The name "Scenic Highway 7" isn't quite enough to get me to drive to Arkansas. But seeing it described as one of the most scenic drives in America was too strong a lure for me to ignore. I swallowed the moniker hook, line, and sinker.
I would not have been so curious if I had not read the lofty claim in two different places: first in The Most Scenic Drives in America, a book published by Reader's Digest, and then again in a Rand McNally atlas. The fact that Hot Springs, Arkansas, is eight hours from Austin had me loading the car for a long weekend. I had to see this scenic highway.
I really started feeling like I was on vacation when the landscape east of Dallas changed to a thick forest of pine trees. When the interstate cuts through Texarkana, you know you're not in Texas any more.
By the time my wife, daughter, two dogs, and I rolled into Hot Springs, the setting sun was painting a rainbow of colors on the surface of Lake Hamilton. Evidently, it is not a good idea to show up in town without a hotel reservation, even on non-holiday weekends. Get information from the Hot Springs Visitor Center, 629 Central Ave., Hot Springs, Ark., 71902, 800/SPA-CITY, or http://www.hotsprings.org.
The coolest thing about Hot Springs is Bathhouse Row on Central Avenue (Ark.Hwy7). Native Americans were camping at the base of the mountain where 142-degree water bubbled out of the ground when Hernando de Soto visited the area in 1541. In 1832, four sections of land that surround the thermal springs became the first land in America to be preserved as a national resource. The national park now covers more than 4,800 acres.
The elegant Buckstaff Bathhouse is the only historic bathhouse still operating. The Fordyce Bathhouse has been turned into a visitor center and gives an interesting look into the resort era. Public fountains at either end of Bathhouse Row are used by residents to fill jugs with the pure spring water that makes an excellent pot of coffee. Bring plenty of jugs of your own to take home the perfect souvenir.
The second-best souvenir to take home is rocks. All kinds of rock, especially crystals. Arkansas is second only to Brazil in the quantity and quality of their crystals. Large chunks of the glass-like minerals and hundreds of other formations are relatively inexpensive.
Outside of Jessieville, about 12 miles north of Hot Springs, Scenic 7 finally began living up to its name. We stopped at the ranger station at the Ouachita (pronounced WASH-it-tah) National Forest, where they give free information to the adults and goodie bags to the kids. The Forest Service can be reached at 501/321-5202 or http://www.fs.fed.us/oonf/ouachita.htm.
The Ouachita National Forest is the South's oldest and largest national forest. Stretching 192 miles from central Arkansas into eastern Oklahoma, it covers more than 1.6 million acres. It also encompasses the Ouachita Mountains, which are oriented east and west and are the highest range between the Appalachians and Rockies. The river and lake in the forest are considered some of the best water recreation areas in this part of the country.
The road was finally becoming what I had come looking for -- 26 miles of steep, twisting country lane. Unfortunately, we couldn't see the forest for the trees. We were locked into a canyon of tall trees. Locals say this area is awash with autumn colors later in the year.
At Russellville, a small college town on the Arkansas River that reminded me of Austin 20 years ago, I was tempted to make my escape on I-40. We had covered only about half of Scenic 7.
About 10 miles north of the interstate we entered the Ozark National Forest and 75 miles of that "one of the most scenic highways in America" that we had read about. Scenic 7 became a steep and winding road punctuated by scenic overlooks. Breathtaking views of the mountains and forest greeted us around nearly every turn in the narrow road.
On the northern edge of the national forest we rounded a sharp bend and the world opened up to us as if we were flying. Below was the Grand Canyon of Arkansas, a deep, wide, forest-covered valley carved out by the Buffalo River. I felt like a giant looking down over rolling hills of broccoli.
The Cliff House Cafe, just south of Jasper, offers dining on the edge of the world. Jasper and its neighbor Ponca are gateways to the Buffalo National River, 150 miles of scenic waterway through the forest.
By the time we got to Harrison, the traditional end of Scenic 7, the day was beginning to drop below the horizon. Was the 159 miles of Scenic 7 one of the most beautiful drives in America? Mile for mile, no. Is Arkansas one of the most beautiful states in the Union? Mile for mile, yes. Is four days enough time to explore Scenic 7? Good heavens no, but I had to try.
Arkansas is full of things to do on a long weekend or a vacation, from canoeing to seeing a hillbilly stage show. For information and a free road map, call 800/NATURAL or go to http://www.arkansas.com.
Coming up this weekend ...
International Apple Festival in Medina offers the freshest apples in Texas, plus orchard tours, apple foods, and games, July 31. 830/589-7224.
Shakespeare Under the Stars at The EmilyAnn Theatre in Wimberley presents King Lear and Twelfth Night on alternating nights Monday-Saturday, Aug. 2-14. 512/847-6969 or http://www.emilyann.org.
Shakespeare at Winedale continues through Aug. 8 with performances Thursday-Sunday at 7:30pm with 2pm matinees on weekends. This year's plays done by UT English Department students are Macbeth, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and The Taming of the Shrew. 409/278-3530 or http://www.en.utexas.edu/depts/engl/special/winedale.html.
Coming up ...
Chilympiad is looking for celebrity judges for the Texas Men's State Chili Cookoff on Sep. 18 in San Marcos. Send your qualifications to Kim Dvorak, 4806 Enchanted Ln., Austin 78745 or http://www.chilympiad.org.
Dinner Theater at Tablerock's Goodnight Outdoor Theater in Salado tells the area's settlers' story, Aug. 7. 254/947-9205.
Day Trips, Vol.2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is now available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.
425th in a Series. Collect them all.