What happens when transplants to the Natural State are faced with a pandemic that confines them to their newly empty nest? They get out of the house, lace up their hiking boots, and explore the many trails Arkansas has to offer.
Houston and Jenny Davis moved to Conway in 2017 when Houston accepted the top position at the University of Central Arkansas. The university president is a native of Tennessee; Jenny’s from Mississippi. The Davis family also has called Oklahoma and Georgia home during their 26-year marriage, so moving to another state in the mid-South was a smooth transition.
“When we first got married, we lived in Tennessee, a state like Arkansas that is filled with natural beauty,” Jenny said. “We would hike up to waterfalls, we’d hike and camp with friends, and then graduate school and three children kind of took over our lives.”
One of the ways Jenny and Houston make themselves at home when moving to a new place is to act like a tourist. Hiking, they said, has been a fun and effective way to get to know their new home and fill their time now that their children are adults.
“There’s a bounty of natural beauty in this state,” Jenny said. “We would recommend everyone – no matter how long you’ve lived here – look up the trails and get to know the state and how wonderful it is.”
Shortly after moving to Arkansas, the outdoor enthusiasts knew they wanted to take advantage of the canoeing, kayaking, and hiking trails the state has to offer. During a trip to the Buffalo National River, they purchased a copy of Tim Ernst’s 1994 book, Arkansas Hiking Trails: A Guide to 78 Selected Trails in “The Natural State.” The Davises use the book as a guide, which includes a checklist as well as detailed information about each trail – from turn-by-turn directions, to how difficult it is to get your vehicle to the trailhead, to prompts to look for a specific S.S.S., or “super scenic spot.”
The book has helped the couple become more familiar with each region of the state. It also has allowed them to pick trails strategically based on the time they have, their energy levels, and what they want to see.
While the Davises had already begun working their way through the Arkansas Hiking Trails book prior to 2020, the pandemic accelerated their pace of completing the trails. Like most people, they now had additional time on their hands and took seriously public health experts’ admonitions to take care of their physical and mental health.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, one of the things public health experts really made clear was that everybody needed to try to be their best self,” Houston said. “They emphasized the importance of getting fresh air and exercising, and I took that to heart – literally. When you get out on some of these trails, the cardio will kick in. Arkansas is a beautiful state and a great place to stay fit.”
During the first 18 months of the pandemic, Houston and Jenny completed between 20 and 25 trails (approximately 125 miles total). Their average hike is between 3 to 5 miles, the longest being a 15-mile trail in Hot Springs.
“We hiked a lot partially because it was good for us and because it was one of the few things available to anyone at that time,” Jenny said. “The trails were packed.”
In addition to the physical health benefits of hiking, the Davises said being active is a great way to relieve stress, especially the stress brought about by a global health crisis.
“Everyone has had to juggle things professionally and personally,” Houston said. “Hiking, getting outdoors, bike riding for me, and running and practicing yoga for Jenny have all been part of our stress relief. That sort of activity is fantastic for being able to help your body cleanse itself.”
Jenny added that being in nature brings perspective and helps relieve some of the heightened stress that people have experienced collectively over the past two years.
“There has been a lot of negativity during the pandemic and a lot of fear,” she said. “It’s difficult to be afraid. Being in nature reminds us that we’re part of a big, beautiful, complex system where we all depend on each other. It helped calm us down.”
The Davises said they are fortunate to live in a community that has an abundance of natural beauty both within and just outside the city. In Conway, you may find them walking along the Tucker Creek Trail or around the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve on the campus of UCA.
“When you’re walking through the Jewel Moore Nature Reserve, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the center of a town with 65,000 people,” Jenny said.
The UCA campus also became a place for community members to retreat to during the pandemic. Houston described it as “Conway’s Central Park.”
“The campus of UCA is almost like a hub-and-spoke system to all sorts of trails and neighborhoods and opportunities in Conway,” he said. “We found a lot of people coming to enjoy the campus. You could tell it was a place of meeting, it was the crossroads of their walking or running, and it was a place for children to ride their bikes – it’s been wonderful.
“I hope people continue to see the campus that way because it’s nice to have those hubs within your community where people know that they can get out, get some fresh air, and be with family and friends. The UCA campus should be that for Conwegians.”
Just as UCA is a hub-and-spoke for walking trails and bike paths within the city of Conway, the Davises said that Conway itself is a hub-and-spoke for popular natural attractions, including the Arkansas River Valley Tri-Peaks Region, which references Petit Jean Mountain, Mount Nebo, and Mount Magazine. They were surprised by Conway’s proximity to the world-class trails available in the area.
“We’ve lived in places that have a lot of beauty – Georgia and Tennessee are both close to Appalachia – but those world-class trails are really spread out, and it takes you a long time to get to them,” Jenny said. “Here in Conway, you may drive 30 minutes to an hour, and you’re in world-class beauty equal to or surpassing what’s in other states. And then you drive 45 minutes beyond that, and you have a national river.
“It’s easy to take for granted how accessible all of this natural beauty is.”
Both Houston and Jenny named trails within the Tri-Peaks area as their most memorable. For Houston, it’s the North Rim Trail at Mount Magazine State Park. With a difficultly level of moderate to strenuous, the scenic 2.2-mile trail follows the north rim of the mountain, leading through “hardwood forests, scrub oaks and cedar glades across several tumbling creeks” and overlooking a “rugged hollow, the Arkansas River Valley, and the Ozark Plateau,” according to the Arkansas State Parks’ website. The North Rim Trail connects with the western end of the Mossback Ridge Trail, creating a 4.4-mile loop back to the visitor center. It takes approximately 3 hours to complete.
“It is spectacular. I cannot recommend that one enough: a lot of natural beauty, great vistas – that’s probably my favorite so far.”
Jenny said she enjoys seeing the differences in vegetation, rock formations, and even bugs when hiking her favorite trails – from the creeks that wind their way down Mount Nebo to the Seven Hollows Trail at Petit Jean State Park.
“I love Seven Hollows. That one is radically different every season,” she said. “You see it in an entirely new way in autumn and winter because you can see all the rock formations.
“We have a beautiful world, and it’s good to be out in it.”
Q&A with Houston and Jenny Davis
What are some spoken or unspoken ground rules you have about your hikes? For example, how do you pick what’s next?
Jenny: He likes high difficulty and maximum pain. And I don’t consider myself a weakling. I’m tough, and I will tolerate high difficulty if it’s accompanied by beautiful vistas and sights. One example is the waterfall at Triple Falls (Twin Falls) at Camp Orr Boy Scout Camp in north Arkansas. The way down is really easy. The way up via the Hemmed-In-Hollow Trail is really hard. But the beauty makes it worth it. So, I’m only going to do high difficulty if I get maximum reward. I have to be distracted from my pain and suffering.
Houston: It’s like a Super Mario game for me when it comes to choosing our next hike. I’m looking to get as many coins as possible for elevation change and miles in as little time as possible. Sometimes I forget that I’d better find some super scenic spots along the way to take care of those qualities as well.
What is your hiking partner like? Is there a lot of talking on the trail? Do you take your time or power through?
Jenny: I’m stronger at the end. He gets us started, and I get us finished. I don’t have any natural gifts but endurance, so at the end, I’m stronger and probably faster than I am at the beginning – no matter the length of the hike. And I would say insofar as talking, we’re pretty much in sync. There are times where it’s OK to be quiet and just enjoy being. Because part of the sensory experience is hearing nature around you.
Houston: Most of the time when we’re out on the trails, it’s almost an excuse to be able to visit. Sometimes you’ve got to get away from the hustle and bustle, and sometimes in my role, you’ve got to get away from the campus to just be able to be with each other. But I agree with Jenny: there are times where we’ll walk along and neither of us needs to say anything because what’s in front of us is just gorgeous. And we just take it in. We’ve been married 26 years; we kind of know where the quiet spots are and where the chatter spots are in life.
Jenny: I will also say that he loves to prepare. Part of what he loves about hiking is planning and packing for the hike: ‘Do we need a meal? Do we need snacks? How many snacks? How much water?’ The ‘getting ready’ is part of the joy of hiking to him, so I’m lucky in that regard – that he enjoys the work of preparation.
Houston: Yes, mapping out the itinerary is a part of the joy. The “during” part – that’s just the icing on the cake.
Fill in the blank: I don’t leave home without my ______________.
Houston: Phone. We have several trails apps where you can download trail maps. You can access them without a cell signal, and you just need a little bit of a GPS signal. Also, I’d recommend a good walking stick. That gives you three points rather than two on the ground. It helps with weight distribution, balance, and when crossing streams.
Jenny: Bear spray. We saw a bear moving beneath us when we were hiking Mount Magazine one time. When we saw the ‘Beware of Bears’ sign, we joked that as president of the UCA Bears, Houston could work toward diplomacy, but we didn’t think we’d actually see one. The bear was kind enough, and I could see that it was moving away from us. I was not spooked, but I was made aware that this was its home and not mine.
I also recommend you invest in comfortable socks and good hiking boots that are water-resistant. They offer support and make the hike so much easier.
What Natural State adventures await in 2022?
Houston: We have got many more trails up in the Buffalo River area that we need to do, especially in the Upper Buffalo. There are some trails up at Devil’s Den that we’ve not done yet. We’ve got a lot of trails to hit in northern and northwest Arkansas. We also want to revisit some of our favorite trails in different seasons. We want to see Seven Hollows at the peak of the fall leaves.
Jenny: Yes, I would like to return to Pedestal Rocks in the winter when the leaves have dropped and see all those views. It’s one of the most stunning trails we’ve been on.
Houston and Jenny’s Favorite Trails
Orange MTB & Hiking Trail
Cadron Settlement Park
6200 Highway 319 W.
Conway, AR 72034
Distance: 2-mile loop
Woolly Hollow State Park
82 Woolly Hollow Road
Greenbrier, AR 72058
Distance: 3.1-mile loop
Seven Hollows Trail
Petit Jean State Park
1285 Petit Jean Mountain Road
Morrilton, AR 72110
Distance: 5-mile loop
West Summit Trail
Pinnacle Mountain State Park
11901 Pinnacle Valley Road
Little Rock, AR 72223
Distance: 1.5 miles out and back (up and down)
Mount Nebo State Park
16728 West State Highway 155
Dardanelle, AR 72834
Distance: 3.5-mile loop
North Rim, Mossback Ridge, and Greenfield Trails Loop
Mount Magazine State Park
Paris, AR 72855
Distance: 4.4-mile loop
Difficulty: Moderate, Strenuous
Kings Bluff and Pedestal Rocks Trails
Ozark National Forest
Pelsor, AR 72856
Distance: 4.6-mile loop
Indian Rock House Cave & Trail
Buffalo National River
Yellville, AR 72687
Distance: 3.3-mile loop