Arkansas’s shimmering Diamond Lakes beckon for
Diamond Lakes Country, a treasure trove of outdoor recreation that’s perfect for a late summer or early fall getaway, sparkles near Hot Springs, Ark. Diamond Lakes Country comprises five shimmering lakes–Catherine, DeGray, Greeson, Hamilton, and Ouachita–each with its distinctive appeal. Here’s a look at two of the jewels–Lake Hamilton and Lake Ouachita.
At 7,460 acres, Lake Hamilton is one of the smaller Diamond Lakes, but as the saying goes, great things come in small packages.
It was created in 1932 when Arkansas Power and Light (now Entergy Arkansas) built Carpenter Dam on the Ouachita (pronounced WAH-shi-tah) River. Today, the lake is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. On weekends, the waters are alive with motorboats and jet skis. Wait long enough, and you’re sure to see the Belle of Hot Springs sightseeing paddleboat or one of the “ducks”–vintage military amphibious vehicles–carrying tourists around the lake.
However, fishing is the biggest draw for this little lake. Since 1939, the Andrew Hulsey Fish Hatchery has been producing millions of fingerlings for sport fishing. Today, it’s been called one of the most successful fish hatcheries in the nation, and anglers come from all over the country for the full-grown bass, crappie, catfish, walleye, and rainbow trout.
The morning I visited, Larry Gilbreth of Malvern, Ark., was casting his line near the dam at Entergy Park, a quiet area more populated by birds than people. Gilbreth said he fishes DeGray, Catherine, and Ouachita lakes but prefers Lake Hamilton to all of them.
Fun off the water
However, as much fun as it is to be on the water, you may want to come ashore to enjoy what Hot Springs has to offer. Lake Hamilton is on the southern edge of Hot Springs. It is the area’s main residential lake, according to Jimmy Sample, director of Visitor Services for Hot Springs. Visitors to Lake Hamilton are only minutes away from the city’s restaurants, thermal baths, antiques shops, and Oaklawn horse racing (January through April) and gaming. Summer months include family fun at Magic Springs and Crystal Falls Water and Theme Park.
The area also offers scenic golf courses, including Hot Springs Country Club in town and Glenwood Country Club that’s 25 miles west of Hot Springs. Both are part of The Natural State Golf Trail. Additional courses also are in the vicinity.
After the fun and excitement of shopping, gaming, and golfing, spend some time outdoors at Entergy Park. Enjoy hiking trails, boat docks, fishing piers, picnic sites, and a children’s playground. The site is perfect for birding or just enjoying a quiet afternoon.
Maybe the most popular natural attraction on the shores of Lake Hamilton, Garvan Woodland Gardens is located on a scenic 210-acre lake peninsula. Owned and operated by the University of Arkansas Fay Jones School of Architecture, the garden is home to various bird species, including several tame peafowl that will pose for pictures (in exchange for a bite of your food). Don’t miss the Sugg Model Train Garden, a G-scale model railroad running along 389 feet of track with 259 trestles and three operating loops.
Lodging at Lake Hamilton is as varied as its activities. Choose from dozens of RV parks, cabins, hotels, and motels. In Hot Springs, the AAA Three Diamond Embassy Suites (400 Convention Blvd.) is an option. National chains, like Best Western or Hampton Inn, also are in the area.
If long country roads, hidden coves, and forested islands are more your speed, then sprawling Lake Ouachita, the largest lake (40,000 acres) in the state, is for you. Approximately 10 miles west of Hot Springs, Lake Ouachita was created when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed Blakely Mountain Dam in 1952. The lake, along with several public-use areas around it, remains under the domain of the Corps of Engineers.
Beautiful Ouachita National Forest hugs the lake, and Lake Ouachita State Park is tucked along one of its eastern inlets. Indeed, the majority of Lake Ouachita’s 975 miles of meandering shoreline are rugged and “not very accessible” by vehicle, according to Lee Howard, superintendent for Lake Ouachita State Park.
As I was enjoying the view near the Three Sisters Springs, I spotted two people enjoying a picnic at a secluded table on the shore, watching the sailboats in the distance. Showing that true Southern hospitality, they introduced themselves as Tammy Dickson and James Long of nearby Fountain Lake, Ark. “This is our favorite lake,” Dickson said.
“It’s just quieter here, more natural,” Long said.
In fact, its clear, unspoiled waters make for great fishing. Rainbow trout, stocked by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, love the cold waters below Blakely Mountain Dam. Anglers also chase catfish, bass, sunfish, and walleyes. Marinas, bait shops, and guide services can be found near most of the major put-ins and recreation areas.
However, natural beauty and fishing aren’t the only draws to Lake Ouachita. From water-skiing to kayaking, swimming to scuba diving, it seems if there’s a way to play on, in, or under the water, you can do it at Lake Ouachita. Several local outfitters rent canoes and kayaks; Lake Ouachita State Park rents everything from solo kayaks to motorboats and 29-foot party barges.
The Ouachita National Forest is excellent for birding and wildlife watching. There are several hiking and biking trails near the lake, including a portion of the Ouachita National Recreation Trail. These vary from short and easy walks to steep, challenging hikes.
There’s golf nearby, including a course at DeGray Lake Resort State Park in Bismarck.
Camping options are plentiful and include primitive tent sites, RV sites, and cabins. In addition, several private RV parks, resorts and motels dot the shoreline. Mountain Harbor Resort and Spa in Mount Ida is a peaceful retreat with luxury log cottages, condos, or guestrooms.
Whichever one of the Diamond Lakes you choose, you’re sure to find a gem of a vacation.
D.R. Bartlette is a new contributor from Fayetteville, Ark.
July/August 2014 Issue
This quick reference can help you plan a visit to the other jewels in Diamond Lakes Country.
This is a great choice for vacationers who want to enjoy the outdoors without roughing it.
Located near Arkadelphia, 29 miles southwest of Hot Springs, the 13,400-acre DeGray Lake is a popular getaway–with good reason. Whether you like to fish, sail, boat, hike, water ski, swim, golf, or any other form of recreation, you can do it here.
Situated among ridges of the Ouachita Mountains and formed by a dam across the Caddo River, the lake has more than 700 campsites, ranging from full hook-ups to primitive, and some 15 boat-launching ramps.
The lake also is home to the state’s only resort state park, beautiful DeGray Lake Resort State Park, which offers a 96-room lodge (pictured left), golf, tennis, a marina, swimming beach–even a spa. Cap off a day of summer fun with a moonlight cruise on select evenings in July and August.
Enjoy the July 4th Island Fest at the park with games, grilled burgers and hot dogs, and fireworks.
Privately owned Iron Mountain Lodge and Marina is another option for DeGray Lake. Cabins and cottages are on the lake’s edge, and the resort welcomes guests with pets.
Although you’re minutes from Hot Springs, it feels like a tranquil wilderness at Lake Catherine. In 1924, Arkansas Power and Light Co. (now Entergy) completed Remmel Dam to generate electricity. It was the state’s first major hydroelectric facility.
Though 11 miles long, the lake covers a mere 1,940 acres nestled in narrow valleys of the Ouachita Mountains, making it the smallest Diamond Lakes Country jewel. The lake is good for waterskiing, swimming, and boating, but anglers love the largemouth bass here. The water also is stocked with rainbow trout, along with other game and pan fish.
Lodging options include 17 fully equipped cabins at Lake Catherine State Park. There also are campsites, a launch ramp, playgrounds, and trails. Guided horseback rides are offered in summer.
Information: Lake Catherine State Park, (501) 844-4176, www.arkansasstateparks.com
Narrows Dam impounds the waters of the Little Missouri River to form 7,000-acre Lake Greeson, a prime recreational resource in southwest Arkansas. Located just north of Murfreesboro, the 12-mile-long lake features clear waters that anglers flock to for rainbow trout and channel catfish.
The Little Missouri River is a popular float stream in summer. Don’t forget to pack your fishing gear for the canoe.
There’s plenty of fun to be had off the water. All terrain vehicle (ATV) enthusiasts can enjoy the challenging 31-mile Bear Creek Motorcycle Trail that begins at Daisy State Park. The park also offers 103 campsites, picnic area, trails, a playground, and launch ramps. And the Self Creek Lodge and Marina has log-sided lake cottages with full kitchens, stone fireplaces, and hot tubs. Pets are welcome, too.
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