St. Francis National Scenic Byway
The St. Francis Scenic Byway is a twenty-one-mile stretch of road wholly within the St. Francis National Forest linking Helena-West Helena (Phillips County) and Marianna (Lee County) and traversing the hilly southern portion of Crowley’s Ridge; it is designated a National Forest Scenic Byway. The route merges Arkansas Highway 44 and Forest Service Road 1900, combining nine miles of pavement and fourteen miles of well-tended gravel. Rambling across national forest lands, this corridor is included in both the Crowley’s Ridge Parkway and the Great River Road.
The Federal Highway Administration oversees the National Scenic Byways Program, America’s Byways, yet the title “byway” may be bestowed by some 600 byway organizations, both government and private. The National Forest Service initiated its National Forest Scenic Byway Program, the first in the nation, in 1989 under the leadership of its twelfth Forest Service chief, F. Dale Robertson, a Bald Knob (White County) native. He designated the St. Francis Scenic Byway a National Forest Scenic Byway on June 5, 1989, making it one of forty-three in twenty-five states named during the inaugural year. In launching the scenic byway program, Chief Robertson said, “Scenic driving is the single most popular form of outdoor recreation in the national forests,” which, as of 2009, has grown to 137 forest byways in 193 million acres of forest covering thousands of miles. In Arkansas alone, the Forest Service has named seven scenic byways.
Early on, this conduit stretched through what was then the Eastern Arkansas Grazing Recreation Wildlife Area. However, in 1954, the land was transferred to the U.S. Forest Service, and on November 8, 1960, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued a proclamation classifying the area as the St. Francis National Forest, with 11,462 acres in Lee County and 9,628 acres in Phillips County for a total of 21,090 acres. The St. Francis Scenic Byway is situated in one of the nation’s smallest national forests and takes its name from the St. Francis River, a tributary of the Mississippi River, which parallels the eastern boundary of the St. Francis National Forest.
Surrounded by hardwood forest, the road accesses the only location in the national forest system “where the public can experience the awesome grandeur of the ‘Father of Waters,’ the mighty Mississippi River, from the shoreline,” according to the U.S. Forest Service. Deer, turkeys, squirrels, raccoons, cottontail and swamp rabbits, ducks, geese, mourning doves, bobwhites, woodcocks, coyotes, snipes, and even alligators—stocked in Beaver Pond—can be found along the byway.
Nine sites of interest found along the St. Francis Scenic Byway are Bear Creek Lake, Storm Creek Lake, St. Francis River, St. Francis National Forest, Marianna, Helena-West Helena, Helena Confederate Cemetery, and the Delta Cultural Center. Visitor information centers are at either end of the road—the St. Francis National Forest Headquarters in Marianna and the Arkansas Tourist Information Center in Helena-West Helena, respectively.
Two old cemeteries flank the byway in the forest, one an Indian burial ground and the other with markers dating back to the early 1800s. The first white settlement in the area since it was taken over by the Mississippi River was said to be where the St. Francis River emptied into the Mississippi and is credited with being the birthplace of the first white child born in Arkansas.
Although the St. Francis Scenic Byway is not separately designated as a state scenic byway, the Arkansas Scenic Byway Program does include two other routes that cover this same stretch: Crowley’s Ridge Parkway and Great River Road, both of which are National Byway designated.
For additional information:
Arkansas Delta Byways. http://www.deltabyways.com/ (accessed April 12, 2022).
“National Forest Scenic Byways Program Partnership Success Stories.” Washington DC: U.S. Forest Service, 1990. Online at http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/byways.pdf (accessed April 12, 2022).
National Scenic Byways Program. National Highway Administration. http://www.byways.org/ (accessed April 12, 2022).
Bella Vista, Arkansas
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