Sunrise over Artist Point on the U.S. 71 Scenic Byway.
Category: Uniquely Arkansas

For generations of students and Razorback fans, U.S. 71 was the main route to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Starting at Alma, the winding mountain road tested the nerves and driving skills of countless drivers for 42 miles to the Fayetteville city limits.

Today that section of U.S. 71 is a state-designated scenic byway that is part of the Boston Mountain Scenic Loop, along with Interstate 49, also a state-designated scenic byway. Although it has been supplanted by I-49 as the most traveled route to Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas from I-40, it remains a nice option for a slower-paced drive, where you can fully enjoy the mountain scenery. It is especially spectacular when the surrounding Ozark National Forest is ablaze with autumn colors.

Sunrise over Artist Point on the U.S. 71 Scenic Byway. Photo by Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism

U.S. 71 follows a route based on Native American and stagecoach trails. Until the 1920s and 1930s, the road was mostly a “deeply rutted wagon trail,” stretching through western Arkansas from the Louisiana state line to the Missouri border, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. It was transformed into a major thoroughfare paved with concrete. It drew tourists at the dawn of the automobile age until the 1950s, when improvements began, leaving sections of the Old Highway 71 cut off like oxbow lakes from a river. 6 sections of the old road are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and portions are still visible from the main road.

‘Crooked and Steep’

For those who remember traveling the highway before I-49 opened in 1999, it is a portal to the past. It is still “crooked and steep,” as the highway signs warn, but it somehow seems less formidable without heavy traffic. Gone are the signs that once encouraged motorists to drive carefully so they would not become the next fatality on the curvy road, which could become especially treacherous in bad weather.

The Sky-Vue Lodge lures travelers to stop with its historic tourist court charm and stunning overlook. Photo by Sheila Yount

The U.S. 71 Scenic Byway starts at the Alma exit off I-40. Here you can grab a bite to eat and fill up your vehicle with gas before heading up through the hills. Outside of Alma, you will pass through rolling hills and small farms where horses and cattle graze. You will also begin to notice that the drop-off in traffic with the construction of I-49 has taken its toll. Grass grows in the pavement cracks on the highway’s shoulders, while native rock buildings that once housed charming gift shops, cafés, and other businesses sadly stand abandoned.

Mixed with the remains of the past are such stalwarts as Artist Point, 19924 N. U.S. 71, Mountainburg, a gift shop, museum, and hummingbird sanctuary with its iconic overlook of Saddle Canyon. There’s also the charming Sky-Vue Lodge (located at 22822 North Highway 71 Winslow, AR 72959, visit the Sky-Vue Lodge’s website for more information) operated by Glenn and Janice Jorgenson. Located atop Mount Gayler, Sky-Vue is a 91-year-old refurbished tourist court featuring cabins and a lodge. A homestyle breakfast is included, along with sweeping views of the surrounding Boston Mountains and Ozark National Forest.

A portion of the old U.S. 71, first built in the 1920s and 1930s, can still be seen running along the newer version. Photo by Sheila Yount

Across the highway from the lodge is the home of Ozark Folkways (located at 22733 North Highway 71 Winslow, visit the Ozark Folkways website for more information), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the arts, crafts and music of the Ozarks, located in a historic, two-story rock building. Visitors can attend workshops and concerts and shop for arts and crafts made by local artisans.

You’ll also find live music, featuring country and traditional mountain genres, at the nearby towns of Chester and West Fork, home of the Little O’ Oprey (located at 271 South Campbell Avenue, West Fork, visit the Little O’ Oprey’s website for more information). Nature lovers can easily access Lake Fort Smith State Park (located at 15458 Sheperd Springs Road, Mountainburg, visit the Arkansas State Parks website for more information) with its cabins, marina, lodge, hiking trails, and visitor center along the 1,500-acre lake. And as you head into Fayetteville, there’s the Arkansas Air and Military Museum (located at 4290 South School Avenue, Fayetteville, visit the Arkansas Air and Military Museum’s website for more information) with vintage aircraft and other artifacts and exhibits at Drake Field.

If you want to head back south after your Fayetteville visit, try the other side of the loop — I-49. Not only will you make it back to I-40 much faster, you’ll also find that the views from I-49, with its wide-open spans across the mountain valleys, are even more expansive than on U.S. 71.