Length: About 320 miles, plus side trips.
When to go: Popular year-round.
Words to the wise: Steep grades make some roads off-limits to RV’s.
Nearby attractions: Little Rock, state capital. Eureka Springs, mountainside resort community. Ozark Folk Center State Park, exhibits on Ozark mountain culture, Mountain View. Branson, MO, popular center for country music.
Further information: Arkansas Division of Tourism, 1 Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201; tel. 800-628-8725, www.arkansas.com. Forested slopes appear around almost every new bend along Scenic Highway 7—a route that traverses one national park and two national forests, the Ouachita (WASH-i-taw) and the Ozark. Side trips meander farther into the countryside, leading to nature preserves, tall mountain peaks, sparkling lakes, towering waterfalls, and outlandish yet appealing rock formations.
1. Hot Springs
A lively atmosphere pervades the city of Hot Springs, an engaging mix of tree-lined streets, coffee houses, antique shops, art galleries, hotels, and Victorian homes. What especially earns the place its far-flung renown, however, is Hot Springs National Park, where heated, mineral-laden waters flow to the earth’s surface at numerous springs. Although the park may be smaller and far less pristine than our grand nature preserves, its unique character and colorful history are pleasing compensations.
A row of ornate bathhouses on Central Avenue (Rte. 7) recalls the early 1900s, when health-seekers traveled to the springs in pursuit of cures. Today only one of the facilities—the Buckstaff—remains open but visitors still come to bathe in its soothing waters and stroll through the landscaped grounds, lush with magnolia trees and fountains. The Fordyce, another of the old bathhouses, operates as a museum and visitor center. In addition to its exhibits on the workings of the springs, the Fordyce details the region’s past, especially the city’s heyday, when gangsters and movie stars gambled in local casinos.
Secondary roads wind up and down the ZigZag Mountains, the idyllic background for the city and park. One unforgettable drive—with hairpin curves and steep ascents—leads to the observation tower at the crest of Hot Springs Mountain. The view looks out on the dense forests that cover both the nearby and faraway mountains, an especially dazzling sight when autumn colors the leaves.
New to the spa city is breathtaking Garvan Woodland Gardens, located on a wooded peninsula jutting into Lake Hamilton. Its floral landscapes, streams, and waterfalls—as well as hundreds of native and exotic plant species—make a visit well worthwhile.
2. Lake Ouachita State Park
Before continuing on Rte. 7, consider a side trip on Rtes. 270 and 227 to Lake Ouachita. Set amid a forest of pines, the park offers nature talks and tours, cabins, and camping, as well as springs and trails. The lake—large, scalloped with coves, and notable for its cleanliness—is ideal for all sorts of water sports. For those who try fishing, the catch might include bass, bream, trout, and catfish.
3. Ouachita National Forest
Heading north from Hot Springs, Scenic Highway 7 passes souvenir shops, stores offering quartz and other rocks, fruit stands, sparkling creeks, and tree-covered hills. Farther along, the highway carves a course for more than 23 miles through Ouachita National Forest.
Soon after entering these wooded wilds, the drive runs downhill beside Trace Creek, which rushes beneath a canopy of shortleaf pines and hardwood trees. Thousands of wildflowers—orchids, lilies, and irises, among them—also thrive along the road.
Campsites are plentiful, and to while away the day, visitors can be on the watch for such creatures as white-tailed deer, beavers, great blue herons, and wild turkeys. In the morning a chorus of songbirds greets the dawn, and come nighttime, owls and frogs sing their own peculiar brands of music.
4. Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge
After descending from the rounded hills of the Ouachita Mountains, Rte. 7 wends on to the Arkansas River and the large fertile valley floodplain it has helped to create over millions of years.
At Centerville, head east on Rte. 154 to the turnoff for Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge, where bobcats, coyotes, beavers, and deer are among year-round denizens. An eight-mile driving tour starts near the Arkansas River and leads past levees, lakes, marshes, farmlands, and forests.
5. Petit Jean State Park
Farther east on Rte. 154, pause for a visit at Petit Jean State Park, a mountaintop preserve that can be explored on a self-guiding auto tour. Among the sights to be seen are a pioneer cabin, panoramic overlooks, and Cedar Falls, where a stream makes a 94-foot plunge into Cedar Creek Canyon.