A Road Less Traveled: Arkansas Highway 21 (part 4)

Highway_21_06272012_JDR_7312This is the fourth installment in a series about Arkansas Highway 21, written by Arkansas Tourism Director Joe David Rice.

Now, back to Arkansas 21. Approximately four miles north of its junction with Arkansas 43, gravel roads angle off on both sides of the highway. A right turn (to the north) and a one-third mile drive will lead travelers to the Elkhorn Church, a handsome and photogenic structure dating from 1900. The other option, the left-hand turn (to the south), goes to Sweden Creek Falls Natural Area, a 136-acre preserve owned and maintained by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission. Clear your odometer and drive slightly over 3.0 miles to a gate on the right side of the dirt road. Park in the graveled lot next to the gate and then follow a series of blue blazes down the easy-to-moderate trail to an 80-foot waterfall that’s truly spectacular during the wet months. Smaller falls, rock shelters, and sandstone glades will be seen along the route.

Continuing north on 21, the highway soon enters Madison County (named for President James Madison). Five miles later it reaches Kingston, a quaint Ozark community located near the banks of the Kings River (of which Sweden Creek is a tributary). The town has an interesting arrangement of one-way streets around its tiny square. Several retail establishments along with one of the most picturesque banks in the state make up the compact commercial district.

Two Civil War skirmishes occurred near Kingston in 1863. In early January of that year, 300 men from the First Iowa Cavalry captured a large Confederate saltpeter works southeast of town and destroyed warehouses, steam engines, boilers, and half a ton of saltpeter. The second incident, in November and another Union victory, led to the retreat of 650 Confederate troops who marched south toward Clarksville.

As Arkansas 21 departs Kingston, it continues northward on a 7.4 mile course parallel to the Kings River and, in fact, crosses the waterway twice. The north-running stream, a tributary of the White River, presents a scenic and serene landscape of pastures and small farms. When water levels are good, the river is an enjoyable float trip although most canoeing takes place further downstream, especially between Marble and Berryville.

Following its junction with US 412, a major east-west corridor across northern Arkansas, Highway 21 jogs to the right (east) for 0.3 mile before branching off and again heading north. The short stretch of pavement shared by highways 21 and 412 is a portion of one of several “Trail of Tears” routes through the state. The Trail of Tears marks the tragic journeys of five Native American tribes – Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole – which were forced to relocate from their homes in the southeastern US and move across Arkansas to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) as a result of the Federal Indian Removal Act of 1830.

Highway 21 passes through rolling countryside and several small communities such as Omega, Metaltown, and Cabanal as it nears Berryville. A couple of miles south of town it crosses Osage Creek, a major tributary of the Kings River and a float stream in its own right.

Downtown_Square_Berryville_ACH_4938-001Berryville, one of two seats of government for Carroll County (which is named for Charles Carroll, one of the country’s founding fathers and the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence), is a prosperous community of 5,356 residents. With a bookstore, soda fountain, the Carroll County Heritage Center, antique shops, and other retail outlets located on an attractive Public Square, its downtown area offers something for nearly everyone and is definitely worth a visit. Just a block away is the Saunders Museum with an eclectic collection of firearms, knives, and Victorian knickknacks.

Cosmic Cavern is home to the Ozark Blind Cave Salamander and several species of sightless albino trout.  (Chuck Haralson)
Cosmic Cavern is home to the Ozark Blind Cave Salamander and several species of sightless albino trout. (Chuck Haralson)

Heading north out of Berryville on the last 17-mile leg of its journey to the Arkansas/Missouri state line, Arkansas 21 meanders across a rural landscape dotted with small farms, pastures, and the ubiquitous chicken houses of the state’s northwestern corner. About halfway through this last stretch of highway is one more surprise: Cosmic Cavern. Discovered by prospector John Moore in 1845, the cave includes a wonderful array of stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, and some of the longest soda straw formations in the Ozarks. For over three decades, this commercial cave has been owned by the Randy Langhover family. Options include an hour and 15 minute tour on paved walkways or – for those seeking a genuine hardhat adventure – a wild cave tour into the dark and muddy recesses of the cavern complex.

Oak Grove is the next community of note, and it’s the largest of a dozen such named locales in the state. A few miles beyond Oak Grove lies Blue Eye, the final and northernmost town on the 99-mile length of Arkansas Highway 21. Arkansas claims 30 residents of the bi-state community while the Missouri side had 129 at the last census.

So, there you have it: a little over 3,000 words attempting to describe why Arkansas 21 is my favorite drive in The Natural State. I hope you’ll be able to experience the route – or at least portions of it – sometime in the near future.

And, if you still need convincing, think about this: the average traffic count on Arkansas Highway 21 in Newton County is about 350 vehicles a day. Meanwhile, Interstate 40 at Clarksville carries about 30,000 daily. In other words, for every vehicle you’d encounter on Highway 21, you can expect 85 on the interstate. In short, you can relax and truly enjoy a road less traveled.


— 30 — 

Join the Conversation