Of all the states in the American South, Arkansas often gets lost in the mix. Apart from the politically astute that know that one of the USA’s most celebrated modern presidents (Bill Clinton) came from the governor’s seat in this largely rural state, most other random people (many Americans included among them) draw a blank when it comes to this place.
This is a shame, as Arkansas has many merits that make it worth checking out for a few days. Being nicknamed “The Natural State”, this corner of the South contains a surprising amount of mountainous/hilly terrain, given its position behind the Appalachian Mountain Range, and its past history put it front and center during the often tumultuous Civil Rights struggles of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.
Between these two major assets, you are apt to find many things you weren’t expecting to see during your time here, making this place a dark horse during a tour of the south, or while crossing the nation from east to west (or vice versa).
What To Do – Culture & History
While the decades long struggle for civil rights saw numerous protests over the years across Arkansas, the state’s capital had the eyes of the world fixed on it during the start of school in 1957, as one’s of cities’ biggest secondary school was ordered to integrate African American students into its halls.
What transpired afterwards is explained by the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, located across the street from the still-operating institution. Local people against the action protested it, often with violence, leading to the mobilization of the army. Photographs and exhibits bring the events of that chaotic school year to life, making this site an unmissable one.
Love him or hate him, one of the modern era’s most memorable presidents grew up and rose through the political ranks in Arkansas prior to his election in 1991. The Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock remembers the two terms that William Jefferson Clinton served in the highest office of the land with the numerous artifacts that defined his time in the White House, and exhibits and timelines identify the issues that this accomplished statesman grappled with during this period.
An interesting historical factoid to note while one is in Little Rock is that the Old State House that is present here is the oldest legislature chamber still standing west of the Mississippi River. It was here where the Union made their base after securing Arkansas during the Civil War, and in modern times, Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary watched the election results that elected him the 42nd president of the United States.
While the Waltons, the family behind the massive Wal-Mart empire, have been maligned for a variety of reasons over the years, one contribution that they have made to society that can be considered positive is the world-calibre Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Being the first major art museum to open in the USA since 1974, Crystal Bridges open in 2011 with $488 million worth of art pieces contained within its walls. The focus of this institution is on the finest and best in American art, including works from Charles Wilson Peale, Walton Ford and much more!
What To Do – Modern & Natural Attractions
Those that live, eat and breathe the outdoors will find themselves at home in Arkansas. Hot Springs National Park is an excellent place to start if you count yourself among these people, as the smallest park in the federal protects the wilderness immediately surrounding naturally occurring hot springs that spurred development here early in the 19th century.
Apart from the relaxing hot pools of water, this place also offers camping and hiking trails for those who want to earn their dip in the thermal baths.
If the trails in Hot Springs National Park barely warmed up your muscles, pursue a more involved backcountry experience at Mount Magazine State Park. This preserve protects Arkansas highest peak Mount Magazine from encroaching developments, and offers remarkable views back over the plains that stretch eastward into infinity.
Looking to strike it rich? Got some pesky bills that need to get paid off, like yesterday? Poking around in the earth at Crater of Diamonds State Park may pose the answer to your hopes and dreams. This place is one of the few locations on Earth where diamonds can be found in the soil at or near the surface instead of deep underground. According to gemologists, the world’s only geologically perfect diamond was found here in 1990. It was cut to about 1 carat from its original 3 carat uncut weight, a size which fetched the finder a cool $34,000!
Much like the rest of the South, the humidity here can bring even the locals to their knees at times. Being a landlocked state, you might think that you’ll have to suffer in silence, but Magic Springs and Crystal Falls offers a badly needed respite from the heat.
Being Arkansas’ biggest water and amusement park, this fun diversion from your travels offers water slides, a wave pool, a lazy river, and once you’re done cooling off, a wide array of roller coasters and other thrill rides that will prove to be one of the more exhilarating days on your travels across the South.