TAKE YOUR BEST FRIEND: For a hike at Emerald Park in North Little Rock, which is laden with overlook spots and spur trails. Stephanie Smittle

We learned new ways to live in 2020, ways to be solitary without being stationary, stuck at home with the house cat and a hot computer. A stroll around the neighborhood, for example. But a leisurely walk sometimes won’t fire up the endorphins to the heat we need to melt away stress. Then we need a hike, maybe on a new trail, up a steep mountainside. Pinnacle Mountain State Park is a super popular go-to for hiking and a great view, and the packed parking lot tells us that it’s already on everyone’s radar. Here’s a list of urban hikes for both the seasoned-and-booted and the green-and-tennis-shoe-shod in Central Arkansas that don’t get the same sort of traffic Pinnacle does, but have much to recommend: 

RUGGED ROUTES  

Conner Park
13100 Cantrell Road

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River Mountain Park
Southridge Drive or River Mountain Road

I’ve lived in Little Rock for almost 20 years and only recently discovered these lovely small West Little Rock city parks. Those who travel regularly on Cantrell Road west of Interstate 430 have probably visited or at least noticed Conner Park (13100 Cantrell Road) on the north side of the busy road. It’s oriented around Conner Lake, which is more of a pond, with a pier right off the small parking lot and nice benches spread out around it for fishing. There are three loop trails in the park: a short one around the pond; a fairly rugged one that travels a little way up a hill and over a handful of bridges that took me about 15 minutes to complete; and one that follows the perimeter of the park and connects with a trail that follows power lines for about three-quarters of a mile and then goes steeply uphill and crosses over Southridge Drive into River Mountain Park. 

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You can also reach River Mountain Park’s western trailhead by driving to, approximately, 12364 Southridge Drive, and parking in a small lot or on the street. There’s another small lot near the eastern terminus of the trail on River Mountain Road near Two Rivers Park. For now, the only feature in the narrow, 132-acre park is a 2.9-mile out-and-back trail that runs through a valley between Southridge Drive and Rivercrest Drive. But trail tape hints at the 8 miles of multiuse trails designed specifically for mountain bikes that the Arkansas Parks & Recreation is building there. With several “gravity” downhill trails planned to take advantage of the 300 feet of elevation change in the park, it’s soon to become a cycling destination. But I’m already adding it to my list of top, nearby hikes to do with kids. It’s rocky, with lots of grade changes, so you might want to approach it with caution if you’ve got little kids or bad knees. But my 6- and 10-year-olds loved the many creek crossings and large rock faces along several sections of the creek just off the trail that they partially scaled. The backyards of some homes in Walton Heights are visible early on, and toward the eastern end of the trail you can hear traffic from Cantrell and I-430, but for most of the hike, it feels like you’re far away from the city. If it’s rained recently, you’ll want to bring waterproof boots. If you wanted to do a big day hike, going out and back from Conner Park to Two Rivers Park would be about 9 miles. LM

Ouachita National Recreation Trail
Pinnacle Mountain State Park Visitor Center parking lot

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Now might be a great time to leave everything behind and spend several weeks backpacking on the 222-mile Ouachita Trail, which runs from Pinnacle Mountain to southeastern Oklahoma. Or you could just stretch your legs and avoid the crowds on some of Pinnacle’s more popular routes, and do all or part of the 2.5 miles of the Ouachita Trail in Pinnacle Mountain State Park. The eastern trailhead drops down through the upland forests of Middle Mountain, to the banks of the Big Maumelle River, across train tracks and Pinnacle Valley Road, to the base of Pinnacle Mountain. Climbing Middle Mountain on the return trip is a good workout. LM

Leslie Newell Peacock
ON RATTLESNAKE RIDGE: Just west of Pinnacle Mountain is a beautiful natural area with good hiking and great views.

Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area
Barrett Road, Roland

Like Pinnacle Mountain, Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area offers excellent hiking and great views from its bald peak, including a nice look at slightly taller Pinnacle to the east. Its sandstone outcrops, ravines and switchback trails that make ascent to the top fairly easy are among the reasons Rattlesnake Ridge is one of the best hikes in Central Arkansas. Its easiest trail is on the ridgeline along Barrett Road, and that quarter-mile hike alone is worth the trip. But veer off on a trail down into a ravine, over wooden bridges and back up Cliffbreak Trail to reach the summit and be rewarded with the woods, boulders and birds. Or, take the longer Mountain Boomer trail or the Lower Kanob trail that follow the ups and downs of this 323-acre uplift that divides the Little Maumelle and Big Maumelle rivers. The trails draw mountain bikers, so keep an eye out, and note: The parking area admits only 30 cars at most, and a sign asks visitors to come another day if the lot is full. Part of the entrance leads to private property, so don’t park in front of that gate, OK? The natural area was acquired by the state from the Lee Bodehamer family, The Nature Conservancy and Central Arkansas Water to preserve its unusual-for-the-area flora and fauna. LNP

Emerald Park
North Little Rock 

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High above the Arkansas River on its North Little Rock side is Emerald Park, an evergreen-lush mountainside with bird’s eye views of the downtown Little Rock skyline and state Capitol, Rebsamen Park, the Big Rock Quarry and the rolling river. The easiest way to gain access to Emerald Park’s two main trails plus a small network of rewarding spur trails is to point your GPS navigation to the Emerald Park Parking Lot behind Pulaski Technical College at 3000 W. Scenic Drive. (Or, for the GPS-averse, head to Pulaski Tech, drive to the rear of the campus and turn onto Marge Gardner Lane.) Near the end of a short paved initial stretch, you’ll come to a paved fork; this is decision time. Veering left will take you along Emerald Park’s Highland Trail, a 1.8-mile paved route that roughly parallels the river and puts you out near the Eugene V. Towbin VA Healthcare Center complex; this trail is the best of both worlds, especially if you’ve got less experienced hikers in your company — it’s paved, but scenic. If, however, you veered right at the paved fork, you’ve got a couple of options, too. For a short but adventurous jaunt out to a rocky ridge with loads of photo opportunities, follow the paved path to a gazebo overlook, then onward, where the pavement quickly gives way to a narrow ridge trail, then to a craggy cliffside overlooking the river and environs. This short out-and-back spur is well-traveled — and its boulders well-decorated with vibrant graffiti. If you’re less inclined to ridges with precarious footing, or aren’t donning the right footwear, take the right at the paved fork and keep an eye out for the sharp — I repeat, sharp —  switchback that begins Emerald Park Trail. It’s unmarked, but if you get to the gazebo overlook, you’ve gone too far. This natural 1-mile trail cuts back and forth gently along the mountainside, where it meets the heavily trafficked Arkansas River Trail. SS

EASY UP AND DOWN

Allsopp Park North and South
3700 Cedar Hill Road (from Kavanaugh Boulevard on the south to Cantrell Road on the north)

Once in a while you’ll have to duck a fearless mountain biker tackling the narrow and rocky trails through this midtown park, but the 150-acre wooded park is a great place for a mild workout along the ridge it hugs between Hillcrest and the Heights. It is wild enough to host coyotes in some seasons, but with the noisy playground and the ballfield and tennis courts in the flatlands along its unnamed creek, they hide. The park has two parts: It continues in the ravine north of North Lookout up the steepish hill to the Prospect Terrace neighborhood in the Heights. Out and back from Cedar Hill to the Heights endpoint is a nice long hike. Dogs must be on a leash, but that is more honour’d in the breach than the observance. LNP

Gillam Park
Springer Boulevard 

Gillam Park’s history is a sad one: It was opened as a segregated park in the 1930s; improved with a bond issue tied to slum clearance it opened with a swimming pool in 1950, but the city did not dedicate the money it would take to staff it and keep it up. Now, however, Gillam Park has new life, especially for birdwatchers who look for bejeweled migrants in its 400 acres of fields and uplands and native plant lovers who might find a small-headed pipewort on its nepheline syenite outcrops. So for some, a hike here will include a lot of stops, but it’s a good place to think about something other than a troubled world. Park at the gate or in the parking lot of the nearby Audubon Center, whose Wildlife Observation Trail hooks up with Gillam Park. LNP

Burns Park

Spread out over 1,700 acres, you’ll find just about any outdoor amenity you could want in this North Little Rock park: golf, frisbee golf, endless tennis courts, baseball diamonds, soccer fields, a (privately managed) BMX track, a dog park, campground and access to the Arkansas River Trail. But don’t sleep on the hiking. The 5-mile Green Loop Trail traverses the park’s hilly terrain and offers several overlooks of the Arkansas River and a cutoff about halfway through in case you want to bail earlier. If you know you want something shorter, the 1.8-mile Red Loop Trail follows similar ground, or the 2.2-mile Yellow Loop Trail covers the mostly flat northern edge of the park. Look out for mountain bikers and people on horseback. The parking area by the covered bridge is a good place to park. LM

FLATS 

Two Rivers Trail
6900 Two Rivers Park Road

You’ll see lots on this trail in the 1,000-acre Two Rivers Park: Runners, hikers, dogs, cyclists, cyclists hauling babies, cyclists hauling dogs, so you won’t be lonely — until you bushwhack along the park’s nonpaved “trails,” one into the wetland south of the main trail and the other through brush north to the park boundary. The big-dipper shaped paved trail that has a stretch along the Little Maumelle is also largely untrod and provides views of the stream. LNP

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Lindsey Millar
FIND PEACE BY THE LITTLE MAUMELLE: The Ranch North Woods Preserve Loop is a beautiful place to commune with nature.

The Ranch North Woods Preserve Loop
8803 Ranch Boulevard

This Nature Conservancy preserve, once slated for development, is a lovely oasis amid West Little Rock sprawl. It’s 234 acres of field and forest and includes 1.7 miles of the Little Maumelle River. The Nature Conservancy has left canoes and life jackets on racks at several points along the river for public use. The 2-mile loop trail is a great way to get a feel for the preserve. About half of it follows the Little Maumelle River. On a recent cold weekday afternoon, we saw an egret gliding between towering cypress trees. Toward dusk we heard a barred owl’s call. Halfway through the loop, you feel very far removed from the city. Much of the property, including paths through fields, are filled with deep puddles during the wet months. I remembered to bring snacks and water and heavy coats on the outing with my kids, but I failed to remember to put them in boots and their feet ended up soaked. LM

Future trails

Thanks to a $3 million federal Surface Transportation Block Grant awarded by Metroplan, hikers and bikers can look forward to a new trail system south of Col. Glenn Road and west of University Avenue. The 6-mile phase 3 of the Tri-Creek Greenway — primarily designed for cyclists — will create new 12-foot-wide paths and make use of existing paved trails and bridges in Boyle Park and Kanis Park. The funded route stretches from Western Hills northwest of Fourche Creek through First Tee, north under state Highway 5, over Rock Creek, under 36th Street, over Fourche Creek, under Kanis Road, over Rock Creek to Mississippi Street at Interstate 630. There will also be on-street connections to UA Little Rock and the 12th Street bike lanes that go to Arkansas Children’s Hospital; future phases will extend the trail to War Memorial. John Landosky, Little Rock’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, wrote the grant to create a route that would serve as work transportation as well as recreation and park access to residents of an underserved area of the city. The generous grant allows for the construction of bridges and underpasses to create safe links between existing bike trails, including another trail in Western Hills that will be part of an improvement project funded with an Outdoor Recreation Legacy grant of the National Park Service. The city is still seeking funding to extend the Greenway to Brodie Creek Park east of Hindman Park. The city’s Parks and Recreation Department is matching the STGB grant with $750,000. LNP