Dubbed "The Natural State," Arkansas features first-class parks and recreation areas. Outdoor enthusiasts will find more activities than anyone could hope to fit into one vacation. For information on all of the state's outdoor and recreational opportunities, contact the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism , the Division of State Parks (tel. 888/287-2757; www.arkansasstateparks.com), or the National Park Service (www.nps.gov).
In 2004, the $160-million Clinton Presidential Center & Library (tel. 501/374-4242; www.clintonfoundation.org) opened inside downtown Little Rock's River Market District off I-30. America's 12th presidential library contains the largest collection of presidential papers and artifacts in U.S. history. The River Market District (tel. 501/375-2552) itself is worth a stop. The city took an abandoned warehouse district and turned it into an area that is now home to numerous restaurants, businesses, museums, shops, and galleries; a riverside park and amphitheater; and vibrant nightlife.
Located in Little Rock's historic MacArthur Park, the Arkansas Art Center, at 9th and Commerce streets (tel. 501/372-4000; www.arkarts.com), is the state's largest cultural institution and features exhibits spread over seven galleries. It encompasses the Arkansas Museum of Art, whose noteworthy collection includes some Renaissance-era drawings, and the Arkansas Children's Theater.
Do visit the State Capitol, at Woodlane Drive and Capitol Avenue (tel. 501/682-5080; www.sosweb.state.ar.us), a striking neoclassical structure of limestone and marble, whose six brass doors -- ordered from Tiffany's -- are worth an estimated $250,000 each. Organized and self-guided tours are available.
A major U.S. civil rights landmark, the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, 2125 W. Daisy L. Gatson Bates Dr. (tel. 501/374-1957), is still a working school. In 1957, when the state's governor tried to block the school's first African-American students -- the famous Little Rock Nine -- from being admitted, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to intervene. The Central High Museum and Visitor Center, located in a renovated Mobil Service Station across the street from the school, features a permanent exhibit, detailing the events of the 1957 desegregation crisis at the school.
Fans of Gone With the Wind should head to the Old Grist Mill (tel. 501/758-1424), a National Historic Landmark at McCain Boulevard and Lakeshore Drive in North Little Rock. An authentic reproduction of an old water-powered gristmill, this striking structure, built in 1933 but designed to look as if it were constructed in the 1800s, appears in the opening scene of the classic film and is believed to be the only building used in the movie that's still standing.
If diamonds are a girl's best friend, then Crater of Diamonds State Park, off Ark. 301 near Murfreesboro (tel. 870/285-3113; www.craterofdiamondsstatepark.com), is a bastion of female goodwill. The world's only public diamond mine lets visitors prospect for their own shiny souvenirs; if you find one (more than 25,000 have gotten lucky since 1972), you can keep it. Exhibits at the park trace the history of Arkansas's diamonds.
On U.S. 278, just northwest of Hope, is Old Washington Historic State Park (tel. 870/983-2684; www.oldwashingtonstatepark.com), a National Historic Landmark established on the site of the town of Washington, which came into being in 1824. Today visitors can explore over 30 carefully restored historic structures, including classic examples of southern Greek Revival and Federal architecture, as well as hand-hewn timber-framed cottages. Tour the public buildings and homes; view the remarkable collections of antiques, guns, and knives (the blacksmith shop here was where the famous Bowie knife was first forged); and visit with guides in period attire who will greet you at each stop.
Off Ark. 14, you'll find Blanchard Springs Cavern, a limestone formation located deep in the Ozark National Forest, 15 miles north of Mountain View. It is operated by the U.S. Forest Service and is open throughout the year. Lighted walkways lead to stunning formations and massive rooms, one as large as six football fields. Nearby, Blanchard Springs Recreational Use Area provides scenic campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails, a massive natural spring, and a trout lake. For information, call the U.S. Forest Service at tel. 202/205-8333 or head online to www.fs.fed.us.
Soaking in Hot Springs
A remarkable array of thermal springs in a valley of the Ouachita Mountains in western Arkansas prompted Congress in 1832 to set aside the valley known today as Hot Springs as a federal reservation. People have used the hot-spring-water therapeutic baths for more than 200 years to treat rheumatism and other ailments. The reservation developed into a well-known resort nicknamed "the American Spa" because it attracted not only the famous (Al Capone and Harry S Truman), but also indigent health seekers from around the world.
Though it officially became America's 18th national park in 1921, Hot Springs National Park, off I-70 and Hwy. 7 (tel. 501/624-2701; www.nps.gov/hosp), is actually the oldest in the national park system protected by law. On Bathhouse Row, the park's most celebrated feature, the Fordyce Bathhouse, serves as the park's visitor center and a museum of the thermal bathing industry. The park also features a working bathhouse, the Buckstaff Bathhouse; a mountain observation tower; an open cascade spring; and hiking trails. Stop in at the visitor center, located in downtown Hot Springs on Hwy. 7 North (Central Ave.). They distribute a pamphlet detailing the city's associations with former President Bill Clinton, who spent much of his childhood in Hot Springs.
For more information on the park and the many sights and activities available in Hot Springs, contact the Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau (tel. 800/543-2284; www.hotsprings.org) and request their free visitor's guide.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.