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EXPLORING AND HIKING HAWKSBILL CRAG NEAR PONCA, ARKANSAS
What it's really like to hike Hawksbill Crag, or Whitaker Point Trail, in Arkansas. An autumn hike on a beautiful trail in the Ozark National Forest.
For as long as we've lived in the Natural State, we've wanted to hike Hawksbill Crag Trail, otherwise known as Whitaker Point. A 2.9 mile roundtrip trail out and back, it's a moderate hike to a rock formation that looks like a hawk's beak jutting out from the side of the mountain over the valley below.
Fun Fact: Did you know that of all the hiking trails in Arkansas, Disney filmed the opening to Tuck Everlasting here?
Of course, we chose the yuckiest, rainiest, foggiest day ever. But our goal was to both avoid crowds and capture some beautiful shots.
I'm happy to report that we succeeded. While there were a few other hikers the afternoon we went, we had the trail mostly to ourselves; and when we reached the point, we had the entire Crag all to ourselves.
When we reached Whitaker Point, it was almost as if God parted the fog just enough for us to catch a glimpse of fall peeking through the cloudy mist.
Related: Hiking Bear Cave Trail in Petit Jean
HOW TO GET TO WHITAKER POINT TRAIL AND HAWKSBILL CRAG
There are a few ways to get to the trail, depending which direction you're coming from.
- If you're coming from Kingston or Ponca, continue on Highway 21 through Boxley Valley.
- Right before you cross the Buffalo River, turn right on County Road 5, or Cave Mountain Road, a gravel road that'll take you 6 miles up the mountain to the trailhead.
Be sure to watch for elk as you drive through Boxley Valley.
While a lot of people have mentioned in reviews that you need four-wheel-drive to drive Cave Mountain Road, we didn't find that to be the case. Sure, it's steep and gets muddy when it rains (it was very rainy the day we visited), but other cars had made the drive.
More importantly, gauge it for yourself. Take your time if you do decide to venture up the road, and be prepared in case something happens because there are no gas stations; it is a wilderness area with just a few houses here and there.
DANGER, WILL ROBINSON
When you arrive at the small parking area, you can park on either the left or right sides of the road. A sign designates the trails and gives information.
As we got out of our car and prepared to enter the trail, a local woman drove up and wanted to know where we were from. She reminded me so much of my grandmother; I mean, it was uncanny the similarities, even the way she talked.
She proceeded to tell us how we needed to be careful and how dangerous the trail can be, emphasizing how many people had died out there.
Already kinda nervous to hike this trail, she just confirmed every fear I was feeling. Let me just say that hiking with boys is not for the faint of heart, especially when you already know all of the stories of deaths on and near the Crag, and a local native confirms all of your fears.
We had already laid down the ground rules, though, before we ever even left home for this hike. There would be no going close to the edge, no going out past the halfway point on the Crag, no shenanigans. I pretty much put my foot down, with Dan's support, of course.
Before you enter this trail, know that it can be a very dangerous trail and many people have died on it, quite a few of them before they ever even reach the Crag. Rocks and roots are very slippery, especially in rainy conditions but also in normal conditions.
Boulders, the bluffline, and the Crag can all be very unsafe if not taken seriously and with extreme caution.
WHERE TO GET ON HAWKSBILL CRAG TRAIL
You'll enter the trail to the Crag on the left side of the road, walk just a few feet down into the forest, and you'll see a closed up box with a sign beside it.
This is where you can open up the box and sign in to let the rangers know you're out there on the trail. You'll need to sign back out on your return.
WHAT IT'S LIKE HIKING HAWKSBILL CRAG
Hiking Hawksbill Crag is pretty much a rite of passage for any Arkansas hiking enthusiast.
This trail is one of the most popular places to visit in Arkansas, specifically in the Upper Buffalo River Wilderness. In fact, they say it can get so crowded it's impossible to get pictures alone out on the Crag.
Well, we picked one of the rainiest, chilliest, yuckiest days to go hike it, partially because it was the day we'd planned on hiking and partially because we wanted to avoid the crowds.
Our plan worked because we only met a few other people on the trail, hiking pretty much all by ourselves with no one else around. It was amazing.
The trail heads downhill, especially in the beginning, descending around 400 or more feet before you reach the Crag. There are a lot of tree roots and rocks to step on and over, which can get quite slippery on a normal day, let alone a rainy day.
You'll hike through a switchback or two, cross a small creek, and hike through parts of the Ozark National Forest that look like they could be an enchanted forest. Small red trail markers are scattered on trees here and there to keep you on track.
A couple sections of the trail are quite tricky, one with a very narrow trail down a muddy slope and another part of the trail descending on the roots of a tree, as if they're steps. Be careful of your footing so you don't fall.
We climbed the trail, ascending on a couple of rock steps to meander through the forest just a bit, eventually following the bluffline as we kept trudging on toward the Crag.
Along the way are beautiful views of the Upper Buffalo River Wilderness, especially with the fog and the autumn colors. You'll also see huge boulders and stunning rock formations.
Speaking of fall colors, the trees still had quite a bit of green, and others were bright and beautiful. Golden hues with yellow leaves gently falling to the ground were the theme of this rainy autumn day.
AND FINALLY… THE CRAG
Finally, you'll come to a spot along the bluff line where you can see the Crag jutting out over the trees below. Photo opp!
Only a few more steps and you'll come to the Crag where you can step into the light and just take in the view.
While the fog kinda covered up our view, it parted just enough so we could see tiny glimpses of fall peeking through the veil. The fog, the fact that it was dusk, and the cloudy conditions made it so eerily beautiful.
Having the Crag all to ourselves didn't hurt either. I never imagined we would have an opportunity like this, and I kinda wish I'd snapped more pictures.
However, it was starting to get dark and we had a hike back out in the dark ahead of us, again not recommended. I can definitely see now how easy it would be to get lost.
We did make it out, though, and a plus to hiking in the dark? We couldn't see the uphill battle we faced to get back to our 4Runner. Definitely a positive because the hike back out is no joke.
We have plans to go back and do a little waterfall hunting in the very near future. According to Tim Ernst's book, Arkansas Waterfalls, there are 3 waterfalls in the area, and we're on a mission to find them.
WILDLIFE YOU MAY ENCOUNTER HIKING WHITAKER POINT TRAIL
While we didn't see any wildlife while hiking the trail, it's a very real possibility you could.
While hiking Hawksbill Crag and spending any time in the Buffalo National River area, you may encounter the following animals:
- Black bears
- White-tailed deer
- Wild turkey
Though we feared we might see a bear on that hike back out in the dark, we didn't see one… Who knows if they saw us, though?
WHAT TO PACK FOR HIKING TO WHITAKER POINT
Especially if you’re hiking with kids, you’ll want to pack a few things for your trip to Hawksbill Crag.
- Water – Pack plenty of water for everyone to stay well hydrated.
- Backpacks with snacks and other necessary items – Snacks and water can make all the difference in fueling your body back up before heading back uphill to your vehicle.
- Hiking Carrier – This is hands down the BEST thing we could have ever gotten for our baby/now toddler. We’ve used it so many times. Read our review of our favorite baby carrier backpack.
- Shoes – While you’ll be wearing these and not necessarily packing them, I still think it’s worth mentioning wearing the proper footwear for this hike. You need good shoes for this trail, especially with all the roots and rocks.
SAFETY TIPS AND THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE HIKING THE TRAIL TO HAWKSBILL CRAG
Hawksbill Crag Trail is about 2.9 miles roundtrip. While it’s not a long hike, per sé, it’s still a moderate hike, and the trail back to the parking area is mostly uphill.
There are no bathrooms and no water at the trail head or along the trail. You can very likely find bathrooms in the nearby town of Ponca, Arkansas, before heading up the mountain to hike. Plan accordingly and pack plenty of water to carry along, so everyone will stay well hydrated.
Hawksbill Crag can get very crowded, so you may want to consider hiking during the week, avoiding the weekend.
If you get turned around, look for the small red trail markers here and there along the trail. While the trail is well traveled, there are lots of little trails that veer off the main trail, and the markers can help guide you.
Watch your step and wear good shoes. Especially watch for roots and trees sticking up out of the ground, for rocks, and watch your step on boulders and bluff lines.
It’s always a good idea to let someone know when and where you are going.
If you’re making the hike with kids, watch your kids closely because there are very steep and sheer drop offs, not to mention the Crag, on this trail. Keep little ones closer, maybe even using a hiking carrier like the one we mentioned above.
Check the weather before heading out. Avoid hiking in thunderstorms and other inclement weather. If you decide to hike in rainy or drizzly conditions, be very careful as the trail can be very slippery and dangerous.
Finally, leave no trace. Pack out what you pack in. The more you practice this, the safer and more enjoyable hiking will be for everyone, including hikers who come after you.
The hike to Hawksbill Crag is one you'll never forget. If you've been planning to make this hike, stop planning, get out there, and just hike it.
And if you need a nearby place to camp, check out our guide for camping in the Ozark National Forest.