The Ouachita National Forest Road Trip Guide
A visit to Ouachita National Forest means exploring a lesser-known mountain region that’s amazingly scenic.
Many people seem to be unaware of the fact that Arkansas has such natural beauty. We find it to be absolutely gorgeous. In fact, it was our first destination when we took up full-time RVing almost six years ago.
Although Hot Springs is a popular tourist destination in Arkansas, many nature lovers head for the hills outside the city. And that’s where a road trip to Ouachita comes in.
Where Is Ouachita National Forest?
With nearly 1.8 million acres, Ouachita National Forest covers a lot of ground. Its headquarters are in Hot Springs, in west-central Arkansas, but it also stretches westward into the southeastern part of Oklahoma.
About the Ouachita National Forest
The vast acreage mentioned above makes Ouachita the largest national forest in the South. Since the government established it in 1907, it’s also the oldest national forest in that region. Some parts of the forest are designated wilderness areas, while others are used for timber production. The entire forest, though, is an important protected habitat for many species of wildlife and fish.
Besides hunting and fishing, visitors can enjoy hiking and biking and almost all kinds of water recreation. With smooth roads with spectacular views, it’s also just a great place for a rolling and winding scenic drive.
The Ouachita Mountains in this area are a distinctly separate range from the Ozarks, which are probably more famous. Most mountain ranges run north to south, but surprisingly, the Ouachitas are in an east-to-west pattern.
By the way, you pronounce Ouachita like “Washita” and there are a few different theories on the meaning. It comes from two different Choctaw words that indicate “good hunting grounds” and “silver water.” With the abundant wildlife in and along the unspoiled rivers and lakes, either meaning is certainly appropriate even today.
What Is Unique About the Ouachita Mountains?
Ouachita National Forest isn’t the only national park to straddle state lines. But because it covers so many different counties, it has 12 separate districts – more than any other national forest.
Another unique claim to fame is something that makes it popular with rockhounds. We’re talking quartz crystals, and, in fact, you can even mine them yourself in the southern part of the forest. Specifically, a town called Mount Ida is the epicenter of this activity. You can dig for crystals at various mines or purchase them (and other gems) at area shops.
Scenic Drives in the Ouachita National Forest
Here’s your chance for some top-quality windshield time. Two designated national scenic byways offer astounding views of these heavily forested highlands.
Scenic 7 Byway
Fall is a popular time of year to ride this route because of the changing colors of the foliage. The scenery is dazzling throughout the year, however. State Highway 7 runs all the way through Arkansas (from Missouri to Louisiana). Nearly 60 miles of it cut through the forest, giving motorists fantastic mountain views from behind the wheel.
There are also many worthy stops along the way, including numerous recreation areas, campgrounds, and popular picnicking sites. Of historical interest are two different former Civilian Conservation Corps, with interpretive trails, near the town of Jessieville.
Talimena National Scenic Byway
The 54-mile Talimena Scenic Byway traverses some of the highest mountain tops in this part of the United States. The roadway was built in 1969 specifically for this purpose – so more people could see these beautiful sites. At 2,681 feet above sea level, Rich Mountain’s peak is the second-tallest point in Arkansas. On the Oklahoma side, The Winding Stair Mountain range rises to an elevation of around 2,400 feet.
At either end of this scenic byway are awe-inspiring state parks. In between are numerous recreation areas, including some great hiking areas. You can also take advantage of the unique opportunity to stand with one foot in Arkansas and one in Oklahoma.
Best Hikes Near Ouachita National Forest
You’ll need to get on foot to truly experience the magic of this area. Here are some details on two spectacular hiking trails in Ouachita National Forest.
Winding Stairs Trail
This popular 4.5-mile moderate trail skirts the Little Missouri River and has a couple of shallow river crossings. Located near the community of Caddo Bay, the trail is a segment of the much larger Little Missouri Trail. Access to it is off Forest Service Road 106. Winding through truly gorgeous territory, it ultimately leads to what gives it its name.
The actual Winding Stairs are rock formations leading down to the river with small waterfalls cascading over them. You’ll have incredible mountain views and can additionally explore caves, boulders, and the varied fauna of this river country. The entire out-and-back hike should take around four hours, even with a few stops. Dogs are allowed, but they must be on a leash.
Hunt’s Loop Trail
Located just off Scenic Highway 7, this 4.3-mile loop follows the ridgeline of Short Mountain. It’s rated as moderate, but the only difficult part of the hike is a steep incline at the beginning. For this reason, many people hike the route in the opposite direction than the trail’s creators intended.
It’s a choice between a quick, sudden climb or a slow, steady one. Either way, the payoff is a majestic view over the valley.
Another feature of the trail, especially welcome in the hot summer months, is a swimming hole. It was created from the damming of the Middle Fork of the Saline River. The trail is easy to follow, though it’s rocky and narrow in places. Besides the natural scenery, there are also some educational signs telling the history of the area.
Best Campgrounds Near Ouachita National Forest
There are many places in the area to bed down for the night. Here are two that we recommend.
Crystal Springs Campground
Lake Ouachita is Arkansas’ largest lake, and Crystal Springs Campground has 76 campsites on its southern shore, near Royal, Arkansas. The campground is operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and has a mix of primitive spots and some with electricity (20/30/50 amp.)
Other amenities include potable water, clean bathrooms with flush toilets, a shower, and a dump station. In addition, there’s a boat ramp and beaches for swimming plus some hiking trails for more exploring. It’s also big rig friendly with some pull-thru sites.
Tompkins Bend Campground
This campground is also a Corps of Engineers facility with partial hookups, and it’s located in Mount Ida. (As mentioned above, that’s the little town that calls itself the Quartz Capital of the World.) Tompkins Bend is a lovely lakeside spot and just down the road from a popular destination called Shangri La Resort.
There are 77 sites here with very similar amenities to Crystal Springs. Waterfront sites are somewhat close together but other spaces with forest views are more spacious. It’s a quiet campground with lots of shade and, of course, some great fishing opportunities.
Is a Ouachita National Forest Road Trip Worth It?
If you’re a nature lover, there’s no question you should explore Ouachita National Forest. These dramatic peaks, lush woodlands, and fresh mountain breezes might help you see Arkansas in a whole new light. A visit to Ouachita National Forest is an opportunity to dig deeper and discover this unique area’s breathtaking natural beauty. We certainly feel it’s worth it!
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