The Ouachita National Scenic Trail is a 223 mile (359 km) pathway that winds its way through the Ouachita (pronounced wa-she-ta) mountains of Oklahoma and Arkansas. Relatively little-known outside of the US long distance hiking community, it is a non-motorized single track trail that is well marked and maintained from start to finish. Although there aren’t too much in the way of jaw-dropping vistas, the combination of subtle beauty, solitude, diverse flora and fauna and wonderful hospitality, made my experience on the Ouachita Trail a memorable one. I hiked the OT in the winter of 2011/12 and it represented the eighth of my 12 Long Walks around North America. All logistical details have been updated as of December, 2018.
Distance: 223 miles (359 km)
Avg. Time: 11 -14 days
- West: Talimena State Park, Oklahoma
- East: Pinnacle Mt. State Park, Arkansas
- No public transport available. For possible shuttle options, see Ouachitamaps.com/ Hiking Trails of the Ouachitas and Ozarks.
- April to November.
- Although it can be little chilly (i.e. low to mid-twenties F), if you are looking for solitude I can personally recommend a winter hike of the Ouachita Trail. Apart from the immediate areas around the trailheads, chances are you will have the entire pathway to yourself. If you do choose to hike in the winter, note that there are three-sided shelters situated throughout the hike (see Sleeping below); a real boon when conditions take a turn for the worse.
Maps & Info:
- Overview: The OT is a non-motorized single track trail which is partially open to mountain bikers. Situated primarily in the Ouachita National Forest, in comparison to many other National Recreation Trails, it doesn’t receive a lot of traffic irrespective of the season.
- Guide Book: Tim Ernst, Ouachita Trail Guide. Contains trekking notes, transport details, GPS coordinates, town info and basic trail maps. All you need on this well marked, easy to follow trail.
- Online Information: As of 2018, Friendsot.org (Friends of the Ouachita Trail / FoOT) is your best source for up-to-date information on anything and everything to do with the Ouachita Trail. Click here for a comprehensive list of OT related businesses & websites.
- Maps & GPS: 1. See Ouachitamaps.com for free downloadable topographic maps (29 in total) and GPS information for the entire trail. Excellent resource; 2. Ouachita Mountain Hikers has topo maps and elevation profiles for the OT; 3. As of 2018, Atlas Guides (Guthook) has an app for the trail, which forms part of a larger Arkansas Guide package, that includes the Ozark Highlands Trail and the Buffalo River Trail.
- Resupply: I highly recommend resupplying in Story, AR (population 197). Situated close to the halfway mark of the OT, Story has everything that a hiker needs in the form of the Bluebell Cafe – restaurant, gas station, grocery store, live music venue and all-around community centre. The Bluebell accepts mail drops and you may even be able to organise a shuttle back to the trail (Note: Hitching is easy if a shuttle can’t be arranged).
- Flora and Fauna: The OT boasts a variey of tree species including oak, pine, hickory and red cedar. On the fauna front, I saw deer, squirrels, eagles and hawks. Bears are most active in the spring; your best chance of spotting one is on the western-most section of the OT around the Talimena Scenic drive area. Bears are no dummies; they gravitate to areas in which human carelessness provides them with easy meals.
Route / Conditions:
- Signage: The OT is well marked throughout with blue blazes. The FoOT do a great job of maintaining the pathway.
- Terrain: Rolling, undulating terrain. No big climbs/descents. Elevation ranges between 270 and 2600 ft above sea level.
- Trail Conditions: For up-to-date information on the state of the OT, see the trail conditions page on the FoOT website.
- Water: Check out Bill Mooney’s very helpful OT Water Sources PDF file. Alternatively, see Ernst’s Ouachita Trail Guide. During dry periods, contact the folks at FoOT for the most up-to-date information on sources. It is recommended that all water should be treated.
- Recommended Side Trip: Pinnacle mountain Summit – Not actually on the official OT, the trip to the summit is approximately two miles return. Situated close to the eastern terminus. Fine views with a 360° panorama.
- Bring a tarp, tent or hammock.
- There are three-sided shelters throughout the eastern half of the OT. As of 2012 they were all in good condition (Update – November 23, 2016: According to the FoOT, shelters now “extend the length of the trail except private property (~30 miles) and wilderness areas. The shelters are spaced every 8-10 miles.”
Notes & Musings:
- Beer Karma: I’m not sure if there is some telepathic connection between lovers of the amber fluid around the backpacking universe, but on six separate occasions during my 12 Long Walks trip of 2011/12, I received trail magic in the form of beer. On the Ouachita trail it was two microbrews left trailside by Chris, a local runner whom I had briefly met on the summit of Pinnacle Mountain early on the first day.
- Rich Mountain: Situated a little more than a mile off-trail in Mena, AR, is Rich Mountain Country Store. I hadn’t planned to make this particular side trip, but couldn’t resist the ‘siren-like’ (at least to a long distance hiker) call of burgers and hot chocolate on a cold and rainy day. Turned out to be a wise choice. Steve, the store’s proprietor, made a great cheese burger as well as being a goldmine of information on regional history.
- From the Penthouse to the Outhouse: After enjoying a night of luxury at the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge, the following evening I was forced to take refuge during the ‘Mother of all Electrical Storms’ in a restroom at the Winding Stair Campground.
I’ve got to say, I was pretty chuffed with my find.
It was clean, spacious and even had one of those little hand sanitizer dispensers in the corner. It wasn’t until the following day that I found myself pondering: “I wonder if it’s a sign that you have spent too much time in the boonies, when you start talking about a toilet like it’s the Presidential Suite at the Waldorf Astoria?”