Ouachita National Forest’s Miles of Horseback Trails are Perfect for Fall Adventures

By Judea Robinett

Photography by Judea Robinett

When I was a young girl living in Alaska, I dreamed of living down south and taking up horseback riding. I pleaded with my mother to allow me to take lessons at the only riding stables in Juneau, but a family of six on a pastor’s salary did not leave a lot of room for a somewhat expensive sport in a very expensive state. When I was nine, my parents announced that we would be moving back to Arkansas, the state of my parents upbringing. I was devastated to leave my friends, but I consoled myself with the thought that I was finally going to live in horse-country. A year later, I took my first lesson starting a years- long sporting habit. Luckily, horseback riding is not as expensive as it used to be, and there are many options for riders to explore.

Arkansas, Oklahoma and the Ouachita Region in general is full of horse culture and opportunities for riding, watching, learning, competing and more. established in 1904, Oaklawn Racing and Gaming has hosted the Arkansas Derby since 1936 and has showcased some of the most magnificent thoroughbreds to ever run a track. However, horse enthusiast in the Ouachita High Country have more options than just watching the races. For those looking to get a little closer to the equine action, the region has a plethora of options for mounted adventure. Trail riding is a regional favorite, and there are great options for riders of any skill level.

Guided Rides for all Skill Levels:

For novice or just rusty riders who don’t own their own horses or gear, the best way to experience trails on horseback is to take a guided ride at one of the many stables in the region. Both Lake Catherine and DeGray Lake Resort offer guided rides on weekends during the autumn months. Fall is the perfect time to wind down a wooded trail on a gentle mount at one of these stables. The fall foliage is stunning, and the trails are easy and calm. The paths at DeGray offer beautiful lake vistas, and Lake Catherine State Park is known for its mountain trails featuring wildlife habitats like pine forests and mixed hardwood glades. outside of Mt. Ida, Mountain Harbor Riding Stables, offers guided rides overlooking the Ouachita River. In Bismark, Bar Fifty Ranch has 20,000 acres of trails with guided rides for beginers, as well as, all-day or week long horse rentals for experienced riders wanting to get a little deeper into the woods.

For the Advanced Rider:

As a whole, The Ouachita National Forest, is a great resource for those seeking a longer trek with their own horses for a more challenging option with over 250 miles of trails available for riding/camping.

Cedar Lake Equestrian Camp near Heavener, Oklahoma is the perfect starting place for a deep ride into the natural wonders of the Ouachita National Forest and it’s got some cool Hollywood history, too. Winding Stair, one of the trails off the Cedar Lake Campgrounds, is where John Wayne’s character in True Grit, Rooster Cogburn, shoots the outlaw Ned Pepper in the lip. For supernatural enthusiasts, the area is also steeped in lore of bigfoot and black panther sightings, If actual history is more your thing, you might be interested to know that in the days of outlaws, horse thieves and criminals would hide out in the Ouachita National Mountains on their way to “Indian Territory.”

According to the US Forest Service website, “The campground is the most popular starting point for the Winding Stair Mountain Equestrian Trails, a 70-plus mile system of marked equestrian trails. These trails are a network of loops that wind over hills and mountains and through a variety of vegetation from tall majestic pines and stately hardwoods to rich river bottoms. The loops offer a rider the opportunity to decide the length of ride and type of experience desired.”

The camp is open year round and fall is sure to be a lovely time to hit the trails. You can get to the camp which is located approximately 12 miles south of Heavener, Oklahoma, and 40 miles west of Mena, Arkansas, by way of Holson Valley Road (County Road 212) off US Highways 59/270 or US Highway 271. Make sure you bring your current negative Coggins tests papers with you, as they are required for trail riding anywhere on public lands or around other horses.

The trail winds itself in connecting loops, allowing horse and rider to plan a short trek that will take you right back to where you started or a longer ride through a series of connecting paths. Be sure to map your ride before you go though, as it is incredibly easy to get disoriented with the circular nature of the trails.

Winding Stair isn’t the only option for riding in the Ouachitas. The US Forest Service has many trails open to horse riding, including some closer to Hot Springs. Bear Creek Horse Trail, located just outside of Jessieville, offers a secluded ride/camp experience. Like Winding Stair, the trails loop back on themselves, providing varying degrees of difficulty and length. Bear Creek covers almost 36 miles in all. Ponds and creeks supply drinking water for the horses, but be prepared to either bring or treat your own water, as this is primitive camping only. If you are looking for a quiet fall retreat on horseback, this is the trail system for you. Other trail options to consider are:

Caddo/Womble Ranger District

  • Viles Branch

Jessieville Winona Fourche Ranger District

  • Flatside Wilderness • Fourche Mountain

Mena/Oden Ranger District

  • Black Fork Mountain
• Caney Creek
• Caney Creek Wilderness

Oklahoma Ranger District

  • Billy Creek Trail
  • Black Fork Mountain Wilderness
  • Boardstone/Military Road
  • Horsethief Springs Trail
  • Indian Nations National Scenic and Wildlife Area
  • Upper Kiamichi River Wilderness
  • Winding Stair Mountain National Recreation Area

Poteau/Cold Springs Ranger District

  • Dry Creek Wilderness
  • Knoppers Ford
  • Poteau Mountain Wilderness
  • Sugar Creek Multiuse

Whatever your level of riding experience or your reason for getting in the saddle, the Ouachita High Country has something to offer. The most important thing is to practice safety and enjoy life at the slow pace of four hooves on a dirt path.