APR 6 2023    
Hemmed-In Hollow Falls: Spring Views in the Ozarks
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Hemmed-In Hollow Falls: Spring Views in the Ozarks

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Hemmed-In Hollow Falls: Your Ozark Hike for Stunning Springtime Views

Spring has officially sprung. The wildflowers are blooming, the birds are chirping, and the rain is coming down in buckets. Here in the Ozarks, spring rains signify an important time for outdoor enthusiasts.  

That’s right, folks—it’s waterfall season. 

There’s nowhere better to see the waterworks than Hemmed-In Hollow Falls. Measuring 209 feet high, this is the tallest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachians. And when the icy winter frost begins to melt, these falls really start gushing. 

While the summer and fall months see it taper down to a mere trickle, spring rains turn Hemmed-In Hollow Falls into a roaring, spraying beast. 

It’s something everyone should see at least once. However, getting there is no easy feat. You’ll need to scramble over boulders, edge along bluffs, and slide straight down into the belly of Hemmed-In Hollow itself. 

This hike is hard, but it’s worth the effort.

Think you’ve got what it takes to get there and back out again? Then I’ve got the information you need. Read on to discover everything you need to know to plan your visit, including how to get there, when to go, and what to expect on your journey. 

Hemmed-In Hollow Hiking at a Glance

Length: 5.7 Miles | Difficulty: Hard | GPS: 36.08198463996973, -93.30372770267792

Hemmed-In Hollow Trail is located in the Ponca Wilderness Area (PWA). Lying along the Buffalo River in Newton County, this region is known far and wide as the Waterfall Highway of the Ozarks. The National Park Service (NPS) has surveyed and mapped over 100 waterfalls here, and there are likely hundreds more waiting to be discovered. 

But while the area is teeming with waterfalls, none are quite as distinguished as Hemmed-In Hollow Falls. Not only is it the tallest fall in the Ozarks, it’s also one of the most difficult to see. The destination requires a 1,400 descent to the middle of Hemmed-In Hollow itself. And while the word “hollow” sounds quaint and picturesque, this hollow is a steep and treacherous climb.

The waterfall is surrounded on the north, east, and west sides by high sandstone bluffs. To the south, it’s locked in place by the Buffalo River. The hike is long and arduous, and cell phone service is not available anywhere in the vicinity. This is an area where search-and-rescues happen often, so it pays to stay alert and be prepared for anything on the trail. 

The tallest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachians is a sight you need to see. 

How to Get To Hemmed-In Hollow Falls

Ready to tackle this goliath? You’ll need to get there first. There are several ways to reach the falls, and each trail offers a little something unique to visitors. I prefer the more straightforward day-route, but those with time to spare can spend several nights camping in the backcountry as they hike to the falls. 

Hemmed-In Hollow Falls Via Compton Trailhead

The most popular way to see the falls is via Hemmed-In Hollow Trail itself, accessible at the Compton Trailhead. To get there, you’ll need to travel out of Ponca heading north on Highway 43. If you make sure not to blink, you might see a sign for Compton—but then again, you might not. Use Compton’s lone filling station, JB Trading Company, as a landmark instead. 

Head right on a gravel road across the street from the station, then make your first right onto another dirt road. After about a quarter-mile, you’ll see the sign for a Wilderness Access turnoff on your right. The parking lot at Compton Trailhead is small, but suitable for RVs if it’s not too crowded. Avoid the rest of the world by going on a weekday and you’ll have the place to yourself. 

Hemmed-In Hollow Trail begins at the Compton Trailhead in the PWA. 

Hemmed-In Hollow Falls Via Centerpoint Trailhead

A less popular and much longer option is to hike in from the Centerpoint Trailhead. This will tack on another five miles to an already difficult journey, so be prepared to spend 8-10 hours on the trail if you’re going this route. You might even want to bring your tent. 

Centerpoint Trailhead lies right off Highway 43, about 3.5 miles north of Ponca. The parking area is a comically tiny lot that only accommodates about ten vehicles, but you can pay for parking across the street at a horse camp if there’s no room.

Hemmed-In Hollow Falls Via Buffalo River Float

What if you don’t really want to hike in at all? When the weather permits, you don’t have to. You can take a canoe down the Buffalo River from Steele Creek to Kyles Landing. Along the way, you’ll need to pull your canoe over at the Horseshoe Bend gravel bar.

From there, a 15-minute walk will get you in to see the falls. Floating takes more preparation, and can only be done when water levels allow. It’s a whole new kind of adventure, so make sure to follow my tips for planning your float trip to get familiar with the idea. 

Hiking Hemmed-In Hollow Trail

The most efficient way to see these falls is by hiking Hemmed-In Hollow Trail from the Compton Trailhead. There are actually two trails leading from the parking lot. Each is clearly marked, with one going down to Hemmed-In Hollow and the other meandering around Sneed’s Creek. You’ll take the one on the left. 

Views for Days at Hemmed-In Hollow

The path starts off pretty flat, but it can get wet after heavy rains. Since spring is the best time for a visit here, expect a lot of mud, popup springs, and giant puddles of standing water for the first half-mile. This is actually a great sign, because it means the falls will be active and full. 

As the trail begins to slope downward, you’ll be able to catch some stunning views to your left. Peering down into the hollow will yield spectacular vistas with blooming dogwoods, deer, and wildflowers as far as the eye can see. There are several lookout points to stop and catch your breath, including California Point with a fire pit for campers. This is a great way to rest a bit and enjoy the scenery. 

Enjoy it while it lasts.

The Long, Hard Road to Hemmed-In Hollow Falls

After around a mile, the trail starts to slope much more intensely. There aren’t many switchbacks on this trail, and the steep path gets washed out quite easily in the spring. You’ll encounter a series of stone steps along the way, but these often erode and break away with the rain—so don’t count on them. 

You’ll need to climb down large rocks in several places. You will get muddy, dirty, and bruised. I am an expert-level hiker, and I was not expecting the trail to be as difficult as it was. There is a published trail map that shows the route, but it doesn’t do the conditions justice. A combination of steep terrain, no switchbacks, mud, large rocks, and washouts make this hike a true doozy. 

Hiking through this fairytale wonderland is well worth the effort.

The Magic Begins at Hemmed-In Hollow

It will be about two miles to the bottom of the hollow. Once you get past California Point, the trail takes a sharp left turn and evens out a bit. The scenery changes from rougher brush and scrub to pines and muted forest undergrowth, and the path follows a gentler slope along a series of creeks. Large boulders rise from the water, covered in soft green forest moss. The scenery is ethereal, begging for silence and appreciation. 

You may see a couple other hikers, but it’s unlikely you’ll hear them. Hemmed-In Hollow tends to take words right out of your mouth. After you go another half-mile, the trail splits. Taking the path on the left will lead you straight to the falls. You’ll hear them far before you see them, passing several smaller cascades as you navigate the trail. 

The path eventually disappears, and you’ll need to hop from rock to rock to approach the waterfall. It’s quite interesting to note the temperature change here. You’ll probably get hot from exertion as you hike, even in the cool spring weather. But as you near the falls, it gets cold

You’ll cross a few creeks and see several smaller waterfalls on the way to Hemmed-In Hollow Falls.

Experiencing Hemmed-In Hollow Falls

The massive, 209-foot waterfall is truly a sight to behold. It starts high above on a distant peak, flowing and falling in waves of opaque water. Each shimmering curtain follows its own distinct path down the cliff, crashing onto the rocks below and sending a hailstorm of hard water-bullets out in every direction.

You can get as close as you want to the falls. There is a large grotto behind them, where you can sneak to sit behind the veil of water. Remove your shoes for this slippery venture, but watch your feet—the sandstone is unforgiving and sharp. In some places, the water has worn it into a pointed ridge.

Some people like to take a dip if the weather is warm enough. But depending on recent rainfall, it may be pouring too hard to stand directly beneath the falls. I would encourage you to bring a snack or some lunch, perching on a nearby rock to gaze at the scene as you refuel. Take a moment to revel in the fact that you are here, alive and experiencing this. 

Hemmed-In Hollow Buffalo Spur

Returning from the falls, you’ll approach the first trail split. Taking the right hand path leads back the way you came, while continuing straight will take you to the Buffalo River and the gravel bar along Horseshoe Bend. It’s a 0.8-mile walk to the river, and relatively flat. It’s a good idea to take this spur and see the Buffalo if you have time, as it’s one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. 

Planning Your Visit to Hemmed-In Hollow Falls

Want to take the plunge? Before you dive in, it’s important to get the details down. I’ve compiled a quick guide on the what, where, and how of this trail, so you can get the most out of your trip.

When to Come to Hemmed-In Hollow

Spring is the best season for seeing the falls. As the weather gets warmer, it makes for more comfortable hiking conditions overall. Pay attention to the forecast and time your visit after the first heavy rains of the season. That way, you’ll see the falls at their peak flow. 

Visiting in winter is your next-best choice. Without leaves on the trees, you’ll be able to see crystal-clear views of the hollow as you descend. If you time it correctly, you’ll even get to see the falls as ice forms. While they never become completely frozen, a large ice-dome sometimes forms at the base when it gets cold enough. This is a rare and truly magical sight, but it doesn’t happen every year. 

Hiking from Compton Trailhead will take you about 5-6 hours round-trip, depending on how fast you are and how long you stop to gape at the waterfall. Timing your visit is up to you. Spring weather is mild, so the heat probably won’t be an issue. Hiking at night is dangerous here, so try and avoid it if you can.

If you’re hoping to get some good photos, plan to arrive earlier. You’ll have even light on the falls from around 8:30 to 10:00 AM, so arrive at the trailhead ready to hike at about 6:30 or 7:00 AM. There are no sunrise or sunset views down in the hollow, so mid-morning is undoubtedly the best time for a snapshot.

What to Bring to Hemmed-In Hollow

You definitely don’t want to attempt this hike empty-handed. No matter what, snacks are vital. I polished off a full pound of beef jerky on the hike, along with three string cheeses and two liters of water. I was still starving when I got back up and fell asleep on the car ride home. 

Why is that important? I only include my snack list to convey in earnest that you need to keep your energy up on the hike. It’s a good idea to bring some electrolyte packs for your water in addition to food, to make sure you’re replenishing magnesium and salt. Even in the springtime, it can get hot. You can sweat out sustenance quick

Wearing lighter layers is also smart, because the temperature can change considerably in one day. You may start off with a crisp morning, but the falls can get downright cold—and on the way back up, you’ll probably find yourself drenched in sweat. A good pair of hiking shoes is essential for this trip as well. You need traction for the mud, wet rocks, and gravel. You definitely don’t want to risk a tumble here. 

Whatever you bring, it shouldn’t be too heavy or it’ll increase the difficulty of your hike. Your individual needs will vary, so consider your own skill level and what you hope to accomplish as you put together your bag. 

Hemmed-In Hollow Falls Day Packing List

  • Snacks
  • Water
  • Sunscreen
  • Light jacket
  • Electrolyte tablets
  • Camera
  • Trail Map 

Where to Camp Near Hemmed-In Hollow Falls

Want to stay a while? I can’t blame you. The good news is, backcountry camping is allowed anywhere in the Buffalo Wilderness Area. Since the Ponca Unit is part of this, you’re free to camp along the trail. A great spot for this is on the Buffalo River spur at the bottom of the hollow. There are a few soft, flat spots along this spur that are great for pitching a tent or hanging a hammock. You can build a fire and settle down for the night to the sound of the creek trickling alongside you. 

If you’re an avid camper, starting from the Centerpoint Trailhead may be even better for you. You’ll be hiking a series of trails that meander across Big Bluff before heading down into the valley, eventually meeting up with the Hemmed-In Hollow Trail. Camping along Big Bluff is a bucket-list type adventure. The views are some of the best in the state. 

If you’re planning on taking the trail series from Centerpoint rather than the dedicated single trail from Compton, it’s wise to pick up a copy of the Buffalo National River trail maps by National Geographic. Easy to use and simple to understand, these waterproof maps will ensure you don’t get lost on the intersections as you switch from trail to trail. 

The trail system through Hemmed-In Hollow features multiple spurs and shortcuts, so it’s best to bring a map. 

Explore Hemmed-In Hollow Falls Today

Hemmed-In Hollow Falls isn’t just the tallest waterfall in the area. It’s also the most breathtaking, with towering sandstone cliffs rising from an otherworldly bed of rarely-seen flora and fauna. Hidden deep inside the valley, this isolation is part of what makes it so special. It’s difficult to come here, but it's an undertaking that pays back tenfold. If you want to see one of Arkansas’ greatest wonders, go ahead and start planning your trip to Hemmed-In Hollow Falls today.

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