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Sugar Loaf Mountain
Hike Starts with a Boat Ride

By Craig Ogilvie, travel writer
Arkansas Dept of P&T

The only way to reach Arkansas's first nationally designated hiking trail is via boat. Sugar Loaf Mountain occupies an uninhabited island in the middle of Greers Ferry Lake, between Clinton and Heber Springs. For nature-lovers, it's an ideal getaway place.

Covered with native trees and topped with massive stone formations, Sugar Loaf Mountain offers a challenging hike to almost 600 feet above the lake. Those who reach the summit are rewarded with some of the most panoramic views found in the Ozarks.

Until the construction of Greers Ferry Lake in the early 1960s, the mountain stood high and dry, with only spring-fed streams impeding adventuresome climbers. The South Fork of the Little Red River flowed nearby before joining the Middle Fork above the "narrows," which separates Greers Ferry into two sections.

As the lake filled in 1962, Sugar Loaf became an island, under the domain of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As campgrounds and boat launch facilities took shape around the lake, the Corps also set about developing a trail to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain. On Sept. 2, 1971, it became the first designated National Recreational Trail in Arkansas.

Hiking to the top of Sugar Loaf has been a pastime since pioneer days. Group picnics and photography parties at the top continued right up until lake construction. Sightseers from Little Rock, Memphis and beyond traveled dusty backroads for a chance to view the Ozarks from 1,001 feet above sea level.

Today, visitors travel modern highways to one of several marinas in the region and rent a boat or party barge for the ride out to the island. (Some marinas offer shuttle service for those not accustomed to piloting a boat.) Public boat ramps are also available at all access areas for those using their own boat.

A new Corps of Engineers boat dock welcomes island visitors to the trailhead on the southeastern shore of the big island. The trail swings back and forth as hikers near the craggy bluffs that support the mountain's massive sandstone cap. After millions of years, the softer stone has weathered away and left an oblong, flat-topped rock formation high above the treetops. This landmark reminded pioneers of an inverted loaf pan and resulted in the name. There are several other Sugar Loaf Mountains in the state, including one along the Little Red River, near Heber Springs.

Hikers ascending the 1.6-mile trail to the summit, encounter a wide variety of native plants and wildflowers. In addition to the hardwoods and pines, the bluffs create withered cedars, contorted by time, and rare dwarfed English elms standing only two feet tall. Much of the exposed sandstone is covered by greenish-gray lichen, which serves as a backdrop for the many species of moss and ferns on the island. Small animals such as squirrels, raccoons, rabbits, chipmunks and numerous birds also populate the mountain, which serves as a game refuge (no hunting allowed).

As the trail reaches the bluffs at the southern end of the "loaf," a series of wooden stairs aid in the steep climb to the top. There are several places to enjoy the stunning views along the trail that traverses the long, narrow rocky-topped mountain. A favorite spot is the extreme northeast bluff. In addition to spectacular views, the ancient rock formations alone are worthy of the hike.

Sugar Loaf can be a looping trail for those not wanting to retrace their footsteps to the top. The original stairway that brought thousands of hikers up the north rim of the mountain, has been torn away. "We discovered a natural route down the northeastern face and have been developing it into a new trail section," says Park Ranger Bill Allbright, Jr. "The work will be completed this spring."

For those descending via the new pathway, the hike along the northwestern side of the bluffline can be the most interesting part of the outing. The trail hugs the rock formations most of the way and in one or two places visitors actually walk under the massive stone walls. Plant life along the route can vary from cactus to maidenhair fern. The loop is completed at the southern end of the bluff and it's an easy stroll back to the boat dock. Benches are conveniently located along the route for those wanting additional moments before returning to the "real world."

Another looping trail has been added in recent times for those who do not wish to make the hike to the top of Sugar Loaf. The new trail begins about three-fourths of the way up the main trail. It explores the base of the bluffs and many of the natural wonders of the island. All trails are well marked, but visitors should be aware that parts of the mountaintop pathways are within a few steps of sheer drops of over 100 feet.

Springtime, when fresh greenery and flowers appear, and autumn with its vibrant hues, are the most colorful times to visit the island. But, according to Corps officials, the long days of summer remain the most popular visitation time on Sugar Loaf. Fresh water, comfortable clothing and shoes, camera and field glasses are suggested for the hike.

Guide maps and additional information about Sugar Loaf and the region are available at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers/William C. Garner Visitor Center at the western end of Greers Ferry Dam, north of Heber Springs, and at many marinas near the island.


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