I wait all summer for days like these. I was too distracted daydreaming about hiking to actually write about it, and the thought of staying indoors on a day like this had me feeling pretty low. While researching this story, I’d read that hiking can boost one’s creativity, attention span and happiness. It was obvious what I needed to do… Go take a hike.
My family and I drove a short distance to the Sunset Trailhead on Cedar Glades Road. Within minutes, we were in wooded seclusion, hiking along the ridge of Sugarloaf Mountain in Hot Springs National Park. We took a short spur trail to Balanced Rock, an outcrop of Arkansas Novaculite with expansive views overlooking the park. We clambered over the rocks like mountain goats and admired the scenery before heading back to our truck. About a two-mile round trip hike, it was the perfect distance to tackle with our five-year-old daughter and it gave me the boost I needed.
Nestled in the Ouachita Mountains, Hot Springs is surrounded by state- and federally-protected forests that offer quick and easy access to hundreds of miles of trail of all levels of difficulty.
“I think Hot Springs is the best place to live for hiking and outdoor activities,” said local hiking enthusiast Mara Kuhn who has hiked in national parks all across the country.
In addition to her day job as the communications manager for the Greater Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, Kuhn is the content manager for a popular women’s hiking blog, Hike Like a Woman. She also has her own outdoor adventure blog, Right Kind of Lost.
“There’s no where else in the country that you can leave a downtown area and be in a national park on a hiking trail within five minutes,” she said.
In addition to the national park, Hot Springs borders a national forest and has multiple state parks in its vicinity. Each has its own character and trails well worth exploring. Below you’ll find information on some of the local favorites, including some great trails located right within the city limits…
Located just minutes from downtown on a large swath of city-owned property, the Hot Springs Northwoods Trail System has been garnering a lot of national attention among mountain bikers, but it’s also a great hiking destination. Designed and built by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), the scenic trail system is located on some 2,000 rolling acres with lake views, towering trees and wildlife. The Water Works Trailhead, located on Pineland Drive, is just two miles from downtown.
“It’s a wonderful hike and it’s really close to downtown,,” Kuhn said. “I like that. You can go for a hike and then have a beer.”
There are currently 16 miles of trails (out of a planned 44). Some are bike-use only but the trails are well marked and detailed maps are available here.
For a more urban experience, check out the Hot Springs Creek Greenway Trail. A nice leisurely stroll, it takes you through parts of town you might not otherwise see. The 12-foot-wide, ADA accessible pathway stretches 2.7 miles from the Hot Springs Transportation Depot to its current termination, just past Golf Links Road. It passes by the city’s farmer’s market pavilion, a skate park, ballfields, and Hollywood Park, with picnic tables, a pavilion and a whimsical playground.
The trail meanders alongside Hot Springs Creek, a historic corridor that was used by Native Americans who traveled the banks to reach the thermal springs in what is now downtown Hot Springs. The trail features sculptures, a butterfly garden, scenic overlooks and informational signs along the way. Upon its completion the trail will terminate at a wetlands park, where the creek empties into Lake Hamilton, for a total of 4.2 miles.
“I think it’s a great way for someone to experience Hot Springs, and the things we have to offer,” said Ken Freeman, trails coordinator for the City of Hot Springs.
Take a stroll through Garvan Woodland Gardens on the southeast side of town and you’ll feel like you’ve walked into an enchanted forest. A 210-acre botanical garden, it features 4.5 miles of trails, including a 1.7 mile loop trail through a nature preserve. Located on the eastern shore of Lake Hamilton, the preserve offers beautiful views of the lake, and is a great spot for birdwatching.
Headquartered in the heart of downtown, Hot Springs National Park is home to 26 miles of trails that meander through the mountains surrounding the valley town. While the majority are relatively short, many are interconnected so you can create longer hikes and loops. The trails are well marked and maps are available online and at the Hot Springs National Park Visitors Center in the Fordyce Bathhouse.
“When most folks think of hiking in a National Park, they are thinking about backcountry hiking and to do that most places require a permit,” said Park Guide Nalissala Allen.
No permit is required to hike in Hot Springs National Park and the trails range from easy to strenuous, allowing visitors to hike at their own comfort levels.
“We call it “HIKING” but really it is walking with elevation,” Allen said. “You still need to wear comfortable shoes and take plenty of water with you but that is just good hiking sense.”
The Grand Promenade, a wide brick pathway running behind Bathhouse Row, provides access to several trails on Hot Springs and North Mountains, including the Peak Trail (0.6 miles) which leads to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower where you can enjoy 360-degree, panoramic views of Hot Springs.
Goat Rock Trail (1.1 miles) is another popular hike, and one that Kuhn lists among her local favorites. There is a trailhead at the overlook on North Mountain but, if you’re up for a longer hike, Goat Rock can be reached via connecting trails from downtown or the Gulpha Gorge Campground.
At approximately 10 miles, the Sunset Trail is the longest in the park and can be combined with other trails to create a strenuous 15-17 mile loop hike, according to the park’s website.
Allen said the Stonebridge section of the Sunset Trail is her favorite trail in the park. Located just north of downtown, this stretch parallels Stonebridge Road, and features a picturesque setting with a large pond, a stone bridge and an old water wheel.
“Here I can hike and feel like I have left the world behind,” Allen said. “As you walk past the pond and start on the Sunset trail you can hear the pileated woodpeckers singing to one another and sometimes, if you find a nice place to sit, you can see them flying through the trees like tiny jet fighters. Walking in the valley, you can no longer hear the cars in the distance. This is a great place to recharge and get focus on the things that are important to you.”
Park at the Gulpha Gorge Campground and hike from there or, for a shorter hike, park at Desoto Park on Highway 7, and pick up the trail where it crosses the highway.
Bordering Hot Springs is the Ouachita National Forest, a 1.8-million-acre swath of land covering west-central Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. An outdoor recreational playground, it is home to over 50 trails. The longest is the Ouachita National Recreation Trail, which stretches 192 miles from Talimena State Park in Oklahoma to Perryville, Arkansas. (It continues another 32 miles outside of the national forest to Pinnacle Mountain State Park.) The eastern end of the trail is easily accessible from Hot Springs and features some of the prettiest sections of the trail, said Robin Wolf, a Forester with the Jessieville-Winona-Fourche Ranger District. (The district office is located about 30 minutes north of Hot Springs in Jessieville.)
To get a taste of the Ouachita Trail, Wolf recommends parking at the trailhead on Highway 9 and heading west. The trail follows a creek and is especially pretty in the spring when the wild flowers are in bloom, she said.
If you’re looking to do some backpacking, consider the 30-mile section between the trailheads on Highway 7 and Highway 9 north of Hot Springs. This stretch is a favorite of Jim Gifford, a volunteer with the Friends of the Ouachita Trail (FoOT), a nonprofit organization that helps maintain the Ouachita Trail. He recommends this section to people looking for a good three-day hike.
“It is not an easy hike,” he said, adding that there are some pretty tough climbs and at least one water crossing that often requires hikers to take off their boots.
“The rewards are great, however,” he said. “There are some drainages that often produce waterfalls and some good vistas. The middle ten miles traverse Flatside Wilderness, a federal wilderness area.”
You can find more backpacking opportunities in the Caddo/Womble Ranger
District of the Ouachita National Forest, which is also relatively close to Hot Springs. The 36-mile Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT) is an IMBA Epic trail that’s popular with mountain bikers and hikers. It is located along the southern shore of Lake Ouachita and offers some pretty amazing views of the lake.
“I love the LOVit,” said Kuhn who backpacked all 36 miles over four days and three nights. “It’s a beautiful trail.”
For more day hikes in the Ouachita Forest, Wolf recommends the Little Blakely Trail System, comprising five different loop trails, and Hunts Loop Trail, a four-mile loop trail.
Located about 30 minutes northwest of downtown Hot Springs, Lake Ouachita State Park is situated along the eastern shore of Lake Ouachita, the largest lake located entirely within the state of Arkansas. The park offers camping and cabin rentals, interpretive programs and free day-use areas with swim beaches and a marina. It also boasts a really great day hike: The Caddo Bend Trail, a four mile, strenuous hike with great views of the lake.
“The Caddo bend trail at Lake Ouachita State Park is one of my favorites,” Kuhn said. “You’ve got open views of the lake and then you go through hardwood forests and it’s just beautiful forest and a beautiful lake.”
Like Lake Ouachita, Lake Catherine is the result of dams built along the Ouachita River. It is the smallest of the area lakes but it is also home to a nice state park along its shores with camping, a marina and great hiking. A family favorite is the Falls Branch Trail, a moderate two-mile trail that leads to a seasonal waterfall measuring 12-15 feet tall. It’s a nice summertime hike because you can cool off in the swimming hole at the base of the waterfall before finishing the loop. The trailhead is located at the south end of the park, near the amphitheater. For a longer hike with scenic vistas, check out Horseshoe Mountain Trail, a moderate, 3.5 miles that winds through the forest and over novaculite glades along the ridge of Horseshoe Mountain Trail.
Whether you’re looking for a leisurely stroll or a multi-day, backcountry excursion, you’ll find it in and around Hot Springs… And there’s no better place to finish your journey than the Spa City, where you can soothe sore muscles with a hot soak in the thermal baths or toast your trek with a cold, locally- brewed craft beer. Happy trails!
Leslie Fisher is a media professional with a passion for travel and adventure. She has Covered Hot Springs and the surrounding areas for over a decade and enjoys being a tourist in her hometown.