The forecast was for rain on Christmas day. As evidenced by our #OptOutside #GreenFriday hike, rain is not always a deterrent to a day hike. Of course, we can be flexible and realizing that we had the option of taking our yearly Christmas hike a day early in perfect weather, we jumped at it. The Christmas Day Hike is a long running tradition for the AO team. We’ve hiked Pinnacle Mountain, Petit Jean, Woolly Hollow and Lake Catherine State Parks over the years. We’ve hiked most of the local trails and even did a quick hike at Allsopp Park trying and failing to beat the coming snow one year. The goal has been not to repeat hikes and it took us a while to come up with a unique hike this year. The choice became incredibly obvious once I realized that for all our time spent in and around Hot Springs, we have never hiked the Hot Springs National Park trails as a family.
For the short drive to Hot Springs, Lisa picked a reading of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens and read by Neil Gaiman to enjoy together. The weather was beautiful, in fact, a little warm. It didn’t feel much like the end of December. Our youngest daughter came along, one of the first times she has been able to join us for the annual Christmas hike. We stopped by the national park visitor center inside the restored historic Fordyce Bathhouse to grab a trail map. The trails are accessible just behind the bathhouse.
We soon found ourselves heading uphill, straight uphill. We decided to hike the Hot Springs Mountain side of the park and basically cover it counter-clockwise. From the Grand Promenade, the paved trail that runs behind the bathhouses, we followed the Dead Chief Trail which climbs for about half a mile before becoming a rolling walk through the Ouachita woodlands. This trail follows a trail originally designed 100 years ago this year, an accidental bonus to our hike.
After almost a mile and a half, we came to the Gulpha Gorge Trail. Downhill, this trail takes hikers to the Gulpha Gorge Campground, We went up, accomplishing several switchbacks before coming to the Goat Trail. The Goat Trail got us back on our eastward course and eventually brought us to Goat Rock, a large rock formation on the edge of the trail. I recommend taking the short trail to the top just about 30 feet before the rock, there are some stairs and handrail to help you get up there. From the top I found myself wondering what the view was like in the early days of the trail when there were few man-made structures in the view-shed.
We walked the Goat Trail as it slowly climbed up to the eastern ridge. The iconic Ouachita quartz covers the trail and in some places it’s practically paved with it. A couple of easy switchbacks transported us to the ridge and a relatively flat hike to the Upper Dogwood Trail to the right which lead us downhill on a wide trail, an easy walk that our dog seemed to enjoy. We turned left on the Lower Dogwood Trail and followed it down to the Floral Trail, a steep downhill trail that took us to one of the park drives. Turning to the right at the road we stopped at a spring and refilled our water bottle before getting back on the Grand Promenade and heading back to the visitor center.
In all, a beautiful walk of about four and a half miles. A few steep climbs with little technical terrain are rewarded with beautiful views and a day spent in the oldest National Park if not the first, but that’s another story. Let me know if you’re curious in the comments and I’ll explain. The other reward is that the trail begins and ends in a great town. Our visit was perfectly timed, not only due to the weather, but also being Christmas Eve, the shops along Central Avenue were open. We sat near a fountain and enjoyed some sandwiches and chips we brought along before walking up the street to get a quick dessert at Fat Bottomed Girls Cupcakes. A sweet ending to a great day. We finished listening to our reading of “A Christmas Carol” on our way home, ready to face the excitement, joy, and overall craziness of Christmas Day.