This is a view of the parking lot at the visitors center at Pinnacle Mountain State Park. This is an exceptionally active state park that has some program or other going on just about every weekend. One of the most important features of Pinnacle is that sign (by the sidewalk just to the left/center of the frame) which marks this spot as the easternmost trailhead of the Ouachita Trail.
What that means is that you can get out of your car here, walk into the woods, follow a marked trail over mountains and boulders, through valleys and across rivers and swamps, over logs and stumps, across ravines and fields and emerge 223 miles later in Talimena State Park in Oklahoma.
At least that's the theory. I've personally hiked about forty to fifty miles of it a piece here and a piece there. I've found some tricky spots and had to do some backtracking, and I'll flat tell you last summer I lost the trail completely crossing a power line easement that had become overgrown west of Lake Maumelle. For more details about that day, read my essay on chiggers.
The OT had a bad reputation for a long time. Lumber companies clear cutting a swath would just lop down all the trees indiscriminately, including the ones with blazes. A hiker out in the middle of nowhere would suddenly come upon a place where the trail had been for all practical purposes erased. It would be like driving along the interstate and suddenly there are no longer any signs. Maybe this exit goes to Oklahoma City. Maybe it doesn't.
Improvements have been made since the mid 1980's. Timber companies are no longer allowed to cut within 200 feet of the trail so the chances of the trail just vanishing from beneath your feet are much reduced. Still, take along your topos. Maintenance is uneven and certain sections can be bad seasonally.
I don't want to scare anybody off. I don't want to keep anybody from enjoying the woods, but this IS THE WOODS. I've never hiked the Appalachian Trail, but a guy who hiked most of the AT and part of the OT told me that relative to this, the AT is a paved promenade; and people who hike the OT smirk a bit at the "outdoorsmen" who brag about having completed the AT. Sure, it's a long distance, but it's practically a cinder track. Might as well do it on a treadmill.
So if this trail is so primitive and so rough and crosses such difficult terrain, who are we saving that first parking space for?
Check the current trail conditions at the Friends of the Ouachita Trail website.
A reader from Clear Lake, TX writes:
Part of my family hails from Arkansas and still live in the northern parts. And I travel there at least once a year from Texas to go hiking and canoeing, both of which are activities of exceptional beauty and solitude in Arkansas.
...I read your excerpt about (the OT) and had to submit a comment. I have thru-hiked the entire 2160-mile Appalachian Trail, most of the Long Trail in Vermont, 800 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail and most of the little known Lone Star Trail in Texas, along with more than half of the OT. You had noted on your web page that a person who had hiked the AT called the AT a cakewalk in comparison to the OT, but I must strongly disagree. On any trail, there are harder and easier sections, but overall, the AT is a much more difficult trail, not just due to the length, but the treadway and elevation gains are not in the same league as the OT (3,000 rock scrambles are the norm in major sections of the AT, whereas the OT never gets above 3,000 feet in elevation and most climbs are only a few hundred feet).
I love the OT at least as much as the AT, and I know the OT has some tough sections (overgrown sticky brush, slippery rock fields...I've been bloodied and bruised out there myself), but I must report that the OT is not nearly as hard as the AT in general. I wouldn't want any would-be hikers to be scared of the OT. It's a lovely trail and nowadays is well-marked and signed. Carrying guidebooks and maps is still best, as I agree that there remain several bad sections of trail that are not marked and are confusing.
Anyhow, I wanted to inject my two cents. By the way, of all the trails I've hiked the little old (265 miles) Long Trail in Vermont is BY FAR the most challenging!
Earnst, Tim. Ouachita Trail Guide, Second Edition. Wilderness Visions Press, Fayetteville, AR. 1996.