The Ouachita Trail: Queen Wilhelmina to Foran Gap Shelter
Sunshine and Trail Angels
6.3 miles to Black Fork Mountain Shelter. (Mile Marker 57.8)
Kandace and I both slept hard at the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge. It was amazing to wake up and be able to go to the bathroom without having to put on everything I was carrying.
When we woke up, our boots, clothes and gear were miraculously mostly dry. I was grateful to pull on dry socks for the first time in a few days.
We had planned a shorter 6 mile day so that we could enjoy our room and not have to get going early in the morning, so we ate a big breakfast of eggs and biscuits and fruit in the lodge’s restaurant. We had a leisurely morning with extra cups of coffee and time to stare out the windows at the view of the valley we had hiked up from the day before.
We barely made the 11am check out time, setting out shortly before noon to walk from the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge to Black Fork Mountain.
The swelling on my ankle had gone down some. I tied it again with a bandana and tightened the laces of my boots. Then I took some ibuprofen and hoped for the best. I couldn’t walk quickly over the rocky trail, but I wasn’t hobbling like the day before either.
Grateful for the shorter day, I plowed on forward and ignored the pain as the day wore on, knowing that I wouldn’t have to go that far before I could call it quits for the day.
The first several miles of the trail were pretty rough–more leaves on top of rocks, so it was slow going.
Then the trail flattened out a bit and we found ourselves walking more pine needle beds than rocks.
Also in addition to the easier walking, the day was gorgeous.
Clear blue sky and sunshine were blessedly welcome after our wet walking days.
When you get to the railroad tracks near the Black Fork Mountain Trailhead, you’re almost to the shelter.
The path turns after the tracks and heads straight up the mountain.
The Ouachita Trail Shelters seem to be often perched on top of hills and mountains, so if you’re sleeping shelter to shelter, you get to end the day with a climb.
But the views are usually gorgeous.
We reached our shelter with plenty of daylight, which was lovely. I propped my ankle up on a bench and drained my water bottle.
We ate our dinner early and then Kandace hung our food. We did this every night on the trail to keep bears (and other critters) from being tempted to crawl into the shelters with us.
We attached a carabiner to one end of a thin length of rope, which Kandace through over a tree branch. Then she would attach our food bags to the carabiner and pull the food up high before tying off the other end of the rope around a tree.
We settled in by our fire to enjoy the evening.
It was so lovely to be dry and clean. And to have almost 60 miles of the trail behind us.
Just after it got dark, the hiker we had met at the State Line Shelter the day before came up the hill with his dog. He was glad we already had a fire going. The temperatures were dropping quickly. We traded hiking notes for a while by the fire, comparing river crossings and food pouches.
Then he hung a hammock in the shelter. It was our first night sharing a shelter, so we navigated respectfully taking turns getting ready for bed. We were in our bags when he and his dog climbed up into their hammock.
Kandace and I were planning to get up super early the next day because we had friends meeting us on the trail that were hiking backwards toward us from a trailhead that was about 10 miles east of us. I could hardly sleep I was so excited, but I stared up at the shelter roof, listening to the snoring pup and the breezes blowing on the hillside, and eventually I nodded off.
11 miles to Foran Gap Shelter. (Mile Marker 69)
We were up before the sun at Black Fork Mountain Shelter.
We tiptoed out of the shelter so as not to wake our “roommate.” We were amazed that his dog didn’t bark as we prepped our packs and boiled water. We had a quick cup of coffee, stuck some protein bars in our pockets and headed off down the hill.
We descended a long time, and quickly.
Kandace took most of our food in her pack, graciously sparing me extra weight on my ankle.
I leaned hard on my trekking poles and said prayers of gratitude for more pine needle foot beds.
It was a bit more cloudy than the day before, but the sun peeked out here and there.
We had a creek crossing that wasn’t too bad. We went ahead and filled our water bottles while I let the cold creek water “ice” my ankle for a little while.
The morning went by quickly as we anticipated running into my friends.
Somewhere around mile marker 65 or 66 we ran into them! Our trail angels, Connie and Carol, had gotten up super early to meet us for lunch on this section of the trail.
I have told the story before of how their coming to find us with a gourmet picnic in the middle of our hike was the greatest morale booster of all time.
Such a delight!
They also brought me a brace for my ankle which made the hiking a good bit easier for me for the rest of the day.
After our picnic, we hiked as a happy foursome back to where they had parked.
Just as they were getting ready to leave, my dad pulled up in his car.
My dad had been following our hike from home and had planned to meet us later in the week, but after I turned my ankle, he rearranged his plans and came earlier. We didn’t know what his plans were at the time, but he ended up staying nearby for the rest of our hike on the Ouachita Trail, providing trail support so we could hike with lighter loads.
It was a huge gift.
We started throwing everything that we wouldn’t need over the next day into the back of his car.
He packed his pack for the night, and in addition to his own gear, he threw in all kinds of treats he had brought for us: apples, oranges, hot cocoa with peppermint schnapps, and M&Ms!
Then, from the Foran Gap Trailhead where he had parked, we all three hiked a mile (up the hill) to Foran Gap Shelter.
We started gathering firewood and setting up our stuff in the shelter.
It had been such a fun day. My ankle was feeling better, we’d seen our friends and now my dad was with us.
Plus the weather was holding. It was a clear, cold night.
Before the sun went down, our bunkmate from the night before arrived with his sweet dog. His pup was struggling a bit so he was planning to cut his hike short the next day to give her paws time to rest.
We all sat around the fire talking and laughing.
I was giddy thinking about hiking the next day with such a light pack.
And I couldn’t remember the last time I had slept outside with my dad. We both love the outdoors but our adventures rarely coincide with each other.
I think perhaps my long-standing interest in the Ouachita Trail has something to do with it being so near where I grew up.
I’d never hiked this trail with my dad, but we had been on many other Arkansas trails together. As he pored over his Ouachita Trail Guidebook and I studied the map on my phone, we made plans for where we would try to meet up the next day.
I thought about how two nights ago I wasn’t sure how I was going to finish the hike. Now I felt confident that we were going to make it all the way to the end.
We went to sleep early.
We were planning to be up again before dark to tackle a larger section of the trail, plus the temperatures were dropping below freezing so the warmest place to be was inside a zero degree sleeping bag.
This 17-mile section of the Ouachita Trail from Queen Wilhelmina to Foran Gap would be a fairly leisurely weekend backpacking trip.
Friday afternoon: Drop a car at Foran Gap Trailhead and drive back in a second car to Queen Wilhelmina State Park. Hike 6 miles (east) to Black Fork Mountain Shelter at Mile Marker 57.8. Spend the night.
Saturday: Walk 11 miles east from Fork Mountain Shelter to Foran Gap Shelter. You’ll pass your car at Foran Gap trailhead one mile before the shelter so you can re-supply at the car and drop anything you don’t need. Hike on up to Foran Gap Shelter at Mile Marker 69. Spend the night.
Sunday: Enjoy a slow Sunday morning by the fire at Foran Gap. Hike the mile west back to your car. Stop for lunch in Mena. Head on home.
If you wanted to camp only one night, you could also spend Friday night at Queen Wilhelmina Lodge, hike 6 miles on Saturday and then 10 miles to the Foran Gap Trailhead on Sunday.
You can find more info about the Ouachita Trail on the Friends of the OT website.