Often left in the shadows of the nearby Ozark Mountains, the Ouachita Mountains is one of the most underrated ranges in the country and one visit here will have you dying for more.
There is plenty of outdoor fun to be had here whether you like to spend your days fishing, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, exploring nearby cities, and so much more.
Unlike other iconic mountain ranges, the Ouachita Mountains stretch from east to west so the views you will see here are not like any you have seen before.
When you are not taking in the panoramic beauty of it all, you can be venturing through two very different sets of woods depending on whether you are in the northern or southern range.
You’ll notice that most of the excitement lies within the Ouachita National Forest which makes up nearly two million acres of the mountain range and boasts a variety of fun activities.
With so much waiting to be explored, it can be a daunting task to plan out your Ouachita Mountains itinerary but check out this list of the 14 best things to do to help you get started.
Table of Contents
- 1. Lake Ouachita
- 2. Ouachita National Recreation Trail
- 3. Little Missouri River
- 4. Lake Ouachita Vista Trail
- 5. Eagle Rock Loop
- 6. Lake Hamilton
- 7. Winding Stair Campground
- 8. The Womble
- 9. Hot Springs
- 10. Friendship Trail
- 11. Talimena Scenic Byway
- 12. Crystal Vista
- 13. OHV Trails
- 14. Mountain Harbor Riding Stables
1. Lake Ouachita
Known for being one of the most pristine lakes in the country, Lake Ouachita is a great place to spend the day and there are plenty of adventures to be had here.
The lake stretches out nearly forty miles and with almost one thousand miles of shoreline, you are bound to find a cozy place to spend some quality time by the water.
You will find this beautiful lake at the heart of Lake Ouachita State Park so when you are not hanging out on the water, you can be hiking some of the many trails that surround it.
A fan favorite is the Caddo Bend Trail because it takes you four miles around the peninsula with breathtaking views of the lake almost every step of the way.
Along this trail you will also come across the Peninsula Observation Deck, so make sure to take a few minutes to take in this wide-sweeping viewpoint.
Marinas dot the shores of Lake Ouachita which means there is no shortage of fishing boats, kayaks, paddleboards, pontoons, and more.
And when you are not exploring the waters by boat, you can be going for a swim at either of the two beaches located along its shoreline.
Fishermen will be happy to know that fishing opportunities are in abundance here with plenty of crappies, walleye, catfish, and more to go around.
Interested in seeing the fish another way? The Lake is a hotspot for scuba diving thanks to its clear waters and there are actually 30 marked dive spots to make it easy to get in on the fun.
Once you have fallen in love with the lake, consider spending the night at one of the 93 campsites scattered around the park with many of them offering stellar views of the water!
2. Ouachita National Recreation Trail
One of the best ways to experience the Ouachita Mountains is by hiking a portion or all of the Ouachita National Recreational Trail.
Keep in mind that this trail is not something that can be completed in one day as it stretches 233 miles from Oklahoma to Arkansas traveling up and over the picturesque mountain range.
With that being said, many people will opt to hike small portions of this trail depending on where they are stationed for the night or put together a backcountry adventure where they will be spending days hiking and camping along the way.
There are plenty of lean-tos peppered throughout the trail to make camping a more convenient experience and flat terrain makes it easy to set up camp in other locations.
On this trail, you won’t experience any extreme ascents as even the tallest mountains will only take you about 2,600 feet up in elevation.
You will encounter many breathtaking views along the way and it is not well known so the feeling of solitude is nearly constant.
And considering how quiet this trail is, it is also very well maintained so you never have to worry about things like fallen trees blocking your way.
Just make sure that you keep an eye out for the abundance of wildlife that lives here like bears, deer, eagles, wild turkeys, and more!
3. Little Missouri River
Running right through the heart of the Ouachita Mountains is the Little Missouri River and it is not just known for its astounding views.
Although, the river is definitely picturesque enough to have you sitting along its banks mesmerized by its beauty for hours on end.
The river seems to go on forever but nearly 30 miles of it can be admired within the Ouachita National Forest before it gives way to the Narrows Dam and Lake Greeson.
Watch as the river quickly runs over and around boulders of all shapes and sizes that really bring the area to life.
Parts of the river can experience pretty intense rapids that draw experienced paddles to its waters. It is important to note that the river is classified as a Class II And III Rapids so beginners should not attempt this.
But while you are about and about, make sure to check out the Little Missouri Falls to take some frame worthy pictures as you listen to the sounds of gushing water.
Not to mention the abundance of fishing opportunities that are to be had all along the river so don’t forget to bring your fishing rod for this adventure!
4. Lake Ouachita Vista Trail
With nearly fifty miles to explore, the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail is one of the most popular ways to explore the Ouachita Mountains.
As the name suggests, much of this hiking trail is based around Lake Ouachita which means you will have some beautiful views along your travels.
Because of its popularity, you should know that this trail can get pretty busy and you will be sharing it with mountain bikers.
With that in mind, this trail is one of the most exciting places for mountain bikers to go for a ride so don’t forget to bring your bike along for the adventure.
Another wonderful feature about this trail is that there are sections that are wheelchair accessible so that everyone has the opportunity to take in its beauty.
Plus, there are many smaller trails that branch off from the main one so that hikers can enjoy fun little side trips to scenic places with fewer of the crowds.
You will enjoy beautiful views regardless of where you wander but the most iconic viewpoint is the Hickory Nut Mountain Vista which provides an unparalleled view overlooking the lake.
5. Eagle Rock Loop
Made up of multiple mountainous trails, the Eagle Rock Loop is for hikers who like a challenge and don’t mind ascending and descending a variety of Ouachita’s picturesque mountains.
The loop connects the Little Missouri, Athens, Big Fork, and Viles Branch Trail offering plenty of places to take in the views and boasting their own unique features.
You will have a blast navigating over river crossings and venturing through a dense forest of evergreens as you make your way from one scenic viewpoint to another.
This loop will take you to the top of not one, not two, but six different mountain peaks within the Ouachita range and each offers its own perspective of the wide-sweeping forest and nearby bodies of water.
Avid hikers have been known to conquer this loop in one day but for most, accomplishing the Eagle Rock Loop means a two or three day backpacking adventure.
Keep in mind that this trail should not be attempted during its rainy season as the rivers can become difficult if not impossible to cross.
But on most days, the river crossings make for an exciting experience and some will even wade right through it rather than attempting to find rocks or logs to hop across.
6. Lake Hamilton
If you know a thing or two about the state of Arkansas, chances are you have heard about the famous Lake Hamilton and its impressive 7,2000 acres.
Since this is one of the most popular lakes in the state, it should come as no surprise that the shoreline is dotted with restaurants, lodges, and tourist attractions.
And when you are not enjoying the plentiful amount of activities along its edges, you can be spending the day out on its relaxing waters.
Stop by the marina if you don’t have a watercraft of your own and have your pick between motorboats, jet skis, kayaks, fishing boats, and more.
Plus, there are four different parks located along parts of the lake so you can easily spend the day hopping from one to another and checking out the hiking trails along the way.
One of the most popular things to do on the lake is visit the Garvan Woodland Gardens which are hosted by the University of Arkansas and boast a huge variety of vibrant flowers.
This place is so beautiful that photographers spend hours here snapping photos and the glass chapel is constantly being reserved for wedding ceremonies.
7. Winding Stair Campground
Located right off of the Talimena Scenic Drive, the Winding Stair Campground is a great place to rest your head while exploring the Ouachita Mountains but it is also just a great place to spend the day.
In fact, the campground is located along the Ouachita National Recreation Trail so it makes for the perfect resting point along your 200+ mile journey.
And considering the breathtaking views that seem to welcome you with every step along this trail, it should come as no surprise that the campground is just as beautiful.
Plus, if you happen to be trekking along the trail during the off-season, Winding Stair also offers a separate backpacking campground that is open to hikers all year round.
Aside from this famous trail, the campground also makes for easy access to some other exciting hikes like the Horsethief, Billy Creek, and Mountain-top Trails.
Not to mention the many nearby overlooks like Emerald Vista where you can enjoy lunch from one of the picnic tables as you overlook the Ouachita National Forest in its entirety.
The campground gets its name from the mountain it sits on top of and because of its remote location, amenities such as water are not available here.
But if you come prepared, spending the night at one of the 23 campsites as you sit around a fire pit can be one of the most memorable experiences you’ll have during your time in Arkansas.
8. The Womble
Eventually connecting to the Ouachita National Recreation Trail, the Womble has become one of the most loved trails for hikers and bikers alike.
So much so that it has been named the best single-track trail in the entire area with many parts bordering along the Ouachita River to create some breathtaking views.
As you travel along this peaceful trail you may notice spurs leading off into the forest and these are actually floating camps that are nestled along the southern edges of the river.
These float camps work on a first-come, first-serve basis and come fully equipped with fire pits, picnic tables, and vault toilets for a relaxing waterfront experience.
The trail stretches out nearly forty miles so the average person takes about five days to explore it from start to finish, but you will find many people just going for a peaceful stroll before heading back to their cars.
There is very little elevation gain so the trail is considered to be pretty easy but you should still hike with caution as there are some areas that take you along high bluffs.
These bluffs overlooking the river are one of the reasons why this trail has become so popular but you really have to see it for yourself to understand the extent of its beauty.
9. Hot Springs
No visit to the Ouachita Mountains would be complete without stopping in to visit the iconic city of Hot Springs where the activities are endless and the thermal baths are in abundance.
With that being said, a visit to Hot Springs most definitely means treating your body to a soaking in mineral rich waters and since this is the staple of the city, it can be found in a variety of different establishments.
And the thermal water can also benefit you from consumption, so make sure to stop at one of the nearby fountains to fill up a bottle and clench your thirst while also filling up on healthy minerals.
Some of the most popular thermal baths can be found in the Arlington Hotel, The Quapaw Bathhouse, and the Buckstaff Bathhouse but be sure to check out their websites because each offers unique experiences.
When you are not unwinding you can be partaking in something exciting like visiting the Alligator Farm where you can pet an alligator if you are feeling courageous enough.
Plus, the city is also home to the Hot Springs National Park so frequent travelers can cross it off their list of parks to visit across the country.
Make sure you save time to visit the Hot Springs Mountain Tower Observation Deck for spectacular views of the city and the national park all bundled up into one.
10. Friendship Trail
If you are looking for a hike to take the whole family on or just simply stretch your legs, look no further than Ouachita Mountains’ Friendship Trail.
The trail clocks in at a little under a mile and its well-maintained, the paved route makes it easy for all skill levels to enjoy the scenic beauty with ease.
You will be wandering through a dense hardwood forest dotted with the occasional pine and complemented by a picturesque fishing pond.
When you are not sitting by the peaceful waters you can be crossing over a variety of fairytale-like bridges and learning something new from the many interpretive displays.
Once you reach the pond, you will notice that there is a well-kept picnic area so feel free to bring sandwiches for a waterfront lunch.
On average, the trail only takes about thirty minutes but even with frequent stops to take in the sights, you are looking at about an hour of your time.
Because of this, the Friendship Trail is easy to fit into even the busiest of schedules and helps visitors unwind after some of the other grueling adventures amongst the mountains.
11. Talimena Scenic Byway
While certain times are more rewarding than others, a drive along the Talimena Scenic Byway is always a great addition to any trip to the Ouachita Mountains.
So even if you don’t get to see this iconic road during peak fall foliage, you will still be amazed by the natural beauty of the towering trees and endless mountain range.
And even though most of this drive is truly breathtaking, it can’t compare to the abundance of vista overlooks that can be found between Rich Mountain and Winding Stair Mountain.
This part of the scenic byway takes you through the Ouachita National Forest where you will encounter fifteen different vistas with each being more incredible than the last.
The road stretches out a little over fifty miles and there are no gas stations once you get started so make sure to fill up your tank in one of the nearby cities before your adventure.
The same goes for food. The byway is made up entirely of breathtaking views but don’t expect any amenities. Swing by the nearby city of Talihina to grab a quick bite at Pam’s Hateful Hussy Diner or The Rock House… And if you couldn’t tell by their names, each restaurant offers its own quirky features.
12. Crystal Vista
And speaking on vistas, you won’t find another quite like Crystal Vista and it’s not just because of the panoramic views that wait for you at the end of the trail.
Most people don’t realize that Arkansas is the leading contributor for quartz with many mines in the area that seem to always be constantly stocked with crystals for the taking.
Located on a former quartz mine, the Crystal Vista trail is a fun way to search for the remaining quartz crystals while also taking in some astounding views along the way.
The trail sits on top of Gardner Mountain on what is known as the “Quartz Belt” with plenty of still active quartz mines surrounding it in every direction.
With that being said, you are guaranteed to spot some crystals along your travels and feel free to take some home with you as a keepsake for your adventure.
You will notice that some people come fully prepared with mining gear but if you are just hoping to snag a few pieces along your journey, you won’t need any equipment.
Although the trail is pretty short at a whopping 1.6 miles roundtrip, its steep incline gives it a moderate rating and rocky terrain can make it difficult to navigate if you are not wearing the proper shoes.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t spend the entire day searching for crystals and admiring the many panoramic vistas that have a way of playing peekaboo between the trees.
13. OHV Trails
Thrillseekers will be in their own personal heaven with an overflowing amount of off-roading opportunities that combine recreational excitement with nature’s natural beauties.
And if you don’t have an ATV of your own, there are plenty of places for you to rent one for the day so you can take full advantage of the trails that await you.
Although there are unmarked backroads that you will find the occasional ATV exploring about, people unfamiliar with the area should stay on one of the designated OHV trails.
But there is enough variety to keep you busy for weeks with nine different trails that each offer their own unique features and challenges.
For example, the Bear Creek ATV trail stretches out over thirty miles and takes adventurers around the picturesque Lake Greeson.
Whereas the Fourche Mountain Trail winds you up a mountain for a little over 25 miles with exciting stops like an abandoned mine and an Ouachita Mountains viewpoint.
14. Mountain Harbor Riding Stables
Owned by a local family who has lived in the Ouachita Mountains their whole lives, you will know you are in good hands when visiting the Mountain Harbor Riding Stables.
This experience is open to anyone six years or older and their experienced guides know just how to match you with a horse based on your experience.
And speaking of experience, you don’t need any previous background in horseback riding to join in on the fun and their friendly horses will put your mind right at ease.
Once you have mounted your horse for the afternoon, your guide will lead you through a shaded wood where you will get to explore some of the Ouachita National Forest’s natural beauty.
You will also be rewarded with spectacular views of Lake Ouachita and if you are lucky, you may even get a chance to spot some native wildlife along the way.
Horseback riding not your style? The Mountain Harbor Riding Stables also offers carriage rides which give visitors a unique way to take in all of the sights.