Take a Road Trip to Arkansas's Marvelous Ouachita Mountains
It's not easy to get Don Simons to crack a smile. He’s the sort of man who, were he my uncle, I’d spend my entire life trying to win over. As it was, I had only 45 minutes with the park interpreter at Magazine Mountain State Park, located at this highest point in the state, an eight-hour drive from Houston.
Ozark National Forest was spread out before us, totally uninterrupted. Only two visitors had shown up to the walk he was leading through the park’s Bear Hollow Overlook on that late-summer morning—sometimes he gets two, he said, and sometimes it’s 20—so he had no other choice but to submit to my questions. Simons told us he’d been with the park since well before its official 2002 opening, when it was dedicated by then–Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and that he’d been a park interpreter for more than 35 years. No, he had no plans to retire. Yes, plenty of people had died in the park. No, he hadn’t seen any black bears lately, although he’d seen them on video, recorded by a couple of cameras stationed in the park.
Simons steered the conversation to the flora surrounding us. The pretty white flowers lining our path were called snake root, he explained. If cattle eat them, their milk turns poisonous; drinking the stuff is thought to have killed a good number of the early Arkansas settlers. He also showed us a sugar maple tree, which those settlers had used to make syrup. Pointing out the proliferation of dead trees and limbs—widow-makers, he called them—Simons said the area was still recovering from a recent drought.
We headed down some stone steps that the Works Progress Administration had built decades ago but had grown over. “Saved us a lot of work,” he said, when crews clearing the trail had discovered the steps. Then, there we were, at Inspiration Point, perched on a cliff overlooking the Ozark National Forest, spread out before us as far as the eye could see, totally uninterrupted. For a moment, we simply stood there, taking in the majestic view and enjoying the (relatively) cool summertime air.
In the springtime, when the mountain’s waterfalls are flowing, Simons said he likes to spend time in the spot, just listening to the birds and the water. In fact, he himself had named it, he volunteered. Maybe I was trying to butter him up, but I meant it when I said, “It’s pretty cool to be up on Inspiration Point with the man who gave it its name.” Simons didn’t respond, instead silently gazing into the distance. “Well, I could stand here all day,” he finally said, “but I’ve got work to do.”
On the way back up, between huffs and puffs I tried to keep to a minimum, I realized Simons had a sense of humor; it was merely a dry one. If you see a black bear, he solemnly explained, the best thing to do is to “get your camera up real quick.” “To scare it off with the flash?” I asked, walking right into his trap. “Nope,” he said with deadpan delivery. “To get a photo before it runs away.”
As we came to the end of the trail, Simons showed us an oddly shaped rock he likes to call Fred Flintstone’s Chair. Although he hadn’t smiled once, I decided that he probably—definitely—only points out the landmark to a select few.
- Some have complained online about the food served at the Lodge at Magazine Mountain. But the fare—there’s a menu of pizza and sandwiches and the like, as well as a buffet set out three times a day—is entirely serviceable, impressive actually, when you consider that the restaurant is run by a state park. The vista outside the picture windows is spectacular, and there’s even a little bar.
- There is no bad view at any room in the Lodge, which is set against the side of Magazine Mountain, part of the Ouachitas, located west of the better-known Ozarks. Built in 2006 on the same spot where the old, WPA-built lodge once stood before burning to the ground in 1971 (some say it was arson), the place is part Boy Scout–style rusticity, part decadent luxury, with in-room spa baths, an indoor pool and pretty grounds. While we loved it, next time, we might line up a couple of friends and rent one of the nearby cabins run by the Lodge. Their views are equally spectacular; each has a wraparound deck with hot tub; and we’d have access to a kitchen, so we wouldn’t have to eat every meal at the restaurant.
- The main activity here is hiking. We picked up a brochure with map at the Lodge, which lists eight trails ranging from .9 to 9.5 miles, and Easy to Strenuous. All of them, it appeared, were perfectly maintained. We did part of the Benefield Trail with park interpreter Simons; it was labeled Easy but had a not-insignificant uphill portion. Luckily, Simons knew just the next trail to recommend to flatlanders like us: Dripping Springs, which isn’t in the official brochure, and which the state park doesn’t advertise or mark, as it’s federally owned and protected. Told to ask about it at the information desk, we got a Xeroxed map of the trail and set out to find it. We did, and were rewarded with a lovely, totally flat hike and amazing views. And we never saw another soul the entire time.
- In addition to guided walks, the park offers a plethora of daily activities. There are group expeditions to look for hawks, which pass by the cliffs at eye level, and geocaching stashes, along with classes on identifying snakes and learning the habits of black bears. One evening after dinner, we did a Night Sounds Hike with another park interpreter—a young, loquacious guy who’d only recently joined the team, and whose relationship with Simons we spent way too much time imagining—listening together for owls, bats and katydids and stargazing under a brilliantly illuminated night sky.