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3 perfect days in the Diamond Lakes area

Kayakers explore Lake Catherine, one of the five lakes that make up the Diamond Lakes area in south-central Arkansas. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

They don’t call Arkansas the Natural State for nothing. This amazing landscape offers something for every taste, from dense forests to scenic waterways; from the broad, flat expanses of the duck-rich Delta to the towering slopes of the Ozark and Ouachita mountain ranges. You can cross three different ecosystems in one day’s drive yet spend a year and not experience all of the state’s natural wonders.

Perhaps nowhere do Arkansas’ many outdoor splendors come together more seamlessly than in the Diamond Lakes region, a slice of south-central Arkansas that boasts five lakes and three rivers set among soaring mountains and lush woodlands. Diamond Lakes includes what’s best about the Arkansas outdoors, from hunting and fishing to kayaking, hiking, and mountain biking. Throw in the warmth and vibrancy of the neighboring towns, and you’ve got more family entertainment than one weekend can hold.

The following itinerary tracks what to see and do during a three-day adventure among the Diamond Lakes, focusing in particular on lakes Ouachita, Hamilton, and Catherine. But trust us, there’s much more out here, and once you’ve sampled it, your family will want to come back and see it all.

Day 1

Dig in: Start early with breakfast at the Pancake Shop in Hot Springs, a landmark in the city since 1940. Expect to stand in line to get in, but that’s all part of the experience. Pro tip: To avoid a maple syrup landslide off the enormous flapjacks, dig a hole in the middle of the stack to create a well; (501) 624-5720.

northwoods trail

At Northwoods Trails near Hot Springs, mountain bikers find 26 miles of terrain for all skill levels. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Hit the trails: Burn off those extra carbs on the Northwoods Trails, a 26-mile system of mountain biking trails. (501) 321-3027. The Pullman Trailhead, located in downtown Hot Springs, connects mountain bikers to the trails through a section of Hot Springs National Park, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Varying trail levels, from beginner to advanced, will appeal to every member of the family. Before you go, get trail-ready at Spa City Cycling for bike sales, service, and rentals; (501) 463-9364.

lake ouachita

Kayakers enjoy a sunset paddle on Lake Ouachita, Arkansas’ largest lake. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Cool off: Now that you’re limbered up, head for Lake Ouachita, the grandaddy of Arkansas lakes. Covering 40,000 acres and offering 975 miles of remote shoreline, you’ll never feel hemmed in. Stop at Mountain Harbor Resort and Spa in Mount Ida to rent your choice of watercraft, from tubes and wakeboards to kayaks, canoes, fishing boats, and party barges. (870) 867-2191;

oaklawn horse racing

In addition to seasonal thoroughbred racing, Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort offers gambling, restaurants, and a new hotel. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Ponies to poker: The Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort used to be quiet after the thoroughbred season ended in May, but that’s no longer the case. If you’re too late to watch the ponies run, there’s still plenty to do thanks to an expanded casino offering gambling, delicious food options, and a brand-new hotel. Children are allowed to watch the horse races, but you must be 18 or older to wager and 21 or older to enter the casino; (501) 623-4411.

deluca's pizza owner

Sink your teeth into a delicious pie at Deluca’s Pizza in downtown Hot Springs. | Photo courtesy Visit Hot Springs

That’s amore: For dinner, visit one of the most acclaimed pizza parlors in the country: Deluca’s in downtown Hot Springs. Owner Anthony Valinoti—a Brooklyn, New York, transplant—often works the room, so don’t be shy about saying hello. At Deluca’s, everyone is family. Sink your teeth into the signature Gooch Pie, which is topped with Calabrese salami, garlic, Peppadew peppers, and arugula; (501) 609-9002.

Bed down: Only one of Hotel Hale’s nine rooms can accommodate a small family, but it’s worth checking to see if it’s available. Newly renovated into a boutique hotel, the historic building began as the Hale Bathhouse in the late 1800s when a number of bathhouses were built to make use of the city’s thermal springs. Rates start at $215. (501) 760-901; Another lodging option is Embassy Suites by Hilton Hot Springs Hotel and Spa. Rates at this all-suite hotel, which offers free breakfast, start at $116. (501) 624-9200;

Day 2

Lake Hamilton: One of Arkansas’ most popular lake destinations, Lake Hamilton offers plenty of fun on the water. Rent a boat for tubing or water-skiing or arrange a fishing charter for bass, crappie, and more with one of the local guides, such as Family Fishing Trips. (501) 844-5418.

Island life: For a different excursion, visit Electric Island, a 118-acre nature preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy in the middle of Lake Hamilton. A 2-mile loop trail, managed by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, provides a relaxing way to stretch your legs and take in the beautiful forest and lake scenery. (877) 525-8606.

garvan woodlands

At Garvan Woodland Gardens, visitors will discover a remarkable tree house among the botanical garden’s lovely landscapes. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Garden party: On the banks of Lake Hamilton lies Garvan Woodland Gardens, a 210-acre botanical garden owned and maintained by the University of Arkansas. Nestled along 4.5 miles of wooded shoreline, the garden offers lovely landscapes brimming with flora as well as architectural treasures and an amazing tree house tucked in the woods that every member of the family will enjoy; (501) 262-9300.

Superior Bathhouse Brewery

Grab lunch and sample the beers at Superior Bathhouse Brewery, located in a former Hot Springs bathhouse. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Grab a brew: Another former bathhouse also has found new life in Hot Springs. The Superior Bathhouse Brewery claims to be the first brewery located in a national park and the only one that uses thermal spring water to create craft beers. Families will find pub classics like burgers and sandwiches, as well as pulled pork tacos and a savory bulgogi bánh mì sandwich; (501) 624-2337.

Day 3

Lake Catherine: Just 20 minutes southeast of Hot Springs, discover one of the prettiest spots you’ll ever hope to see at Lake Catherine State Park. You can rent a pontoon, canoe, kayak, or other watercraft at the park’s on-site marina to fish, float, or paddle the gentle waters. Or just sling a hammock between two trees and listen to the lake; (501) 844-4176.

falls creek

At Lake Catherine State Park, take a short hike to admire Falls Creek Falls. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Selfie time: While you’re relaxing at Lake Catherine, spend a little time hiking the Falls Branch Trail, a short, easy jaunt that takes you to Falls Creek Falls. The enchanting waterfall provides the perfect spot to get that family selfie. To cool off, wade into the waterfall-fed pool that appears stunningly blue when the conditions are right.

Swing away: Just outside of the state park, put down your fishing rod and paddle and pick up a golf club at Diamondhead Golf and Country Club. Featuring 18 holes tucked amid hardwoods and pines, the PGA-sanctioned course provides families with an afternoon well-spent; (501) 262-3734.

lake ouachita

Surrounded by the Ouachita National Forest, Lake Ouachita offers a beautiful place for swimming, floating, fishing, and all manner of other water sports. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Float the Ouachita: Find scenic floating opportunities on the Ouachita River as it flows southward from Lake Catherine. Locals recommend the stretches from Rocky Shoals to Fulton Branch, Fulton Branch to Dragover, or Fulton Branch to River Bluff. Contact River View Cabins and Canoes (870-326-4630; or Ouachita River Haven Resort (870-326-4941; for river conditions and directions.

Boating safety tips:

If you hit the water on your Diamond Lakes adventure, make sure every member of the family wears a life jacket. If you plan to drink, have a designated driver on and off the water. Also, check the forecast before your trip. If you hear thunder while boating, you are close enough to the storm to be struck by lightning. Get off the water and seek shelter immediately.

An outdoorsman at heart, Dwain Hebda is a contributor from Little Rock, Arkansas.

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