For this one week trip (last week in Oct.), we based ourselves at Lake Ouachita State Park in Campsite Area A in our travel-trailer. We like to stay in out-of-the-way scenic places and this state park fit the bill. Our campsite was on a ridge overlooking beautiful Lake Ouachita. There was a trail leading down to the shoreline for walking and fishing. The sunsets were absolutely gorgeous from the tip of the peninsula where the walk-in tent sites were located. The only negative thing about this state park was the lukewarm shower in the bathhouses. The park and the bathhouses were very clean and the staff was very helpful and friendly. The Home Plate Cafe is only 8 miles from this State Park. We ate there twice, once with great meals, the other time not as good.
Day 1: Caddo Bend Trail at Lake Ouachita State Park. This 4 mile hike (rated moderate in difficulty) takes you near the shoreline of a peninsula that extends into beautiful Lake Ouachita. The views across the lake would be gorgeous on a sunny day during peak fall color. This hike took us almost 3 hours (including our picnic lunch stop on some huge rocks on the shoreline). Pick up a detailed trail map at the park visitor's center.
Day 2: Drove part of Scenic 7 Byway and on to Petit Jean State Park. We saw some nice fall leaf colors on this drive, but not yet at peak color. After stopping at the Palisades Overlook we headed for the park visitor's center. The friendly staff there gave us some suggestions for the day. We picked up the Seven Hollows Trail brochure which has a map of the hike and information as to what to look for during each mile of the trail. We started this 4.5 mile trail at 10:30 a.m. It features massive rock formations, unusual turtle rocks, a lovely Grotto, and an impressive natural bridge. We completed the hike in 3 hours and 25 minutes (that included a stop for a picnic lunch at the natural bridge). This is a trail worth doing! After the hike, we drove the Red Bluff Drive to the great overlooks and then did the .25 mile trail to the Rock House Cave. Be sure to bring a flashlight to make it easier to see the Indian pictographs on the walls of this huge rock house.
Day 3: Hot Springs National Park. Free parking is on the top two floors of the parking garage - stop briefly at the Hot Springs city visitor's center for a map, book of coupons for attractions and restaurants, and directions to the parking garage. After parking, we went to the temporary National Park Visitor's Center. Unfortunately only one floor of the Fordyce Bathhouse (the permanent Visitor's Center) was open since they were in the process of moving back into it. We took the 11:00 tour to see the bathhouse. We really enjoyed the ranger that led the tour (only 4 in our group). She did an excellent job with the commentary and provided many interesting stories since her Aunt had actually been a bath attendant years ago. We then walked along the front of the other bathhouses and read the information boards about each. We also walked the Grand Promenade walk that goes behind the bathhouses. Next we drove the hairpin road up toward the Mountain Tower. However, since it was a gloomy day and views were minimal we decided not to pay to go to the top of the Tower. Be sure to pick up some free maps at the National Park visitor's center that show all the trails and scenic drives in the park. The afternoon became rainy so we decided to use a coupon from the attractions book and visit the Gangster Museum. It was enjoyable for a rainy afternoon. Lots of photos and video, but not a lot of actual things from that period. That afternoon, we also took a look inside the beautiful, historic Arlington Hotel.
Day 4: Crater of Diamonds State Park (about 1 1/2 hours drive from Lake Ouachita). This was a must-do for hubby. There had been a heavy rain overnight and this is a good thing for surface searching for diamonds at the park. The rain is suppose to help wash the soil away to expose the diamonds. But the muddy conditions made for hard walking. We wore old clothes and old hiking boots. But the tread on the hiking boots just collected mud so that we were walking around with about 2 inches of mud stuck to our boots. We should have purchased the slick-soled yellow rubber boots they have for sale. We also should have rented the screens for wet water sluicing since that is how the lady from Colorado found a half carat diamond during the time that we were there! Lucky for her, but no luck for us that day! Be prepared for hard work if you go, lifting buckets of mud/soil and then shaking the sluicing screens make for a great arm workout for sure! It was fun to do once! It would have been more fun it it had been our lucky day!
Day 5: This day was suppose to have been a 7 mile RT hike on the Winding Stairs Trail in the Albert Pike Recreation Area, but Forest Service Road 106 to the trailhead was closed. We had stopped at the Womble Ranger District office in Mount Ida, since the ranger office in Glenwood was closed. The volunteer at the Womble office was very familiar with the Winding Stairs Trail, yet I guess was unaware that access to the trailhead was not possible, since he did not mention it to us. Since FSR 106 was closed, we took the nearby Forest Service Road 512. Luckily we were driving a high clearance, 4 wheel drive pick-up truck since on this road we went over many shallow stream crossings. It was quite an adventure! The scenery was beautiful but the road ended at a dead-end and we had to turn around and go all the way back. We stopped along the stream for a picnic lunch. Much of this day was spent on Forest Service Roads, some by choice and some because we made wrong turns! Luckily we also had our GPS and could figure out where we needed to get to. We had picked up a brochure called Crystal Vista Auto Tour Ouachita National Forest and decided to find the Crystal Vista reclaimed quartz mine. After a wrong turn, again on a Forest Service Road, we finally made it to the parking area for Crystal Vista. It is a 1 mile uphill walk to the area for hunting for quartz crystals. This is a free area. When you get up to the ridge top continue on the old road as it curves to the right. On the left hand side you will see a rocky area. The further you get off the road the more likely you are to find some really good quartz specimens. Be sure to turn over the rocks to look for the crystals. It helps to have on some sturdy hiking boots, work gloves (the quartz is sharp) and something sturdy to carry your rocks back down the 1 mile trail. We had a lot of fun here! I'm thinking, at certain times of the year, you might have to beware of snakes since they like rocky areas.
Day 6: Garvan Woodland Gardens. Spent 2 1/12 hours walking all the trails, including the nature preserve trails. According to the volunteer, this would be 5 miles, although it is very easy walking. I think the gardens would be more beautiful in Spring time when the shrubs and bulbs would be in bloom. We were very impressed with the children's area as it is made with lots of natural rocks and even has a cave to go through. Kids looked like they were having a lot of fun in this area.
Day 7: Long drive home to TN. We enjoyed our Arkansas visit! Many things reminded us of East TN - Lake Ouachita reminded us of Norris Lake and the Seven Hollows Trail at Petit Jean State Park reminded us of trails we do in The Big South Fork National Recreation Area of TN.