander in Eden Cave is one of the many visual treats along the way. 

As a photographer, I relish a trip to this area and each visit is different from the camera’s eye. Artists from all walks of life are inspired by the raw beauty, and if a picture is worth a thousand words, Lost Valley is worth a thousand pictures. Shooting photos of the waterfalls can be tricky because of terrain, foliage and lighting, but if you take lots of pictures you’re sure to come up with some keepers. This is one of my favorite spots in the Ozarks and I highly recommend a trip to this not so lost canyon (though well-hidden) “Lost Valley.” 

A side canyon with waterfall at Lost Valley provides perfect photo inspiration.  

Location: The trail head is located at the end of a gravel road about a mile south of the village of Ponca off Hwy 43 in the Boxley Valley of Newton County in northwest Arkansas. Ponca is within an easy drive from Harrison and Eureka Springs, Ark., and Branson, Mo.     

All photos copyright: Mike McArthy of Photozarks.

For more of the Ozarks’ beauty, or to order Mike’s book, Historic Ozarks Mills, visit his website: www.photozarks.com