Greetings from Arkansas Lake Ouachita: quiet splendor

Hiking along a comfortable path soft with dead leaves to a lake overlook, we paused to take in the view of the changing clouds and fog over the water. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
Hiking along a comfortable path soft with dead leaves to a lake overlook, we paused to take in the view of the changing clouds and fog over the water. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
A pontoon ride across Lake Ouachita is a great way to watch the waves and the surrounding woods.
A pontoon ride across Lake Ouachita is a great way to watch the waves and the surrounding woods. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
Crystals in many colors sit out on tables at the Wegner Quartz Crystal Mine and Museum in Mount Ida, known as the “Crystal Capital of the World.” (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
Crystals in many colors sit out on tables at the Wegner Quartz Crystal Mine and Museum in Mount Ida, known as the “Crystal Capital of the World.” (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
Sparkling rocks with clear crystals jutting out can be unearthed at Wegner Quartz Crystal Mine and brought home.  (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
Sparkling rocks with clear crystals jutting out can be unearthed at Wegner Quartz Crystal Mine and brought home. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
The possibility of finding a diamond draws visitors from around the country to Crater of Diamonds State Park near Murfreesboro, Arkansas. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)
The possibility of finding a diamond draws visitors from around the country to Crater of Diamonds State Park near Murfreesboro, Arkansas. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)

Rural southwest Arkansas is vacation haven featuring fishing, hiking, oil, diamonds, history

I didn’t know much about Arkansas before I visited last spring, but I was intrigued with the prospect of seeing the rural southwest part of a state that is popular for outdoor activities like fishing, boating, hiking and golf, along with diamond and crystal hunting, and oil drilling.

Spring was a beautiful time of the year to be there with trees newly green, abundant wildflowers and before the stifling summer heat settled in.

Part of my trip centered on Lake Ouachita, a 35-mile long, 40,000 acre-lake made by damming up the Ouachita River. One of Arkansas’ clearest lakes, as well as its largest, it is a popular, world-class fishing destination for anglers who like to catch bass, crappies, walleye and catfish, and enjoy the surrounding Ouachita National Forest.  

While I didn’t fish, I did enjoy a pontoon ride across the lake, passing two small wooded islands and arriving at Shangri La Resort for lunch and a slice of owner Varine Carr’s famous Dutch apple pie.

Trekking in the mountains

Hiking is a popular activity, and I took the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail, one of many trails, some strenuous and some easier, in the Ouachita Mountains, the tallest mountains between the Appalachians and Rockies. The Ouachita National Forest has thousands of acres for outdoor activities,  and is rich with historical sites and beautiful scenery.

A few friends and I meandered up and down through the mixed pine and hardwood forest dotted with wildflowers along a comfortable path soft with dead leaves to a lake overlook. We sat on a bench awhile just taking in the view of the changing clouds and fog over the water.

Diamonds and crystals

When I think of mining diamonds, I think of Africa. But southwest Arkansas has the Crater of Diamonds State Park. The possibility of finding a diamond I could take home sounded like fun, so I joined friends on a prospecting outing. A guide at the visitors’ center told us a tourist recently found a two-carat yellow diamond, and overall, 30,000 diamonds have been found at the Crater of Diamonds, many of them small. I talked to a man from Texas who was using his vacation time to hunt for diamonds. Lucky for us, it rained the night before, which the guides said washed the dirt off the diamonds so they were easier to see. People of all ages and school groups were searching in the diamond field. Full of anticipation, I bent over and searched in the slippery mud, but my dream of talking home a diamond didn’t pan out.

Diamonds were first discovered in the crater in 1906 and unlike Africa, commercial mining was not successful, so eventually, the state bought it for a park where anyone could search for diamonds.

I was more successful at the Wegner Quartz Crystal Mine and Museum in the rolling green hills of Mount Ida, dubbed the Crystal Capital of the World. In a dig, I picked up some rocks with beautiful sparkling crystals and took them home. My young granddaughters were entranced to hold the colorful, sparking rocks with clear crystals jutting out in various spots. Outside the museum, tables were filled with thousands of fist-sized blue, green, red and yellow crystal rocks. Inside, there were very large and unusual gemstones and crystal rocks. Owner Richard Wegner bought this land, discovered quartz crystals on it in 1979 and developed an international business of buying and selling gemstones and crystals.

Oil in Smackover

Upper Midwesterners may not realize that oil is another natural resource found in Arkansas. It was discovered in the small towns of Smackover and El Dorado near the Louisiana border in 1921 and made Smackover so rich it had more millionaires than any place else in the country for a time. Located south of the Ouachita Mountains where cotton plantations existed before the Civil War, Smackover went from 93 people in 1922 to more 25,000 just a few years later.  Twenty-two oil trains a day once left El Dorado.

 H.L. Hunt borrowed $50 and won a stake in an oil well during a poker game in El Dorado and eventually made a fortune in the oil business. By 1925, the Smackover oil field had become the largest-producing oil site in the world. But once oil was discovered in Texas, billionaire Hunt headed there. The oil business has had its ups and downs in Smackover, but drilling continues. Since 2000, revenue from minerals, oil and natural gas has topped $1 billion.

The Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in Smackover tells the story of oil from the formations in the sea beds millions of years ago to life in the frontier boomtown. There’s a mock-up of early Smackover with a jail and general store, along with displays of modern drilling and byproducts, and drilling rigs of different eras.

Vacationing in Arkansas: a change of pace

Seeing the rolling green hills of rural southwest Aransas, traveling around the Ouachita Mountains in lovely spring weather and being outdoors hiking, boating and hunting for diamonds and crystals was so different from Minnesota, which still had chilly temperatures and bare trees.

Though I missed seeing former President Bill Clinton’s birthplace in nearby Hope, and shopping for antiques, golf and kayaking that some friends did, I returned home with an appreciation of a part of our nation I had never seen before and a desire to return some day.

• For more information about southwest Arkansas, go to http://www.agsw.org.

Pamela O’Meara may be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or 651-748-7818.


Featuring pioneers and Indians

Historic Washington State Park, southwest of Little Rock, harkens back to the 1820s through Civil War reconstruction. The town of Washington once was an important stop for travelers like Davy Crockett and Sam Houston on the Southwest Trail, which was the main route for pioneers moving from St. Louis to Texas in the 1830s and ’40s. It was briefly the Confederate capital of Arkansas after the Union Army took control of Little Rock. Today the town is a living museum where re-enactors tell about pioneer life. In the blacksmith shop, we watched an interpreter heat his metal to red hot to make tools.

Then there’s the 1832 Williams Tavern Restaurant where we stopped for an old-time lunch that included chocolate earthquake cake.

Take a day and drive to Fort Smith National Historic Site, which is located northwest of the Ouachita Mountains near the Oklahoma border. The fort was established in 1817 when President Thomas Jefferson wanted the Cherokee Indians to relocate from the East to new land in the Louisiana Purchase in what is now western Arkansas. Anticipating conflict with the Osage Indians who already lived there, the government established the fort to keep peace in the then-lawless land. A marker shows where the Trail of Tears — the forced relocation of Native Americans — went past the fort.

Then Fort Smith Museum of History tells more about the resettlement of American Indians and the arrival of white pioneers, while the visitor’s center housed in the old jail shows the squalid conditions in a big, dreary stone basement.

We also visited Miss Laura’s Social Club, a famous bordello that opened in 1903 and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Dressed as Miss Laura in an elegant red dress trimmed with black, a re-enactor gave us a tour and told stories about the social club’s heydays. Eventually, Miss Laura sold the business to Big Bertha who continued running it as a brothel until 1948.

— Pamela O’Meara


Mountain and lake resorts add to your experience

•  The lodge in Mount Magazine State Park near Paris, Arkansas, is the highest point in Arkansas. Looking out the patio door of my room, I thought I saw a lake but on a closer look I could see it was a layer of clouds with the mountain peak poking through. The sun was setting in pink, and we saw a double rainbow after a storm earlier that day.

•  Mountain Harbor Resort and Spa on Lake Ouachita is nestled among the tall pines. It is a “sanctuary — a place to relax and take a deep breath,” says owner and general manager Bill Barnes. I did relax, resting my elbows on the deck rail of my cottage gazing at the trees and the lake.

•  DeGray Lake Resort State Park is an island resort surrounded by woods with a view of the lake. Take a pontoon ride around the island, watch anglers standing in their boats and view a great sunset over the 13,000-acre fishing and swimming lake.

—Pamela O’Meara


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