Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunset Trail Loop, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas

Distance: 8.8 mile loop (14.2 km)
Elevation: 370 - 1485 feet (112 - 452 m)
Difficulty: Moderate
Time of Year: October - May (avoid heat/humidity of the summer)

Located within Hot Springs National Park, the Sunset Loop is a 17-mile trail that circumnavigates the entire park from Bathhouse Row to West Mountain to Music Mountain and then back via Hot Springs Mountain. 17 miles is probably not a reasonable length for most people, but I have a found a way to make a loop that is only 8.8 miles around while still seeing the best the park has to offer.

Since the summers are so oppressively hot and humid, it is recommended you do this hike either in the fall or winter. This is the best time because the weather is so perfect, the leaves are either changing colors, or when they drop off the trees, the views open up. Plus, you do not have to deal with those nasty, ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, and other critters along the way.

You can access this route via numerous trailheads. But, for this post I say a great place to start is the parking area at the summit of West Mountain. The Sunset Trail starts right from here and heads west. The trail is wide, gentle, and of good surface the entire way. It is good enough that you could use this for running as well. There are just a few places where the gravel surface is a bit loose.

The trail starts at about 1100 feet elevation and gently follows the ridgeline, rising and falling no more than 100 feet at a time. The forest is primarily red oak and hickory along the summit, with white oaks along particularly exposed areas. There is lots of novaculite, which is the native chert/flint-like rocks that make up this area. It is mined nearby for furniture and household use.

The views are sporadic along the ridge between the trees. They become better as the leaves drop from the trees. But, the views are not what this hike is about. It is the solitude. It is being in an oasis of nature surrounded by a sea of humanity. Since this is about the easiest 8+ mile trail I have hiked, it is for almost everyone. Yet, we saw no other hikers on the trail this day.

The trail passes below some radio towers, returns to the ridgetop and then heads uphill to the highest point in the park at above 1400 feet. The trail turns to the north and then back east and gradually descends down to Blacksnake Road at 2.9 miles from the start. At this stage, you could actually take this road to the right all the way downtown. But, just cross the road and continue on toward Cedar Glades Road another 2.8 miles further.

The trail will descend and then climb through dense forests and then into a scrubby open oak stand on the rocky ridgeline. After 1.6 miles miles you will arrive at the sign for "Balanced Rock 0.2 miles". Turn left and follow this short spur out to some rock outcroppings and nice views of the landscape. The actual "balanced rock" is nothing special and hard to photograph, but the landscape views are what matter here.

Back track to the main trail and then continue for the next 1.2 miles to Cedar Glades Road. Here, you will turn and walk down this quiet road into town. As you approach Hot Springs, you will see lots of seemingly abandoned houses, businesses, and eventually hotels. This part of town is almost a ghost town. Even the sidewalk you are on is broken up and covered with grass. At an intersection, take Cedar Road into downtown. Upon arrival in downtown on the strip, took for Canyon Trail heading up the slope right next to the Mountain Springs Water shop to the right. If you want, you can continue to Bathhouse Row to get some lunch or refreshments before beginning the final 1.2 miles and 700 foot elevation gain to get you back to your car.

Hot Springs Tower across the valley
The Canyon Trail will ascend 0.2 up several switchbacks on an old 1800's carriage road. At an intersection bear right and follow it another 0.2 miles to the road. Cross the road and follow the road another 0.3 miles until arriving at West Mountain Road. You can either walk the road up to the parking area for the last 0.7 miles or follow the West Mountain Trail back, which parallels the road.

The Old Magestic Hotel
The Sunset Trail Loop is a great way to experience the solitude and fun of Hot Springs National Park without exerting too much effort. Just pick the right day to do it, as if it is too hot and humid, it would be miserable. But, on this November day with temperatures in the mid-60's it was just about perfect.


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Anonymous said...

We followed your hike description this weekend and loved it. Thank you so much! It was fun. Perfect weather too - no bugs, not too hot, threatened to rain but didn't. Lots of beautiful flowers in bloom. We had our dog with us and were impressed that she (a mini-poodle terrier) managed the whole hike.

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