Now’s the time to take a walk in the Arkansas woods.
Photography by Bobby Burton (top photo: Falling Water Falls)
[dropcap]Spring[/dropcap] is the sweetest season in Arkansas: after the color returns to the outdoors, but before the chiggers and mosquitoes take over. There’s no better time to put on some sturdy shoes, grab a water bottle and point your feet toward the yonder end of a nice long trail.
There’s just one problem: In a state as “trail-rich” as Arkansas, how do you choose where to go? Where do you even start? Well, if you’re smart, you start with Tim Ernst.
It’s doubtful anyone knows more about Arkansas’ extensive network of hiking trails than Ernst, who’s written more than a dozen trail guidebooks and was instrumental in the building of the 218-miles-and-growing Ozark Highlands Trail.
“April is one of the best months of the whole year to hike in Arkansas,” said Ernst, who is also a well-known wildlife photographer. “Springtime is happening all around.”
With so many trails to choose from in the Ozarks alone, it comes as a bit of a surprise that Ernst doesn’t hesitate when he’s asked to name his favorites. He starts with the Round Top Mountain Trail, just south of Jasper in Newton County. It combines everything he looks for in a good hike: water, great views, a historical component and a wow factor.
“In springtime, it literally explodes with wildflowers,” he said of the moderate 3.6-mile loop trail, which follows the base of a bluff line around the mountain and has a more challenging loop along the top. The trail leads right through the site where a military bomber crashed into the mountain in 1948. A plaque lists the names of the five men who died in the crash.
“It’s very interesting to stand there and imagine that moment in time,” he said. “That site is right in the middle of the most spectacular wildflowers. It’s kind of like an annual celebration of these guys.”
The Round Top Mountain Trailhead is located on Hwy. 7, a couple of miles south of Jasper.
Just a little farther south on the highway, you’ll find the Alum Cove Trail, which leads to one of the largest natural rock bridges in the state. There’s a picnic area at the trailhead, and it’s only about a third of a mile to the top of the natural bridge. Once you get there, you can walk across the top of it or follow the trail down below it.
“It’s a pretty easy trail, although the climb-out is pretty good for about 200 yards,” Ernst said. “It’s very impressive, getting to see that arch without too much difficulty.”
April is also prime waterfall season, and two of Ernst’s favorites are the Kings Bluff Falls, located along the Kings Bluff loop trail in the Pedestal Rocks Scenic Area off Hwy. 16, and the truly unusual Glory Hole, where Dismal Creek plunges through a hole in an overhanging bluff. The mile-long trail to Glory Hole is also off Hwy. 16, about six miles east of Fallsville.
Another one of Ernst’s favorites is the 23-mile North Sylamore Creek Trail near Mountain View, which follows the “magical” creek from near where it meets the White River and passes by Blanchard Springs Caverns. There are several trailheads, so it’s easy to hike just a portion of the trail.
If you’re looking for a longer challenge, Ernst called the Ozark Highlands Trail one of the best long-distance backpacking trails in the country.
“You get to see views on top, creeks on the bottom, and everything in between over and again,” he said. “There are lots of bluffs and giant boulders and lots of waterfalls.”
These days, the Ozark Highlands Trail is maintained by the Ozark Highlands Trail Association, which also coordinates group hikes. Mike Lemaster, 69, joined the group when he moved to Fayetteville from Central Arkansas about 15 years ago.
One of his favorite sections of the Ozark Highlands Trail is between the Indian Creek and Lick Branch trailheads near Cass. It’s about 4.75 miles long and runs through the breathtaking Marinoni Scenic Area.
“It’s just absolutely beautiful,” Lemaster said. “There’s a year-round spring-fed creek called Briar Branch. Big, house-sized boulders have fallen off into the creek, and over many years they’ve been covered with this emerald green moss. They’re just gorgeous. You can hike up through that valley and get about half a mile through that Marinoni area and forget you’re even in the state of Arkansas.”
You can find detailed information and trail maps at ozarkhighlandstrail.com. Ernst has also written the definitive guidebook to the Ozark Highlands Trail — you can find it at many bookstores and outdoor outfitters across Arkansas, or by logging on to timernst.com.
In the southwest part of the state, the 16-mile Little Missouri Trail near Glenwood follows the Little Missouri River and connects with a couple of other trails to create the 27-mile Eagle Rock Loop, the longest loop trail in the state. If you don’t want to hike the entire trek, you can start at the Little Missouri Recreation area with the scenic Little Missouri Falls, or access the other end from a parking lot off Forest Road 106, and walk a couple of miles south to the unique Winding Stair rock formation. The Albert Pike Recreation Area is nearly situated in the middle of the trail’s length.
If you’d prefer to stay a little closer to civilization on your hikes, try Hot Springs National Park. Its network of short, intersecting trails runs within spitting distance of the hustle and bustle of Bathhouse Row. After a day of hiking, you can skip the long drive home, and instead walk just a few more steps to a fabulous dinner, a restorative glass of wine and a welcoming hotel bed.
There’s also the easternmost segment of the 223-mile Ouachita National Recreation Trail, which runs for about 30 miles between Pinnacle Mountain State Park and Lake Sylvia.
From Lake Sylvia, the Ouachita trail continues west through the Ouachita National Forest to Queen Wilhelmina State Park and on into Oklahoma. It’s one of Ernst’s top choices when solitude is his goal.
“You can get out and hike for miles and miles and days and never see another person,” he said.
While most of Arkansas’ best-known trails are in the Ozark and Ouachita mountains, the state’s flatter east and south regions offer plenty of choices too. One of Ernst’s favorite easy hikes is the Champion Cypress Tree Trail in the White River National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Arkansas.
“It’s a little 1-mile trail to the largest living thing in Arkansas,” Ernst said. “It’s just spectacular.”
For a lot of hikers, one of the pleasures is the possibility of solitude. But for others, hiking is a group pursuit — a way to meet new people and spend time with folks who also love a good and challenging outdoor trek.
In a state as outdoors-oriented as Arkansas, it’s no surprise that there are a number of hiking clubs based around the state. Debbie Van Veghel sought out the Ouachita Mountain Hikers (omhikers.net) when she moved to Hot Springs from Houston as a new retiree. Club members go on day hikes at least once a week, and the club organizes overnight trips once a month from September through June.
“For us, being in a club offered the opportunity to explore the state,” said Van Veghel, the group’s current president. “There aren’t many places we haven’t gone to. The Buffalo River is a favorite because there’s so much to do. If you haven’t been to Hawksbill Crag, you’re missing out.”
Other groups include the Ozark Highlands Trail Association, based in Fayetteville, ozarkhighlandstrail.com; TAKIHIK River Valley Hikers, based in Russellville, takahik.com; the Trailblazers Hiking Club in Fort Smith, thcfs.com; the Ozark Society, which has chapters around the state, ozarksociety.net; and Little Rock-based Arkansas Outdoor Adventures, meetup.com/arkansasoutdooradventures/.