Zoie Clift, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
Hiking is an awe inspiring route to experience the beauty of Arkansas. The state’s climate allows the pastime year round, and the fall season shines a spotlight on the colorful scenery.
“Fall hiking is great,” said Tim Ernst, a wilderness photographer and author of many guidebooks about hiking in Arkansas, including Arkansas Hiking Trails and the Ouachita Trail Guide. “And with so many different types of trees here, they don’t all turn color at the same time. When they do turn there are so many different colors. Our hardwood forest provides a beautiful variety when autumn sweeps across the landscape.”
He added that hiking during the peak of the fall color season is not always just about the blazing colors. “There is something special about the clarity and sweetness of the air in autumn,” he said. “Stop, breathe deep, and fill your lungs often.”
The chance to truly get off the beaten path is also attainable. Ernst said while some routes can get crowded on popular weekends, most Arkansas trails remain relatively unknown compared to major trails in other states. “It is possible to hike all day and never see anyone, or just a few other hikers, so our trails are much less crowded than those in other states,” he said.
The state’s diverse topography offers a range of scenic territory to explore, including Southwest Arkansas, home to the Ouachita Mountains. The ridgeline runs predominantly east to west rather than the north to south direction of the Appalachian and Rocky Mountains, a directional trend that gives rise to distinct plant and animal communities. The Ouachita National Recreation Trail, also known as the Ouachita Trail, follows this scenic range for more than 220 miles. There are a wealth of hiking options in the region, including routes such as the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail, which has around 45 miles of trails along the southern shore of Lake Ouachita. The route meanders through the Ouachita National Forest with spurs providing lake vistas.
Ernst said hiking in Southwest Arkansas provides more solitude than in the Ozarks. “You can often hike all day and never see another person,” he said. “Fall color is great when mixed with all the pine tree green, and that color comes later than in the Ozarks so the fall color season is extended much longer.”
The climate also makes hiking in Arkansas stand out from other states. “One of the many great things about hiking in Arkansas is the fact you can hike all year here while many other ‘hiking’ states are frozen in winter for instance,” said Ernst. “In fact winter is one of the very best seasons to hike here, with many warm, sunny days; no snakes, bugs, or many other hikers; bare trees provide terrific open views through the forest; and there is usually more water so there are a lot more waterfalls.”
The atmosphere of hiking in the state is also distinct.
“I find we have more intimate landscapes here in Arkansas,” he added. “Both as a nature photographer and as someone who enjoys getting out simply to enjoy the great outdoor beauty, I prefer things I can reach out and touch and see close up all around me.”
Below, Ernst shares details on a few Southwest Arkansas hikes he enjoys.
The Little Missouri Trail: “This is one of my all-time favorite hikes in Arkansas. There are many great river views along the way that showcase a classic Ouachita mountain stream. The river is right there next to the trail much of the way, so you can always stop and dip your toes for a refreshing break. I also love the forests of giant pine trees and expansive vistas that stretch across the landscape for miles. And the trail is very easy to hike, especially if you travel downstream.”
The Caney Creek Trail: “This trail takes you through the heart of the oldest wilderness area in Arkansas, far away from the sights and sounds of modern motorized society.”
The Black Fork Mountain Trail: “This takes you high up on one of the tallest mountains in Arkansas where you can visit rock ‘glaciers’ and a stunted oak forest that is hundreds of years old.”
The Ouachita Trail: “A short but steep hike along the Ouachita Trail takes you to the top of Flatside Pinnacle to one of the very best sunset views in the central United States.”
The River Corridor Trail at Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area: “This trail follows the spectacular Cossatot River for a dozen miles and is one of the best river hikes in the region.”
This is just a glimpse of the variety of routes in Southwest Arkansas. For more details about the many hiking trails available throughout the region and Arkansas, visit www.Arkansas.com/outdoors/hiking. For more details on Tim Ernst’s photography and guidebooks, visit www.TimErnst.com.