One of the highlights of the Christmas season this year was an event atop Hickory Nut Mountain a few days before Christmas. Over two hundred people crowded the parking area of the old vista area to witness the release of a rehabilitated bald eagle back into the wild.
It was a stirring site to see this magnificent bird that had been struck by a vehicle almost a year ago suddenly leap into the air with a mighty push of its now repaired wigs and soar down the slopes of the mountain to the lake surface almost a 1000 feet below.
It was heartening to see so many people on the vista all gathered to wish the old eagle well and to drink in the beauty of the view on a sparklingly clear day. There were so many vehicles the large parking lot could not accommodate the crowd, forcing latecomers to park along the edge of the steep narrow road that leads to the Vista.
As most of us locals know, the Hickory Nut Mountain Vista offers one of the most panoramic views of the sparkling waters of Lake Ouachita. The Vista was constructed over fifty years ago to provide visitors to the National Forest an opportunity to enjoy unobstructed views of the lake from the highest point above the lake’s shoreline.
Over the years the rough drive up the mountain has been utilized for weddings, anniversary celebrations, memorial services and at least one christening atop this beautiful mountain. It is also one of the finest light-free sites to star gaze at night or watch eagles and turkey buzzards glide in the thermals rising off the lake.
The Forest Service constructed a four-mile road, USFS RD 50, from US Highway 270 to the summit of the mountain. The final mile required significant applications of dynamite to breach the rocky ridge atop the mountain. The old sand-filled walls of the small explosive storage building sits almost unnoticed just off the east side of the road. The USFS team created a broad parking area at the Vista site surrounded with beautiful sandstone walls and a covered observation deck complete with restrooms for public use.
The USFS original plan called for a visitor center offering ranger-led programs and information on the flora and fauna of the surrounding forest.
Budgetary constraints prevented the construction and manning of a visitor center, but the completed Vista quickly became a must-visit place for the thousands of visitors to the lake and surrounding forest each year.
As time passed, funds for the upkeep of the Vista and its roads dwindled, making the trip to the vista by car more of an adventure in dodging potholes and ruts created by the water runoff on the steep slope of the road.
Then about thirty years ago a traveling band of homeless vagrants set up camp on the Vista and decided the wood roofed observation deck would make good firewood. The band was banished from the Vista, but the damage was done.
Within the next year the vandalized restrooms were closed, and the Vista fell into a long period disrepair that included vandals ripping stones from the wall and littering the surrounding area. Graffiti covered the vandalized walls, and talk of completely abandoning the site was in the air.
Over next several years the USFS periodically repaired the walls, replacing the stones that had been tossed over the walls, and cleaning the clutter of graffiti painted on the walls.
The Forest Service also annually graded the gravel road and replaced the drainage culverts in an effort to keep the road open to visitors willing to brave the rough gravel road. The small campground atop the mountain was also decommissioned as an overnight site but was left open as a day use picnic area.
Interest in the Vista began anew with the construction of the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (“LOViT”) beginning in 2005 and reaching the summit of Hickory Nut Mountain in 2007, bringing thousands of new visitors to the summit and the Vista.
The coalition that sponsored the construction of the LOViT trail began to see the mountain as an instant draw for trail users. As trail use increased with the completion of the forty-five mile long trail, visitation to the mountaintop increased tenfold.
Members of this coalition are now seeking to develop a plan and funding for paving the USFS Rd 50 and remodeling the Vista into a key tourist attraction for trail users and those seeking to enjoy the unique views of Lake Ouachita.
Tourism is the engine that drives the economy of our area, and the development of the Vista and picnic/camping area could be another jewel in the natural beauty of our area.
The Friends of Lake Ouachita, including its non-profit corporation arm, along with its LOViT Traildog Volunteers, are developing a proposal for the enhancement of the Vista and surrounding area. They are seeking grants and donations to facilitate this project.
If you support this concept, you can voice your support by sending an email to the LOViT Traildogs at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by sending the Traildogs a message via the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail’s Facebook site.