Arkansas was on my original “hit” list for stops on our cross country trip but largely because I was intrigued by the state’s culture and history, and curious about the state that Bill Clinton once called home. What I didn’t realize was just how raw and beautiful its mountain ranges were nor did I know anything about its vast Ouachita National Park. It didn’t take much digging to realize that the state is a natural wonderland — in fact, it’s tagline is The Natural State. Go figure! How did Arkansas pass an adventure lover’s radar?
The truth is that you don’t hear much about Arkansas as a destination spot when you live on an Eastern or Western coastline, especially if happens to be in the north, which has been the case for me for most of my life.
New Englanders head to the Carolinas or Florida, Canadians simply head anywhere warm and Californians tend to head to Arizona, Mexico and Hawaii if they’re not avid skiiers in which case, Tahoe is on their radar. It also isn’t on a major airline route for the most part and a quick search from the west coast turned up a bunch of options with one stop but the more reasonable fares all had two stops.
That said, you can easily plan a family vacation there from either coast by getting a little creative — fly into the nearest city that has a direct flight and DRIVE. Arkansas is stunning, whether its the vast farmlands and prairie like landscape in rural Arkansas where there’s no shortage of clear blue skies and bouncy white clouds, or the national parks.
While the above and below photos have been edited, the touch ups are minimal — the skies really were that clear and blue, even in the dead of winter and the clouds really were that fluffy, not too unlike what you find in nearby Oklahoma.
Then, somewhere along the way in central Arkansas, you hit the vast Ouachita National Forest, which covers 1.8 million acres and extends from Arkansas through to southeastern Oklahoma. The forest itself is managed for multiple uses, including timber and wood production, watershed protection and improvement, habitat for wildlife and fish species (including threatened and endangered ones), wilderness area management, minerals leasing, and outdoor recreation. There are countless choices for camping, hiking, biking, scenic driving, trail riding, boating, fishing, hunting, and swimming.
Below are shots of the lake in and around the Mountain Harbor Resort grounds, where we hung our hat for a stint (be sure to read my write-up on the resort and the ever so relaxing Turtle Cove Spa – highly recommended).
You can use the historical town of Hot Springs, which has an entire street of thermal bath houses and spas, as a base for a few days and do day trips through the park or stay at various spots along the way. You can choose for rustic and luxury or simply camp given your access to so much natural beauty. When in Hot Springs, be sure to check out McClards BBQ joint which has been around since 1928 and was an old Bill Clinton favorite before he changed his diet.
Taking the drive from Hot Springs, you can do an interesting circular loop. Burl’s Smokehouse along Route 270 is an interesting stop as it exudes all things rural Arkansas. Here you can get gear (real men’s gear), camping necessities, smoked meat and spicy pork jerky, potato salads, pickles and even wine. Parts of this very spread out country store feel a bit like a museum as you’re meandering through — inside and out. Have a look…
Let’s not forget the Outlaw Liquor store nearby.
What you don’t realize about Arkansas before setting foot on her soil is that she is a unique tapestry of mountains, plains and fertile delta. The state’s history and heritage is part Western frontier, part Ozark pioneer and part Old South, and it feels that way as you drive through.
Burl’s Smokehouse was a reminder that locals and tourists alike show up to go duck, deer and wild turkey hunting or fish for trout or big bass. Nearby is a foodie gem in the rough. In the middle of what appears to be nowhere, lies Jen’s Gourmet Galley, roughly 38 or so miles on Route 270 west of Hot Springs. Yup, the delicious delicacies below are homemade, including her out-of-this world pecan pie.
The place is about as old fashioned and local as it gets. Here, we met some locals who began to chat with us, curious as to why we were taking photos of all of Jen’s food. We met a woman who recently moved to Arkansas and together with her retired husband, purchased 120 acres of land in Norman which they’re turning into an elderberry farm. Fascinating I thought!
We learned about more local gems in the area, but a drive that would take you even more rural than we already were. Mt. Ida is nearby where you van visit the Heritage House Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the history of Montgomery County and providing educational experiences relating to that history.
Examples include the words, deeds and activities that made up the daily lives of their ancestors with special emphasis on the timber industry, quartz crystal and of course Lake Ouachita, which is an integral part of everyone’s lives in the area. It’s small like the Montgomery County town itself, with a population of roughly just over 1,000.
The other popular thing to do in and around Mt. Ida is mine quartz crystals from nearby mines. While we didn’t spend a day doing this, we visited a few and looked at a variety of minerals, rocks and crystals in shops that run along the 270. The Fiddler’s Ridge Crystal Mine is in the Mt. Ida area — they also have a gift shop, which serves as a wholesale and retail outlet for fine, quartz crystals and other gems, minerals, rocks, gifts, souvenirs, jewelry and more.
They are located on 3752 Highway 270 East in Mt. Ida. (below, visitors in action).
Photo credit: Karen Heath – www.karenheath.com.
You should also check out Wegner’s Crystal Mine and visit with owner Richard Wegner. More info can be found at www.wegnercrystalmines.com. Also note Murfree’s Borough, which is a nearby state park where can mine your own diamonds.
A local I met at a cafe told me I must not leave the area without paying homage to the historical barn of John Standridge, a landmark everyone in the area seems to know about. Ask anyone in the area and they can direct you.
Mt. Ida is so small that they have a country store which also serves as a gas station and a place where locals hang out on a Saturday night. The locals we met at Jen’s tells us that people come, throw up a chair and listen or participate in a live music jam session on weekends. During the summer, people also play music on the Front Porch Stage in the courthouse square.
Also on your Arkansas planning list, you should add Eureka Springs, a small little town frozen in time. Think art colonies, small, old, charming and historical. To get there from central Arkansas, you need to head northwest towards the Ozark Mountains. A unique Victorian resort village, Eureka Springs is nestled in the middle of the Ozarks.
Photo credit: Arkansas.com.
The city has steep winding streets filled with Victorian-style cottages and manors and the old commercial section of the city has an alpine character, with an extensive streetscape of well-preserved Victorian buildings. The buildings are primarily constructed of local stone and lie along streets that curve around the hills and rise and fall with the topography in a five-mile long loop. Some buildings have street-level entrances on more than one floor.
Eureka Springs has been selected as one of America’s Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Eureka Springs has historically been called “The Little Switzerland of America” and “The Stairstep Town” because of its mountainous terrain and the winding, up-and-down paths of its streets and walkways. The streets wind around the town, and no two intersect at a 90 degree angle. There are also no traffic lights.
Another side trip a few hours away from central Arkansas sits Bentonville Arkansas, which I learned about from a fellow travel writer who grew up in the area. Known for its beauty and its culture, she suggested that we hit Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a must-see if we went through the area.
A great spot to stay in town is the modern and hip 21c Museum Hotel, which is located on the northeast corner of the Bentonville town square and a short walk to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art among other local attractions.
Photo credit: 21cmuseumhotels.com.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is an impressive museum of American art that was founded by Alice Walton and designed by Moshe Safdie.
Above, the museum by night – Photo credit: www.ualrpublicradio.org.
Above, inside the museum store – Photo credit: www.Arkansasbusiness.com.
Arkansas is a wonderland and a state worth exploring, giving it more depth than we were able to do during the week we were there. In addition to the stunning Ozark Mountains and Lake Ouachita, there are unique cultural gems and great art galleries, antique shops and even golfing for the golf fans among us.
You will also find yourself amused from time-to-time. You’ll find shops and businesses with odd southern names and roads like Hook and Line Road, and in the middle of that amusement, you’ll find generosity and warmth from locals, a wealth of stories from yesteryear and even in the middle of winter, the rich colors of the forest will put a smile on your face.
I’ve mentioned the skies before, but it’s worth mentioning them again. Only Oklahoma came close to offering those fluffy clouds and wispy but soft sunsets that faded into the night.
The shot below is glorious even with their grainy texture as they were both taken on my iPhone, not my Canon 7D like the others.
Vinny, our Pontiac from New York was happy to be driving under her glorious skies as were we! We would have loved more time in her mountains and if you’re an outdoor fan, so will you. SO, nature lovers and adventure seekers, what are you waiting for? Put Arkansas on your American travel bucket list!!
And, if you can, drive as much as possible. Cross over the Arkansas border and expect to be surprised!