Nestled north of I-40 in the Ozark Mountains are two gems of the National Park Service: the Buffalo National River and Pea Ridge National Military Park. These northern Arkansas national parks could not be more different. One preserves one of the last undammed rivers in the Continental US. The other preserves one of the westernmost Civil War battlefields.
We found a lot of peace, quiet and relaxation at Buffalo NR, the perfect first stop after a busy school year. At Pea Ridge NMP, we learned a lot about an important Civil War battlefield often overshadowed by other events in the East.
While these sites are off the beaten path, they are not that far and can easily be done as a couple day detour no matter which direction you are heading.
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Updated February 2019
Getting to the Northern Arkansas National Parks
From Atlanta, it’s about a day’s drive but we still managed to take the time to hit two national parks sites in northeastern Mississippi on the way to Memphis: Tupelo National Battlefield and Brices Crossroads National Battlefield Site. There’s not much to either site, so we didn’t stay long.
We end up traveling I-40 through Arkansas fairly often. When heading west from Atlanta, we have found very few places along the Mississippi River we enjoy crossing. Indeed, most of the time, we are crossing in either Memphis or Vicksburg. We tend to avoid crossing at St. Louis at all costs just because of the traffic, both across the river and across I-70 in Missouri.
We had stayed in Clarksville (at the great Category 2 Hampton Inn right off the interstate) several times in the past but never visited the nearby sites. This time, we used the hotel for a comfy bed before heading off for a few days of tent camping.
It’s only a couple hours from Clarksville north to the river and it takes you through the Ozark Mountains, an unexpectedly scenic area.
Buffalo National River
The Buffalo National River is the nation’s first national river and preserves not just a free-flowing river but historic areas within.
We started out by driving through the Lost Valley before heading to Tyler Bend, where our campsite was located. We spent two relaxing nights camping along the river with no cell phone service. It was great.
At Tyler Bend, we were able to find a cool place in the river to just sit in the water and relax, though the current did push us a bit. We got out to hike past the Collier Homestead to a great vista overlooking the river.
We drove out to Buffalo Point, a bit further downriver, and hiked the Indian Rockhouse Trail, a 3.5 mile loop with some beautiful scenery, an interesting cave and a great overlook of the river.
We did make a point to eat at the restaurant at Buffalo Point, which was only mediocre.
If we had more time, we would have loved to do a float down the river but, in all, it was a relaxing and scenic couple of days.
Pro tip: Bring lots of serious bug spray. The ticks in this area are fierce. Between the Buffalo NR and Pea Ridge NMP, ticks tried to eat us alive.
Pea Ridge National Military Park
After breaking camp, we drove a couple of hours through the Ozarks of northern Arkansas to Pea Ridge NMP.
One odd tidbit about Arkansas: they describe the mountain roads as “crooked and steep.” Pretty sure that neither of us has seen that on a road sign before!
The Battle of Pea Ridge was fought around the Elkhorn Tavern. The tavern was located on the Telegraph Road and served as an important trading post and inn in the area.
The battle was relatively small when compared to other battles in the war. The Union victory here insured Missouri and northern Arkansas would remain part of the union. The battle itself is a study in how forgetting the fundamentals of war will get you killed.
Like most Civil War battlefields, there is nice loop road through the battlefield. The road takes you to all of the major sites of the battle. There are a couple of trails and we got out for a 2.5-mile hike from Elkhorn Tavern. It was a nice hike except for the ticks!
In all plan on spending a few hours at the battlefield. You can easily do this as a day trip from the Buffalo NR and it is not far from I-49 to the west.
Final Thoughts on Northern Arkansas National Parks
Unexpectedly, we really enjoyed the area and would gladly return. We’d love to spend some time floating down the Buffalo River, especially in the fall. The whole area is gorgeous, with plenty of relaxation to be found.
Pea Ridge NMP, like all Civil War battlefields, should be visited at least once. Everyone needs to see and feel what the men went through during that war.
These two sites easily make a great detour off I-40 to break up the monotony of long driving days.