On the first Sunday of April 2011 I awoke at the Best Western Traders Inn in Poteau, had a quick continental breakfast, and drove over to Talimena State Park for a 6.6 mile loop hike across the western end of Winding Stair Mountain. This miles-long ridge in the Ouachita mountains extends east-west across LeFlore county with the Talimena Skyline Drive, Oklahoma Highway 1, riding the ridgeline.
Tiny Talimena State Park is just south of the western terminus of the Skyline Drive. I parked at the trailhead at 8 a.m., noting I was at Mile 0 of the 223 mile-long Ouachita Trail, which I’ve hiked at Queen Wilhelmina State Park in Arkansas and encountered at the Haw Creek Falls. I would take it, marked by its blue blazes, for the first two miles, then turn north onto the Old Military Road trail, thus avoiding the less-than-inviting “Dead Man Gap” eight miles in.
The old military wagon road was built in 1832 by army soldiers to connect Fort Smith in Arkansas to Fort Towson in what is now Oklahoma. They were paid about 15 cents per day with a gill, or half cup, of whiskey for their troubles. But we can’t feel too sorry for them – the tragedy of the road was its use in the forced relocation of the Choctaw Indians from Mississippi. There were almost 20,000 Choctaw before removal, of which 12,500 moved to Indian Territory while 2,500 died along their Trail of Tears with five or six thousand remaining in Mississippi. In the Civil War the road was used by the Confederacy, which controlled Fort Towson. Parts of the road, such as the remnant here on Winding Stair Mountain, remain in use but most of it is gone.
Small flowers decorated the path here and there as I passed the white tree blazes for the Old Military Road Trail. A small campsite was perched above a deep creek ravine. Up on the other side of the ravine the trees cleared to provide a vista looking southwest. I could tell the trail was ascending to the ridgeline, and soon I was crossing the Talimena Skyline Drive to the Old Military Road historical pullout. I’ve driven over the zebra stripes here many times, little suspecting I was crossing a wagon road dating back to 1832. The trail thus far was merely a trail, but on the north side of the Skyline Drive I would find the old military roadbed still intact with several long rock walls.
Historical signs gave information about the old military road and the origins of the Skyline Drive, and there were two more permanent historical markers from 1959 and 1975. On the north side of the ridgeline the trail was quite different, being wider with rock retaining walls and you could envisage wagons winding their way down the mountain. The walls were in surprisingly good shape, making me wonder how much repair work must have been done. Looking beyond a splash of dogwood I could see the rock walls of the roadbed winding their way onward. A turn in the road had a stream culvert, followed by a very pretty section of road strewn with pine cones amidst little flowers.
I then reached where the Choctaw Nation Trail joins the military road, heading north and east to Holson Valley. I turned east here so the Choctaw Nation Trail, formerly called the Indian Nation Trail, would take me south back up over the mountain so I could return to the park. The trees still carry the yellow blazes of the Indian Nation Trail, but now there are orange signs noting its new name. After a section of trail with a half dozen zigs and zags of switchbacks, I reached the ridgeline and recrossed the Talimena Skyline Drive, which has no trailhead parking or signage for the Choctaw Nation Trail. EveryTrail would later tell me that I’d ascended 400 feet to cross the Skyline Drive on the Old Military Road, then descended over 300 feet before ascending back up 600 feet to cross the Skyline Drive on the Choctaw Nation Trail at an altitude of 1700 feet since the Winding Stair Mountain rises as it runs eastward from the park. A black butterfly posed for me as I descended the mountain.
I reached another small campsite and gratefully sat on a log for an early lunch. A bit farther I reached the first of several intersections with the Ouachita Trail, sticking with the Choctaw Nation Trail with its occasional flower. A burned tree looked like it was a victim of a killer contrail in the background. Soon I reached a forest road where the Choctaw Nation Trail turned east while I would turn west back toward Talimena State Park. As I reached the park, a sign about the big Knuckle Rock in the trail indicated mountain bikers had found a fun spot. I never saw another hiker on this warm Sunday morning.
I washed up and changed my shirt and shoes for the drive home. I opted to take scenic Highway 82 north to Stigler, admiring the sweeping views. Stopping for a late lunch at El Chico, I was well fortified for an afternoon of laundry and blogging. Some day I may return to hike more of the Old Military Road trail north from the Skyline Drive to Holson Valley in my continuing quest to seek out all of the best trails of the region.
I’m indebted to Charlie Williams’s OuachitaMaps.com for making this loop known to me. He has a fantastic collection of GPS-based hiking maps you can view online and order in rainproof printed versions.