Great River Road: Travel the Arkansas Delta Region along this National Scenic Byway
Want to turn back time? The Arkansas segment of the Great River Road National Scenic Byway is a great way to do just that and experience the rich natural and cultural heritage of the state’s eastern border.
Marked by green and white steamboat pilot’s wheel signs, the journey is part of a ten-state series of federal and state highways along both sides of the river.
From the ankle-deep headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, to the mighty giant that exhausts itself just below New Orleans, the ever-changing river has captivated travelers for centuries. It rarely shows itself throughout the Arkansas segment of the route, but its handiwork is evident in the natural landforms shaped by the river and the fertile soil that once nurtured only swamps, bayous and bottomland forests.
Today the region has some of the most productive agricultural land in the world, thanks to the river’s alluvial floodplain commonly known as the Delta. The stories along the Great River Road route, designated in 2002 as Arkansas’s second National Scenic Byway, make it a distinctive destination for visitors.
The Changing River
Starting at the Arkansas line near Blytheville in Mississippi County, you will begin to see massive gridworks of drainage ditches and expansive floodways, built to take advantage of the rich soil that otherwise would be under water much of the time. To further assist in keeping the river from reclaiming the land, complex levee systems--the tallest in the world--have been built along the entire lower Mississippi River, hiding it from view through most of the drive through Arkansas.
Changes in river channels over thousands of years have left oxbow lakes, bayous and wetlands. You can experience the largest oxbow lake in North America at Lake Chicot State Park at the southern end of Arkansas’s Great River Road. This lake was created when the Mississippi River cut a new path, shortening its journey to the Gulf.
Natural disasters also have shaped the region, including the 1811-12 earthquakes, which created Big Lake in Mississippi County and the Sunken Lands of Northeast Arkansas. Both areas are viewable from loops off the Great River Road. A Sunken Lands Cultural Roadway driving or biking tour begins at the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza.
From spring through fall, fields along the Great River Road are a changing canvas. Cotton, the "white gold" that has been the mainstay of the Delta, dots the entire 362-mile route. At Lakeport Plantation near Lake Village, you can get a sense of how cotton has impacted lives in the Delta.
Along with cotton, crops including soybeans, wheat, rice and corn occupy center stage. Arkansas leads the nation in rice production, and most of it is grown right along the Great River Road. Learn more about the Delta’s rice-growing region at the Museum of the Grand Prairie in Stuttgart.
Small Town Lifestyles
Modern farm practices have led to major changes in towns along the route. Gone is the day when the farmer took his crops to town, and the family made a day of it-- utilizing crop proceeds for shopping and socializing. Today many of these same towns are little more than ghost towns if they remain at all.
Vestiges of this way of life remain, however, and visitors still can stop in some of these small towns and find an old-fashioned soda fountain or a hardware store with a place for congregating around a pot-bellied stove. You can get a glimpse into earlier times at county museums, such as the Mississippi County Museum in Osceola or the Helena Museum of Phillips County.
It's Natural State
The St. Francis National Forest, with both upland forests and bottomland timber, is a good place to explore this relatively undisturbed area where the river meets Crowley’s Ridge. The Mississippi River State Park within the forest has visitor centers to explain what you are seeing and offers diverse recreational opportunities.
Further south along the route, cypress swamps present dramatic scenic vistas for visitors. Other areas not submerged for great lengths of time have extensive oak and hickory stands. The Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge, the largest remaining tract of bottomland hardwoods in the state, is part of this region, and areas within the refuge have been designated "Wetlands of International Importance."
The entire Great River Road region is home to an abundance of wildlife. Swamps provide habitat for beaver, muskrats, raccoon, mink, duck and geese, as well as alligators. Bottomland forests are home to deer, bear, squirrels, turkeys, and other animals. The route is located along the Mississippi Flyway, the largest in the country, making it a paradise for birdwatchers.
Evidence of human habitation in the area traversed by Arkansas’s Great River Road is documented to 12,000 years ago. The entire area is rich in archeological sites, with complex mound-building cultures. You can learn about some of these at the Hampson Archeological Museum State Park at Wilson and the Parkin Archeological State Park.
Just south of the town of Gillett is where Arkansas's recorded history literally began, with the first permanent European settlement in the lower Mississippi River Valley established in 1686. The Arkansas Post National Memorial at this site, once the capital of Arkansas territory, includes a visitor center, museum, and marked driving route.
War and Strife
Arkansas’s location on the Mississippi River made it a strategic location during the Civil War. Along the Great River Road, Civil War Helena abounds in history and historic sites, including museum exhibits, a replica of the Union Fort Curtis, Freedom Park telling the African American stories of the Civil War, four Union batteries, wayside interpretive panels, and a Confederate Cemetery.
The greatest loss of life on the river took place at the end of the Civil War, when released Union prisoners and others perished after the Sultana steamboat exploded just north of Memphis, on the Arkansas side. The Sultana Disaster Museum at Marion tells the story of the worst maritime disaster in American history.
Another dark chapter in American history occurred when Japanese Americans were placed in internment centers during World War II, with two of these camps in the Arkansas Delta. Wayside audio panels leading to the Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center Cemetery tell the story of this camp, while the WWII Japanese American Internment Museum at McGehee explores the history of both the Rohwer and Jerome camps.
The Arkansas Delta has contributed to musical traditions from folk and rockabilly to blues and jazz. You can learn about the blues at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena. The town also is host to the international King Biscuit Blues Festival, and other music festivals take place throughout the region.
Another mecca for Delta music from the late 1940s to early 1960s was KWEM Radio in West Memphis. The original site is marked as a stop along the Arkansas Delta Music Trail, while a replica of the station broadcasts from Arkansas State University Mid-South.
A side trip along the Sunken Lands loop of the Great River Road takes you to the Historic Dyess Colony: Johnny Cash Boyhood Home. Exhibits tell the story of this resettlement colony for impoverished farmers during the Great Depression, while the Cash home has been restored and furnished as it existed in the 1930s and 1940s. An annual Johnny Cash Heritage Festival focuses on regional music and culture.