It’s fall in The Natural State. Time to load up the family, get out of the neighborhood and into the neighboring woods! In this age of digital connectedness there is a growing movement for parents and grandparents to sever the electronic tether to children by taking them hiking. Studies reveal the benefits of hiking are much more than exercise alone. It also provides an environment for family members to bond and teach kids the joy of being outdoors.
“Some of my family’s most cherished memories have been the times spent together in nature,” says Shawn Griffith, father, and Park Ranger at Lake Fort Smith State Park. “I feel there has never been a more important time for families to strengthen their connections with nature, and the trails in Arkansas are a great place to do that.”
Fortunately for us, the River Valley is blessed with abundant opportunities to plan family outings! If you want to keep it local, Ben Geren Park offers over thirteen miles of soft surface trails for a quick escape from the hustle and bustle of noisy highways and concrete jungles. Park Director Jay Randolph and his crew have worked diligently to reestablish native prairie grass meadows and wetland environments suited to attract wildlife and their efforts have paid off. Two threatened species, the American Burying beetle and the Bell’s Roadside Skipper moth, call the park home.
Barling’s Springhill Park also has many trails for families to experience the outdoors. Located on the banks of the Arkansas River, the area offers views of waterfowl and aquatic life not available on other trails. As you hike along the pathways, be sure to search high in the treetops for bald eagle nests. The heads of small eaglets can often be spotted peering over the sides of these massive configurations of twigs and grass.
Families who have time to make a day of their outing have a plethora of opportunities to traipse through the woods. The Lake Alma Trail offers a family-friendly four-mile hike around the lake that includes a waterfall, wooded forest, and an expansive view from atop the dam which created the lake.
Branching out a little further north opens even more outdoor adventures. Lake Fort Smith State Park includes a visitor center with educational exhibits about the history of the Ozarks that both adults and children will find interesting. Rangers often host show-and-tell gatherings to create hands-on experience for children to interact with nature.
The park is also the gateway to the Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT). For more adventurous-minded families, with children of the proper age, this three-hundred-twenty-mile trail offers a true bonding adventure on an extended multi-day hike. I recently shuttled a thru-hiker from Switzerland to the OHT trailhead. She had traveled across the globe to Arkansas, solely to hike this trail. The OHT is within an hour’s drive from Fort Smith.
A truly unique family outing awaits those who continue north on I-49 to Devil’s Den State Park. Not only are there scenic hiking trails, even one that routes hikers behind a waterfall, but this 1930s park offers parents the opportunity to educate their kids on an important period of America’s history – the Great Depression – and one of the government organizations established to help our nation in recovery, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Stop by the visitor center to pick up a brochure for the self-guided CCC Interpretive Trail that routes hikers past remnants of the 1934-1942 CCC camp.
Sometimes, one day of hiking just isn’t enough. Or, maybe having hiked all the local trails, you’re looking to expand your horizon. Consider loading up and using Pam Ernst’s Arkansas Dayhikes for Kids & Families as your road map to explore over one hundred easy trails in the Natural State. The book is tailored for family outings, with input from Pam, her husband Tim, their ten-year-old daughter, and Grandmother, Judy Ferguson.
Families interested in meeting other like-minded individuals to experience the outdoors have several groups they can reach out to. Trail Blazers Hiking Club (thcfs.com) is a hiking group based in Fort Smith dedicated to enjoying the area’s outdoors. They schedule several hikes a month that range from short, laid-back walks in the woods, to long and somewhat difficult treks. The members are experienced in the outdoors and can tell you best if a planned outing is suitable for young hikers.
Takahik Hiking Club (takahik.com) is based in Russellville. Created in 1999, the group is dedicated to the promotion, preservation, and enjoyment of Arkansas hiking trails. This is a great opportunity for Fort Smith hikers to explore trails in the state’s central region. Takahik leads hikes, such as the Annual Takahik Youth Hike, tailored specifically for new adventurers.
Cub Scouts is another way for families to meet others who share the goal of introducing their children to nature. I recently encountered Alma’s Cub Scout Pack 33 at Lake Fort Smith State Park. They were participating in a trail cleanup service project. It was a great opportunity for parents to teach their children to respect and appreciate nature. As everyone rambled through the trees, collecting bits of snack food wrappings, fountain cups, and other debris, children played, and parents socialized. A good time was had by all as they worked together to make other visitors’ outings in the park a memorable experience!