History, Hot Springs and More: The Best Places to Visit in Arkansas

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Girl sitting on swing at Airship Coffee, one of the best places to visit in Arkansas
My granddaughter enjoying the summer breeze at Airship Coffe, an open-air cafe at Cole Mountain Bike Preserve, located about a mile west of downtown Bentonville. Photo credit: Diana Rowe

Welcome to Arkansas, known as the Natural State for its abundance of lakes, rivers, hot springs, lush scenery and some of the most beautiful places in the USA. It is home to both the Ozark Mountains and Ouachita mountain ranges. History buffs will be intrigued by the state’s dozens of buildings, structures and sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Whether looking for a family vacation, a romantic getaway or a weekend away, get ready to experience Arkansas. From small towns to bustling cities, national historic sites to outdoor activities, and national and state parks to art galleries, and waterfalls to hot springs, we’ve got the best places to visit in Arkansas.

Six states surround Arkansas: Missouri to the north; Louisiana to the south; Texas to the southwest; and Oklahoma to the west. It might be the smallest state west of the mighty Mississippi River, but it offers abundant natural beauty and tons of tourist attractions to experience.

Arkansas is also home to America’s First National River. Established in 1972, the 135-mile Buffalo National River is one of few undammed rivers in the lower 48 states.

A cannon being fired at the Fort Smith National Historic Site in Arkansas one of the top places to see
A cannon being demonstrated at the Fort Smith National Historic Site. Photo credit: Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Fort Smith, Arkansas

More than thirty years ago, my parents relocated to Oklahoma, just 30 minutes from Fort Smith, so I’ve crossed the Arkansas border multiple times.

Fort Smith was first established on December 25, 1817, commissioned to keep peace in the Arkansas River Valley between the native Osage and the newly arriving Cherokee. For many years, it was the gateway to the west for Native Americans, and where only outlaws and lawmen dared to step.

This city offers some of the best places to visit in Arkansas.

Fort Smith Historical Sites:

  • On each visit, I always discover new-to-me historical tales by exploring the Fort Smith National Historic Site. This intriguing preservation of almost 80 years of history, inspired the John Wayne classic True Grit and other legendary Wild West stories, with so many tales of settlers, cowboys, Native Americans — and real-life heroes from all walks of life.
  • Start at the Visitors Center and work your way through the maze of history. Tour the grounds. See its exhibits. Walk the 3/4 mile, paved River Loop trail on the banks of the Poteau and Arkansas Rivers. Stop at the interpretive signs and benches along the trail.
  • Stand on the Trail of Tears Overlook, where thousands of Cherokees entered what was then called the “Indian Territory” in the 1830s.
  • Worth adding to your list is the U.S. Marshals Museum, currently installing new exhibits, and re-opening its doors in early summer 2023.
  • Step out of the heat and enjoy free admission at the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum with traveling exhibits and permanent collections.
  • Climb aboard a 1926 Electric streetcar at The Trolley Museum for a 3/4 mile tour of historic downtown.
  • 130 years of Victorian-era architecture are showcased in the Belle Grove Historic District.

Outdoor Activities in Fort Smith:

  • In addition to its abundance of history, Fort Smith also offers outdoor activities. Downtown features the Riverfront Skate and Bike Park, a mountain biking hub, connecting to the 7-mile Riverfront Trail.
  • For beginner-friendly mountain biking and hiking trails, head to the Ben Geren Regional Park. It is also home to Parrot Island Waterpark.
  • For outdoor enthusiasts, Lake Fort Smith State Park offers camping, fishing, canoeing, kayaking and miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking. There is also a visitor center with a replica pioneer log cabin and covered wagon exhibits. Take a year-round guided nature hike and lake tour.
  • If you have time, pop into the Arkansas River Valley Nature Center, or board the A&M Passenger Train, featuring round-trip tours through the Ozark Boston Mountains.
  • For another walk down memory lane, stop at The Park at West End amusement park with its vintage carousel and Ferris wheel from the 1935 World’s Fair. A railcar diner and a doubledecker bus serve snacks. The park is set to reopen in late April 2023. Park admission is free; charge for rides.
  • A perfect road trip is a trek to Mount Magazine State Park, the state’s tallest mountain at 2,753 feet, and just over an hour from Fort Smith. Outdoor adventures await you here: mountain biking, horseback riding, backpacking, ATV riding, rock climbing and only two parks to offer hang gliding launch areas. No mountain destination would be complete without overlooks and picnic and pavilion areas. The visitor center also offers a gift shop.

Read More: 18 Best Things to Do in Fort Smith

things to do in little rock
The Clinton Presidential Bridge is located in the River Market District. Photo credit: Paul Barrows/Flickr Creative Commons

Little Rock, Arkansas

Located on the banks of the Arkansas River to the north and the Ouachita Mountains to the west, Little Rock is the capital and largest city of Arkansas surrounded by natural beauty in every direction. While this capital city may seem small, it offers some of the best places to visit in Arkansas with both Ouachita National Forest and the Ozarks nearby.

Read More: 14 Free Things to Do in Little Rock, Arkansas

  • Get the best view of the Arkansas River from the Dam Bridge, stretching nearly a mile as the longest pedestrian bridge in North America, perfect to take a walk or bicycle.
  • Connecting to the Dam Bridge by a 1.5-mile trail, the 1,000-acre Two Rivers Parks features bike trails, walking trails, gardens and wildlife. Escape the heat by renting a kayak and paddling the Arkansas or Little Maumelle Rivers.
  • For those ambitious outdoor enthusiasts, check out the 88-mile multi-use loop through Little Rock, North Little Rock, Maumelle and Conway. An additional loop from the Clinton Presidential Bridge in North Little Rock to the Big Dam Bridge and back to the Little Rock side of the Clinton Bridge is 15.6 miles.
  • With more than 60 city parks, this Arkansas capital city has it all, including perhaps one of the best public parks. Stretching eleven blocks on the south bank of the Arkansas River, the Riverfront Park features 33 acres of waterfront fun from outdoor events to history, including exhibits of the distinctive rocks which earned its name. Choose from many cafes, restaurants and bars scattered here and there.

Historical Things to Do in Little Rock

  • Discover an on-site restaurant, museum and bridge at the William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum, and a chance to explore the career of the USA’s 42nd President.
  • In 1957, Little Rock was a civil rights battlefront when the Arkansas governor questioned the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling. An historic confrontation occurred at Little Rock Central High School when nine Black high school students wanted an education at the all-white school. A visit to this site is a perfect opportunity to learn more about this era in our nation’s history.
  • Girls just want to shop, right, and what female has enough purses? Make your way to the ESSE Purse Museum, one of only two purse museums in the world. This unique museum provides a unique view of women’s handbags and their contents.
  • Another Little Rock experience worth noting is the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center which celebrates the state’s unique African American achievements.

Read More: Heading to Little Rock? Check out the Top Hotels in Town!

UntitlFrom hot thermal waters to its gangster history to mountain biking trails, downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas, is one of the best places to visit in Arkansased
From hot thermal waters to its gangster history to mountain biking trails, downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas, is one of the best places to visit in Arkansas. Photo credit: HotSprings.org

Hot Springs, Arkansas

Located 50 miles west of Little Rock, Hot Springs is the perfect vacation destination for relaxation and adventure! Its heated thermal waters in the Hot Springs National Park and the historic bathhouses along Bathhouse Row have attracted visitors for hundreds of years. So much to do — and all in the middle of town!

Here are our suggestions for the best places to visit in Hot Springs, Arkansas:

  • When near hot springs, then you must visit! Take a dip in the hot spring waters at Buckstaff Baths, and add a traditional 1920s spa experience.
  • A stop at Quapaw Baths and Spa features a unique experience with four large thermal water-soaking pools.
  • Did you know Hot Springs has a gangster-era history including the infamous Al Capone? Learn more about it at the Gangster Museum of America.

Add Some More Fun in Hot Springs

  • Get outdoors with a visit to the family-friendly Garvan Woodland Gardens, a 210-acre botanical garden located in the Ouachita Mountains of Southwest Arkansas. Owned by the University of Arkansas, this is truly one of the state’s most beautiful places to visit.
  • Pedal your way over 31 miles of world-class mountain biking trails at Northwoods Trails, just five minutes from downtown.
  • Add a little more family fun with a visit to Magic Springs, Arkansas’ only theme and water park.
  • Hungry? Get some finger-licking good barbeque at the family-owned McClard’s BBQ.
  • Kick-back at one of the town’s biggest attractions: the Superior Bathhouse Brewery, a reimagined bathhouse now a full-service, family-friendly restaurant.
  • Got more time? Add a day trip to Crater of Diamonds State Park, in Murfreesboro, about an hour from Hot Springs. This is one of the only public places in the world where you can search for diamonds — and the policy is finders-keepers. Good luck!
Person in costume during parade in downtown Eureka Springs, one of the best places to visit in Arkansas.
The historic downtown of Eureka Springs hosts more than 100 parades, music festivals, and fun events every season. Photo credit: EurekaSprings.org

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

My first visit to Eureka Springs was dozens of years ago, but I recall clearly this quaint and delightfully picturesque historic town. Nestled in the Ozark Mountains, its stunning Victorian architecture, quaint shops and lively arts scene make this the perfect vacation destination.

Visit the historic downtown district, take a scenic drive through the surrounding countryside, or enjoy a variety of outdoor activities like hiking, fishing and kayaking.

Eureka Springs is also home to a number of renowned festivals and events, including the Eureka Springs Blues Party and the Ozark Folk Festival, plus parades for every occasion including Mardi Gras and Zombies!

Eureka Springs Has Something to Offer Everyone

  • Visit the Thorncrown Chapel. This stunning glass chapel, with 425 windows and over 6,000 square feet of glass, just outside of Eureka Springs in the Ozark Mountains, is a must-see attraction.
  • Take a scenic train ride through the beautiful Ozark countryside on this historic the Eureka Springs & North Arkansas Railway that dates back to the late 19th century.
  • Relax at the many spas. With springs everywhere, the town was founded on the belief in the springs’ healing powers. Try Spa1905 or New Moon Spa.
  • Take a ghost tour! Several ghost tours in Eureka Springs explore its spooky past. Book a downtown walking tour. Or see for yourself if ghost sightings at America’s most haunted hotel, The Crescent Hotel, are fact or fiction.
  • Visit the  Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, a 459-acre wildlife refuge. It is home to more than 100 big cats, including tigers, lions and leopards, and offers guided tours and other educational programs.
  • Outdoor adventures include up, up and away on a zip line tour through the trees in the Ozark Mountains, only three minutes from downtown Eureka Springs. Zipping not your thing? Enjoy the mountain view from the Sky Deck observation area.
  • Enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Ozark Mountains on a scenic drive through the region, with stops at overlooks and other scenic attractions.

Year-Round Food, Brews, Live Music and Entertainment

  • Explore the historic downtown district. Take a leisurely stroll through the streets of Eureka Springs and discover its unique architecture, boutique shops and eclectic restaurants.
  • A long list of brew pubs with great food scattered throughout downtown and outside the city limits, including BREWS, Sauced Barbeque & Brews and Eureka Springs Brewery
  • Home to several live music and arts festivals throughout the year, make plans to join the Eureka Springs Blues Party, May Festival of the Arts or Ozark Folk Festival. 
  • The Beer Garden at Eureka Live Underground is home to downtown’s largest beer garden, a perfect setting for weekend afternoons
  • In for late-night adult fun? Located in the heart of Downtown, Eureka Live is known for its dancing, entertainment, and nightlife — and its exceptionally entertaining Drag Shows every Friday and Saturday.
Girl picking blueberries at the family-friendly Berry Fest in Bentonville, one of the best places to visit in Arkansas
Picking blueberries at the family-friendly Berry Fest, a Bentonville event founded by Dave and Jenny Marrs of HGTV’s “Fixer to Fabulous” show. Photo credit: Diana Rowe

Bentonville / Fayetteville, Arkansas

The Northwest Arkansas (NWA) metropolitan area includes four of the state’s ten largest cities: Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville. This area was originally Native American Country, the hunting ground of the Osage, and later by the Cherokee. The first permanent settlers came into the area in the mid-1820s when Arkansas was still a territory.

Recently, my daughter and her family relocated to northwest Arkansas, and since then, I’ve visited the Bentonville/Fayetteville area multiple times. Hands down, this northern Arkansas area offers more of the best places to visit in Arkansas, and perhaps any other urban area.

And so many of the activities are FREE or budget-friendly! Yep, you read that right. Thanks to the Walmart family and their commitment to making Arkansas the best place to live, Bentonville has reaped much of its philanthropy.

All the Things to do In Bentonville / Fayettville!

I’ll offer up a brief bullet list below but refer to this Fun Things to do in Bentonville, AR and Northwest Arkansas article for more details

  • Tour Walmart Museum and Spark Cafe. Whether a fan of this superstore or not, it’s fascinating. And the reward is their (affordable) ice cream shop at the door.
  • Tour Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art —architecture and surrounded by 120 acres of Ozark forest with five miles of trails. Admission is always free! (Thank you, Walmart family!)
  • My granddaughter’s favorite is the Scott Family Amazeum! It’s just super fun, interactive, and engaging.
  • My daughter, 6-year-old granddaughter and 15-year-old grandson, and I drove to Coler Mountain Bike Preserve, located about a mile west of downtown Bentonville. So many bicyclists took advantage of the 17+ miles of trails, while we enjoyed a mostly flat hike. I was surprised at how the pedestrians and the bicyclists merged together with no issues. Afterward, we chilled at Airship Coffee, an open-air-cafe, people-watching, and then the two kids wandered over to the stream to wade in and cool off.
  • Watch planes at the Thaden Field, and learn a bit of aviation history (including native-born, decorated female pilot Louise Thaden), check out the vintage planes, relax on the outdoor patio and dine at their restaurant.

Festivals and Events in Northwest Arkansas

  • While the Bentonville area offers many festivals and events, my visit coincided with the annual Berry Fest. This family-friendly event is held at The Berry Farm Bentonville, founded by Dave and Jenny Marrs of HGTV’s “Fixer to Fabulous” show. We picked baskets of blueberries — complete with laughter – and blue-stained teeth and fingers. There was also live music, food, shopping and again so much laughter. (Plus my granddaughter and I fan-gushed at Jenny Marrs and got a photo together!)
For more than 20 years, Denver-based freelance writer Diana Rowe has specialized in travel, family, and multigenerational family travel — and rightly so, with 10 grandchildren and 2 great-grandchildren. She writes for multiple publications including SheBuysTravel.com and PrimeWomen.com, and her own blogs: TravelingInHeels.com & WineLoversVillage.com.
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