On April 5, 1994, Arkansas's first National Scenic Byway was dedicated at a ceremony in Russellville. Called the Scenic 7 Byway, AR 7 has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the nation's most scenic drives. Meandering from its origin at Bull Shoals Lake near Diamond City, through the Ozark Mountains to the spa city of Hot Springs and the pine forests of the Ouachitas, the attractions along the highway are as varied as the scenic views. The full byway runs 153 miles. The northern segment covered here runs 84 miles from Harrison south to Russellville. (Please see detailed Route Map)
A GORP Content Partner
by Don Kurz
The Scenic 7 National Scenic Byway - North - through the picturesque Boston Mountains
An 84-mile drive from Harrison south to Russellville through the picturesque Boston Mountains.
Buffalo National River, Pruitt River Access, Koen Interpretive Trail, Mystic Caverns, Scenic 7 Byway, Alum Cove Natural Bridge, Pedestal Rocks and Long Pool recreation areas, Buffalo River Trail, Ozark Highlands Trails, and Arkansas Grand Canyon; scenic views, fall colors, hiking, horseback riding, canoeing, camping, fishing, hunting, and swimming.
Southern Ozarks. The drive begins on Arkansas Highway 7 at Harrison.
Drive route numbers:
Arkansas Highways 7 and 16 and Forest Roads 1206, 1801, 1804, and 1838.
Ozark, Erbie, and Hasty offer camping on the Buffalo National River. Long Pool, Haw Creek Falls, Richland Creek, and Fairview recreation areas provide camping in the Ozark National Forest.
All services at Harrison, Jasper, and Russellville.
Hurricane Creek and Richland Creek wilderness areas, and Haw Creek Falls, Sam's Throne, Twin Falls, and Dismal Hollow recreation areas (in the Ozark National Forest); and Lost Valley, Steel Creek, Kyles Landing, and Tyler Bend Visitor Center (on the Buffalo National River).
Begin the drive on AR 7 on the south side of Harrison (Click her for a Map of the Drive.). The road travels across the Springfield Plateau from Harrison to Jasper. The broad valleys and low hills were once covered by prairie and grassy woodlands that have been converted to pastures, row crops, and forest. Thanks to the efforts of the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, a prairie remnant on the west side of Harrison is now protected. Future generations will be able to see and learn about what the region was once like.
Located about 8 miles south of Harrison, Mystic Caverns offers a commercial tour of two caves at one location. The upper level cavern was discovered in the 1850's and has been open since the 1920's. The lower level cavern, Crystal Dome, was discovered in 1968 over 100 years after the upper level cavern, yet their entrances are only 400 feet apart. The lower level cavern opened for tours in 1981.
The caves have been gradually carved out of limestone, which is the principle bedrock of the Springfield Plateau. Interesting features include calcium deposits of soda straws, flowstone, rimstone, an eight-story crystal dome, and large underground chambers. The tour is available beginning at 9 a.m., daily, from March 1 thru December 31.
Continuing on AR 7, you will notice the recently closed theme park called .S.A. Dogpatch, U.S.A. Conceived in 1967 by Harrison businessmen, the 825-acre tract was built around Al Capp's comic strip "Li'l Abner." Although Dogpatch was a popular attraction at one time, the meteoric rise of Branson as a major tourist stop undoubtedly took its toll on the theme park, together with unsuccessful business investments. On the west side of the highway, just past the entrance to Dogpatch, a historical marker commemorates the Arkansas marble that was taken from this site in 1836, which was used to help build the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.
After another 5 miles, you cross the Buffalo River. Just beyond the bridge, turn right and park at the Pruitt Ranger Station. Information is available on naturalist programs, places to hike and camp, and river floating opportunities. Walk the path that leads to the Buffalo River for a good view of the river with its pools, riffles, and gravel bars against a backdrop of a cedar-covered dolomite cliff. Notice the cedar trees with the old man's beard lichen hanging from the branches. From a distance, this lichen closely resembles Spanish moss, which is commonly found in the more warm and humid southern states.
The Pruitt Ranger Station picnic area is the trailhead for the Buffalo River Trail. The 25.5 mile one-way trail to Ponca Access traverses the scenic Buffalo National River hills and valleys. Several access points along the way allow for shorter hikes. Information on trail conditions and hiking opportunities, including shorter hikes, is available at the ranger station.
A shorter trail can be reached by heading north on AR 7, crossing over the Buffalo River, and turning right at the entrance to the Pruitt River Access. Follow the road to the parking lot where the 2.2 mile Mill Creek Trail begins. A relatively easy walk along Mill Creek valley leads past old homesites, a cemetery with headstones dating back to the 1860s, and opportunities to see wildlife along a bottomland hardwood forest. An interpretive map can be obtained either at the Pruit Ranger Station or the superintendent's office in Harrison.
Drive another 2.5 miles on AR 7 to the Erbie Access road, on the right. Follow the gravel road 0.3 mile and turn right, following the signs to the Koen Interpretive Trail. This trail is part of the Ozark National Forest's . :Experimental Forest ;Henry R. Koen Experimental Forest. The experimental forest was established in 1950 to develop scientific principles for forest management and to define and evaluate land management concerns in the Forest Service's Southern Region. . ;Henry R. Koen is known as "The Father of Forestry" in the Arkansas Ozarks. Once the forest supervisor of the Ozark National Forest, his active conservation career spanned four decades in the first half of this century. The Koen Interpretive Trail provides an opportunity to see and identify more than 40 native and non-native trees and shrubs planted along the 0.5-mile, wheelchair-accessible trail.
Return to AR 7 and proceed south to Jasper. Just before Jasper and on the right, the Visitor Information Center of the Buffalo Ranger Station, Ozark National Forest, can supply you with maps, books, and specific information on activities in the forest. Jasper lies in a cove at the base of the Boston Mountains escarpment to the south. Jasper is the county seat of Newton County, the only county in Arkansas that has never had a single mile of railroad track. Because of its rugged topography, Newton County supports a tremendous diversity of plants and animals. With more than half of its total area devoted to public lands, this mountainous area is renowned for being the home to more than 1,500 species of plants, 65 species of mammals, 79 species of amphibians and reptiles, 90 species of fish, and 190 species of birds.
The Jasper/Newton County Chamber of Commerce is very active in promoting and supporting festivals and events; write for their directory to help plan your trip. Also, the Newton County Resource Council sponsors the development of ecotourism as a means of improving the local economy. Guided tours include such activities as photography, birding, nature hikes, genealogy, and visits to historic sites. For more information on how to contact these organizations, consult the appendix.
Leave Jasper and begin a long, steady climb up Roundtop Mountain, which is the beginning of the Boston Mountains. A side trip on AR 374 offers great scenic views as the road descends Judea Mountain. This drive is especially rewarding in October, when the leaves turn their fall colors. Returning to AR 7, the next stop is Cliff House Inn and a view of the Arkansas Grand Canyon. A remarkably steep drop of more than six hundred feet and an expansive view of several miles across Big Creek valley give this site its reputation. The quaint restaurant is especially known for its desserts and biscuits.
Within a couple of miles, two scenic overlooks offer more views of Big Creek valley. The first pullout provides picnic tables and, in addition to a nice view, the second pullout shows interesting layering of sandstone and shale in the roadcut. This rock dates back to a time before the Ozark Mountains were uplifted, to the Pennsylvanian Period over 300 million years ago. This was when great coal-forming swamps flourished and reptiles began to appear. Dinosaurs would not evolve for another 70 million years.
Continue south, and after about 5 miles, notice the Ozark National Forest Scenic 7 Byway sign. The next 36.3 miles has been designated by the Forest Service as part of the national system of National Forest Scenic Byways.
The next stop is the Alum Cove Natural Bridge Recreation Area. Turn right onto AR 16, which is 14 miles south of Jasper. Proceed west for about a mile and turn right onto FR 1206 for 3 miles to the entrance road to the recreation area. Picnic tables and a restroom are provided, but no overnight camping is allowed. The 1.1-mile round-trip trail leads to the natural bridge and other points of interest along the bluff line, including a wet weather waterfall. The natural bridge is 130 feet long and 20 feet wide. The formation is actually a natural arch that was carved from the rock bluff when a fracture was gradually widened by the forces of wind, rain, and ice. Natural bridges are formed from the erosive force of water cutting through cracks in the rock's interior and usually have streams flowing through the opening.
The forest is rich with spring wildflowers growing under stately American beech trees spread out over the canopy. The rare umbrella magnolia can be observed along the trail, especially at the natural bridge. Look for whorls of large leaves up to eighteen inches long and eight inches wide clustered at the ends of branches. Wild azaleas bloom in mid-to-late April at about midslope on the trail.
Return to AR 7 and proceed 12 miles to the Fairview Recreation Area. Along with providing 11 campsites, the campground is the crossing for the Ozark Highlands Trail, rated one of the top ten trails in the United States. The 160-mile national recreation trail follows a scenic east-west route. A portion of the trail can be hiked for five miles west of here to the Hurricane Creek Wilderness Area, or for about 17 miles east through Richland Creek Wilderness Area to the Richland Creek Campground.
Continue on AR 7 to Pelsor and the intersection with AR 16 east. A side trip down AR 16 east for a little over 5 miles leads to FR 1838 and Pedestal Rocks Recreation Area. The newly established trails offer two loops to some unique sandstone bluff formations. Because there are bluffs, care should be taken with small children. The left trail loop passes scenic overlooks and large sandstone pedestals that stand apart from the bluff line. The right loop trail comes out on the top of Kings Bluff and offers a good view of a wet-weather waterfall nearly one hundred feet high. A total of 4.3 miles of trail are available if you hike both loops.
Back on AR 7, the road crosses Piney Creek Wildlife Management Area, home to deer, turkeys, black bears and ruffed grouse. The next pullout is the Rotary Ann Recreation Area, which offers a great view of Indian Creek valley and the surrounding mountains. Picnic tables and a restroom are provided.
Continuing on AR 7, the road passes Moccasin Gap Horse Trail, a series of loops totaling 28 miles through Forest Service land. A horse camp with seventeen graveled parking spurs, pit toilets, and well water for horses is also provided. A map and more information are available from the Bayou Ranger District.
Proceed 2 miles for a side trip to the Long Pool Recreation Area. Follow FR 1801 and 1804 to the recreation area on Big Piney Creek. Long Pool offers picnicking, a swimming beach, canoe access, restrooms, and nineteen campsites. Big Piney Creek received congressional designation in 1992 as a National Scenic River. Considered one of the most popular bait-fishing and swimming streams in Arkansas, the 67-mile Big Piney Creek National Scenic River is also a popular float stream. One of the more challenging streams in Arkansas, the paddler can experience rapids up to class III in difficulty. An interpretive sign at the river explains what to expect based on the current water level. (The recreation area can also be reached by following signs for 8 miles starting on AR 164.)
Return to AR 7 and begin the long descent out of the Boston Mountains of the Ozarks to the Arkansas River valley, which is considered a subsection of the Ouachita Mountains. After 10 miles, the road crosses the Illinois Bayou. "Bayou" is a deceptive name, since it is a whitewater stream for most of its length as it courses through the Boston Mountains. The stream becomes slow and silt-laden as it flattens out in the Arkansas Valley, eventually emptying into the backwaters of Lake Dardenelle.
(Click here for a Map of the Drive.)
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