A Road Less Traveled: Arkansas Highway 21 (part 3)

Elk feed in Boxley Valley.
Elk feed in Boxley Valley.

This is the third installment in a series about Arkansas Highway 21, written by Arkansas Tourism Director Joe David Rice.

There’s no longer a sign marking Edwards Junction, but it’s the spot where Highway 21 requires a left-hand turn to the north while Arkansas 16 continues east. Highway 21 winds through the Ozark National Forest, makes a quick venture into Mossville, and then exits national forest lands (and loses its scenic byway status) before dropping into what’s known as Boxley Valley. As the road begins its descent, the Smith Creek Nature Preserve will be in the deep valley to the right. This 1,226-acre tract protects one of the Buffalo River’s beautiful spring-fed tributaries. The Arkansas Nature Conservancy regularly leads field trips where participants can explore the watershed’s fascinating collection of rock formations, cascades, and native plants (check out www.nature.org/arkansas).

At the bottom of the 2.8 mile-grade into Boxley Valley, the highway crosses the western section of the Buffalo River Trail, a popular hiking and backpacking trail which essentially parallels the mountain stream. The trailhead for this 36-mile path is immediately to the left a short distance before the highway passes over Smith Creek. With several relatively short segments in the area, the trail offers opportunities for just about any skill level.

The Boxley Community Gathering Place has recently been renovated; it sits along Highway 21.  (Joe David Rice)
The Boxley Community Gathering Place has recently been renovated; it sits along Highway 21. (Joe David Rice)

A little over a mile beyond the “Boxley Valley Historic District” signage, Highway 21 crosses the Buffalo National River. Established by an act of Congress in 1972, the park protects a 135-mile riparian corridor encompassing nearly 95,000 acres. The stream is not far from its headwaters region at this location and resembles a creek more than a river – although skilled paddlers negotiate its rapids when water levels are appropriate, most often in the winter and early spring months.

For those desiring an off-the-beaten-path experience, take a turn onto Cave Mountain Road at the north end of the bridge – and set your odometer. A narrow, graveled route, it quickly climbs up the steep hillside and leads to a couple of points of interest. The first is Bat Cave, an underground complex currently closed by the National Park Service due to a disease affecting bats. The parking area is 0.7 miles up the hill. History buffs might enjoy knowing the cave played a role in the Civil War, supplying saltpeter which Confederate forces used to manufacture gunpowder.

Amazing view from Whitaker Point in the Buffalo National River Wilderness.  (Chuck Haralson)
Amazing view from Whitaker Point in the Buffalo National River Wilderness. (Chuck Haralson)

The next is Whitaker Point, quite likely the subject of more posters, advertisements, book covers, and post cards than any other locale in The Natural State. The Flickr website alone includes over 260 shots of this fascinating geological anomaly. Parking is on the right at 6.1 miles at a sign marked “Wilderness Access.” The easy-to-moderate trail begins across the road and takes a mostly downhill course for about 1.5 miles before the distinctive bluff known as Whitaker Point comes into view. Pay close attention to children and acrophobia sufferers.

The Boxley Baptist Church and cemetery. (Joe David Rice)

Seven-tenths of a mile north of the Buffalo River bridge, Arkansas Highway 21 passes through what remains of the Boxley community. Off to the left is the Boxley Baptist Church, one of the most photographed churches in the state. Next to it is the Walnut Grove Cemetery which includes graves of members of the families which settled here generations ago. Down the road and on the opposite side is the former general store/post office and beyond it are the remains of an old steam-powered sawmill.

Settlement in the Boxley area began around 1830, mostly with families moving in from Tennessee and the Carolinas. The town is named for William Boxley, a merchant from Springfield, Missouri, who relocated into valley about a decade later. The National Park Service acquired most of the properties within the valley during the mid-1970s as a part of its charge to preserve the landscapes and cultures of the Buffalo River. Some landowners sold their tracts outright and others retained title but deeded conservation easements to the federal government.

A short distance north of Boxley, Highway 21 swings sharply to the left and begins a long climb out of the valley while Arkansas 43 continues north toward Ponca. This 4.3-mile stretch of Highway 43 is famous for elk herds grazing in pastures along the river, particularly during the winter months – and is a worthy detour. It also passes the entrance to Lost Valley, a former state park and now a campground and trailhead operated by the National Park Service. With its caves, waterfalls, and looming bluffs, the two-mile roundtrip hike in Lost Valley is a special treat. Food and gasoline can be purchased at Ponca, located at the junction of highways 43 and 74, and visitors will also enjoy the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission’s Elk Education Center. The Ponca low-water bridge has been a traditional put-in point for Buffalo River canoeists for over half a century.

Next:  waterfalls, caverns and the Civil War

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