Above: Floaters gliding through the waters of the Apple Lake Waterfowl Rest Area hoping for a look at the ivory-billed woodpecker.
Below: Village Creek State Park offers a state-of-the-art equestrian camp, along with beautiful horse trails.
In Title: The park offers nearly 100 campsites, as well as 10 cabins for those who prefer a little more comfort on their getaways. Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photos
The 7,000-acre park, the second-largest in the state, is nestled in a valley on the eastern side of the ridge. It is a paradise for hikers, birders, fishers and horse lovers, plus those who just want to take it easy in the great outdoors.
33 miles of trails
One of the best-preserved sections of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is part of the Military Road Trail at Village Creek State Park. Thousands of Creek (Muscogee), Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee who were forcibly relocated in the early 1800s traveled along what was then the main road from Memphis to Little Rock and is now part of the state park. The forested ridge provided shelter and wild game for food for the tribes that camped there during their long trek.
Hiking along this portion of the Trail of Tears, where the trail has been worn away by thousands of footsteps so that parts of it lie more than eight feet lower than the surrounding terrain, hits home in a gut-wrenching way that no textbook lesson can impart. You can’t help but be moved when you tread where so many other feet have trod on such a sorrow-filled journey.
That trail is part of a 33-mile trail system in the park, eight miles of which are exclusively for hiking and 25 miles of which are designated multi-use for hiking, cycling and horseback riding.
Hold your horses
Horseback riding is one of the major attractions at the park, which boasts a state-of-the-art equestrian camp. The horse camp includes 30 camping sites, three horse stables containing 66 stalls with water, electric and ceiling fans, horse-washing bays and a compost pit for manure. The horse trails are some of the most scenic within the park–and that’s saying something, as the entire park is beautiful. It’s strictly bring-your-own horse; there are no horse rentals within or near the park.
For those who prefer wheels to hooves, cyclists will find plenty of challenging routes. Casual cyclists can rent road bikes from the visitor center and mosey along the flatter routes.
Fishers will enjoy Lake Dunn and Lake Austell, as will swimmers and boaters. Fishing boats, electric motors, kayaks and pedal boats are available for rent for use within the park. You can borrow a rod and reel for free at the visitor center. However, you will need to purchase an Arkansas fishing license. The lakes are stocked with bass, bream, crappie and channel catfish.
Stargazing is amazing, because the park is far away from city lights. In May and October, the park organizes star parties in conjunction with the Memphis Astronomical Society.
Brilliant fall color is a major attraction along Crowley’s Ridge. The Village Creek staff organizes fall foliage walks, usually in late October or early November, when the colors peak. Likewise, in the spring, wildflower walks are in demand.
Close to home yet far away
Tara Gillanders, park interpreter since 2008, is a former high school teacher who loves doing the educational programs for the busloads of school children who visit the park.
“The ‘staycation’ trend has really helped us,” said Gillanders. About 75 percent of park visitors are from nearby Tennessee. “The Memphis area loves us.”
The park is 55 miles west of Memphis and 85 miles east of Little Rock. “When we get people from Arkansas here, they go ‘ahhh’ when they discover it’s not the flat delta,” Gillanders said.
The visitor center houses a theater, grocery store, gift shop and park offices. Alongside is the Discovery Room, which contains natural history exhibits.
Seeking the ivory-billed woodpecker
Birdwatchers will find a lot to love at Village Creek and nearby areas. The ivory-billed woodpecker, once believed to be extinct, was sighted in 2004 in the big woods of the Cache River, about an hour’s drive from Village Creek.
At the put-in area at the Apple Lake Waterfowl Rest Area near Brinkley, you’ll find signs with detailed comparisons between pileated and ivory-billed woodpeckers. For instance, the ivory-billed woodpecker has a white bill and white markings on its back that resemble a shield, while the pileated woodpecker’s feathers on its back are all black and it has a dark bill. Gliding through the wildfowl refuge in a kayak or canoe offers a completely different type of water experience than floating in a spring-fed Ozarks river. You’ll need your own boat because there are no rental places in the Brinkley area.
to eat and rest
The park’s three campgrounds offer 96 campsites with five bathhouses. For those who like to rough it more smoothly, there are 10 cabins with air-conditioning, heating, television, fireplaces, kitchens and screened-in porches.
The cabins and campsites have grills and picnic tables so you can cook, but it’s fun to explore the neighboring towns, too. When we pulled into Colt around noon on a weekday, Greg and Jim’s Grocery and Bar-B-Q was surrounded by pick-up trucks. That seemed like a good omen to us, and we followed our noses into the tiny grocery store/barbecue joint. Sitting in a battered vinyl booth, we dug into the delicious pork sandwiches and barbecue beans and understood why the place was filled with locals. Just across the road, Mike’s Family Restaurant also packs them in. In nearby Wynne, Colby’s and Kelley’s are two popular eateries, or you can stop at the supermarket to stock up with items to cook at the park.
Although you can stay plenty busy within the park, if the desire to roam strikes, there are plenty of options nearby.
Parkin Archeological State Park (870-755-2500), a National Historic Landmark, preserves a Native American site that dates from 1000 to 1550 AD. It is believed to be the village of Casqui, which was visited by Hernando de Soto in 1541.
Farther north is Crowley’s Ridge State Park (870-573-6751). At 291 acres, it is tiny compared to Village Creek, but it is an absolute gem of a park, with rustic structures nestled amid stately pines. The massive log pavilion and the swimming lake were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
The parks are on or near Crowley’s Ridge Parkway, a National Scenic Byway. Drive part of the byway to experience the ridge’s geological features. For an excellent overview, visit the Crowley’s Ridge Nature Center in Jonesboro (www.crowleysridge.org, 870-933-6787).
At all of these state parks, plus hundreds of other sites in the state, you can geocache, an activity that uses a GPS receiver and coordinates found online (www.geocaching.com) to seek a “treasure.” Geocaching has taken off like wildfire, and the parks department is leading the pack with its Parkcache program–a series of geocaches, one in each of the 52 state parks, containing clues to a 53rd cache hidden somewhere in the state.
But you don’t need a GPS to find the best treasure of all at Village Creek State Park. It’s hidden in plain sight–a peaceful and beautiful place to get away from it all.
Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a contributor from Gerald, Mo.