Most people don’t naturally put hiking and Civil War battlefields together. We didn’t either, until our visit last month to Pea Ridge National Military Park in Garfield, Arkansas. Yet, it turns out that spending time on foot is exactly how you should learn about these unique spaces in the National Park Service. A morning of hiking at Pea Ridge National Military Park helped us better understand the landscape and how the area might have looked during the most important battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River.
About Pea Ridge National Military Park
Pea Ridge was our 85th national park unit of the 400+ on our #parkchasing list and our third stop on our Midwest national park road trip. It was also the first Civil War battlefield we’ve ever visited. Here are a few things to know before you plan a visit and a day of hiking at Pea Ridge National Military Park.
The park is located of East Arkansas Hwy 62 near the city of Garfield. The closest metro area to the park is Bentonville, Arkansas–roughly 15 miles southwest.
The park was established by Congress in 1956 to preserve the site of the Battle of Pea Ridge. The Battle occurred on March 7-8, 1862 with roughly 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers involved. Ultimately, the Union army prevailed at Pea Ridge.
The park is considered one of the best-preserved battlefields of the Civil War era. It’s also a destination on the Trail of Tears, an affiliate site of the National Park Service. Roughly 2.5 miles of the National Historic Trail travel through the park–perfect for a morning of hiking.
The Visitor’s Center
When you arrive at Pea Ridge National Military Park, stop at the visitor’s center first. The National Park Service offers daily ranger-led programs including some with guided hiking options. The visitor’s center has a short film and exhibits that detail the entire Battle of Pea Ridge. It’s also where you’ll pick up your National Park Passport stamps and Junior Ranger booklets.
Hiking at Pea Ridge National Military Park
The well-connected trail system at Pea Ridge National Military Park allows hikers to travel over 7 miles of trails in a large loop. The loop connects to all of the key areas of the park. While hiking or trail running the entire loop is most popular, there are several trailheads along the park’s scenic drive to break the trail into smaller hikes.
Also worth noting, part of the hiking trail runs parallel to horse trails. We didn’t encounter any riders on our day of hiking at Pea Ridge, but you might need to yield to a horse or two along the way. Otherwise, expect to experience miles of secluded woods and rolling hills.
Here are a few sites you’ll want to check out while hiking:
Elkhorn Tavern/Clemens Field
One of the most popular destinations within the park is Elkhorn Tavern. The hiking trails in the area are easy, grassy and wooded paths starting from the Elkhorn Tavern parking area. Elkhorn Tavern can also be reached by hiking east from the visitor’s center.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Elkhorn Tavern is a reconstruction of a 19th-century boarding house and tavern that became a critical site during the Battle of Pea Ridge. Originally a stopping point for stagecoach passengers on the pre-war Old Telegraph/Wire Road, both Confederate and Union Armies used the tavern at different points during the Battle. Visitors can still see the large elk antlers mounted to the roof–how the tavern received its name.
During the Battle of Pea Ridge, soldiers from both the Union and Confederate Armies took shelter near the tiny settlement of Leetown. While none of the village buildings still remain, one can still imagine the makeshift hospitals and tents that popped up here while the fighting forged ahead nearby. The short hike to the Leetown Fields offers grassy hiking along a small creek. Best in the spring and early fall.
If you’re looking for more challenging hiking, the Williams Hollow Loop departs Elkhorn Tavern into some of the steepest elevation in the park. The trail is about two miles in loop and listed moderate to strenuous. Along the loop you’ll see the Williams Hollow hospital site, and the Tanyard site, to key locations during the Battle of Pea Ridge.
Just a short hike from the Elkhorn Tavern, the East Overlook offers one of the best views of the battlefield in the park. From this spot it’s possible to see the widest scope of the landscape and get a sense of how far the soldiers traveled during the Battle of Pea Ridge. On a clear day the surrounding communities and Bottom mountains are visible.
Other Things to Know about Hiking at Pea Ridge
- If hiking isn’t an option for your trip, the scenic tour road that travels around the park is a nice alternative. Stop at the visitor’s center and pick up the park unigrid for information about each of the stops on the route.
- Remember that Pea Ridge National Military Park’s trails travel over lands preserved as a memorial to the more than 2,000 men who lost their lives during the Battle of Pea Ridge. Thousands of Cherokee people also experienced death and immense suffering along the Trail of Tears that travels through the park. Respect these individuals by maintaining proper trail etiquette and keeping pets leashed.
- Pea Ridge hosts living history demonstrations throughout the year. Try to plan your trip around one of these events and see the park as it might have looked with hundreds of soldiers on the fields.
- A stop at Pea Ridge can easily be added to a longer #parkchasing road trip. There are several other parks within 1-2 hours drive of the park including Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield, Buffalo National River, Fort Smith National Historic Site, George Washington Carver National Monument, and Fort Scott National Historic Site.