A Trail Of True Grit

The Ouachita Mountains sheltered outlaws and gave John Wayne something to crow about. But it's not until you hike the 223-mile Ouachita Trail that you realize this country is the stuff of legend.

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A friend of mine who has lived most of his life in a cabin in the Ozarks loves the book True Grit by Charles Portis, a tale of outlaw and Indian days in western Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma. What he doesn’t like is the movie version, circa 1974, in which John Wayne, as the besotted, one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn, rides around snow-draped mountain scenery in quest of renegades. It’s not Glen Campbell cast as The Duke’s sidekick that irks him, either. It’s those darn peaks, which look rather suspiciously like the high Rockies more than they do the 2,500-foot hogbacks you’ll find down Arkansas way.

Why, my friend wonders, would Hollywood forsake the Rooster’s original Ouachita Mountains hangout? For sheer, cussed rough ‘n’ tumble, there’s not a landscape wilder than the real thing. Hike a few days in the footsteps of the irascible Cogburn through old Indian Territory and you don’t have to be a movie critic to realize my buddy is right.

Stitching this once rambunctious, scoundrel-idden landscape together is the Ouachita (wa-she-ta) National Recreation Trail, loping 223 miles through the heart of a national forest that shares its name and lays claim to being the largest in the South. From boulder-strewn, roller coaster ridges near Talihina, Oklahoma, to the piney blue mound of Pinnacle Mountain near Little Rock, Arkansas, this is a trail that easily destroys the stereotype that mid-America is ironing-board flat.

By the time the trail crests Rich Mountain near the Oklahoma/Arkansas line it’s easier to understand tales of woebegone private pilots forgetting to nose up and over this barrier that leaps out of the mist. The 2,681 feet of elevation may not seem like much, until you stand wearily at the summit. Then a simple glance below underscores the fact that this is the highest terrain between the Appalachians and the Rockies, an elevated link between east and west, the capstone of mid-America.

On my latest visit to the Ouachita ridgeline, I hiked the Flatside Wilderness on the east end of the trail in the company of an old friend, photographer Don House, and his wife, Denise. Flatside is one of those places that hikers store in a memory bank to savor when the kids sulk, the car won’t start, or checks bounce. Everyone who visits the place raves about the pinnacles, an outcrop that offers 360 degrees of stunning, long-distance vistas. Rolling hills and round mountains spread out like so many loaves of multi-million-year-old bread. The views are bigger before the humidity and foliage come on, both of which have a way of hemming you in, as the locals like to say.

Arriving in early May, the tail-end of high hiking season, we were feeling a bit claustrophobic. By the calendar, we should have nudged in just under the weather wire, but green up, or “leaf out,” had come early due to an El Ni?o-tempered winter, and the Flatside Wilderness was already lush and humid.

We’d been advised to be on the lookout for the beautiful little crested irises that explode around the Flatside’s seeps, springs, and creek crossings, but our timing was late by several weeks. We did manage to find a few dogwoods still in bloom, along with the bright crimson tubular flowers of red buckeye, a fairly common understory plant in this part of the South.

Mostly we marched through a bottomland forest of white and red oaks, various hickories and some shortleaf pines so tall you had to crane your neck and lean back to catch a glimpse of the sparse, wind-tossed canopies. A variety of blueberries-huckleberries to the bears and other sons of the South worth their gravy and grits-formed knee high, tangled thickets in more open woods, while tendrils and scaly vines of muscadine grape engulfed smaller shrubs and spread across the ground like the decorative stitching of a hill country quilt.

Later in the year those who remember the old ways will fan out through these woods to harvest the muscadines. The reward is a jelly both tarter and with more of a wild-earth flavor than anything Smucker’s sells. My 83-year-old mother-in-law still stirs up a batch every year on the old homestead at the base of nearby Petit Jean Mountain. Add a spoonful to a home baked biscuit and you can almost hear the rusty red paws of Vulpes vulpes scrambling over rocks, hounds panting and baying in pursuit, banjos ringing and self-taught fiddlers scratching out the soulful notes of “Fox on the Run.”

Denise and I meandered along the trail, taking our time in the unusual early-May heat, while Don ranged ahead in search of photo possibilities. We didn’t flush any outlaws on their way to Indian Territory, but we were serenaded by red-eyed vireos, which seemed to occupy every major white oak limb. Now and then the slow, monotonous cadence of the vireos was drowned out by a loud, wild, shrieking chatter, and within seconds we would see either the shadowy form or the actual flaming red crest of a pileated woodpecker, a survival specialist the size of a crow and close cousin to the most likely extinct ivory bill.

Denise and Don live north of here near Fayetteville, Arkansas, amid the more widely known Ozark mountain range. The Ozarks have been heralded in folklore and hiking guides over the years, but in actuality the state’s highest sustained elevations-and some of its best hiking-are found in the east/west running ridges of the Ouachitas. As we walked, Denise commented on the varieties of wildflowers found hereabouts, especially the sprays of pure white phlox that lined the trail like snowdrifts. Upon closer inspection, we could see that in many instances either the base or the tips of the petals were tinged with lavender, a common color for the flower farther north.

Adding decorative accent were the long, jointed leaves and thick stalks of spiderwort, tall plants with rich, royal purple blooms. Ferns cascaded down cutbanks along spring-fed creeks, the rocky outcrops dripping and seeping, the pools inscribed by the mad dash of water striders while sunfish and shiners lurked in the shadows, sizing up the cautious explorations of crayfish smaller than the tip of my thumb. By midsummer all but the deepest pools might be dry. Then the creeks will cascade again with the arrival of autumn rains, and the current over the sandstone cobble will choke on the reds, oranges, yellows and butterscotch browns of tumbling leaves.

Just at dusk we climbed a nearby mountain connected by a side trail to catch a lingering sunset. The climb was steep, so all three of us dallied long enough to study some of the quartz crystals common in the Ouachitas. This was after a beautiful white-tailed buck in his russet summer suit, new antlers sheathed in velvet, carved an airborne arch over an old logging trail, and a flock of turkeys exploded across a grassy meadow thinly shaded by the dark green boughs of shortleaf pines.

At the summit a strong south wind swept up and over a sandstone bluff and shook yellow puffs of pollen from spindly pines maintaining a precarious toehold on the weather-fractured rock. Far to the south you could see the checkerboard pattern of clearcuts that had been planted back to monoculture pine plantations. Forty miles or so to the east was Pinnacle Mountain, official end of the Ouachita Trail, while to the west were hints of Rooster Cogburn country-the tall, thin ridges of Winding Stair Mountain, where rivers of rock inch their way downhill and ancient elfin forests are sculpted by ice and wind.

The west end of the trail is big country where you’d least expect it. I mean this in a vertical sense, because the landscape beyond the Winding Stair is typical Oklahoma: broad and undulating. But the trailing edge of the Ouachitas stick practically straight up, as ominous as a big shark’s fin in a calm sea. Especially along the ridge of Winding Stair Mountain, the landscape takes on a more airy feel, somewhat like the ponderosa pine country in the mountains of Arizona and New Mexico. Here, though, the variety is shortleaf pine, and on southern exposures the trees predominate along with post and blackjack oaks and black hickories, species well adapted to sunny, droughty conditions. In places where the soil is thin and sunlight intense, open glades prickle with yucca and cactus. All that’s missing are the buffalo, animals that were once common on the prairies to the west.

A legendary watering hole along the western end of the trail is Horsethief Spring, a favored campsite on a route that 1800s horsetraders followed from Indian Territory down into Texas. The spring was also a favorite bandit lair, and U.S. Marshals like Rooster patrolled this country to hold the mayhem to a minimum. The rowdies, white and Indian alike, flocked to the Winding Stair because the mountains were beyond the jurisdiction of all courts, other than the federal bureau at Fort Smith.

There was one drawback, however. Lord and master of the Fort Smith court was one Judge Parker, the notorious hangin’ judge who routinely meted out harsh and permanent justice to those who stood before him. He was fond of hiring some of the worst outlaws in the West to ride down the renegades who stared out from the “wanted” posters. Judging from the number of tombstones gracing an infamous graveyard back in Fort Smith, the good judge’s strategy worked grisly wonders. Today you’ll still find horse tracks intersecting the old trace, but now they lead down to an equestrian campground at Cedar Lake.

Heading east from Horsethief Spring, the Ouachita Trail dips over onto the north-facing, seepy side of the Winding Stair ridge, into a leafy ecological realm where Easterners will feel right at home. In autumn, when the hiking is at its prime, the woods are gaudy with the blood red of black gums, the fiery oranges of sugar maple, dogwood pink, and white ash purple. The woods seem like something set adrift from New England to finally wash ashore on a prairie reef. Beginning late in November, a cold front or two may sweep up over the mountain flanks, but generally while northerners are laying in wood for winter, hikers along the Ouachita Trail enjoy what amounts to a second spring or even summer, if you like your nights near but generally above the freezing mark and daytime highs climbing above 50°F.

It’s common knowledge in these parts that cowboys won’t walk a lick if there’s a horse to ride. Yet I bet that the ghost of Rooster would be proud that foot travelers from coast to coast are discovering the mountains he once combed like a cougar in search of prey. If you listen hard to the voices in the wind howling over the Winding Stair ridges, you might detect this note of caution: If it’s soft country you’re after, search elsewhere. On the other hand, if a bit of outlaw in your soul still beckons, the Ouachita Trail is a winner, even in wintertime. Take a page out of old Rooster’s book and come to Indian Territory to create your own legend . . . one step at a time.

Gary Lantz is a writer living in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. His infatuation with the Ouachitas began more than 25 years ago and he still loves their wilderness feel.

GETTING THERE: The trailhead at the west end of the Ouachita Trail can be accessed at Talimena State Park about 5 miles north of Talihina, Oklahoma, on US 271. The east end of the trail terminates at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, about 12 miles west of Little Rock, Arkansas, on AR 10. Pinnacle Mountain is about 425 miles (8 hours) from Kansas City and 400 miles (8 hours) from St. Louis. Talihina, Oklahoma, is about 200 miles (4 hours) from Dallas.

RECOMMENDED HIKES: By conservative estimate, hiking the entire trail takes anywhere from 21 days to a month. If your schedule is tight, try one of these sections:

1. Talimena State Park Trailhead to Winding Stair Mountain Campground, 23 miles. Crosses several streams, the Old Military Trail, passes by Horsethief Springs and includes a dramatic vista at Winding Stair Point.

2. Winding Stair to Queen Wilhelmina State Park Lodge, Arkansas, 27.9 miles. From the crest of Winding Stair Mountain the trail drops down into the Upper River Wilderness, then climbs past boulder rivers and elfin forests to the highest point in the Ouachitas at Queen Wilhelmina Lodge.

3. Arkansas State Highway 7 Trailhead to Flatside Pinnacle Spur, 20 miles. Includes the beautiful Flatside Wilderness and a dramatic vista from the Flatside Pinnacles, a section of the trail that many veteran hikers consider the most beautiful.

SEASON: October through April.


MAPS & GUIDEBOOKS: A detailed map of the Ouachita National Recreation Trail is available free of charge by writing the Forest Supervisor, Ouachita National Forest, P. O. Box 1270, Hot Springs, Arkansas 71902; (501) 321-5202. The comprehensive Ouachita Trail Guide by Tim Ernst ($19.95, Wilderness Visions Press, 411 Patricia Lane, Fayettville, AR 72703; 501-442-2799) lists trailheads, scenic vistas, water sources, seasons, hazards, campsites, shuttles, etc.

LEAVE NO TRACE: Stay clear of fragile fern forests and wildflower gardens along watercourses, especially in spring.

HAZARDS: Heat, humidity, ticks, snakes, poison ivy, and possible lack of water in the summer months. Boulder fields are a challenge on the west end. Harsh winter storms are rare, but could occur in January and February. Faded trail markers and lack of use may make certain sections of the trail more difficult to detect on the Oklahoma end.

MORE INFORMATION: For help with trip planning call Tim Ernst at (501) 442-2799; Paula Wallace, Ouachita Mountain Hikers at (501) 525-5777; or the Ouachita National Forest Supervisor at (501) 321-5202.