Buffalo National River. (Photo: National Park Service)

A Springfield man died after falling during a weekend hike near the Eye of the Needle in the Buffalo National River’s Ponca Wilderness area. 

Brad Lee Thomas, 46, had been on a group hike in the Indian Creek drainage, an undeveloped backcountry area, on Saturday afternoon when he fell about 20 feet, according to a Buffalo National River news release. 

Dispatchers responded to a call about the fall at 4:49 p.m. and arrived to find Thomas unresponsive as fellow hikers attempted CPR. Lifesaving efforts by rangers and first responders were unsuccessful. 

The Indian Creek Trail that leads to the Eye of the Needle waterfall is described as a 4.3-mile out-and-back route that is challenging even for experienced hikers. Some commenters on AllTrails suggest that the trail should be avoided by children, the elderly and inexperienced hikers. The Buffalo National River news release offers a similar warning.  

“Rangers have responded to multiple hiking accidents in the Indian Creek drainage over the past month,” according to the news release. “This undeveloped backcountry area includes extremely technical, loose and slippery footing, and steep terrain. Even the most experienced hiker is susceptible to injury. Hikers should be equipped for self-rescue, as emergency response can take several hours at this location.”

Thomas is survived by his wife, Tamra, and three sons. According to his obituary, he found an escape in the outdoors. 

“Brad loved spending time in the outdoors because it was a place where he could get away from the busyness of work and spend time in the peacefulness of God’s creation,” his obituary reads. “But more than anything else, he found joy in being a father to his three beloved sons: Evan, Jude and Trey.”

Tammy Kratzer, who runs a hiking group in Springfield, had hiked in groups with Thomas before.

“It was a short friendship, and it’s sad, but he was a really good guy.” 

Kratzer said she turned down an invitation to join the group that took part in the Saturday hike. 

“I knew it would be muddy and slippery and that played a big part of it,” she said. 

Kratzer said she has hiked the trail before, and that it can be challenging and scary even for experienced hikers. 

“It’s a very narrow path that runs along the creek, and sometimes you’re in the creek,” she said. “So it’s slippery, rocky, scrambling. And then there’s other times that you have to go up high … and then the path is just right on the edge, and if you fall, you know, you could die. And you’ve got to climb rope.”

Because the terrain is slippery and steep, she said she has worn a rock climbing helmet when she hiked to the Eye of the Needle. She said after learning of the fatal accident involving Thomas, she will never hike that trail again. 

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson