Part 1 of the Ouachita Trail: Talimena State Park to Winding Stair Mountain
Sun, Rain, Wind and Fire
9.3 Miles to Rock Garden Shelter
On the last day of November, on the Beaver Full Moon, my friend Kandace and I loaded up in my parents’ car and drove from Little Rock to Talimena State Park in Oklahoma. Just a few hours from where I grew up, we climbed into Oklahoma hills that I had never before seen.
It was a gorgeous, bright sunny day. The temperatures dropped as we climbed and they were hovering right at freezing when my parents let us out at the start of the Ouachita Trail.
It was 10:30 in the morning as we set off, loaded down with much heavier packs than I’m used to.
We warmed up as we climbed 1000 feet immediately upon leaving Talimena State Park, quickly burning off the adrenalin that we’d built up from the anticipation of our journey over the last 24 hours.
The night before we spread our gear all over my parents’ house in North Little Rock. We carefully packed our backpacks after lining them with trash bags. Then we prepped our resupplies of food and water (which my parents dropped for us on their way home).
We had been talking about this hike for months.
And now finally, we were here.
We stopped in the afternoon for a lunch of tuna spread on bagels, but we didn’t pause for long. It was too cold and we didn’t want to entirely lose the warmth we had gained from hiking.
We continued on to the high point of the day (2200 feet) before we started dropping down into a valley.
It was all downhill after about 3pm.
When we reached our water stash at Dead Man’s Gap, I was beat.
The sun was dropping behind the hills above us. We walked deeper into shadow and cold air.
The terrain of this whole first day (and really the whole first 50 miles of the OT) was super rocky.
And in most places, the rocks were covered with layers of leaves. You had to watch every step.
The downhill on these rocks and leaves was especially tricky. With my heavy pack, I was putting a lot of strain on my trekking poles to pick my way down the mountain.
So the last mile or two was super slow going, and I felt myself getting colder and colder as I carefully placed each step.
We made it to Rock Garden Shelter just before 5pm. Kandace quickly built a fire and we gathered up more (wet) firewood before it was too dark to see. Even in the light, it was hard to walk around because there were literally rocks everywhere. The shelter could not have been more aptly named. Also, I was shaky with fatigue.
We had our dinner of rehydrated Cilantro Pesto Pasta, which Kandace had made ahead of time with her dehydrator.
It tasted divine, as did all our meals on the Ouachita Trail.
For the last couple of miles the trail, I had been dreaming of holding a warm pouch of food in my hands. It was every bit as wonderful as I had anticipated.
After dinner we hung our food in a bag in a tree a little ways away from the shelter, but we kept out our two little coffee pouches and the jetboil for water, so we could have coffee in our sleeping bags in the morning.
We stayed by the fire as long as we could stand it, watching the full moon rise before us.
But it was so cold that eventually we abandoned the fire for our sleeping bags.
Two other ladies from Austin, Texas were camping near the shelter in tents, so we had the shelter to ourselves.
It took me a long time to get warm, and I had to adjust to my thin camp mat, so my sleep was a bit rough.
I spent hours looking at the moon and stars from the little peephole in my cinched up sleeping bag, and eventually I fell asleep.
7.5 miles to Holson Valley Vista Shelter (Mile Marker 16.8)
We woke up to a gorgeous sunrise.
Of course it was so cold.
We enjoyed our coffee in our sleeping bags (water jet-boiled and poured over Starbucks Via packets).
Once we were out of our sleeping bags the only way to get warm was to get moving.
So we quickly packed up, ate some protein bars and started walking.
Immediately we started climbing again, up out of the valley we had descended into the previous afternoon.
This would be a theme on the Ouachita Trail. It can feel a little like you’re just hiking a series of giant W’s.
Down into a valley, up to a ridge, down into a valley, up over a hill, back down, back up.
Rinse and repeat.
One of the reasons you have to head into the valleys is that the water runs there. We always filled up our bladders while we were on the lower parts of the trail, but also because our packs were already so heavy, we were trying to carefully calculate how much water we would need over the next stretch. We didn’t want to carry full water bladders if we didn’t need them.
It became kind of a game to try to drink as much water as possible when we were near water, and then to figure out how to make it stretch when we were at higher elevations.
I struggled with the climbing on this day, and with continuing to walk over the rocky path. Still tired from the first day of hiking, my knees and ankles felt creaky in the cold weather.
When we stopped at 12:30 for lunch, I was discouraged to realize we had only gone 5 miles in 4 hours. We had planned to get 16 miles in on this day, but it was becoming clear that we would not make it nearly that far.
We ate our tuna at a spot where we could look out over the valley below. It was a beautiful view, and I was ready to stop moving for a while.
But we couldn’t stop for too long without getting cold and stiff, so after eating, we got moving again.
I told myself to just take it a step at a time. Don’t think or worry too much about how far we would get.
Just take one step at a time.
We hiked another couple of hours before we reached Holson Valley Shelter.
We were so glad to reach the shelter, and to enjoy the views from the ridge on which it was perched.
For several reasons, we decided we would go ahead and stop for the day.
First of all the next shelter was over 8 miles further, which we would never make before dark.
Secondly, a storm was supposed to roll in overnight, so if we hiked just a little further and used the tent instead of a shelter, we would be packing up wet in the morning. And since it’s always better to at least start out dry, we figured we would rather sleep in the shelter and head out into the rain in the morning.
And lastly, we stayed in the shelter because I realized that I had dropped my phone somewhere on the trail. Brilliant.
I could only attribute it to total exhaustion. When I had last checked the map, I suppose I just let it fall to the ground.
We left our packs at the shelter and walked back about a half of a mile before we found it. I was so grateful it was not further back and that it was still functioning after being dropped in the middle of the trail.
After arriving at Rock Garden Shelter just before dark on the first night, it was lovely to have a couple of hours of daylight to burn at the end of the day. It was sunny until about 4:30, but we got the fire going early and kept it burning into the evening.
Kandace read from a book of Mary Oliver poems she was also using as a journal. (Which is such a great idea, as poetry books do tend to have quite a bit of white space.)
We ate our dinner and read Richard Rohr’s daily advent reading; both of us were feeling super grateful about spending the early days of advent in the woods. I wrote in my journal that I loved being outside all day and away from the crazy of the Christmas season and COVID. The simple sounds of the leaves crunching under my boots and the breeze blowing through the trees were the music of the day.
The night got super cold and we were glad for our dry shelter and warm sleeping bags. I slept well after the fitful sleep of the previous night, but I was awake at 5:30 when raindrops started falling on the tin roof of the shelter.
8.4 miles to Winding Stair Shelter…in the rain (Mile Marker 25)
We went to sleep with a starlit sky and a bright moon, but we woke up to clouds and rain rolling in.
I was so thankful for the shelter! We had plenty of room to pack our things up dry, and to put on our rain covers and rain gear before heading out into the rain.
Off we went, stepping bravely out of the dry shelter and into the rain.
Sometimes the rain would lighten up a little bit, and turn to fog and mist in the pine trees.
But then it would start again, and pound even harder. Like it really meant it.
The wind kicked up and made it rain sideways into our faces.
We hiked 3 miles to our first water of the day, and then we found a small trailhead with a bit of an overhang to squeeze underneath at HorseThief Springs.
We had run ourselves out of water the night before, so we boiled water for coffee and oatmeal at our first stop, which was delightful.
This was when we discovered that for the five minutes you have to wait for the oatmeal to re-hydrate, you can put the food pouch inside of your coat to warm yourself.
The next three miles had less rocks and more pine needles which was a relief for walking. We were able to move a little faster in the rain.
There were still just enough patches of rocks covered in (now wet) leaves to make you thankful for the straight, soft sections of pine needle trail.
We had water stashed at Winding Stair Campground, so we filled our bladders and steeled ourselves for the last 2 miles uphill to the shelter.
The rain came down harder than ever as we climbed the long approach to Winding Stair.
You gain 500 feet in this section, so even though I was sloshing through the rain, I was warm by the time I got up the hill.
We reached the shelter before noon. We could have gone on, but the rain was pouring down so hard and we were SO. VERY. WET.
It was a huge relief to get in the shelter and be able to strip off all our wet clothes.
I was wet through all the way to my bones.
All my waterproof gear clearly had a saturation point.
We crawled inside our sleeping bags to get warm.
Then, for the rest of the day, we watched the pouring rain from inside the shelter, drinking tea, eating our lunch, reading, eating our dinner, and then going to sleep.
After the crazy morning of rushing through the rain, it was a strange contrast to spend the rest of the day just hanging out at Winding Stair Shelter.
But this is also kind of the rhythm of hiking for me. Walking, walking, walking followed by being still.
That night I wrote a blog post from my phone. (It turned out to be the only one I wrote while hiking.)
I was wide awake because we had been in our sleeping bags for the entire day.
This day and night at Winding Stair Shelter is still one of my most favorite memories of the whole trail.