Hometown hikes

Hot Springs, a great place to take a hike

One aspect of my hometown, Hot Springs, Ark., that I love so much is that we are so close to hiking trails. They vary in lengths and sites, provide a getaway for any mood. Some trails can be incorporated into a stroll downtown, while others make for great overnight stays while backpacking.

Little Blakely Trail

The Little Blakely Trail System has multiple trails that loop and connect with each other around a peninsula on the northeast shore of Lake  Ouachtia. It is located in and maintained by the Ouachita National Forest. The whole system is a totally of  17.6 miles. One great thing about the Little Blakely is the trail system can be done in a backpacking trip or by doing sections in several trips. The trail is also open to mountain biking.

Hiking along the Little Blakely Trail
Hiking along the Little Blakely Trail

During hunting season it is wise to wear orange, and the forest service advises to bear bag if you are backpacking.

Each trail section is marked with a letter, which is noted on the map, however some of the signs on the trail have weathered beyond recognition making it hard to tell at which intersection you are. The trail is one of the least used I have been on in this area. I love the solitude and have only a few times run across other hikers or bikers, however some parts are overgrown and hard to find the path. This is most annoying in the summer months when you have to wade through waist-high grass in the Glades Loop portion and overload yourself with bug spray, praying it is strong enough to keeps the chiggers off.

A little less than half of the trail follows an old roadbed. The wide trail makes for easy hiking, but the rocky bed makes it hard to imagine that wagons or old vehicles ever made their way through there.

My dog cooling off in one of the creeks.
My dog cooling off in one of the creeks.

There are a few small creek crossings along the trail. They are small enough you can step over them and do not have to wade across. They are useful when backpacking for a water source, but can be far apart. You can also get water from the lake when backpacking, but remember any water you collect needs to be treated. I found a filter works better than iodine tables when collecting water from the lake, because it can be littered with moss and vegetation.

On one backpacking trip, my friend, Lagena, and I found the perfect spot. It was on a small peninsula around point D, and it was nice and flat for pitching a tent. We were not quite ready to stop for the night so we continued on the trail. We did not have a topographical map, only the drawn map from the forest service. I foolishly assumed the trail would be close to the lake again in a few miles, however we kept climbing away from the lake. A topographical map would have told me, the spot I had picked out was not on the beach, but high above one.

A nice spot to camp on Lake Ouachita.

As we got to the top of a ridge with no water, we decided to go back to the camping spot we saw at point D. It was getting dark, and when the spot came into sight we noticed it had been taken by boaters. We could have camped with them, but my dog was with us and the boaters did not look too friendly. We ended up pitching our tent a little further up the trail on a slope. It was one of the most uncomfortable nights I have had in the woods.

Lagena near the tent pitched on the slope.
Lagena near the tent pitched on the slope.

The trailhead is located at the end Forest Service Road 30200. To find the trailhead from Hot Springs, take Mountain Pine Road, also known as Arkansas Highway 227 to Lake Ouachita State Park. At the visitor center turn right, and follow that road until it turns into a dirt road. When that road ends at another dirt road, go left on Forest Service 30200 until it ends.

A map of the trail along with the Ouachita National Forest’s trail guide can be viewed here.

Sunset Trail

The Sunset Trail is the longest trail located within Hot Springs National Park. Beginning at West Mountain and ending at Gulpha Gorge Campground, the trail covers more than 10 miles, but is the best way to see the majority of the park’s natural beauty. With several trailheads, the trail can be broken up into three sections, around three to four miles a piece.

The pond at Stonebridge when it is frozen.
The pond at Stonebridge when it was frozen.

If you begin the trail at Gulpha Gorge, it is four miles to Cedar Glades Road. This portion of the trails takes you past a ruins and historic structures from times past. As you hike along Gulpha Creek there is a portion of a historic retaining wall. The trail crosses Arkansas Highway 7 and follows Stonebridge Road. You can see the old generator that was apart of the historic Fordyce-Ricks Estate, which is located further south on Highway 7, but not part of the national park. Ricks pond is a beautiful place to lunch. A stone dam creates the pond and in the middle is a charming stone bridge that crosses it.

From Stonebridge Road the trail climbs its way to Cedar Glades Road.

The portion between Cedar Glades Road and Black Snake Road is one my favorites. You begin on a north ridge and on a dry fall day, it can be quite noisy because of the leaves that cover the trail. In cold weather it is one of the last places for snow or ice to melt, which can make for a lovely winter wonderland hike.

The Sunset Trail as it starts from Cedar Glades Road heading west.
The Sunset Trail as it starts from Cedar Glades Road heading west.

This section is also where you find Balanced Rock via a short spur trail. Balanced Rock provides spectacular vistas to the northwest, and is quite nice in the fall when the leave are turning. It is also a magnificent place to view the sunset.

The view from Balanced Rock.
The view from Balanced Rock.

Between the spur for Balanced Rock and Black Snake Road you can see the valley where Whittington Park is located, and Music and West mountains beyond. I love seeing the terrain sweep down and then back up. As you take in the view, it is a little daunting knowing you are heading across that valley and onto the following ridge. The towers on West Mountain provide a landmark that shows how far along the ridge you are going to walk. But this is one thing I love about this trail. I love seeing how far I am going, and when the same view is available from West Mountain, seeing how far I have come.

Climbing on the rocks at Balanced Rock.
Climbing on the rocks at Balanced Rock.

Beyond Black Snake Road, you start the climb up Music Mountain, the highest point in the park. In the leave-off season, you can take in views of western Hot Springs that are unique to the trail. From Music Mountain the trail continues along the ridge to West Mountain, where it ends at the last overlook on West Mountain Drive.

The view of the valley along Whittington Creek, looking toward Balanced Rock from West Mountain.
The view of the valley along Whittington Creek, looking toward Balanced Rock from West Mountain.

For an easier hike, to make the hike mostly downhill, start at the West Mountain overlook.

Several old roadbeds cross the trail, but it is well marked by the national park. Other trails descend West Mountain toward downtown where you can connect with trails and hike over Hot Springs Mountain back to the Gorge to make a loop. We usually leave a car and hike it point-to-point. One of the great things about this trail is it is in town, so you can also easily make arrangement to be dropped off or picked up.

Falls Branch Trail

One of the main attractions at Lake Catherine State Park is its waterfall. Located on the lake for which it gets its name, the park is located south of Hot Springs at the end Highway 171, just past the Diamondhead Community.

The Falls Branch Trail, is about a two-mile round trip, and for anyone who loves streams and waterfall this is the best around Hot Springs. From the trail head, located past the campgrounds in the park, you quickly come to a fork. If you want a quick hike to just the waterfall, go to the left, towards the lake. The whole loop this way also seems a little easier, but the elevation gain is the same either way. I like to go to the right.

Falls Creek Falls
Falls Creek Falls

The trail follows a stream that, after a rain, is very beautiful. It takes you over several bridges that cross the creek.

About halfway into the trail, it follows another small creek in a steep valley to provide a few smaller waterfalls that are dramatic.

Falls Creek is larger and fun for wading.

My brother and sister-in-law at the falls.
My brother and sister-in-law at the falls.

The trail provides views from above and below the falls. On a warm day swimming is refreshing in the pool below the falls. During a rainy few days, another smaller waterfall flows from the side. After the falls, the creek soon turns into a cove of the lake. Another fun way to see the falls is to kayak to them.

A man-made stone overlook gives you views of the powerhouse at the dam of Lake Catherine. For some, myself include, this is not so much a site to see, but I appreciate the view of the cove and lake.

Lake Catherine has three other trails, two of which use part of the Falls Branch Trail for a portion of them.

Hiking is Abundant

There are numerous other trails in the Hot Springs area. I would say the ones that I have written about in this post are the ones I do the most, but I’m not sure which trails around Hot Springs I hike the most. I love them all. I chose one from the national forest, one from the national park and one from a state park to show the diverse opportunities we have here. I love having so many choices when deciding on a hike. I also love that the long trails can be accessed at many points and broken up. And if you don’t feel like taking a trail, there are scenic drives. There are also many places in the Ouachita National Forest to explore on your own and get lost in the woods.

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