October 25, 2009
A sunny Saturday in late October was ideal for a day trip to the Ozarks for some fall foliage. I recently purchased several hiking guides for Missouri and Arkansas and they agreed that some of the most spectacular vistas in the Ozarks are to be found on the rim of White Rock Mountain northeast of Fort Smith and Van Buren, Arkansas. So I was off!
After a yummy Eggbert’s Bartlesville breakfast I stopped by a gas station to air up the tires. They are worn out and I knew I’d be on remote gravel roads today, so I made sure to air up the spare tire as well. Then I shot down US 75 and the Muskogee Turnpike, then east on Interstate 40 to Van Buren, Arkansas. Just across the Arkansas River from Fort Smith, Van Buren is about 2/3 the size of Bartlesville. I drove to its historic downtown and ordered a salad and “Ultimate” grilled cheese sandwich at the Sisters Gourmet Bistro. By the time I was finished, my mouth was burning. Alas, too late did I realize that the Ultimate grilled cheese is served on jalapeno bread.
The big tourist attraction in downtown Van Buren is the excursion train of the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad which runs from Ft. Smith up to Springdale through the Boston Mountains, an extension of the Ozarks. After lunch I noticed one had pulled in, attracting a crowd waiting to board. The best train ride I’ve ever had was with my dad years ago aboard the narrow-gauge steam train between Durango and Silverton, Colorado with its spectacular scenery that reminds one of many an old western movie. While I doubt the Boston Mountains can compete, I’m certain that ride is far more scenic than what I saw the time I suffered on an excursion train from Bartlesville to Ocheleta.
20 miles farther east on Interstate 40 brings one to Arkansas 215, which winds north to Shores Lake. The reflections of the fall foliage in the water were quite nice, although that single snapshot cost me $3 since I dutifully paid the day use fee for the privilege of parking there for less than half an hour. I didn’t notice any day use fee signs farther up on White Rock Mountain – perhaps they take pity on you for having driven 10 miles on gravel and dirt roads to reach the rim.
The Forest Service reports White Rock Mountain is “2,260 feet above sea level and received its name from the appearance of the lichen on the sheer bluffs that look white from a distance.” The only worrisome spot on the road was toward the top where recent rains had made it a bit muddy, but even the worn-out tires on my Camry managed it easily. After 10 miles of rough roads I must say I was glad to see the sign saying I’d made it and I was even more glad to see the foliage looked promising.
The CCC built a two-mile long trail around the rim along with a lodge, three cabins, and four shelters. The most obvious is Sunset Shelter on the southwest corner of the rim, although I wasn’t going to stick around to enjoy the sunset from it. The shelter has a 270-degree view of the countryside below and a low wall featuring chiseled mileage markers to nearby towns. The autumn leaves accentuated the rolling hills and rocky outcroppings. You can walk right out onto the high prominent ledges and one shelter had a sign banning rappelling since six people have died trying it up there.
After exhausting the views from Sunset Shelter I took the trail north up the west side of the rim past the smaller West Shelter and then on around to the North Shelter‘s views to the east. The trail on the north rim was quite brushy due to a past fire but the southeast rim had impressive bluffs and a spring improved by the CCC. The south rim has short side trails leading up to the cabins and lodge while its South Shelter is quite picturesque up on its promontory.
At the southeast corner of the rim is a trail down the mountainside to reach the Ozark Highlands Trail, which runs 165 miles across northeast Arkansas. Part of that big trail is used to create a 13-mile loop trail between Shores Lake and the White Rock Mountain Rim Trail. I took that side trail down the side of the mountain a short ways and the climb back up was a hot one, even in late October. What a challenge that hike would be in mid-summer!
Four-wheelers zipped by me during my drive back down the mountain to Shores Lake. Choking on their dust and fumes, I decided day hiking is friendlier. By late afternoon I’d reached the Fort Smith Historic Site along the Arkansas River. I was too late to tour the visitor center, but I enjoyed a short walk along the Arkansas River and did get a snapshot of one old cannon aimed out across the river and saw a reconstruction of the gallows where Judge Parker’s sentences were carried out. During his tenure from 1875 to 1896, 79 men were hung there after being convicted in jury trials for committing rape or murder in western Arkansas and the Indian Territory.
My trip ended with dinner at the El Chico in Fort Smith and then a dash back to Bartlesville for some late-night photo editing and blogging.