An Autumn Adventure
Discover the area’s hidden gems
By Robby Edwards
Photos courtesy of of Casey Crocker, Kirk Jordan, Devil’s Den State Park, Katrina Asher, Jamie Bartlett, National Park Service, Tontitown Winery, Amber Patton, Mike Holloway, Jeanna Robinson and Wild Wilderness Drive-Through Safari.
We featured stories on the downtown areas of our region’s major cities this spring and summer. We completed our tour with a trip to Prairie Grove last month, but there are so many things to do within a short drive that we extended the series one more month. This is our “Fall in the Ozarks” issue, so let’s get out and explore.
Note: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, hours and operations may have been impacted. Please consult with each location before visiting.
If you have ever visited Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park, then you may think you have seen all there is to see in this tiny town west of Fayetteville. Located on U.S. Highway 62, it is widely known for its 1862 Civil War battle — as well as its boot-stomping, jaw-dropping square-dancing competitions at the annual Clothesline Fair. But there’s more to this “small town done right” than you may realize.
The Ozarks are a perfect place to enjoy the cooler weather and vibrant colors of fall.
Our spring and summer destination series included a “hidden gem” in our area’s major cities, but there are countless not-so-well-known attractions in Northwest Arkansas. In this final destination piece, we focus exclusively on hidden gems for your next autumn adventure.
Some are familiar, or are they?
Devil’s Den, one of the most intact Civilian Conservation Corps sites in the country, offers amazing rock formations and caverns, the rock dam across Lee Creek that forms Lake Devil, plus excellent options for hiking, backpacking, mountain biking throughout the Ozark National Forest.
Accommodations include 17 cabins, six camper cabins, 135 campsites, a group camp, pavilion, playground, store, meeting rooms and seasonally open café.
Trail options are Butterfield (strenuous; 15 miles), CCC Interpretive (easy; 0.25 miles), Devil’s Den Self-Guided (moderate; 1.5 miles), Fossil Flat (moderate; 3 to 5 miles), Lake (easy; 0.5 miles), Lee Creek (moderate; 1.25 miles), Woody Plant (easy; 0.25 miles) and Yellow Rock (moderate; 3 miles); plus Gorley King, Old Road and Vista Point, which are suggested for horseback only.
Lee Creek trail offers a wet-water hike, Butterfield trail provides a get-away-from-it-all trek, and Devil’s Den trail guides visitors along the geologic formations that gave the park its name.
Park interpreters offer programs year-round that are perfect for guided hikes, history and nature talks, demonstrations, games and evening programs at the park’s outdoor amphitheater or Visitor Center.
Hikers should register for a free permit at the Visitor Center before taking the Butterfield and other trails that lead deep into the forest.
Lincoln Lake is around 90 acres, but there’s more than water to this 400-acre city park. Rock climbing, hiking and mountain biking provide a backcountry experience, built and maintained primarily by volunteers over the last 15 years.
There are more than 50 rock climbing routes dispersed throughout the bluffs that run along the lake, with difficulties ranging from 5.7 to 5.13. These are great for sport and traditional climbers with easy access to top roping.
The mountain biking trail is one of the largest hand-built, single-track systems in the region. The trails run through the bluffs and rock formations as well as hardwood and pine forests. Bikers will pass through large bluff lines and go by many caves where Native Americans once dwelt. Be sure to stop and take in the beauty. If you are lucky, you may even spot an eagle or two.
The Spillway Loop (0.8 miles), Piney Loop (4 miles), Eagle View (4 miles) and Lake Loop (4.25) trails are also options for hikers. Piney Loop crosses the rock dam, Eagle View climbs to the overlook, and Lake Loop is difficult for both hikers and mountain bikers but is worth the trip if you want a challenging, yet equally rewarding, adventure.
As for the water, no gasoline engines are allowed; however canoes, kayaks and rowboats are encouraged. And anglers can try for bass, crappie, bream and catfish.
Pea Ridge National Military Park
Pea Ridge is the site of one of the largest Civil War battles west of the Mississippi River, where Confederate and Union forces clashed amid the woodlands, valleys and streams – resulting in 2,300 dead or wounded soldiers on both sides.
Pea Ridge’s Elkhorn Tavern is a two-story, wooden structure that served as an epicenter for the American Civil War battle, which was fought in March of 1862. A replica of the tavern was built in 1865 following the burning of the original building by bushwhackers and is now the centerpiece of the Pea Ridge National Military Park.
The park covers 4,300 acres and features historic sites such as restored Civil War battlefields, a stretch of the pre-war Telegraph Road that runs in front of the tavern, and a section of the Trail of Tears. Elkhorn Tavern is also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Check out the Visitor Center for a 28-minute film, a museum and bookstore, and guest restrooms. If history doesn’t get your attention, the park also includes trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding through both natural and historic areas.
Local grapes are used at the Tontitown Winery, which serves an array of wines in its Taldo House tasting room. The winery offers wine in flights and by the glass, including:
Reds – Cabernet Sauvignon, Chambourcin, Italian Red, Ives Noir, Red Muscadine and Concord
Whites – Chardonnay, White Muscadine, Niagara and White Zinfandel
Ports – Rock House Red, Rock House White and Amico Della Nonna
The Ranalli Family has been growing grapes and making wine since 1923. Heather Ranalli-Peachee is a fourth-generation winemaker, and she and her husband will celebrate the winery’s 10-year anniversary in October.
To learn more about grape growing and the winemakers who founded this local winery, be sure to visit the winery’s History Room during your next visit.
The winery has a covered patio and indoor seating options. Local craft beer and hard cider are available in addition to wine, along with hearty snacks such as meat and cheese trays, chicken salad sandwiches, Italian cheese bread and desserts like the newly added grape ice cream, which is made on-site.
White Rock Mountain Recreation Area
The journey to White Rock Mountain, east of Winslow, is a huge part of the adventure. When you arrive, get ready for some of Arkansas’ best views, hiking trails, biking routes, whitewater kayaking, waterfalls and other seasonal activities.
This little-known gem is 2,309 feet above sea level and was built in the early 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The surrounding facilities feature three handcrafted cabins and a lodge with stone fireplaces, original handcrafted wood furniture, new furnishings and stone patios overlooking the Ozark National Forest. There’s a primitive campground with nine sites and a new general store with hot chocolate, pizza, t-shirts, camping supplies and more.
Hiking trails include White Rock Rim (easy, 1.8 miles), which circles the mountain and boasts incredible views; White Rock/Shores Lake Loop (moderate to difficult, 17.5 miles) with its scenic views and seasonal waterfalls; and the Ozark Highlands (196 miles), regarded as very scenic and easily accessible from White Rock.
Shores Lake, a few miles away, offers fishing, swimming and non-motorized boating. The scenic Mulberry River can be wild in the spring, but perfect for floating in summer.
Gravel roads and rugged multiuse trails throughout the forest give mountain bikers an off-road thrill with its creeks and scenic overlooks.
If that’s not enough, Devil’s Canyon and Fern Gully are just 20 minutes south, where guests can be guided to nearby secluded waterfalls and natural wonders by facility hosts. Visitors should register at the Office/General Store. There’s a $3 day-use fee and a $5 overnight parking fee. No shuttles or rides are provided.
Wild Wilderness Drive-Through Safari
How about an animal adventure from inside your vehicle? The wilderness safari in Gentry earned a Certificate of Excellence from Tripadvisor in 2018 and was rated the fourth best drive-through animal safari in the country by USA Today in 2014.
Covering 400 acres, it provides a natural environment for animals. During the four-mile drive, visitors can expect to see zebras, camels, wildebeest, antelope, llamas, warthogs, lions, tigers, hippo, rhino and ostriches, just to name a few. There are more than 50 different species on-site; plus, the safari’s front drive also includes rotating exhibits with animals such as giraffes, monkeys, lemurs, kangaroos, peacocks, parrots and others.
The safari is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. seven days a week. Admission is $15 for ages 13 and up, and $10 for ages 3-12, with two and under admitted free.