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Southern Hodgepodge of Activities and Sites Keep the Ozarks Interesting

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Story and photos by Bobby L. Hickman

Whether you want to spend some time with Mother Nature or just drive through the mountains and investigate the view your windshield offers, the Arkansas Ozarks will appeal to many, especially those who can appreciate the odder things in life.

The Ozarks have been drawing visitors for quite some time. For the nature enthusiast, the Buffalo National River provides plenty of outdoor adventures, such as hiking, canoeing, and viewing elk in the wild. And the town of Eureka Springs has been a popular southern tourist destination since before the Civil War. Since the late 1800s the tiny city has offered luxury hotels, spas, shopping, and fine dining for those seeking improved health from the therapeutic waters of its nearby springs.  Over the years, tales of paranormal activity have given Eureka Springs additional appeal for those travelers looking for that kind of excitement.

But in the small community of Lead Hill, Arkansas, it’s all about the castle. Found deep in the Ozark Mountains in northwestern Arkansas it is one of the country’s newest and probably most unique tourist attractions. The Ozark Medieval Fortress is the first full-scale castle being built on American soil. An army of craftsmen is using authentic tools and techniques from the Middle Ages to build a towering stone fortress that will not be completed until 2030.

The ribbon cutting ceremony for the castle. Miss Arkansas, Sarah Slocum and Richard Davies (center), executive director, Arkansas Parks & Tourism;Michel Guyot and Noemi Brunet, the French couple who began and own the project.The ribbon cutting ceremony for the castle. From left, Miss Arkansas, Sarah Slocum, Michel Guyot and Noemi Brunet, the French couple who began and own the project, and Richard Davies (center), executive director, Arkansas Parks & Tourism.

Teams of architects, craftsmen and artisans started work in late 2009 on the 20-year project. It’s all being done just the way it would have happened in Europe (except for a few nods to building codes and OSHA safety regulations). Workers are using locally quarried stones that are carved by hand, forged tools and old-fashioned manual labor. Carpenters, stonecutters, potters and others in period costumes toil each day at the project site, stopping only to answer questions from the visitors who began arriving after the project opened to the public in May 2010. The site includes a wooden castle reproduction to help tourists and schoolchildren visualize the finished product: a fortress with six-foot-thick stone walls, a drawbridge and towers reaching 24 feet above the inner courtyard.

Machinery used to buld the castle is the same type used during medieval times - no modern tools are allowed in the construction.Machinery used to buld the castle is the same type used during medieval times – no modern tools are allowed in the construction.
A worker builds a wall using methods from a thousand years ago. A worker builds a wall using medieval  methods.

The project is the work of a French couple, Michel Guyot and Noemi Brunet. Guyot has restored one castle in France and is already 10 years into a 20-year construction project similar to the Ozarks fortress. A local couple originally from France heard about Guyot’s project and convinced him to duplicate the undertaking near their hometown in the Ozarks.

The Ozark Medieval Fortress is less than an hour from glitzy Branson, Missouri, or the quieter Harrison, Arkansas. Harrison bills itself as the “Gateway to the Buffalo National River,” the first river so designated in the U.S. The Buffalo offers a vast array of outdoor recreation, including canoeing, hiking, biking and camping. Paddlers on the free flowing Buffalo pass between massive sandstone and limestone bluffs, providing unique views of waterfalls, caves and springs.

Catching your own dinner at Bear Springs Creek Trout Farm - which they’ll cook for you later at DeVito’s Restaurant across the road. Catching your own dinner at Bear Springs Creek Trout Farm – which they’ll cook for you later at DeVito’s Restaurant across the road.

Harrison is also home to the historic 1929 Hotel Seville, where the arches, pillars and open ceiling in the lobby reflect Spanish and Arabic influences. For a unique dining experience, drive a few miles to Bear Creek Springs Trout Farm. Here you can hook your own dinner in a mountain stream and eat your catch later at DeVito’s Restaurant across the road.

At Ponca, about 25 miles from Harrison, the only elk herd in Arkansas roams the countryside. The Elk Education Center provides details on how the 450 Rock Mountain elk came to the area and where the best spots are for viewing the herds. Ponca also provides easy access to some of the most popular hiking trails along the Buffalo. The Lost Valley trail is an easy walk that includes Eden Falls, Cobb Cave and native wildflowers. Nearby is the moderately difficult trail to Whitaker Point, an often-photographed rocky outcropping with a panoramic Ozarks view that has been featured on the cover of the Rand McNally atlas.

Whitaker PointWhitaker Point

A good base camp for a visit to Ponca is the Buffalo Outdoor Center, where Mike Miles has been renting canoes and cabins for the past 35 years. The center’s RiverWind Lodge and the nearby cabins provide a 30-mile view of the mountainous wilderness and dramatic sunrises each morning. The center is also completing a zip line course that offers canopy tours. For the best cooking in the area, drive a few miles from Ponca to the Ozark Café in Jasper, where the old-time general store décor is more than equaled by down-home cooking at a small town price.

From Ponca or Harrison, it’s less than an hour’s drive to the tourist mecca of Eureka Springs. This town has been drawing visitors since the mid-19th Century, when its 67 “healing springs” brought it fame as a health resort. The “town that water built” still reflects touches of Victorian resort elegance to the Arkansas hills. While the namesake springs are no longer the major attraction, tourists now roam the town’s winding streets for the eclectic culture, history, and the quiet beauty of the rugged mountainside.

Thorncrown ChapelThorncrown Chapel

The Eureka Springs area is home to several architectural treasures — Victorian and otherwise. The skyline is dominated by the Christ of the Ozarks, a 67-foot statue atop Magnetic Mountain. Thorncrown Chapel is a towering wood, glass and stone structure rising 48 feet in a woodland sanctuary near town. The award-winning structure has been named the best American building constructed since 1980. Thorncrown was designed by E. Fay Jones, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and an architecture professor at the University of Arkansas. Also in town is the Queen Anne Mansion, an example of classic American architecture which opened in early 2010.The recently renovated structure features more than 12,000 square feet of museum-quality furnishings distributed across four levels.

For animal lovers who want a close encounter experience, a few miles out of town is the world’s largest “big cat” rescue center, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. More than 100 lions, tigers and other exotic animals can be seen on regular tours at the ever-expanding habitat. Turpentine Creek also offers on-site lodging at two B&B rooms (where big cats roam outside your window), a tree house bungalow, several cabins at the Safari Lodge, plus RV and camping sites.

Huge tiger at the Huge tiger at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge.

Eureka Springs offers a variety of accommodations, ranging from simple and tidy to luxurious. One of the best known is the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa, an elegant grade structure atop Crescent Mountain. The Crescent has been named one of “America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations” by the National Trust of Historic Places. The New Moon Spa, Crystal Dining Room and showplace gardens are among the many memorable attractions at this historic hotel.

But the Crescent has also gained fame in recent years for its permanent residents: the active and often-visible ghosts who have drawn TV’s “Ghost Hunters” and amateur spirit seekers. Many spirits are reputedly former patients from the days when the Crescent was an experimental hospital for cancer patients run by a snake oil salesman. Several guests (me included) saw images, heard unusual noises or had other experiences that are hard to explain. The hotel even runs its own ghost tour, where the finale in the former hospital morgue in the Crescent’s basement often unsettles even the most skeptical tourist.

The Crescent Hotel's comfortable accommodations seem contrary to a typical haunted house.The Crescent Hotel’s comfortable accommodations seem contrary to a typical haunted house.

If you prefer your upscale lodging in a more peaceful setting, check out the 1905 Basin Park Hotel in the heart of the historic and entertainment district. The seven-story Basin Park is built into a mountainside and every floor is considered a ground floor – which led to its listing in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” as the only such hotel. {In fact, Eureka Springs is the most frequently mentioned city in Robert Ripley’s works.} The Basin Park is only a few steps away from more than 100 boutique shops downtown, nightspots and plenty of restaurants.

Speaking of food, Eureka Springs offers a wide variety of dining options. Start your day with breakfast from the award-winning Mud Street Café, where choices range from omelets, fresh baked muffins and pancakes to breakfast wraps and veggie hash browns. The New Delhi Café offers spicy Indian food alongside thick, juicy cheeseburgers. Café Soleil diners experience international and contemporary cuisine in a simple elegant setting. Mexican dishes and American fare share the menu at Sparky’s Roadhouse Café – not to be confused with The Road House Restaurant, where BBQ, burgers and steaks are the main draws.

Even after a busy week in the Ozarks, you may still find many things you haven’t done. My “bucket list” includes canoeing the Buffalo, flying through the treetops on the 14 new zip lines and dropping in on the impromptu Monday night country jam sessions behind the fire station in Clifty. It’s not often that one visit leaves me hungry for more, but when it comes to the Ozarks, I can’t wait for the return trip!

If You Go

Where2Stay

Basin Park Hotel

12 Spring Street

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Tel: 800.643.4972

www.basinpark.com

Buffalo Outdoor Center (cabins)

Junction, AR Highways 43 & 74

P.O. Box 1

Ponca, AR 72670

Tel: 800.221.5514

www.buffaloriver.com

Crescent Hotel & Spa

75 Prospect Avenue

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Tel: 800.342.9766

www.crescent-hotel.com

Hotel Seville

302 North Main Street

Harrison, AR 72601

Tel: 870.741.2321

www.hotelseville.com

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

(Safari Lodge and B&B rooms)

239 Turpentine Creek Lane

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Tel: 479.253.5841

www.tigers.tc

Where2Eat

Café Soliel

3094 East Van Buren

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Phone: 497.253.2345

www.cafesoleilrestaurant.com

DeVito’s Restaurant

350 DeVito’s Loop

Harrison, AR 72601

Phone: 870.741.8832

www.devitosrestaurant.com

Mud Street Café

22 South Main Street

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Phone: 497.253.6732

www.mudstreetcafe.com

New Delhi Café

2 North Main Street

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Phone: 497.253.2525

www.thenewdelhicafe.com

Ozark Café Jasper

107 East Court Street

Jasper, AR 72641

Phone: 870.446.2976

Sparky’s Roadhouse Café

147 East Van Buren

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Phone: 497.253.6001

www.sparkysroadhouse.com

The Roadhouse Restaurant

6837 Highway 62 West

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Phone: 497.363.0001

www.theroadhouserestaurant.com

What2Do

Bear Creek Springs Trout Farm

350 DeVito’s Loop

Harrison, AR 72601

Phone: 870.741.8832

www.devitosrestaurant.com/troutfarm.aspx

Buffalo National River

(Superintendent’s Office)

402 North Walnut, Suite 136

Harrison, AR 72601

Phone: 870.365.2700

www.nps.gov/buff

Buffalo Outdoor Center

Junction, AR Highways 43 & 74

P.O. Box 1

Ponca, AR 72670

Phone: 800.221.5514

www.buffaloriver.com

Celestial Windz Harmonic Bizaar

381 Highway 23 South

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Phone: 479.981.3288

The World’s largest tuned musical wind chime, Celestial Windz Harmonic Bizaar (yes, that’s the correct spelling, old hippies…)

Christ of the Ozarks/Great Passion Play

Passion Play Road

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Phone: 800.882.7529

Eureka Springs Ghost Tours

75 Prospect Avenue

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Phone: 479.253.6800

Keel’s Creek Winery and Gallery

3185 East Van Buren

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Phone: 479.253.9463

www.keelscreek.com

Ozark Medieval Fortress

1671 Highway 14 West

Lead Hill, AR 72644

Phone: 870.436.7823

www.ozarkmedievalfortress.com

Ozark Mountain Hoe-Down

3140 East Van Buren

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Phone: 800.468.2113

Ponca Elk Education Center

State Highway 43

P.O. Box 31

Ponca, AR 72670

Phone: 870.861.2432

www.agfc.com

Queen Anne Mansion Museum

115 West Van Buren

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Phone: 800.MANSION

www.thequeenannemansion.com

Thorncrown Chapel

Highway 62 West

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Phone: 479.253.7401

www.thorncrown.com

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

239 Turpentine Creek Lane

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Phone: 479.253.5841

www.tigers.tc

4MoreInfo

Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

One Capitol Mall

Little Rock, AR 77201

Phone: 501.682.7777

www.arkansas.com

www.visitmyarkansas.com

Eureka Springs CVB

P.O. Box 502

Eureka Springs, AR 72632

Phone: 479.253.7333

www.eurekasprings.org

Harrison CVB

122 East Rush Avenue

Harrison, AR 72601

Phone: 888.283.2163

www.harrisonarkansas.org

Top photo: in costume, this falconer gives a bit of historical atmosphere to the site of the Ozark Medieval Fortress.

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