I typically like hiking in the deep woods of the Ozark Mountains, but this little urban path is a fun hike for kids and history buffs. It’s also a great place for runners and cyclists visiting the city of Fort Smith.
Driving Directions: To get to the trailhead, turn southwest off of Garrison Ave (AR 64) onto 4th Street. Then turn right (northwest) onto Garland and drive one block to 3rd street and the entrance to a parking area. A covered pavilion is at the north end of the parking area, and this is where we’ll begin our walk.
GPS Trailhead Coordinates: N35° 23.260’ W94° 25.851’
Distance and Additional Information: 4.6-mile out-and-back with a small loop. This route is wheelchair accessible throughout. Leashed pets are allowed.
This is one of the few (maybe only) trails I’ve walked that begins by crossing a railroad track, but train traffic is limited (or non-existent). The entire trail described here is handicapped accessible. There are restrooms at the Historic Site Visitor Center just to the northeast of the trailhead. There are also restrooms at the River Park Events Center about 1 mile into the hike. Be sure to carry water even. There are water fountains at the River Park, but they were not on when I visited.
The trail climbs slightly to a small loop around the site of the First Fort Smith, 1817-1824. Stone footings are still visible where the fort stood overlooking the Arkansas River.
The trail backtracks a short distance to where you’ll take a right and circle around until the Arkansas River is on your left side. You’ll come to the Trail of Tears Overlook with interpretative markers and a bench. A set of stairs invites you to walk down by the riverside where you might see geese and other wildlife.
After leaving the overlook, continue down the paved path into a wooded area with a high shaded canopy. Some of the larger trees are cottonwood with a few sycamore close to the riverside. I looked around to be sure we were alone and then let Hiker-dog take a quick run through these woods. She returned and let me leash her back up before any other walkers were in the area.
The trail passes a spur to the right that takes you back to the trailhead if you want a short walk. We’ll use this spur later when we return from our out-and-back. Continue under Garrison Bridge at 0.7 mile and to the River Park stage. Turn left (southwest) and walk under the bridge a short distance then turn right (southeast), walking downstream with the river on your left. You’ll come to stone steps that outline the Riverfront Amphitheater seating area. Handicapped accessible switchbacks lead up the seating area to the Events Center.
After walking past the River Park Events Center, you’ll come to a pavilion with a bronze statue of a girl carrying flowers and a basket. This is where the River Trail officially begins as it follows the Arkansas River downstream.
A short distance down the 12-foot wide path leads you to an overlook with two beautiful bronze sculptures. This is a nice destination if you want a shorter walk.
From the overlook, continue down the river and come to the River Trail Bridge at 2-miles into the walk. Just before the bridge is a spur trail left to the riverside. This is a great place for fishing, but Hiker-dog saw it as an opportunity for a quick dip. A small pavilion is on the other side of the bridge. The bridge is another possible destination and turnaround point.
Standing at the edge of the Arkansas River, you realize the strength of its flow. It might appear tranquil from a distance, but there is a firmness in the water as it speeds along. This barge churned its way upstream on the morning of our walk.
The paved trail continues and then comes alongside private property before ending at Riverfront Drive. A dirt path continues from there along the top of a levy. A ranger told me there are plans to eventually extend this trail to all the way to Van Buren. For today’s walk, we’ll turn around here and head back the way we came.
After a nice out-and-back on the River Trail, we return to the Fort Smith Historic Site and take a left at 4.2 miles into our walk. This is the spur we passed earlier and it takes us back to the trailhead. Going straight would take you back around to the Trail of Tears Overlook and would give a little more distance to your hike. This route gives you a total of 4.6 miles, the perfect distance for a walk or run right in the center of downtown Fort Smith.
For solitude, go early in the morning, because this urban trail is getting some heavy use from residents and tourists. It should have a positive impact on the community for years to come.
If you have time, check out the gift shop in the Historic Site Visitors Center. You’ll find a variety of books related to the region and National Park Service programs that children and adults will enjoy. You can take a tour of the Fort Smith Courthouse and decide for yourself if Judge Parker’s reputation as the “hanging judge” was justified. You’ll also learn about Bass Reeves, the first black U.S. Deputy Marshal west of the Mississippi River. Continue your stroll through history on the grounds around the Courthouse and let the kids get a close look at historic artifacts.
Hiker-dog says, “Thanks for coming along.”