Theories abound on the naming of Devil’s Den State Park. Was it for the notorious outlaws who, according to legend, hid out in this cool valley during hot Arkansas summers? Or was it for the abundance of bats and caves, which evoke a sinister image of the Devil’s own playground? My bet is the epithet derived from stagecoach drivers in the mid-1800s, who probably cursed the place like Hades itself after navigating the rocky ridges on the Butterfield Overland Stage Route.
Whatever its origin, this unsavory name belies the beauty of the place. Devil’s Den is a 2,000-acre lush Ozark hideaway still known for its caves and bats, as well as massive hardwood trees, rock outcrops, and the cascading, turquoise waters that cleaved a shaded valley out of deep, steep bedrock.
The best way to sample the wonders and uniqueness of Devil’s Den is along the Butterfield Trail, which commences at the headwaters of Lee Creek and parallels the stream for half a mile or so through dense cedar thickets before curving uphill for a short, leg-straining climb through dense oak-hickory woods. Along the way, the trail winds past some of the area’s unique Ozark “balds,” or patches of prairie on the thin-soiled, sun-bleached slopes.
Atop Holt Ridge, the trail follows a trace of an old road before meandering back downhill to Blackburn Creek and another of the area’s secluded valleys, this one outside the state park in Ozark National Forest. Here, you’ll encounter that old Arkansas standby, rocks-lots of rocks-in the form of dramatic outcrops, bluffs, overhangs, and boulders. At the valley bottom, a bonus awaits: rock-lined swimming holes.
Once past Blackburn Creek, the trail wraps around and reunites with Lee Creek Valley and Devil’s Den. You’ll follow old logging roads and horse trails, cross natural stone bridges, and even parallel the old stage line for a while. At some point, after traipsing these hills, you’ll likely marvel at the stamina of those horse teams.
QUICK TAKE: Devil’s Den State Park, AR
DRIVE TIME: Devil’s Den State Park is about 316 miles (41/2 hours) northeast of Dallas, and 260 miles (4 hours) south of Kansas City, Missouri.
THE WAY: From Forth Smith, take I-540 north to the Winslow exit, then follow AR 74 west 7 miles. Stop at the visitor center for a map and directions to Camping Area A. The trailhead is at the rear of the Camp A loop.
TRAILS: The Butterfield Trail loop is 15 miles of mostly streamside hiking. The park contains an additional 5.5 miles of hiking loops that lead to caves, natural bridges, and towering rock outcrops, as well as 20 miles of horse and mountain bike trails you’re welcome to hike.
ELEVATION: Lee Creek is the low point, at 500 feet. The Butterfield Trail tops out at 1,000 feet on Holt Ridge.
CAN’T MISS: Catch the ridgetop view of Lee Creek Valley at the south end of the loop, or go for a swim at the confluence of Blackburn and Lee Creeks.
CROWD CONTROL: Devil’s Den is a popular park, but on the trail and away from the cave and camping areas, it’s just you and the chipmunks.
PIT STOP: Drop in at the Pack Rat Outdoor Center on East Township Road in Fayetteville for gear, maps, and sage advice.
WALK SOFTLY: Leave the caves to the bats. Camp and do your biological duty far from streams and springs.
MAPS AND GUIDES: A trail map and brief guide is available at the Devil’s Den Visitor Center (address below). Or call noted guidebook author Tim Ernst for a copy of his Arkansas Hiking Guide (800-838-4453; $21.95).
MORE INFORMATION: Devil’s Den State Park, Rt. 1, Box 118, West Fork, AR 72774; (501) 761-3325. Free permits are required for overnight backpacking.