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FORT SMITH'S OWN BACKYARD

The early afternoon sky darkens as Jim West, from left, takes a photo of his son, Clay, 10, and Clay's cousin, Grafton Smith, 11, as Grafton's dad, Elton Smith, looks on at McClure Amphitheater.
[TIMES RECORD FILE PHOTO]

BY MARK AND AUDRA TITSWORTH

We’re both teachers in the River Valley, and we actually teach in the same school district. It’s a bit of a drive every day, so several years ago, we realized it probably made sense to carpool. Economically speaking, it’s great, but while one of us does enjoy a caffeinated conversation in the morning, the other one would, well, the phrase, “rather not,” comes up a lot.  

“Do you think I could have used less hair gel when we first met?” Or, “I don’t feel like I’ve given pistachios a fair chance, ya know?” These, and questions like them, are met with stony silence and a sideways glance featuring eyes that clearly say, “Please, stop.”  Occasionally though, conversation does somehow get rolling, and it’s almost always about school. We talk about how difficult it can be to get students to see the big picture and that their years of schooling come together to create a uniquely interesting version of themselves.

It’s not one field trip or one history class that make you the person you’re going to be.  Not just one semester of art or a single quiz that will shape your individual interests and personality. It’s all of it. One humongous collection of successes and failures that shape us into something original. That’s what we tell them. Their eyes? “Please, stop.”  

Honestly though, the same is true for us as adults. Our individuality and the parts that make us each fascinating develop from a continuation of experiences throughout our whole life. Have you ever suddenly realized you’re not the same person you were two years ago? In short, stuff happens to you, and those experiences make you more interesting to be around. Luckily, it’s not only the bad things that mold us, but also the good things we choose to do every day.

About a year ago, I sat in front of the TV on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon realizing my character was in need of some building, or at the very least, I needed some new material added to my conversation topic rolodex. Suddenly, I heard some primal calling to get outside. Sprucing up the yard is always a solid option, but a pernicious lack of money and a credit card statement that warned, “Don’t even think about it” led us to consider exploring Fort Smith’s great outdoors for some vitamin D and sculpting of the mind.  

Woodsy family fun is especially common this time of year, and whether you're looking for such activities to do as a family or solo, living in Fort Smith may offer more of these opportunities than you realize. I think for me it’s the word realize that’s compelling here as I never knew what was practically in my own backyard. My family used to load up the car and drive hours in every direction to go camping for the weekend, but did we know about Springhill Park just minutes from Rogers Avenue?

A beautiful campground with fishing, boating and some pretty great mountain bike trails.This is not a watered-down version of camping; it’s the real deal right down to the charming retired couple manning the check-in booth! Visit their website or call ahead to reserve your campsite and the memories practically create themselves. The best thing about camping at Springhill Park? You’re a five-minute drive from civilized Fort Smith restaurants, stores and perhaps even your own shower at home. Camping is all about removing yourself from the bustle, but it’s always nice to know the city is bustling very close by. Springhill Park has a playground and a challenging mountain bike course that features a number of shifts in scenery including uniquely wooded bottomland and a mile or two right alongside the Arkansas River. 

TORRAINE LAKE

From Springhill Park, next we head southwest by hopping onto the newly constructed section of Interstate 49, or any number of other ways, toward Chaffee Crossing to take advantage of some of the best biking and walking trails in the River Valley, arguably the most stunning scenic overview of Fort Smith, and a perfectly picturesque lake most Fort Smith residents don’t even know exists. Starting with the latter, scarcely known Torraine Lake is just past The Reserve at Chaffee Crossing, right off Chad Colley Boulevard. A newly paved walking trail around the lake, delightful public pavilion, benches positioned around the lake for fishing and an impressively charming pedestrian bridge connecting to the walking and bike trail system in the area left us both wondering how we missed this place before now. 

MCCLURE AMPHITHEATER

Just a moment from Torraine lake exists one of the most peaceful panoramic overlooks of Fort Smith available from historic McClure Amphitheater. Initially built in 1953 and then masterfully updated in 2011, its carefully crafted stone risers are a great place to just sit, relax and slow things down for a bit. We stumbled onto this local gem one midsummer’s date night, and realized it was the perfect place to take a coffee, watch the sunset, and just be.

Finally, my favorite, and also in the Chaffee Crossing area, is the walking and biking trail system that’s made enormous strides in the past few years to really take advantage of our natural landscape in this area of the city. Now, like many of our area’s outdoor features, it goes largely underused simply because it’s precise location remains largely unknown. Specifically, the trailhead locations are not overtly revealing … of which there are three.

The first can be found in the parking lot of the aforementioned Torraine Lake, the second in the heart of Ben Geren Park, and lastly, and without a doubt my favorite, is the trailhead located just off Massard Road as you reach the pinnacle of Chaffee Crossing on your right. If you get to the most beautifully painted fire station you’ve ever seen, you’ve gone a bit too far.

BEN GEREN BIKE TRAIL

There are a number of maps available to help the novice walker, runner, or rider navigate both the paved and mountain bike trails; however, there really is no substitute for just exploring at your own pace. The real exceptional part of this trail system though? Well, despite the number of opportunities to abandon the main paved lanes and venture off onto the mountain bike trails, you’re always just a few moments away from criss-crossing over the paved way again, which is awfully convenient if you decide your appetite for adventure is more tame that day than you originally thought and you want a quick exit back to the car.

We’ve been visiting these trails for a little over a year now, and I must say this area is truly a gift for residents of Fort Smith. Furthermore, it wasn’t built to sit stagnant and unmaintained: very much the opposite. Its spring grasses along the main pathway and around scenically centered park benches are trimmed regularly and thanks to some truly altruistic acts of city-hugging initiative, many local volunteers not only provide materials at their cost, but also donate countless hours of their own time to build, maintain, and create new and exciting additions to the mountain bike trails.

Speaking of which, a new extra wide, downhill style course is being constructed right now that’s soon to open and sure to be a blast! If you need a break from the monotony of the treadmill or eliptical, I cannot oversell this area enough for a remarkable change of scenery year-round. The sights, sounds and smells underneath the canopy of spring foliage are truly an experience in Fort Smith that cannot go unexperienced!

Enjoying these features of our city has added a layer to our lives and definitely made us both something not-quite-the-same over the past year. Our best advice is to learn the directions to these places fluently, because your friends, family, and neighbors are certainly going to be eager to join you. Whether old, new or continually changing, these tree-laden labors of love are literally moving mountains and changing the landscape of our community, and one thing is certain: Fort Smith is a great place to play outside.

 

Mark and Audra Titsworth live in Fort Smith with their precocious 2-year-old daughter Junie and more than a few furry friends. Both are teachers in the Greenwood school district. In the fall, Mark will be joining the Van Buren School District as assistant vice principal.