A BLUE-VELVET sky is moonless with stars so bright and sparkling, you’d swear they’ve been polished by some celestial hand. The dome light fades as we step from the car, and the silence of a winter’s night envelopes us as deeply as the inky darkness. There is no other traffic on this twisted mountain road, no street lights or porch lights within sight, no sounds except our crunching footfalls on the roadside’s frozen ground. I ask my wife and daughters to listen quietly, hoping to hear an owl, a coyote or maybe a fox.
Minutes pass before unexpected sounds reach our ears—the distant “mews” of elk feeding somewhere out there. Then we hear the grainy sounds of grass nipped and slowly chewed. Heavy hoof steps come closer, and we can finally make out shadows in the fields. Suddenly, the piercing bugle of a bull elk shatters the stillness, and we all shudder at the stark wildness in that sound. Then stillness settles over the hills again with only the herd’s soft murmurings in the background. And then it feels like we’re eavesdropping, so we gently enter the car and ease back onto the dark highway.
The gift of that moment is one of my favorite memories—not another human soul besides my family within sight or sound. That is a rare experience, even in a largely rural state like Arkansas. Winter offers more opportunities than any other season to experience solitude, that most elusive of natural treasures.
Buffalo River Country
During warm months, the Buffalo National River itself sees more traffic than any of the towns within 10 miles of the river’s banks. The campgrounds, hiking trails and overlooks nearby are often filled, or at least annoyingly clustered, with people as well. But those cold winter winds scatter the hordes just like they scatter every leaf on the hardwoods. With the kids in school and vacationers pining and planning for long, sun-drenched days, you can have a lot of the river and the wonders surrounding it to yourself. That elk encounter described in the opening paragraphs happened not far from the Buffalo.
All of the summer spots are still good—Whitaker Point, the Goat Trail, Rush, to name a few, and you can still float the river, too. Some necessities for maximum enjoyment of winter near the river include a map for finding the end of the road and empty trails, waterproof footwear (flip-flop season is still a few months away), and appropriate clothing, depending on the weather. There is so much winter silence to enjoy in so many areas of Buffalo River Country that you’ll never find them all. But it’ll be a lot of fun to try. (nps.gov/buff/index.htm)
Dale Bumpers/White River National Wildlife Refuge
It’s huge, encompassing 90 miles of the lower White River. It’s also among the wilder places in The Natural State. My first visit to the Dale Bumpers/White River National Wildlife Refuge came during an early March cold snap. I remember being snuggled deep in a heavy sleeping bag as spitting snow pelted the tent, and a barred owl hooped and hollered from somewhere back in the swamp. Aside from the crackle of a dying campfire, those were the only sounds I heard all night long. It was heavenly.
With 356 lakes covering more than 4,000 acres, there’s a lot of opportunity to float on the still waters of the wildlife refuge. But that leaves 156,000 acres of relatively dry land (bring your rubber boots) covered in hardwood forests, grasslands and some row-crop agriculture. During our three-day March visit, we encountered not another soul on dry land and only one determined crappie angler on the water.
If you want to experience the vast wonder of the White River boondocks, be sure to check out the refuge website for what to do, where to go and if you can even get there. The wildlife refuge is the floodplain of an untamed river. There’s always the risk of large areas being underwater for extended periods during the winter months. (fws.gov/refuge/white_river)
Cossatot River State Park
With its Native American name translated roughly to “skull crusher,” you might not think the Cossatot River (a National Wild and Scenic River) could run through any place that might be called “tranquil.” But the dramatic Ouachita Mountain topography that makes the river a white-water, white-knuckle brush with death during peak flow also bestows a blessed remoteness to the Cossatot’s banks.
Stretching along 12 miles of the river, Cossatot River State Park offers picnic sites, restrooms, river access, tent sites (no electricity) and primitive sites (no electricity or water). If the camp gets a little crowded for your taste, there are four trails consisting of 20 miles of hiking opportunities. And if your time alone on the trails gets you hankering for a little company, there’s a visitor center, complete with a wildlife observation room and a gift shop. (arkansasstateparks.com/parks/cossatot-river-state-park-natural-area)
It’s especially tough to find a lonely spot in Central Arkansas. Compared to the state’s other regions (save the ever-bustling Northwest Arkansas corner), Central Arkansas is almost metropolitan. The people-to-mile ratio is packed pretty tight, and that’s why I rarely make Pulaski County a destination for a tranquil experience. But I might need to change that.
Recently added as the state’s 73rd natural area, Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area just west of Pinnacle Mountain appears to be promising. Central Arkansas kayaker, hiker, conservationist and nature nerd Debbie Doss assures me that Rattlesnake Ridge can meet my needs for a peaceful solitary walk. “It’s spectacular,” she says. And it doesn’t attract the crowds of its sibling hill—Pinnacle Mountain, she says.
Although the area is very accessible, there’s no on-site office or management. Also, don’t ask Google Maps to get you there because, rest assured, it will send you to the wrong location. For directions or GPS coordinates, visit the website. (naturalheritage.com/natural-areas/rattlesnake-ridge-natural-area)
And if you really want to get away from everyone …
The four areas mentioned are remote, sure, but they’re also relatively easy to access. If you want to remove yourself even further from civilization and wander into the loneliest lands in the state, turn your rig toward one of the 12 National Wilderness areas found in Arkansas. What does “wilderness designation” mean? It’s land left as close to its natural state as possible. No roads. No motorized or wheeled transportation allowed—even if there’s an emergency. Your only options to get back there—away from everyone else—and out are feet and hooves (horses are allowed).
Six of the NWAs are found in the Ozark Mountains, five are in the Ouachita Mountains, and only one is in eastern Arkansas. (For maps and comprehensive information about Arkansas wilderness areas, visit wilderness.net/NWPS/stateView?state=AR)
I visit three of these wilderness areas regularly and, in two decades, can count the number of people I’ve encountered on one hand. Relative inaccessibility is the reason for their loneliness. Gas stations and stores are few and far between in the areas around NWAs. Always fill the vehicle with fuel, bring extra water, snacks, paper maps (GPS and phone reception are often spotty or nonexistent) and a flashlight, and let someone know where you’re headed and when you plan to be back.
Dirt roads leading to the areas—sometimes mud, sometimes rock—are the norm, though there is some highway access to some of the NWAs. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are suggested. An ax, bow saw and a chain or tow strap would be good ideas as well. I’ve used these tools more than once when a fallen tree blocked the back road that was my only drivable way home.
But to truly experience the great yonder that is our wilderness areas, you need to get away from the roads, far away from the hum of combustible engines and glaring headlights. And you need to walk in silence with those who can appreciate the tranquility found when you’re lost in the quiet.