The Little Missouri River in the Ouachita Mountains in southwest Arkansas is my favorite area – anywhere. Several trails snake through the area with spectacular scenery, but the Winding Stairs segment of the Little Missouri Trail is my favorite.
The Little Missouri Trail is a 16-mile, one-way trail that follows the river, and the Winding Stairs segment is about two miles of those 16 miles. One nice thing about the Little Missouri Trail is that there are five trailheads along its path, so the whole 16 miles does not have to be completed in one trip. But if you do want to do the whole trail, it is a great backpacking trail. And if you are wanting even more, the trail is part of the Eagle Rock Loop trail, a 26.8-mile loop through the rugged mountains of this region.
This area is maintained by the Ouachita National Forest. Camping is allowed anywhere in the national forest, unless otherwise posted. The developed campground at Albert Pike is closed until further notice following a flood in 2010 when 20 people perished.
The trailhead for the Winding Stairs segment is located on Forest Service Road 106 about two miles west of Albert Pike Campground.
The namesake for the Winding Stairs is a series of bends and rapids causing the river to drop down in elevation.
From the parking lot the trail takes you into the forest for a short ways before crossing Blaylock Creek. At one point the forest service built a bridge to keep hikers from getting their feet wet, however the creek quickly washed it away. Only a fragment of it remains in the middle of the creek.
This is one of two stream crossings on the Winding Stairs segment of the Little Missouri Trail, however the whole trail crosses the river several times.
River shoes are a great idea when hiking this trail. In the summer I wear Chacos or Tevas, because I can hike in them also. In the winter I bring them along and change into them for the stream crossings. If you chose to go barefoot, be careful. I have fallen into a few creeks from stepping on rocks at the wrong angle.
After you cross Blaylock Creek the trail takes you through a beautiful river bottom forest. Umbrella magnolias tower above you blocking out much light as you walk along the sandy path. You will cross a few wet-water streams so if you do hike in sandals, be prepared to have muddy feet.
You leave the river bottom and steeply ascend to a gorgeous overlook. From here you can see the mountains to the east and take in the beauty of the rugged terrain of the area.
After the overlook, the trail meanders around the slope of the mountain, but is mostly level and pleasant. Just before you descend back to the river bottom you can overlook the river.
At this point in the river, a giant beech tree used to hang out far across the river. When I was child, my family and I used to marvel at it strength to hold on, but it too has been washed away.
Across the river, an older trail crosses the river here. When I was growing up, we used to take this route.
As you drop back down to the river bottom, the new trail and old trail converge. Here the river makes a U shape and the trail takes you to the other side of the U of the part of the river you were just looking down on from above.
When you get to the bank, the old trail crosses the river. It can be dangerous if the river is high and the water is moving swiftly. Even when the river is not so high, it is still thigh-high to me. The marked trail follows along the river and crosses a little further down where it is more wide and shallow.
But at the first river crossing the scenery is amazing with steep high walls that show you just how much power water has. This is one of my favorite places in the world. I love being in the deep valley marveling at nature.
If you chose to stay on the marked trail, you climbs above the river giving a higher perspective of the valley. The trail drops down and crosses the river, following it follows it a little ways until coming to a deep blue pool.
If I am just hiking the Winding Stairs, I stop where Ravens Branch Creek comes into the river. The creek flows into the river at the end of the blue pool just as the river makes a 90 degree turn.
When I was a child, my family used to float the Winding Stairs on inner tubes. It was so much fun! The best part was the end, between where the trail crosses the river and the blue pool. The end part, what is informally known as the narrows, the river cut a deep shoot in between the rocks making an excellent water ride. It was so much fun we would walk back up the river and do it over and over again.
After we floated we would deflate our tubes and hiked back to the car.