All Along the Riverside
From Big River Crossing to the Delta Heritage
Trail, it’s never been easier to cycle across the Delta
Story by Jane Schneider
When work life and traffic is bogging you down, it’s nice to know refreshment is within reach. Just pack up your bike and head to Helena, Arkansas. There you’ll find the Delta Heritage Trail, an easy, rail-to-trail ride that takes cycling enthusiasts through the fields and forest of the Arkansas Delta. The trail is picturesque, but also part of a bigger cycling picture.
The Big Reveal
With the opening of the Big River Crossing across the Harahan Bridge in Memphis, riders can more readily access a web of bike trails that will eventually run through the Arkansas Delta. Big River Crossing, the nation’s longest pedestrian land bridge across the Mississippi River, is part of a master plan called the Big River Strategic Initiative (BRSI) that “fosters and develops recreational amenities that support economic development to previously harder to reach areas of the Arkansas Delta,” says Terry Eastin, BRSI’s executive director.
The overarching idea is to encourage recreational tourism in the Delta, which has long struggled economically with job and population loss. With rail-to-trail paths and Big River Trail, a crushed gravel path that runs 63-miles atop the St. Francis Levee from Marion to Marianna, Arkansas, visitors will find new ways to appreciate and explore the Delta.
The 21-mile Delta Heritage Trail runs from Lexa to Elaine, Arkansas. The best jumping off point is the town of Helena-West Helena.
Discovering Helena’s History
While you might be familiar with Helena-West Helena thanks to its musical roots — the King Biscuit Flour Hour or the annual King Biscuit Blues Festival (Oct. 5-8) — this sleepy river town has an intriguing past. Helena is Arkansas’ second oldest city and its early history was as a river port. Starting in the 1820s, steamboats on the Mississippi River would call, hauling cotton, timber, and other goods as they plied the waters from Vicksburg to Memphis and beyond.
The cultural riches of the town are on display at the Helena Museum of Phillips County. Here you’ll see portraits of the county’s seven Confederate generals, as well as the original silk flag made by the townswomen for their sons and husbands to carry into battle. There’s also a signed copy of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, an interesting assortment of Native American pottery, and material belonging to the great American inventor, Thomas Edison. A second destination is the Delta Cultural Center, where you’ll learn more about the region’s settlement, blues music, and how the Mississippi River floods have impacted the area.
Out on the Trail
Next, drive six miles to Lexa, where you’ll find the first of several put-on points for the bike trail. (The trailhead is one mile south of Lexa on Highway 49.) Created from the former route of the Missouri Pacific’s Delta Eagle, the Delta Heritage Trail State Park is part of the national, rail-to-trail initiative that converts former rail lines into bike routes. Being developed in phases along the former Union Pacific Railroad right-of-way, this segment stretches 21 miles to Elaine. When completed, the 84-mile trail will end in Rohwer, Arkansas.
Here, the crushed limestone trail is kept cool by a gracious arbor of hardwoods. In addition to cotton, the Arkansas Delta was famous for its timber. During the teens and twenties, logging was extensive as a bounty of loblolly pine, black walnut, oak, chestnut, Bald cypress, and other trees were harvested. During that time, Helena boasted the second largest hardwood market in the world.
This flat, easy ride is alive with bird song and wildlife, such as deer and turkey. Even foxes can be spotted, if you’re lucky. The canopy thins as you travel further south, gradually giving way to expansive views of farmland rich in milo, cotton, soybeans, and rice. You’ll find a number of historic markers along the route that tell interesting tales about the region, such as the skirmish at Lick Creek during the Civil War and the Elaine Massacre of 1919, a reminder of long simmering racial tensions that once boiled over here. The riot that ensued is considered among the deadliest racial conflicts in the nation’s history.
To enjoy a water view, consider paddling Old Town Lake. This beautiful oxbow lake, once a section of the Mississippi River, is filled with towering cypress trees. If you don’t have your own equipment, you can rent a bike or kayak at the Barton Visitor Center during their Pedal Paddle tours, which take place monthly. (See sidebar for more details).