Exploring Outdors

Exploring outdoors:
Arkansas' open-air classrooms

Arkansas' nickname "The Natural State" reveals a statewide commitment to the outdoors. Arkansans weave the wilderness into their lives by embracing, protecting and exploring the state's natural beauty.

Northwest Arkansas claims some of the most beautiful terrain in the region. Our gentle hills, wild rivers and deep caves lure national attention to the pristine and well-preserved Ozark Mountains.

Parade magazine named Fayetteville, home of the University of Arkansas, one of "America's Most Beautiful Towns" in 2012. The city's ample parks and the emerging inter-city Northwest Arkansas Razorback Regional Greenway offer opportunities to appreciate natural beauty in the city.

But if your tastes range further afield, the university provides a perfect basecamp for outdoor adventures that begin less than an hour away.

Students can reach the Ozark National Forest in fifteen minutes, the famed caves and bike trails of Devil's Den State Park in half an hour, or float America's first national river, the Buffalo River, in less than a hour.

Wilderness Connection

The university's Outdoor Connection Center provides wilderness equipment and guided excursions to explore many of the caves, rivers and woods that exemplify the region's beauty.

The center began in the 1970s in the Arkansas Union under the leadership of recreation teacher Rodney Ryan and student Hank Harmon, the center's first director. Early on, university students understood the call of wild places and created a place where it could become part of any student's education in the Natural State.

The center now encompasses 2,000 square feet in University Recreation's main HPER building.

"This fall we are offering 45 different outdoor programs. Normally, we offer 50 to 75 programs per academic year," said center director Jennifer Hazelrigs. "The community and culture is there and wants to be active."

Into the Ozarks

Former university student Tim Ernst makes a living documenting the state's hiking trails and natural beauty through numerous trail guides and picture books.

"There are vast wild forest areas in northwest Arkansas filled with some of the most beautiful intimate landscapes found anywhere in the United States. Thundering waterfalls, towering bluffs, wildflowers, lush forests, wildlife, scenic vistas, whitewater and quiet emerald pools - and tons of solitude - all waiting for those who want to get off the pavement and explore." - Tim Ernst 

The Ozark National Forest offers more than one million acres of managed wilderness to be explored. Ernst wrote the Ozark Highlands Trail Guide that provides the definitive mile-by-mile description of what an explorer will find in this protected forest.

The Devil's Den 

Devli's Den“We have a lot of frequent flyers,” said Randall Schwab, who works the front desk at Devil’s Den State Park. 

“Some students come out every weekend on a day trip, or sometimes tent camping. During the fall, it’s a really pretty time. … We’ll see a lot of them.”

Mountain biking, hiking trails and caving are just some of the activities enjoyed by students who visit the state park. The park also boasts 17 fully equipped cabins and 143 campsites that allow for a quiet retreat for a few days.

Some cabins date back to the era of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal when the Civilian Conservation Corps first tamed the valley surrounding Lee Creek.

The Battle for the Buffalo River

Students today enjoy the country's first "National River" because of the conservation efforts of alumnus Dr. Neil Compton.

He and others thwarted the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' plan to build dams along the natural waterway.

That effort in the early 1960s is documented in the book, The Battle for the Buffalo River: A Conservation Crisis in the Ozarks, published by the University of Arkansas Press.

Students now float 135 miles of protected beauty along the river because of Compton and others. President Richard Nixon named the Buffalo River a "National River" in 1972.

Depending on the time of year and water levels, expect still pools of cool and deep water, exciting rapids and high rock bluffs to meet you along the many bends. Pioneer homesteads still exist and sand bars provide numerous spots to set up an overnight camp next to the water.

Alumni often fondly remember spring breaks and long weekends in the Ozark Mountains where their University of Arkansas experience extended far beyond the books and into the wild. 

By Christopher Spencer
University of Arkansas

Student Outdoors

Outdoor Connection Center offers outdoor community

Ready to explore your own Walden Pond? The university's Outdoor Connection Center provides everything required from kayak and camping equipment rental to bike repair to rock-climbing gear.

The center also provides regular excursions if you want to enjoy the call of the wild with others. Professional staff lead kayak trips, camping, mountain biking rides and climbing workshops on a monthly basis.

Campers will again enjoy the natural beauty of the Grand Canyon during Thanksgiving this November. It's an annual four-day backpacking trip where students enjoy turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie around a campfire under the Arizona stars.

Center staff plan trips in January to the Everglades National Park in Florida and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

"My favorite trip I have ever taken was the caving trip to Mammoth Caves," student Kyrie Leaf said. "At one point, you had to lay on your stomach, tilt your head sideways and pull yourself with your fingers and push with your toes. It was terrifying and amazing at the same time."

"The center offers students an opportunity to learn outside of the classroom," center director Jennifer Hazelrigs said. "Outdoor activities allow for self discovery, mental challenges, physical challenges, social interaction, solitude and confidence.

 "That is what we want people to take away from their experiences with us."

Contact the Outdoor Connection Center at 479.575.2267 or online for more information.