A Road Less Traveled: Arkansas Highway 21 (part 2)
This is the second installment in a series about Arkansas Highway 21, written by Arkansas Tourism Director Joe David Rice.
Three miles or so beyond Ozone is a handy public recreation area, complete with campsites, picnic tables, and “primitive” (i.e., non-flush) toilets, maintained by the Ozark National Forest. It’s also the site of Camp Ozone, a Civilian Conservation Corps compound dating from the early 1930s. The camp, one of 106 located in Arkansas, housed approximately 200 young, previously unemployed men who constructed roads, hung telephone lines, planted trees, and fought fires during the dark days of The Great Depression. Today, the rows of barracks are long gone, but several monuments commemorating the workers at Camp Ozone can be found under the towering pines.
The Ozark Highlands Trail, a 218-mile footpath roaming across seven northwest Arkansas counties, conveniently crosses Highway 21 at Camp Ozone. Anchored by Lake Fort Smith State Park on its western end, the trail passes through some of Arkansas’s most remote and scenic landscapes before ending far to the east at the Grinders Ferry access (US Highway 65) on the Buffalo National River.
Six miles up the road is the community of Salus which straddles the Johnson/Newton county line. South of the town is an abandoned fire lookout tower perched atop Devil’s Knob. The tower is locked up and fenced off, but there’s still a good view from its base. However, the rough and narrow route to the top (Johnson County Road 5598) isn’t recommended for city cars. For those curious about the demise of fire towers, advancing technology put them out of business. Today’s fire patrols are typically performed by airplane, rendering the lonely spotters and their lofty perches obsolete.
Another six miles north on 21 is the town of Fallsville. Arkansas Highway 16 merges from the west, next to a unique building (formerly a cannery) with interesting architectural details. As for Fallsville, the name is most likely due to its geography: steep slopes fall off to most every side of the community. The Big Piney Creek originates immediately below Fallsville to the east and the Mulberry River begins just to the south. Meanwhile, the Buffalo National River heads up north of town. The lone retail establishment seems to be open intermittently.
Highways 16 and 21 share pavement for a little over eight miles to Edwards Junction where 16 continues east and 21 turns sharply north. Pastoral settings and wonderful panoramic views are frequent along the way. Many visitors are surprised that the surrounding mountains are all virtually the same height, with no one peak standing above the others. That’s because the Ozarks are not a mountain range in the truest sense of the words, but represent a dissected plateau. Eons ago this land was actually the bed of a shallow sea. Following an uplifting process, the lands have been eroded for countless centuries – resulting in the deep valleys common along the route. Fossilized remains of sea shells and other sea creatures are regularly found in the area.
Adventurous travelers will want to check out The Glory Hole, a unique geological formation between Fallsville and Edwards Junction. What we have here is a special treat from Mother Nature. A small creek flowing south through the Ozark National Forest has carved a hole through a layer of solid rock near the edge of a bluff – and the water cascades into a shallow cave below. It’s a great photo op, especially in the spring when water roars through the cavity or on a frigid winter day when the falls are frozen.
While there’s no signage for The Glory Hole, it’s fairly easy to find. Set your odometer at Fallsville and travel approximately 6.2 miles northeast up Arkansas 21. There’s a small, graveled pull-out just off the highway on the right, big enough to hold a couple of cars. Park here and begin walking downhill, following an old logging trail. About a quarter of a mile into the hike, the primitive road forks. Bear to the right and continue down the trail crossing the creek as you go. The trail lands at the top of the bluff line and The Glory Hole is dead ahead. Beware of slippery conditions – especially during the wet months of spring – and make sure to keep a careful eye on any youngsters. Roundtrip, it’s about a two-mile hike – so dress appropriately and take water. And your camera!
Up next: Boxley, Whitaker Point and the Buffalo National River