Thursday 17 May 2018

The Ouachita Trail, Oklahoma/ Arkansas U.S.A. (Part 1)

The total distance of the trail is 223 miles/ 359 kilometres.

The Western terminus of the Ouachita Trail (wa-she-ta) is situated at Talimena State Park in Oklahoma, The Eastern Terminus is Pinnacle Mountain Visitor Centre, Arkansas.

I did a 6 day trip, from Talimena State Park, Oklahoma to Suck Mountain Shelter in Arkansas from    23 April to 28 April 2018 totaling 109 miles/ 175 kilometres.

Safari Track Rating: Moderate- mostly well groomed trail with some steep pinches and dry sections where water is a tad scarce.  Signage is excellent, blue blazes are prevalent showing the way.
You are in the green tunnel for the majority of the time with very few fellow hikers.  Really nice walking, lush scenery and thoroughly recommended.
I used Tim Ernst's 'Ouachita Trail Guide' 2012 and free maps found here via the US Forest Service website.

Arkansas!  Oklahoma!  I really love getting away to places less visited and these 2 Southern States easily qualify as destinations most travellers give little thought to whilst journeying in the USA.  A shame but then again I'm kind of happy to keep these special places to myself free of the chaotic hordes.

The beautiful cedar & pine forests and quiet, secluded mountains of the Ouachita National Forest have a pathway running West to East (or East to West if your that way inclined) along the range with evenly dispersed three sided shelters along the way to sleep or rest in.  The half way point, Highway 27 features the nearby small town of Story where resupply is possible and various shuttle services offer drop off/ pick up options at the numerous trailheads.

I was scooped up by Lynn from Ouachita Trail Guide outside my semi-luxurious Fort Smith accommodations.  I had a fat pack full of food and much anticipation for this hike after a week driving around Texas, stuffing my face with taco's and great craft beers.  It was time to move the legs and bask in some greenery.
An hour and a half by vehicle and Talimena State Park is reached on the Oklahoma side of the trail.  I moved easily along the well defined path following the blue painted blazes and acquainted myself with the flora of the Ouachita National Forest in the Northern Hemisphere Spring season.
Large pine trees were interspersed with newly greening oak.  Dogwoods displayed lovely white bouquets and I spied the odd chipmunk, white tailed deer and red cardinal bird.

The weather held out nice and tepid for the first 2 days then the low cloud rolled in and icy rain pinged down. Luckily I was close to Queen Wilhelmina State Park and a nice hotel complex so I pushed hard to slink in for the $13.99 buffet lunch and a warm room.

The trail undulates along rocky ridges then heads down to cross County roads and minor Highways, shallow streams and rivers and follows old forestry tracks. There is actually a fair bit of timber harvesting occurring in the Ouachita Forest; Tim Ernst describes it as a 'working forest'.  Although this may be the case I found the serenity and abundant animal life very conducent to a wilderness experience.  I was alone and had the place to myself.

Stupidly I had assumed I would plow through the miles in the same fashion as my other 2 major USA hikes; the Appalachian Trail in 2009 & the Pacific Crest Trail in 2011 where 55 to 60km days were the norm.
Funny thing, I don't really enjoy banging out 15 hour days anymore and I found many tranquil spots along the trail to stop and chill and take it all in.  So I stopped trying to do crazy miles and just enjoyed the ride.  Of course this meant I didn't have enough time to finish the trail because I am a shoddy planner- I had a flight to jump on at Little Rock to Colorado in a few days time.

A blazing sun scorched my head as I plowed my way up to Suck Mountain Shelter on Day 6.  I was nearly out of food, hiker hunger had kicked in early and I was planning to get to Story the next day to resupply or possibly exit the trail. 
What a blast to be in these enchanting woods and be on a long trail few people have heard of!
I was in the midst of drying out my kit and scoffing a not so nice Knorrs side meal when a weekend day hiker popped into the shelter.

Southern hospitality is a truly fine thing and the perfect trail magic occurred at the perfect time.
Soon I found myself in a vehicle driven by Wendy to Hot Springs for dinner and great chit chat with her husband Mitch, my stinky laundry was decontaminated and a restful nights sleep was had.  End of hiker hunger!
A really fantastic couple that topped it all off by showing me the local lookout sights and treating me to one of the best breakfasts I have had in the States.  Thanks for taking me in folks!

Enjoying the amazing hospitality of Wendy & Mitch was easily the highlight of my Arkansas trip.  The 6 days of my Ouachita hike were blissful and beautiful and everything I was seeking but I was gently reminded it is the human connections we make that forge lifelong memories.  Something I am relearning as I get a little older and less inclined to hurry.
An evolving Sean!  Then again, aren't we all.

Arkansas is a seriously under rated outdoors destination in my humble opinion.
I'm super pleased to have a great excuse to head back and hike on the Ouachita Trail and visit Arkansas again.  Be back to knock over the other 100 miles soon!

Random musings:

  • I saw no one on the trail except for a local couple camped on the trail early on my 2nd morning and  a fellow 2009 Appalachian Trail hiker 'Downhill" at Queen Wilhelmina.  She and her boyfriend were hiking the opposite direction so I had the pleasure of reading their previous journal entries at the shelters.
  • I bear bagged my food every night, causing much hilarity I imagine for the local animal populations where I camped.  Better a sound sleep I reckon though than exciting nocturnal surprises...
  • I filtered my water with a Sawyer at all times.  Even Arkansas locals I spoke with afterwards advised on this practice.
  • Ticks and poison ivy abound.  Wahoo! I checked myself often for the former, sometimes by taking photos of the areas that are tricky to get eyes on.  Poison ivy is easily avoided if you just stick to the path.
  • I can whole heartedly recommend the 'Grateful Head Pizza Oven & Beer Garden' in Hot Springs.  The vegie pizza I scoffed down still gets me excited thinking about it...

Travel log:

*23 April- 14 mile mark/ 22 kilometre mark.      Campsite near the trail. OK.

*24 April- 40 mile mark/ 64 kilometre mark.      Kimchi River Campsite. OK.

*25 April- 51 mile mark/ 82 kilometre mark.      Queen Wilhelmina State Park, Hotel Room. AR.

*26 April- 80 mile mark/ 128 kilometre mark.    Turner Gap Shelter. AR.

*27 April- 101 mile mark/ 162 kilometre mark.  Fiddler Creek Shelter. AR.

*28 April- 109 mile mark/ 175 kilometre mark.  Suck Mountain Shelter. AR. (Stayed in Hot Springs)

Big thanks to the Friends of the Ouachita Trail volunteer group for their dedication and service in keeping this peaceful path alive and kicking.  You rock!