Exploring the Ouachitas is Fun for Everyone

 

“Just living is not enough… one must have sunshine, freedom
and a little flower.”

– Hans Christian Anderson

 The Ouachita Mountains are a thing of beauty. Everywhere you turn there is dense foliage and inviting waterways. Every time you wheel around some animal is keeping an eye on you–welcoming you in–but making sure you’re treating their home with respect. Every mount you climb or trail you follow leads you to a spot that would make a great picture in an outdoor magazine. Ouachita High Country is featuring three state parks in this issue: Lake Catherine State Park, Degray Lake Resort State Park and Queen Wilhelmina State Park. These parks are fun for the whole family, whether you’re a seasoned outdoors veteran or a novice just beginning, the Ouachita High Country Region offers you and your loved ones endless hours of outdoor adventure.

LAKE CATHERINE STATE PARK

 In Hot Spring County, nestled among the natural beauty of the Ouachita Mountains is 1,940-acre Lake Catherine, one of the five popular Diamond Lakes in west central Arkansas. Lake Catherine State Park features many Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)/Rustic-style facilities constructed of native stone and wood by the CCC in the 1930s. The park features 20 cabins and 70 campsites in all with various amenities (picnic tables, electrical hook-ups, grills, parking, showers, playgrounds). Every cabin features a fully equipped kitchenette and at least one bedroom, the cabin is a great place to unwind after hiking the 10 miles of hiking trails contained within. And speaking of hiking…

Hikers can choose from four trails in the park: Falls Branch Trail, Horseshoe Mountain Trail, Dam Mountain Trail, and Slunger Creek Nature Trail. They range from two-and-one-half miles to four miles in length, and all three of these trails pass Falls Creek Falls, the park’s   picturesque   waterfall. These mountain trails are representative of the terrain found here in the Ouachita Mountains, Arkansas’ southernmost mountain range. From the Dam Mountain Trail, the longest trail in the park, you can look down on Remmel Dam built on  the  Ouachita  River in 1924 creating 1,940-acre Lake Catherine. The trailhead for these three trails is near the campgrounds, so access is not an issue. The newest park trail, the 5/8 mile Slunger Creek Nature Trail, is at the opposite end of the park and stretches alongside the bank of Slunger  Creek  near  the park’s entrance. This concrete, barrier-free trail, which is suitable for the whole family, includes benches where you can relax and enjoy the outdoors with the sounds of water flowing over rocks along this clean Ouachita Mountain creek. The spring and summer seasons are the perfect time for utilizing the trails at Lake Catherine State Park, as  there  is  an abundance of wildflowers, other foliage and plenty of wildlife to enjoy.

DEGRAY LAKE RESORT STATE PARK

 938-acre DeGray Lake Resort State Park is nestled among the tall pines of the Ouachita Mountains on the shore of 13,800-acre DeGray Lake, one of Arkansas’ finest water sports areas: Whether you enjoy camping, fishing, swimming (not in April, though), water skiing, picnicking, tennis, disc  golf,  real golf, basketball, biking, horseback riding and last but not least, hiking.

A park visitor, John Clady, said this: “We were traveling back from a visit to my parents (the  kids’  grandparents) in Louisiana to our home in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, and decided to take a day or two to explore the area around Hot Springs, Arkansas. Reasons we chose to visit this area was the close proximity to our general route home and what we had read about nice hiking. The Falls Branch Trail at Lake Catherine State Park did not disappoint. It was the perfect length, and we really appreciated how well-marked the trail was, allowing our older boys to go on ahead, our daughter and her friend to go in between, and my wife and I to bring up the rear. Our dog Isa happily scampered along with us and loved the chance to jump in the water several times. We especially liked the various little bridges crossing the stream, the views once we were up a little higher, and of course the waterfall at the end.”

For more on Lake Catherine State  Park call 501-844-4176 or email lakecatherine@arkansas.com.

There are five trails in all that wind through DeGray: The Island Trail (1 mile) follows the western shoreline of the lodge island and provides a beautiful panoramic view of the lake, being a natural isthmus. You can see the age showing through in this trail because of the fallen trees that have grown into the neighboring trees that they fell against. Evidence of a large woodpecker population showed in the hollowed out timber that surrounds the trail, and the terrain isn’t too challenging. The Green Heron Trail (3/4 mile) offers some of the best birdwatching opportunities in the park and begins behind the visitor’s center. This low-lying trail has a changing surface (dirt, stone, grass) and provides easy views of the lake, while being engulfed by numerous species of trees. The Towering Pines Trail (1/2 mile) is near the amphitheater and provides a natural canopy for hikers to enjoy, even on the hottest days in summer. It also runs along Spring Creek, a natural inlet. The Saginaw Historic Trail (1/4 mile) follows an old narrow-gauge railroad bed used by lumberjacks around the turn of the twentieth century. It begins around the sanitary station and is a shortcut to the lake. The Chickadee Trail (1/2 mile) is the mildest of the trails and is located near the tennis courts and golf course.

DeGray Lake Resort State Park is located at 2027 State Park Entrance Rd. Bismarck, AR 71929 in Hot Springs and Clark counties. Call 501-865-5850 or visit www.degray.com for more.

QUEEN WILHELMINA STATE PARK

 The last stop on our spring tour of Arkansas state parks brought us to Queen Wilhelmina State Park, where the highest summit in the Ouachita Mountains is steeped in history and surrounded by some of the most striking scenery in the world, let alone the state. The park is named after Holland’s young Queen at the time because the first lodge was built 1898 by the Kansas City, Pittsburgh & Gulf Railroad as a mountain resort retreat for passengers on the line, and was largely funded by Dutch interests. The three-story lodge quickly became known as the “Castle in the Sky” for obvious reasons. Situated on the Talimena Scenic Drive in western Arkansas 13 miles from Mena, Queen Wilhelmina State Park stands out as one of the state’s most scenic mountain getaways. The park is perched high atop rugged Rich Mountain, about 2,700 feet above sea level. The natural beauty of the mountain and the intriguing history of the area offer a vacation (or a day’s) experience that will be long remembered.

The park offers numerous facilities such as lodging, camping, dining, interactive programming at the park’s amphitheater, miniature golf, train rides, a playground, volleyball and  hiking on the four trails contained within. For those with a penchant for scare tactics, Pioneer Cemetery offers a picture, and ghost stories, of the dozen or so self-reliant families that first  settled  on Rich Mountain. The unique history, fauna, and flora of the park offers a connection to nature that is difficult to find anywhere else.

The hiking offered the most varied range of difficulty of the parks we visited: The Spring Trail (1 mile) is the easiest of the four trails at the park. It begins behind the

Wonder House, which was built in 1931 by Carlos Hill and Phil Lance and used as a vacation cabin until 1958 when it was purchased by the state park. The trail leads you to Crystal Spring, a short 100 yards into the hike. This was a favorite gathering place for early settlers and is still a great oasis of relaxation, or even reflection, and has been said to have many curative powers. The entire family will enjoy this one.

The next trail we encountered, more moderate than the Spring Trail, was the Reservoir Trail (2/3 mile). It descends quickly and fairly ruggedly to an old stone reservoir that was part of the water system for the original 1898 hotel. The rocky and undulating terrain make this hike fairly challenging, so the small children might be better off riding the train around the park instead of trying

Lover’s Leap Trail (1.3 miles and our favorite) offers breathtaking views of almost the entire Ouachita Mountain Range. The windblown mountaintop could easily be confused with the smoky mountains in a  way,  due  to the heavy fog and vast collection of contorted hardwoods that populate the area. The actual overlook on Lover’s Leap Trail is perched atop a rock  bluff, where legend has it that a Native American princess leapt to her death after news that her lover was killed in battle, justifying the name. This one was pretty challenging, so be prepared to sweat a bit.

The last trail on the list, The Ouachita Trail (225 miles) has only a small section meandering through Queen Wilhelmina, and is the most difficult on the list. This east-west corridor extends from Pinnacle Mountain State Park in Little Rock to Talimena State Park in Talihina, Oklahoma. It has been called the “loneliest  trail in America” because of the varying, rugged terrain and isolation from populated areas. This challenging trail is suitable for anyone who wants to get away from it all, and experience the Ouachitas as they have been for eons.

Queen Wilhelmina State Park is located at 3877 Hwy 88 West, Mena, Arkansas 71953.  Call  479-394-2863 or email queenwilhelmina@arkansas. com for more.