The Natural Bridge has been millions of years in the making
Nestled in the heart of the Arkansas Ozarks region is a formation that has been millions of years in the making, a formation that continues to leave visitors in awe.
The Natural Bridge of Arkansas, located north of Clinton, Ark., is a 100-feet long natural limestone bridge that owner Jim Smith says has been carved out by eons of erosion from the Little Johnny Creek, now-small wet weather creek.
The privately-owned bridge and surrounding property was developed for tourism by the Johnson family, the previous owners, and has been drawing visitors since the late 1960s. Jim and Marcia Smith purchased the property in 2013 and continue to share the history of the bridge, as well as the history of the Ozarks.
The Quapaw Indians made use of the bridge for centuries, using it as a thoroughfare and seeking shelter under the adjoining overhangs.
“The old-timers said there were a lot of artifacts down there in the early days,” Jim said.
“Early settlers used it for logging,” he added. “Timber was big in Arkansas back in those days, and most of the logs were used for barrels. A little town north of us called Leslie had a huge barrel factory, so most of Central Arkansas was logged, and a lot of it went to make stave barrels, and railroad ties were big then too. The bridge was a handy way to get timber out of this little holler down here. They ran mules and oxen across it.”
The area and bridge also have a more notorious history, serving as a hide-out for outlaws.
One of the more infamous fugitives seeking shelter at the Natural Bridge is rumored to have been Belle Starr, who was known for her affiliation with the James-Younger gang and other bandits of the day.
Today, a winding paved road takes visitors to the Natural Bridge of Arkansas. Jim said it’s not an ideal road for larger vehicles, but there is an area where visitors can drop trailers, then proceed to the check-in.
Once on-site, the bridge formation is just a short walk away.
“There are two little lookouts,” Jim explained. “One is just out the backdoor, 50 to 75 yards down a path, and the other path is below the bridge.”
Visitors are not allowed to walk on the bridge because there is no fall protection in place.
“It is pretty neat to see what nature has carved out,” Jim said.
In addition to the Natural Bridge, the site is also home to two cabins from the 1800s.
“These hand-huned cabins were pretty common in the Ozarks back in the homesteading days,” Jim said.
The first is a cabin from 1871 and serves as the attraction entrance.
“We know a little history about it,” Jim said. “It came from Morganton, which is south of Clinton, and it belonged to the Neal family. It’s a little gift shop, and it has all sorts of early things all over the walls. People will come in and want to leave something. A lot of it has a little story behind it. A lot of people pass through and will send stuff back or bring it back. It might be a piece of quartz or be like the guy who mailed us a goat’s foot with a whip on it that belonged to his grandfather in the 1800s. He wanted to leave it here, and it’s kind of neat. One guy brought in a railroad spike in honor of this dad. They used to hunt for railroad spikes along the old railroad beds, and he brought us the last spike they found together before his dad passed. It’s just little things like that people do. We’re small, so we can’t handle anything really big, but if it’s a period item, we will just put it on the wall, and that’s where it stays.”
The history of the 1880s cabin isn’t clear, but it holds countless treasures.
“It’s filled with a lot of early stuff, anything from hand-cranked washing machines and hand tools,” Jim shared.
There is also a still room and other treasures for visitors to discover in the cabin. Guests can also take in a covered wagon display.
For some families, the Natural Bridge of Arkansas is a family tradition.
“We have people who come with their children, and they came with their parents when they were kids,” John said. “They try to get pictures in the same spot.”
The COVID pandemic altered a portion of the 2020 season for the Smiths and the Natural Bridge of Arkansas, but the 2021 season has been busy thus far. The attraction is open from mid-March through mid-November.
“It’s like anything in the Ozarks; it runs with other stuff going on or with the seasons. Spring break time is busy, and then it slows some until the summer months. We get a lot of Texas and Louisiana folks who are heading to Branson, Mo.,” Jim said.
Visitors to the Natural Bridge of Arkansas, Jim said, say the bridge and the Ozarks scenery are worth the stop as they travel through the state.
“A lot of people are pretty in awe of it,” Jim said. “Especially when they are from flat country. People fall in love with the scenery in general.”