From the heart of the Ozark Mountains to the Victorian springs of Hot Springs, Arkansas’ Scenic Byway 7 is often listed as one of the top 10 drives in North America. The route passes through the Ozark National Forest, up to Mount Magazine (the highest point in Arkansas) and down into the Ouachita Mountains, famous for its stunning fall foliage.
This road trip starts in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Why Eureka Springs? It’s not even on Highway 7!
1) Because Eureka Spring is awesome.
2) It’s a good starting point at the top of Arkansas that’s near larger cities like Springfield, Missouri, and Tulsa, Oklahoma. If you are driving down from Kansas City, it’s a four-hour drive to Eureka Springs. You can tour the town and start your weekend getaway. Is your starting point Little Rock, Arkansas? Reverse the directions and start in Hot Springs.
Tips Before You Hit the Road
- You will be heading up and down some steep hills so check your tire’s air pressure and make sure that they are perfectly inflated. Also, check that your brake and transmission fluids are filled.
- Speaking of mountains, watch your speed going downhill. Try not to ride your breaks and don’t go down any faster than you went up.
- Don’t hug the center line when driving around a curve. The mountain roads are narrower than the highways and some of these roads are simple two-lane roads. The Zig Zag mountains in Hot Springs are named that for a reason.
- Before heading out, check the local weather for road conditions or flash flood warnings.
- Higher elevations can lead to dehydration, thus leading to altitude sickness. Carry plenty of water for each person and keep hydrated.
- Don’t wear flip-flops, sandals, or other simple shoes. You never know when you might want to take a walk or a hike. Wear hiking boots, tennis shoes, or other durable shoes that cover your entire feet. During the rainy seasons, take proper rain gear.
How long? This depends on where you start and how much you like to hike, etc. From Kansas City, a straight drive is 7 hours down to Hot Springs, Arkansas. However, you do have to turn around to drive back. The best tip is to make it a three-day weekend to fully enjoy the quirky towns and beautiful scenic vistas.
Time of year? The drive is popular year-round. Late September into October is when the trees light up with different colors of orange, red, and gold. The summer months also make it a great place to cool down and find a watering hole (like the Long Pool Recreation Area). Be careful during the winter months as the higher elevations do get snow and ice, creating some treacherous driving conditions.
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Arkansas Scenic Highway 7 Itinerary
Start in Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Spend time exploring the hippy-dippy historic town of Eureka Springs. From there, take US-62 down to Harrison, Arkansas; it will take a little over an hour. From there, you’ll start your tour of Scenic Byway 7.
Eureka Springs is a popular getaway tucked in the Ozark Mountains with a variety of interesting shops that line historic downtown. Like walking through an old European village, Eureka has its own spirit with a mix of eccentricity and historic charm. It’s a town with plenty of hills, so enjoy the trolley that will take you where you wish to go without having to trek up and down steep inclines. The streets are also narrow and set up to remind you of a European village. The architecture is also beautiful, with some unique buildings that can take a good hour to two to explore. Multiple Victorian-style cottages and manors line the town. A quick tip: if you want to avoid the weekend crowds, try going earlier in the week.
After exploring, you’ll head east on US-62 toward Harrison, AR. If you have a few moments, head west for about 8 miles and visit Thorncrown Chapel, a wooden structure with 6,000 square of glass and 425 windows.
Harrison is known as the crossroads of the Ozarks. It historic downtown square is unique in that it has four retail corners surrounding a central historic Courthouse. Known simply as “the Square,” the district includes a 1911 Courthouse, restaurants, pharmacies, a museum, and several clothing stores. Most of the 54 historic buildings were built around the turn of the 20th century. Once you’re finished exploring Harrison, head south or take a brief detour to the Baker Prairie Natural Area [713-741 Goblin Dr, Harrison, AR 72601], a remnant of a once 5,000-acre tallgrass prairie with a number of species, animals, and plants.
Side Trip #1 — Mystic Caverns, 341 Caverns Dr, Harrison, AR 72601. Missouri may be known as the “Cave State,” but Arkansas has a few gems of its own. A short side-trip from Scenic Byway 7, Mystic Caverns showcases the caves that dot the Ozark Mountains with two large caves. The Mystic Cavern has a spectacular calcite formation called the “Pipe Organ,” that stands 30 feet tall and 12 feet thick. A formation resembling a huge crystal dome, helicities, shields, and spherical stalactites can also be found in the caves. Each cave tour takes about an hour, so if you want to explore these, reserve about two hours. Otherwise, keep driving south toward Ponca on Route 7, where you can view the Buffalo National River.
Etched by the National Buffalo River, the deep valley of Arkansas’ “Grand Canyon” blooms with wildflowers. The view from the Cliff House Inn provides superb vistas of red bluffs and the Boston Mountains. Beyond the mountains, the view gives way to the smoother plateaus in the north. The Cliff House Inn, located down 3 miles from the Canyon, is at 6 AR-7, Jasper, AR 72641. Stop for some lunch and enjoy the view of the canyon from their overlook. The nearby Round Top Mountain Trail is a 4-mile trail used for hiking, walking, nature trails, and birding.
As you head south toward Deer, Arkansas, you’ll enter the Ozark National Forest. This forest covers 1.2 million acres and is home to the tallest point in the state, Mount Magazine. The trees are dominated by species such as dogwood, maple, redbud, and serviceberry. In the fall, the fall foliage is amazing. The forest has over 230 miles of hiking trails, including the 165-mile-long Ozark Highlands Trail. The Ozark National Forest is also home to underground caverns such as Blanchard Springs Cavern. The forest contains twenty-five developed recreation areas, including the Alum Cove Natural Bridge Recreation Area. Walk across a natural, limestone bridge with a total span of 130 feet and 20 feet in width on average. Climb the craggy hillsides to find the imposing natural bridge that overlooks the magnolia and beech trees. The recreation area is west of AR-7 on Nfm 28 and then Country Road 184.
Side Trip #2 — Pedestal Rocks, AR-16, Witts Springs, AR 72686. This time head east of AR-7 to AR-16. Drive six miles to the Pedestal Rock Scenic Area. Pedestal Rocks hiking trail is a 2.2-mile trail located at the top of the Illinois Bayou River. While hiking the trail, you’ll pass by sandstone hillsides to view the large formations called pedestals. Cause by weathering, these pedestal rocks are large boulders upheld by smaller boulders. The nearby Kings Bluff trail is 1.7 miles long and takes you to a large bluff with a waterfall that flows over the edge.
Arkansas’ first roadside rest area, the Rotary Ann Roadside Rest Stop is a popular roadside viewing point with views of the jagged Ozark Mountains. It offers a spectacular view of the fall foliage. Rotary Ann Overlook is a quick stop on this Arkansas road trip, but it does have flush toilets, picnic tables, and a viewing deck.
Located at the base of the high bluffs that tower above Big Piney Creek, the Long Pool Recreation Area is a large natural pool and campground. Many of the area’s hiking trails cross this area around Big Piney, a national scenic and recreational river. The river is noted for its beautiful sandstone bluffs, waterfalls, still pools, and pine forests. Longpool Falls is a 44-foot-tall waterfall that can be reached by hiking from the Loop B camping area for a little under a mile. Restrooms with flush toilets and hot showers can also be found at the recreation area. Camping is available on a first come, first serve basis.
Mount Nemo State Park, which sits on top of the 1,350-foot Mount Nebo. Fourteen miles of hiking and biking trails will take you along the bluff to have views of the Arkansas River Valley below. Many of the park’s bridges, trails, rustic cabins, and pavilions were built by using native stones and logs. Hike or walk along the fourteen miles of trails that circle Mount Nebo. Sunrise and Sunset Points are well-known for their beautiful vistas. Also, if you enjoy hang gliding, go to the park’s visitor center. There are two places on the mountains that offer launch sites so that you can soar above the river valley.
Side Trip #3 — Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge Admin Building and Visitor Contact Station, Dardanelle, AR 72834. Located downstream from the city of Dardanelle along the Arkansas River, the Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge is a great place for watching both nesting and migrating birds any time of year. You can also take a self-guided auto tour around the refuge to view wildlife and their habitats. Two hiking trails can also be found within the refuge. Note: since GPS can be highly unreliable when going to the headquarters, from Dardanelle, take State Highway 7 South to State Highway 155 South and go about 4 miles to the refuge entrance. After you enter the refuge, the visitor center is about ½ mile down the road.
Side Trip #4. Petit Jean State Park, 1285 Petit Jean Mountain Rd, Morrilton, AR 72110. Looking for that dramatic waterfall to take the perfect photo? Petit Jean State Park is off the beaten path of AR-7, but it has Cedar Falls, where a stream plunges 95-foot to the river below. This stunning park is Arkansas’s first state park, and you can easily see why when you arrive. Hike up Petit Jean Mountain by following trails that go over canyons, along streams, and through the forests. Other formations include the Seven hollows, the Bear Cave, the Grotto, the Natural Bridge, and other rock formations.
As you continue down AR-7 towards Hot Springs, you’ll pass through 23-miles of the Ouachita National Forest. Covering 1.8 million acres, the forest offers hiking, camping, water recreation, and scenic driving (especially during the fall!). You can continue down Route-7 to Hot Springs, but a great side trip is to Lake Ouachita State Park. The lake is a good 40,000 acres and offers plenty of spots to stop and relax by the shore. You can also walk down Caddo Bend trail, stop for a snack at one the picnic tables, or visit Historic Three Sisters’ Springs, which is on the way to this stop. The park also offers nature talks and tours.
On the western side of Hot Springs Mountain, the flowing hot springs still flow year round. Visit the ornate bathhouses on Central Avenue (AR-7). Stay at the Buckstaff Hot Springs (509 Central Ave, Hot Springs, AR 71901) to try one of their hydrotherapy treatments. Buckstaff is on Bathhouse Row, which has eight bathhouses from the 19th and 20th century. Drive up to the observation tower at the crest of Hot Springs Mountain (401 Hot Springs Mountain Dr, Hot Springs, AR 71901) to take in the view of the dense forests and faraway mountains. Be careful as you drive up to the observatory, as you will be going up the Zig Zag Mountains, with hairpin curves and steep ascents. Also, if you enjoyed Thorncrown Chapel, check out the Anthony Chapel Complex, part of University of Arkansas’s Garven Woodland Gardens.
Arkansas’ highest point at 2,753 feet, Mount Magazine is an excellent place to end the tour. Relax at the lodge, eat at the Skycrest Restaurant, or take in the sweeping views of the Petit Jean River Valley and Blue Mountain Lake. Mount Magazine and Mount Nebo State Park are the only two parks that offer hang gliding launch areas. Trees consisting of maples, hickories, oaks, and short-leaf pines ensure that the fall foliage is striking with its fiery colors. Wildflowers blanket the forest floor, adding to the scenic view.
From Mountain Magazine, continue north on Highway 23 for a straight shot to Eureka Springs. Continue back to your destination from there. This path takes you back through the Ozark National Forest for a three-hour drive through the country-side. You can always take the path back up Scenic Byway 7 to Harrison and then back over, but this gives you a chance to see another section of Western Arkansas.
Finally, What to Pack?
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Ready to hit the road? Be sure to pack along some must needed items for your trip.
Road Trip Essentials - Cooler Weather
Looking for more ideas for an Arkansas road trip? View a List of Arkansas National and State Parks