Fall arrives and the desire to see autumnal color permeates our beings like seasonal allergies. There’s just something about waiting until Thanksgiving to see bald cypress turn burnt orange that makes South Louisianians feel robbed.
The good news is fall foliage in the Ozark Mountains is within a day’s drive of Baton Rouge, albeit a good day’s drive. A trip this year to northwest Arkansas and southern Missouri can mean great ghost stories, cozy lake cabins and the opening of a world-class art museum.
Interstate 49 takes Louisiana visitors into Arkansas, and after a small detour just north of Shreveport the highway winds through Little Rock, Fort Smith, and into Bentonville, home to Sam Walton and Walmart.
The talk of the town these days centers around Walton’s daughter, Alice Walton, who will debut the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art on Nov. 11. The museum sits on 120 wooded acres and will contain American paintings and sculptures from the colonial period to the modern era. Because it received a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, entrance fees are waived to the main exhibit space.
The day we visited we could only peek at the curved concrete structures with sloping copper roofs under construction and imagine the lagoon that will fill the heart of this complex complete with galleries, office, library, fine dining restaurant and lecture hall.
Already installed out front, however, was the silver tree sculpture of Roxy Paine, which embraced a threatening sky, highlighting the mix of nature and art that forms the soul of this endeavor.
“The landscape sets the tone and the mood of what you’re about to see,” explained Scott Eccleston, director of Crystal Bridges trails and grounds. “We wanted to be part of nature, not separate from it.”
Eccleston has designed 3-1/2 miles of trails around the complex, some of which tie into the Compton Gardens and feed into downtown Bentonville. Visitors will enjoy views of the buildings, then artwork and then move back into canopies of trees and landscaped native plants, Eccleston said. There will be 28 trail guides “that tie you back to architecture and nature,” he explained.
The small town of Bentonville is gearing up for the big event, with new restaurants appearing on the town square and the Walmart Visitor’s Center fresh from a renovation. It’s a quaint town with bed and breakfasts, fall festivals, and it’s a haven for bicyclists as well.
An hour from Bentonville, through winding Ozark Mountain roads perfect for viewing fall foliage, lies the Victorian town of Eureka Springs. Legend has it that Native Americans used the many springs for healing and spiritual purposes. The springs still dot the town’s landscape (although not for personal use), cradled by mini parks with flowers, ivy and endless butterflies.
Folks visit Eureka Springs for many reasons, from attending The Great Passion Play to enjoying Diversity Weekend, for the many art galleries to visiting big cats at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. The town boasts of numerous fall festivals and special events, including hay rides, car organization and biker gatherings, antique craft shows, the Ozark Creative Writers Conference and, of course, fall foliage tours.
This time of year, some visit in the hopes of catching a glimpse of those who refuse to check out of the Crescent Hotel.
The “Grand Old Lady of the Ozarks,” perched high above Eureka Springs in the highest point in the county, was built in the late 1800s and quickly became a favorite among the elite. After the turn of the century, the hotel was used as the Crescent College and Conservatory for Young Women and later the Baker Hospital, where quack Dr. Norman Baker promised a cure for cancer.
Ghosts who haunt the property, according to stories, include Michael, an Irish teenage mason who fell to his death while constructing the limestone hotel. He is said to favor Room 218 - and well as the ladies who visit.
One of the students who attended college here fell from an upper floor at 10:30 p.m. Visitors have witnessed a mist falling at that time and some have even called 9-1-1 to report what appears to be a woman jumping - or being pushed.
In the 419 Suite, a female ghost named Theodora apparently frequents. Theodora supposedly left the world during the cancer hospital phase and can be seen rummaging for her keys in her purse just outside the door. She’s an orderly ghost - visitors who stay in Room 419 find she tidies things up. Apparently crew members of the Ghost Hunters show failed to keep their room clean. After taping, crew members found the entrance to their room blocked from the inside by their suitcases.
And that’s just the tip of the paranormal iceberg, which is why there are several ghost tours offered at the hotel every night.
Bill Ott, director of marketing and communications, loves his ghosts, eagerly showing off tapes where blobs of light have been captured.
“To paraphrase Saturday Night Live, ghosts have been very, very good to us,” he said with a laugh.
The hotel has been featured in publications worldwide, the Today show twice and routinely named one of the most haunted hotels in America, in addition to the Ghost Hunters episode where a full-bodied apparition was filmed in the hotel’s “morgue.”
According to some, the whole town is haunted. The 1905 Basin Park Hotel, a sister property to the Crescent, claims its share of ghosts as well. Meg Kimball tells the lively tales of the cowboy in Room 308, the preacher and his lion story in Room 519 and the weird happenings in the ballroom, restaurant and bar. Kimball has had her own paranormal experiences, but can’t answer why people love to linger in Eureka Springs.
“Each ghost has his own personal story and why they stay or don’t stay,” Kimball explained. “We don’t really know.
A short drive from Eureka Springs into Missouri, on the banks of Table Rock Lake, lies the elegant and secluded Big Cedar Lodge. The resort owns an interesting history, having been the site of a sacred spring and pool of the Osage Indians and later a respite for Ozark travelers in the 1920s. Bass Pro Shop owner John Morris purchased the property in 1987 and further developed the 800-acre resort, in addition to preserving the original buildings.
Visitors can enjoy a variety of accommodations, from three different lodges to cozy cottages and cabins, with furniture and interior decorating designed by Bass Pro artists. Private log cabins, for instance, face the lake and include a full kitchen, giant whirlpool bath, stone fireplace, gas grill and outdoor patio and wooden furnishings decorated with hand-crafted metalwork. Some of the cabins have been named to honor people and organizations with ties to the lodge, such as Porter Wagoner, Kevin Costner and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
For a taste of yesteryear, visitors may enjoy fine dining in the circa 1921 Original Worman House, overlooking the lake at sunset, or listen to Clay Self, the “Singing Cowboy,” in the rustic, cozy Buzzard Bar.
The resort offers a variety of activities - horseback riding, fishing, lake tours, shopping, swimming and a spa - making this a favorite among families. For fall visitors, the campfire wagon tour is a must, a guided tour through the woods ending with campfire, refreshments and entertainment. Visitors can also visit nearby Dogwood Canyon Nature Park with its waterfalls, walking and biking trails, trout fishing and much more.