Lake Ouachita sparkled beneath a big blue sky. In the distance, wooded mountains rolled across the horizon. The sun beamed and the water beckoned. I leaped from the edge of the sailboat that had ferried us out to the middle of the lake and plunged into the cold, deep water. I swam back up to the surface and floated on my back, watching the clouds and knowing that I’d always remember this moment.
I didn’t grow up in Arkansas but, for my friends who did, days like this are part of their DNA –their youth colored by the hues of the natural world. It’s almost ritualistic the way they retreat to the water to renew their spirits and chase away the heat of summer.
Hot Springs offers plenty of opportunities to splash and play in nature and some other fun ways to beat the heat (see below). Nearly all of the swimming holes and swim beaches listed are located within the state or federally protected areas and nearly all are free. So pack your swimsuit and make plans to enjoy the great outdoors in Hot Springs.
Lake Catherine State Park boasts a nice swim beach but it is also home to a hidden waterfall that spills into Falls Creek, a tributary of Lake Catherine. To get to this picturesque swimming spot, follow Falls Branch Trail, a moderate two-mile loop trail that winds through the forest. The hike culminates at the seasonal waterfall which measures 12-15 feet tall. There is a nice shallow pool right at the base of the waterfall where you can cool off before finishing the loop. The trailhead is located at the south end of the park, near the amphitheater. Follow the red blazes.
Gulpha Gorge Campground and Picnic Area are situated along the bank of the Gulpha Gorge Creek at the base of North Mountain. It is the only campground located within Hot Springs National Park and it’s a nice day use area too with hiking trails and a shallow, cascading creek. A small diversion dam crosses the creek, creating a wide shallow area on one side and a series of deeper pools on the other. The cement blocks serve as a path to two trailheads: Gulpha Gorge Trail heading south and Sunset Trail heading north. Both routes are well worth exploring and after your hike, you can take a dip in the creek. The campground is located off Highway 7 on the east side of Hot Springs.
Located about 20 miles west of Hot Springs in the Ouachita National Forest, Charlton Recreation Area is the perfect destination for the hottest of days. Walnut Creek, a mountain stream and tributary to Lake Ouachita flow through the recreation area where a native stone dam was built to create a nice, super-cold swimming hole. There are diving platforms and a grassy lawn for lounging around. The historic recreation area features a 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps bathhouse and opportunities for camping, picnicking, hiking, and fishing. There is a small fee for the day-use/swimming area: $5 per vehicle or $2 per person if you walk in, bike in or are dropped off. Dogs are not allowed in the day-use or swimming areas.
Nestled in the Ouachita National Forest, Lake Ouachita is one of the cleanest lakes in the nation and the largest lake located entirely in Arkansas. There are swim beaches at various marinas along the shoreline but my favorite is the sandy swim beach at Lake Ouachita State Park, next to the historic Three Sisters’ Springs. The park is located about 30 minutes northwest of downtown Hot Springs. You can enjoy multiple, free day-use areas or play and stay. The park is home to 93 campsites and eight fully-equipped cabins. In addition to the swim beaches, there are hiking trails, picnic tables, a playground, a marina with boat rentals, and some really great interpretive programs, like the sunset kayak tour.
With a towering mix of old-growth hardwoods, lake access, and mountain views, Hill Wheatley Park is a pretty park and a pleasant place to spend the day. It’s situated on the north-eastern shore of Lake Hamilton and features a sandy beach with a designated swim area that’s safe from boat traffic. Once you get tired of the sun, you can picnic beneath the canopy of trees. The park also includes a boat launch, a walking trail, picnic tables, grills, a pavilion, and restrooms.
Lake Hamilton flows into Lake Catherine and the sandy, swim beach at Lake Catherine State Park is a popular destination for summer fun, especially among families. Kids love playing in the sand and splashing in the water while mom and dad take turns lounging in the sun. The beach area includes bathrooms with changing rooms and outdoor showers. The visitors center is also nearby where you can buy snacks and drinks. If you want to get out on the water, the park includes a boat launch, boat rentals, and a full-service marina. You can spend the day at the park (day-use areas are free) or stay overnight in the campground or one of the cabins. Other facilities include hiking trails, picnic sites, and playgrounds.
Reprint from: Hot Springs Advertising & Promotion Commission, web site.