VILLAGE CREEK STATE PARK - As numerous highway markers attest, the metaphorical Trail of Tears took a bunch of actual routes through Arkansas.
So many Cherokees, Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws and Seminoles - an estimated 60,000 in all - were being hustled west through the new 25th state in the 1830s that a map of their forced emigration looks like a spider’s web.
What is considered to be one of the most intact surviving bits of the various Trails of Tears can be explored by visitors to verdant Village Creek State Park, along Crowley’s Ridge some 100 miles northeast of Little Rock. As November progresses, there will be the added allure of colorful fall foliage in the mixed hardwood forest.
As the park’s visitor center and trail markers explain, what later became a removal route during the expulsion of native residents from the U.S. Southeast began as the Military Road. It was authorized by the U.S. Congress and completed in 1828 through the swampland between Memphis and Little Rock.
The Arkansas Gazette observed at the time: “We venture to assert that there is no one single subject of so much importance to Arkansas as the having of good roads from the interior of the country to the Mississippi River.”
As American Indians were dispossessed and herded westward, the first group to pass through Village Creek’s environs numbered several thousand Choctaws in 1832.
The last and best documented contingent to be moved along the Military Road traveled 700 miles in 89 days from Fort Cass, Tenn., to Washington County, Ark., in the fall of 1838.
Led by John Bell, those 660 Cherokees crossed what is now Village Creek State Park at the start of December. At least 21 of the exiles died during the long trek.
The remnant of trail in the park stretches just over two miles and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The path is sunk several feet and more below surrounding terrain after two centuries of erosion. Hiking between the walls of earth conveys an apt if unintended sense of confinement.
Along with this human legacy, the state park plays a prominent role in Arkansas natural history, given its location along Crowley’s Ridge, a geological phenomenon whose elevation averages more than 200 feet higher than its lowland surroundings.
As a state parks brochure describes it, the ridge “has long fascinated people traveling across the flat terrain of the Delta region.”
Extending nearly 200 miles from Helena into Missouri, it “stands as a silent sentinel over the entire eastern one-third of Arkansas.” It exists “by sheer chance, having escaped the powerful forces of water.”
Village Creek’s public areas lie mainly along a wide valley that runs through the center of the park on the eastern side of Crowley’s Ridge. Several species of trees seen in the vicinity are uncommon to the rest of Arkansas. They include butternut, sugar maple, cucumber tree and yellow poplar.
As a result, nature combines with history to make this state park a worthwhile destination. There’s also a mix of recreational facilities, the most distinctive being an equestrian camp and riding trails for travelers who bring their own horses.
Even if you’re fresh out of steeds, it’s worth a drive past the camp to see the horses (and mules) tethered while waiting to hit the trail.
The extensive multi-use trail system at Village Creek is arranged so that some routes are open to horse riders, bicyclists and hikers. Others are reserved for horses and hikers only, while some are restricted to bicyclists and hikers.
The park also has campsites for travelers of anon-equestrian bent, as well as 10 cabins with kitchens and wood-burning fireplaces. Two lakes, Austell and Dunn, are stocked with bream, bass, crappie and catfish.
What may be an unexpected amenity in this off the-beaten-track setting is the park’s Ridges at Village Creek golf course designed by Andy Dye.
If you’re a par golfer, the most distant tees stretch the course to 7,400 yards, and 12 of the 27 holes feature water hazards. There are three less strenuous tee settings. The course is open to the public with 18-hole low-season greens fees (starting Friday) of $29 on weekdays and $35 Friday-Sunday including shared cart rental. That’s a good deal.
Village Creek State Park’s visitor center is open daily from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission is free. To reach the park from Little Rock, drive east on I-40 and take exit No. 242 at Forrest City. Then travel 13 miles north on Arkansas 284. For more information, call (870) 238-9406 or visit arkansasstateparks.com/villagecreek/.
Weekend, Pages 35 on 10/31/2013
Print Headline: Remnant of Trail of Tears passes through park