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ARE WE THERE YET?

Weekend before new year offers in-state outings

By Jack Schnedler

This article was published December 26, 2013 at 3:15 a.m.

Woolly Cabin, built in the 1880s, adds a historical touch to Woolly Hollow State Park.

One prescription for this weekend, tucked between the clamor of Christmas and noise of New Year’s Eve, is a dose of road-trip relaxation. A leisurely drive to a scenic state park - and then perhaps a hike to counteract the season’s copious calories - can provide an antidote to all the holiday hoopla.

Here’s a sampler of possible jaunts to parks, each within day-trip distance of Little Rock, that show why Arkansas deserves to call itself the Natural State. Next Wednesday, most of the parks will be conducting First Day Hikes as part of a national program to encourage physical fitness in the new year.

Pinnacle Mountain: As Little Rock’s growth creeps inexorably westward, Pinnacle Mountain State Park looks almost suburban on a map. But once you’re away from the parking lots, nature takes over. The popular hike to the summit can be especially rigorous on a cold and windy day. A better winter bet is the flat interpretive trail through the 71-acre Arkansas Arboretum, with its array of native flora from the state’s six major natural divisions.

Petit Jean: Arkansas’ first state park, opened in 1923, has been rejuvenated by a full-fledged overhaul of landmark Mather Lodge. Lunch in the lodge’s cathedral-ceilinged restaurant is spiced by views of the Arkansas River Valley. Short walks or longer hikes lead to such photogenic natural features as Cedar Falls, Cedar Creek Canyon, Seven Hollows, Bear Cave, Natural Bridge and Turtle Rocks.

Mount Nebo: If you can squeeze an overnight stay into the weekend, renting one of the kitchen-equipped cabins built along Mount Nebo’s bluffs in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps creates a getaway that feels a thousand miles from the nearest city. Bench Trail offers four miles of mainly level hiking around the rim of the park’s plateau. Winter visitors should bear in mind that the steep and sinuous road up Mount Nebo can be very treacherous in snow or ice.

DeGray Lake Resort: A spot for quiet hiking this weekend, DeGray Lake Resort State Park will bustle next Wednesday with two New Year’s Day events. Known for its winter bald eagle population, the park will operate a 10-11:30 a.m. Eagle Tour by boat ($9, kids 6-12 $5). There’ll be time for lunch at the lodge before a free 2-3 p.m. First Day Shoreline Hike, for which shoes that can get muddy are recommended. The 35th annual Eagles et Cetera weekend is scheduled for Jan. 24-26.

Woolly Hollow: Set in the foothills of the Ozark Mountains, this state park furnishes a history lesson at the one-room Woolly Cabin, built in 1882 by homesteader Martin Woolly. The park’s Huckleberry Trail circles 40-acre Lake Bennett, created by an earthen dam in 1935 to serve as North America’s first scientific study of soil and silt erosion. On Feb. 1, brave souls will take a Polar Bear Plunge into its chilly water to benefit Special Olympics of Arkansas.

Lake Dardanelle: On Friday’s schedule at Lake Dardanelle is a one-hour wildlife hike starting at 9 a.m. along Meadowbrook Trail. Another possible walk follows a segment of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, along which five American Indian tribes were hustled west in the 1830s. During a program at 2 p.m. Saturday, a park interpreter will demonstrate games played by the Indians, some of which helped sharpen their hunting skills.

Lake Ouachita: A magnet for boating and other aquatic fun in the warmer seasons, Lake Ouachita State Park is at its most tranquil in the winter. Determined hikers can tackle Caddo Bend Trail to encounter large boulder gardens, lots of quartz and an observation deck overlooking the lake at the point of the peninsula. The easy Dogwood Trail highlights wildlife found in the area with a series of interpretive signs.

Cane Creek: Set on the border of two Arkansas geographic regions, the flat Mississippi Alluvial Plain (aka the Delta) and the rolling West Gulf Coastal Plain, Cane Creek State Park is thickly forested with mature oak, pine and hickory trees. From the gently sloping Delta View Trail, hikers are rewarded with panoramic views of Cane Creek Lake in the Delta landscape below.

Information on state parks, including telephone numbers, can be found by visiting ArkansasStateParks.com, a website operated by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism.

Weekend, Pages 31 on 12/26/2013

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