Extraordinary experiences await in the Natural State—where you can dig for diamonds, float down a wild river, and retrace the footsteps of civil rights pioneers.
1. Hit the trail
Take a walk on Arkansas’s wild side on a leisurely loop trail, challenging wilderness trek, or something in between. Stretching about 192 miles from the Oklahoma border east to the outskirts of Little Rock, the Ouachita National Recreation Trail offers opportunities for easy woodland walks, moderate day hikes, and rugged backpacking excursions. In Petit Jean State Park, northwest of Little Rock in Morrilton, hike to stunning 95-foot Cedar Falls or ramble through a jumble of sandstone boulders on the kid-friendly Bear Cave Trail. At the Upper Buffalo Wilderness Area south of Harrison, hike the Whitaker Point Trail to what is arguably the Natural State’s most photographed natural site.
2. Discover the past
Travel through history on the Arkansas Heritage Trails. The four driving routes (Butterfield Trail, Civil War Trails, Southwest Trail, and Trail of Tears) include stops at key historic spots, such as Pea Ridge National Military Park, site of one of the largest Civil War battles west of the Mississippi. Join any of the trails in Little Rock, where you can visit the Clinton Presidential Center (including the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum), the Old State House Museum, and the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. Walk the hallways on a guided tour (reservations required) to learn about the school’s pivotal role in the integration of public schools.
3. Watch for wildlife
Arkansas is where the wild things are. More than 70 kinds of mammals and more than 300 bird species are at home in the state’s vast natural areas. Check the Watchable Wildlife hot spots guide for tips on spotting black bears, armadillos, bald eagles, and other fauna in Arkansas state parks such as Cane Creek and Lake Chicot, a year-round birding destination in the Mississippi Flyway. To see wild elk, drive through the Boxley Valley in the upper district of the Buffalo National River. On the way, be sure to stop at the Ponca Elk Education Center. See tigers, lions, and more rescued big cats at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge in Eureka Springs.
4. Find your perfect park
Experience Arkansas’s extraordinary natural diversity by sampling some of its 52 state parks and seven national parks. Soak in thermal water baths and indoor pools at Hot Springs National Park. Golf, fish, camp, or go horseback riding at DeGray Lake Resort State Park. Dig for treasure at Crater of Diamonds State Park, the world’s only “finders keepers” diamond site open to the public. Rock climb on 200-foot-high bluffs, ride through the woods on an all-terrain vehicle, and walk through one of the state’s last remaining virgin forests at Mount Magazine State Park, home to the state’s tallest mountain at 2,753 feet.
5. Experience art and culture
Bentonville’s world-class Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art seamlessly blends the natural splendor of the Ozark hills and an impressive collection of American masterworks (such as Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter”). Set on 120 forested acres, the architecturally stunning museum features nature-centric design elements such as glass-enclosed bridges over ponds. There’s no charge to walk the museum’s trails, tour Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House (originally located in New Jersey), and view the permanent collection. April to November, watch blacksmiths and more than 20 other craft artisans at work at Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View. In South Arkansas, the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources celebrates the region’s oil and brine industry pioneers.
6. Just add water
Arkansas is filled to the brim with excellent places to float, fish, paddle, and play. The state boasts more than 600,000 acres of lakes, 9,700 miles of streams, and 300 miles of the Arkansas River. Embrace lake life at Lake Ouachita State Park. Rent a houseboat, kayak, paddleboard, ski boat, or party barge to enjoy the park’s 40,000-acre namesake, the largest man-made lake located completely within Arkansas. For a wilderness water adventure, float the Buffalo National River. Buffalo Outdoor Center rents canoes, kayaks, and rafts, and offers guided rafting trips. In the southeastern delta, cruise through a cypress swamp on a guided barge tour at bayou-like Lake Chicot State Park.
7. Ride a bike
With six Bicycle Friendly Communities, easy to expert road cycling routes, and the first region-wide International Mountain Bicycling Association Ride Center, Arkansas is a pedal pusher’s paradise. In Little Rock, bike the 4,226-foot-long Big Dam Bridge, part of the Arkansas River Trail System and North America’s longest bridge built specifically for cyclists and walkers. Northwest Arkansas is famous for mountain biking on adrenaline-pumping trail systems like Slaughter Pen. Tamer territory awaits in Delta Heritage Trail State Park, a rail-to-trail project passing through remote reaches of the eastern delta. In West Memphis, pedal or walk over the Mississippi on the new Big River Crossing Boardwalk—the longest rail/bicycle/pedestrian bridge in the United States.
8. Celebrate the sounds
When it comes to music, Arkansas is a little bit country and a whole lot of bluegrass, blues, and gospel. Hear the state’s soulful sounds at down-home venues like the Montgomery County Front Porch Stage (May to October) in Mount Ida, the Hacketts’ Gospel Singing Shed (second Saturday of every month) near Dermott, and Ozark Folk Center State Park (March to November) in Mountain View. Learn how Arkansas influenced the life and music of the Man in Black at the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess. To honor its favorite singing son, Dyess will host the first Johnny Cash Heritage Festival in October 2017.
9. Go underground
What lies beneath the surface of Arkansas’s Ozark Mountain region is a subterranean world of wonder—limestone caves, underground lakes, and ever changing stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, soda straws, and other decorative rock formations. Go wild caving or walk a paved trail (including the stair-free Dripstone Trail, accessible to strollers and wheelchairs) at Blanchard Springs Caverns, near Mountain View. Hidden inside Cosmic Cavern in Berryville are two cave lakes and exotic underworld creatures, such as blind cave trout and the Ozark blind cave salamander. Mystic Caverns and Crystal Dome near Harrison is a two-for-one caving experience. Tour Mystic (open for tours since the 1920s) to hear the colorful moonshiner history and Crystal (discovered in 1967) to see the soaring eight-story dome.
10. Take a scenic drive
Savor the state’s natural splendor on a leisurely road trip. In the east, the Great River Road crosses rolling hills, fertile Delta croplands, and the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge. Learn about the area’s Civil War, blues, and Native American heritage in towns like Helena, home of the Delta Cultural Center. From Helena to Marianna, the road intersects with Crowley’s Ridge Parkway National Scenic Byway, named for the more than 200-mile-long crescent-shaped ridge rising from the floodplain. In the west, the 290-mile-long Scenic 7 Byway is considered among the nation’s top scenic drives. For awe-inspiring mountain vistas, cruise the Talimena Scenic Drive/Arkansas 88 Scenic Byway.