Situated in the South Central region is Arkansas, “The Natural State”. Hence the nickname, the state is most famous for its landscapes, which include the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains, as well as the Timberlands, and lowlands.
Although natural beauty shines bright in Arkansas, the state also has dozens of historic, cultural, and artistic attractions. Most tourists will head to major cities like Little Rock, Fayetteville, and Fort Smith to enjoy urban attractions including museums, shops, restaurants, and bars.
However, there are dozens of small towns worth exploring too. Some like Eureka Springs have become popular tourist destinations for outdoor activities. Oozing small town charm, these destinations are ideal for travelers that want to head off the beaten path.
Visitors will also find that many attractions have high historic value. From ties to the Civil Rights Movement, past presidents, and a diamond mine. Whether you want to explore the city, check out the small communities, learn from history or escape in nature, a vacation to Arkansas will be fun and entertaining.
History of “The Natural State”
For thousands of years, Native American tribes like the Caddo, Quapaw, and Osage have lived in Arkansas. Evidence of their cultures exists in platform mounds that were built during the Woodland and Mississippian periods.
These tribes were also the first to come into contact with Hernando de Soto, a European explorer who traveled to Arkansas in 1541. Seeing little value in the land and facing resistance by the indigenous people, de Soto retreated to the Mississippi River before falling ill and dying.
The first encounter did not go well with many indigenous people killed by de Soto and his men. Further exploration would not occur until 1673, when French and French Canadian explorers came to the area. By 1686, they established the first European settlement at a Quapaw village called the Arkansas Post.
In the following years, control of the land would change from France to Spain after the Seven Years’ War. By 1803, the entirety of Arkansas, which was a part of French Louisiana at the time, was sold to the US by Napoleon Boneparte. However, the Territory of Arkansas would not be officially established until July 1819. In June 1836, Arkansas was admitted as the 25th state.
During the Civil War, the state was heavily divided between supporting and rejecting slavery. The southeast region of the state relied on slave labor on cotton plantations, whereas the northeast parts of the state were against slavery. Ultimately, Arkansas was a slave state and issues of race would remain throughout the decades.
During the late 1800s and well into the 1900s, the state was heavily segregated with Arkansas enforcing Jim Crow laws. The end of segregation would come in 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled segregation in public schools to be unconstitutional (Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas). This led to the famous Little Rock Nine, who were the first African-American students to integrate a high school.
Capital City of Little Rock
The capital and largest city in Arkansas is Little Rock with 202,591 residents as of 2020. An iconic city for the Civil Rights Movement, Little Rock is also closely connected to President Clinton. In the past few decades, the city has been reimagining itself to be a modern, fun, and exciting tourist destination. Friendly to all travelers, including families, trips to this capital will be unforgettable.
On the diverse list of attractions in Little Rock, some of the top sights are the Old State House Museum, Little Rock Zoo, Arkansas River Trail, Pinnacle Mountain State Park, The Old Mill, River Market District, Riverfront Park, and the Big Dam Bridge. The two most historic attractions are the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and the Little Rock Central High School.
For tourists that are looking for even more to do in Little Rock, the local food is a must try. Relying heavily on typical southern comfort food, many new age restaurants have put their twist on tradition. Visitors will find hundreds of world-class restaurants throughout the city where they can try meals like black eyed peas, collared greens, and key lime pie.
Fayetteville, “Track Capital of the World”
Nestled within the Ozarks is Fayetteville, the second largest city in Alabama with a population of 93,949 as of 2020. The city is most famous for being the home of the University of Arkansas. In part because of the university community, this city feels more like a small town. The easy to navigate layout means that tourists can easily hop from attractions to restaurants and shops.
The University of Arkansas campus is a major attraction for the city. With students, visiting families and more, the campus can get quite busy with tour groups, special occasions, and sporting events. College football is the favorite sport and one of the top events for the university. Although visiting the campus is popular, there are plenty of other things to do in Fayetteville too.
The Fayetteville Farmers’ Market, Wilson Park, Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, Clinton House Museum, Walton Arts Center, TheatreSquared, Fayetteville Downtown Square & Gardens, and Lake Fayetteville are also fun places that are worth checking out.
Fort Smith, The Third Largest City in Arkansas
Close to the border with Oklahoma is Fort Smith – the third largest city in Arkansas with a population of 89,142 as of 2020. The city is situated by the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers, which locals call Belle Point. Historically, the city began as a military post in 1817. Currently, the center of the city is the most historic, as it was once the heart of the military post.
In today’s world, Fort Smith is an important tourist destination where travelers can learn more about the state’s history, while also enjoying modern comforts. Most tourism in the area is driven by the Civil War era, as well as the earliest forms of the fort. However, the overall charming and quiet atmosphere of Fort Smith makes it one of the best destinations in Arkansas.
Attractions in Fort Smith include the Rivervalley Artisan Market, Fort Smith National Cemetery, Fort Smith National Historic Site, The Clayton House, Fort Smith Museum of History, Fort Smith Farmers’ Market, and the Massard Prairie Battlefield Park.
Bentonville, Home of Walmart
Bentonville is a smaller city, but it is most famous for being the birthplace and current headquarters of Walmart, which is the largest retailer in the world. Walmart began as the Walton Five and Dime Store owned by Sam Walton. The Walton Family first began to expand their empire in 1945 and since then it has continued to grow.
Many people travel to Denton to see the home of Walmart and the original store. However, there are additional attractions that are often overlooked. Beyond the Walton store, visitors should check out the Peel Museum & Botanical Garden, Compton Gardens, Bachman-Wilson House, Bentonville Town Square, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Eureka Springs, “Little Switzerland of the Ozarks”
The most popular resort destination to visit in Arkansas is Eureka Springs. Home to a mere 2,166 people as of 2020, the city has been nicknamed the “Little Switzerland of the Ozarks” because of its Victorian architecture and jaw dropping beauty. The steep winding terrain is also reminiscent of the jagged alps where paths wind as they go up and down.
Downtown Eureka Springs is the place to go and it also features the majority of preserved Victorian buildings. Streets in this area are limestone and they follow a looping layout. Visitors should be aware that many streets have steep sections and tight curves. There are no traffic lights in the city and only a handful of intersections.
Around town, attractions include the Blue Spring Heritage Center, Quigley’s Castle, the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, Eureka Springs Historical Museum, the Crescent Hotel, Pivot Rock & Natural Bridge, Inspiration Point, Thorncrown Chapel, and the Christ of the Ozarks.
Hot Springs National Park
Featuring 9 historic bath houses and a storied past is Hot Springs National Park in Garland County. An icon of the 20th century “American spa”, the hot springs have long been regarded to have medicinal properties. Belief in the thermal water dates even further back with legends of the pools existing in Native American Culture. The springs were first federally protected in 1831 and just a few decades later it became a booming spa town.
Today, the national park is a part of the city of Hot Springs. People from far and wide travel to the national park to bathe, hike, and educate themselves about the springs. Highlights of the park include Bathhouse Row, which is home to the Lamar, Buckstaff, Ozark, Quapaw, Fordyce, Maurice, Hale, and Superior bath houses.
Additionally, visitors can hike around the springs by taking some of the various trails. Some of the most popular trails are on North and West Mountain. Sunset Trail is the longest path tourists can take with it being 10 miles one way or up to 17 miles long if you do the full loop.
Mammoth Spring State Park
Another water-based destination is Mammoth Spring State Park in Fulton County. Unlike the hot springs, the water isn’t warm, but the large size of the spring means that visitors can enjoy a variety of activities including boating, fishing, and hiking. There is also a hydroelectric plant and dam on site that once powered a cotton gin, flour mill, and cotton mill. For more history, visitors can take a short trail to the Frisco Train Depot and Museum.
Adding to the list of attractions is the Arkansas Welcome Center, baseball field, playground, picnic area, and gift shop. Visitors can pick and choose what they do, but can be certain that they won’t be bored when touring this state park.
Crater of Diamonds State Park
By far the most unique state park in Arkansas and the entire US is Crater of Diamonds. This is the only place in the world where public visitors can search for their own diamond that comes direct from a volcanic source. The main digging site is a 37-acre field, which has a jagged surface where a variety of minerals, gems, and rocks can be uncovered. Anything that is found by visitors, they are permitted to keep.
Visitors are permitted to bring their own mining equipment, as long as it does not feature a motor or use battery power. Tools can also be rented directly from the park. At the Diamond Discovery Center, tourists can learn more about the park as well as learn a few diamond hunting techniques. In addition to the crater field, attractions include campsites, tent sites, a gift shop, and the Diamond Springs Water Park.
Devil’s Den State Park
In Northwest Arkansas, the Devil’s Den State Park is a gorgeous recreational area where tourists can head year-round to enjoy a variety of outdoor activities. The most popular things to do are hiking, horseback riding, biking, camping, and swimming. Altogether, there are 64 miles of trails that are open to hikers, bikers, and horseback riders. Visitors can also enjoy swimming at the waterfall and along other spots of the Lee Creek Valley.
Staying overnight in the state park is easy because visitors can reserve one of 17 full-service cabins or any of the 143 camp sites. Visitors are encouraged to research their accommodation choice as the cabins are rustic and not all campsites have the same amenities or features.
Living up to its nickname, “The Natural State” is a wonderland for outdoor lovers. From the lush valleys to the high mountains, this state has plenty of biodiversity to take your breath away. For those that want to head to urban landscapes, there are also dozens of destinations that have high historic value. Arkansas is a great place to start for those that have ever wanted to explore the South Central region of the US.
If you’re in need of some R&R after all the adventuring, stop by one of the natural hot springs in Arkansas.