Ouachita National Forest Overview
Few people realize that much of the Little Missouri River and the surrounding land nearly became a national park back in the early 1920s. Only a last-minute veto by President Calvin Coolidge stopped the creation of 160,000-acre Ouachita National Park.
The Ouachitas are a sister range to the better known Ozarks to the north. Unlike the flat-topped Ozarks, steep ridgesmany of them"hogbacks"are the rule in the Ouachitas. Visitors willing to travel these rugged areas by foot or horseback will find plenty of solitude and scenic beauty, especially in the wilderness areas. The Caney Creek Wilderness is a steep area of old-growth forest surrounding isolated creek bottomlands. The Flatside Wilderness is named after the Flatside Pinnacle, a soaring 1,550-foot-high rock outcrop. Look up and you'll probably see White Oak Mountain and Forked Mountain. Look around and you'll see a lush pine and hardwood forest that changes seasonally.
This is the land of True Grit, the novel by Charles Portis later made into a movie starring John Wayne. Wild outlaws and hard-working hill country people are a real part of the history and traditions of these mountains, as much as craggy forests and plentiful wildlife.
Hike the Ouachita Trail
The Ouachita National Recreation Trail ambles across the entire forest from west to east for 236 miles. It passes through forested mountains, across sweeping valleys, and near clear-running streams. Spur trails connect you to various recreation areas and points of interest. Numerous road crossings and access points provide opportunities for point-to-point hikes of various distances. For more information, you may purchase a detailed map at all Ouachita National Forest offices. The 50-plus-mile section from US Hwy. 71 east to State Hwy. 27 is open to mountain bikes and hikers. All other sections are hiking only.
Bike the Womble Trail
The Womble Trail is considered to be one of the best singletrack trails anywhere. It stretches over 37 miles from Northfork Lake to the Ouachita National Recreation Trail at Lake Ouachita, less than an hour from the town of Hot Springs. It has the rare quality of traveling over steep terrain while still being easy to ride—it's a great trail for beginners to get their first taste of singletrack. Short segments of the trail meander along bluffs of the Ouachita River, providing heart-stopping views. Visitors can use the short spur trails to access three float camps located along the south shore of the Ouachita River. This singletrack trail provides opportunities for riders of all skill levels. Travel time one-way is five to ten hours. There are a multitude of options for out and back rides, setting up shuttles, or utilizing adjacent highways and county roads for return loops.
Float the Ouachita River
The Ouachita River is a lazy, isolated float. It never gets above Class II, so this is really a river to kick back on. Its watershed is protected by the forest, and there are no large communities along its banks. So expect to see lots of wildlife, and find lots of peace and quiet. However, don't expect complete uneventfulness. Where streams have worked their way through these ridge lines, exposed rock strata have rough, jagged edges that can be a real ouch.
Horseback the Eight West
Just as you can't separate an image of old Rooster Cogburn, the irascible Ouachita Mountain character in True Grit, from a galloping horse—guns blazing away—the Ouachita Mountains themselves are inseparable from a tradition of horseback riding. The Eight West Equestrian Trail Network was laid out in 1991 and is a real treasure. The western portion of the trail follows along Self Mountain and offers an outstanding view to the south. The lowlands of this trail system offer a picturesque setting through beautiful bottomland hardwoods with clear running streams. While enjoying the trail, the visitor will pass several old rock fences, the sites of old homesteads.
Drive the Talimena
The Talimena Scenic Drive winds 54 miles along the crest of the highest points between the Appalachians and the Rockies, Rich Mountain, and Winding Stair Mountain. This is the highest east-west mountain range in America. If you can resist stopping to enjoy the many vistas and attractions along the way, the route takes one hour and ten minutes to drive. A leisurely drive with stops can take all day. Along the drive are several historic sites and numerous turnouts with panoramic vistas. The Talimena Scenic Drive is known as State Highway 1 in Oklahoma and State Highway 88 in Arkansas. The byway runs between Talihina, Oklahoma, and Mena, Arkansas. (Get it: Tali-Mena.)
Camp Cedar Lake
Cedar Lake is one of two campgrounds in the Cedar Lake Recreation Area. The campground is composed of three loops—North Shore, South Shore/Sandy Beach, and Shady Lane. North Shore and South Shore/Sandy Beach are heavily wooded, close to Cedar Lake, and rustic. Although the sites are partially open, they are well separated, affording comfort and privacy. This campground ranges from rustic and primitive to modern. The bathhouse in the North Shore Loop, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, adds period feel to the campground and is a godsend to grubby outdoor adventurers.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication