Necessary Natural State Adventures
Disclaimer: These items are in no particular order, and their inclusion doesn’t mean they rank higher than activities that don’t appear here – activities like visiting the William J. Clinton Presidential Center or identifying a favorite barbecue joint. How could we omit those items, you ask? Let us answer that question with another. How can you visit or relocate to Arkansas and not do those things?
As dozens of suggestions poured in, we culled a compilation of activities that ran the gamut from quirky to quintessential. We’re sure there are some life-long Arkansans who haven’t done everything on this list. And too bad for them – just look at what they’re missing.
1.) Cheer on a Chuck Wagon Race
Almost 20,000 people – and hundreds of horses – crowd into Bar of Ranch outside Clinton every Labor Day weekend for the National Championship Chuckwagon Races. And they’re intense. Wooden wheels clatter as they bump along the terrain. Cowboys bark at their teams, hunched forward gripping the reins. Horses whinny in the distance. Perched atop the Ozark Bluffs that overlook the races in the valley below, you could close your eyes and feel like you’re in the Old West, right here in the South. But the crowd turns out (some camp) for more than just the chuck wagons. There’s the Snowy River Race – a downhill horse race that includes a plunge into the river – bronc fanning and nearly a solid week of country music concerts, trail rides, horseshoe clinics and roping lessons. The ranch hosts more activities than we can mention, all of them Western. At least one Southern staple remains – the barbecue.
2.) Go Spelunking at Blanchard Springs Caverns
Really, why would you pass up an activity that gives you the privilege of calling yourself a spelunker? If the quirky noun isn’t enough motivation, consider this descriptor: “one of the most extraordinary finds of the century.” Life magazine’s assessment of the living cave (it’s still forming) is dead on. The guided adventure takes you below the Ozark National Forest near Mountain View through water-carved passages, past an underground river and by the world’s largest flowstone – it’s more than six stories tall. Many formations are older than the Egyptian pyramids. The limestone rock they develop from was laid in an ancient sea more than 350 million years ago. All this is seen from two paved, lighted trails. You can arrange for a “Wild Cave Tour” on the middle level of the caverns and into undeveloped areas if you fancy yourself an exceptionally adventurous spelunker.
3.) Marvel at Medieval Masonry
It doth seem a bit peculiar to visit an attraction that’s not yet complete, but witnessing the construction of the Ozark Medieval Fortress is part of the allure. Nestled within the Ozark Mountains in Lead Hill, 30 authentically dressed architects, masons, historians and artisans employ medieval construction techniques to build the authentic structure, which will even include battlements, catapults and a drawbridge. The only materials used - water, stone, sand and wood – come from the surrounding landscape, and no modern machinery or equipment is employed, meaning you’ll have only 20 years to check this item off your bucket list. In fact, all architectural measurements are made with a 13-knot rope. It’s a sort of virtual textbook experience: while you watch, the workers will explain what they’re doing. Verily, if history had been this engaging in school, we might have absorbed more.
4.) Bite into Bald Knob’s Fresh Strawberries
A handful of towns across the U.S. bill themselves as either the strawberry “capital of the world” or “center of the world.” While the rightful titleholder may be questionable, there’s no denying that Bald Knob’s berries are some of the sweetest anywhere. Production has dwindled since the days when they used to be shipped from here by the truck, train and car load, but there’s still plenty for the strawberry eating contest and strawberry cake auction during the Strawberry HomeFest Festival each Mother’s Day weekend. There’s even a Strawberry Queen that reigns over the festivities. And for the record, her highness and the rest of the Bald Knobians prefer the word “center” in their title.
5.) Cruise the “Pig Trail” in Late October
If you need a good excuse to rent a convertible, here it is. This scenic byway more formally known as Arkansas Highway 23 courses through a section of the Ozark National Forest made more picturesque by fall color. With the top down, you’re engulfed by the mild temperatures and the brilliant reds, oranges and yellows that put the awe in autumn. The two lanes dictate a leisurely speed, and the vintage-looking stops along the way invite you to stretch your legs. So how’d the highway get its widely used nickname? For one, it meanders through the Boston Mountains like a trail carved through the woods by wild pigs might. It also used to be a major route for people driving from central Arkansas to take in a University of Arkansas Razorbacks athletic event.
6.) Stand Under the Waterfall at Hemmed-In Hollow
The tallest waterfall between the Rockies and the Appalachians, this natural wonder is located in the Ponca Wilderness Area of the Buffalo National River. Situated in a small valley enclosed on three sides by bluffs, water only spills heavily off the cliff during a heavy rain. The rest of the time, you can stand underneath, look upward and watch the water break into thousands of individual droplets, which dance around as the wind swirls through the canyon. The experience can be pretty tranquil, but you’ll get some adventure on the trek to the site – Hemmed-In Hollow is accessed mainly by three different National Park Service hiking trails.
7.) Gaze at the Milky Way atop Mount Magazine
There’s no better place to study the stars than from atop Arkansas’s highest mountain. During the day, there’s even more to see. The remnant of an ancient sea floor, the 2,753-foot Mount Magazine affords visitors sweeping views of the Petit Jean River valley to the south and the Arkansas River valley to the north. Besides sightseeing, activities include hiking, rock climbing and camping – and in the summer, you’ll stay a little cooler than you would at a lower elevation. Want even more comfort? Skip the camping and stay at the magnificent Lodge at Mount Magazine, a first-class, 60-room facility that opened in 2006.
8.) Get a Massage on Bathhouse Row
The 47 springs that bring pure, 143-degree water bubbling to the surface have attracted people to Hot Springs for hundreds of years. The health spa craze of the late 19th and early 20th centuries gave rise to a number of bathhouses that still line Central Avenue. Of the architectural masterpieces, two are still operational: Buckstaff Bathhouse and Quapaw Baths & Spas. They offer a full line of relaxing treatments, including the massages and facials that are typical of spas today as well as the traditional, therapeutic baths patrons have been taking at the base of Hot Springs Mountain for decades. Not only will you be soaking up the history of the place, you’ll be soaking in water that fell as rainwater 4,000 years ago – it’s just now coming to the surface after being superheated deep within the earth.
9.) Sample Wine in Altus
Near the valley where the Arkansas River meanders between the Ozark and Ouachita Mountain ranges lies Arkansas wine country. The area’s moderate climate and fertile soil – similar to that of Switzerland’s and Germany’s wine-making regions – attracted two European families, who began making wine here in the 1880s. Their initiative established Arkansas as the South’s oldest wine producing state. Today, Arkansas is also the region’s largest wine producer, with about half a dozen wineries in the area offering tastings, tours and events. Several familiar varietals of foreign origin are crafted, but wine is also made from native grapes – like the Cynthiana and the muscadine – as well as other fruits.
10.) Explore Arkansas’s Historic Trails
With 2011 being the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, there’s no better time to retrace Arkansas’s heritage trails. Not all of them pertain to the war – other historical routes include the Trail of Tears and Pony Express routes. The trails traverse every corner of the state, past mid-America’s highest peaks and through the Deep South. Along the way, you can partake in rugged adventures, meet interesting characters and visit unique places. Historic Washington State Park, a 19th century restoration village preserving Arkansas’s Confederate capital from 1863-1865 and the state’s largest collection of antebellum homes, is one popular destination. There is also the Delta Cultural Center, whose exhibits interpret the Indian removal period in Helena-West Helena, which witnessed the forced migration of thousands of Cherokee along the “water route” to Indian Territory during the summer of 1838.