The Great Outdoors of the North Central Ozarks
Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
If warm weather is calling you to the outdoors, there is a plethora of options to keep you busy all summer, and most of these activities can also be enjoyed year round. In particular, the north central Ozarks are a great place to test your adventure meter in any season, whether you enjoy watersports, diving, underground caverns, fishing, mountain biking, zip lines, or golf.
Lakes and Rivers
Rivers in the Ozark Mountains are prime for floating and fishing. The Strawberry River is a popular waterway for those who enjoy canoeing, swimming or just hanging out on the beach.
Floating is a favorite pastime on the Spring River too. The constant flow from Mammoth Spring makes the Spring River one of the state’s best year-round floats, even during the summer months when river levels tend to fall in other areas. The stream is crystal-clear with long pools and whitewater falls. The section between Mammoth Spring and Hardy is excellent for beginning and intermediate canoeists. The South Fork is excellent for canoeing, particularly in the spring months.
If you’re looking for smoother water to cut a boat through, Cherokee Village offers seven scenic lakes for fishing, boating, and swimming. Crown Lake in Horseshoe Bend boasts 650 acres of recreational activities, a full-service marina with campground, and beautiful flora and fauna of The Natural State.
If your idea of adventure is angling for a wall trophy, you’ll find fishing in this region excellent year round. The Spring River has been described as the state’s most dependable natural stream. Trout and walleye are rated tops here. The upper Spring River is popular for fly fishing. The headwater for the river is Mammoth Spring. Flowing at over nine million gallons of 58-degree water per hour, the spring keeps the river cold enough to support a good trout population for 10 miles downstream. Walleye fishing is hard to beat here. The lower reaches offer great bass and catfish, and the South Fork River tributary is known for both walleye and smallmouth bass.
Outdoor recreation on the Black River is another option – where canoeing, fishing, camping, and RV opportunities abound.
If you’re looking for a trout haven, the White River is hard to beat. The trout section of this 720-mile National Blueway stretches from Lakeview below Bull Shoals Dam all the way to Guion, a distance of about 90 miles. You’ll find plenty of resorts and restaurants overlooking this waterway.
Norfork Lake is a popular playground for watersports and fishing — with an added bonus of being a great place to dive. Good recreational diving can be found at 20 to 40 feet on Lake Norfork, which has 31 marked dive sites. Some of the marked sites are as deep as 70 feet with a couple wall dives down to 150 feet below the surface. Diving on this lake is best from April to October with greatest visibility between 40 and 60 feet in the spring. The closer you get to the dam, the clearer the water. This lake also has wonderful white sandy beaches.
Just north of Mountain View is some of the finest mountain biking in the state. The Syllamo Mountain Bike Trail is a series of interconnecting loops that can be accessed from three trailheads: at Green Mountain Road, at Arkansas Highway Five, and at Blanchard Springs Recreation Area. There are 50 miles of trail, much of it single-track, with varying levels of difficulty. Named an Epic Route by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, it is perfect for all-day rides or shorter sessions.
For day hikes, Blanchard Springs offers hiking trails that are accessible for those in wheelchairs or strollers to see and hear a variety of wildlife, flora and fauna. For backpackers, the Sylamore section of the Ozark Highlands Trail is a moderate to strenuous 31.6 miles situated near the confluence of the Buffalo and White Rivers. Named for the creek that runs alongside it, the North Sylamore Creek Hiking Trail is moderate in difficulty and 15 miles one way. It lets hikers encounter ever-varying landscapes.
Go underground at Blanchard Springs Caverns in Mountain View for guided walking tours through an active cavern system, featuring sparkling calcite formations, stalactites, stalagmites and columns. The Caverns is a three-level cave system, two of which are open for guided tours by Forest Service employees. A wild cave tour is also available.
Blanchard is open all year with a restricted tour schedule during the winter months. The visitor center contains a gift shop, books, maps, educational material, and movie. The Blanchard Springs Recreation Area and Campground features crystal clear streams, a large flowing spring (12,000 gallons per minute), a small lake, scenic trails, picturesque bluffs, swimming, fishing, and outdoor theatre programs in season.
If you like flying high over the forest floor below, try Loco Ropes, a playground in the trees located at Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View. The attraction contains ropes challenge courses, a zip line, a climbing wall and free fall. The three ropes courses, also known as Loco Lines, consist of more than 30 elements. Some are more mentally challenging, some physical. Balance and agility play a more important role than brawn. They range from simply walking a wooden plank to swinging on a rope like Tarzan from one tree platform to another. The tallest element on the course is 65 feet above the ground. The aerial adventure can be experienced by all ages.
The climbing wall contains four routes and an auto belay system, where a mechanical device keeps tension on the rope as you climb, then lets you rappel down the wall as well. On the free fall, you walk off the edge of the tower platform and fall to the ground. Don’t worry. You are harnessed by a cable to a power fan that, with pressure and tension, works against your weight as you go down. You experience the falling effect, but are slowed down at the end so you don’t hit the ground hard.
At Zippin Griffin in Griffin Park near Hardy, you can take flight over the beautiful South Fork of the Spring River. You can experience it side by side with a partner, too. Not one, but two parallel, steel cables, each with a 350-foot vertical, and each extending 1,700-feet, allow you a breathtaking view of the river while gliding at a speed of 55 to 60 miles per hour. Stay in your harness to enjoy a one and a half hour, seven zip line adventure tour alongside the river while learning about the local ecology, wildlife and history of the area. It’s highflying fun for ages 5 to 105.
Other attractions at Griffin Park include camping, guided horseback riding tours, swimming, tubing, kayaking, canoeing, and motorcycle and ATV riding trails.
Golfing opportunities are abundant. Six popular golf courses are located in the Salem area, where a number of golf tournaments take place each year. Planned communities like Horseshoe Bend and Cherokee Village are known for their championship golf courses. Tannenbaum Golf Club in Drasco has been rated by Golf Digest as one of the best places to play.
Several routes in this region are popular with motorcyclists. Picture-worthy scenery can be found heading north out of Mountain View on highways 5, 9, and 14.
If you’d like to learn more about outdoor opportunities in north central Arkansas or anywhere around the state, check out Arkansas.com/outdoors.