In this segment of KSMU’s Sense of Community series “Take It Outside: 10 Unique Spots to Enjoy the Natural Ozarks,” Jess Balisle takes listeners to the top of White Rock Mountain for a weekend of driving dirt roads, swimming and sunset watching.
We've just hit the dirt road on our way to White Rock. I’m so excited to be taking you guys to this very special place that I have grown up going to.
White Rock Mountain is situated in the middle of the Boston Mountains on the west end of the Ozark National Forest in Northwest Arkansas. It’s become my second home over the years.
For this particular trip, I’m with my husband and a group of friends, most of whom have been to White Rock before. We caravan down from Springfield, taking lesser-traveled highways once we get off of Highway 65. We pass through the Arkansas towns of Alpena, Kingston and St. Paul.
The drive is about 3.5 hours, but the last stretch is made up of only 15 miles of mountain dirt roads.
By the time we’re on the dirt roads, the sunset is fast approaching. Even with beautiful sweeping views between the trees, it’s still a long ride to the top.
“We have a saying: you have to want to get to White Rock,” said Amber Patton. She’s White Rock’s concessionaire and has been running the cabins and campgrounds here since January 2017.
When we reach our destination, we’re greeted by an old stone sign that says “Welcome to White Rock
Past the sign, you find yourself driving along a saddle between Pilot Knob and White Rock Mountain. The land drops off on both sides of the road. Further up on the right, we pass the campground, followed by the office and an old stone water tower. Straight ahead is the Lodge, with three smaller cabins following the road to the left. All were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, or the CCC. We’re staying at the Lodge this weekend. It’s a private lodge that can be rented for larger groups.
Paula White was the concessionaire for 25 years before Patton. She’s a lifelong family friend, so I called her up for some history.
The CCC crew built the Lodge first and then used it during the construction of the other cabins.
“That originally was built for the meeting place, the cafeteria hall or mess hall,” said White.
I should pause here to share my connection to White Rock. My dad, Steve Gray, has spent more time roaming around the Ozarks in search of trails and natural beauty more than anyone I know. It was around 1975 the first time he found himself at White Rock.
Thoroughly impressed with the place, he took his friend Jack White – no, not that Jack White – to White Rock Mountain in 1983. Jack began staying regularly in the cabins with his wife Paula. In 1991, the Whites moved to White Rock and officially became the concessionaires.
I grew up visiting Jack and Paula on the mountain. I have fond memories of Jack, who passed away in 1999. Paula continued her work on the mountain, but with a little extra help from her neighbor, Eulas Bowles, and a scrappy crew of woodcutters and cabin repairers.
“Eulas played a big part in my success and ability to stay there after Jack became ill and passed away. I couldn’t have made it without Eulas,” said White.
Bowles has lived in these mountains for all his life. In fact, his father even helped the CCC with the construction of the cabins on White Rock during the 30s.
Back at the Lodge with my friends, we settle in for the night. We have a big day coming up – swimming at Hurricane Creek.
Field Trip off the Mountain
Mornings at White Rock for me have a bit of a routine. Sleep in, but not too late, drink coffee on the back porch of whichever cabin I’m in, fix breakfast and prepare for the day. This particular day, we’re going to take a bit of a detour. A friend needs gas for his truck, so we decided to drive out to Cass on Highway 23 to the Turner Bend Store.
On our way through the forested dirt roads, we stop at Grays Spring, a favorite spot of mine because my
family name is Gray. This little spot is no longer maintained regularly by the Forest Service and you can tell. The roof on the stone pavilion is rotting away and there’s hardly a usable picnic table left. My strong recommendation is to not use the restroom facility here. I refuse to even look inside
But even with all of that, it’s a lovely place to stop and look around, have a snack.
On down the dirt roads and we finally make it to the highway, cross the Mulberry River and arrive at Turner Bend. Here, you can buy gas, snacks, and souvenirs. Most all of us in my group opt for ice cream. It’s hot outside and we are still an hour’s drive back to the creek.
We take the Shores Lake Road back around, you guessed it, Shores Lake. The dam was built in the 30s by the CCC for another recreation area. The Forest Service stocks the lake with bass, catfish and bluegill. We stop on the east side of the dam for a look around. The lake is absolutely beautiful today. Crystal blue water gently reflects the trees surrounding the edge of the lake.
But enough of this. We’re going swimming. After driving around to the other side of the lake, we cross an old CCC bridge over Hurricane Creek, the creek that flows into Shores Lake. There’s a gravel bar accessible by a short trail. It is not recommended that those with physical disabilities come down to this part of the creek – it has some steep spots and you have to cross through the water out to the main gravel bar.
With floaties and coolers in tow, we make our way down to the gravel bar
We spend several hours in the water, occasionally hopping out to have a snack or replenish a beverage. But the sun is getting low in the sky and we have to get back to White Rock for sunset. It’s is a very big deal on the mountain.
Sunsets on White Rock
We’re now on our way down to the Point to watch sunset at White Rock. This is a very special thing up here on the mountain. Everybody comes down to the Point on the west end of the mountain and we watch a fabulous sunset. I have never seen a bad sunset here. They’re always spectacular.
The Point has a CCC stone pavilion perfectly perched here, surrounded by a low rock wall. My friend Maggie Schibler sums up what it’s like to be sitting on top of the world like this.
“Well, I’ve got warm rocks under my back end, I’ve got a beautiful sunset coming my way. It’s not a bad place to be,” she said.
For those who have never been to a sunset at White Rock, it can be a breath-taking experience to see for the first time.
From way up here, 2,260 feet above sea level, we can see for literal miles. I point out the roads we took to get down to Hurricane Creek and Shores Lake.
On the rock pavilion is a small plaque dedicating its rebuilding in 1997 by Jack White, Eulas Bowles, my dad’s group of friends and others.
As the sun sinks lower towards the horizon, the scattering of clouds turn pink and shadows are cast through the valleys. Suddenly, the sun is a huge orange fireball dipping below the mountains. It disappears. My friends and I have a toast and Warren Sandwell contemplates the view.
“Yeah, it’s trees. It looks like broccoli. It looks like broccoli. I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% broccoli viewer,” he said.
White Rock concessionaire Amber Patton thinks is one of most important things about being on the mountain is being unplugged.
“We don’t have TVs, we don’t have telephones. We do have cell phone service now, but everybody just kicks back and plays board games, watches the sunset, cooks great dinners and they just reconnect,” she said.
White Rock is also a hiking hub, being located on the west end of the Ozark Highlands Trail. There are also lots of other trails throughout the area to explore.
As far as accessibility goes, White Rock isn’t currently an easy hike, but that may be changing soon. Patton tells me they’re getting ready to redo the trail to the Point. She also says that just staying in the cabins can be a great getaway.
“A couple of our cabins are handicap accessible. The Lodge is, and then they have a spectacular view right from their back patio,” said Patton.
Visitors of all ages and physical capabilities need to be aware that the mountain is surrounded by high cliffs and dangerous drop-offs. Watch your step.
Paula White, who spent 25 years living at White Rock sums up her experience.
“You know, it takes a special someone to live there. You have to be a little strange.”