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Mention Arkansas to most nature-lovers, and they'll likely picture the Ozarks, the state's celebrated backwoods mountain range. But farther south (and extending into eastern Oklahoma) is the Ouachita National Forest (www.fs.fed.us/r8/ouachita/), an unsung treasure that is the oldest and largest national forest in the American South. Celebrating its centennial this December, the Ouachita was established in 1907 by President Teddy Roosevelt to protect nearly 1.8 million acres of ancient mountains, woodlands, streams, and rivers. Ouachita (pronounced Wah-shee-tah) is a French spelling of the Native American word for "good hunting grounds," and the area is still home to plentiful deer, turkey, and other wildlife.
Today the Ouachita boasts more than 700 miles of trails and 4,000 miles of waterways winding through hickory, oak, loblolly, and shortleaf pine forest; it's an ideal destination for hikers, bikers, boaters, and fishermen. Visit from mid October to mid November, and you'll catch the fall colors at their most vibrant. The Ouachita is managed by the U.S. Forest Service with a headquarters in Hot Springs (tel. 501/321-5202), and there are district ranger stations situated in 12 locations throughout.
Threading through the center of the forest is the main Ouachita Trail, which runs 192 miles east to west and ascends as high as 2,600 feet. It's open to foot traffic and mountain bikes, except a 55-miles stretch reserved for hikers only. The trail is frequently intersected by highways, so it's possible to enter or leave at multiple points, facilitating day hikes. A favorite pastime for Ouachita hikers is to look for quartz crystals -- fondly known as "Arkansas diamonds" -- which are abundant throughout the region. Amateur rock-hounding is permitted by the Forest Service, but you should consult the local district ranger or Forest Geologist John C. Nichols (tel. 501/321-5285) if you have questions or plan to do more serious digging.
Mountain bikers will want to seek out the Womble Trail, 37.8 miles of single track with scenic views along the bluffs overlooking the Ouachita River. There are four trailhead parking areas at Round Top Trail on Forest Road D75A, Highway 27 south of the bridge crossing Lake Ouachita, North Fork Lake, and at the Highway 298 trail intersection. For more information about the bike trail, contact the Womble District ranger (tel. 870/867-2101).
One of the most impressive features of the forest is Lake Ouachita, a man-made lake covering more than 40,000 acres. Created (and still administered) by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lake resulted from construction of Blakely Dam in the early 1950s, a project designed to control flooding of the Ouachita River and to generate hydroelectric power. Though the Corps leases a limited number of concessions (including marinas) on the lake, the vast majority of the shoreline is completely undeveloped: Cruising the brilliant blue waters of the lake, you look out over miles of unspoiled forest along the shore, hundreds of scattered little islands, and scarce signs of human activity aside from the occasional encounter with another boat. The lake is home to a host of water actives -- even scuba diving.
There are numerous campgrounds on Lake Ouachita, with fees ranging from $6 to $17 depending on the site and time of year; from May 1 through September 30, Class A campgrounds can be reserved ahead through the online National Recreation Reservation System (tel. 877/444-6777; www.reserveusa.com). If you desire creature comforts, stay instead at the restful Mountain Harbor Resort (tel. 870/867-2191; www.mountainharborresort.com; lodge rooms from $110, 2bd/2ba cabins from $295), which features a guest house as well as cottage or cabin rentals, some of them quite luxurious. You can even get a massage at the resort's Turtle Cove Spa (tel. 870/867-1220) -- which might be just the thing after a long day on the Ouachita trails.
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