Ouachita National Forest is one of America’s least-known forests. That’s unexpected, considering its spectacular scenery. Ouachita offers panoramic views of winding rivers and peaceful lakes scattered among the Ouachita Mountain Range. As a result, the 1.8 million acres in Arkansas and Oklahoma are some of the most beautiful in the country. Surprisingly, it’s also some of the most untouched. Nearly half of the forest has never been logged, and old-growth forest may cover as many as 800,000 acres.
Ouachita first received its designation as a national forest in 1907, although it was originally known as Arkansas National Forest. In 1926, the Forest Service renamed it and Ouachita National Forest was born. In the 1920s, the forest nearly became a national park, but ultimately, the bill was vetoed by President Coolidge.
Recreation in Ouachita National Forest
Ouachita is a topnotch destination for all sorts of outdoor recreation. There’s something for everyone from the dense forests of oak, cedar and elm to the rushing mountain streams and tranquil lakes.
If you want to take in the forest from the comfort of your vehicle, a National Scenic Byway might be for you. For example, Talimena Scenic Drive is one such byway that winds through old-growth oak forests on Rich and Winding Stair Mountains.
For a closeup look at wildlife, try Red Slough Wildlife Management Area. This area is nearly 6,000 acres of some of the best birdwatching in the area. Wetlands, reclaimed fields or reforested land cover much of this area.
There are a number of campgrounds throughout the forest. Several of them offer restrooms, showers and RV accommodations. Some are more appropriate for car camping and offer facilities, but no RV hookups. There are also cabins available to rent at Camp Clearfork on the Caddo/Womble Ranger District. If you’re more interested in roughing it, dispersed camping is an option. The Forest Service permits dispersed camping in most locations throughout the forest.
Ouachita is home to many fantastic hiking trails. For example, Womble Trail winds over 37 miles of rugged, wilderness beauty. In addition, many mountain bikers consider it to be topnotch single track.
Ouachita National Recreation Trail is another very popular trail in the forest. This well-maintained trail stretches 223 miles through the entire forest. Several overnight shelters along the trail make it perfect for multiday backpacking trips. The Ouachita National Recreation Trail runs through old-growth forests, past cold, mountain streams and over and around rolling mountains.
Wilderness Areas in Ouachita National Forest
Wilderness areas are lands set aside to preserve them in their natural state. There are six such wilderness areas within the Ouachita. Caney Creek and Black Fork Mountain are the two largest. Together, they total roughly 27,000 acres.
Caney Creek Wilderness Area is located around it’s namesake, Caney Creek. Old-growth forest and imposing ridges surround the creek itself. Because no one has ever logged the forests, many trees are uncommon in the surrounding area—basswood, sugar maple, and beech, for example.
Exceptionally clean air and water characterize Caney Creek Wilderness. This area also receives more rainfall than anywhere else in the state. This moisture fuels plant growth which increases the wildlife habitat and biodiversity. The forests in the bottomland are some of the most biodiverse of all. Twenty-nine known endangered, threatened or sensitive species live in this area alone.
Although Caney Creek has several trails, Black Fork Mountain Wilderness Area has almost none. In fact, the Oklahoma portion actually has none at all. This isn’t exactly shocking, Black Fork Wilderness receives few visitors.
Like Caney Creek, Black Fork is characterized by exceptional amounts of old-growth forest. The wilderness runs along the Black Fork mountain range, hence the name. This wilderness area was also the sight of the Texas International Airlines Flight 655 crash in 1973.
Visit Ouachita National Forest
The next time you get a chance, spend some time in this underrated national forest of Arkansas and Oklahoma. Have a picnic at a developed campground or camp in one of the more remote wilderness areas. Above all, enjoy yourself, respect the people and land around you, and be sure to leave no trace!