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 is 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.
Unfortunately for me this isn’t really a hiking sort of park. There were a couple of short trails but it seemed like one of those places were you drive through, stopping at pull offs to see a few things. A few minutes there, a couple of pictures here, on to the next. I read in their guide later that “off the beaten path” hiking is apparently OK in some places, but I had seen so many signs telling me to stay on the paved paths that it just got confusing. Anyway I never really know what to do in these kinds of places. Like am I supposed to dive out of the car to examine every single one of the bazillion petrified logs that are laying all over the place? They’re interesting, but they’re not THAT interesting.
There were some things that I DID find really interesting, like the petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock and a handful of other pull offs.
The park is arranged as a 28 mile drive between the Painted Desert Visitor’s Center at the north end and the Rainbow Forest Museum at the south end. I started at the south end, but either way is fine.
I stayed about 20 miles away in Holbrook. It’s one of those desert towns with a profusion of Route 66 memorabilia and goofy dinosaur statues. (I loved it)
Route 66 was replace by I-40 long ago, but once upon a time it ran through where the park is now. The pavement is gone, but the telephone poles remain, and there’s even a rusting Studebaker to mark the spot.
Tombstone is an interesting place. An old mining town like the bazillion others in the Southwest, but this one is famous for the characters that once resided there and the crazy antics they got up to. Various Earp brothers, the O.K. Corral, the Bird Cage Theater, cowboys, outlaws, the place is chock full of history.
The day I was there the main roads were all closed to cars, I don’t know if they keep them like that all the time or only on weekends or what, but there’s lots of free parking within a couple of blocks so it’s easily walkable.
The Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park ($5) does a great job presenting the town. It’s a big place with lots of artifacts, photos, and information. There’s a whole section on the debate over what happened during the O.K. Corral shootout. Apparently it’s quite a thing.
One of the most famous buildings in town is the Bird Cage Theater ($10), so named because it held so many “soiled doves”. It’s the only original building left on Allen Street, the others having been rebuilt after burning to the ground in various fires over the years. I’d seen it on ghost hunting shows and it really is a neat place. Everything is original and exactly as it was left in 1889: the wallpaper, the curtain on the stage, the bullet holes below it from a drunk cowboy who wasn’t happy with the show, the gaming tables in the basement, and the private rooms where the prostitutes plied their trade.
The nearby Boothill Cemetery (free) holds a lot of the famous characters from Tombstone, and a lot of goofy grave markers. As I understood it only a few of these are original, but the recreations are historically accurate. Some of them really give you an idea of the social order of the era, like the one that just says “Two Chinese”. Many of the graves are simply marked “Unknown”.
Tombstone is easily reached by taking I-10 from Tuscon to Benson and then Highway 80 south to town. For a side trip on the way back, take Highway 82 through San Pedro Riparian National Conservation Area and stop at the ghost town of Fairbank. There’s not a lot there, a few tumbledown buildings, the train station, and the schoolhouse which now houses a nice museum (free) and gift shop. The Fairbank cemetery is located on a hilltop about a half mile down a side trail. Continue on 82 and I-10 is just a short drive back up Highway 90.
I actually camped a half hour away at the Benson KOA where I woke up to some new friends:
And that’s the end of the good things about the Benson KOA. Two nights I was there and the showers never got warmer than slightly above frigid. There’s a million places to stay around there though, including several right in the town of Tombstone.
Destination: Jerome, Arizona
There aren’t very many towns that do a decent job of straddling the line between touristy & genuine, but Jerome, Arizona is one of them with lots of hippie artists & plenty of unique shops displaying their wares. They call themselves the biggest ghost town in the country; I’d call it the most heavily populated ghost town in the country, but whatever.
Not far away down the mountain in Camp Verde in Montezuma Castle, a set of Sinagua ruins built into a natural opening in the side of a cliff overlooking Beaver Creek. Unfortunately the ruins themselves are closed off to visitors and can only be viewed from below, but it’s a beautiful walk along the cliff base with some nice interpretive panels discussing the history of the area & the people who lived there.