Geographically, Arkansas straddles the space between the pancake flatlands of the Mississippi Delta and the US Interior Highlands, an upland region that spreads across four states. But the hybrid character of this state is revealed in more than its topography.
Culturally, Arkansas encompasses both the South and the Midwest. This is a state that can be loud about its faith and rejecting what it perceives as elitism; it’s also a place where an almost overwhelmingly warm sense of hospitality is typically extended to guests, and deep reserves of folk culture manifest at often unexpected times.
Mountain biking in Northwest Arkansas
You can get a lot of adventure mileage out of two wheels in the Natural State. Three Arkansas cities – Fayetteville, Bentonville and Hot Springs – have earned the Ride Center designation from the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), and Northwest Arkansas was the first IMBA Regional Ride Center in the country. Yes, that’s a lot of nomenclature being thrown around, but the honor is real.
A world-class mountain biking destination, combining two crucial qualities – four seasons, with long swathes of moderate weather (especially in the fall), and, well, lots of mountains – the Arkansas mountains are particularly well cut out for mountain biking trails. There’s lots of shady leaf cover, a plethora of dirt trails and relatively easy access from larger towns. Take Lake Leatherwood in Eureka Springs, for example: a municipal park with a dedicated, top-tier mountain biking infrastructure.
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Float down the Buffalo River
On the subject of user-friendly Arkansas adventures, we’d be remiss not to mention a float down the Buffalo National River. The country’s first designated national river cuts through the state’s flinty heart, swerving through high canyon walls and around sandy beaches, themselves adjacent to grassy campsites perfect for a night of sleeping under the stars.
A float trip on the Buffalo can be as adventurous or as casual as you choose; make sure to contact the right outdoor center before plotting your expedition.
Learn about Little Rock Central High School
In the middle of the state capital, Little Rock Central High School is a still-functioning school that, in the mid-20th century, bore witness to one of the Civil Rights movement’s iconic showdowns.
In 1954, the Supreme Court ordered the integration of public schools, but that effort was not attempted in segregated Arkansas until 1957, at this school, when nine students had to be escorted past a jeering crowd by National Guard soldiers. Today, a National Park Service museum stands at the sight. But it is worth noting that following integration, many white families either left Little Rock or sent their children to private schools – far from being the end of segregation, Little Rock Central High was merely a chapter in its legacy.
Soak up the pretty in Petit Jean
Petit Jean State Park can claim to be the oldest state park in Arkansas. It’s one of the prettier ones too, encompassing a wonderful range of iconic state scenery, from canyons to forests to upland forests.
Eight official trails pierce the green heart of the park; we are partial to Seven Hollows, which passes through a series of forested canyons, and Bear Cave, marked by enormous, surreally compelling sandstone boulders (also, it’s not technically a cave). If you need a nice view to show off to your family at home, catch a sunrise from the 1120ft-high peak of Petit Jean Mountain, which overlooks the rolling beauty of the Arkansas River Valley.
Jam out in Mountain View
Smack in the middle of the state, Mountain View sits at the crossroads of the folk traditions of the Ozarks. The Europeans who settled this area were adept at living off the land, far removed from urban centers of power and wealth. In the absence of those influences, they thrived, creating a distinctive Ozark folk culture that most noticeably manifests in music.
To listen to those tunes, head to Ozark Folk Center State Park, where shows pop off regularly, or just wander into Mountain View’s town square, which hosts weekly jam sessions led by local musicians. It’s worth mentioning here that Mountain View is great for outdoor adventures as well, like the zip lines and canopies at Loco Ropes.
Have a soak in Hot Springs
Arkansas can lay claim to two big federal firsts: the first national river, and the first federally protected space, Hot Springs National Park. Said springs didn’t get official park status until the early 20th century, but in the meantime its public baths and casinos turned the little town of Hot Springs into one of the richest cities in the country.
Indeed, gangsters like Al Capone were regulars on the Hot Springs circuit during the days of Prohibition, and the money brought from mass tourism helped fund the construction of gorgeous early-20th-century architectural landmarks in the busy downtown district. You can actually stay in some of these spas now – a nice way to soothe the muscles after a big hike.
Relive the 1990s in Little Rock
Love him or hate him, you can’t deny Bill Clinton defined the American political scene in the 1990s – and remember, he was governor of Arkansas before he became president.
In Little Rock, the William J Clinton Presidential Center is like a time capsule of the ‘90s and its geopolitics. There are some 80 million documents here, and you can see presidential itineraries that begin with coffee, then determining what to do about war in the former Yugoslavia. The center is also a museum for kids, and its hyper-modern architectural style, overlooking the river, is an attraction all its own.
Experience art at Crystal Bridges
Bentonville is where Walmart started, and it still serves as corporate HQ. As a result, this little town in the hills is remarkably prosperous and tidy, and fairly diverse as well, thanks to the presence of subsidiary employees from around the world.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is unexpectedly amazing, with a collection that rivals that of cities five times the size of Bentonville. Architecturally, the museum features a series of gallery spaces all connected by soaring bridges, creating an effect of floating islands of creativity in the middle of the Ozarks.
Lose yourself on the Historic Loop
Eureka Springs is a charming town, where a pack of Harley guys in black motorcycle leathers will post up a few yards from a lady selling healing crystals and handmade jewelry out of a 100-year-old converted storage barn. This is a handsome settlement, with a glut of historic buildings, and you’re doing yourself a favor by taking a self-guided tour of the Historic Loop. You won’t just learn something, you’ll be experiencing, on foot, one of the South’s most eclectic small towns.
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