Lake Ouachita Vista Trail – a great beginner backpacking trail
Before hiking the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail, the furthest I had ever hiked continuously was about 20 miles, a one-night backpacking trip in Montana. I asked my brother, Jacob, who is a teacher, if he wanted to do a backpacking trip with me during spring break last year.
Thinking we would only do a two-day trip, I asked him if he wanted to hike part of the Ouachita Trail, part of the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail, or another trail.
I had hiked most of the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail, or LOViT as it is called for short, in segments, but I had never backpacked. During my day hikes on the trail, I noted several places that would be awesome camping spots.
Jacob had never been on the trail, so he thought it sounded like the one we should do. I sort of joked and asked if he wanted to do a thru-hike, the entire length of the trail at one time. Not counting the spur trails, the LOViT is about 39 miles from end to end.
This is what Jacob chose – four days of backpacking, three nights, and 39 miles. I have to inform you here that Jacob had not backpacked since he was in basic training for the Army.
I usually suggest first-time backpackers to just do one night out on the trail to get a feel for the experience. But Jacob is in the National Guard and I knew he had experienced somethings similar in basic training.
This trip was also going to be nearly twice as far as I had ever gone before. But we were both up for a challenge.
The LOViT, is close to my home and has several trailheads with cellphone service, so I knew if we overestimated ourselves, it would be easy to call for a ride out.
The Lake Ouachita Vista Trail follows the southern shore of Lake Ouachita in southwest Arkansas. It was developed by volunteers, the LOViT Traildogs, along with the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Army Corp of Engineers. The Traildogs also maintain the trail. The trail’s website can be viewed here.
The Vista Trail is about 45 miles total when you include the spur trails. Because Jacob and I were not sure if we would be able to tackle the 39 miles without the spurs, we decided to leave them off.
The concept of the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail was proposed in 2002, with completion of construction of the first four and a half miles in 2006. The completion of the entire trail was celebrated with ribbon cutting in 2014.
Mountain Biking is also popular on the LOViT. The International Mountain Biking Association named it as one of its “Epic Model Trails.”
One aspect of the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail that I love so much is how accessible each segment is, making it easy to section hike or bike. Each trail segment is broken down on the trail’s website and maps can be viewed by clicking here.
Western terminus to base of Hickory Nut
Jacob and I started our hike in the rain on the west end of the trail, the beginning of the Watchable Wildlife segment. This part of the trail is handicap accessible and takes you through beautiful lowland forests, which happened to be slightly flooded when Jacob and I went through. I thought I had waterproof boots and slugged right through the puddles of water on the trail, however apparently the Gore-Tex had worn off of my boots. The start of a 39-mile trail is not the best place to discover the waterproofing has worn off of your boots.
From there we continued around the peninsula of Tompkins Bend Campground and Shangri-La Resort. Not counting the spur trails, the first nine miles of the LOViT snakes around the lake making mile eight closer to mile one by the way the crow flies, but if you skip this part you will skip magnificent scenery and views of Lake Ouachita.
Another nice aspect of the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail is the number of benches that are periodically placed throughout entirety the trail. And they are not only useful in providing rest, but also for taking your pack off and on. My pack was so heavy, I hated bending down and lifting it. Jacob and I quickly realized when we took a “pack-off break,” we could leave them on the bench and save some energy.
The benches are also marketed on the map so it made planning for our breaks easier.
Between miles eight and nine, the trail take you away from the lake, but through a beautiful narrow valley. This was one of my favorite spots on the LOViT.
Between miles nine and 10, the trail crosses the road that leads to Mountain Harbor Resort. A gas station is not far from the crossing if supplies are needed at this point. From there the trail follows a dirt road a ways until the road ends.
Jacob and I took a break on a log and he sat on his can of Gold Bond foot powder spray, which he thought was snake! So after he nearly had a heart attack and giving me one too, we decided to move on.
The trails goes back through the woods before meeting up and following another dirt road. I knew at the end of that road, which is mile 12, there was a gorgeous spot by a creek to camp, but I wasn’t sure if we could make it that far in one day.
During the last mile, neither one of us hardly spoke a word. We were just pushing on to make it to mile 12 so we could set up camp for the night. When I could see it, I squealed, “I think I see it,” and then collapsed on the ground at the end of the road.
I like this spot because there is the creek with water for drinking and cooking, which also soothes you as you fall asleep. Also because it is flat and free of large rocks and sticks, it is an excellent tent site.
We set up camp and ate our mountain meals. Jacob built a nice fire, and we warmed our souls and body. The hypnotic flames helped bring life back to us, especially because we were soaked from the rain.
Base of Hickory Nut to Crystal Springs
There are two mountains to climb on the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail, Hickory Nut Mountain and Bear Mountain. I had hiked up both, but not carrying a heavy pack. I warned Jacob that Hickory Nut was not going to be easy, but it would be all down hill to Crystal Springs. I was a little wrong (which was not going to be the last time on that hike). The are some ups and downs between the base on the east side of Hickory Nut to Crystal Springs. Jacob was not happy with me when he discovered this.
We started the climb up Hickory Nut pretty quickly after we broke camp. There is a long and steady climb and right before you get to the top. It becomes steep with switchbacks. This part also climbs through a rock glade and can get hot in the sun. But the Traildogs provided a nice bench at the perfect spot for a break.
At the top of Hickory Nut are campgrounds with vault toilets. Jacob and I took advantage of using the restroom instead of using the umm … bushes. If you want to add a short spur to the trail you can hike along the dirt road to the overlook on the mountain, which provides one of the best overlooks of the lake. Jacob and I have driven to the overlook many times, so we decided to continue on.
The descent from Hickory Nut is my favorite part of the entire trail. It follows a narrow valley and gorgeous creek.
At the bottom it intersects Forest Service Road 47A, where the road crosses a creek. A family was cooling off and playing in the creek. Jacob and I took a breather and refilled our water. I had tablets, but after using Jacob’s pump filter I was sold at how much easier filters are.
When we got up to continue on, the little boy in the family said “They have to walk!” His father answered “They choose to walk.”
From there the trail continues on the road before taking you back into the woods. The trail follows the road, both on the road and parallel to the road, for about three miles before it takes you away toward Crystal Springs. The road also goes to Crystal Springs, but the trail is a more direct route. This is at an intersection with another trail, or the Pipe Springs Trailhead on the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail.
Jacob and I made it up an over a smaller mountain, but we were both pretty beat, so we decided to camp at Crystal Springs.
I had a goal of camping about a mile past the Crystal Springs Road trailhead, but we were both too tired. And Crystal Springs had a bathroom and running water.
I always carry a small amount of cash with me, just in case, and in this case I was glad to have the money to pay for our spot. The problem was I had to walk around the campgrounds to find where to pay, and I was so tired of walking. I told Jacob as we came down the mountain, that it felt like I had blisters on the bottoms of my toes. That is exactly what I had! We still had two days of walking. This is where I came up with the term “under Band-Aided.”
The next morning, Jacob said he really wanted some Gatorade, and I really wanted more Band-Aids, so we decided to walk down to the marina. The problem here was they were not open for the season yet. The people at Crystal Springs Resort, however, were so nice! They offered to open the store up so we could get Jacob’s Gatorade, and they wouldn’t take any money for it. They also offered to drive us to Highway 270 to an open store if they didn’t have what we needed. We were pretty stinky, which made me appreciated their offer even more.
Crystal Springs to Brady Mountain Road
The first day we did 12 miles, more than expected. The second day, we did about nine miles, less than expected. The third day I worried that if we didn’t do 11 miles, we would not have enough water for dinner and breakfast. I was wrong, we ended up having enough.
The Lake Ouachita Vista Trail, goes along the ridge of Bear Mountain for six miles. You cross Little Bear Creek, just before you climb the mountain, and that is your last chance for water. Also there are not many comfortable and flat places on Bear Mountain to pitch a tent. Jacob, with his hammock, did not see a problem with the later fact.
We got a late start because we walked to the marina, but we made our way towards Bear Mountain.
After you cross Crystal Springs Road, the trail takes you through beautiful open woods (where I had originally planned to camp). About a mile from the road, there is a fairly large creek crossing, but the wonderful Traildogs have placed large boulders to make crossing possible without getting your feet wet.
The trail climbs up along a ridge that is open and free of too many trees, which provides excellent views of the lake and Crystal Springs campground across the bay. The trail is steep here, and I advised Jacob that this was not Bear Mountain. We dubbed it “Pre-Bear.”
We got to Little Bear Creek and topped off our water. Jacob wanted to take a long break, but I was worried we’d be hiking in the dark. We ate lunch and I doctored my feet, and now using Jacob’s foot spay to keep my feet as dry as possible.
We started the climb up Bear Mountain and Jacob said is was worse than Hickory Nut, because it’s slow and steady. I kept telling him, once we got to the top it leveled out. I was wrong – again.
Once you get to the top, the trail levels out, but only for a bit, then continues to climb slow and steady.
A U.S. Forest Service firing range is at the base of Bear Mountain on the Brady Mountain Road side. I also forgot that the “Firing Range” warning signs begin much further away than I thought, making it seem even longer.
This part of the hike, I pushed on and would wait for Jacob at one of the benches.
I love this part of the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail. It is my second favorite part of the whole trail. The views from Bear Mountain are excellent, and more than worth the climb to get there.
As we began our descent, the light of the day was slipping away. We hiked the rest of the way to Brady Mountain Road using our headlamps.
I didn’t want to camp right on the road, but I couldn’t remember where there was nice spot to camp past it.
We hiked up the trail a little ways from the road, and just fell out, deeming that spot the best because we could not hike anymore! I should probably tell you here that a tornado came through this area a few years back and it was now overgrown with briers – not best for camping, but we did not care.
I love my tent and spent a pretty penny on it, so I was very careful not to have a brier poke a hole in it. My CamelBak water bladder, I didn’t think about, but I must have poked a hole in it. Fortunately, we only had one more day and I had a one-liter water bottle.
Jacob hung his hammock between two trees that were a little too close, but he did not care. He only cared that he was not walking anymore for the day.
Brady Mountain Road to eastern terminus
When planning for the hike, I opted for only a little more than a six-mile hike the last day because I knew we would be worn out. The hike was easy for a little ways, but then began to make its last climb. Again, we climbed up to an amazing rocky ridge with spectacular views of the lake.
My feet were killing me by this point and walking along those rocks, though they were beautiful, they were putting pressure on my toes as my feet wobbled around them for stability. I have hiked this before and was much more appreciative then without painful feet. It felt like my pinky toes were broken. They were not, I was just in too small of boots.
The trails descends from the ridge and follows a dirt road. This made me toes feel better. It parallels the road just before it intersects with the road to the Spillway Use Area road.
Jacob and I took a break here, and I could tell he had almost had enough. I encouraged him by saying it was just about two more miles and we would have hiked the whole way.
When we got to where we could see the top of Blakely Dam, I knew it was all downhill from there. We could not hike that last mile fast enough. We got to the western terminus at the Avery Trailhead and of course I made Jacob pose for pictures by the sign.
I was so high at this point. The trill of accomplishment is one of my favorite feelings.
The Lake Ouachita Vista Trail is must hike. Whether you hike it in segments or all at one time like we did, the scenery is unmatched.