In April, my family set out from Little Rock to one of our favorite wild places in Arkansas, the Winding Stairs Trail in the Ouachita National Forest near Caddo Gap (Montgomery County). It’s two hours from Little Rock, requires bumping along on an U.S. Forest Service road for half an hour and leaves you without a cellphone signal. On past weekend visits, we’ve always seen cars, but rarely other hikers. This time, every primitive campground and possible place to park was full and ATVs were kicking up dust around every curve. It took us an hour to drive and hike to find a solitary place in one of the most remote public lands in Central Arkansas.
State parks are crowded as well. Many of the 52 parks in the Arkansas State Parks system have been flooded with visitors since March, according to Parks Director Grady Spann. To manage parks more efficiently, the department started counting guests. Since March, state parks have seen 4.2 million visitors (for context, the population of the state is 3 million). Park rangers have had to patrol park parking lots like never before, Spann said. “When a parking lot is full, that means that part of the park is closed,” he said.
The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas has had to take similar steps with the nonprofit’s most popular properties, Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area near Pinnacle Mountain and the Smith Creek Preserve in Newton County, using volunteers to make sure visitors aren’t parking outside of designated spots. At Rattlesnake Ridge, volunteers monitor the parking lot and can remotely close a gate when it’s full. “We always wanted the experience [at Rattlesnake Ridge and other Nature Conservancy properties] to be a little more secluded and wild-feeling,” said Mitchell Allen, river restoration and recreational use project manager at The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas.
Spann calls state parks an “essential service” amid the pandemic. Allen says he hopes that visitors who are taking advantage of parks and conservation areas remember their value in the voting booth or when they’re advocating politicians. Each offered tips for people who might be new to camping or hiking:
*Leave no trace is a cardinal rule when visiting public lands. “What you take in, you take out,” Spann said. “These areas are protected areas; they’re special areas. We want to protect them from litter. We don’t want people to create new trails. That’s for public safety and the safety of the resource.” At Nature Conservancy lands, roaming around off the trail is usually allowed, but Allen asks that visitors follow guidance from volunteers or any signage.
*Bring water and tell someone what you’re doing if you’re hiking solo, particularly in a remote location. At state parks, Spann encourages visitors to check in at ranger stations. Rangers can help point you to trails that match your skill level.
*Wear orange or another bright color during hunting season. Some Nature Conservancy properties, including the popular Bluffton Preserve on the Archey Fork of the Little Red River near Clinton, are leased for hunting. Some state parkland or U.S. Forest Service property adjoins property where hunting is allowed and sometimes people hunt where they’re not supposed to.
*Plan ahead. Spann encourages folks wanting to camp to make reservations as early as they can at arkansasstateparks.com. If there’s no availability listed, call the park; rangers may be able to help them find a spot.
*Be willing to try something new and drive a little bit. You’re likely to find crowds at the state’s most popular parks: Pinnacle Mountain, Petit Jean Mountain, Devil’s Den, Lake Ouachita and Lake Catherine. So try another park or go early or late in the day. Learn about other parks at arkansastateparks.com. At Rattlesnake Ridge, Allen said the parking lot is often empty first thing in the morning. The Ranch North Woods Preserve in West Little Rock has seen an influx of visitors, but hasn’t been overrun like Rattlesnake Ridge has been, Allen said. Find trails, a fishing pier and canoes for floating the Little Maumelle River there. Visit The Nature Conservancy at nature.org and follow The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas on Facebook for more information about its conservation properties that are open to the public.