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8 of the Best Things to Do in the Ouachita National Forest

Did you know Arkansas is the home of the largest national forest in the south? The Ouachita National Forest provides access to all types of outdoor activities, on the trail, on the water, and beyond. The opportunity to enjoy the park is not just limited to the young and super fit. The national parks and forests are mandated to be all-inclusive. Because of this, even the family caregiver will find many activities accessible to all, including those who use adaptive equipment such as a cane or wheelchair. The park can give anyone a break from routine and leave you with a lifetime of memories.

As you and your family plan what activities you want to take part in, consider the needs of your group first and foremost. If Mom enjoyed hiking but is now in a wheelchair, you may want to opt for wheelchair-accessible trails for her to indulge in. You can ask for help from her caregiver if she has one. Caregivers are responsible for making a realistic assessment of your family member’s abilities, both physical and mental, and can help you plan a day out. You don’t want to be one mile into a three-mile hike, only to find out Dad is running out of energy.

Here are some suggestions for all activity levels:
1.      Go for a car ride.  Start with a car ride on the Talimena Scenic Byway. This highway runs from Mena, AR to the Oklahoma portion of the park. There are numerous scenic overlooks as well as attractions worthy of a stop and a picture along your route. There are many picnic sites along the way too. Take a break to eat your favorite lunch. If you happen to be a family caregiver for an elderly parent or disabled family member, a car ride through this magnificent forest will be stress-free and enjoyable for everyone. The Talimena Byway is particularly beautiful in spring when the wildflowers are blooming and in fall when the leaves turn into a blaze of reds and golds.

2.      Go for a hike. Ouachita National Forest has some of the best hiking trails in Arkansas. The serious hiker will want to consider backpacking the longest trail in the park, the Ouachita Recreational Trail, which travels the entire length of the park and is a rolling, winding, jaw-dropping 192 miles. Don’t worry! The day hiker will find trails that range in difficulty and length to satisfy their level, too. The best plan is to choose an area of the park you want to explore, and then choose the trail that matches your ability. There are even several wheelchair-accessible trails available, including the Friendship Trail, the Orchard Trail, and the Shady Lake Trail. Friendship Trail has an added bonus of a fully accessible bathroom at the trailhead, which helps simplify elder care services.

3.      Ride the trails.  Horseback riding trails are available throughout the park, and parking is even available for your horse trailer. Have a mare that loves a challenge? An old plod-along gelding that prefers something simpler? The trails vary in difficulty, length, and surface, with some being covered with gravel. You can find the perfect trail in the park for your horse’s needs and your own desires.

4.      Hook the big one. If you love to fish, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to cast a line in the Ouachita National Forest. Most of the lakes within the park are accessible to boaters ready to hook the big one. If you are a shore fisherman, there are fishing piers located throughout the park, including North Fork Lake, Shady Lake, and Lake Hinkle. There’s also a fishing pond right on the side of the wheelchair-accessible Friendship Trail. Ouachita is also full of rivers and streams for fishing if you’re willing to hike rougher terrain to get there. Bring your fishing license and hook one of the crappies, bass, sunfish, and catfish swimming around the park.

5.   Search for treasure. Crystal Vista is a must if your family member is interested in treasure hunting. Once the site of an old quartz mine, Crystal Vista is now open to the public. There is no fee, and you are allowed to remove up to 20 pounds of material for your personal use. Even if you are unsuccessful in finding quartz crystals, the view is worth the climb. The site overlooks Ouachita Lake and Mount Ida. Note that this site is on the top of Gardner Mountain and is an approximate 25-minute uphill hike on a well-maintained trail. 

6.      Pitch a tent.  If you and your family are ready for an extended visit to the park, there are numerous options available for a cozy campsite. There are sites for tent camping as well as RVs and campers that require electrical hookup. Camp Clearfork even has rustic cabins available by reservation only for groups such as family reunions, church groups, etc. Grab your sleeping bag and favorite book of scary campfire stories and find your spot.

7.      Go boating.  Whether you’re fishing, tubing, or just drifting around the lake, boating is a great way to spend the day at the park. Many of the lakes have paved boat docks for you to launch your boat easily for fishing or just sightseeing. If you don’t have your own boat, you can rent a boat at numerous sites on the Ouachita Lake.  Most can also provide non-motorized equipment such as canoes, kayaks, and paddle boats. Which brings us to our next suggestion …
8.      Hit the off-road trails.  Off-Highway Vehicles (OHV) are growing in popularity and, yes, they are permitted in the park. There are numerous trails designated for OHVs; wever, they are all multi-use trails. Some of the trails include room for ATVs, hikers, bikers, and horseback riders all potentially at the same time. Be respectful of everyone when you pass.
Open year-round, the Ouachita National Park offers things to do throughout the year; however, some amenities are seasonal. If you are planning on a specific activity or area of the park, you might want to call first to be assured that it is available when it is offseason.

Guest Post - By Susan Ashby.

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