Visiting the Northern Arkansas National Parks

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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.

The Elkhorn Tavern at Pea Ridge National Military Park
The Elkhorn Tavern at Pea Ridge National Military Park

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. 

While there are a couple of trails at Brices Crossroads National Battlefield Site, there's not much more than what you can see here.
While there are a couple of trails at Brices Crossroads National Battlefield Site, there’s not much more than what you can see here.

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. 

There’s not much to the Tupelo National Battlefield… Just a small park in the midst of the town.

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.

Buffalo National River, one of the Northern Arkansas National Parks
Buffalo National River

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.

The Collier Homestead in the Buffalo National River
The Collier Homestead in the Buffalo National 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. 

Inside the Indian Rockhouse
Inside the Indian Rockhouse

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!

We loved the "Very Crooked and Steep" road signs.
We loved the “Very Crooked and Steep” road signs.

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. 

A cannon from the Battle of Pea Ridge with Elkhorn Tavern in the background
A cannon from the Battle of Pea Ridge with Elkhorn Tavern in the background

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.

Selfie at the Buffalo National River
Selfie at the Buffalo National River

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. 

If you’re looking to spend more time in Arkansas, check out our articles on A Weekend in Central Arkansas and Hot Springs National Park.

Travel Resources
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We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
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Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
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How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
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What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
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Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
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We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.

Between the Buffalo National River and Pea Ridge National Military Park, these northern Arkansas national parks make for a great detour off I-40.
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