Editor's Note: Oklahoma City resident Larry Floyd is co-author of the guidebook Oklahoma Hiking Trails (bestoklahomatrails.com)
During the winter, Oklahoma's temperate climate frequently provides days of sunshine and moderate temperatures, ideal conditions for an invigorating day hike.
The best venue for winter hiking lies in the piney hills along the storied Ouachita Trail, a trail that extends 222 miles from southeast Oklahoma to Pinnacle Mountain State Park, just outside Little Rock, Ark.
The chilly winter nights of southeast Oklahoma discourage the ubiquitous chiggers and ticks in these wooded areas, giving relief to hikers.
Also, the thin vegetation and denuded tree limbs during winter allow clearer views of the surrounding hills and valleys of the scenic Ouachita National Forest.
The Oklahoma side of the Ouachita Trail follows a 46-mile stretch of wooded hills starting at Talimena State Park, eight miles northeast of Talihina.
Heading eastward, the trail twice crosses the storied Talimena Drive on SH 1 before dipping south toward Big Cedar. The trail resumes its easterly course across U.S. 259 before veering north again toward the Talimena Drive and the Arkansas state line.
Two excellent day hikes mark the beginning and the end of Oklahoma's share of the Ouachita Trail. Both are from point to point, meaning that a car-drop will be necessary to ensure an available ride at the end of the trail.
Trail to Deadman Gap
The first of these two hikes (Talimena State Park to Deadman Gap) begins at the marked western trailhead for the Ouachita Trail on the east side of the park campgrounds.
The blue blazes along this eight-mile stretch of trail initially lead through a heavy forest of oak and pine. Scattered rocks dot segments of this trail but pose few problems for hikers.
Less than a mile from the trailhead, the pathway crosses the Old Military Trail, a historic roadway that once carried U.S. troops and emigrants across the Choctaw Nation.
After the trail's first three miles of slow ascent, striking vistas suddenly emerge to the south. Around mile five, the trail skirts within a few dozen yards of the Talimena Drive, with muffled sounds of passing autos occasionally audible. The blue blazes of the trail are almost continuously in view, but vigilance is recommended to avoid a frustrating detour.
Nearing the last few miles of the hike a sign points the way to Deadman Gap, just 2.3 miles ahead. The last mile or so ascends through a tranquil forest and northward to the Talimena Drive and near the parking lot for the Deadman Gap Scenic Vista.
This parking area provides an ideal spot for the car-drop.
Trail to Arkansas
The second of these Ouachita Trail hikes (Kiamichi River Trailhead to Arkansas Line) starts just off SH 63 and northward on Forest Road 6032 across a usually shallow ford on the Kiamichi River.
Just 100 yards north of the river and through a latched metal gate, a dirt roadway leads to the northeast and intersects the Ouachita Trail running east and west.
The first few of the last seven miles of the Oklahoma leg of the Ouachita Trail cross a number of small tributaries flowing into the Kiamichi River.
These narrow creeks are easily forded in dry weather. Passing through pines and oaks of the Ouachita National Forest, the trail bends to the north after several miles.
Looking to the north through the woods, hikers can glimpse the ridgeline atop Rich Mountain.
A long winding ascent of this mountain begins at about mile four. The climb is fairly steep and rocky, and hikers need to keep a sharp eye for the blue blazes to stay on course.
The trail becomes circuitous along the ridgeline of the mountain, but generally heads northeastward.
The large slabs of rock along the ridge provide a nice rest stop. From the top of Rich Mountain, faint sounds of autos and an occasional motorcycle can be heard in the distance along the Talimena Drive.
Descending the mountain, the last couple of miles of trail proceed to the northeast toward the Arkansas state line. A half-mile or so from Arkansas, a fairly steep ascent begins as the route nears the Talimena Drive.
An abrupt departure from the woods and onto the highway marks the hike's end. A large road sign welcomes visitors to Arkansas. The lot near this marker provides ample parking for a car-drop.
Other inviting hikes can be found along the Oklahoma side of the Ouachita Trail, which is open to backpackers year-around, although winter is not the ideal time to spread a bedroll in these parts.
But during the daytime — even during winter — Oklahoma's premier hiking along the Ouachita Trail can be a welcoming venue for outdoor enthusiasts.
WINTER HIKING TIPS
• Dressing in layers allows you to stay cozy while hiking during the winter months. To adjust your comfort, make use of a small backpack to retrieve or store the layers of clothing.
• Avoid cotton undergarments, which absorb perspiration and keep you chilled during cool weather. Clothing made of synthetic fabric like polypropylene performs best in the cold.
• Carrying along rain gear can be important. Not only can this keep you dry and comfortable in a shower, it might prevent a serious case of hypothermia during a winter hike.
• A supply of drinking water is vital all times of the year. Although you may not feel as thirsty in the chill air, you need to stay hydrated during winter as well as summer.