This installment in my series of insider guides to great places to visit in the United States focuses on the great State of Arkansas, which sits along the mighty Mississippi River just north of Louisiana. Our tour guide today is my colleague Dana Deree, a proud Arkansawyer and head of consular operations at our Consulate General in Auckland.
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BE AN ARKANSAS TRAVELER by Dana Deree
One of the duties of consular officers is conducting visa interviews of folks who would like to visit the U.S. for vacation, business, education, or cultural exchanges. Over the course of my career I’ve talked at length with people from all walks of life about their travel plans. Time after time, people tell me they are headed to L.A., Las Vegas, New York, and a few other well known destinations. Now, don’t get me wrong, those are great places to visit, but they aren’t the whole story. I’m fixing to tell y’all a little bit about another option, my beautiful, friendly, fascinating home State of Arkansas.
Known as “The Natural State,” Arkansas is famous for its great natural beauty, abundance of easily seen wildlife, and diverse geography, ranging from the breathtaking Ozark and Ouachita Mountains, to thick pristine forests, to the eastern lowlands along the Mississippi River and Arkansas Delta, home of some of the world’s most productive farm land.
The State is blessed with many crystal-clear rivers, streams, and lakes, as well as a large number of beautiful waterfalls and all the great recreational options that come with such waters. Whether walking or paddling through our reserves and parks, you’ll be surprised and awed by what you see around each bend.
Inhabited by Native Americans for thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans, “Arkansas” is an Algonquian name of the Quapaw Indians. The State is located in the Mid-South region of the U.S. and shares a border with six sister States (Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma). Our territory is a bit larger than the North Island of New Zealand and is populated with almost exactly 3 million people.
With 195,000 residents, our capital and most populous city is Little Rock, located in the center of the State. It’s an easy drive from Little Rock to other great Southern destinations such as music meccas Memphis (135 miles /220 km away) and Nashville (350 miles / 560 km), historical sites in Mississippi (150 miles / 240 km), the hustle and bustle of Dallas (310 miles / 500 km), and the rich culture of New Orleans (425 miles / 680 km).
At times a colony of both Spain and France, Arkansas was part of Thomas Jefferson’s famous Louisiana Purchase. Our culture is a mix of Southern, African American, and an eclectic mix of new comers, with vibrant cuisine and rich musical traditions including bluegrass, folk, country, gospel, R&B, and rockabilly.
In modern times the State has become well known for its important role during the struggle for civil rights, as the home of President Bill Clinton, and for global mega businesses such as Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods. Many world-famous icons hail from Arkansas, including Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, Al Green, John Grisham, Maya Angelou, and Helen Gurley Brown.
For me, the one place that I never miss whenever I’m back home is Hot Springs, which is a mountain, a city, a national park, and an unforgettable experience all rolled into one. The hot springs flow from the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain, part of the Ouachita Mountain range. The oldest federal reserve in the U.S., Hot Springs National Park has great hiking trails and camping areas near to the springs.
The city has managed those resources to conserve the production of uncontaminated hot water for public use. For more than 2 centuries health seekers from around the world have come to the area to luxuriate and recuperate in the reserve’s hot therapeutic baths. For many generations the area has been referred to nationally and internationally as ”The American Spa.”
Portions of downtown Hot Springs are actually included in the national park, which makes visiting very easy. The city’s entire Bathhouse Row area has been designated a National Historic Landmark District and contains the grandest collection of bathhouses in North America, including many outstanding examples of Gilded Age architecture.
For more kinetic entertainment, Hot Springs has a great amusement park for the kids (and for adults who aren’t ready to grow up) called Magic Springs & Crystal Falls. Named one of the three most family-friendly parks in the nation by Better Homes and Gardens magazine, Magic Springs offers more than 80 attractions including the Arkansas Twister roller coaster and the largest water park in the State. It’s the only theme park in the U.S. located in a national park.
And there’s more. For Arkansans, the famous Hot Springs horse races draw us by the tens of thousands. Opened more than a century ago, Oaklawn Park is an American thoroughbred race track and home to the Arkansas Derby and the Racing Festival of the South. In 2009 the Horseplayers Association of North America ranked Oaklawn in the top ten best race tracks in the United States.
When you visit Arkansas, though, the biggest thrill is getting out of the hot springs or grandstand and touring the State by auto (I recommend a convertible), RV, motorcycle, or bicycle. Getting from place to place – especially in the beautiful Ozark Mountains – is half the fun. Arkansas highways and backroads offer some incredibly scenic views, natural wonders, and places aplenty to explore history and heritage.
There are too many great drives for me to list them all. I would, though, highly recommend taking an Arkansas scenic drive through the agricultural delta of eastern Arkansas, home to two national scenic byways, the Great River Road and Crowley’s Ridge Parkway. Interstate 530 carries travelers through the wildlife-rich wetlands.
Arkansas Scenic Route 7 traverses the north-south length of the State offering spectacular views as it passes through the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains. The Mount Magazine Scenic Byway takes you to State’s highest peak.
I’m particularly partial to the various Ozark Highlands routes that pass through the stunning Ozark National Forest. Whatever the season, I know you’ll enjoy the lush forests, rocky peaks, cystalline waters, and grand vistas of the Highlands.
And I recommend that you unleash your inner Indiana Jones and explore. With a map in hand, you can jump off the main highways and byways and discover our beautiful backroads. When you find a spot that intrigues you, park the car and spend an hour or two enjoying the special sights, sounds, and feelings waiting for you off the beaten path.
Arkansas isn’t just scenic views, though. We also have rich art, architecture, and performance offerings. One of the most interesting is Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It just opened in November 2011 so I haven’t been there yet, but my Arkie friends rave about it. The dream of Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, the Museum’s large permanent collection features American art from the Colonial era to contemporary work.
Walking distance from downtown Bentonville, the Museum complex is an architectural marvel. Admission is free of charge. Notable works include a Charles Willson Peale portrait of George Washington as well as paintings by George Bellows, Norman Rockwell, Jackson Pollock, Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, Stuart Davis, and Mary McCleary. The Museum regularly hosts impressive temporary exhibits on loan from American and European museums, including recently Paris’ Musee du Louvre.
It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, when I tell folks I’m from Arkansas, people say, “Bill Clinton!” The 42nd American President put us on the map, and we’re rightly proud of our native son and hometown hero.
If you’re interested in following a ways in the former President’s footsteps, I would say that the best starting point is his birthplace, at 117 South Hervey Street along U.S. Route 278 in Hope, Arkansas. Now preserved as a National Historic Site, the house is open to the general public most days.
The next stop would be the Clinton Presidential Center, located in the heart of downtown Little Rock just a short walk from River Market’s excellent shopping, eateries, and night life. The Center contains the Clinton Presidential Library (including full-scale replicas of the Clinton-era Oval Office and Cabinet Room), the offices of the Clinton Foundation, and the University of Arkansas’ Clinton School of Public Service.
Situated on more than 17 acres (9 hectares) of park land along the Arkansas River, the Center is a site to behold. The main building cantilevers toward the Arkansas River, echoing Bill Clinton’s campaign slogan of “building a bridge to the 21st century.” The archives and museum contain two million photographs, 80 million pages of documents, 21 million e-mail messages, and 79,000 artifacts from the Clinton Presidency. There are also great walks, fountains, and an awesome café.
I thoroughly enjoy visiting the Center, but then I’m a Little Rock partisan in most respects. Having taught there for a few years, I’m particularly partial to Little Rock Central High School. Completed in 1927, it was named “America’s Most Beautiful High School” by the National Association of Architects.
Those of you who have studied the civil rights movement probably recognize the school’s name. During America’s struggle to insure civil rights for all, Central High played a pivotal role, garnering worldwide media attention in September 1957 when hostilities arose over the planned admission of the first nine African American students (who became known as the “Little Rock Nine”).
President Eisenhower ordered troops from the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to escort the students into the building, which was the first time since post-Civil War Reconstruction that federal military force was used to insure civil rights. Now, more than 50 years after the “crisis at Central High,” the current student body of more than 2,000 is approximately 55% African American.
Central High School is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, designated as a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Site. In 1997 the National Park Service opened the Central High Museum and Visitor Center (in a vintage structure on the corner of Park Street and Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive), which is well worth a visit. There is also a Commemorative Garden and a restored reflecting pool in front of the school.
In Arkansas you’ll never lack for something to do, and there is something for every taste. For instance, the Old Mill in a park in North Little Rock features the 1880’s water-power grist mill shown in the opening scenes of the 1937 movie classic Gone With The Wind. The mill is believed to be the only structure remaining from that globally iconic film, and it sits in an idyllic park that I’m sure you’ll enjoy.
As I said at the outset, we Arkansans love the outdoors (like Kiwis do). A vast majority of our recreational vacations involve water and forest. With a total of more than 600,000 acres (243,000 hectares) of lakes plus more than 9,700 miles (15,600 km) of rivers and streams — including the mighty Mississippi River, the State’s namesake Arkansas River, and the cliff-lined Buffalo National River – there’s plenty of space for fishing, swimming, sailing, power-boating, scuba diving, and more.
Particularly famous are our great fishing lakes. Fed by cold-flowing springs and creeks, the mountain fishing lakes are among the cleanest in the world. Scuba divers and underwater photographers marvel at the water clarity, while fishermen are happy with the trophy-sized lunkers they hook in the same waters.
We have some of the nation’s best trout-fishing waters. The world-record German brown trout for 19 years (1992-2009) was caught on the Little Red River. The White, North Fork, and Spring Rivers also yield record-size brown, rainbow, and cutthroat trout.
The entire stretch of the Arkansas River within the State is popular with anglers seeking largemouth bass. Several big-time tournaments are held annually on Lake Dardanelle and other reservoirs formed by the river. In addition, the scenic streams in the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains provide excellent river fishing for smallmouth bass.
You of course don’t need to fish to enjoy our waters. There’s great canoeing, kayaking, sailing, white-water rafting, houseboating, parasailing, jet skiing, and party barging just about everywhere. In the shallow tail waters below our dams you can use our popular flat-bottomed “johnboats” to get close to fish and birds, or just to lean back and relax in the sun.
Sylamore Creek at the Blanchard Springs Recreation Area and the Caddo River around Norman provide the State’s best swimming holes. Campgrounds, cabins, and resorts can be found along most Arkansas waterways, which frequently have picnicking areas and parks with easy-access boat ramps.
Big game hunting is also a popular pastime. The State has a huge herd of whitetail deer estimated at one million animals, plus black bear and elk. There are liberal big game hunting seasons for use of archery, crossbows, muzzleloaders, and modern guns. There is also excellent small game hunting. Duck hunting is particularly popular along the Mississippi Flyway in the Arkansas Delta.
Camping, backpacking, and hiking in the Natural State are unforgettable experiences with day, weekend, and long-distance trails to suit whatever your preference and skill level might be. Some of my favorite treks are in the Ozark Highlands and the Ouachita National Recreation Area. There are also extensive cave networks to explore on foot, including at Blanchard Springs Caverns.
If you are more of a rider than a walker or a paddler, the same regions of Arkansas have forest and slope trails legendary among mountain bikers and equestrians. If you arrive without your own horse, there are equestrian facilities and guided horse excursions available throughout the State.
Whether walking or riding back to “civilization,” be sure to stop at another one of my favorite Arkansas cities, Eureka Springs. The community is built on a picturesque mountainside with more than 60 natural springs, three lakes, and more than 1800 acres (730 hectares) of city park land.
Nationally recognized as an arts destination, Eureka Springs has numerous art galleries, art studios, and arts festivals. For the past several years it has been named one of the “Top 24 Art Towns in America” by American Style Magazine.
Historic preservation is an important part of Eureka Springs’ identity. The city was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 and re-listed as Nationally Significant in 2004. It has been honored as one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Also distinctive is our State flag. The big diamond represents Arkansas’ status as the first (and until recently the only) place in North America where diamonds were mined. The 25 white stars around the diamond reflect that Arkansas was the 25th State to join the Union. The three stars below the State’s name represent the three countries that have ruled Arkansas — Spain, France, and the United States. The star above the State represents the Confederate States of America, which Arkansas joined in 1861 after temporarily seceding from the Union.
We take our diamonds seriously. In 1906 a hog farmer near Murfreesboro discovered two diamonds in his field. Since then more than 75,000 of the gems have been dug from the site, which turned out to be the eroded surface of a volcanic crater. After a rollercoaster of boom times, bankruptcies, and lots of digging in the area, the State purchased the site in 1972 and turned it into a park.
Crater of Diamonds State Park is the only diamond-producing site in the world open to the public. For those of you feeling lucky, park policy is “finders, keepers.” Any diamonds, semi-precious stones, rocks, or minerals you unearth are yours to keep, regardless of their value. There have been some extraordinary finds, including the 40-carat “Uncle Sam” diamond, the 16-carat “Amarillo Starlight” discovered by a park visitor in 1975, and the 4.25-carat “Canary” diamond worn by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton during the Presidential inaugural balls .
It has been said that Arkansas is the buckle of the Bible Belt. That may be true, but Razorback football comes a close second as the State’s religion. The Razorback, or wild hog, is the mascot for the sports teams of the University of Arkansas in beautiful Fayetteville. Hearing more than 80,000 red-clad fans “call the hogs” will rattle your bones, an experience not soon forgotten.
I should note that the University of Arkansas sports a fine rugby team as well. Founded in 1971, the University of Arkansas Rugby Club is the longest tenured sports club on campus. The Razorback ruggers have consistently been one of the best teams in the conference, winning the title in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years (and finishing second in 2011-12).
Fayetteville itself is a fun, unique mix of cool university town, outdoor mecca, cultural center, and business community. It’s a great place to visit or live, and I highly recommend that you take a look for yourself. Forbes Magazine recognized it as one of the top five small towns to live and work in the United States, in part because of its environs.
Everything seems to circle back to the beauty of the Natural State. When you visit and take a walk in our woods, you’ll see for yourself that I’m not exaggerating. And if you like waterfalls, you’ll fall in love.
Yes, Arkansas is beautiful. Yes, there is a lot to do. Yes, the people are special. But what do I really, really miss about Arkansas? The food, of course. The State has great food from around the world and excellent fine dining options, but what you’ll want to do is immerse yourself in our traditional home-grown offerings.
In Arkansas you’ll find the finest examples of Southern cuisine. Personally, I’m a barbeque man, but you can’t go wrong with the catfish, fried chicken, or a host of other regional staples. And the fixings … don’t get me started on the fixings. Man, I miss a big plate of greens, black eyed peas, slaw, and fried okra to go with the ribs I wish I was eating right now.
I’m making myself hungry, so I think I’ll wrap up. I hope you’ll consider visiting The Natural State as part of your next visit to the United States. Whether you roadtrip across the South, take a cruise up the Mississippi, or fly in specifically to hike, hunt, or fish, you’ll be glad you did. I promise you.
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For more information about Arkansas, what to see, and how to plan a visit, please take a look at Arkansas.com. If you have specific questions, let me know. I’m sure Dana wouldn’t mind doing some supplemental consulting about his home State.