Outdoor writer and photographer Corbet Deary is regularly featured in The Sentinel-Record. Today, Deary takes readers on a journey to Shady Lake Recreation Area.
I’ve spent a good chunk of my time romping around the western ends of Arkansas, and with good reason. In fact, I can confidently say that this particular part of the state is my absolute favorite, and with good reason.
The steep, scree-laden, mountainous terrain gives the landscape an unsurpassed beauty. And the crystal-clear rivers and streams that weave their way through the rugged underground are the icing on the cake.
Wildlife is plentiful, fishing is good and plenty of photography opportunities await those who enjoy capturing the beauty of Mother Nature. Miles of dirt roads criss-cross the depths of the Ouachitas, and those who prefer to walk will have no trouble finding enough designated trails that meander through the forest to keep them busy for days.
That being said, one might consider a longer stay in the middle of this section of the Ouachita National Forest. Of course, the most die-hard hikers prefer a backpacking trip. And in the immediate vicinity of the forest paths there are enough pitches where you can pitch your tent.
But on the other hand, the older I get, the more I appreciate places where you have some of the most basic comforts of home. I still find joy in primitive camping. However, as I got older I also developed a great appreciation for a picnic table, flushable toilets and drinking water.
With this in mind, I am often drawn to destinations where such luxuries are available during my nighttime outdoor excursions. And coincidentally, one such destination is right in the middle of my favorite section of the Ouachitas.
In fact, Shady Lake Recreation Area is literally minutes from pristine trails and clear mountain-fed streams. It is embedded in a beautiful natural landscape. Not to mention the fact that the destination also lies under one of the state’s darkest night skies, leading to the experience of seeing the stars twinkle in the sky.
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We recently started an overnight stay at the recreation area. And although I had previously used the facility as an overnight destination, many years had passed since then. In return I had forgotten that the campsites were spacious and set in such a beautiful and peaceful setting.
66 campsites are spread throughout the park and offer various amenities. Of course, the pitches designed for RV camping are equipped with both electricity and water connections. But even the most primitive sites are close to a source of drinking water and a short walk from bathhouses with flushable toilets and hot showers.
The site we recently selected was a stone’s throw from Saline Creek and under the canopy of native trees. The campground was well maintained and extremely level, as was the picnic table and lantern pole.
Some of the campsites are within sight of Shady Lake. The 25 hectare reservoir has a swimming area and provides a suitable habitat for native fish. Although motors are not allowed on the water, canoes, kayaks, and other small watercraft are welcome. Fishing is of course also allowed.
The Shady Lake Trail runs along Saline Creek and around the lake during a 3-mile ride through the terrain of the Ouachita Mountains. It also meanders within sight of the historic causeway built by the Civil Conservation Corps in the mid to late 1930s. Mountain bike enthusiasts are also welcome to experience a ride off the beaten track.
While there is more than likely enough to keep one occupied within the resort area’s confines, let’s spend a little time discussing other options that are literally minutes away from the destination.
Of course, those who choose to explore by vehicle will find many incredible scenes and many mountain streams within sight of the dirt roads, this part of the state is a hiker’s and backpacker’s paradise. That being said, we’ll start with the Tall Peak Trail as it’s accessible via the aforementioned route that goes past Shady Lake.
The designated trail is “lightly traveled” and climbs almost 1,200 feet during its 3.1-mile journey to a lookout point overlooking the Caney Creek Wilderness Area. The route is quite challenging as it crosses Saline Creek a few times early and moves through fairly rough terrain. However, the view that awaits you at the prospect is worth the effort. Those who embark on this particular route can simply return to the starting point.
Speaking of the Caney Creek Wilderness Area, the Caney Creek Trail is also in close proximity to the recreation area and provides ample opportunity to get to know an interesting area better.
Although surrounded by rugged and mountainous terrain, the designated trail generally stays within the Caney Creek drainage area. In fact, you should be prepared to get your feet wet from time to time, because 13 stream crossings await the hiker who tackles the entire route.
The trail traverses Blaylock Creek, Caney Creek, Katy Creek throughout the trip and crosses the Cossatot River as it nears its end at 9.6 miles. The trail’s eastern terminus is at Forest Road 38, just a few miles north of Shady Lake, and the western access point is at the Cossatot River at Forest Road 31.
Those looking to traverse more mountainous terrain might consider a trip along the Buckeye Trail. In fact, this particular route shares a 3.9-mile portion of the east end of the Caney Creek Trail and can also be accessed within minutes from the Shady Lake access point at Caney Creek.
Much of the Buckeye Trail follows a ridgeline and offers several fine views of the catchment area. And although several years have passed since I walked this route, I remember seeing a small waterfall along the way.
The Buckeye Trail makes a 9.9 mile loop and could prove to be the perfect destination for those most interested in doing a day hike without having to retrace a route they’ve already seen.
Yes, Shady Lake Recreation Area is one of those special destinations in the heart of the Ouachita Mountains. It’s a place where you’re able to find enough to please her without ever having to leave the confines of the establishment. And those who want to get lost a bit further into the forest will also be busy.
As for me, I’m already planning my next trip to the recreation area in hopes of taking pictures of the Milky Way’s core glowing in the night sky.
To get to Shady Lake from Hot Springs, take Highway 70 West for 32 miles and turn right onto Highway 84. Drive 21 miles and turn right onto Highway 246. Drive 4.9 miles and turn right onto County Road 694 Destination is on the left.