True Grit Trail

Arkansas is home to a number of trails commemorating different aspects of the state’s history and culture. In 2019, the Arkansas General Assembly established the True Grit Trail, highlighting events and places in western Arkansas that were part of the storyline in the 1968 Charles Portis novel True Grit.

In 1968, a serial written by El Dorado (Union County) native Charles Portis was published in the Saturday Evening Post. The series told the story of a young girl named Mattie Ross who, in the late 1800s, attempted to bring her father’s murderer to justice. From her home in Dardanelle (Yell County), she traveled to Fort Smith (Sebastian County), where she received the assistance of U.S. marshal Rooster Cogburn. The serial was published as a novel that same year and adapted as a movie in 1969 starring John Wayne. A second movie adaptation of the novel was released in 2010.

The idea of a historic trail associated with the novel originated with Yell County native Tom Shay. While driving through Minnesota, Shay saw an exit sign to the Lake Wobegon Regional Trail. After giving it some thought, he approached state representative Mary Bentley of Perryville (Perry County) at a town hall meeting in Dardanelle about a possible trail formed around the novel True Grit. Bentley considered it a feasible idea.

In February 2019, Bentley introduced legislation to designate a stretch of Arkansas Highway 22 running from Dardanelle to Fort Smith as the True Grit Trail. The bill was co-sponsored by seven other legislators, including Gary Stubblefield in the Arkansas Senate. The noncontroversial bill passed unanimously through both houses of the Arkansas General Assembly and was signed into law by Governor Asa Hutchinson on March 20, 2019.

The designated trail, which stretches over seventy miles following Arkansas Highway 22, which is representative of the route Ross might have taken from Dardanelle to Fort Smith, became a reality when, on November 14, 2019, the Arkansas Department of Transportation installed signs along the route. The purpose of the trail, which is anchored in Dardanelle, is “to bring tourists to communities in the seven counties—Yell, Pope, Logan, Johnson, Franklin, Crawford and Sebastian—that span the Arkansas River Valley.”

To involve additional communities in the area, four Dardanelle High School EAST Lab students studied the novel and mapped both locations on Highway 22 and locations away from the highway that would fit into the True Grit Trail theme. Leaving Highway 22, the students platted a route from Charleston (Franklin County) into Oklahoma through several sites, ending in the Winding Stair Mountains.

A number of activities were developed to promote and capitalize on the trail, including the development of an official logo by the Yell County Historical and Genealogical Society. On March 25, 2022, a celebration was held in Dardanelle to recognize the opening of the first exhibit designed to enhance the trail experience. The Yell County society, which made the trail a society project, and the staff of the Arkansas River Valley Regional Library System gathered a collection of memorabilia associated with the book and movie for an exhibit to be put on display at the public library in Dardanelle.

Other exhibits along the trail have been planned, and a True Grit Trail website was launched. An interesting highlight of the site is a listing of dates associated with the book for a given month. In 2023, the first Charles Portis Memorial Literary Competition for high school students was held. It was announced that “The Works and Influence of Charles Portis: A Symposium” was planned for November 2023 at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

Local businesses have attempted to capitalize on the True Grit theme. A True Grit Grounds coffee shop opened in Paris (Logan County) and a local restaurant claimed to be the “best barbeque on the True Grit Trail.” Monks at Subiaco Abbey began offering a specially brewed True Grit Ale. In 2023, the Yell County Historical and Genealogical Society began work on a coffee-table book to go with the trail.

For additional information:
Hebda, Dwain. “Tales of the Trail.” Do South Magazine, March 1, 2023. (accessed August 31, 2023).

Rohrbach, Jill. “Drive the True Grit Trail.” (accessed August 31, 2023).

Saccente, Thomas. “Highway’s Signs Honor Arkansas’s True Grit.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 15, 2019. (accessed August 31, 2023).

Shay, Tommy. “Hittin’ the True Grit Trail.” Yell County Historical & Genealogical Association Bulletin 45.1 (2021): 12.

True Grit Trail. (accessed August 31, 2023).

Mike Polston
CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas


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