At the edge of your seat? That’s what I thought. Here in the U.S., Arkansas does not get a great deal of respect outside its own borders. As one of the states ranking lowest in education, highest in levels of obesity – and perhaps because of the stereotypes based on those two facts – one of the least-visited states in the country, Arkansas strikes some as a sad little backwater full of banjo-strumming, catfish-eating rednecks down south somewhere. Don’t believe it.
I’ve always gravitated to and been a champion of underdog locales, so I’m here to dispel some of the myths about Arkansas, one of the most naturally beautiful states in our country. Yes, it is; it really is! I started traveling to Arkansas a few years ago when my youngest son took a job in Little Rock, a place where he didn’t even want to interview but, once there, he embraced this artsy little city and threw himself into local affairs. Every time I visit, I find more to like, and it begins with the scenic appeal of the undulating, verdant topography.
The Natural State has millions of acres of national forest land, including two mountain ranges, the Ozarks and the Ouachitas. There are miles and miles of streams and rivers, the two biggest being the Arkansas and the Mississippi. Trails and campsites, dozens of lakes, caves, and even hot springs draw visitors and entertain locals alike. Boating, canoeing, fishing, and hiking are accessible almost from border to border with national and state parks galore, including one of the oldest and most visited parks in the country – Hot Springs National Park.
Arkansas’s appeal goes beyond the great outdoors, though. Its capital, Little Rock, is a quirky little city, with quaint throwbacks like a streetcar system and ’50s era drugstores and barbershops side by side with spiffy bespoke tailors and well-groomed suburban shopping malls.
Its distinctive neighborhoods are connected by a few main thoroughfares, and many are worth a drive-through and a stop – perhaps a morning farmer’s market in SoMa (the up-and-coming South Main Street area), then on to a Cajun lunch or taco in tiny Riverdale, a late afternoon latte in boho Hillcrest, dinner in the more stately Heights, then back downtown for a nightcap or some music.
Farther west, the houses are huge and the lawns are manicured, but the hilly roads are a constant, dipping and curving amid the ubiquitous tree-covered greenery, and biking and walking paths are also given all over the city, especially along the Arkansas River.
Little Rock’s compact downtown boasts an array of live music venues, including a picturesque riverfront amphitheater, as well as a few tall corporate headquarters that assert LR is a real city, the usual mix of small local cafes and fancier big restaurants, art galleries, and new tech spaces. Old warehouses have been converted into stylish lofts, chic new condos and apartments are popping up here and there, and everything is a short walk away. For those so inclined, those strolls can take in the Clinton Presidential Center and Park, as well as the impressive Heifer International headquarters building and information center.
Like any river town, Little Rock has a plethora of bridges – old railroad trestles, sparkling new spans, and my favorite (and best-named), the Big Dam Bridge. The latter is an engineering marvel to view and, even better, it’s in an area of woodsy trails and pedestrian bridges just minutes outside of downtown.
There is much more to discover in Arkansas, and I have every intention of doing just that. Tops on my list is the Crystal Bridges Museum, a glass jewel box of American art nestled into the forests of Northwest Arkansas. Nearby is the charming town of Eureka Springs, as well as Fayetteville, home of the state university and a city I’ve always wanted to visit ever since novelist Ellen Gilchrist made it the home of her main character in The Annunciation (and herself in real life). In my mind, Fayetteville is a classic college town of bookshops and art stores, cafes and boutique shops, set amid the same rolling landscape I’ve already raved about, and it sounds like a perfect little base for the museum and hot springs visit, too.
If Arkansas is languishing near the bottom of your travel list, don’t be afraid – it’s not all razorback hogs, hillbillies, and moonshine! Come on down here and check it out – it really is a great blend of small-town charm and natural beauty.