When it's time to leave your day-to-day routine behind, nothing soothes the soul or invigorates the mind like good old Mother Nature. Sometimes it's hard to decide what you're in the mood for quiet reflection under a star-filled sky, hiking through a forest, or fishing on a peaceful lake. There are endless ways to get up and enjoy the outdoors, but if you're looking to escape into some of the most breathtaking landscapes that nature has to offer, look no further than Ozark National Forest.
What Is The Ozark National Forest
The Ozark National Forest covers more than a million acres, mostly in the Ozark mountains of northern Arkansas. Notably, here you'll find the tallest mountain in the State, Mount Magazine, and an incredible, living underground cave called Blanchard Springs Caverns.
The southern section of the forest lies along the Arkansas River Valley south to the Ouachita Mountains, and there are several Arkansas State Scenic Byways as you're passing through. The Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT) is a premier long-distance hiking trail crossing more than 165 miles of the forest and running from Lake Fort Smith State Park to the Buffalo National River.
What To Do In The Ozark National Forest
It won't be difficult to find what you're looking for in this national treasure; recreational opportunities abound as you explore the hiking trails, waterways, and scenic byways that cut across this brilliant, living landscape. Let's go over some activities you can take part in while visiting Ozark National Forest.
There is a wide variety of developed camping locations, offering beautiful scenery, solitude, lake and river access, and other unique features. Most of these campgrounds are located within or near rugged, mountainous terrain, and are designed to blend beautifully into their natural surroundings. There's even a campground high atop Mt. Magazine, the highest point in the state at 2,753 feet.
Arkansas has some of the most scenic trails in the entire country, and you will find most of them within the Ozark National Forest. There are over 230 miles of hiking trails, plus another 130 miles of other trails open to hiking! Hike alongside beautiful streams and river valleys, take in the views from atop some high points, explore springs and caves, or discover a secret waterfall.
Twists and turns through the forest, challenging inclines and declines, bailouts and creek crossings; with a bike, a plan, and an appetite for adventure, Ozark National Forest has everything you need for a rewarding and exciting mountain biking experience, courtesy of the land itself. Mountain bikers will enjoy a wide variety of looped biking trails, from easy, level rides, to technical hill climbs and rugged descents.
The Ozark National Forest offers many beautiful swimming spots, with many located near scenic rivers and creeks. Also, many swimming holes areas are also located near campgrounds, providing easy access for the park's long-term visitors. Some feature beautiful waterfalls and are visited often by park patrons, while others are very secluded, and can often be enjoyed in with no one else around for hours, or even the whole day!
If you get the chance to visit the Ozarks during the rainy season, you will be rewarded with hundreds of waterfalls. Not only does Arkansas have some of the most scenic waterfalls in the country, but most them are also in some of the most beautiful locations in the state, making the journey worth the trip in any season, wet or dry.
Fishing and Canoeing
Fishing and canoeing are two of the most popular activities in Ozark National Forest. The many mountain streams offer small-mouth bass, sunfish, and trout for the avid angler. Six of these streams are Congressionally designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers, but they all offer outstanding fishing and other opportunities for recreation. When the waters rise between November and June, the streams become ideal for enthusiastic canoeists seeking whitewater experiences. Canoe rental and shuttle services are available from outfitters on both streams and launch sites are clearly marked on National Forest Maps.
Ozark National Forest offers some amazing cave exploring opportunities, especially in the Sylamore Ranger District. Several cave systems dot the landscape, and they are home to many rare and endangered species of plants and animals. Although there are many smaller caves worth exploring, most of the larger caves are gated off, which helps protect native bats and other animals, especially during mating season.
One of the most spectacular and most visited sites within the forest is Blanchard Springs Cavern, near Mountain Home, AR. Open year-round; the park service offers guided cave tours. A large spring exits the end of the cave, offering a beautiful area to relax in or have a family picnic. Nearby hiking trails and a wilderness area offer hours, or even days, of recreation.
There are five designated wilderness areas found within the Ozark National Forest, and each one is definitely worthy of exploration. With many caves, springs, clear streams, unique plants and wildlife, rock formations, bluffs, high vistas, and picturesque views, it is easy to see what makes these areas so special and unique. If you are looking for peace and solitude, and just want to get away from it all, try one of the National Forest's wilderness areas.
The Ozark National Forest naturally provides the perfect habitat for a plentiful supply of whitetail deer, turkey, squirrel, and black bear. Pleasant Hill Ranger District has a Rifle Range on Highway 21 north of Clarksville, Arkansas. This range has six benches and is open daily except for Wednesday mornings. Two ranges are available, a 100-yard range for rifles and a 50-yard range for pistols. Sylamore Ranger District also offers a shooting range on Highway 5, 12 miles north of Mountain View. It has a 200-yard rifle range and an accessible handgun range.
Off-road use, especially with ATVs and dirt bikes, has become increasingly popular in recent years, and the Ozark National Forest has hundreds of miles of roads and trails for just about every type of off-road vehicle. Aside from the many miles of roads open to motorized off-road and vehicle use, there are also many trail systems available. Many of these trail systems exist strictly for ATVs and dirt bikes, and most are near a primitive camping area, allowing for a full weekend of off-road fun!
There are six nationally designated scenic byways crossing the Ozark National Forest, offering over 160 miles of natural beauty and diversity.
From lush hardwood forests to scenic mountain vistas, the Ozark area boasts rugged and varied landscapes of twisting streams and tree-covered hills. Along these routes are plenty of opportunities to explore the history, heritage, and wildlife of Arkansas's natural diversity.
Plan Your Adventure To The Ozark National Forest
Now that you've gotten a glimpse of what to expect, how do you decide what to do when you get there? The fact is, people have very different ideas about what makes a great vacation and you must decide for yourself. Reserving a campsite is a great place to start, but if you're looking for a little more out of your trip, here are a few suggestions.
Hike the Ozark Highlands Trail
The Ozark Highlands Trail is absolutely breathtaking. It climbs to some of the highest peaks in the Ozarks and descends to lovely valleys. In one day hiking, you can experience rocky peaks, several waterfalls, pine and hardwood forests, and stream crossings. There are amazing overlooks of rolling hills and countless refreshing creeks.
Take a Tour of Blanchard Springs Cavern
Led by knowledgeable Forest Service Guides, the tours wind through water-carved passages, including an underground river and the world's largest flowstone. There are three choices of tours, each trail a little different in intensity. It's also called "The Living Cave" because it is constantly changing and growing.
Take a Road Trip on the Scenic Byways
With so many highways, byways, and back roads, a scenic drive is a great way to spend a weekend in the Ozarks. Many of the smaller highways, scenic byways, and back roads pass through great little Ozarks towns, providing unique opportunities to sample local country restaurants and shop at small country stores, flea markets, and antique shops.
There's so much to see and experience at Ozark National Forest; it's hard to imagine packing it all into just one trip. They don't call Arkansas 'The Natural State' for nothing!
Plan ahead to get the most out of your adventure by researching guided tours and other recreational sports. Consult maps of the area to get a better sense of where you plan to focus your time. The forest's rugged, scenic beauty offers a wide a variety of opportunities during all four separate and distinct seasons, so choose a season that works best with the vacation you're looking for. Whether you're driving along the scenic byways or spelunking through ancient caves, the Ozark National Forest will offer you an experience of a lifetime.