Road Trip: The Arkansas Ozarks

roadtrip_app_arkansas_ozarkshidden, valley, arkansas, fall, color
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A hidden valley in Arkansas at the peak of fall color

Small-town America is being swallowed by suburban sprawl, but not in the Arkansas Ozarks. It's a land that has its priorities straight.

In the Arkansas Ozarks, every new place you come to seems to be the capital of something. Newton County is the state's elk capital; Mountain View is its folk-music capital. Even most non-capitals have a claim to fame. (See: Altus, Ark., "Home of the First Season of Fox'sThe Simple Life.") But don't make too much of all the big talk-one look and you can tell that these are tiny towns from another time. To my mind, however, it's the meandering roads between them that deserve all the acclaim. The mountains are crisscrossed with two-lane roads-most of which weren't paved until after World War II-that wind through oak forests to uncover sweeping views along ridges, and then dip into valleys along the Buffalo and White Rivers. Sleepy and slow, they force you to take your time getting from one town to the next, which is truly the point.

1) Little Rock to Jasper

I met my sister Maggie, who flew in from Savannah, Ga. We set out for lunch at one of Little Rock's famous hamburger joints, the Purple Cow. The burger was good, the milk shake better; the combination, in hindsight, was probably not the best way to start a long road trip.

Our first real stop was the town of Altus, capital of Arkansas wine country. You probably didn't know that Arkansas has a wine country. Neither did I. About 115 miles from Little Rock-and not en route to our evening's destination-Altus required a little detour. But I thought it was worth it, since the town has four of the state's five wineries. (A majority of counties in Arkansas, I was told, are Baptist-and therefore dry.)

To my delight, I was informed by a welcome to altus sign that this was also "Home of The Simple Life," the Fox reality show featuring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. There's the Sonic where the girls "worked"! There's the bar where Nicole poured bleach on the pool table! And yet Paris and Nicole didn't leave too much wreckage in their wake. Altus is still a small, quiet town. We stopped in at the visitors center on Main Street to pick up pamphlets about the wineries, half of which are a short drive up a mountain. My favorite was the first we saw, Post Familie Vineyards and Winery, which is run by the 12 Post children. A fellow named Zack (not a Post) poured us reds, ros}s, and a grape juice. The wine was just OK, but the place was wonderfully unfussy. I particularly liked the Altus Grape Juice.

Leaving Altus, we entered the Ozark National Forest, heading toward Jasper. Still recovering from our earlier burgers, we got snow cones at the Ozone Burger Barn. Up to this point, the drive hadn't revealed much more than oak trees and the occasional farm, and I was a little worried that we might get bored. (The Paris-and-Nicole rush passed quickly.) At that moment, however, I heard a rumbling sound in the distance, and a spunky 60-something couple pulled up on a pair of four-wheelers. In a matter of minutes, they'd peeled off their goggles, downed a couple of Cokes, and hopped back on their ATVs. As the duo rumbled away in a cloud of kicked-up dust, I was transfixed.

The best part of the day's drive was the last 15 miles south of Jasper on Highway 7, called Scenic 7. Essentially, the road to Jasper had been a gradual climb. We finally got an unobstructed view of the valleys off the side of the ridge we'd been ascending, known as the Grand Canyon of the Ozarks.

There isn't much more to the town of Jasper than an ice cream parlor, a Christian bookstore, and a little shop selling rocks and minerals. But Newton County, of which Jasper is a part, bills itself as the Elk Capital of Arkansas. In 1981, to encourage tourism, officials trucked in 112 elk from Colorado. The herd has grown to 550, and they roam free all over the area. Which is not to say that we saw any. The Ozark Caf}, a '50s-style diner, was still open when we got there just before 8 p.m. (Everything closes early in these parts.) Black-and-white photos of early settlers covered the walls. Maggie and I both had the fried catfish special, and then we split a piece of peach cobbler with ice cream. We found a nice room down the road from the town square at the Arkansas House Bed & Breakfast. The place reminded me of my grandparents' house: soft colors, floral wallpaper, and old, wooden bed frames.

2) Jasper to Eureka Springs

Our B&B offered free breakfast at the Boardwalk, a restaurant next door. We loaded up on biscuits and gravy, sausage, bacon, and hash browns. Then we set out to walk it off. Up the street, Emma's Museum of Junk was one of the better junk shops/thrift stores we visited. Maggie bought two old scarves for a dollar apiece. There wasn't much else to do in town, so we took a half-hour side trip down the mountain toward Boxley to hike the Lost Valley Trail.

The trail is a gentle climb along a riverbed leading to a deep cave. I was feeling adventurous, so I decided to try spelunking. To get more than 20 feet in, you need a good flashlight or headlamp. I borrowed a small one from a couple we met on the trail, but the cave still got very dark-quickly. At the back, it narrowed to a twisting, single-file passageway that led to a long, low, dripping room. I shimmied around, crouched under a ledge, and then turned back. A sign at the bottom of the trail explained that a little farther in there's a high-ceilinged cavern; during the wet springtime, it's the source of an underground waterfall.

After hiking down the trail, Maggie and I returned to Jasper, buying groceries, lures, and weekend fishing licenses at Bob's A.G. Supermarket and Do-It-Best. The Buffalo River is known for manageable water, great smallmouth bass fishing, and dramatic limestone bluffs above the shores. Both Maggie and I love to canoe and fish, and we planned to do a long stretch of the river, camping out overnight. (In preparation, we'd brought our own fishing rods, sleeping bags, and a tent.) We stopped at Dillard's (now closed), an outfitter where we rented canoes, life jackets, and paddles for $40, and left our car out back. A fellow named Bobby drove us to the river, and showed us on a map where he'd pick us up.

The Buffalo was slow, so we admired the bluffs. We caught a couple of small fish (which we threw back), and the day was pleasant enough. But the water was so low that we had to keep getting out to push the canoe over shoals. By the halfway point, we were ready to bail.

We happened to arrive in Eureka Springs at exactly the same time as a classic-car convention. The town's more affordable spots up the hill-like the Stonegate-tend to fill up early. Book ahead if you're planning to get in late.

3) Eureka Springs to Mountain View

Sunday morning I drove over to see the site of the Great Passion Play, a reenactment of Christ's last days. Performances take place five days a week from late spring through early fall in an outdoor amphitheater, located on a hill overlooking town. The full-blown affair sounded like more religion than I usually enjoy on vacation, so I checked out the site at 8 a.m., when it was sure to be deserted. A 67-foot-tall concrete Jesus was planted near the amphitheater, and soft organ music floated out from speakers on nearby pine trees.

The historic section of Eureka Springs is one of Arkansas' biggest tourist destinations. The town used to be known for the healing power of its springs; there's still a quaint, 19th-century feel here.

A bus built to look like an old-fashioned trolley runs a loop through the historic part of town. It's a quick way to see what's worth coming back to on foot. First we navigated the steep, winding roads through the busy town center, which felt like a well-behaved Bourbon Street. Then, the trolley began to climb a hill through the leafy neighborhoods where the locals live.

Twenty minutes later, we got off and walked up to the Palace Hotel and Bathhouse, Eureka Springs' only remaining baths. The best deal here is the eucalyptus steam and the clay mask treatment ($12 each), recommended as a pair. For the steam, I sat inside a wooden box that enclosed everything but my head, which poked out the top. I felt like a prisoner in a medieval torture chamber. The experience was anything but painful, however; it was a refreshing half hour.

The only thing left to do in Eureka Springs was walk around and eat. By this point, we were tired of southern food, so we went to New Delhi, an Indian restaurant run by Bill Sarad, a Mumbai native. We split a meal of lentils, vegetarian meatballs, and basmati rice.

We got into Mountain View around 8:30 p.m. The town is Arkansas's Capital of Folk Music, and this time the label fit. We saw several groups playing bluegrass in the town square. People were casually strolling around with instruments, moving from one ensemble to the next. Most of the instruments were stringed-guitars, banjos, mandolins-and the voices were flat and high. The entire town seemed to be out enjoying the festivities.

The only place still open for dinner was Kin Folks Bar-B-Q, a tiny building at the edge of the square, and that's where I ate my first Frito pie. It came in a French-fry tray, with three layers: Fritos on the bottom, chili in the middle, cheddar and onions on top. I still can't get over the incredible, disgusting genius of this idea. Plus, it happened to be quite tasty.

4) Mountain View to Little Rock

After my success with Frito pie, I was feeling lucky, so I made one final southern-food stop in Greenbriar, at Nelson's Wagon Wheel Restaurant. The sign had fallen down outside, the place was shabby, and the clientele was intimidatingly local. But the chocolate pie was a towering wonder of buttery greatness. It was one of the best-and biggest-slices I've ever had. I can see it now: Greenbriar, Arkansas's Capital of Chocolate Pie.

Finding your way

Both Maggie and I flew in and out of Little Rock, the airport with the most affordable flights. The best time for this trip is in spring, when the rivers run high and the caves are wet.

1. Little Rock to Jasper via Altus, 205 miles

For the direct route, take I-40 west from Little Rock to Russellville. Then catch Scenic 7 north to Jasper. That trip is 142 miles and should take about 2 hours and 45 minutes. If you want to see Altus and the wine country, which is 115 miles from Little Rock and adds another hour and a half, take I-40 west past Russellville to exit 41. To get up to Jasper, backtrack a little on 40 east, and then get on 64 east for three miles to 21 north. After about 30 miles on 21, you meet 16 east and then Scenic 7 north to Jasper.

2. Jasper to Eureka Springs via Yellville, 135 miles

Here's the prettiest way to get to Eureka Springs: 74 west to Boxley, then 21 north to Berryville, and then 62 west to Eureka Springs. If you want to go canoeing out of Yellville, that trip is about 62 miles and takes an hour and a half. From Jasper, go north on 7, east on 62/412, and south on 14 to Dillard's. Yellville to Eureka Springs is a straight shot west on 62.

3. Eureka Springs to Mountain View, 140 miles

Take 62 east to Mountain Home, then 5 south toward Mountain View. If you happened to miss the scenic stretch on 21 and 74, however, take 62 east to 21 south to Boxley. From there, take 74 back through Jasper to Hasty, where you'll meet 123 north, then 65 south, and then 66 east. One warning: On the map, 74 may look as if it connects to 65, but the road dead-ends after Mount Judea. Don't miss the connection from 74 to 123, which leads to 65.

4. Mountain View to Little Rock, 105 miles

Take 9 south to Clinton, and then 65 south. Follow that to Conway, and I-40. Signs will lead to the airport.

Day one

Lodging

  • The Arkansas House B&BHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-5900, thearkhouse.com, from $49

Food

  • The Purple Cow8026 Cantrell Rd., Little Rock, 501/221-3555, burger $4.75
  • Ozone Burger BarnHwy. 21, Ozone, 479/292-1392
  • Ozark CafeHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-2976, catfish $6
  • Post Familie Vineyards1700 St. Mary's Mtn. Rd., Altus, 479/468-2741

Day two

Lodging

  • Stonegate 2106 E. Van Buren, Eureka Springs, 479/253-8800, from $39
  • Boardwalk CafeHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-5900

Attractions

Shopping

  • Emma's Museum of JunkHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-5865
  • Bob's A.G. Supermarket and Do-It-BestHwy. 7, Jasper, 870/446-5164, fishing license $11

Day three

Lodging

  • Red Bud Inn428 Sylamore Ave., Mountain View, 870/269-4375, from $40

Food

  • New Delhi2 N. Main St., Eureka Springs, 479/253-2525, buffet $8
  • Kin Folks Bar-B-Q123 Washington St., Mountain View, 870/269-9188
  • The Great Passion Play935 Passion Play Rd., Eureka Springs, 800/882-7529, greatpassionplay.com, $23.25, kids $10
  • Historic trolley ride137A W. Van Buren, Eureka Springs, 479/253-9572, tickets $2

Day four

Food

  • Nelson's Wagon WheelHwy. 65, Greenbriar, 501/679-5009, chocolate pie $1.75
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