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Sand in our shoes

by and

BEST BEACH: On Lake Ouachita.
  • BEST BEACH: On Lake Ouachita.

It’s true that Arkansas is a landlocked state: The nearest access point to salt water is at least 400 miles away. It’s also true that no less than three state Parks and Tourism employees laughed at recent requests for information regarding the beaches of Arkansas. But don’t let this fool or discourage you; there are sandy spots all over the state, and if you close your eyes and put shells over your ears, you just might be able to create the illusion of a summer at the beach.

A good rule of thumb is that wherever there’s a lake, there’s likely to be a beach, and state parks at DeGray Lake, Lake Dardanelle, Lake Catherine and Lake Charles, to name a few, each offer at least a sandbox-full of summer fun. But just north of Hot Springs, Lake Ouachita — Arkansas’s largest lake and one of the cleanest in the country — is a truly excellent destination for those seeking sand. The Army Corps of Engineers maintains the majority of 23 recreation areas around the perimeter of the lake, and many of these parks have swimming beaches.

The genesis of Lake Ouachita dates to 1948 with the building of the Blakely Mountain Dam under the Flood Control Act of 1944. While the dam was under construction, the towns of Buckville, Cedar Glades, Flea Bend, Oakwood and White Plains were vacated as Arkansas Power and Light bought the land from the residents for approximately $30 per acre. Buildings of significance, such as the Buckville Baptist Church, were moved, as were nearly 600 graves. In 1953 the dam gates were closed, and everything left behind is now six feet under, as it were (in reality, the lake is between 50 and 200 feet deep).

The beaches are all man-made as well, and their locations were chosen specifically to be swimmer friendly: Corps engineers selected areas where there was a gradual drop-off and a water gap of 10 feet or less, so swimmers can wade out to their comfort zone without suddenly finding themselves in an unanticipated abyss. Of the seven recreation areas that have beaches, Crystal Springs, Brady Mountain and Spillway arguably have the nicest, and also the largest, beaches; one of the two at Crystal Springs has a combined grass and sand area of nearly an acre, with fine white sand surrounded by lush shade trees. All three of these parks are lined up in a row along the southeastern side of the lake. Other beaches, moving clockwise around the lake, are at Joplin, Denby Point, Twin Creek, Buckville, and Lake Ouachita State Park.

The recreation areas that ring the lake are like tiny towns with distinct personalities: Some are resorts, with lodges and cabins; some are basic campsites, with tent clearings and RV hookups; most have docks and boat launches, and all have lovely views. The whole parks system radiates the spirit of the patriotic, postwar optimism in which it was constructed. The directional signs and markers are all made of rough-hewn wood and etched with the same hokey ’50s font, and campsites within various parks have cutesy, totally un-Arkansan names like “Caribbean Cove.”

Simply to drive the narrow, winding roads that cut through the hills linking one park to another is to have a mini-vacation: The scenery is beautiful, and easing around sharp curves or slowing to splash through a stream that leaps over the road — sunlight filtering through tall trees, the air thick with brilliantly colored butterflies — is an all-natural chill-pill that can be found in few other places.

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