Thrill of the chill: Winter hiking in Arkansas

A hiker enjoying the silence of a winter in Woolly Hollow State Park

Winter might not be the ideal season to splash around in Arkansas’s many beautiful lakes and rivers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy The Natural State during the brief cold snap separating fall from spring. One of the best ways to experience the outdoors during winter is on foot, and the reasons for this are as numerous and varied as snowflakes. Cooler temperatures invite you to tackle a trail you might avoid in summer for fear of melting away, and with highs sometimes reaching the 60s, even a more laid-back pace won’t require uncomfortable bundling up. Another creature comfort of a winter hike is the absence of one creature in particular: the mosquito. While you might see a couple here and there on warmer winter days, it’ll be nothing like that horde that darkened your otherwise perfect camping trip a few summers back.

But even more enticing than the physical advantages of hiking in winter is the chance to witness how the cold transforms the landscape: the fine filigree of ice-glazed branches and frosted grasses, the dazzling white of snow-blanketed mountains, the delicate rim of ice around a pond. The sounds beckon as well, from the quiet of an uncrowded trail to the songs of wintering sparrows, warblers, finches and kinglets. Here are a few of our favorite places to hike during this time of year.

Petit Jean's 95-foot Cedar Falls decked out for winter

Petit Jean State Park

One of the best things about this park in Morrilton is the sheer number and variety of trails it offers. And what makes it perfect in the winter are the 33 cabins available throughout the park, all of which have wood-burning fireplaces and one of which even includes a hot tub. If you’ve got a weekend to spend, establish base camp in a cabin and set out to explore as many trails as you can. And if you can only do one, don’t miss the Cedar Falls Trail, whose 95-foot column of water is even more resplendent framed in white.

The Lake Ouachita Vista Trail

Roughly 45 miles of hiking trails wind along the southern shore of Lake Ouachita near Mt. Ida. The trail was built in sections and meanders through the Ouachita National Forest with spurs providing lake vistas. The trail was created with a specific goal in mind: as a means for people to enjoy the beauty of Lake Ouachita without being in or on the water, which makes it a perfect place to visit when watersports are unseasonable.

Hot Springs National Park

This park is home to more than 25 miles of hiking trails that lead to scenic vistas and to destinations like the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, which offers an aerial view of downtown Hot Springs and the surrounding Ouachita National Forest. The park is also home to Bathhouse Row—the perfect place to relax and warm up after a chilly day of hiking.

Winter hikers toast marshmallows in a cozy cabin

Mount Nebo State Park

On a clear day, you can see 100 miles of spectacular panoramic views spread out over the Arkansas River Valley from the top of Mount Nebo State Park in Dardanelle. In the winter, when trees have lost their leaves, it’s even easier to see views such as the 1830s water route of the Trail of Tears and the 34,000-acre Lake Dardanelle from all of the park’s 14 miles of hiking trails. In cooler months, a stay in a cozy cabin and a hike on the 3.5-mile Rim Trail of Mount Nebo can keep you warm.

Cane Creek State Park

At this park in Star City, visitors can explore two of Arkansas’s distinct natural settings—the rolling terrain of the West Gulf Coastal Plain and the alluvial lands of the Arkansas Delta. It is here that the two geographic areas meet. On the 15.5-mile Cane Creek Lake Trail, hikers travel through a maze of small creeks that etch their way across the steeply sloping ridges of a thick forest; as the hike progresses, the trail bends around to open views of a lake filled with tall snags and cypress trees.

Rare snowfall at Village Creek State Park in Wynne.

Village Creek State Park

Located along the rolling terrain of geologically unusual Crowley’s Ridge, this park in Wynne offers seven miles of trails, ranging in difficulty from easy to moderate. History buffs will enjoy the 2.25-mile Military Road Trail, which preserves a remaining portion of the historic Trail of Tears. Also known as the Memphis to Little Rock Road, the pass was completed in 1829 and provided the first improved route between Little Rock and Memphis.