This is the latest in our series on underrated destinations, It's Still a Big World.
On my first day in Arkansas, I was chased by dogs (several times), rained on, and was eaten alive by swamp-water mosquitos while dodging obscene amounts of roadkill–mostly snakes, frogs, and turtles, plus the occasional raccoon, opossum, and armadillo–all while baking in the hundred-degree heat “The Natural State” is known for. After traveling four hours without passing a single gas station, supermarket, or restaurant, I arrived in a town named after a Confederate general who was also the original Grand Wizard of the KKK. I was completely out of water and the leftover BBQ tofu wings I brought from Memphis were long gone so I decided to stop for lunch.
For some reason, I had decided to bike 180 miles from Memphis to Little Rock. In two days. In summer. During a heat wave. By myself. My transportation for the occasion was the Specialized Turbo Creo SL EVO electric gravel bike, which I had just picked up from a bike shop in Memphis the day before. Since it was my first time riding this borrowed bicycle, I hadn’t yet learned how much my 60lbs of luggage would drain the battery, leaving both the main battery and the battery extension dead after only 50 miles, instead of the 120 miles the bike would last on a lighter load. Shout out to Moctezuma Grill Mexican Restaurant in Forrest City, Arkansas, for letting me take over their ordering station to charge my bike!
Normally, I’d try to pack as light as possible for a hot, humid bike tour but I wasn’t going to return home to New York City for a few months so I needed to bring crucial items like my laptop, hiking boots, yoga mat, tea strainer, and loose leaf oolong. There may also have been an insulated lunch bag stuffed with an ice pack, organic sauerkraut, ground flax seed, and wheatgrass powder – my attempt to balance the lack of plant-based food I expected to find in rural Arkansas. I was a walking – ummm, riding – East Coast stereotype.
I’ll admit that, until recently, I didn’t know anything about Arkansas. I hadn’t really ever thought about visiting until I decided last year that I’d like to visit all 50 states before my 40th birthday, which I’ll be celebrating in an irrelevant and undisclosed amount of time, thank you very much! Sure, I knew President Bill Clinton was from Arkansas but, so what? Oh, he established an incredible Presidential Library that is now the No. 1 attraction in the state, you say? Somehow, I didn’t actually learn that until I arrived in Little Rock. Last summer, friends told me about some epic hikes they had done in the Arkansas Ozarks and I later learned the state has some of the best biking in the country (mostly gravel and mountain, but also road cycling) so I decided to bump it to the top of my travel list, putting me there smack dab in the middle of a hot ass summer.
Though my first morning proved challenging (and I got stuck in a thunderstorm the second day), I thoroughly enjoyed my journey through eastern Arkansas. I rode dozens of miles at a time without passing any signs of human life but when I did see someone, they always smiled and waved. One older gentleman even slowed his pickup truck down enough to alert me to an eagle’s nest with three baby birds in it. Cars were courteous, giving me far more space than I’ve received while riding elsewhere in the country, and, if you were wondering, I did find enough veggies, mostly at Mexican and Chinese restaurants.
Little Rock – Big City
After riding 180 miles in two days, I arrived in the capital city of Little Rock. My shoulders hurt, my wrists hurt, my arms hurt, and my butt really hurt but the city was lovely (and the post-storm cool finally made the temperature pleasant) so I couldn’t help myself from riding a few more miles around town.
Situated along the shores of the Arkansas River, Little Rock is a small but dense city that’s easy to explore without a car. Most of the city’s self-guided tours (think history, culture, civil rights, art, and gastronomy) can be done on foot or by bike but you could also do those by scooter or rideshare if you don’t rent a car.
Hands down, my favorite activity was the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, where, in 1957, the Little Rock Nine (a group of young and brave high school students) attempted to integrate the all-white Central High School amid extreme racial hatred and violence. You know that famous photograph of a young Black girl in a white dress and sunglasses, carrying her books while a raging white mob screams at her from behind? Yeah, that one; that happened here. The museum inside the visitor center is fascinating and absolutely deserves a visit but do yourself a favor and sign up for one of the twice-daily ranger talks. For 90 minutes, the ranger not only told us about what happened on integration day, but she schooled us on the hundreds of years of racism that led up to the day, how the city responded to being forced to integrate (spoiler alert: the racists shut down the entire public high school system instead of integrating!), and what’s happened since then.
I stayed in downtown Little Rock since I wanted to be right near the waterfront park and bike path and I spent most of the time downtown and in the SoMa (South Main) neighborhoods. Both areas are walkable, art-filled neighborhoods with lots of fun bars, restaurants, and shops. Both neighborhoods also have lovely weekend farmers’ markets, where, in order to maintain my East Coast stereotype status, I stocked up on berries, peaches, and pickles to stuff in my insulated lunch sack. In SoMa, also be sure to stop by the ESSE Purse Museum, which, at its surface is just a purse museum, but in actuality, is a historical retrospective on women’s rights, struggles, and accomplishments over the past 120 years, all viewed through the lens of women’s handbags and what they kept inside them.
What I loved most about Little Rock was that though it’s a “big” city and has all the attractions and conveniences of a big city (art, theater, culture, fine dining), it’s also very accessible to nature and outdoors experiences. Little Rock has assembled self-guided themed cycling routes within the city and cycling guides outside of the city for road, mountain, and gravel riders of all levels of experience. Riders (and walkers) should check out the Arkansas River Trail, a 16-mile waterfront trail loop that guides you to Two Rivers Park, where you can picnic, ride the trails (road and mountain), or rent kayaks. If you didn’t bring your own bike, you could drive or catch an Uber to the park then rent bikes and kayaks there.
How about the #1 tourist attraction, the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum? I’m not sure, I didn’t go. I would have loved to but it was still closed for COVID during my visit but it’s since reopened. A few other attractions I loved in the city were the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center (an African American history museum), the River Market District (with heaps of shops and eateries), and the Bernice Garden (which has a sculpture garden, holds a Sunday farmers market, and hosts special events ranging from yoga and drum circles to cornbread festivals and craft markets).
Hot Springs National Park
Unlike many national parks, which require a significant drive from capital cities, Hot Springs National Park is located about an hour southwest of Little Rock. Though you could certainly visit the park as a daytrip from Little Rock (it’s one of the smallest national parks so you could see much of it in a single day), Hot Springs deserves more time. The city of Hot Springs, which is nearly fully encompassed by the park, is an adorable town where you’ll find just about everything within a few blocks: think bars, restaurants, wax figure and gangster museums, and souvenir and soap shops.
All of the national park’s hiking trails are short and easy (most are fairly flat and under a mile), unless you combine several of them and hike a 12-mile route in the midday sun, as I did. Hot Springs is small so if you stay right in town, you can just walk to the park and trails. Anyone looking for less-crowded and more remote hiking options should head to the Northwoods Trail System, a network of city and county parks blanketed with wooded trails. Though these free and fabulous trails are mainly intended for mountain bikers, they’re also used for hiking. Pro tip: Take a picture of the trail map before you head in so you don’t get lost in the winding trails.
The city’s main drag is known as Bathhouse Row, where some historic bathhouses still allow you to soak in thermal pools, while others have been converted into gift shops, art galleries, and the national park’s visitor center – be sure to tour all four floors to see what the bathhouses were like in their heyday. Though there’s no shortage of good restaurants in the city (though be advised that, as small, family-run businesses, many are closed on Mondays, Tuesdays, and/or Wednesdays), be sure to check out the bathhouse turned brewpub, Superior Brewery. Not only is it the only brewery located inside a national park, but the pub also uses the local thermal water to make their craft beer.
Haven’t gotten your fill of thermal waters? Stop at one of two public springs in town, where you can fill your water bottles and jugs with natural spring water. The National Park Visitor Center and town maps can direct you to the springs or you can just look for the line of locals filling up half a dozen 10-gallon jugs.
If you’re like me, you were obsessed with the Ozark series on Netflix during the pandemic and grew curious about visiting the wooded lake region yourself. Well, sorry, those Ozarks are actually in Missouri, but these Ozarks are pretty incredible and should be on your Arkansas itinerary. Within the Arkansan Ozarks in the northwest part of the state, you’ll find the country’s first National River, which recently earned an international dark sky preserve designation. In addition to hiking, rafting, kayaking, biking, and camping, the Buffalo National River International Dark Sky Park has especially dark skies so it’s a phenomenal place for stargazing.
Loads of cabins, campgrounds, hotels, and B&Bs exist throughout the region but I chose to stay at the Buffalo Outdoor Center since you have a perfect view of the stars right from your cabin and because the center arranges land and river trips that are easy to join without much pre-planning required. As an added bonus, they have a vehicle valet program that drops you off at one end of the river or trail and shuttles your car to the other end. As I was traveling alone, this service was the only way I was able to kayak a 7-mile stretch of the river without having to hitchhike back up. Note that if you want to kayak or raft, plan your visit between the high water months (March – June). After June, the water will be too low to float but you can still hike, mountain bike, fish, swim, zipline, or go wildlife watching.
Northwest Arkansas is full of outdoors adventures but it’s also home to several unique artistic and architectural destinations. About an hour north of the Buffalo National River area is the Thorncrown Chapel, an architectural marvel designed by Arkansas native, E. Fay Jones. About an hour west of the chapel, in Bentovnille, Arkansas, is the famed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. As the home of Wal-Mart headquarters, many of the city’s main attractions (such as the art museum) were funded by the Walton family and/or have a Wal-Mart theme, such as the Wal-Mart Museum.
Arkansans, you may know you have a wonderful, diverse, adventurous, beautiful state, but the truth is that most Americans have no idea. Any time I visit a new place, especially a destination that tends to get minimal attention or the wrong kind of attention, I like to ask locals what they’d like the rest of the country (or world) to know about their home. In the case of Arkansas, the first person I asked blurted out, “Arkansas is not as bad as people think!” Interesting. That totally made sense. I worried the description may offend other Arkansans but I ran it by at least half a dozen locals I met and they all agreed it was an accurate description that they wanted their state to overcome.
So there you go. Arkansas is actually pretty amazing and it quickly became one of my favorite states in the country. I hope you get to visit soon and, unless you like to sweat (like, a LOT), why not plan your trip between September and May?