Horse Thief Spring Trail - Billy Creek Trail
of the Ouachita Trail
Sep-15-2014. A hiker reports the trail in poor conditions. See Trail Report page.
This combined trail network is 26 miles and includes a section of the Ouachita Trail. Both trail networks are shown in different colors on one map. Horse Thief Spring Trail is the loop that starts at Cedar Lake and hooks up with the Ouachita Trail on top of Winding Stair Mt. The Billy Creek Trail is two loops that start on the south side of Winding Stair and also ties in with the Ouachita. Besides offering many options for overnight and multi night hikes, these can be used in conjunction with the Ouachita and the little known Indian Nation Trail to make several BIG loops through the Ouachita Forest of Oklahoma.
The Map: Nominal 1:24,000 based on USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle topographic maps. Printed in color on 11x17, "Rite in the Rain” all weather writing paper. Both trails were mapped with a WAAS enabled GPS. The map shows both loop trails, part of the Ouachita and Indian Nation Trails and selected equestrian trails and forest roads. Other features include trailheads, segment mileage, general directions, waypoints and waypoint coordinates.
The Horse Thief Springs Hike: The Horse Thief Spring Loop is a great place to get a taste of hiking in the Ouachita Mountains as either a dayhike, or a very satisfying overnight trip. There are two trail heads: at Cedar Lake, north of the Holson Valley Rd, and at Horse Thief Spring on Winding Stair Mt and accessed by Talimena Scenic Drive. This narrative describes the 12.7 mile Loop that starts at Cedar Lake. The loop starting from Horse Thief Spring is only 8.5 miles because it cuts of the two way trip from Snake Mt to Cedar Lake.
There is an 1,100 foot elevation gain from Cedar Lake and the high point on the Ouachita Trail so be prepared for a vigorous hike. Hiking in this area is best in the fall, winter and spring. Oklahoma summers are extremely hot and water can be very difficult to find (though year round at the spring and Cedar Lake).
The trail is well marked with white blazes. There are also many yellow blazes that cross the trail and sometimes run with it. These are equestrian trails, some of which are marked on the map.
Cedar Lake trailhead is in the campground/picnic area. It is a nice place to car camp if you want to drive down after work on Friday and get an early start on Saturday. The trail heads south with white blazes. At 1.6 the trail goes straight across Holson Valley Road. The junction of the east and west loop is at 2.1 miles. This is a fairly rocky area and, with all the leaves, the trail is sometimes hard to find. Just look for the white blazes.
We are going counter-clockwise, so turn right (west) along the south flank of Snake Mt. In about 0.7 miles (2.8 miles total), you will reach a saddle and begin a one mile hike along a flat topped ridge. There is no water up here but it’s a great place to take a break.
At 4 miles, the trail drops off the ridge and comes to a clearing and junction with a forest road. Follow the road for about a quarter mile to Goldville Divide and head south. There are several horse trails in this area so you might have to share the road. Watch for the white blazes.
Over the next mile the trail climbs 600 feet up the rocky north flank of Winding Stair Mountain. At the top there is a sign and a T intersection. Turn left (east) following the blue blazes of the Ouachita Trail. The Ouachita Trail is a 222 mile trail that stretches from Talimena State Park in Oklahoma (see Boardstand-Old Military Loop) to west of Little Rock Arkansas. Travel the rocky trial for about 1.3 miles to Horse Thief Spring (6.4 miles total).
There are two side trails to Horse Thief Spring, one comes in from the west and the other from the south (see inset map on left). Follow the blue blazes and signs to the springs. The spring has year-round water but it needs to be treated (it can go dry in a drought , but it is very unusual). Horse Thief Spring also accessible by State Hwy 1, Talimena Drive, so you can use it as a trailhead. Talimena Drive runs along the top of Winding Stair and Rich Mountains from Talihina to Mena AR. It is a beautiful drive with plenty of turn outs and vistas. We drove it on the way back from a hike a few winters ago and all the trees were pure white with hoar frost. Then we hit the black ice and things got very interesting on top of the mountain.
The east loop of the Horse Thief Spring Trail heads north back down the mountain. After about 1.5-1.6 miles the forest levels out on the left where you can find plenty of room for a tent. A little further down the trail is Cedar Creek where you may find water if it isn’t too dry. Next is a small ascent to another level ridge. To the left in front of a thick stand of juvenile pines is another good camping spot. Don’t be put off by the forest road in that area. It is washed out to the west and impassible. A tip on the water: if it has been dry (especially in the fall when the cooler temperatures beckon but before any meaningful rain), consider caching. Drive up FR 6014 to where it intersects the forest road (near the 1088 benchmark) and leave a few gallons in the woods. When you get to camp, hike up the road to get them.
Between the campsite and the main crossing of Cedar Creek (to the northeast), there are several equestrian trail crossings. Watch for the white blazes. If you see nothing but yellow for too long, you may have strayed onto the wrong trail. There are two stream beds at Cedar Creek, and the first (southern one) is your best chance for water. This creek drains the north side of Winding Stair mountain and if it has really been raining, can be a tricky wet crossing. Usually, however, it is a dry crossing and bone dry from July to mid October.
Cross an old forest road after the second crossing and head up the hill. You are back at the east/west loop junction, so turn right (north) and hike the remaining 2.1 miles back to Cedar Lake.
The Billy Creek Hike: As mentioned above, the Billy Creek Trail can be combined with the Horse Thief Spring trail to provide 26 miles of connected trails. By itself, the Billy Creek trial is a versatile trail system that gives a hiker four different loop options (2 from the south trailhead and 2 from the north) and access to the two major trails in the Oklahoma Ouachita Mountains, the Ouachita Trail and the Indian Nation Trail. By beginning at the Billy Creek Trailhead you can take an 11 mile loop and climb 700 feet to the top of Winding Stair Mountain or the 7.2 mile loop by taking the cut-off spur. Or, you can begin high at Horse Thief Spring.
This narrative begins at the Billy Creek Trailhead on the south end of the map near FR 6020. Coming in on FR 6020b, the access road to the Billy Creek Campground splits off to the left, don’t take it. Stay on FR6020b until it Ts. The trailhead parking lot is in front of you.
The trail follows FR 6020B so walk back to the road and turn right (west). Stay on 6020B as it turns back to the north and follow it for about a half mile. While on the road you will cross a low-water bridge so it could be wet if the water is high. Watch for the yellow blaze of the Indian Nation Trail just past the bridge. The INT is a 40 mile trail that when combined with some of the other trails in the forest can bring you back to your car in a 50+ mile loop
At 0.6 miles the trail follows a gravel road to the right and then dodges to the left (north ) into the wood. This it the junction of the east and west trails. We are going clockwise and will ascend a small ridge. Coming down off the ridge, the trail crosses FR 6020b several times until it heads up one of the branches of Billy Creek. At 2.6 miles the trail forks again. The left fork climbs a rocky slope up Winding Stair Mt and the right fork crosses the creek and follows the cut-off spur over a smaller ridge. The trail junction is a suitable area for camping and if the creek is dry, look for water in the rock basin in the tributary with a NNE-SSW bearing.
The longer loop crosses Talimena drive east of Horse Thief Spring. When you get to the springs, take the trail on the NE side and follow it to the Ouachita Trail. When you see the blue blazes, head east (right). Take the OT for 2.2 miles (crossing FR 1014 at 1.5 miles) until you intersect with the east Billy Creek Trail. The intersection has a sign (or had, it was in sorry shape several years ago), but it is easy to miss. Turn right, cross Talimena Drive and head down the mountain. About 1.2 miles from the OT, you will hit the east end of the cut off spur. (The cut-off spur is very pretty and a worthwhile trip.)
The trails continues downhill following one of the Billy Creek tributaries through a hollow and eventually widens to an old road bed. About 1.4 miles from the cut-off junction, the road crosses a barrier and leaves the hollow. It is 1.2 miles back to the loop junction and another 0.6 miles back to the car.
Info: The Horse Thief Spring Loop was featured in Waypoints, Backpacker Magazine, June 2005, Midwest Edition. The Billy Creek Trail was featured in Waypoints, Backpacker Magazine, April 2007, Midwest Edition. USGS 7.5 minute quadrangle topographic maps: Big Cedar and Hodgen (trail not shown). Contact the Ouachita National Forest, Choctaw Unit, Hodgen OK, at (918) 653-2991. An 8.5” x 11” sketch map of each trail is available through the forest service.
Directions to Cedar Lake: I 40 to Sallisaw, OK. Go south on US 59 about 10 miles past Heavener. After you enter the Ouachita National Forest, look for the sign to Cedar Lake and the right (west) turn on Holson Valley Road. Go 3.3 miles and turn right on the Cedar Lake Road. The road winds back to the campground and trailhead.
Directions to Horse Thief Spring: Take Highway 59 past the Holson Valley Road until the Hwy 259 junction. Turn right and go 5 miles until the junction of Talimena Drive (Hwy 1). Take Talimena west for about 5 miles. Horse Thief Spring is well marked and on the right.
Directions to Billy Creek Trailhead: Take US 59 about 14 miles south of Heavener to US 259. Turn right (south) in US 259 and go 9 miles to Big Cedar. Turn right (west) on OK Highway 63. Go 6 miles, turn right (east) at the Billy Creek recreation area sign. Go ¼ mile and turn left (north) on Billy Creek Road. Stay on Forest Road 6020B until it comes to a T just past the Billy Creek Campground. The parking lot is northeast of the T intersection.
To Buy Map: This map is available at Backwoods in Tulsa ($5) and by emailing Charlie@OuachitaMaps.com ($5 plus S&H).