Endless Paddling Adventures on Arkansas’ Largest Lake
by Lisa Logan
photography by Jeremy Rodgers
No matter what level of kayaking experience you may have, from beginner to expert whitewater kayaker, Lake Ouachita offers an endless array of paddling adventures. Whether you own or rent your boat, you can visit this lake time and again and not run out of places to explore. Lake Ouachita is well known as being the largest lake in Arkansas located entirely within the state’s borders and is often quoted as being over 40,000 acres with more than 700 miles of undeveloped shoreline and over 100 islands, at pool level. Perhaps less well-known is how the size and shape of Lake Ouachita really compares to other area lakes and how this impacts recreation activities on the lake.
To gain a bit of perspective on the sheer scale of Lake Ouachita, consider the following: If you were to combine the other four lakes comprising the area’s “Diamond Lakes” – Lake Hamilton, Lake Catherine, Lake Greeson, and DeGray Lake – it would still be 10,000 acres smaller than Lake Ouachita. It’s important to note that all this water, while providing plenty of space for the lake’s many visitors to explore without crowding each other, allows for the wind to pick up speed, which can create waves and rough water, sometimes nearing open water conditions. Before you venture far from the shoreline, prepare yourself with a kayak skirt and a hand powered bilge pump.
For a little more perspective on Lake Ouachita’s lengthy shoreline, consider this: Following paved highways, it takes over two hours to drive the 100 mile route around Lake Ouachita. And, Lake Ouachita’s 700 miles of shoreline are equal to the straight line distance from Little Rock, Arkansas to Jacksonville, Florida.
The intricately meandering shoreline of Lake Ouachita is a result of the manner in which the lake was created. Formerly part of the Ouachita River basin, the lake was created in the 1950’s by the construction of the Blakely Mountain Dam by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. For a man-made lake, Lake Ouachita feels incredibly natural due to its undeveloped shoreline and protected location within the Ouachita National Forest. The lake is also sheer scale of Lake Ouachita, consider the following: If you were to combine the other four lakes comprising the area’s well-stocked with game fish and attracts a variety of wildlife.
It is not just a fisherman’s paradise, Lake Ouachita is a paddler’s dream. The variations in her extraordinarily long shoreline allow for seemingly endless exploration and provide opportunities for paddlers of all experience levels to have fun, create adventures, get some exercise, and improve their kayaking skills.
New paddlers can easily learn kayaking basics, like getting in and out of the kayak and basic propulsion and maneuvering strokes, and be adventure-ready on their first outing, prepared to explore one of the small coves near the marinas offering kayak rentals. While ideally, one’s introduction
to kayaking should be with a person having sufficient paddling experience – a friend, family member, or tour guide – there’s nothing wrong with renting a kayak from a local marina or outdoor outfitter and, while staying close to the shore and wearing a properly fitted PFD (personal flotation device), figuring it out the good old fashioned way–by doing. You may fall out of your boat a few times, but soon enough you’ll get the hang of it.
Despite the various benefits to visitors provided by local marinas, there are many advantages to getting away from the crowds around the marinas including:
Increased safety from motorized boat traffic, more abundant wildlife viewing, less noise, and more available campsites. Experienced paddlers can embark on more ambitious adventures leading away from the local marinas to explore various coves and do some island hopping. Whitewater enthusiasts can practice their rolls and paddle skills year-round when the creeks are low to keep those paddle muscles fit and toned.
Some of the most ideal places to kayak are on the North side of the lake. Be sure to map your route to these locations ahead of time and don’t count on GPS to get you there as cellular service along Highway 298 is intermittent. Here are a few of the local’s favorite spots:
Buckville is located approximately 25 miles West of Hot Springs Village. To get there, take Highway 7 North to 298 W to Buckville Road South, and then follow the signs to the Buckville Use Area.
Buckville is an ideal location for a day of kayaking fun in the sun, free from the hustle and bustle of daily activity. Many small islands dot the shoreline offering an easily accessible and safe place to island hop, away from heavy motor boat traffic. Spend the day exploring, swimming and snorkeling, hanging out in a hammock and taking in wide sweeping views of the open
lake. When you look out toward the lake from an island at Buckville, the rest of the word slips away. As the horizon line disappears in faded images of islands, water, and soft old mountain tops, you’ll find yourself on an island paradise. The Buckville campground offers several non-reversible primitive campsites, for tent or trailer camping, with a pit toilet, but no power or potable water.
Rabbit Tail is also located in the small community of Buckville. Rabbit Tail can best be described as a “cove of coves”… long remote coves. This location is ideal for fishing, with plenty of submerged standing timber to fish around and steep banks dropping into the water. Rabbit Tail is also a superb wildlife viewing location. Each time you paddle around the point on one of these coves you could find yourself quietly sneaking up on deer or waterfowl and eyeing an egret or a great blue heron eyeing you and preparing to burst into flight. Waterfowl are commonly seen here in abundance, including eagles, cormorants, purple martins, ducks and loons. For those embarking on a day of exploration in this area, be sure to bring a GPS device with sufficient battery power for the duration of your outing. Even experienced paddlers are hard pressed to find their way back without the assistance of a GPS tracking device.
A bit further West on Highway 298, at the northern most point of Lake Ouachita, down a long convoluted arm from the main body of the lake, is the Irons Fork Recreational Area. This is another great location for fishing and exploration. An overall good fishing spot, this area also has many grassy areas when the water is low in the fall. From here, you can paddle a short way up Muse Creek, or explore Irons Creek, a beautiful clear creek with some pretty bluffs. Strong paddlers looking for a challenge can embark on the a long, arduous paddle out to the main lake and back. Irons Fork also offers a rustic camping area.
On the south side of the lake, another great location for kayaking is the
Twin Creeks Use Area. Several small creeks and the south branch of the Ouachita River flow into this area and always provide good wildlife viewing opportunities. At Twin Creeks, you can head right out of the boat ramp to get to Denby Bay, where the LOViT (Lake Ouachita Vista Trail) begins. Here you are likely to see deer and wading birds. Eagle sightings are fairly common here as well. The campground is nice and has a covered fishing pavilion.
Wherever and however you choose to kayak Lake Ouachita, keep in mind, kayaking is safer where there is less boat traffic. Always be aware of boats in your area, look and listen for them, and keep in mind that they may not see you. Wear bright colors so you are more visible. If you own your own kayak, mount a kayak safety flag. Consider carrying a kayak skirt, in case the wind picks up, to keep the waves out of your boat. A swamped boat is no fun. Be sure to bring along a hand powered bilge pump. Carry a good bright flashlight to signal your presence to motor boats at night just in case you get caught out after sunset. Attach a marine safety whistle to your PFD, and always wear it. Happy kayaking!