Arkansas has been a place of cultural clashes for at least the last 200 years. Westward expansion, the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, civil rights – it’s intense. With that much history it’s no surprise that the state is packed to the brim with memorials and battlefields. If you think of Arkansas as a square divided by a diagonal line the northwestern half is rugged and mountainous, with winding roads and fields of cows in the valleys, while the southeastern half is flat and wet, containing many small towns surrounded by cropland. I don’t know if Arkansas just has better parks than other states or what but all the ones I went to were stunning, and by some miracle free of charge, so it doesn’t cost a thing to get out and experience the incredible beauty on display here. They don’t call it The Natural State for nothing, and I was super happy to be out in the woods again after so many months of dirt & rocks in Arizona.
On the very western edge of Arkansas, right on the border with Oklahoma, is the town of Fort Smith, once the very last outpost before you left the United States and entered the frontier. The infamous Trail of Tears passed this way heading out to Indian Territory. The fort itself once imprisoned the ruffians that made the West wild. Major clashes of the Civil War were fought nearby as the Confederates tried to make some headway on the border state of Missouri. It’s almost overwhelming trying to take it all in.
Fort Smith National Historic Site consists of a large park on the Arkansas River as well three buildings from the second incarnation of the fort: the gallows, the commissary, and the courthouse. The courthouse holds a very nice museum covering the long and varied history of the fort, the frontier, and the Trail of Tears. In those days this was the end of civilization, with Indian Territory just a few steps away.
Heading north on Scenic Byway US-71, I stopped at Devil’s Den State Park, a great place for hiking or swimming. Caves, boulders, cliffs, and waterfalls dot the forest. I never did figure out which one was the Devil’s den and which was the Devil’s ice box, or why people insist on giving these Satanic place names.
Just outside the small town of Fayetteville, where I wandered into a farmer’s market in the town square and spotted a local chef buying his produce for the day, is Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park. There’s not a lot left of the original landscape, but there is a nice museum and a walking path with buildings from that era. The interesting thing about Prairie Grove is the driving tour through town. Pick up a flyer or buy a CD at the visitor’s center for the information pertaining to each stop, and try not to ogle people’s front lawns too much. They’ll start to think you’re weird.
Stop at the Daisy Air Rifle Museum ($2) in Rogers for a quirky history lesson and more Red Ryder than you can handle. I had no idea the history of air rifles was such a long one, but they’ve got guns dating back a few hundred years. Some of the memorabilia is way hyper-masculine but I guess that’s their demographic. Confusingly incongruous with being called Daisy though.
Just a few miles shy of the Missouri border is Pea Ridge National Military Park, where the land has been maintained much as it was during the decisive Civil War battle that was fought here. The only remaining building is the Elkhorn Lodge, and even it is a rebuild from shortly after the end of the war. The driving tour supplemented with foot trails takes you through the battlefield, onto the ridge above it where soldiers hid from their enemies, and to a couple of memorials placed later by veterans from both sides of the conflict. As much interest as I have in historic battlefields, I struggle to really understand them. Some group from some place with a certain number fought with some other numbered group from a different place. Eventually one group left. Yay.
This part of Arkansas is incredible and it’s definitely a place I’d like to explore further in the future. It’s just too pretty. I can’t stand it.