By Jan Badovinac
Whenever our out-of-state friends or family members prepare for their first visit to Arkansas, there’s usually a fair amount of good-natured ribbing about Ozark stereotypes. However, as I sit barefoot on the old couch in my front yard, alternating between puffs on my corncob pipe and swigs of moonshine (kidding!) their snarky words don’t bother me one bit. I know that with a single day trip to a trifecta of locations that showcase the Natural State in all its beauty, they will go back home with a much different perspective.
I like to start off the tour by heading down Scenic 7 South toward Jasper. It is one of the best driving routes on which to wow first-time visitors with typical Arkansas splendor, and leads you to the perfect spot for breakfast: The Cliff House Inn. A wall of windows in the dining room and a spacious balcony outside overlooks what is referred to as the “Arkansas Grand Canyon.” While it is just a mere fraction of the depth and breadth of its namesake, it is no less beautiful. In the summer, the Cliff House owners line the balcony with colorful flowers and nectar feeders, ensuring that diners are treated to the constant flitting and zooming of hummingbirds. As your guests “ooh” and “ahh” over the scenery, it’s okay to feel just a little smug as they start eating not only their breakfast, but also their words.
With bellies full of breakfast vittles, we continue the tour by heading south toward Deer and the trailhead to Alum Cove. This beautiful little spot is the home of the official Natural Bridge, a plethora of other beautiful rock formations and caves perfect for climbing and exploring, and, during the wet season, a pretty little creek. At 130 feet long and 20 feet wide, the Natural Bridge is the remnant of what was once a quartz sandstone cave. The trail goes across the top of this bridge, then a spur off to the left allows you to explore underneath. Further down the trail is a bluff line on which to wear out any visiting youngsters, as they will not be able to resist climbing in, on, and around all the formations carved into the sandstone at the foot of the bluff.
The rest of the trail (a little over a mile round trip) is a wonderful representation of beautiful Arkansas flora, with a great variety of wildflowers and trees. This short little hike is packed with so many cool and varied things to see, and while your visitors do not need to be in peak physical shape to navigate it, it is moderately hilly in parts.
The third and final location is one of my favorite spots in all of Arkansas: Sam’s Throne off Highway 123 near Mount Judea. (Legend has it that a man named Sam Davis used the tops of the bluffs at this location in the early 1800s as his pulpit for preaching, hence the name.) The trailhead starts at a cul-de-sac at the back of the entrance road. Take the first opening to the left in the wood rail fence, hike down the trail for just a bit (a fairly steady decline), and you and your guests will be rewarded with one of the most stunning views in the state. Sam’s Throne is a mecca for rock-climbers from all over the nation, but you don’t need to be a climber to enjoy it. All you need is a pair of eyeballs and a modicum of caution. As you may well be able to tell by the accompanying photographs, it’s a long way down from the top of the Throne. At only a mile round trip, this also is not a long trail, but since our goal is to impress our visitors—not kill them—it perfectly suits our purpose as long as everyone watches their step.
For a little bit of added flair, you can give your guests a thrill by turning left as you leave Sam’s and introduce them to a cool series of hairpin turns as you head back down the mountain and to the north through Mount Judea. Provided they aren’t the motion-sickness kind of guests, they will finish out the day with yet another scenic reason to proclaim Arkansas as the most unexpectedly beautiful state they’ve ever visited. But if they still insist on making fun of Ozark stereotypes, just tell them to keep their eyes open for any roadkill on the way home because you’re in charge of bringing the main dish to Cousin Cletus’s hoe down the next day. They’ll be gone by morning, guaranteed. M! April/May 2014