New Year new hiking location, welcome to Lake Catherine State Park in Arkansas! Turns out it was only 30 minutes away and it has amazing hiking trails. When I arrived in the park I pulled into the visitors center to let them know I am in the park taking photographs, shout out and thanks for the excellent maps, directions and advice from park staff. A little jealous that some employees get to live in the park, what a wonderful job. If you plan to visit the park check out their website, there is camping, lodging and trail map information. Lake Catherine State Park you can also follow Arkansas State Parks on Twitter @ARStateParkand facebook The State Parks of Arkansas entry to this park is FREE.
Important information from visitors center… two of the three main trail are open Horseshoe Mountain and the Falls Branch Trail. The Dam Mountain Trail is closed because someone leased out the land adjacent to the state park trail for deer hunting. The park officials are worried someone could get shot by stray bullets/arrow. It should reopen sometime in February after Deer hunting season ends. Important information is one reason I like to check in on a first visit to hike in a park.
The trail head is located just past the campgrounds, parking is available and FREE. I photographed a tiny bird I am unable to identify a few feet onto the trail and would appreciate any help with a name. Update: Special Thanks to @blobbybirdman of Twitter for ID, it is an American Goldfinch. Approximately 50 yards past the trail head I reached the point where I need make a trail choice, I pick the one labeled as rugged. The Horseshoe Mountain Trail it turns out is minimally groomed which is perfect for seeking out wildlife to photograph. It is likely it does not see as much activity as the Falls Branch Trail. I am grateful to be wearing a good pair of hiking boots as much of the 12-14 inch wide trail is rocky or covered in debris hiding protruding roots and there are several fallen Trees to climb over. Be prepared to be unsure of where the trail is located and keep an eye out for park trail markers. As a first time visitor it is of great help to see park trails are all marked with spray painted color blocks on random trees, they are bright yellow (Horseshoe Mountain), red (Falls Branch) or white (Dam Mountain).
If state park officials read this please note many hikers love trails that are not overly groomed, the scenery is better and the wildlife is left with a better environment. It was wonderful to have a choice of trail type in Lake Catherine State Park. My description of the Horseshoe Mountain Trail is a compliment!
The first part of the Horseshoe Mountain Trail gently winds upward through trees that have left their leaves as a rust carpet upon the Forest floor. Climbing higher I notice more rocks begin to appear and dominate a changing landscape. As I move move past a rock wall to my right a Golden-Crown Kinglet pushes off from a branch to take flight above me. I Love these tiny Warblers! Passing a large protruding rock pointing skyward the trail surface abruptly changes to 75% rocks sticking up from the soil. I work my way up what I believe is the logical route for a trail. Several minutes after reaching the top I spot a yellow marker and it is clear my trail instincts were correct.
When you reach the Mountain top it is a utopia of small birds in an enchanting winter Forest high above Lake Catherine. The trail along the ridge is a filled with bird song, a duet Yellow-Rumped Warbler and Tufted Titmouse rings out in the cool morning air. Although I hear Chickadee pips further up the trail, they move so quickly I am unable to get a clear sighting. The coloring of the Yellow-Rumped Warblers is a bit different than those I have photographed for earlier blog entries.
Further up the trail and along the ridge the sun is low casting a golden blue light over the trail. I find myself on the wrong side of the sunlight when a flock of birds begins to land in the trees ahead of me. Shooting into the sun and unsure of the type of bird I hope for the best. It is not until a second wave flies past that I see they are a flock of juvenile and adult Cedar Waxwings. I always forget how tiny they are, their dramatic markings make them appear larger in my photographs.
As I follow the ridge top trail I notice deer tracks in the areas where the soil is soft. The trail is scenery is rocky dotted with junipers and pines, I hope to spot a deer in the open spaces before it see me. The tracks continue until I reach a leaf covered descent not unlike the trail leading up the Mountain. I am a bit disappointed to have lost sight of the Deer tracks. When I reach the bottom I am faced with 3 choices; visit the water fall, finish my hike on the Branch Falls Trail or continue on the Horseshoe Mountain Trail. I don’t like to leave anything unfinished so it is onward along the Horseshoe Mountain Trail.
This decision afforded me an opportunity I have been waiting to experience for many months. As I crest a rise on the trail I find myself in an area where the trail is fully exposed with a sparse amount of trees 25 feet to my left. A few steps into the open and I see three white tails hoping away. I freeze hoping they might not run to far away, as I slowly raise my camera I see the worse possible thing in my viewfinder. “Battery Exhausted” appears before my eye. Trying to change my battery without moving in a threatening way and keeping one eye on the three Deer ahead of me a lesson in patience.
Battery changed I slowly lift my camera and begin taking photographs as the Deer move between the Trees. Deeming me nonthreatening the largest Deer, a Doe steps out of the Trees and allows me to take her portrait before heading back into the Tree line. Several minutes after she disappears the other two slowly begin to move past me. Not knowing a lot about Deer my best guess was a mother and her young. The two that hung back were smaller, although one was a bit bigger than the other and they seemed to be used to staying together often touching noses. This moment was beautiful new year gift from Nature.
At the bottom of the trail I step off and walk along the lake shore. Large Crows are flying back and forth from a large Tree to stumps now exposed from the low water levels. This beautiful flock of six seems to have staked out the shoreline for the winter. Their gleaming black feathers are a beautiful contrast to the blue water.
I catch up to the trail cutting through the campground and before long I am back at the trail head again. Special thanks to the staff of Lake Catherine State Park!
Much Love to ALL!