Driving the Trail of Tears

The Drive
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Trip Essentials

The autoroute primarily follows U.S. highways and secondary roads, so relax and take your time. Limited access highways, high-speed traffic, and traffic jams are not part of this experience. Although you will generally avoid large cities, lodging and dining are readily available at numerous locations along the route and should not be a problem. There are small towns, campgrounds, and state parks with facilities scattered liberally along the way. In the smaller towns, local mom-and-pop motels and diners offer an alternative to the sameness of the chains that dominate the larger cities. A little advance planning and calling ahead for reservations will ease your mind if in doubt. Some of the smaller or more desirable locations, such as Fall Creek Falls State Park, are often full and reservations should be made far in advance. You may spend more or less time at various locations, so your days may vary, but this drive can generally be accomplished in five days. There are so many historic and natural areas along the route that trip variations are limitless; get highway maps and visitors guides of the states and check out your options.

The drive is at its most scenic when the thick forests of the heartland are in their fall splendor. The autumn colors of Tennessee and Missouri are hard to beat. However, as winter approaches be aware that snowstorms in the Ozarks can leave you stranded in the backlands of Missouri. The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is still under development, with sites maintained by the federal government, some by the various states, and some by local organizations. A brochure containing a map is available from the National Park Service by writing the Long Distance Trails Group Office — Santa Fe, P.O. Box 728, 1220 S. St. Francis Dr., Santa Fe, NM 87504-0728, telephone (505) 988-6888.

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Continuing west across the Mississippi River on Highway 146, you'll discover the Trail of Tears State Park in Missouri. This 3,400-acre park preserves the original ferry site across the Mississippi and part of the original road used by the Cherokee. One group of exiles included the Reverend Jesse Bushyhead and his sister Nancy. This group reached the Mississippi River here in midwinter and ice delayed the river crossing. Nancy died following the crossing and a monument in the park marks the site of her grave. The park is characterized by commanding 600-foot bluffs overlooking the river and the forests within the park remain much as they did during the time of the march. Camping and hiking trails are accessible.

In Missouri follow Missouri 72, U.S. 67, Highway 8, or I-44. All roads take you through the Mark Twain National Forest, a lovely winding meander through the hardwood forests of southern Missouri's Ozark Mountains. Near St. James, Missouri, is the Sneldon-Brinker House, a restored log house built in 1834. One of the Cherokee detachments camped and purchased corn here. Nearby is the restored county courthouse (built in 1835).

Take U.S. 60 out of Springfield to Missouri 37; as you approach the Arkansas border, you'll come near Roaring River State Park. Roaring River Spring pours out 20 million gallons a day, forming the headwaters of Roaring River. This 3,400-acre park offers hiking trails, camping, a swimming pool, rental cabins, horse rentals, and an inn with dining and lodging.

Continue south on U.S. 62 and U.S. 71 through Fayetteville to Fort Smith National Historic Site, administered by the National Park Service. Established in 1817 at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers, Fort Smith was a frontier outpost on the border of Indian territory for decades. The park includes the Barracks and Courthouse building, the site of the first fort, the Commissary Building, and the gallows. Retrace your route to Fayetteville and drive on U.S. 62 west into Oklahoma.

You'll end your drive of the Trail of Tears in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. This was the terminus of the trail and was established by the Cherokee as the capital seat of the Cherokee Nation, a distinction it retains to this day. Cherokee commissioners selected the location in 1839 and incorporated the town in 1843. There are many historic buildings here including the Cherokee Supreme Court Building, Cherokee National Capitol Building, Cherokee National Prison, and the second site of the Cherokee Female Seminary. Just south of Tahlequah is Park Hill, where many Cherokee lived. This area is rich in history and includes the Cherokee National Museum, the first site of the Cherokee Female Seminary, Ross Cemetery, where many Trail of Tears participants are buried, and the site of the Tsa La Gi Ancient Village, a living museum re-creating the Cherokee lifestyle.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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