One aspect of travel that I really enjoy is learning about other cultures, both modern-day and from long ago. The Old Military Road Trail at Village Creek State Park in northeastern Arkansas allows you to walk in the footsteps of those who lived nearly 200 years ago. It’s important to learn about the good parts of history, but also the bad parts. The trail is part of the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. And it’s a great way to learn about this dark spot on American history as you literally walk in the footsteps of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Muscogee (Creek) peoples.
The Old Military Road Trail was completed as a road in 1829. A was the first improved route between Memphis and Little Rock. The Memphis to Little Rock Road was a major public works project in the 1820s and 1830. It was constructed with the Indian Removal in mind, a placard says as you begin the Old Military Road Trail. The placard goes on to say that the Crowley Ridge, where Village Creek State Park resides, was a pleasant change from the swamps between Memphis and the ridge. The Creek and Choctaw camped along the ridge as long as they could because of the rich forests, good hunting, and cooler weather.
Other placards are along the trail and give information about the peoples who passed through. It’s nice to be able to stop and learn about peoples who once passed through the area.
Another great Arkansas Trail that allows you to step into the footsteps of those long ago is the Indian Rockhouse Trail at the Buffalo National River.
Finding the Trailhead
The Old Military Road Trail begins and ends at the Lake Austell Dam. While I visited Village Creek State Park, there was no parking exactly at the dam. Village Creek State Park has an extensive trail system for hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking. Numerous trails crisscross and loop around each other, which can make things confusing. However, the park has a wonderful Multi-Use Trail System Hiking Guide with a map and trail descriptions.
After I passed the Lake Austell Dam (you can see it from the road), I drove just a little way west to where the Lake Austell Trail crosses the road and joins the Old Military Road Trail. It’s about 0.8 miles from the Visitor Center, via the road. This section of trail at Village Creek State Park is for foot traffic only, so you don’t have to worry about mountain bikers or equestrians.
Trailhead to Lake Austell Dam
When you begin your hike of the Old Military Road Trail at Village Creek State Park, you want to begin by heading south or to the left of how you drove in from the Visitor’s Center. From here, the trail snakes around Crowley’s Ridge and the shoreline of Lake Austell.
You will soon come to a road crossing, which is the boat launch to the lake. You could park here as well. I chose to park further up the road and leave these spots for boaters. From there you enter back into the woods and snake around before you quickly come to the open and mowed meadow of the Lake Austell Dam. This is technically the trailhead, but as I stated above, there is not a place to park your vehicle.
A sign announces the trail and another sign points you to the Upper Loop or Lower Loop. The keyword here is loop. It doesn’t matter which way you hike it, you will end up back at this same place. I chose to hike the upper loop because it immediately crosses the dam. And I saw the information placards on the other side of the dam. To read them before you hike the trail, you will want to hike it this way.
To hike the Upper Loop first, you want to hang a right and cross the earthen dam. On one side of you, you have beautiful views of the lake. And on the other side, you are provided with a vista of Crowley’s Ridge.
Lake Austell Dam to Loop Intersection
Around mile 0.5 you come to the group of placards that tell you about the Trail of Tears, the Old Military Road, and the peoples who pass through. From here you hike around the lakeshore a short way before making a left back into the woods, about 0.1 miles from the placards.
From here you climb a little into the woods on a nice, wide path. One thing about Crowley’s Ridge and Village Creek State Park that I found interesting is that it is mostly hardwoods. There are very few pines or cedar trees, unlike in the Ouachitas.
Around mile 0.8 the trail makes a sharp turn to your left and you begin hiking in what seems obviously like a man-made road. The soft loess – a wind-blown deposit soil – sinks deep along the path. The terrain to your left and your right rise high above you, giving you the feeling of hiking in a hollowed-out log. Roots of the bordering trees hang down in a vine-like manner.
It’s really neat and reminds you how different Crowley’s Ridge is from the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains. There are no rocks to dot the trails, just roots.
Loop Intersection to the base of the dam
At mile 1.45, you come to an intersection. Here the trail continues straight along the old road. But you want to make a left to continue the loop of the Old Military Road Trail. You can go straight to connect to other trails, but you’ll want to be sure to pick up a trail guide at the Visitor Center.
After you leave the old road, the trail becomes more narrow and you have more ups and downs than before. Bridges take you over gullies. And it’s interesting to note the distinct terrain of Crowley’s Ridge. You also get glimpses of a creek and cross of a tributary.
Just before you enter the field below the dam, you cross a wetland. It’s really beautiful and an interesting comparison to the terrain you just hiked through.
The trail takes you along the base of the dam before re-entering the woods and climbing to the top. Once you reach the top of the dam, you are back at the official trailhead for the Old Military Road Trail.
From here you can retrace your steps along the trail back to your car, or walk the road for a change of scene.
Old Military Road Trail
The Old Military Road Trail is not only scenic and beautiful, it’s a great way to experience history. It’s humbling, sad, and interesting to imagine what it was like for the Native Americans who crossed the same path nearly 200 years ago on their way to a new land.