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Arkansas’s lakes are one of its best attractions. With over 2,400 named ponds, lakes and reservoirs, the state has a lot of water. Its largest lake is Lake Ouachita, which sprawls through the Ouachita National Forest just west of Hot Springs. Lake Ouachita didn’t always exist, though. The Army Corps of Engineers created it as part of flood control measures for the Ouachita River. Fortunately for the state, those flood control measures created Arkansas’s largest and most pristine lake.
The earliest idea for Lake Ouachita traces back to 1870, when Congress authorized a study of the Ouachita River to assess flood control. In the 1920s, Arkansas Power & Light Company built Remmel Dam and Carpenter Dam along the river to provide hydroelectricity. The two dams created Lake Catherine and Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs, but the company wanted to build a third dam near Blakely Mountain. The Federal Power Commission eventually took over that project.
The town of Buckville had to relocate, although many residents had already left, assuming the dam’s construction was imminent. Graves and Native American burial mounds were also relocated. The project received funding in 1946, and the dam was completed in 1952. The Blakely Mountain Dam is 231 feet tall and 1,110 feet long. It generates up to 75,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity. In 1954, the Corps of Engineers completed the construction of the lake.
Lake Ouachita is 36 miles long and crosses Garland and Montgomery counties. The lake contains 66,324 acres of land and water with 690 miles of shoreline and over 200 islands. It is a public lake zoned for recreational use, but construction is strictly limited because of its Corps of Engineers status. It also sits within the Ouachita National Forest, which protects the environment surrounding the lake from construction as well. This makes Lake Ouachita one of the most beautiful natural environments in Arkansas.
As the largest and clearest lake in Arkansas, the lake abounds with recreational opportunities. Its clear water is perfect for scuba diving. The forest beneath the lake remains, giving it unusual features and creating a habitat for wildlife. Beneath the waters, divers can explore a vein of quartz that runs through the lake, the ruins of the abandoned towns the lake flooded, and view tiny freshwater jellyfish. The jellyfish are too small to harm divers or swimmers and are only found in the cleanest lakes. The lake also has freshwater sponges, another rarity only found in clear, clean water. The sponges attach to rocks and trees beneath the water; some can grow as large as saucers.
Divers can also follow the “Geo-Float Trail.” The Corps of Engineers created the trail for boaters to highlight the geological features of the lake. These are also perfect areas for divers to explore. While beneath the water, divers can also view a variety of fish, including large and smallmouth bass, crappie, sunfish, rainbow trout and catfish. Divers can spearfish with spearguns between June 15 and March 15. They should follow all fishing regulations.
Lake Ouachita enjoys 4 million visitors each year who enjoy boating, water skiing, kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding. The lake has several marinas for boat rentals and supplies. Fishing and swimming are also popular on the lake. There are several designated recreational areas, including Spillway Recreational Area, Little Fir Landing and James Stephens Memorial Park. The lake has around 800 campsites, and the U.S. Forest Service also maintains many camping areas in the surrounding national forest. RV camping is available at some sites. For those who want to visit the lake but prefer a resort experience, Lake Ouachita has several resorts on or near the lake.
Hiking is another popular activity, and the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT) makes it easy to enjoy. The trail is 40 miles in total, but it offers plenty of short segments that take hikers through the national forest before opening up for lake views. Hikers will see wildflowers, small wildlife, and plenty of quartz. The Ozark National Forest is open for hunting, and hikers should wear bright clothing and be aware of hunting seasons. The U.S. Forest Service also maintains trails through the Ouachita National Forest. Most trails are open for mountain biking, and some are accessible for horseback riding. Several area stables offer horseback riding near Lake Ouachita.
Lake Ouachita is also home to one of Arkansas’s 52 state parks. Lake Ouachita State Park includes 93 campsites, some located on the water. It has eight cabins, four camper cabins, a marina for boat rentals and a visitor’s center. The park has two trails of its own, swimming beaches, and programs offered year-round, like kayak tours, eagle cruises and guided hikes.
Lake Ouachita State Park includes the Three Sisters Springs historical site as well. Homesteaded in 1875, John McFadden discovered the property has three natural springs forming three separate water pools. He named the site Three Sisters Springs for his three daughters. He claimed the springs had healing powers. After several owners, W.M. Cecil and partners bought the property in 1907. They developed the area into the Three Sisters Springs Resort to capitalize on the idea of the springs’ healing abilities. They also sold bottled spring water and claimed each spring could heal different diseases.
The Corps of Engineers eventually bought the property as part of the construction of Lake Ouachita and Blakely Mountain Dam. Then the Corps leased the historical site and surrounding acreage to Arkansas State Parks to preserve Three Sisters Springs and develop the area for public use. Find more information on Three Sisters Springs at the Lake Ouachita State Park Visitor’s Center.
Lake Ouachita sits between Hot Springs, with its lively downtown and national park, and Mt. Ida, the Quartz Crystal Capital of the United States. It’s the perfect place to spend a day, a weekend, or return to again and again. As the largest lake in Arkansas, there’s a lot to explore at Lake Ouachita.
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