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.
Back on Rte. 7, beside the Arkansas River, lies the town of Dardanelle. Historic homes, parks, and stately oaks (one of which had set down its roots years before Columbus and his expedition chanced upon the New World) add to the charm of this community.
7. Mt. Nebo State Park
On the way to popular Mt. Nebo State Park, wayside overlooks make for easy viewing along steep and sharply curving Rte. 155. Once at the 1,800-foot summit, hikers have their pick of fine trails and, after a day’s exploration, can enjoy swimming or camping.
For a chance to see humans fly like birds, stop at Sunrise Point. Hang gliders, harnessed in kitelike devices, run down the slopes and take off to sail on thermals (wind currents created by rising hot air).
8. Mt. Magazine
The southern border of the broad Arkansas River valley reaches its apex at Mt. Magazine. Its steep slopes, composed mostly of sandstone and shale, rise to an altitude of 2,753 feet, the highest point in the state.
To explore this lofty wilderness, where temperatures during the often hot summer months average about 10°F cooler than in the surrounding lowlands, take scenic Rte. 22 west along Lake Dardanelle, which was created by a dam on the Arkansas River. From the town of Paris, head south on Rte. 309 across the river valley and its fertile farmlands.
The drive then climbs the northern face of Mt. Magazine, where oaks, hickories, and maples grow among the more-numerous shortleaf pines. Adding to the beauty of the scene are the ferns and wildflowers that carpet the forest floor.
At the summit, you’ll find the new Mt. Magazine State Park visitor’s center that welcomes you to the park, provides information, and offers exhibits. A lodge will be completed on the site in 2006.
In stark contrast to its north face, the southern slopes of the mountain, having a drier climate, support patches of prickly-pear cactus, stunted and twisted oak trees, prairie grass, and occasionally in spring, the purple-petaled Ozark spiderwort.
These rich and varied wildlands harbor many animals—black bears and foxes, opossums and skunks, mockingbirds and whippoorwills, to name just a sampling. Of special note are the middle-toothed land snail—look closely for them in the leaf litter under trees—and the maple-leaved oak tree—two very rare species that survive on the slopes of Mt. Magazine.
9. Ozark National Forest
Once back on Rte. 7, the drive proceeds across the Arkansas River into Russellville, then continues up the northern flank of the Arkansas River valley. Pasturelands, horse farms, and craft and antique shops line the byway. Near the town of Dover, the Ozark Mountains begin to rise, and the drive soon enters Ozark National Forest.
This diverse treasure (it encompasses more than a million acres) contains mountain springs and streams, caves and waterfalls, odd rock formations, and trail-laced forests full of pines, shrubs, and colorful wildflowers.
10. Long Pool Recreation Area
One of the first places to park and enjoy Ozark National Forest, Long Pool is reached via Rtes. 1801 and 1804. Lapping at the base of the high bluffs that tower above the banks of Big Piney Creek, the pool is a refreshing swimming hole. After a dip, sample one of the many hiking trails that crisscross the hilly terrain.
11. Rotary Ann Overlook
Scenic Highway 7 slips through Moccasin Gap, climbs even higher into the Ozarks, and then twists and turns to the Rotary Ann Overlook. Back in the 1930s, the wives of Rotary Club members were instrumental in the development of this popular roadside viewing point. It comes complete with picnic facilities, interpretive signs, and far-reaching vistas of the jagged mountains—all things considered, it’s a delightful place to admire the forest and stretch the legs.
At the little community of Pelsor, Rte. 16 leads east for about four miles to Pedestal Rocks. A mile-long trail passes by wooded hollows and hillsides to these sand-stone formations. Natural forces—millions of years’ worth—have carved the rocks so that large boulders rest on pillarlike ones.
13. Alum Cove Natural Bridge Recreation Area
Another side trip, to the west along Rtes. 16 and 1206, traverses the slopes of Henderson Mountain to this recreation area. Here, among craggy hillsides, the combined actions of wind, water, and gravity have transformed a huge mass of sandstone into an imposing natural bridge. With a total span of about 130 feet, the bridge averages 20 feet in width.
A nature trail crosses the bridge, overlooking the magnolias and beech trees that flourish below. In spring, blossoming dogwoods—found throughout the region—lend a contrasting brightness to the scene, with their clouds of white flowers resembling snowflakes that refuse to land.
Habitats such as Alum Cove, where overhanging rocks form numerous nooks and crannies, sometimes provide ideal conditions for uncommon species. Botanists for that very reason find this area an exciting place, especially when they come upon French’s shooting star, an extremely rare wildflower that flourishes beneath just a few sandstone ledges.
14. Grand Canyon of the Ozarks
Although Rte. 7 soon departs from Ozark National Forest, the splendid scenery is far from ended, for Arkansas’s own “Grand Canyon” soon appears. The deep, wide valley, etched by the Buffalo River, teems with wildflowers. Overlooks, especially the one at the Cliff House, provide superb vantage points. The panorama includes red bluffs and the sharply defined Boston Mountains, which give way to smoother and smaller plateaus in the north.
15. Buffalo National River
In a steep descent some six miles in length, the highway slopes down to the town of Jasper and then leads on to the Buffalo National River. Congress declared the waterway the country’s first national river in 1972, ensuring that neither dams nor other obstacles would impede its flow or taint its purity.
The river courses for nearly 150 miles through the Ozarks, starting high in the forest and with an outlet where it flows into the White River. Swollen with water after rainstorms, the river occasionally overflows its banks. At other times the dry spells of late summer take their toll and it slows to a trickle.
Towering limestone bluffs jut up in many places from the river’s blue-green water. Where no cliffs rise, oak and hickory trees are the predominant cover. Their leaves and branches cast a patchwork of sun and shadow across the forest floor, where the fertile soil supports a colorful array of wildflowers.
Ponca, one of the best gateways to the national river and the encircling wilds, can be reached via Rte. 74 west. The town is a popular put-in point for canoers and kayakers, and several outfitters offer boats and tours. Just to the north, a trail leads to Hemmed-in-Hollow, where a veil of water falls 209 feet from the crest of a limestone bluff. To the south lies Lost Valley, a scenic woodland worth visiting.
16. Mystic Caverns
The subterranean wonders of the two caves at Mystic Caverns prove Arkansas’s beauty is even found underground. Stalactites hang from the ceiling, and stalagmites grow upwards from the cave floor. Formations resembling a giant pipe organ and a huge crystal dome are among the other sights that you’ll savor on guided tours here.
A lovely old town square greets visitors to Harrison, known as the crossroads of the Ozarks. Along its streets, you’ll find museums, craft shops, and inviting lodgings.
For a change of scenery, head for Baker Prairie, west of town. A remnant of a once-huge grassland, the prairie offers serenity and wide-open spaces in which to picnic and wander trails—brightened from March until October by a riot of wildflowers that colors the meadows in a rainbow of inviting colors.
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