The Illinois River Watershed is composed of 1.1-million acres in NW Arkansas and NE Oklahoma. Getting out and experiencing all that our watershed has to offer is one way of recognizing the importance of collaboratively and proactively protecting the land and waterways within it. In this edition of Watershed Journey, we’ll take a walk through Wedington Woods, a portion of the Ozark National Forest that borders the Illinois River.
Halfway between Siloam Springs and Fayetteville on Highway 16 is Lake Wedington Recreation Area, a fragment of Ozark National Forest that is covered with towering hardwoods, gurgling springs, and mossy limestone boulders. The 102-acre lake is great for fishing, swimming, and boating, and the surrounding recreation area offers rental cabins, campsites, a picnic area, accessible fishing pier, boat launch, hiking trails, and other amenities.
(Left) The sandy shore of Lake Wedington during winter; (Right) Hiking the North Twin Trail
Much information can be found online about Lake Wedington, so we’re going to hop across the highway from the lake and take the road less traveled: the North Twin Trail. This is a 15-mile round trip backpacking and mountain biking trail that starts at Lake Wedington and meanders through the Ozark National Forest all the way to the community of Pedro, near Siloam Springs.
Wedington Woods features lichen and moss-covered rock formations and blufflines with scenic views of the Ozark National Forest
Whereas the lake access is on the south side of Highway 16, the trailhead for the North Twin Trail is on the north side. It shares a small parking lot (8 parking spaces or less, if I remember correctly) with a picnic area. The trail takes off up an incline and into the woods, marked by blue plastic diamonds driven into tree trunks at eye-level.
Blue diamond trail markers will be your guide
The first two miles alternate between periods of flat, level terrain and then sudden, steep switchbacks into and out of narrow ravines. It is apparent that these ravines are natural drainage areas, each a tiny watershed in itself. After traversing the fourth ravine, you soon come to a forest service road and a primitive campsite next to a sparkling natural spring. Just above this spring, there are remnants of an old homestead that likely got its water supply there for many years. Every time I have hiked this trail, I have spotted wildlife within a couple hundred feet of this spring, and the water is always flowing, no matter what time of year.
The spring water emerges from beneath a slab of mossy limestone in the hillside.
Around Mile 3, the trail crosses a county road (WC Rd. 849/Lookout Tower Rd.) and begins following a bluffline. Eventually, the trail veers up into a break between two walls of limestone, almost lending to the illusion that you’re walking through a canyon.
A “canyon” between two walls of limestone
Climbing ever higher, the trail comes out at the top of those bluffs, offering the first overlook of the vast expanse of forest that lies ahead. This time of year is especially scenic, as there are few enough leaves on the trees that you can appreciate the view beyond, but the leaves that remain intact speckle the landscape with bursts of yellow, orange, and red.
A speckled spectacle of the journey ahead
Follow the top of this ridgeline until the trail drops down the opposite side, and when you reach the bottom of the bluff, you’ll feel immediately isolated. A 15-foot-thick wall of rock now separates you from the nearest road, and the trail ahead appears to wind endlessly down the mountain. But fear not, watershed wanderer, for you will soon reach another county road crossing and regain a sense of security and proximity. Just beyond that, a golden sea of prairie awaits.
A beautiful prairie crossing around Mile 5
In the woods across the prairie, the trail traverses a fascinating hollow filled with spring-fed streams that emerge and then disappear underground and resurface in low-lying areas. This area is teeming with wildlife, seemingly rejoicing in their great fortune of resources and habitat.
A stream crossing near Mile 6
The final mile and a half is a bit of a scramble up and around the sides of two contiguous mountains in the community of Pedro. The second mountain’s summit is the North Twin Trail’s “terminus”, or more accurately, the halfway point where you turn around and retrace your steps back to the trailhead. The view from the top is pretty spectacular, though, as you can see Siloam Springs to the west, Springdale and Fayetteville to the east/southeast, and Highway 412 to the north.
Looking west toward Siloam Springs and Oklahoma
As you stand upon this mountain with the Illinois River flowing along its base some 600 feet below, be reminded of the journey all of our creeks and streams make in the Illinois River Watershed. Rushing down from the tops of mountains during rainstorms, infiltrating through soil and trees’ roots, running off of roads and rooftops into storm drains, gurgling up from beneath earth’s surface through springs, all merging and converging to form larger waterways that ultimately empty into the Illinois.
This is the Watershed Journey, and you are a part of it.