Story and photography by Kat Robinson
One does not merely roll into Searcy County. One slides down into it. From the south, heading north on U.S. Highway 65, it’s a great plunge from Dennard, skating the curves on a sharp ridge and sluicing past one of the state’s only remaining runaway truck ramps. Or from the north, on the same national road, curling on the two-lane looping right turns into the tiny town of Pindall, where for years a sign announced the Goat Gap. Even coming in on Highway 14, on the northeast side from Tilly or Turbo, every mountain edge draws you down into the heart of the Ozarks.
The county’s 669 square miles pack in even more surface space, from ridgetop to valley gorge. Just over 8,000 people live in this rural paradise, sans big-box store or metropolitan suburb. The only two stoplights are in the county seat of Marshall – and one of them regulates traffic in and out of Harp’s, the sole chain grocery store in this land.
Thousands pass through on U.S. Highway 65 every day on the main route between Springfield and Little Rock, a highway that has been shortened every decade as technology allows for ploughing through mountainsides to expand the roadbed and bypass the wandering kinks around the tops. Many travelers stop at the famed Coursey’s Smoked Meats in St. Joe to grab a pound of smoked ham for the road, while others pull in at Marshall’s Daisy Queen for a soft-serve cone. Most travlers hurry along, perhaps peering over the railing at the bluffs along the Buffalo National River near Silver Hill or glancing at the steel-topped barn south of the turnoff to Snowball.
What they miss is one of the Natural State’s greatest secrets: A county divided between unspoiled vistas and rolling rural countryside, one of the region’s best areas for floating and hiking and the heart of Arkansas’s burgeoning agritourism scenes. Bearing not a single chain hotel, accommodations range from cabins close enough to hear the river to cottages tucked into the curves of seldom-used roads, farmhouses and even bed and breakfasts where the day turns on where the sun rests in the sky. You can be as lazy as you want here, or you can roll up your sleeves and experience life on a working farm. You can set two wheels to asphalt on some of the Ozarks’ most exciting rides or slide into a kayak and let the water pull you through a valley to the next shoal.
The 21st century has not passed Searcy County by. Instead, citizens embrace these new days while sharing the best parts of the county’s past. Dive into a weekend or week of exploration and enjoyment by visiting some of these great experiences.
Date Night in Marshall
There are few places that offer the excellent 1960s version of dinner and a date than the county seat. Pick up your sweetheart in your vehicle of choice and take in a burger and a shake at the Daisy Queen. For more than 50 years, this dairy bar along the main drag has been the main stop for hungry travelers and locals. Go for a drive, then pull in for a movie or even a double-feature at Arkansas’ only year-round outdoor theater. The Kenda Drive-In, open since 1966, offers the hands-down best made-from-scratch popcorn from its ample concession stand.
Pull up and pay, pick up a speaker or tune your radio to the movie broadcast, choose your spot, then sit back in your car and watch first-run films. Or if you’d rather, you can bring lawn chairs or beach blankets and chill in the fresh air.
Explore Antiques and More
Leslie’s diminutive downtown is packed with vintage clothing, furniture and stores carrying all sorts of knick-knacks. Ozark crafts can be found alongside pressed glass, quilts, books, century-old tools and fresh honey and jams in the shops that line the sidewalks. Choose a splendidly decorated room at the Killebrew House and walk no more than four blocks to any of Leslie’s wonders.
Get Back To The Farm
Searcy County offers a truly immersive farm-stay experience — one of the best in the central United States — at Dogwood Hills Guest Farm near Harriet. Choose to participate as little or as much as you’d like on a working organic farm. You can experience every step from seed to sip in the creation of fresh buttermilk, from a homegrown hydroponic fodder house to the cows that devour each plant, and enjoy a fresh glass right upstairs from the milking stool. Dogwood Hills offers guest accommodations in a house where you can relax with your family. Spend your entire visit on the farm or ask for a package, where you can tour nearby Ratchford Farms (and see real buffalo!), float the Buffalo and more.
In the loft atop its barn, Dogwood Hills also offers a monthly Friday night farm-to-fork five-course dinner, including appetizer, soup, salad, entrée and dessert as fine as you’ll experience at any four-star restaurant. Come early for farm tours or stay late for coffee, chats and a chance to shop in the farm’s Arkansas-only store.
Rollin’ on the River
Bountiful rainfalls these past few summers have expanded the float season for the Buffalo National River. If you’re a novice or prefer laid-back river floating to whitewater rafting, Searcy County’s section of the waterway is for you. Plenty of guide services are available, particularly at Silver Hill and Gilbert. Put in at Sweet Gum Hollow to bob along downstream through the Narrows (where the Buffalo meets Richland Creek), or set in at Woolum to experience a relaxed float year-round. You can pitch a tent at the Tyler Bend Visitor Center National River campgrounds or make arrangements for watercraft and a ride upstream from the Gilbert General Store, which has stood since 1901 in the community weathercasters have long called the “coldest spot in Arkansas.” Plenty of cabins are available within a block or two of the river from the shoal at Gilbert.
Riding the Ridges
Two of Arkansas’ most scenic motorcycle routes lie within Searcy County. The 64-mile Leslie Lasso, which begins downtown and passes eastward out of town on Arkansas Highway 66, takes riders along sections of Arkansas Highways 14, 27 and 74 along the back route to Marshall, up to Harriet and over to Landis and Oxley. The 57-mile Bear Creek Growl on the county’s west side dives into the Ozark National Forest and less-used highways, passing through Tilley, Witts Springs and Snowball. Plenty of rider-friendly accommodations and camping spots are available along both routes.
Chocolate Roll Capital of the World
Searcy County offers a singular pastry dessert found nowhere else in the world — a pastry roll filled with cocoa, butter and sugar. The Searcy County Chocolate Roll has its roots in Depression-era kitchens outside of Leslie, with its introduction to the outside world at the now-departed Downtowner Café in Marshall. Every March, the county celebrates the dish with its own festival, where dozens of cooks vie to see who makes the best version of the dish.
When you visit the area, ask around for a roll of your own. The Kenda Drive-In often has them on the counter in its concession stand (which you can visit outside of movie-time, too). Misty’s Shell just north of downtown Leslie always has cellophane-wrapped rolls to take home with you. And you can often find them at Searcy County’s three farmers’ markets: at Witts Springs on Monday evenings, at the berry shed in Marshall on Fridays and in the Cove Creek Emporium in Leslie on Saturday mornings.
1. Leslie was once the home of the world’s largest barrel cooperage. The H.D. Williams Cooperage Works sent out its products by railroad and even shipped oak wine barrels to France. While the population was over 10,000 a century ago, it stands at just 426 today.
2. Famed folk singer Jimmy Driftwood graduated from Marshall High School.
3. Searcy County is the elk-hunting capital of Arkansas. Wild elk can often be viewed in western Searcy County near the community of Snowball.
The Searcy County Quilt Trail
Quilts and quilting have been a part of the area’s culture since the first settlers arrived. Look for the large square quilt blocks adorning historic and interesting buildings in 19 locations around the county. For more information, check out arkansasquilttrails.com/searcy-county-quilt-trail.
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Story and photography by Kat Robinson