This is a challenging 9.4-mile loop hike in the Caney Creek Wilderness of the Ouachita National Forest in Polk County, near Shady Lake. It is composed of the Buckeye Trail and the east part of the Caney Creek Trail.
It’s a tough hike, but it has some great scenic areas and wonderful vistas.
As you can see from the maps below, the hike roughly makes a rectangle with the south side being 3.8 miles of the Caney Creek Trail and the north and (shorter) west sides being the Buckeye Trail.
The east side is a 1.1-mile gravel road walk (Forest Road 64) between the Buckeye trailhead at the northeast corner and the east Caney Creek trailhead at the southeast corner.
The net elevation change on the hike is about 1100 feet. (On the entire hike, the cumulative elevation gain is about 1970 feet.)
You can start the loop either trailhead. The east Caney Creek trailhead is about 3.5 miles north of the Shady Lake campground. The Buckeye trailhead is the higher one by about 400 feet.
I started at the Caney Creek Trailhead so I would be doing that uphill climbing on the trail instead of on the gravel road.
One thing to keep in mind is that both of these trails (and the Tall Peak Trail) are in the Caney Creek Wilderness. Blazes and trail signs are not permitted in this area.
(When I was there, it appeared that someone had blazed the trail with yellow paint which had later been removed.)
East Caney Creek Trail
The Caney Creek Trail runs east-west and is about 9 miles long. The eastern part of the trail that is part of this loop is 3.8 miles.
It runs through a valley with Tall Peak Mountain and Porter Mountain to the south and Buckeye Mountain and Katy Mountain to the north.
I thought this section of the hike was enjoyable, especially after the first mile when the trail started following Caney Creek. (Unfortunately, this part of Caney Creek was largely dry during my July hike.)
The Caney Creek trail was not difficult to follow and did not involve much climbing. There is only about 150 feet of elevation variation on this part of the hike.
Caney Creek flows to the west so, as expected, the trail makes a gradual downhill slant as it progresses westward.
Buckeye Trail and Katy Falls
At about 3.8, you make a right turn (heading north) to go on the Buckeye Trail. Even though there is no signage, it is not hard to see the fork. There is a cairn (a pile of rocks) to mark the juncture.
This juncture is just past where Katy Creek comes in from the north and flows into Caney Creek.
When I was on the trail in mid-July last year, there was no significant water flowing in Caney Creek east of here, but Katy Creek was steadily flowing.
After about a tenth of a mile on the Buckeye Trail, there is a fork. Taking a right turn is a short spur over to an awesome waterfall, the 12-foot Katy Falls (on Katy Creek). Even in mid-July, it was flowing nicely.
Back on the Buckeye Trail, from here is where you really start climbing. In fact, for the next two miles, there is an elevation change of nearly 900 feet.
The first mile is mostly climbing northward on the east side of East Hannah Mountain. Then the trail curves eastward and continues the climb along a ridge on Buckeye Mountain.
There are some awesome vistas along the trail, particularly at the higher elevations of Buckeye Mountain.
During leaf-on, there was not a good vista view right at the highest part of the Buckeye Mountain (around 2300 feet elevation), but there are a number of great vistas other spots on the trail.
At around 7.6, the trail makes a switchback to the left turning north for about a half-mile. It then juts east back to the Buckeye trailhead.
From here, turn right for the 1.1 mile walk on FR 64 back to the east Caney Creek trailhead.
I would not recommend mid-summer (when I did my 2013 hike) as the best time for a long challenging hike such as this. There are usually a lot more bugs to deal with at that time. Also the heat, with risks of dehydration and heat exhaustion, can make hiking more difficult.
(It took me much longer than I was planning to complete the hike in July of last year. In fact, by the time I reached the summit area of Buckeye Mountain, it was already dark. (I don’t recommend hiking in the dark.) I went back a few weeks later and hiked part of the trail again starting at the Buckeye trailhead so I could get some daylight pictures of the Buckeye Mountain summit area.)
I had no AT&T cell signal except in places on the higher elevations on the Buckeye Trail.
All these photos (and the gpx file) are from my July and August 2013 hikes.
Click here or below or below for full-screen photo gallery.
Buckeye Trail/East Caney Creek Trail Loop – Map
Buckeye Trail/East Caney Creek Trail Loop (Ouachita Forest)
Location Caney Creek Wilderness, Ouachita National Forest, Polk County, Arkansas Hike Length/Type 9.4 mile loop, including the 1.1 mile walk on the forest road from one trailhead to the other. Difficulty Very Strenuous (5 of 5) Gpx file (by Mike) Link Official Info (479) 394-2382 (USFS Mena Ranger Office)
USFS trail map (pdf)
Directions (via Google Maps) Directions to East Caney Creek Trail trailhead
Directions to Buckeye Trail trailhead
Date Hiked July 13, 2013 (and partial on August 10 2013)