Lake Fort Smith State Park
Updated: Feb 7, 2020
This park is in Crawford County and includes 260 acres. It was originally constructed as Fort Smith City Park in the 1930s as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project. The WPA was one of those alphabet soup programs of the New Deal during the Great Depression that put folks to work and gave us so many awesome recreation opportunities. Lake Fort Smith became a state park in 1967.
The dam and spillway were enlarged starting in 2002. This inundated the original site of the park and the new park site was relocated 4 miles north. The Lake Fort Smith project was completed in 2008 and most of this park is brand new. The facilities are all really nice, campgrounds are excellent, and it's a super clean park! There are a couple of exits from I-49 you can use to get to the park. My phone's GPS wanted to take me to the Chester exit, but most State Park signage (those classic brown signs you should be looking for when heading out to a state park) guides you to the Mountainburg exit. The park's address is 15458 Shepard Springs Road, Mountainburg, AR and I recommend you use the Mountainburg exit (more about that below). Typically you would associate Crawford County with Van Buren and the Arkansas River Valley. But, Lake Fort Smith is in the northern portion of the county and much more part of the Boston Mountains than it is River Valley.
The visitors center is super nice again at this park. It's part of that remodel a few years ago (along with cabins, lodges, marina, facilities, etc). Included are some excellent history displays on the founding of the area along with exhibits that include a log cabin replica and settlers wagon. Be sure to pick up the hiking trails brochure in the visitors center.
Hiking is one of the MUST do items at this park. This is because Lake Fort Smith is the western terminus of the amazing 165 mile long Ozark Highlands Trail (OHT) that ends in the east around the Buffalo River, Plans even include connecting it up with trail in the Buffalo River area and extending it to the Missouri border and making it 320 miles long! During my undergraduate days at Arkansas Tech University I completed the 165 mile trail section over several long weekends. If you get interested in this trail, get the Ozark Highlands Trail Guide by Tim Ernst. It was fun to take Huxley on a small section of the OHT over to the waterfall in the park. Maybe one day when Huxley gets bigger, we will put completing this trail on our bucket list.
The trailhead for the waterfall is at the far back corner of the campground loop. The parking spots are near the upper bath house. If you get the opportunity to utilize the campground there are several really nice camp sites overlooking the lake on the lower area. The bathrooms and showers are heated and very clean. This would be a great cool weather camping location!
Also a must do at Lake Fort Smith is fishing! The lake contains SEVERAL fish species including largemouth bass, spotted bass, hybrid striped bass, white crappie, black crappie, redear sunfish, longear sunfish, green sunfish, bluegill, warmouth/goggleye, walleye, yellow bullhead, blue catfish, channel catfish, flathead catfish, longnose gar, drum, carp, shad, and brook silversides. An exhibit in the visitors center shows several of these fish species and what the lake habitat looks like. You can rent a boat, canoe, paddle boat, or kayak at the marina. A boat launch is also available if you want to bring your own boat and you can rent a slip at the marina. Swimming is not allowed in the lake. One of the COOLEST things we learned about at Lake Forth Smith is the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's Tackle Loaner Program. This State Park is one of those locations. There are over 100 locations across the state (mostly libraries) where you can check out fishing gear (rods, reels, tackle, etc). How cool is that! You can see all of the AGFC Tackle Loaner locations here.
Be sure and get a valid Arkansas Fishing Licence. You can even do it online. An Arkansas resident fishing license is only $10.50 for a year. Cheap 3 day options are available to out of state residents for $16. These fees are important to help support our great fisheries, stocking, and other important functions of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Kids under 16 do not need a fishing license.
The playground (also all new since the 2008 rebuild) got two thumbs up from Huxley! I know this is a confusing ranking system. Sometimes he gives me a 1-10 score and sometimes its a thumbs up, thumbs down, 1 thumb up, two thumbs up rating system. I just roll with it and report back his findings! Playgrounds are certainly one of highlights at each park.
You can find more info about Lake Fort Smith and events at this park at: https://www.arkansasstateparks.com/parks/lake-fort-smith-state-park
We didn't make the trip, but for a great photo opportunity you can exit the park to the north on Hwy 71 and stop just a few miles north at Artist Point overlook for a great view! More info on Artist Point from Channel 40/29 at https://www.4029tv.com/article/artist-point/26105432
We don't usually have time to get distracted by too may side trips, we have 52 parks to see in a year and adding more makes for a LONG list. BUT, if you have kids and go to Lake Fort Smith State Park, Huxley really recommends you stop by the Mountainburg City Park.
It is located just a few miles south of the State Park on Hwy 71 and includes a TON of great playground equipment (including ADA swings). Also at the Mountainburg City Park are some cool vintage dinosaur play-sets you can climb on and in, as well as a vintage firetruck!