Explore the ‘Natural State’ of Arkansas
By Rosalind Stefanac
With its lush forests, natural springs and ideal mountain biking/hiking terrain, Arkansas is one of those gems in the southern United States that’s still untapped, especially for Canadians. Aptly dubbed the “Natural State,” it features the perfect backdrop for a medley of outdoor activities to keep teens and tweens entertained. Plus, with some of the coolest art exhibits, hotels, restaurants and retail therapy, staying indoors won’t be dissuaded either! Here’s why Arkansas should be on your radar when planning your next family vacation to the U.S.
Ozark, the popular TV crime series themed around a family of drug smugglers, may have put this region of the U.S. in the spotlight of late, but in reality, the Ozarks in Arkansas provide a serene setting for hiking, biking, swimming and boating. In Eureka Springs, we took advantage of more than 25 miles of trails in Lake Leatherwood City Park for a guided hike, followed by a canoe ride on the 85-acre, cold spring-fed lake formed by hand-cut, native limestone dams. We loved seeing all the diverse lake wildlife up close, including herons, wild turkeys, bald eagles and catfish. Cabins and campsites are available for rent here too.
For mountain biking and hiking enthusiasts, there is Coler Mountain Bike Preserve in Bentonville. With 300 acres of beautifully maintained trails (and amenities), it’s open until 11 pm and free for daily visits. Try your hand at scaling The Rise, then take a break at the open-air Airship café for a healthy smoothie or ice cream.
While in Eureka Springs, dare to stay at least one night in the Crescent Hotel & Spa, which provides stellar views of the Ozark mountains. Built in 1886, it has been beautifully updated while retaining its historic charm—but is also purported to be one of the country’s most haunted hotels. We took a tour that ended in the spooky basement and heard chilling tales about the hotel’s earlier iteration as a medical institute providing questionable cancer treatments. Kids will enjoy staff stories of many ghost sightings throughout the hotel over the years.
Cool art exhibits
Arkansas has a rich art scene with mostly free exhibits geared to all ages. We started outdoors in the capital city of Little Rock at the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden, which features 90 works of art set against landscapes in Riverfront Park on the banks of the Arkansas River. The free and newly expanded Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts is also worth visiting with its collection of pieces spanning six centuries.
In Fort Smith, tweens, teens and parents will be impressed by some 30 super-sized murals completed by some of the world’s top street artists that are part of a non-profit art education and community outreach program called “The Unexpected.”
When visiting the town of Bentonville, don’t miss out on touring the gorgeous Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art located in the foothills of the Ozarks, or the Momentary, a former cheese factory turned art space that features avant-garde visual and performing arts, as well as plenty of space just to hang and grab a bite.
Compelling history tours
Even teens who aren’t keen on museums will want to explore the brand new national U.S. Marshal’s Museum opened in Fort Smith this July. Its five immersive galleries tell the fascinating story of American marshals in law enforcement since 1789, including their role in apprehending fugitives and operating the Witness Security Program.
In Little Rock, relive history in the making with a compelling tour of Little Rock Central High School National Historic site where nine black students first attempted to end segregation by entering the formerly all-white school (eight of the students are still living and now in their 80s). It’s one of the most visited landmarks in the capital city with good reason. To book a tour contact email@example.com.
Super shopping, eating and sleeping
Along with miles of cycling trails and scenic walks, the college town of Fayetteville, Arkansas, houses a community of independent shops and artists with all kinds of unique, handmade goods—from vintage to upscale boutiques. Start at the Experience Fayetteville Visitor’s Center in the historic downtown square to get the scoop on any festivals and activities happening during your stay. In the square, you’ll also experience a farmer’s market open year-round, featuring locally produced baked treats, plus jams and granola to go. With a mecca of great eateries, there is something for every palette. We settled on Latin American cuisine at Rolando’s, a family-friendly restaurant with the best homemade salsa and chips—hands down!
Kids will also love staying at the Graduate, a super-cool hotel just steps from downtown, with rooms designed to look like upscale campus dorms. Even the room keys look like student ID cards!
For other interesting places to explore with your kids in Arkansas, visit arkansas.com