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Arkansas is known as the Natural State for good reason. Along with a rich supply of national parks and forests, numerous regions hold fantastic outdoor recreation opportunities for visitors. Some of the best may still be yet to come at the Bluffton Preserve outside of Clinton, where my family and I explored the destination for hikers, campers, fishers, or those on the lookout for hidden swimming holes.
Bluffton Preserve is a 989-acre woodland preserve on the Archey Fork of the Little Red River. A 1 ½ -hour drive from Little Rock and just a few minutes west of the Natural Bridge of Arkansas, it is a fairly recent addition to The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas and is getting all sorts of recognition for its beauty and the variety of outdoor activities it can host.
To experience the preserve, get yourself to U.S. Highway 65 in the state’s north-central region and head toward Clinton. About 6.5 miles north of the town, take County Road 79/Watergate Road and turn southwest on Watergate Road. Continue for 3.8 miles (keep right at both intersections) until it ends. You’ll see a sign for Double Drop Falls, the first place to access the trail system inside Bluffton Preserve. There are two additional trailheads as you make your way down Watergate Road past Double Drop Falls. To get to the main part of the preserve, keep going and you will end up by a nicely-kept cemetery and a gate.
*Note: Watergate road is gravel and does get a bit hilly at times. There are well-worn paths inside the preserve itself, but beware if you have a low-lying car. Our Honda Odyssey minivan did just fine.
If you have a truck, drive on. It was made for this.
All of the trails at Bluffton Preserve are multiuse, which means they’re open to hiking and biking. The 6-mile trail system is complete, and The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas is working on installing signage.
Check out this map for the most up-to-date trail offerings for hiking and mountain biking.
One of the best things about Bluffton is its hidden swimming holes. You might be thinking there’s no way you’re swimming in the Little Red, where the water is 40 degrees. Bluffton Preserve is above the lake, where the water is not as cold as it is past the dam. In the summer though, the water is refreshingly cool, not so cold that you’ll feel like you’ve jumped into a glass of ice tea.
The water is also beautifully clear. One of the main paths in the preserve takes you right to one of the best swimming holes. The bottom is covered in small gravel, so be sure and take those water shoes.
Another swimming hole lies hidden along a hiking trail. This one has a rope swing, and farther down a large boulder to climb and jump off. Bring your lunch, your children and your inner tube. You are going to want to stay here.
(As to which hiking trail: if I told you, that would take away the fun of exploring.)
Primitive Camping. There are a few primitive camping sites available on a first-come-first-served basis. One of them has a picnic table and overlooks the river.
Canoeing. You can bring your own canoe or kayak, or contact Float VBC for floating information.
Fishing. You probably expect to find smallmouth bass in the waters at Bluffton Preserve, but what you may not realize is that the federally endangered yellowcheek darter also call these waters home.
Watching Wildlife. According to nature.org, sights of bald eagles and osprey are common. Deer and turkey can be seen year-round. However, the hunting rights are leased, so hunting to the general public is not allowed. Be sure to wear your hunter orange if you visit during hunting season.
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