Ouachita National Forest
Guide

Introduction

The Ouachita National Forest is the oldest national forest in the south. It takes up 1.8 million acres in central Arkansas and southeastern Oklahoma with six wilderness areas, 43 vistas, 700 miles of trails, and the highest peaks between the Rockies and the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was originally known as Arkansas National Forest when it was established in 1907, but the name was changed in 1926.

The forest was explored by Hernando DeSoto and his party in 1541, followed by the French explorers who were responsible for naming the Fourche la Fave River and Ouachita River. Ouachita is French for Washita, which means good hunting ground. Some of the highlights of the forest include the 11-mile Horsethief Springs Trail, which is one of the most beautiful trails in the state. Ouachita National Recreation Trail is the longest trail at 192 miles beginning at Talihina, Oklahoma and ending at Perryville, Arkansas.

With ten rivers and 1,600 acres of lakes, there is a plethora of choices for water activities like water skiing, boating, floating, swimming, and fishing. Mountain biking, OHV riding, and horseback riding are also popular here. You can stay the weekend or the whole week with all the excellent campgrounds in the forest. There are seven official RV campgrounds in the Ouachita National Forest, with many more that are not listed as a national recreation area. We have highlighted our top three picks here for you.

RV Rentals in Ouachita National Forest

Transportation

Driving

Just west of Hot Springs, Arkansas, the Ouachita National Forest is spread across Arkansas and part of Oklahoma. However, most of the forest is in Arkansas, which provides over a dozen recreation areas spread throughout the forest. The main highways into the area include Interstate 40, Highway 270, and Highway 71. You won’t be bored on the drive into the forest because no matter where you are coming from, you cannot miss the Ozark Mountain scenery.

The Talimena National Scenic Byway boasts 54 miles of breathtaking scenery along Winding Stair Mountain and Rich Mountain. Scenic 7 Byway goes from the Ouachita to the Ozark National Forest and is especially pretty during the late spring and early fall. The Winona Scenic Drive takes you about 26 miles down Forest Road 132 from Jessieville to Perryville. The Beech Creek National Scenic Area by Big Cedar, Oklahoma is 32 miles of gravel road with 400 acres of Beech Creek Botanical Area. This is a narrow road so you may have trouble maneuvering with a large RV or trailer.

Driving into the heart of the forest, you are going to find out that Arkansas has some seriously winding roads. Even the ones that are not narrow can be dangerous during wet or snowy weather, or if you are driving a big rig or pulling a trailer. Once you get to your destination, it is best to leave the RV at the campsite and walk or ride bikes to wherever you want to go.

Parking

Public Transportation

Campgrounds and parking in Ouachita National Forest

Campsites in Ouachita National Forest

First-come first-served

Cedar Lake Campground

Just outside of Hodgen, Oklahoma, Cedar Lake Campground has 114 campsites. Sixty-one are tent and RV campsites, and 53 are equestrian campsites. The campsites all include lantern poles, campfire rings, grills, and picnic tables. The equestrian campground also has horse corrals and a payphone in case your cell does not have service. There are three sections here, which are Shady Lane, Sandy Beach, and the Equestrian Campground. Shady Lane campsites have full hookups, and the equestrian and Sandy Beach campsites have electric only. Drinking water, restrooms, and warm showers are provided as well. No reservations are taken, so get here early if you want a specific spot. You can also bring your pets but make sure they are leashed and supervised during your visit.

Cedar Lake is 86 acres and is a great spot for catching largemouth and smallmouth bass as well as catfish, perch, and bluegill. Both of the swimming beaches are located near the Sandy Beach campsites where you can also launch your boat at the boat ramp. From the equestrian camp you can find the trailhead to the Winding Stair Mountain Equestrian Trails, which has more than 70 miles of trails to explore. You can find a volleyball court and playgrounds for the kids nearby and a large picnic area.

Charlton Campsite

Charlton Campsite has 57 campsites in Crystal Springs, just 20 miles west of Hot Springs. These sites are separated into three loops with A being the wooded area nearest the beach and picnic area. Loop B has electric and water hookups but the sites are on slopes, so it is better for a trailer than RV. Loop C has some hookups, but some are just primitive. They each provide a fire ring with a grill for cooking and a picnic table with a parking pad up to 40 feet long. There are several restrooms and several drinking water hydrants around the park.

The man-made swimming hole on Walnut Creek has a large grassy beach and tons of shaded picnic areas. You can also do some fishing for panfish for dinner. The two trails provide fun and exercise for hikers as well as mountain bikers and there is interpretive information along the Prayer in the Woods Trail. Get here early if you come on weekends or a holiday because these fill up fast, and there are no reservations accepted. You can also bring your pooch because pets are allowed as long as they are restrained and supervised during your stay.

Shady Lake Campground

Five miles from Athens, Shady Lake Campground boasts 60 spacious campsites divided into four loops. Twenty sites have electric hookups, and most sites fit up to a 32-foot RV or trailer. Each site has its own picnic table and campfire ring with a grill for cooking. Loops A and D have ADA-accessible restrooms, and loop A has a bath house that is open from late March until November. There are several potable water spigots and flush toilets around the camp.

If you like fishing and swimming in a mountain setting, this is your place to go. The 25-acre Shady Lake sits at the bottom of a majestic mountain range. You can catch crappie, perch, catfish, and largemouth bass here. There is also a playground for the kids and a large picnic area right on the beach. These sites are first-come, first-served so make sure you get here early for a good spot. They fill up fast, especially on holidays and weekends. Feel free to bring your pup because pets are allowed as long as they are restrained and supervised at all times.

Seasonal activities in Ouachita National Forest

In-Season

Fishing

If you want to try your fishing skills while Ouachita National Forest in your campervan, you are in luck. There are ten rivers, 1,600 acres of lakes, 4,000 miles of creeks, and countless ponds and streams here to enjoy. The Fourche LaFave River is probably the best choice for variety because they have both smallmouth and largemouth bass, channel catfish, spotted bass, crappie, shadow bass, and sunfish. Both topwater and bottom fishing are good, and you can catch just about anything with a worm or live bait.

OHV Riding

Before you head off into the Ouachita National Forest, make sure you hook up the trailer to bring your off-highway vehicles. These can include motorcycles, dirt bikes, ATVs, jeeps, utility vehicles, side by sides, three-wheelers, and four-wheelers. In the Caddo District, there are more than 20 trails on 310,000 acres. Cold Springs has 32 trails on 334,000 acres, Kiamichi has 19 trails on over 120,000 acres, Choctaw has about 30 trails on 150,000 acres, and Womble has 21 trails on about 400,000 acres. Make sure you bring your helmet, gloves, and boots in your rig.

Mountain Biking

There are 29 different mountain biking trails in the Ouachita National Forest so make sure you hook up those bikes to the back of the RV. Some of the most popular include the easy 1.5-mile Danville Mountain Trail with a scenic vista and shelters, the challenging 10.5-mile Wildcat Mountain Trail where you can see panoramic views of the mountains and traverse steep terrain, and the difficult and lengthy 36.7-mile Sugar Creek Multiuse Trail, which is a network of loops. All of the trails are picturesque, scenic, rustic, and some are even historic.

Off-Season

Hiking

At Shady Lake there are three trails, which include the half-mile Interpretive Trail, the 3.1-mile Shady Lake Trail (mountain bike & foot), and the 3.2-mile Tall Peak Trail (foot). At Charlton you can find the Lake Ouchita Vista Trail, Charlton Trail, and the one-mile Prayer in the Woods Trail. At Cedar Lake you can enjoy the 2.9-mile trail that meanders along the outside perimeter of the lake. There are an additional 55 named trails ranging from less than one mile to the 192-mile Ouachita National Recreational Trail that will take you from Talimena, Oklahoma to Perryville, Arkansas.

Target Shooting

If you plan on going hunting or just need some shooting practice, go ahead and pack your guns in the RV before heading out because there are 11 different shooting ranges here in the Ouachita National Forest. In the Caddo-Womble District there is Reed Mountain, Pigeon Roost, and Bear Mountain. Jessieville Winona Fourche has Jessieville and Peeler Gap. Mena-Oden has Oden and Acorn. Oklahoma includes Kiamichi and Kelly Branch. And Poteau-Cold Springs has Buck Ridge and Brushy Hollow.

Horseback Riding

If you have a horse, go ahead and hook the trailer up to the campervan because the Ouachita National Forest has more than 70 miles of horseback riding trails. The most popular spot for equestrians is Cedar Lake Campground where they have 53 equestrian campsites and the trailhead to the Winding Stair Mountain Equestrian Trails. This is a network of looping trails of various lengths that add up to 77 miles of horseback riding. Whether you want to take a short and scenic walk or a 20-mile expedition, there is something for everyone here.