Saturday, March 12, 2016

Wild Beauty at Cossatot River State Park Natural Area.

One of Arkansas's great state parks celebrates a river as clear as glass, which also offers some of the most challenging rapids to shoot in the state.  Hunter and I visit Cossatot River State Park Natural Area.

We didn't go for the whitewater. Frankly, I'm rather in the older category now and I'm certainly not in shape to handle Category III to V falls.  But I've been working really hard to make sure and visit every Arkansas State Park, and Cossatot River State Park Natural Area makes 50 for me.

Hunter and I were headed north on US Highway 71 and were still several miles out of Mena when we saw the classic brown State Park highway sign.  I turned off onto Highway 278 to head towards the park.

While US Highway 71 tackles a lot of the grand sweeping beauty of the plains that roll into Texas and Oklahoma, 278 offered a ridgeback view of the Ouachita Mountains ahead.  Down rolling cattleland, in the distance we saw blue tinted mountains miles away.

Daffodils were blooming profusely, evidence of years of habitation in this area.  My friend Chuck Haralson once told me he always knew where the old homesteads were because of the daffodils that would bloom in what now looks like wild forest.  They were everywhere - in fields, along fence rows, in front and back yards and around trees and even in the ditches.

The turnoff to the Cossatot River Visitors Center is a little disconcerting, since the next sign you see is that the pavement is about to end.  No worries, it ends on the other side of the center... and on this particular blustery day with a storm front moving in, its gray facade blended into the end-of-February dormancy of the trees beyond.

The entrance to the visitors center is grand, a double doorway followed by an octagonal airy atrium somewhat filled with aquariums, terrariums and a large display of the Cossatot River and its trailheads.  The center's desk sits to the left alongside the gift shop, while an exhibit area lies to the right.

It was the latter that Hunter showed immediate interest in, and she started absorbing what she read from the panels.  This exhibit shares information not only on the history of the park but on why it's so important.  See, the Cossatot River's headwaters are in the protected Ouachita National Forest.  The state park begins at its edge and provides protection in its watershed, preserving the clear-bottomed stream and its wooded valley.

The exhibit also covers how trees, both wooded areas and planted farms, grab ahold of rainwater.  There are kiosks about the animals that live in the watershed and 3D interactive visual rounds where you can view things such as how pollution changes a stream.

My favorite part of the visitors center was down this hallway.

This sanctuary on the back side of the visitors center offers views from every side of the birds and the woods beyond.  It is quiet and comfortable.  I found myself quickly settled into a chair, comfortably contemplating the outdoors.

There is no wifi here, no static hum of machinery in the distance, just the woods and the silence.  There is a small station for children in the corner, but for the most part, this is a place for quiet contemplation.

The gift shop carries a lot of things specific to camping and floating the area.  There are three small tent-only camping areas attached to Cossatot River State Park, and there are plenty of quick snacks available to take with you.   There are also helpful bandanas that show the details of Cossatot Falls, a rugged and rocky canyon that challenges even the most experienced canoeists and kayakers with Class IV and V rapids.  The rapids can only really be "shot" during the cooler, wetter months.

After spending a few minutes exploring the visitors center, I drove down the single lane gravel road to the river itself.  A couple of trails begin here, and there's a small picnic area.

But what's truly gorgeous is the river.  A concrete and steel flat bridge
crosses the Cossatot here, and the water rolls under (and over when it's really high) but you can see a bend to the southeast and the highway bridge far above to the northwest.

The water is refreshingly clear, and even in chilly waters you could see minnows darting among the rocks.  The greenish tint only came through where the water was rushing, aerating and reflecting.

Our journey's requirements and our impending drive up to Queen Wilhelmina State Park cut our time here short, but I hope we can return in late spring for a nice day of fishing and camping.  And I'd really like to watch kayakers on the falls.

Learn more about Cossatot River State Park Natural Area here.

Hunter also wants you to know that you can pick up a brochure that will tell you about all the wildflowers you see alongside Arkansas highways at just about any state park visitors center or Arkansas Welcome Center.  It's handy, especially if you have kids that are curious about our roadside flora. There's also information about how to obtain a brochure on the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department website, here.

Love our epic road trip?  Check out these adventures:

We started here.
Then went looking for the Fouke Monster and found the Fouke Monster Mart
Spent the afternoon at the Four States Auto Museum
Dinner that night, we realized El Chico's Arkansas connection
Our overnight accommodations in Texarkana at the Hampton Inn, room 400
This day's adventures also included Elve's Peanut Patties
And, Karen's Krystals in Lockesburg
We had lunch at Cypress Restaurant (or the Five Percent) in De Queen
Next stop: Queen Wilhelmina State Park Lodge
And the next day we explored the Scott Theater in Waldron
and had fried pies at The Rock Cafe

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