The Caney Creek Wilderness area in the Ouachita National Forest in southwest Arkansas is one of the most beautiful and rugged areas in the state. It is 14,460 acres and is a backpackers paradise. Because it is a wilderness area, it is a great place for solitude and primitive recreation. One great day hike in the area is the Tall Peak Trail.
The Tall Peak Trail is 3.2 miles one way. The trailhead is at Shady Lake ONF Recreation Area, but can also be accessed from Forest Service Road 38 about 1.8 north of Shady Lake. The trailhead is near the badminton net and restroom in the last loop of the campground.
Hiking along a creek
You begin the trail by crossing a low water bridge. The trail follows a beautiful river (it’s called the Saline River but is quite small for a river) for about a mile before it turns to the left and heads uphill.
During this first mile as you follow the Saline River you also follow the road. The trail crosses the river three times. I was able to hop from rock to rock or tippy toe to keep the water from flowing over my boots. But if the water level had been any higher I would have need to take off my boots. One good thing about the road being right there is that if the water is too high, you can walk the road.
This area is gorgeous as there are sever high steep embankments along the river which creates beautiful chutes and deep pools. However, at one point the trail climbs the steep embankment and can be a little treacherous, so you’ll want to watch your footing and be careful with children and/or dogs.
Making the climb
Right at a mile the trail begins to climb the mountain, and the trail splits. Here you’ll want to stay to the left. It looked like to me if you go to the right, it takes you to the road.
The trail steeply climbs for about two tenths of a mile and then levels off just a little. You are still climbing up, just not as steeply. Then at right about 1.5 miles the trail makes a turn to the left, and you begin to see Tall Peak with the old fire lookout building and towers through the trees to your right.
I love seeing where I’m going and how far and high I’m going. You get that on this trail. At this point Tall Peak looks far away and way high up. But don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it seems. It also looks like you have to drop back down into the valley, but you don’t.
The trail is fairly level as it swings to the west and follows the contour line to a saddle at mile 2, before you start the steep climb to the top of Tall Peak. The saddle is pretty neat. It is very narrow and I love how it showcases the ruggedness of the area.
After you cross the saddle the trail starts to climb on a very steep slope to your sides. If you use trekking poles, they will come in handy here.
Around mile 2.3 you come to a rocky glade with amazing views to the west. You then turn and head up the mountain to the east. It’s steep and rocky, but the vistas along the way are worth it.
At mile 2.6 there is a short spur trail to the right to an amazing vista. I actually like this view better than the view from the top. The vista shows the mountains to the east and you can really get a feel for how rugged this place is.
From the vista you continue climbing, heading west. The trail then turns and heads northeast toward the Forest Service Road that takes you to the top of Tall Peak. The road has been closed for a while now. However if you are looking for a less steep and shorter alternative, you can walk up the road. It’s about a two mile hike.
If you are looking for a trail with even more vista in this area, check out the Athens-Big Fork. But be prepared, it’s a long and hard one.
The trail intersects with the road at about 2.9 miles and from there you can follow the road around to the old fire lookout.
Historic fire look out
The building is pretty neat and a great campsite if you are stuck in a storm. It is listed on the National Historic Lookout Register, which recognizes “fire lookout sites, structures and towers with historic and cultural significance to forest fire detection in order to promote their protection.” For more information on these structures, visit the National Historic Lookout Register.
From the peak, you can either hike back down the way you came or take the road back to Shady Lake. If you decided to hike the road, it will add about two miles to your hike. I chose to hike back down the trail because I loved the vistas I saw on the way up. I also didn’t want to add two more miles.
Tall Peak Trail is a great hike; however it is rough and rugged. You’ll want to bring plenty of water because on the rocky outcroppings it can get much warmer than in the valley.
When to hike Tall Peak Trail
Tall Peak Trail is better hiked in the leaf-off season because you get more views. However with all the vistas, it is an amazing fall hike. Also because it’s a tough trail and you’ll appreciate the cooler temperatures. At the top the briers are thick which is another reason to hike it in the leave off season.