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Sep/Oct 2011 Issue
We're Diggin' this Park

Arkansas’s first scenic byway, Highway 7,
is a first-class choice for a fall journey.
By Barbara Gibbs Ostmann

The Arkansas Ozarks are famous for fall foliage, and Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway sports what many aficionados consider the most spectacular colors of all. The flaming reds, oranges and yellows of the turning leaves make for an eye-popping drive.

elk

Above: Hundreds of elk live along the Buffalo National River, and travelers can exit Highway 7 near Jasper to find some prime viewing spots.

Below: The Highway 7 Bridge over the Buffalo National River at Pruitt. Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photos

bridge

The 290-mile byway runs almost the entire length of the state, from the Louisiana state line north to Harrison, not far from the Missouri border. Some argue about whether the section from Harrison to Russellville or from Dardanelle to Hot Springs is the most beautiful. The northern section, which encompasses the Ozark National Forest, has mixed hardwood forests (predominantly oak and hickory), and tends to be the winner for a fall foliage pilgrimage. The southern section that includes the Ouachita National Forest is heavy on pines, but any stretch of Highway 7 at any time of year is a memorable drive.

In the Arkansas Ozarks, fall color can start in late September and last until mid-November, although the peak usually occurs somewhere near the third week of October. The small trees and brush turn first, with sumac turning scarlet, sweet gums going yellow and black gums bright red. When the oaks and maples add their vibrant hues, the hills become fully ablaze with color.

A scenic drive in any season

In 1993, Highway 7 was designated the state’s first scenic byway. Parts of it are also a National Forest Scenic Byway, running through both the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests. The curvy route is consistently ranked among the top 10 most scenic drives in the country. Although you could drive the entire route in six to seven hours, you’ll want to take your time to stop and explore along the way.

Be prepared for highway warning signs indicating right angle and hairpin twists and turns at recommended speeds as low as 10 mph. Also be on the alert for motorcycle traffic.

Starting in Harrison

Begin in Harrison and head south. Harrison offers an attractive slice of Americana, with its downtown courthouse square on the National Register of Historic Places. Visit the Boone County Heritage Museum (open Monday–Friday) or enjoy a play or concert at the restored 1929 Lyric Theater. For a memorable night, stay in the magnificently restored 1929 Hotel Seville. Part of Choice Hotel International’s Ascend Collection of historical properties, the hotel also is pet friendly.

About eight miles south of Harrison, you’ll arrive at the popular show caves Mystic Caverns and the eight-story Crystal Dome Caverns. Commercial tours have been offered here since the mid-1920s.

At Pruitt, you can access the Buffalo National River, which is considered one of the finest free-flowing streams in the country. The Pruitt Ranger Station is about 10 miles south of Harrison.

Stop at the Hilary Jones Wildlife Museum and Elk Information Center located about a half-mile north of Jasper. There are dioramas, aquariums, a gift shop and a room full of free tourism information. There are about 500 elk along the Buffalo River corridor, and the center’s staff can point you to some prime viewing spots.

Jasper, the Newton County seat, comes next.

Make time for a stop at the legendary Ozark Café, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been a part of Highway 7 since 1909. Also, check out the beautiful stonework of the downtown Arkansas House inn and café that opened in 1934.

Your ears will begin to pop as you climb the mountains south of Jasper. There are several overlooks and roadside parks along the way. Don’t miss Cliff House Inn that’s perched on the side of the mountain six miles south of Jasper and offers sweeping vistas of Big Creek valley, which is called Arkansas’s Grand Canyon. Enjoy a meal or snack and soak up the view from the restaurant’s deck. The inn has five guest rooms. Through Oct. 31, the restaurant is open until 2:45 p.m. Sunday–Thursday and until 7:45 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Nov. 1 through the end of fall color viewing, the restaurant is open until 2:45 p.m. on weekdays.

If time and weather allow, take a hike to see the natural bridge at Alum Cove, the unusual formations at Pedestal Rocks or the bluff shelters and 1948 bomber crash site on Roundtop Trail. You can make a scenic loop through the Boxley Valley and see some of Arkansas’s restored elk herd.

The Southern Stretch

Leaving the mountains and driving down into the Arkansas River Valley, you’ll arrive in Russellville. Take a short detour off Highway 7 onto Main Street for a meal at the Old South, a landmark on E. Main Street that’s been serving biscuits and gravy, fried chicken and chicken-fried steak since 1947.

Not far from Russellville, a trio of state parks–Mount Nebo (Dardanelle), Mount Magazine (Paris) and Petit Jean (Morrilton)–offers memorable lodging and sightseeing opportunities that merit a detour. The Civilian Conservation Corps treasure at Petit Jean, Mather Lodge, is closed for renovations until spring 2012, but there are plenty of scenic stops in the park to enjoy.

Continuing the drive south through the Ouachita National Forest toward Hot Springs, there are hiking opportunities on the Ouachita National Recreation Trail. Note the smell of pines in the mountain air. Nimrod Lake is the state’s oldest created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The 3,550-acre lake has ample fishing for crappie, bream or white bass.

In Hot Springs, visit its eponymous national park with its famous Bathhouse Row and pamper yourself with a spa treatment, just as visitors did at the turn of the 20th century. Splurge on a night at The Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa before resuming the drive south toward El Dorado and the Louisiana state line.

You could easily spend a week exploring the many facets and side trips of Highway 7, or just spend a few hours enjoying the fall colors. Whether you opt for a short tank trip or an extended itinerary, Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway delivers the goods.

Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a contributor from Gerald, Mo., who grew up in northwest Arkansas, not far from Highway 7.

BEFORE YOU GO

Arkansas takes its fall foliage seriously. The state’s Department of Parks and Tourism will post fall color reports by 5 p.m. each Thursday, beginning on Sept. 22, at www.Arkansas.com; click on the Fall Color icon. Updates and general information about Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway are also available by calling (800) NATURAL (800-628-8725) or (501) 682-7777.

To visit Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.

Order free information about Arkansas through the Reader Service Card, found online at http://southern.ai-dsg.com.


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