Lake Alma Trail: kid friendly out-and-back day hike

McWater Falls

McWater Falls (photo J. Warnock)

Trail description and photos: Jim Warnock

At a Glance

GPS:  N35 29.818 W94 13.073

Distance and Configuration:   2.6-mile out-and-back

Hiking Time: 2 hours (approximate)

Highlights: Lake views, waterfall, and beautiful creeks.

Facilities: restrooms and picnic area

Wheelchair Access: no

Dogs: yes

Comments: The 1.6-mile out-and-back to McWater Falls is an easier option for those wanting a shorter hike.

Contacts: facebook.com/LakeAlmaTrail    Email: hmcwater@windstream.net     Blog: ozarkmountainhiker.com

Overview

If you’re a parent looking for an easy day hike to introduce your children to the gentle pleasures of nature or a trail runner looking for a heart-throbbing but pleasant path, this out-and-back hike is for you!

Chuck Dovish, of Exploring Arkansas with AETN, said, “It’s amazing that so much variety and diversity of scenery is found right inside the town of Alma.”  You’ll see bluff lines and moss-covered boulder fields up close.  You’ll walk beside clear streams, rocky cascades and a 12-foot waterfall.   Situated within a diverse mixed hardwood forest, you may spot deer, rabbit, fox, great blue heron, and a variety of songbirds and wildflowers.

The Hike

We’ll be accessing the Lake Alma Trial by the paved walking path that connects to the parking area.  As you begin walking you’ll see another paved path down below and closer to the lake on your left.   Note:  There are mile markers on this trail, but they are approximate and based on distances calculated from the kiosk. Our mileage will be calculated beginning and ending at the parking area, making the mile markers on the trail shorter than our actual distance.

At mile 0.2, you’ll arrive at the Lake Alma Trail kiosk.  Stop and have a look at the map and check for updates on trail conditions.  This is where the pavement ends, and the work of volunteers begins.  The kiosk was built and installed by volunteers.  The trail logo was created by a young community volunteer.  The tread on which you walk was cut out, and continues to be maintained, by volunteers.

The first section of the trail is easy walking.   At mile 0.5, the trail turns to the right and goes up to cross a small drainage.   More easy walking until you arrive at the first bridge.  The trail follows around the base of a hillside and then crosses a second bridge.  If water is flowing under this bridge, the waterfall is flowing and definitely worth seeing.

Take a right on the McWater Falls spur trail, arriving at the falls at mile 0.8.  This is a nice out-and-back for children and novice hikers and provides a 1.6-mile hike.  If you have young children, consider this option and take your time returning to the trailhead.

This waterfall is named for Harry McWater, the man who had the vision for this trail. During the late 1990s as a member of the Alma City Council, Harry brought up the possibility of a trail around the lake several times only to be told that money for such a project wasn’t available.  In 2011, during a conversation with the mayor he asked, “What if I find volunteers to get that hiking trail built?”  The mayor said, “Go for it!”

With that, Harry sought expertise and labor from the Arkansas Master Naturalists, Ozark Highlands Trail Association, Fort Smith Trailblazers, and local volunteers, including student organizations and scout troops.  The trail began to see regular use in the spring of 2012 and its popularity has continued to grow.

Now, back on the trail.  After enjoying McWater Falls, backtrack one-tenth of a mile to the main trail and turn right.  You’ll get glimpses of the lake in the distance on your left.   At mile 1.0, you’ll turn right onto an old roadbed.  Watch to your right for some nice bluff areas and rock formations as you walk this section. At 1.3-miles, you’ll pass moss and lichen covered boulders that appear to have tumbled down the hillside on your right. Just past the 1-mile marker you’ll come to the Hexagon Hut.    This homesite is a great place to explore.  Please leave any historical artifacts in place.  Mystery surrounds the construction of these structures and their occupants.

Hexagon Hut

Hexagon Hut

At this point, you’ve actually hiked 1.4 miles from the parking lot and including the waterfall spur.  This is where we’ll turn around and return to the trailhead for a 2.6-mile hike.  Sometimes the best part of a hike is the backtracking portion.  You’ll often notice views missed on the first trip through.

Note: The Lake Alma Trail does loop all the way around the lake, returning to the trailhead by way of the dam, but this is a 4.5-mile strenuous hike.  There are some very rocky and difficult sections beyond the Little Frog Bayou crossing. Only experienced hikers with water and sturdy shoes should consider doing the whole loop trail around Lake Alma.

Directions

Take Exit 13 off of I-40 and drive north to the first traffic light.  Turn right (east) onto Collum Lane East.  Drive 0.2 mile and then left (north) on Mountain Grove Road.  Drive north on Mt. Grove Road for 0.3 mile and take a left just past the two green water tanks.  Drive down to the picnic area parking.  The Lake Alma Trailhead is at the opening in the parking guardrail.

Lake Alma Trail out-and-back

LAT3

Logo design by Ashley Campbell

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Thanksgiving

McWater Falls

McWater Falls

Fall temperatures and long steady rain.  The perfect recipe for hiking and waterfalls. With only one hour available Sunday afternoon, I threw the tripod over my shoulder and headed out to McWater Falls on the Lake Alma Trail. A quick four or five shots and it was back to the trail head.

Walking the trail, I felt a sense of thankfulness for the movement of my legs, the air in my lungs, and the pumping of my heart.

Let the season of Thanksgiving begin.

Early fall color.

Early fall color.

Drainage below McWater Falls.

Drainage below McWater Falls.

Drainage below McWater Falls.

McWater Falls at sundown.

McWater Falls at sundown.

Let it Snow – My Snowy Loop Hike And Hot Tea

I wanted to go play in the snow.  The only difference made by my fifty-plus years of life experience from those early play-days in the snow is that I now dress a little smarter.  I layered up, grabbed my camera, and headed out to walk the Lake Alma Trail, beginning from my house…much safer than driving.

The roads were quiet with occasional traffic.  I had to laugh when I passed a mailbox that is normally left open along the highway.

Snow in the mailbox.

Snow in the mailbox.

The power and weight of ice and snow is deceptive.  What appears so light and fluffy carries many pounds of weight.  Looking closely at a pine it’s easy to see how the weight of ice could snap a tree.  As a child, I remember hearing what sounded like shotgun blasts in the distance as ice snapped large pines in the woods behind our south Arkansas home.

Ice, then snow on pines.

Ice, then snow on pines.

The sky was still dark but didn’t seem to be planning more precipitation but I had a zip-lock bag for my camera just in case.  I always enjoy the simple design of this little church north of Alma on Highway 71.  By walking into the woods behind this church, I can access the Lake Alma Trail.  I often pick up trash on the highway in front of the church with the idea that this is my little toll fee for using their property to access the trail.

Little church on Highway 71

Little church on Highway 71

Once on the trail, the magic began.  As I came along the water I stood and enjoyed a quiet and peaceful scene.  I wasn’t completely alone because there were footprints on the trail.  Someone was out there so maybe I could make the whole loop without being stopped by downed trees.

Lake Alma

Lake Alma

The power of ice was evident along the trail in several places but it was still possible to get through.  Notice the round trail marker at the base of the split.  It appeared that the larger tree on the ground fell across the top of this oak and brought it down.  I tried to imagine the sound this must have made.  Then, I tried to imagine how we would cut this damage off of the trail.

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My little crampons and gators earned their cost today.  The last time I wore the crampons was last Christmas in the Grand Canyon.  The gators were a pain to put on, due to lack of practice, but they kept the snow out and my feet stayed nice and warm.

Crampons and gators

Crampons and gators

The value of gators became clear as I realized it would be necessary to cross Little Frog Bayou at an alternative location.  Undergrowth vegetation had been pulled down over the trail.  I didn’t really want to crawl in the snow so I did a wet crossing, discovering that the gators did a good job of keeping water out of my shoes.   I bushwhacked up the other side of the creek and got back on the trail.

Little Frog Bayou

Little Frog Bayou

Had to stop at the Hexagon House to see it in snow.  Locals have several theories about the early occupants of this little structure.  It could date to the 1920s.  It uses concrete so an earlier date is unlikely.  The little fireplace is well built and uses firebricks, not just stone.

Hexagon House

Hexagon House

For weeks on my early morning hikes I smelled a dead deer before finally seeing the remains on rocks ten feet from the trail.   The snow left only one side of the six-point rack showing.

Remains of a deer that died along the trail.

Remains of a deer that died along the trail.

Walking on down the trail I came to one of my favorite spots.  I was tempted to turn around at the Little Frog Bayou crossing but seeing this formation motivated me to cross and continue the loop.  A short hike to the east of the trail takes you to what I like to call Little Pedestal Rock.  I wanted a picture in snow.

Little Pedestal Rock

Little Pedestal Rock

As I approached the dam, I came across my “fellow hikers” who had also made it around the Lake Alma Trail loop.  I realized it was getting late and picked up my pace toward home, glad that I’d packed my headlamp.  With the heavy clouds and short winter days, it was already getting dark at 5:20 p.m.

Walking home I felt a sense of thankfulness that I’m able to walk and enjoy the sights my feet will take me to.  I’d had several hours of fun playing in the snow and was now ready for home and some hot food and tea!

My favorite tea cup.

My favorite tea cup from Shang Tea in Kansas City.

While having my hot tea I was reminded of a wonderful book titled, That You May Know Us by Elsie Warnock (my mom).  This story was included in one of the many letters my father wrote to mother while he was in Korea.

“We went on a recon of the area we were to occupy soon.  What a way to spend a winter where it was seven below zero and the high for the week was 38 degrees!  There was one long lasting plus to living through this cold weather and that was thanks to a British portable aid station.  I was on a cold march of several miles with U.S. troops from the front to a reserve position.  We ran across the aid station that was serving tea with cream and sugar to everyone who came by.  I have never tasted such good tea in all my life and have enjoyed hot tea ever since.  But for fifty plus years, I’ve tried many combinations of tea, sugar and cream but never have matched the flavor of that cup of tea.  Maybe the ingredient that has been left out was a long cold march in the snow.”

Yard Work in God’s Backyard

Lake Alma Trail mile marker 3.5

Lake Alma Trail mile marker 3.5

While working on a local trail this morning, Clifford, a fellow volunteer said, “When I tell people what I’m doing out here, they think I’m crazy!   But I love it.”  Exercise, fresh air, beautiful surroundings, and good fellowship, all for free.  We both agreed it was nice to do yard work in God’s back yard.

Clifford doing some side-hilling on the Lake Alma Trail.

Clifford doing some side-hilling on the Lake Alma Trail.

As we continued our work, Clifford stopped, looked at his watch, and commented that he had just met his Arkansas Master Naturalists certification requirement of 40 volunteer hours.  About 30-minutes later we reached our stopping point for the day.  We walked the short section several times commenting on the difference our work had made.

Little Frog Bayou

Little Frog Bayou

I continued around the trail with Pulaski in hand to chop out several little stubs I’d been noticing on my daily walks.  As I hiked along thinking of many workdays on this trail since March of 2012, I began to realize what a wonderful treasure we have here.

I experienced a sense of deep gratification and thought of the thousands of steps that have already been taken on this trail.  Some of our local hikers, especially children, got their start on this trail.  The Lake Alma Trail is having an impact on the health of our community.  I know it has benefited my own health and wellbeing.

I began to think of some of the trail volunteers I’ve worked with and how committed they are to making hiking trails available to others.  Working with them has given me a new appreciation for every step I take on a trail.

Here’s a short list of reasons to volunteer to do trail building and maintenance.

1. Trail work is good exercise – It is a full body workout for sure.  No gym charges and no gym smells.

2. Good fellowship – Great chance to work with good people.

3. Satisfaction – Tangible results from work is rewarding.  It is nice to hike a section of trail where you’ve done some work.

4.  Trail work blurs the lines between work and recreation.  Nice to have an activity that you can frame any way that suits you.   If you want others to think you have a strong work ethic, tell them you’re doing trail work.  They don’t have to know how much you enjoy it.

5. Building or maintaining trails is a way to express your gratitude for creation and share the beauty with others.   A well built trail allows many caring eyes to view an area and increase the likelihood that it will be protected.

If you want to be a trail volunteer, how do you get started?

1. Place a small trash bag in your pack and pick up any trash you see on the trails.

2. Occasionally hike with loppers and cut limbs back that brush against you as you hike.  Kick rocks off of the trail or drag small trees off the trail as you hike.

3. Be part of a volunteer work crew on a workday.  All you need is lunch, water, and work gloves.  You might want your own loppers but most tools are provided.

4. Join a hiking community.  If you’re in Arkansas, the Ozark Highlands Trail Association (OHTA) or Friends of the Ouachita Trail (FoOT) are great places to make contact for volunteer opportunities.  Membership is inexpensive and your money goes to maintaining trails.  Go to the Lake Alma Trail Facebook page to volunteer on a local community trail here in western Arkansas.

Nice place for a break on the Lake Alma Trail.

Nice place for a break on the Lake Alma Trail.