I was lucky enough to get out to one of my favorite places in Arkansas this past weekend– the Richland Creek Wilderness. If you’re okay with a little bushwhacking and probably getting wet, Richland Creek holds countless hidden gems!
Edit: This post was originally published in July 2019. I have updated some of the text and images as of June 2021.
The hike to Richland Falls begins at Richland Creek Recreation Area, a primitive campground near the teensy-tiny town of Ben Hur, Arkansas. From Ben Hur, continue driving east along Highway 16 for about 4.5 miles, then turn left onto Falling Water Road. Google Maps has this road marked alternatively as 1313, 1205, and 1. Just look for the big sign on the left for Garrison or Falling Water Horse Camp. This is a dirt road, but it’s in good shape and I regularly take my Nissan hatchback along it with no problems. Falling Water Road follows (what else?) Falling Water Creek, passing several waterfalls and a low-water bridge, coming to the campground after about 10 miles. The road continues on from here, but becomes a lot rougher– I don’t recommend it unless you’re in a 4×4.
Note: Falling Water Creek Road is prone to landslides and can be closed by the Forest Service without much notice. The road was open in the summer of 2019, but was closed in June of 2021 due to a recent landslide. It’s a good idea to check the Forest Service page for current conditions and plan a backup route. There are many ways into and out of the wilderness area.
If the gate is open to the lower campground, park there at your own risk– it is vulnerable to flash flood. We actually started our hike at a slightly different location, further up the road, so I recommend checking out Takahik’s page on Richland Creek or Rick Henry’s invaluable blog for details on starting at the campground. Apparently it can be a little tricky getting on the correct trail. Another note: the route to Richland Falls (and Twin Falls) from the campground or low water bridge keeps you in or near the creek almost the entire time. The USGS page for Richland Creek will give you an idea of the water levels. If water is high, take a different route or come back another time. Use your best judgment!
HIKING ALONG RICHLAND CREEK
There isn’t much elevation change along the trail, so you’re never out of breath. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not tricky at times! The Richland Creek trail is not officially marked (though I did see a few pieces of day-glo trail tape) and there are volunteer trails branching off at times, sometimes making it unclear where to go. There are plenty of rocks and tree roots to keep you on your toes, and a few places where we had to pick our way around fallen trees. You will want to make sure you stay on the route closest to the south side of the creek. You will want closed-toe footwear that can get wet and will dry quickly for this hike. If the water in Richland Creek is really high, there are some high water routes you can cut up to from the creek, but they can get muddy and precarious.
Remain on the south side until you reach the confluence with Long Devil’s Fork, about 1.75 miles into your hike. Hiking up Long Devil’s Fork will bring you to the Twin Falls of Richland, one of the most scenic waterfalls in the state, but this time the creek was completely dry. At the confluence of Richland and Long Devil’s Fork, we crossed Richland Creek and hiked the last half-ish mile to Richland Falls on the north side of the creek.
It was such a relief to finally arrive at Richland Falls! The waterfall itself is only about 8 feet tall, but it spans the entire width of Richland Creek like a natural dam and falls into a deep pool below. I couldn’t believe my eyes– no one else was there! I understand not wanting to brave the Arkansas jungle in July, but what a reward we received for persevering.
The water was actually relatively low. Sometimes in the spring and fall, the water is so high it completely obscures the rock face. I was just glad there was enough water to swim! We had a blast lounging in the shade with snacks, taking photos, and playing in the water.
After a while, we knew it was time to head back. I’m not sure why, but I feel like the hike back always goes faster than the way in! Maybe it’s because there’s no more anticipation, and I’m just focusing on getting back to the trailhead. We stopped a few more times for photos and snacks, but were back at the vehicle before too long.
This hike took us about 5 hours to complete, which is probably a little faster than the average hiker, even with our snack and photo breaks. I would allow at least 6 hours to complete this hike, and more if you can, just so you don’t have to rush. It is about 5 miles round trip to hike to Richland Falls from the campground and back. This area is very remote and has no cell service. I recommend you hike with a buddy, bring emergency supplies and always pack your first aid kit.
If you want to stay overnight, there are plenty of camping options, either in the campground or along Falling Water Road. You can also backpack into the wilderness and primitive camp that way. You are allowed to pitch a tent or hammock pretty much anywhere in the Ozark National Forest or Richland Creek Wilderness. Just don’t block a road and use common sense. I’ve hammock camped beside Richland Falls in the summer and it’s a fabulous experience. Especially because someone industrious thought to put up a rope swing!
One of the best things about the Richland Creek Wilderness is that it is extremely dark at night– perfect for stargazing! And in the summertime, the Milky Way rises right over Richland Falls. It’s truly a sight to behold.