Picture the Ozarks
This story is part of an ongoing series about photo-worthy destinations in and around Springfield. We’re calling it “Picture the Ozarks.”
In the middle of not much else, about two-and-a-half hours from Springfield, a river oasis awaits those who love waterfalls, hiking and photography.
The Kings River Falls Natural Area in Madison County, Arkansas, features a relatively easy out-and-back trail with a showcase destination: the stunning Kings River Falls. Is it worth driving that far for a mere 2-mile hike? Oh, yes!
For one thing, it’s not a long hike and there’s little elevation, so hauling a tripod or an extra lens isn’t much of a burden for those who pack gear. Cell-phone photographers will love this trail, too.
What’s so special about Kings River Falls?
The true beauty of this trail is that, while its signature waterfall rightly captures the spotlight, there are photo-ops all along the way: captivating cascades, unusual rock formations, riverbed swirl holes, seasonal spring flowers or fall leaves and many other interesting natural subjects. Bring a picnic lunch! You’ll want to linger here.
That’s why the Kings River Falls Natural Area was selected for our next “Picture the Ozarks,” a series about photo-worthy outdoor destinations.
While the trail is close enough for a day trip from Springfield, it’s also a great one-hour side trip from the Upper Buffalo National River area. Or get away early enough to add the Glory Hole Waterfall Trail to your day. It’s only 40 minutes away and features a unique waterfall — though with a more strenuous trail. A little easier is the Magnolia Falls Trail not much farther up the road. All three of these hikes are roughly 2 miles out and back.
King’s River Falls Natural Area and Trail
Distance: About 2 miles out and back
Difficulty: Easy to low-moderate: the trail has very little elevation but it’s rocky and uneven in some places; areas of the trail may have puddles
Dogs: Yes, on a leash
Visual reward: King’s River Falls and pool
Photo-worthy: Big showcase waterfalls and blue-green pool; a hilly side stream cascade just before reaching the falls; many cascades and river rock areas along the way; fall or spring forest leaves and flowers; many opportunities for long exposure water photography
Your guide to Kings River Falls Trail
This stream trail is a picturesque hike, from its early steps along the Mitchell Creek tributary to Kings River and the waterfall destination. The urge to capture images, first here, then there, means you won’t wish to hurry. Glimpses of the clear blue-green stream, with stone-strewn, tree-lined banks, make beautiful serene landscapes whether shooting with a cell phone or camera.
And there’s more to capture than the river. For instance, a keen eye will find the curious barbed-wire fence absorbed by tree trunks growing around it. After the bridge, look for an opening in a row of trees nearby to peek at a wide-open meadow. (Just look: This is private property.)
As the trail and stream twist and turn, watch for opportunities to get onto the banks to capture pretty cascades or mini-waterfalls over stream boulders. Portions of the trail lead onto wide rocky banks that feature unusual geologic depressions, sometimes called panholes, swirl holes or if deep enough, potholes — created over time by the swirling movement of water.
Around the falls
After about a mile, you’ll be near the top of the falls and your ultimate destination. Don’t miss the tributary creek tumbling down a hilly depression on your left. There’s a volunteer trail of sorts that goes up the rocky creek bed where pretty little cascades stair-step down from above, providing more photo opportunities.
At the falls, a wealth of rock formations and embankments invite hikers to sit, eat lunch and enjoy the view. If you can resist taking photos first, that is. But why resist? Try various side compositions from the top of the falls, lower rock outcrops or make your way down around the blue-green pool for a stream-level view. Continue downstream a bit from the falls for yet another angle if changing water levels allow.
Heads up: On a nice weekend, you’re unlikely to have the falls to yourself by midday, so capturing a people-free landscape may take some patience. And once it’s warm enough to swim, welcome to the party! This is a popular summertime swimming hole when the falls are flowing (go early for photos and stay for the swimming). That’s why spring, winter and cool fall days when falls are running well are the best times for photography.
And if you go when the falls are hardly running — don’t be dismayed. Embrace the rare underbelly stream bed landscape! The Kings River Falls Natural Area offers timeless natural beauty any month of the year.
About the hiking experience on the trail
The Kings River Falls Trail is easy enough for most but may be a moderate effort in places for some. It’s a mostly level trail, weaving through wooded areas along the riverbank. There is a metal bridge around the half-mile spot, and several places where hikers go up upon or around large flat rocks.
Depending on the season, portions of the trail may be puddled or wet. The trail at times opens onto stony riverbank, affording wide views of the mountain-like stream.
Sturdy shoes that might get muddy, or hiking sandals, are good footwear choices and a trekking stick may be handy in some places, especially if climbing a tributary creek near the main waterfall.
More about Kings River
The Kings River headwaters originate east of Boston, Ark., high in the Ozark Mountains of Madison County. It’s a free-flowing river — meaning there are no dams — with many contributing tributaries. The river winds northwest for roughly 90 miles, eventually flowing into the White River and Table Rock Lake near the Missouri border.
The river’s first 11-mile section is considered a Class III whitewater stream; the lower Kings beyond Arkansas 74 is a relatively gentle Class I to 1+ river, suitable for general floating. A 1,059-acre hiking area, including a three-mile section of the river with its famous falls, was established in 1979 as the Kings River Falls Natural Area, managed by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission.
Get there from Springfield
Location: Near Witter, Arkansas; put “Kings River Falls Trail” or “1543 Madison 3500, Witter, AR 72776” into your GPS map.
GPS: 35.89473280125273, -93.58341517599433
Distance: Roughly 125 miles
Drive time: Around 2.5 hours
Parking: Gravel lot, no toilet; trailhead well-marked
Travel tip: Download or take a screenshot of the map directions and have a paper map; there is no cell service in this remote area; expect gravel roads close to the trailhead area.