Sleeping Under the Stars: Overnight Hikes in Arkansas

If you’re dreaming of getting outside when the weather warms, why not dream of sleeping under the stars on an overnight or multi-day hike. There are plenty of trails in Arkansas with enough mileage for an exciting expedition that could be tame enough for families or adventurous enough for seasoned backpackers. I admit, I’ve been dreaming of campfires lately. Backpacking or sometimes just car camping with my family gives me all the warm fuzzy feels from great memories and dreams of trips to come. We hold on to the memories and stories with the kids, treasuring the times when they (and we) were younger. “Remember that time when I accidentally left the tortillas in the bottom of the plastic tote and we came back to camp to find a squirrel or squirrel posse had gnawed through the tote and the plastic bag the tortillas were in?” Which is more like “remember that time mom ‘possibly’ killed those squirrels because they ate plastic and couldn’t poop it out?” Or “remember that time mom went to the dutch oven cooking class and what was supposed to be thick fluffy bread turned out like pancake flat foccacia?” Not that all camping stories involve a mom fail; “remember that time mom hid small boxes of chocolate in the bottom of our backpacks so we found them on the last night of the trip?” This time of year makes me long for the cool nights with a small fire, the smell of the forest and the stillness that envelopes the backcountry. If you find yourself feeling the same kind of wanderlust, here are some suggestions.

Family Friendly:

Cane Creek State Park  Star City, AR

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The 15.5 mile Cane Creek Lake Trail is moderate difficulty with very little elevation change making it a great hike for younger kids. If you pick up a camping permit at the Visitor Center, you can hike in and camp at the shelter situated at mile 6 on the trail and hike the rest of the trail the following day. If you prefer day hiking, there is a campground and a rent-a-RV on site at the park for your homebase. There is also a kayak trail on the lake with rentals available at the park, easily filling a long weekend with activities. Mountain biking is also allowed on the Cane Creek Lake Trail. Each year the Boy Scouts in the area host the Flapjack 20, a 20 mile overnight hike with hot cocoa in the middle and flapjacks and sausage at the end along with bragging rights and a hiking merit badge earned.

Mt Nebo State Park Dardanelle, AR

Nebo

Mt Nebo is probably one of my favorite places to stay, whether it’s in a tent or in one of the cabins. The trails at Nebo interlace providing everything from smooth wide gravel on the Bench Trail to steep rugged trails with waterfalls and beautiful CCC work along the Rim Trail and other side trails like the Summit Park or Gum Springs trails. In addition to the campground, tent camping is allowed along the Bench Trail at one of the ten hike-in sites. Mountain biking is allowed on the Bench Trail so you can bikepack in.

Multi Day Adventures:

Ozark Highlands Trail  200+ miles in Northwest AR, Trailhead at Lake Ft Smith State Park

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Possibilities are endless along this trail; there are established camping spots along the trail at the expected locations (the required distance off trail and off water source, but close enough to access) , and public campgrounds at Lake Ft. Smith State Park, White Rock Mountain, Shores Lake, Redding, Ozone, Haw Creek Falls, Fairview, Richland Creek, and Woolum. Cabins are available at White Rock and Lake Ft Smith State Park. If you want to hike long sections without hiking out and back, shuttle services are available. Another option lies in the two loop trails on the OHT, Shores Lake-White Rock 13.4 miles, an AO team favorite, and the Redding-Spy Rock 8.8miles. No mountain bikes, horses, or off road vehicles are allowed on the OHT, but dogs are allowed on the trail except the sections inside the Buffalo River National Park.  For good information and more details, go to the trail FAQ site.

Ouachita Trail 224 miles from Little Rock, AR to Talihena, OK

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From the western terminus in Oklahoma, the trail is divided into 11 segments with the final 30 miles of trail east of Hwy 9 ending at the Visitor Center at Pinnacle Mountain State Park. Primitive established campsites as well as multiple shelters and Forest Service Recreation Areas are located along the trail. The terrain varies on the trail and good descriptions of each section, along with a list of amenities to be found in each area can be found on the Forest Service information site. No horses or off road vehicles are allowed, but the trail is open to mountain bikes for 137 miles from the western end to Big Cedar trailhead and from Talimena Scenic Drive to the Hwy 7 trailhead north of Jessieville, AR. The friends group for the trail, FoOT, has been working with mountain bikers and agencies to allow bikes on the trail. Please respect the boundaries and be good partners with those hiking and maintaining the trails. Shuttle services are available. For those who love topo maps, you can find them here.

Eagle Rock Loop Trail  25.2 miles (or 26.8 with spurs depending on the source), Albert Pike Recreation Area, near Langley, AR with access points

David dances on the rocks across Viles Branch Creek.
David dances on the rocks across Viles Branch Creek.

Enjoy the longest loop trail in the state with multiple stream and river crossings, expansive views and long steep climbs in the Athens-Big Fork section. If you have 3 days, or better yet 4, this Ouachita National Forest treasure is a must do hike. With spring rains, some of the creek crossings can be wide as well as swift. Keeping a pair of water shoes and a shamwow hooked on your pack is a great idea when traversing this trail.  Account for the experience of your group and take necessary precautions to keep everyone safe. If the steep climbs and descents of the challenging Athens-Big Fork area are not your cup of tea, a hike starting the loop from Albert Pike Recreation Area or from the Little Missouri Falls Trailhead and finding a turnaround when the elevation change is too much for your party will still offer a great overnight experience. Spirit Rock Vista and the Winding Stairs area are the author’s favorite spots along this trail.

Tips: Travel as light as possible, but prepare for adventure. Pack gear and clothing for adverse weather, keep a first aid kit handy, carry enough food to last at least 2 meals longer than you think you’ll be out, and keep a little duct tape somewhere. We speak from experience.