Yancopin Bridge, Arkansas River.

Light at the End of the Trail – Update on the Delta Heritage Trail

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The Delta Heritage Trail State Park is a state park that offers recreational opportunities for hiking, cycling, and wildlife watching. The park is situated in the eastern part of the state, in the Mississippi Alluvial Plain, also known as the Arkansas Delta region.

The park’s primary attraction is the Delta Heritage Trail, which is built on a former railroad corridor. The trail covers approximately 84.5 miles and stretches from Lexa, near Helena-West Helena in Phillips County to Arkansas City in Desha County. It will run through scenic areas with wetlands, farmland, and forested sections, providing visitors with a glimpse of the natural and cultural history of the region.

Visitors to the Delta Heritage Trail State Park will enjoy a variety of outdoor activities, including hiking and biking, as the trail is designed to accommodate both. The park is also popular for bird and wildlife watching, as it provides opportunities to observe various bird species native to the Arkansas Delta and along the Mississippi River Flyway. According to the Audubon Society, “More than 325 bird species make the round-trip each year along the Mississippi Flyway, from their breeding grounds in Canada and the northern United States to their wintering grounds along the Gulf of Mexico and in Central and South America.”

Distance cyclists will enjoy a series of trails starting in Memphis, Tennessee, crossing the Big River Bridge, riding the Big River Levee Trail to Marianna, Arkansas, riding through the St. Francis National Forest to Helena-West Helena, and then getting on the Delta Heritage Trail for nearly 200 miles of unique riding.

Delta Heritage Trail near Watson, AR.
Delta Heritage Trail near Watson, AR.

In addition to the outdoor recreational activities, the park offers interpretive panels and exhibits that provide information about the history and heritage of the region, including its agricultural and transportation history.

Once it’s completed, the Delta Heritage Trail State Park is expected to be a valuable asset for both locals and tourists, allowing them to explore the natural beauty and historical significance of the Arkansas Delta while enjoying outdoor activities.

The Update

It’s been about a year since our last update. Over 30 years in the making, at times it has felt like the trail would never get completed. Instead, a combination of grant money from Jim and Ellen Walton, matching Federal Grants, and state park appropriations have finally brought the park into focus, 84.5 miles of the project are another year closer to being complete. With two large river crossings over the Arkansas and White Rivers plus traversing miles of raised trestle along the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge (Federal Property), the final 13.40 miles is the crux of the project and the signature feature of the entire trail. It also sits in the middle of the trail with 41.6 miles making up the section north of the refuge and over 29 miles south of the refuge. This makes it impossible to ride all of the completed trails in one ride without an extreme road detour.

Arkansas Parks, Heritage and Tourism Secretary Shea Lewis said, “Two years ago, where we were at to where we are at today is mind-boggling. To see how much progress has been made and to realize we are down to two projects, two large projects, is exciting to see us this far along, to see the light at the end of the trail, so to speak.”

Updated project map for Delta Heritage Trail State Park.
Updated project map for Delta Heritage Trail State Park.

The North Section

Right now you can ride or hike from Lexa Arkansas, northwest of Helena-West Helena to Elaine, a total of 20.5 miles. According to Secretary Lewis, another 9 miles from Elaine to Mellwood will open in a couple of weeks including a trailhead facility at Mellwood. That’s 29.5 miles with an out and back of almost 60 miles. The 12.10-mile section from Mellwood to Snow Lake is currently under construction and is expected to open in mid-2024. It was pushed back due to a trestle bridge burning down that is being replaced with a steel bridge. That means by next fall the north section will have at least 41.6 miles of beautiful gravel, an 83-mile round trip.

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One of the trailheads along the Delta Heritage Trail.
One of the trailheads along the Delta Heritage Trail.

The South Section

While the south section remains open between Arkansas City and Yancopin, there is movement on two projects. First, the John H. Johnson Commemorative Plaza in Arkansas City will celebrate a grand opening on November 1, 2023, completing the southernmost trailhead of the Delta Heritage Trail. The 1.5-mile section from Yancopin to the Arkansas River including the Yancopin Bridge across the Arkansas River is expected to have construction bids open in November. The goal is to have this section and the bridge complete by the Summer of 2024.

Yancopin Bridge approach.
Yancopin Bridge approach.

The Middle Section

Again, this will be the final and hardest section to complete. Since it goes through Federal land, a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) study has to be conducted before construction can start. The NEPA is currently underway. Park staff expects this section to be completed and open by 2025.

Benzal Bridge, White River.
Benzal Bridge, White River.

Economic Opportunity Zone

The park is one of the four economic opportunity zones created by SB464 in April 2023. Along with Pinnacle Mountain, Petit Jean, and Queen Wilhelmina State Parks, Delta Heritage Trail State Park has incentives for investment both in the park and within 1/8 of a mile from the park boundary. According to the Office of Outdoor Recreation, the purpose of the opportunity zones is,

Searcy County Eclipse Ad

Concessionaire opportunities within state parks provide private businesses the chance to offer a variety of goods and services to park visitors, enhancing the overall park experience. Private partners offer the ability of state parks to broaden and enhance the potential offerings within the parks. This not only benefits the parks themselves, but also the communities surrounding the parks in quality services that better the park experience and quality of life.

To encourage growth in Arkansas’ outdoor recreation and tourism industries, the Tourism Development Incentive Program was introduced. To stimulate expansion of these industries, economic incentives are offered to qualified private development projects in the form of sales and income tax credits. Since the intent, in part, is to generate additional tourist traffic to Arkansas, each proposed project must develop a marketing plan that targets at least 25% of its visitors from out of state, meet other requirements, and submit a completed application prior to incurring any project costs.

To find out more about the criteria and to apply for the incentives go to the website.

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the Delta Heritage Trail Section between Arkansas City and Rohwer is paved and mostly on the Mississippi River Levee.
the Delta Heritage Trail Section between Arkansas City and Rohwer is paved and mostly on the Mississippi River Levee.

(All photos courtesy of Arkansas Parks, Heritage and Tourism)

Arkansas Cycling & Fitness.

6 Responses

  1. Are there any plans for changes to the road crossing gates? I rode the section south of Lexa with my wife a few years ago. The road crossings required us to dismount from our bikes to go through. There are road crossings every few miles, so this got quite annoying.

  2. Thanks for the update Joe. 1 correction though, Arkansas City is in Desha County & is the county seat!
    Once again, thanks for this excellent coverage!

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