Often shadowed by 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, whether you like to spend your days fishing, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking, or exploring nearby cities.
Unlike other iconic mountain ranges, the Ouachita Mountains stretch from east to west, making the views here unlike any you’ve seen before.
When you are not taking in the panoramic beauty of it all, you can be venturing through two very different forests, depending on whether you are in the northern or southern range.
You’ll notice that most of the adventure 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, so check out this list for the 14 best things to do.
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 as there are plenty of adventures to be had here.
The lake stretches 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 and offers breathtaking views of the lake almost every step of the way.
Along this trail you’ll also come across the Peninsula Observation Deck, so make sure to take a few minutes to take in the incredible, wide-sweeping view.
Marinas dot the shores of Lake Ouachita, which means there is no shortage of fishing boats, kayaks, paddleboards, and pontoons out on the water.
And when you are not exploring the waters by boat, you can go 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, 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 a day as it stretches 233 miles, from Oklahoma to Arkansas, traveling up and over this picturesque mountain range.
With that being said, many people will opt to hike smaller portions of this trail depending on where they are stationed for the night or put together a backcountry adventure where they spend 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 the 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 as this trail is not well known, the feeling of solitude is nearly constant.
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 through the heart of the Ouachita Mountains is the Little Missouri River, and it is not just known for its astounding views.
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 and really brings the area to life.
Parts of the river can feature 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 rushing 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 way.
Because of its popularity, you should know that this trail can get pretty busy and you will also 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 yours along for the adventure.
Another wonderful feature of this trail is that there are wheelchair accessible sections 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 crowds.
You’ll 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 trails and offers plenty of places to take in the views of each trail’s unique features.
You will have a blast navigating 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 become difficult if not impossible, to cross.
But on most days, the river crossings make for an exciting experience, and some hikers 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 7,460 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 number 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 to rent.
Plus, there are four different parks located along parts of the lake, so you can easily spend the day hopping from one to the other and checking out the hiking trails along the way.
One of the most popular things to do on the lake is to 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 area’s 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. Additionally, it’s 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 if you choose to undertake the 200+ mile journey.
And considering the breathtaking views that welcome you with every step, it should come as no surprise that the campground is just as beautiful.
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 atop 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 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 the Ouachita River, which creates 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 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 soak in mineral-rich waters, and since this is the staple of the city, natural springs can be found in a variety of different establishments.
This thermal water isn’t just beneficial to soak in, drinking it also has many benefits, so make sure to stop at one of the nearby fountains to fill up a bottle and quench 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, and 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 Hot Springs National Park, so 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 to simply stretch your legs, look no further than Ouachita Mountains’ Friendship Trail.
The trail clocks in at a little under a mile and it’s well-maintained; the paved route makes it easy for all skill levels to enjoy the scenic beauty with ease.
You will wander 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 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 some journeys 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.
Though most of this drive is truly breathtaking, it can’t compare to the abundance of vista overlooks that are 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 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 – while the byway is made up entirely of breathtaking views, 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 to quartz production, with many mines in the area that are constantly stocked with crystals for the taking.
Located on a former quartz mine, the Crystal Vista trail is a fun way to search for 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, so feel free to take some home with you as a keepsake from 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 the way, you won’t need any equipment.
Although the trail is pretty short at 1.6 miles roundtrip, its steep incline gives it a moderate rating and its 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 peeking through the trees.
13. OHV Trails
Thrill seekers 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 where you’ll find the occasional rider, people unfamiliar with the area should stay on one of the designated OHV trails.
But know that in this area there is enough variety to keep you busy for weeks, with nine different trails that offer their own unique features and challenges.
For example, the Bear Creek ATV trail stretches over thirty miles and takes adventurers around the picturesque Lake Greeson.
For another adventure, 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
You’re in good hands when visiting the Mountain Harbor Riding Stables, which are owned by a family local to the Ouachita Mountains.
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, as their friendly horses will put your mind right at ease.
Once you’re up and riding, your guide will lead you through a shaded wood where you’ll get to explore some of Ouachita National Forest’s natural beauty.
You’ll 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.
Is horseback riding not your style? The Mountain Harbor Riding Stables also offers carriage rides that give visitors a unique way to take in all of the sights.