Ouachita National Forest
First established in 1907 as the Arkansas National Forest under a directive from President Theodore Roosevelt, Ouachita is the South’s oldest national forest. It’s also the region’s largest, with more than 1.8 million acres of mountainous terrain; myriad rivers and lakes, including the large man-made Lake Ouachita; and predominantly pine and hardwood trees. Most of the forest is in Arkansas, extending for about 100 miles from Hot Springs west to the state border, where almost 355,000 acres spill over into southeastern Oklahoma.
Hernando de Soto, the Spanish conquistador who led an epic and ultimately fruitless quest for gold from Florida to Texas, set up winter camp here in 1541. But it was an important Native American hunting ground long before then. Indeed, it was the Choctaw and later French explorers who gave the park its name: “ouachita” was the French interpretation of “ouac chito” (meaning ”good hunting grounds.”).
The best way to introduce yourself to the beauty of the region is to drive along either the Talimena Scenic Byway out of Mena---along which you’ll find the Robert S. Kerr Memorial Arboretum and Botanical Area---or the Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway just north of Hot Springs. You can also swim or fish for bass, crappie, catfish, and bluegill in secluded, crystal-clear waters; canoe or whitewater raft along the Caddo, Little Missouri, Cossatot, or Ouachita rivers; or you can spend a day boating on 40,000-acre Lake Ouachita.
Several district ranger stations have visitor information, including the one along Highway 7 in Jesseville, AR, and the one in Mena along the Talimena Scenic Byway. Many recreation areas have picnic sites, campgrounds, and trailheads leading into a system of more than 700 miles of hiking, biking, and horseback riding routes. Trails range in length from less than a mile to the 192-mile Ouachita National Recreation Trail, which cuts along the towering peaks of the Ouachita Mountains and spans the entire forest from west to east. There are also plenty of designated wilderness areas where you can camp in the backcountry amid plenty of solitude.
100 Reserve St.
- Hot Springs, Arkansas 71902
- 34.51142100, -93.05375900
- Visit Website
- (501) 321-5202