The Ouachita National Forest spans more than 1.8 million acres across central Arkansas and southeastern Oklahoma. Located just south of the more well-known Ozark National Forest, the Ouachita National Forest is another great regional hub for camping, hiking and a variety of outdoor activities.
Get the Most Out of Ouachita National Forest
Established in 1907 as the Arkansas National Forest, this is the oldest national forest in the southern United States. It was first explored by Hernando de Soto and his party of Spaniard explorers in 1541. The French came afterward, who named many of the places within the region. The name was changed from Arkansas to Ouachita in 1926, after the French spelling of the Native-American name Washinta. Translated, this means “good hunting grounds.” The forest almost became a national park in the 1920s, but that effort was vetoed by President Calvin Coolidge.
Originally established over an area of 590,000 acres, the Ouachita currently encompasses nearly 1.8 million acres. Within this area are six designated wilderness areas, as well as the Ouachita Mountains, one of the few east-west-trending ranges in the U.S. These mountains are the source of several major watersheds, including the Arkansas and Ouachita rivers. In addition to its many recreational benefits, the forest also serves as a habitat for a variety of fish and wildlife, including some threatened and endangered species.
Visitors to the Ouachita can discover the rich natural and cultural history within the forest by hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking among an extensive trail system. There are also numerous recreational opportunities for fishing, floating and non-motorized boating on several lakes and rivers. And with campgrounds located throughout the forest, there are ample opportunities for just relaxing in a hammock under shady trees. You’ll even get to enjoy some beautifully scenic driving as you explore different parts of the region. So, however you like to play outdoors, you’re bound to appreciate a visit to the Ouachita National Forest.
Things To Do in the Ouachita National Forest
Ouachita National Forest is massive, so don’t expect to see it all in one trip. Here are some suggestions to get you started.
Visit Arkansas’s Largest Lake
Located in the Caddo-Womble Ranger District, 40,000-acre Lake Ouachita is Arkansas’s biggest lake, with 690 miles of shoreline, and is one of the cleanest bodies of water in the region. The lake was formed between 1948 and 1953, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Ouachita River for flood control and hydropower. Visitors to the lake will find countless opportunities to camp, fish, hunt, hike, swim, boat and even scuba dive. Lake Ouachita is known as the Striped Bass Capital of the World, but also has terrific bream, catfish, and walleye fishing.
Take a Float Trip
If you’re looking for a wonderful way to relax, take a float trip on the beautiful Ouachita River. With plenty of wide, flat water and just a few Class 1 rapids, the Ouachita is a great river for family adventures. There are seven landings available, five of which are float camps. Float trips and camping are available at Rocky Shoals, Shirley Creek, Fulton Branch, Dragover and River Bluff camping areas. If you need assistance planning your river float, or rental equipment, Ouachita Rivers can steer you in the right direction.
Explore the Trails
Whether it’s hiking, backpacking or mountain biking, you’ll find plenty of trails for roaming Ouachita National Forest. The longest trail is the 192-mile Ouachita National Recreation Trail. This rugged mountain path traverses pine and oak forests, sweeping valleys, and rocky streams, with elevations ranging from 600 to 2,600 feet. Along the way are numerous scenic viewpoints and points of historical and cultural significance. Only the heartiest of backpackers will tackle the entire trail, but there are plenty of trailheads you can access for taking shorter day hikes. An additional 500+ miles of multiuse trails throughout the forest can help you satisfy whatever wanderlust you may have.
Where to Camp in the Ouachita National Forest
Situated among oak forests and serene lakes, more than 20 campgrounds provide excellent bases for exploring the area’s hiking and biking trails, floating on the water, or casting a line for bass and walleye. Whether you’re looking to park your RV or pitch your tent, most of the developed camping and recreation areas are open from April to September, with a few open year-round. Many sites have electrical and water hookups, vault or flush toilets, and picnic shelters. A few locations even feature showers, drinking water and dump stations.
Here are a selection of Arkansas campgrounds that come highly recommended by campers on The Dyrt.
Located near Lake Ouachita, and 20 miles west of Hot Springs, this relaxing destination features a variety of outdoor recreation options, including swimming and fishing in spring-fed Walnut Creek, and access to several hiking trails. The unique swimming area here is formed by a stone dam that was built in 1935. The campground offers 52 sites, including 18 with full hookups (35′ max), and 4 double/group sites. The primitive sites in Loop A offer a little more quiet and seclusion. Amenities include warm showers, flush toilets, drinking water, picnic shelter, and an outdoor amphitheater that hosts interpretive programs. Seasonal campsites range from $15–$40/night.
“The swimming area at the entrance of the campground is a big draw, accessible to the public for day use, and has quite chilly water. On the hottest summer days, it’s a better bet for cooling off than warm lake water on nearby Lake Ouachita.” —The Dyrt camper 2Shoes S.
Situated on lovely, 18-acre Lake Sylvia, and located 38 miles west of Little Rock, this scenic location is surrounded by oak and pine forested mountains, where numerous hiking and biking trails offer plenty of opportunities for roaming near and far. The campground offers 24 sites, including 8 with electric hookups (22′ max), and 2 group sites. Amenities include warm showers, flush toilets, drinking water, an outdoor amphitheater, and a large day-use area. Campers can enjoy a refreshing dip in the designated swim area, and anglers can go for channel catfish. Seasonal campsites range from $15–$25/night; first-come, first-serve.
“The swim beach is a great spot that is used as a day area. There are also fishing spots down the bank.” —The Dyrt camper 2Shoes S.
Shady Lake Campground lies at the southwestern end of Ouachita National Forest, about 33 miles west of Glenwood. Larger than some of the other campgrounds in the forest, this site offers a little more seclusion, making it a great escape for campers seeking some woodland serenity. The campground has a total of 66 sites, including 20 with water and electric hookups (32′ max). Amenities include warm showers, flush toilets, drinking water, an outdoor amphitheater, swimming area, and a fishing dock. Campers looking for a great view can hike the Tall Peak Trail, through the Caney Creek Wilderness, to a restored lookout tower. Seasonal campsites range from $22–$40/night; first-come, first-serve.
“Loved my overnight stay at Shady Lake! Slept right above a babbling creek and heard peaceful water flowing all night. Campground caretaker Billy was friendly, knowledgeable and available. I’ll definitely come back!” —The Dyrt camper Alana T.
Located on the west side of Ouachita National Forest, 26 miles northeast of Mena, Mill Creek Family Camp will give you plenty of space to enjoy outdoor games, picnics, campfires, and group fun. This small, parklike campground offers 27 primitive sites (40′ max) surrounded by pine and hardwood forests on the banks of pretty Mill Creek. Site facilities include flush toilets and drinking water. Campers have access to several interpretive and hiking trails nearby—great for wildlife spotting—and swimming in a natural pool on the creek. There’s also a number of equestrian, mountain biking and ORV trails in the area. Seasonal campsites are first-come, first-serve.
“Great site for group camping. Flat open fields for yards games. Nice creek running by.” —The Dyrt camper Stephanie D.
Whether you’re out to hit the trails, cast a line, or just kick back under shady trees, there’s a place to play, and stay, in Ouachita National Forest.