I was there the last weekend in October. Started at Cedar Lake, went on western section of Horsethief Spring Trail, connected with Oauchita Trail, back onto eastern section of Horsethief Spring Trail, then back to Cedar Lake. I chose to follow the "scenic route" up Snake Mountain on the western section. Very overgrown and lost the trail for a bit. After finding it, however, it was very scenic! A few other short stretches along the western section where the grass and bushes were overgrown on the trail, but was still able to follow the trail. When people say "bring water" they mean it. The only water source was the Horsethief Spring, which is a trickle. Saw that some people stashed jugs of water near the Horsethief Spring parking lot.
Feb, 20, 2016 - Our Boy Scout Troop did this hike as preparation for Philmont. Great hike, bring lots of water, lots of rock, so proper shoes are key, creeks were low to cross.
We did the route clockwise, lots of switchbacks to climb up, 2 creek crossings were low, large sections of control burn areas, backside along Snake Mtn has potential to be very hot in summer months with little shade (good place to stash water refresh).
Spring at top of trail did not look drinkable (another good spot to stash water refresh), Need at least a filter.
Weather was overcast, with a little sun mid afternoon. Some mist in late morning. Great day to hike.
Most of the comments by adult leaders were about having the right hiking shoes (sneakers bad due to rocky trail) and water (not enough). Biggest debate was length of trail versus map - seemed longer than marked distance. Alltrails.com app had us at 17 miles. Section of trail along Ouchita Trail seemed longer than marked. We wondered if we missed the turn off.
Trail is shared with horse riders.
Me and my family have started at the spring along scenic Highway #1 each time we have done this trail. If you start the eastern loop first the down hill portion is rocky but easy all the way to the Cedar Lake junction. you will pass a couple of make shift camp sites and several logging/county roads. In the spring there is several stream that you will cross ( ankle to mid shin deep), just be prepared for some dry socks. The north side of the trail there was a fire through there a couple of years ago, so shade in the summer time is sparse. Also the underbrush can be thick in the late summer, I had to use a machete in Sept 2014. the western loop is there is a plenty of switch backs and a steep climb if you are going the same way we did. When you meet up with the Ouchita trail, you have 1.2 miles back to the spring, this part can be very rocky at some points so just watch you footing. With out the Cedar Lake trail it is about 9 miles and took around 5 hours of hiking. I would not consider the trail hard but it is defiantly moderate. My family consists of a 12 year old princess, a 17 year old boy, a three legged dog, and of course the late 30's husband and wife.
Here is a link to the map
I've hiked this trail twice with the Boy Scouts. The first time was two years ago on a humid May day with a 30 pound pack. We hiked it counter clockwise and it was a very difficult day. The second time was in Feb with 70 degrees and overcast. We hiked it clockwise and it seemed much easier going that route.
The route is pretty well marked and we didn't have any problems. The springs trail is a white blaze and the link portion of the Oauchita trail across the top of the mountain is blue. The trail signs are well maintained. The only confusion might be close to the cedar creek campsites, the trail head is on a small turn off near the entrance of the equestrian area. The springs was barely running but was nice to see something built by the CCC.
Hiked this trail a week ago. We started from the highway (trailhead near the spring) and descended counter clockwise. This trail was a bit dull except for a walking stick for the first 4 miles. Lots of horse traffic on this part= lots of horse poop. We renamed the trail "horse shit spring". After the split leading to cedar lake the trail all but completely disappeared for the next 3 miles. Many downed trees made it extremely difficult to find the trail- I noticed at least one downed tree with a white blaze on it's side. Thick underbrush made this trail difficult, many parts of the trail were so overgrown they were absolutely impossible to discern. We renamed the trail "Trail Thief Spring". We took turns alternating standing by a tree with a blaze and sending the other person out to scout for the next blaze at 20 degree intervals (like spokes on a wheel). Extremely frustrating. Much of the forest was burned, all of the creek crossings were bone dry. The last 2 miles uphill were full of dull repetitive switchbacks that offered no redeeming views or interesting landscape. Upon further reflection while trudging up mind numbing switchbacks we combined the new names of the trail and decided that "Shit trail spring" was an all around accurate description.
This trail had some nice views from a few points, actually. We just went this past weekend -- got to the trail late in the afternoon, camped, and then finished it the next day. To note: most of the water sources were dried up, so if you're going any time soon, bring/cache water. We went up to Cedar Lake to get water, but this is mostly a horse camping ground, so not much to see. This trail has lots of trees down, so it was difficult to navigate at times and I believe the mileage might be a little off because of rerouting.
I traveled this trail at the beginning of July starting from Horse Thief Springs. If you travel it this way and do not continue onto Cedar Lake, the trail is only about 10 miles.
It was in the middle of a series of days of heavy rain and I just timed it so as to avoid the rain. The trail itself is relatively confusing because of all the offshoot trails, many of which are unmarked. Follow the white blazes and you'll be fine, though in some areas they have faded. After the logging road, the trail was harder to follow as grass was thick and the trail became faint. In this situation, it's best to stay calm and back track and keep trying different routes until you see blazes. Once you reach the junction with the trail leading to Cedar Lake, things get much easier and I had no issues following the trail back to Horse Thief Springs. There are no really good vistas along the route as much of the area is shrouded in trees, so if you are easily bored by a lack of diverse scenery, this trail is not for you. I didn't have problems with ticks even though I was wearing shorts. My legs were however very scratched up by all of the thorny bushes in the area. Pants are recommended.
On the whole, I was unimpressed with what this trail had to offer. It had moments of beauty, but just driving the road to the trailhead with all of its captivating vistas is far prettier than anything you'll see in the 10 miles of this hike.
Great trail! Took a two night leisure hike, from the campground, up to the top of the mountain and back. There are a few springs along the trail but if it has been dry your water sources may be some what limited. The hike up the mountain was some what strenuous for this overweight hiker. The spring at the top of the trail where it intersects with the Ouchita Trail was not fresh and I would suggest not drinking.
We did this hike in late April a day after some heavy rains hit the area. You pay $3 to park by Cedar Lake and you have a little permit form you fill out and hang from your rearview mirror. We did the route clockwise from Cedar Lake and I would suggest the same since it saves 95% of water crossings until your last few miles. Elevation gains were modest with some decent switchbacks as you near the springs. It looks like foot traffic is decent enough to have established a pretty easy to follow path.
The blazing can be confusing at times because although much of trail is combined yellow blaze (equestrian trail) and white blaze (hiking), for long stretches only the yellow will be displayed on trees making you think you missed a junction. If by chance you end up missing a yellow white junction, its not a huge deal because they both end relatively close to each other near Cedar Lake. We had several hikers tell us to never leave the white blaze. I'd caution against that advice. To see the springs you break off the white blaze and do a 1.2 mile stretch on blue blaze which connects you back to white and yellow blaze that will complete the loop.
It looks like recent storms have washed out a few short sections of the trail and we saw a number of recently downed trees. Nothing technically difficult to get around or go over. Be sure to wear pants and deet. Lots of poison ivy and oak out there right now that is growing all over the trail. We each used 45% deet and came home with some ticks.
Trail certainly gets kudos for seclusion. We only saw 2 hikers on a very pretty Saturday. No real good spots for vistas. Wildflowers in abundance. Nice variety of foliage. Abundant variety of birds. A few nice established campsites.
Kyle M. on Horse Thief Spring Trail
I did this loop last weekend with some friends. We began at the Horsethief Spring, where the Horsethief Spring Trail converges with the Ouachita Trail along the ridge of the Winding Stair Mountain, and went clockwise. From some research, others said that there was no water source until you came to Cedar Creek if you went this way, so we all packed in at least 3 liters of water a piece. It turns out that there were quite a few little springs along the trail to filter water. However, I don't know if these are flowing during the summer months. There was also a small pond on the trail down off of the mountain (looked man made, perhaps for horses? See picture). So water shouldn't be an issue for hikers at least in the early Fall months, of after a rain. Our pace was about 2 miles per hour, and the trail was fairly easy on the way down.
We made camp in a big clearing just off of the trail near the Coldville Divide where the trail converges with an old logging road. There was a nice fire ring at the SW corner of the clearing. There was also another decent-sized pond in the woods on the eastern edge of the clearing.
From there we continued east (clockwise). The trail is marked by white patches of paint on the trees, which can be faded and blend into the natural coloring of the trees. Every once in a while there are plastic/metal signs as well. But the trail is fairly worn, so whenever we got off of the trail, it didn't more than a few yards for us to realize we weren't on the trail any more. Maybe a mile before you get to the point where you can head north on the trail to Cedar Lake OR continue clockwise on the loop, there is a pretty neat rock formation along the ridge to the left of the trail, about 30-40 yards off of the trail. It has two large pinnacles (about 30 feet tall), that were easy to climb and get some nice views over the trees.
At the first crossing of the Cedar Creek, which was fairly easy to do without having to take off your boots, there is a big fire ring and established campsite there. From that point, there is a moderate incline with ups and downs, until you cross the Cedar Creek a second time. This crossing is much smaller than the first. From here, there is a steady ascent back up the Winding Stair Mountain, which can take a lot out of you. We were pretty exhausted by the time we were back to the top. On the ascent, there are some big switchbacks with a steep grade. There was one spot with a campsite and fire ring, next to a pretty large mound of boulders. You cross the stream fed by the Horsethief Spring, and then after another large switchback cross the same stream before making the final ascent back to the trail head.
On the first day the high temp was 60, and the evening got down to 35 degrees. The high for the second day was around 70, and with that steep and steady ascent back up the mountain, it felt much hotter than that. Since it was early Spring and the trees did not yet have their leaves, we were able to get some good views across the valleys. But I was a little disappointed there weren't better scenic views along the trail. Most of the greatest views are from the Talimena Scenic Drive along the ridge of the mountain. I would love to come back in late Fall when the leaves have all turned. Also, with the time of year in early Spring, we didn't encounter any ticks or mosquitoes, even in the really low-lying areas.
HORSE THIEF SPRING TRAIL
According to my backcountry journal, I have hiked this loop trail exactly 7 times (MAR 1994, APR 1994, OCT 1994, FEB 1995, an undated entry, MAY 2006, and NOV 2010). These mountains become almost insufferable during the summer months; the May hike (Memorial Day weekend) was very hot, humid, and we had to stop every half hour and scrape ticks from our legs before they could bite. I would not recommend this hike in the summer months June - September.
I have accessed the trail from both trailheads (Cedar Lake Recreation Area and Horsethief Springs) as well as accessed from Holsen Valley Road (left my car along the road where the trail from Cedar Lake crosses the road). By far, my favorite trailhead is at Horsethief Springs. Using that trailhead, I'm carrying a pack with heavy water and food downhill the first day, saving the climb back up the mountain for when my food and water reserves are nearly exhausted.
From the trailhead at Horsethief Springs the backpacker can hike the loop in either direction (clockwise or counterclockwise). I usually access the Cedar Lake trail and follow it down to Cedar Creek (about 4 miles), where I camp near the water. The creek is not dependable but usually stops flowing only in the late summer into early autumn. The other possibility, requiring the hiker to carry all his/her water, is to camp on Goldville Divide, which is the most beautiful stretch of the trail. In this case, from Horsethief Springs take the Ouachita Trail one mile west, then connect with the Horsethief Trail to Goldville Divide. That is closer to a half-way point in the trail.
When I hiked in October 1994, wild grapes were in season and were a memorable but unexpected snack. I tried fishing Cedar Creek the first 2-3 hikes, only to learn there are no fish in it because it goes dry in the later summer every year.
The only "difficult" part of the trail is the couple of miles it requires to climb Winding Stair Mountain. Hiking the trail counter-clockwise from Horsethief trailhead places a "moderate" climb from the Cedar Creek valley up Snake Mountain, a gain in elevation of a few hundred feet.
The 6 mile hike took our group 7 hours to complete. We traveled from Cedar Lake to Horsethief Spring loop and then took the eastern leg of the loop to the actual spring just off of HWY 1 (Talimena Drive) where we had left a car in advance. Lots of rest stops to accommodate 4, 5 & 7 year old in our group. Plenty of creek crossings on the trail from Cedar Lake to Horsethief Springs. For reference, the USDA map (linked below) states the entire Horsethief Spring Loop completion time is 5-6.5 hours. I would imagine this is true for experienced, adult hikers. Our group most definitely was not.
This is a demanding hike which shares many paths with equestrian trails. It is important to familiarize yourself with the trail and blazes to be followed, otherwise you may end up well away from your chosen destination.
The only slightly confusing section we encountered was an approximate 0.25mile stretch that followed a forestry road. Blaze was present, though faded as it was southward facing. The undergrowth was the real culprit, obscuring the relatively faint white blaze of the trail. After consulting with maps, GPS and searching for markers, we found the right path after about 20 minutes.
With this one exception, this trail is well marked and easy to follow. Good portions of this section have had controlled burns to reduce undergrowth. On the down side (depending on your direction of travel) the tree trunks can be scorched so that blazes are not easily visible in a few sections. This minor issue was easily voided by following the well worn path and double checking for blazes running in the opposite direction.
Overall, I would recommend this trail. It is challenging for most hikers. Offers nice forested views and the Cedar Creek crossing was a highlight for my group. I would (and will) hike this trail again.