Everyone who is familiar with Lake Catherine State Park is familiar with the Falls Branch Trail and the waterfall. I never knew the waterfall had a name until I started blogging, but it does. It’s called Falls Creek Falls. Anyways, there are many other features to the state park that you need to check out that don’t involve Falls Creek Falls. The Horseshoe Mountain Trail is gorgeous and kind of a unique trail to the Ouachitas.
The Horseshoe Mountain Trail is three and half miles and listed as “steep and rugged” by the park. It is definitely not as often hiked as the Falls Branch Trail. You can tell by the grass that you have to wade through once you get up on the ridge.
An Arkansas State Park, Lake Catherine State Park is between Hot Springs and Malvern on Highway 171, also known as Catherine Park Road. You can take exit 97 from I-30 at Malvern and follow that road until it dead ends at the park, about 12 miles from the interstate.
The trailhead is at the end of the camping area. Lake Catherine State Park has three hiking trails and one nature trail. All three hiking trails begin at the same trailhead. For more information about the park’s system of trails, click here.
Horseshoe Mountain Trail
Most of the Horseshoe Mountain Trail follows the ridgeline through glade vegitation, which makes the trail beautiful and unique. I love the shorter trees and taller grasses.
It is the second longest at the park. The Falls Branch Trail is two miles and the Dam Mountain Trail is four miles.
However the beautiful vegetation does have its drawbacks, especially in the spring and summer. One thing that can be miserable is the grass has seeds that stick to your clothing. The tall grasses hang over the trail and have seeds that stick to your clothing and can make you miserable. These seeds poke through your pants and socks to bug you immensely while you hike. Also because the trees are shorter, there is less shade. And you are hiking on white novaculite, which reflects heat and makes the hike even hotter.
Trailhead to the ridge
The Horseshoe Mountain Trail is marked with yellow blazes. After you begin the trail, you will hike about one-tenth of a mile before you get to a trail intersection. The trail splits into three directions. The trail to you right is where the Horseshoe Mountain Trail splits from all three trails. There is a large sign that tells you which way to go.
But if you chose to hike the trail in reverse, take a left where the trail splits in three directions. After hiking for a small ways, you will cross a swinging bridge. Shortly after the bridge, the Horseshoe Mountain Trail will split to the right.
I have hiked it both directions, and I believe the climb is a little less strenuous if you go to the right at the first trail intersection you come to.
When you get to the first trail intersection and go to the right, you will quickly start the climb up the hill. It’s not terribly steep, but I quickly noticed I was well above the trailhead.
During the climb, you come to a rock outcropping. From there you can see the ridge to your left, which is the other side of the “horseshoe”. I love looking across the valley and seeing where I am going.
Horseshoe Mountain loops a fairly narrow valley. This is the valley that the Falls Branch Trail leads hikers through.
Once you get on the ridge and you begin to wade through the sea of grass, keep an eye out to your right through the trees for views of Hot Springs.
The trail will head west-ish for a while before rounding the bend of the horseshoe and heading back east-ish. As you make the bend, you pass through a stand of larger trees that is typical of hiking in the Ouachitas.
But don’t let if fool you, you still have much more grass to go through. I was there in early May and the wildflowers were beautiful. So if you can put up with the sticky grass, I suggest hiking it in the spring.
Falls Branch Trail intersections
The Horseshoe Mountain Trail intersects the Falls Branch Trail twice. As you drop back down into the valley, you leave the grass and short trees for the more shaded forest again. You can really feel and see the trail drop in elevation. But it’s not too hard of climb if you are hiking from the other direction.
A great place to take a long break is at the first intersection with the Falls Branch Trail. There is a bench so you don’t have sit on a rock or on the ground.
From there you have a short climb back up to the ridge, where there is more grass, shorter trees, and flowers. You are on the ridge for a little while before the trail enters back under the forest canopy. This time it steeply drops down into the valley.
The first time I hiked the trail, we came from the opposite direction and I had to take many breaks. There are switchbacks, but even the switchbacks are steep.
At the bottom the trail meets back up with the Falls Branch Trail near the lake and follows it back to the trailhead. (Note this is the place where you would have split to the right after crossing the swinging bridge if you had hiked the trail in reverse.) Turn left here. Then almost immediately you will cross the swinging bridge. Caddie, my dog, is not a fan of that bridge. But it is really fun.
But if you want to see Falls Branch Falls and finish the other side of the Falls Branch Trail loop, turn right here where the trail meets the Falls Branch Trail. If you do, it will add a little more than a mile and a half to your hike.
Back to the trailhead
After crossing the swinging bridge, you also pass the park’s sewer treatment facility, which can not smell so great sometimes. Don’t worry though, you get through it quickly.
Once you can see the campgrounds, you want to stay to the left. The trail goes back through a reforest area. Even though you can see the trailhead parking lot, it’s really important to stay with the trail blazes so you don’t harm the fragile ecosystem.
You will come back to the first trail intersection you came to at the beginning of the hike – where the trail splits three ways. From there, take a right and you will end up back at the the trailhead.