November 3, 2012
Last weekend I stayed near home, despite the inviting fall weather, needing some recovery time after my somewhat exhausting Fall Break. But this weekend I knew I had to hit the trails to enjoy some fall color, so I drove three hours southeast to hike 11 miles at the Pea Ridge National Military Park in northwest Arkansas. I’m not a fan of Civil War battlefields, but here’s a synopsis of the action there 150 years ago:
Brig. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis’s 10,500 Federals had driven the pro-Confederate Missouri State Guard, led by Maj. Gen. Sterling Price, south into Arkansas and had dug in above Little Sugar Creek a mile southwest of the later battlefield. Price’s force was combined with Brig. Gen. Ben McCulloch’s Confederates into a force of 16,000 led by Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn. On March 7, 1862 Van Dorn swung north behind the Federal line, which wheeled about to fight across the fields and woods just south of Elkhorn Mountain on the Pea Ridge Plateau.
Van Dorn split his force in two. The west arm, led by McCulloch, came under fire near the hamlet Leetown and McCulloch was killed and his men scattered. To the east, Van Dorn and Price pushed the Federals back until the Rebels held Elkhorn Tavern and Telegraph and Huntsville Roads. But on March 8 Curtis’s two-hour artillery barrage crippled the Confederate line and there was a concerted infantry attack. Running low on ammunition, Van Dorn withdrew eastward along the Huntsville Road.
The battle saved Missouri for the Union and was the only major battle in which Indian troops participated, consisting of about 1,000 Cherokees who routed two companies of Union cavalry but were forced to take cover in the woods by Union cannon fire and then held in reserve for the rest of the battle.
I arrived at 11 a.m. and paid the $5 entry fee at the visitor center and, leaving my car parked there, set off on foot to make a large clockwise loop around the military park. There is a 7-mile loop road, mostly one-way, with hiking and horse trails paralleling much of it.
I began my walk along Telegraph Road. The eponymous wires had been strung three years before the Civil War battle along this road, which was built in 1838 and linked Springfield, Missouri and Fort Smith, Arkansas. It was inaugurated in sorrow as one of the major routes of the Trail of Tears: the forced removal of thousands of Cherokees and other American Indians from their homelands. The same road was part of the Butterfield Overland Stage line from 1857-1861. I walked a portion of that line a year ago in Devil’s Den.
I made this trip specifically in hope of autumn colors, and the trees along Telegraph Road did not disappoint. I left the road to find the bridle trail, which led beside the wide expanse of Pratt’s Field, demarcated by long lines of split rail fencing. Far across the field was the long low rise of Elkhorn Mountain, and to the side some trees were decked out for fall.
The trail led through the trees and when it turned to follow an old road northward, I turned south, heading for Leetown past more nice trees. The trail crossed the loop road and bridged Lee Creek, the only bridge I recall along my hike. There is nothing left of Leetown besides a cleared field.
I followed the hiking trail north as it crossed the loop road toward the Leetown Battlefield where the Confederacy’s western flank was broken with two generals killed and the ranking colonel captured. Some recumbent bicyclists passed along the asphalt road ahead of me. I was grateful for the parallel old dirt road the hiking trail followed, covered in soft leaves.
There were some lively signs, telling of how the soldiers fought all afternoon amid a hail of musket fire in Morgan’s Woods to the northeast after Union cannon forced the Indian troops to seek cover from the heavy fire.
Rather than follow the hiking trail eastward along the gravel road to Ford’s Field, I opted to head northwest to follow the much longer bridle trail route. I immediately reached a pond, grateful I was hiking rather than driving, since those trapped on the road had no idea such a pleasant spot for lunch was sheltered nearby.
Many fish swam up and gazed longingly at me as I enjoyed my typical QuikTrip turkey sandwich. A couple of riders greeted me as they passed by. The trail led northwest to the far corner of the park, where it turned east to follow the boundary up through the forest of Elkhorn Mountain before turning southeast.
This section of trail was what I’d been hoping for: a nice stroll through the autumn woods. Frequent gunfire in the distance made me glad I was secure in a no-hunting zone. I passed a tree with a high burl and then saw the first sign of fire.
At the visitor center I’d been told I could not hike the trails in the far eastern section of the park past Elkhorn Tavern due to prescribed burns. As I reached the eastern part of Elkhorn Mountain, I encountered a solitary smoldering log. Hmmm…it didn’t look like a campfire, so perhaps it was from a prescribed burn before the pyros moved eastward past the tavern?
The trees were on fire, but only with autumn reds, as I climbed up the mountain and then saw how the trail was the edge of an obviously recent prescribed burn. Logs were still smoldering in the distance. As I reached the high edge of the mountain, a tiny break in the trees gave a glimpse of forested hills beyond. The trees still sheltered me with their dying leaves.
Another pair of trail riders passed by and I walked under a high canopy of carotenoid leaves. A pile of huge rock dominoes shed from the nearby ridge prompted me to pose for a self-portrait. After more trees with high colors, I passed a felled burning log and then two hikers crossed the trail ahead. I had reached the turnoff for Elkhorn Tavern.
It was a short walk eastward to the only remaining Civil War structure in the park, although it actually is an 1865 reconstruction after bushwackers burned the original. The name came from elk horns, from an animal shot nearby, which adorned the roof. I noticed that the park keeps a set of horns up there to this day.
Tourists were lined up, listening to a history talk by costumed volunteers. Nearby was the Reunited Soldiery Monument, Angel Aloft, erected in 1889 by Union and Confederate veterans. I found its blocky form less than ideal.
I returned to the hiking trail, which climbed the ridge, up steps through a crack in the bluff. I walked along a smoky trail with the view opening up, revealing a vulture gliding across the fields beyond. I reached the east overlook, with a high view of Cox’s Field. (There is a west overlook, but it is not along a trail, and when I drove to it later, I found trees had obscured its views.)
The overlook was busy and I was glad to return to the quieter trail. It was burned over and hard to follow for a bit as I descended the ridge to the gravel Ford Road, which I followed eastward to the main loop road. Along the way I admired the leaves, long rail fences, and a cannon.
I reached the line where the Federals stretched across the fields as they drove toward Elkhorn Tavern. The overlook was visible up on the ridge. A last burst of vivid color bid me farewell as I returned to my car, a bit footsore from my 11-mile trek. The sun blazed my westward trek homeward, with me refreshed by the long autumn hike.