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Arkansas's Montgomery County: A Recreational Gem in the Ouachitas

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Camping along the Little Missouri River
Camping along the Little Missouri River
    Lum & Abner's Jot 'em Down Store at Pine Ridge.
Lum & Abner's Jot 'em Down Store at Pine Ridge.
Crystal hunting is popular near Mt. Ida.
Crystal hunting is popular near Mt. Ida.
    World Championship Quartz Crystal Dig
World Championship Quartz Crystal Dig
The Caddo River is popular among floaters.
The Caddo River is popular among floaters.
July 9, 2002

Arkansas's Montgomery County:
A Recreational Gem in the Ouachitas

By Jim Taylor, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

In west central Arkansas's Montgomery County, rainfall and spring water journey countless rivulets and creeks down through the forested Ouachita Mountains to feed four clear streams -- the Little Missouri, Caddo and Ouachita rivers and the Ouachita's south fork. The lower valleys of the latter two were inundated by Arkansas's largest reservoir, Lake Ouachita. At 40,100 acres, the immense body of water stretches some 40 miles eastward to Blakely Mountain Dam, completed in 1952 near Hot Springs in Garland County.

With its ancient ridges, free-flowing sections of the four larger streams, a third of Lake Ouachita and more than 60 percent of its territory preserved within the Ouachita National Forest, sparsely populated Montgomery County provides a remarkable concentration of varied outdoor activities for vacations, weekends and day trips.

The Ouachitas, which extend from near Little Rock into eastern Oklahoma, were formed as two prehistoric continents slowly collided -- over the course of 15 million years -- and squeezed deep layers of sedimentary rock up from the ocean floor between them. When young, the Ouachitas probably resembled in height today's Rocky Mountains. Now the tallest summit in the range reaches less than 2,700 feet.

While still quite scenic, it is in view of their antiquity that the Ouachitas become spectacular. By the time dinosaurs first walked the earth around 245 million years ago, wind, water and ice had -- for some 40 million previous years -- taken a toll on the Ouachitas, robbing them of elevation. The small stones and impressive boulders that now line Ouachita Mountain streambeds are the weather-shattered remnants of peaks that likely towered more than 10,000 feet.

Despite the eons of erosion, the Ouachitas remained sufficiently rugged to deter heavy pioneer settlement. Though lumbering became a major economic activity after the Civil War, large tracts of the interior region remained in the public domain, prompting in 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt's creation of the Arkansas National Forest. Later extended into Oklahoma, the forest's name became "Ouachita."

Because of its mountainous terrain and public ownership of the national forest, Montgomery County has a population density of only 11.8 persons per square mile (pop. 9,245 in 2000), though pioneers first reached the area in the early 1800s.

Ouachita National Forest

The U.S. Forest Service provides numerous recreational amenities within Montgomery County's portion of the national forest, including campgrounds, day-use and scenic areas, hiking and backpacking trails, and many miles of backcountry roads for touring.

Among several forest campgrounds, the Albert Pike Recreation Area, located along the Little Missouri near the county's southwest corner, is the most popular. Forty-six campsites provide a good base for angling for sunfish and smallmouth bass and -- in cool seasons -- for rainbow trout stocked by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission.

The area also offers a large natural pool for swimming, and, after substantial rainfall, the river can be traveled downstream by canoe or kayak, though doing so is recommended only for highly experienced paddlers. Hiking trails lead downstream to the Winding Stairs scenic area and upstream to the Little Missouri Falls, a day-use area also accessible by forest service roads.

Travel on the mostly gravel forest roads yields access to the interior mountains. One popular route is Forest Service Road 177, which can be accessed by taking Logan Gap Road south from U.S. 270 just west of the Mt. Ida-Bearce Airport (about six miles east of Mt. Ida). Taking FS177 to the right at its intersection with Logan Gap leads travelers through the Crystal Mountain Scenic Area to the Collier Springs day-use area, by the Crystal Recreation Area (nine campsites) and on to a junction with Ark. 27 about a mile north of Norman.

Like many of the backcountry roads, FS177 is rough in spots but two-wheel drive vehicles are sufficient in dry weather. Due to limited signage on most back roads, it is advisable to take along a national forest or county map.

Other national forest highlights include a spectacular vista of Lake Ouachita and the surrounding mountains provided at the Hickory Nut Mountain day-use area, located off U.S. 270 near the county's eastern edge. Additionally, passing through northern Montgomery County is a portion of the 192-mile long Ouachita National Recreation Trail, which begins in Oklahoma and ends at Pinnacle Mountain State Park just west of Little Rock.

Floating the Ouachita and Caddo

Popular among floaters are sections of the upper Ouachita and Caddo rivers, which offer opportunities for wildlife watching and fishing for smallmouth and other bass species and sunfish. The waters of both are suitable for families and ideal for shoreline picnics and swimming.

Flowing through the national forest, the Ouachita offers remote scenery, which includes some of the mountains' rare stream-carved bluffs. Overnight trips on the stream can include stays at any of five forest service float camps. The Caddo, which begins near Norman and runs southeast for 28 miles before leaving the county, flows through more developed areas, but still provides scenic journeys. Outfitters are available on both streams.

Lake Ouachita

When Lake Ouachita filled in the early 1950s, it added to the mountainous scenery expanses of water on a scale never before seen in Montgomery County. The lake, particularly stunning when ringed by flaming fall foliage, made available new recreational activities, such as power boating, houseboating, sailing, water skiing, scuba diving and viewing of wintering bald eagles. In addition, new venues were created for fishing, camping and swimming.

The lake has become home to private resorts and marinas, where visitors can find a variety of accommodations, meeting facilities, restaurants, fishing and nautical supplies, and watercraft rentals such as houseboats, party barges, ski and fishing boats, and jet skis. In addition, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recreation areas provide campgrounds, swimming beaches, and boat launch ramps.

Striped bass topping 50 pounds, largemouth bass, catfish, crappie and bream are among the game anglers haul from the lake. Fishing guides are available.

Mount Ida

Driving into Mount Ida, the county seat, it's hard not to notice the many rock shops lining the highways. And there's a reason the town proclaims itself the "Quartz Crystal Capital of the World."

During the continental collision that formed the Ouachitas, hot fluids rich in silica were forced up through fractures in the uplifted stone and precipitated quartz crystals into veins within the rock. In the sandstone of the Crystal Mountains near Mount Ida lie some of the world's richest deposits of the crystals. Several private mines, usually associated with rock shops, allow visitors to dig their own crystals for fees in the range of $20 for all day for adults and less for children.

Each October, Mount Ida hosts the World Championship Quartz Crystal Dig in association with its annual Quartz, Quiltz and Craftz Festival. A gem and mineral show and sale, sales of arts and crafts and the full-length display of some 200 quilts are among the festival's other main attractions.

Occupying a spot on the Montgomery County Courthouse lawn, the Front Porch stage hosts bluegrass jams from 3 to 7 p.m. followed by live musical performances on Saturdays from May through October. The county's Heritage House Museum, which recently opened at 819 Luzerne Street, houses limited exhibits, but more are under development. Admission to the Front Porch performances and the museum is free.

The Mount Ida Area Chamber of Commerce web site,, contains extensive information for Montgomery County visitors. Included are a lodging guide with information on motels, cabins, lake and river resorts, and bed and breakfast locations; details on U.S. Forest Service and Corps of Engineers campgrounds and other facilities; a dining guide; float trip and horseback riding outfitters; rock shops and crystal mines; a schedule of Front Porch musical acts; festival information; and a calendar of events.

The chamber can be reached by phone at (870) 867-2723 or by mail at P.O. Box 6, Mount Ida, 71957. It also operates a tourist information center in the 200 block of U.S. 270 in Mount Ida. Hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday-Friday. Detailed maps of the national forest and the Ouachita recreation trail are available through the chamber for $5 each.

Radio history in Pine Ridge

Located near the county's western edge on Ark. 88 is the Pine Ridge community, where the Lum 'n' Abner Museum & Jot 'em Down Store houses memorabilia related to the 1930s and '40s radio comedy team of Arkansas natives Chester Lauck (Lum) and Norris Goff (Abner). From March 1 through November 15, museum hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. It is open by appointment at other times of the year. Phone (501) 326-4442 to arrange tours and for more information.


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"

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