How COVID-19 changed my sense of Arkansas lands
As an Arkansan with a love for photography and outdoor recreation, I have developed a sense of Arkansas State Parks. Fifty-two weeks in the year and fifty-two state parks offer a range of activities from fine dining to hiking, biking, golfing and innumerable sightseeing activities. It is one of the best systems in the nation.
If you told me that Arkansas also boasts a wide range of 75 natural areas with more acreage than found in our state parks, I would be surprised. What is a natural area? Why don’t I know more about them?
As is, part of my ignorance is by design.
Our state parks serve a twin function of preserving natural resources while inviting controlled public participation. Parks are all about people and access.
By contrast, the Arkansas System of Natural Areas, under the oversight of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC), exists to protect native and sometimes endangered environments with minimum human impact. In keeping with this goal, most Arkansas natural areas lack the accoutrements as a state park. Expect no visitor centers, no staff, no bathrooms, no camping and no cars.
While a few of our natural areas are bisected by a road, they are meant to be experienced on foot. Some have parking lots, some do not. Some come with trails, some do not. Some are popular. Some are wholly off the grid.
The ANHC offers this guide with locator maps and flora and fauna description for each area.
My personal interest in Arkansas natural areas flowered when in a COVID-19 environment. I thought I would look for places to enjoy a wild-place experience without the crowds.
I have been delighted by what I have found, and now the dilemma: do I tell you about my favorite places or keep them a secret? What I will share is that some natural areas with developed trails are better for those who would explore this rich asset.
Here is a select list of places that I would recommend for the person or family looking for an introductory stroll.
Big Creek Natural Area: Features two looped trails, one about a mile, the other about a mile and a half in length, treating the hiker to a wide range of flora, bluffs, and a refreshing creek.
Warren Prairie Natural Area: This place includes forest, barrens and salt slicks with a mix of exotic flora. It is home to a breeding population of the federally listed endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. The map says the trail is 2.2 miles long, but those miles filled several hours of observation.
Baker Prairie Natural Area: Located right next to a school and not far from an industrial park, this seemingly urban park in Harrison whisks the participant into another world, rich in seasonal wildflowers.
Cove Creek Natural Area: Just north of Conway, Cove Creek is decidedly lush and features a family-friendly mile and a half looped trail that takes visitors from a scenic overlook, through forest and field to the bed of Cove Creek and back.