Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Who says you have to trek up to Northwest Arkansas to find good hiking in Arkansas? In 10 minutes or less, all Little Rockers and North Little Rockers can get to an urban trail that'll put them in a natural state of mind. Read on for our favorites.
Allsopp Park For downtown and midtown dwellers itching to commune with nature, but reluctant to drive far, Allsopp is like heaven. Densely wooded, expansive enough that in spots you'll forget you're in the middle of the city and hilly to a point that you'll feel like you're exercising (but not so much that you need hiking boots), the 150-acre U-shaped park extends south from Kavanaugh in Hillcrest to the Edgehill neighborhood in the north. Easily accessible from a number of points along Kavanaugh or just off Cantrell, it features two main loops with a number of side paths weaving throughout. Most of the trails are ideal for mountain biking. Dog walking is popular, too. So stay vigilant if you fit in either of those groups; Allsop's trails aren't wide. Find the main entrance to the park at Cantrell and Cedar Hill Road; trails spill out onto the park green all along the surrounding wooded area.
Burns Park At around 1,600 acres, Burns is easily the largest city park in Central Arkansas and one of the largest municipal parks in the country (Central Park, for instance, is half the size of Burns). With massive baseball, soccer and tennis complexes and 36-holes of golf, it's easy to forget about the North Little Rock park's wooded parts. Unless you're a Boy Scout. For more than 40 years, local scouts have earned merit badges for hiking one of the Scout Trails. The looped paths cover either five or 10 miles and, among the park's half a dozen or so trails, probably offer the best scenery. Stop at the Visitor's Information Center off Military Road when you enter the park to get a free trail map. Take exit 150 off I-40 or from North Little Rock, take MacArthur north to Charles H. Boyer.
Emerald Park You'll find arguably the best view of downtown Little Rock in this North Little Rock park near Fort Roots. A largely paved trail follows a ridgeline that looks down on the River Trail and the Arkansas River. A number of well-worn paths go beyond the "DANGER" signs to cliff's edge. Be careful; it's a long way down. A rocky switchback breaks away near the parking lot entrance that goes down to the River Trail. Be prepared to sweat on the way up. Take Pershing to First Street, past Pulaski Tech, to Marge Gardner Lane.
Gillam Park If you're looking for an end-of-days setting for your next movie shoot, try Gillam Park. Still officially listed among the Little Rock Parks Department's offerings, but currently leased by Arkansas Audubon, this southeast Little Rock park is all but closed for most park activity. A gate blocks vehicular entrance to a paved drive that leads to an abandoned swimming pool, basketball court and extended green space. But hikers and bikers are still welcome. Park outside the gate and follow a paved walking trail past the pool into a wooded area. If you stay straight, after about a half a mile, you'll find an oxbow lake created by Fourche Creek that's prime birding territory. The trail is paved or covered by gravel to the lake. Beyond the lake and on a spur trail that goes upland, it's a little more wild. Look out for snakes and ticks. And bring a buddy. It can get lonely. Take Springer Boulevard (off I-440 one exit south of the airport) to Gillam Park Road.
Knoop Park Among the candidates for the best view of downtown Little Rock, this one's the easiest to get to. Unless it's time for Fourth of July or Riverfest fireworks or there's some clandestine outdoor dance party going on, the small park surrounding the Ozark Point Water Treatment Plant is rarely crowded. Mostly, you'll find stroller-pushing parents, dog walkers and idling teen-agers along the short, paved semi-circle or hanging out along the stone-walled lookout at the apogee of the trail. Take Kavanaugh to North Martin and Ozark Streets.
Pinnacle Mountain State Park In other parts of the country, it'd be a glorified hill, but here in Central Arkansas, we can't get enough of Pinnacle Mountain's 750-foot summit. When the weather's nice, the 1.5-mile West Summit Trail can feel like waiting in line for the big ride at Disneyland. The East Summit, also 1.5 miles, is steeper and rockier and less crowded. As nice as the view is from the top, don't let it keep you from exploring other parts of the 2,100-acre state park. You'll find both a lowland trail along the ancient cypress-lined Little Maumelle and the eastern trailhead for the 225-mile Ouachita Trail that goes all the way into Oklahoma. Stop at the Visitor's Center to get your bearings. Take Highway 10 to Pinnacle Valley Road.
The River Trail Already one of the great pedestrian trails anywhere, the River Trail is on the verge of a momentous summer with the scheduled openings of the former Rock Island Bridge by the Clinton Library and the bridge over the Little Maumelle River sometime this summer. In the meantime, enjoy the 13-mile loop and its two bridges, and if you're feeling especially ambitious, build a bigger hike by hooking up to nearby Allsopp, Burns or Emerald Park. A warning: A nice day always guarantees you'll find groups walking four abreast and self-important, pedestrian-scorning bikers riding at top speeds. You don't want to be around when the two meet. Catch the trail in the River Market or along Riverfront Drive in Little Rock or at North Shore Park or Burns Park in North Little Rock.
Two Rivers Park This 1,000-acre tract, jointly owned by the city of Little Rock and Pulaski County, sits at the confluence of the Arkansas and Little Maumelle Rivers. Birders, bikers, strolling parents and horseback riders share the paths. Many are paved; those that aren't are always less crowded, but in the spring, wear shoes you don't mind getting muddy — the area turns boggy quickly. A good place to see deer, hawks and armadillos. Take Cantrell to Pinnacle Valley Road and turn right onto County Farm Road.