Once busy highway now a scenic drive

Posted: January 23, 2018 at 1 a.m.

The West Fork of the White River is seen Jan. 12 from U.S. 71 Scenic Byway at Brentwood Community Park.
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The West Fork of the White River is seen Jan. 12 from U.S. 71 Scenic Byway at Brentwood Community Park.

A visit to the Arkansas River valley brought an opportunity to take the road less traveled on the trip back home. The drive north was a chance to get re-acquainted with twisting and scenic U.S. 71.

The Boston Mountains from U.S. 71 Scenic Byway. The highway is a pleasant drive between Fayetteville and Alma now that Interstate 49 carries most of t...

Northwest Arkansas newcomers may not even realize that U.S. 71 Scenic Byway between Fayetteville and Interstate 40 exists. Since its opening in 1999, Interstate 49 has been carrying the north-south traffic.

Back in the day, U.S. 71 was the main route between Fayetteville and Fort Smith for locals and the rest of the nation. The 40 or so miles could be a white-knuckle, frightening journey on a two-lane highway jammed with big rigs and people trying to pass where they shouldn't.

A home-made sign somewhere around Winslow kept a running tally of the death toll from wrecks along the curvy highway.

Nowadays the drive offers a leisurely trip through the Boston Mountains, worthy of its scenic-byway designation. Travelers may be able to count the number of cars with 10 fingers, likely driven by local folk from Mountainburg or Chester.

On nice Saturday mornings, drivers may see as many bicycles as cars and trucks.

Our drive north on '71 started as we passed our old duck hunting camp, the Days Inn at Alma. We'd hunt ducks on the Arkansas River south of town in the afternoon, get a room at Days Inn, then be back on the river shooting mallards in the morning.

U.S. 71 gets interesting right away. The curves and hills start just north of Alma. Pretty soon Boston Mountain majesty unfolds through the windshield. Two-lane blacktop meanders its way up and down, past mom and pop cabin resorts that once jumped with activity when '71 was the main drag.

Another amazing scene is to look in your rear-view mirror and not see another car or the grille of an 18-wheeler.

The highway takes a big plunge downhill into Mountainburg, then back up again to lovely Lake Fort Smith State Park. We always pack a picnic lunch to enjoy at the park at a table by the lake.

The Ozark Highlands Trail starts here, which can lead hikers some 200 miles east through the wilderness. Shorter loops in the park make fine foot travel. The cabins and campsites are nice, and exhibits in the visitor center are great to tour.

Back on the highway, lofty views of Lake Fort Smith to the east make the driving pleasant. There's plenty of room to pull over at Artist's Point to take it all in. Now and then, glimpses of I-49 are seen to the west as the journey continues.

Good old '71 starts to level out about the time Brentwood Community Park comes into view. This rest-area-turned-park sits on the shore of the flowing West Fork of the White River. A stop makes a good leg stretch on the park's walking trail that goes beside the river.

There are picnic tables, a rest room and park benches close to the stream. Camping is allowed at the park's single campsite.

Before long, Arkansas Travelers drive over the summit of Mount Gaylor, elevation 2,253 feet. Then '71 dives downhill into Winslow, home of the Winslow Squirrels back when the town had a school.

Two-lane '71 breaks out to four lanes at West Fork, to guide travelers north through Greenland, past Drake Field municipal airport and on through Fayetteville.

Our friend '71 is a nice break from the traffic on the busy freeway.

Flip Putthoff can be reached at fputthoff@nwadg.com or Twitter @NWAFlip

Sports on 01/23/2018