Touring Arkansas means getting familiar with the state’s geography and history. Many of Arkansas’ best places to visit are peppered throughout the state’s northwestern region, where the Ozark Mountains reward travelers with rugged terrain and breathtaking vistas. Cityscapes prove to be just as enjoyable thanks to the preservation of historic architecture and the presence of diverse museums. We’ve compiled a list of some of the state’s top destinations to help you build your Arkansas itinerary.
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1. Little Rock
If you’re stumped about what to do in Arkansas, start with the state capital. Little Rock sits on the south bank of the Arkansas River, right in the middle of the state. Arkansas’ most populous city is rich in history, and its historically significant areas coexist harmoniously with the bustle of a diverse metropolis.
The state capital’s most visited site is Little Rock Central High School, a designated National Historic Site. In 1957, a group of African American students known as the Little Rock Nine was enrolled at the school but denied entry in spite of the 1954 US Supreme Court ruling that declared school segregation laws to be unconstitutional. Ranger-led tours of the school delve into the history and legacy of the Little Rock Integration Crisis. Other popular historic sites include the William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum and the Arkansas State Capitol.
The River Market District is the hub of Little Rock’s downtown. The district’s Ottenheimer Market Hall is a prime lunch spot, offering delectable international cuisines. River Market’s other highlights include live music and handicrafts from local artisans. Riverfront Park is another beloved Little Rock spot. Sprawling along 11 blocks of the riverbank, the park features a history pavilion, a sculpture garden, an amphitheater, a splash park, and more.
2. Crater of Diamonds State Park
A visit to Crater of Diamonds State Park isn’t just a fun thing to do in Arkansas – it could be a valuable experience, too. Named a state park in 1972, this land just outside of Murfreesboro in southwest Arkansas consists of peridotite soil that has yielded diamonds and other gems and minerals to searchers since the early 20th century. More than 33,000 diamonds have been found in the park since its opening.
The main attraction is the park’s 37-acre field, where visitors are invited to search for gems, rocks, and minerals. What’s more, their discoveries are theirs to keep. The park has mining tools for rent, or you can bring your own equipment as long as it isn’t battery-operated or motorized. Park staff members will identify your findings for free in addition to offering mining demonstrations and various interpretive programs.
The park has multiple campsites for visitors who want to maximize their luck by spending several days searching for gems. If digging for diamonds isn’t your pastime of choice, have no fear, as there are other activities here. The Little Missouri River runs through the park, and anglers can fish for largemouth bass, catfish, bream, and trout. Other outdoor facilities include picnic sites and walking trails.
3. Ozark–St. Francis National Forest
Encompassing more than one million acres, Ozark–St. Francis National Forest actually comprises two separate forests: the Ozark National Forest and the St. Francis National Forest. The two forests have different topographical features and ecosystems, and both are Arkansas attractions in their own right.
The Ozark National Forest is by far the larger of the two, stretching across 1.2 million acres in northwest Arkansas. The majority of the forest is located in the Ozark Mountains, which include Mount Magazine, the tallest peak in the state. The Ozark National Forest is notable for its beauty throughout the changing seasons, with an abundance of wildflowers in the spring and fiery foliage in the fall. The forest includes five designated wilderness areas and hundreds of campsites.
The St. Francis National Forest is situated in east-central Arkansas, close to the state border. The forest covers 22,600 acres and is incredibly biologically diverse relative to its size. This diversity has created habitats for a variety of wildlife, including white-tailed deer, waterfowl, squirrels, and wild turkeys. The St. Francis and Mississippi rivers and multiple lakes have made the forest a popular spot with anglers thanks to the presence of largemouth bass, striped bass, catfish, bream, and more.
4. Blanchard Springs Caverns
One of the most beautiful places in Arkansas can only be seen by venturing underground. Situated within the Ozark National Forest, Blanchard Springs Caverns is known for being one of the most carefully developed cave systems in the country and deserves its own spot on this list. The caverns opened for tours in the 1970s and remain the only caves owned by the US government outside of the National Park System.
Blanchard Springs Caverns are often referred to as the Living Cave because their contents are continuously changing. Dripping water regularly deposits calcite onto the rock formations, which continue to grow as a result. Three different tours of the caverns are offered by knowledgeable Forest Service guides. The Dripstone Trail is an easy walk that lets visitors see almost every type of rock formation that exists in the cave system. The Discovery Trail winds through the lower level of the caverns and includes a view of the underground stream. The Wild Cave Tour is a strenuous adventure that explores undeveloped portions of the cave system.
Above ground, Blanchard Springs has even more attractions. Among these are a waterfall and some spectacular springs, which include areas for swimming and fishing. Campsites and hiking and biking trails are also available.
5. Mount Magazine State Park
Mount Magazine State Park may be one of the top attractions in Arkansas today, but it took a while for the land to receive the designation it deserves. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mount Magazine became part of the Ouachita National Forest in 1938, only to be transferred to the Ozark National Forest in 1941. The 2,234-acre stretch of land was finally dedicated as a state park in 2002.
At 2,753 feet high, Mount Magazine is the tallest peak in Arkansas and its sprawling views attract locals and tourists alike. The park’s elevation makes it a prime spot for hang gliding, sport climbing, bouldering, and rappelling. The Huckleberry Mountain Trail, a popular and challenging multiuse trail that leads to the Ozark National Forest, accommodates hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, and all-terrain vehicles. Additional hiking trails vary in length and difficulty, so there’s a path to suit hikers of all levels.
If one day at the park doesn’t feel sufficient, consider taking advantage of on-site accommodations. Campsites are available, but travelers seeking a truly comfortable experience may opt for a stay in one of the park’s cabins or the Lodge at Mount Magazine, both of which offer stunning views of the Petit Jean River Valley and the Blue Mountain Lake.
6. Beaver Lake
Up in the Ozark Mountains near the border with Missouri, Beaver Lake is an artificial reservoir that was created in the 1960s when the Beaver Dam impounded the White River. The lake is a popular tourist attraction in Arkansas, but it’s also a source of drinking water for the state’s northwestern population.
The lake covers 28,000 surface acres and has almost 500 miles of shoreline, so recreational opportunities are easy to find. Aquatic activities include waterskiing, boating, scuba diving, kayaking, swimming, and wakeboarding. Beaver Lake is also the setting for multiple fishing tournaments thanks to its national reputation for excellent bass fishing. Back on land, the lake’s shores are a haven for hikers, bird-watchers, and picnickers.
Beaver Lake’s southern shore is home to the Hobbs State Park–Conservation Area. With 12,054 acres, the land makes up the largest state park in Arkansas. The park boasts a 54-mile trail system for hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders. Primitive campsites cater to intrepid visitors while minimizing human impact. The Hobbs State Park–Conservation Area is Arkansas’ only state park to permit regulated hunting.
Bentonville in northwest Arkansas is best known as the birthplace of Walmart, but there’s more to this city than the world’s largest retailer. Bentonville serves as a gateway to Beaver Lake and various mountain parks, and its diverse cultural institutions can engage just about any traveler.
A trip to Bentonville is inevitably an educational one, since most of the city’s top attractions are museums. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is housed in a mesmerizing structure designed by the world-famous architect Moshe Safdie. The museum comprises a permanent collection that depicts five centuries of American art in addition to dynamic temporary exhibits. The Museum of Native American History has no admission charge and explores 14,000 years’ worth of Indigenous culture. The Scott Family Amazeum specializes in interactive exhibits and experiences that fuel children’s curiosity about science, technology, engineering, art, and math.
Visitors who wish to get their blood pumping are in luck, as Bentonville is known to some as the Mountain Biking Capital of the World. Cyclists who ride around town get to admire the 100 installments that make up Bentonville’s public art program. A few miles northwest of downtown is the Coler Mountain Bike Preserve. The preserve combines natural drops with artificial obstacles to create challenging courses.
8. Devil’s Den State Park
Widely considered a state icon, Devil’s Den State Park is a must-see in Arkansas. Situated just west of the Ozark National Forest near the state border, the park was built in the 1930s by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, a work relief program that provided employment for young men from 1933 to 1942. Devil’s Den is notable for being one of the best-preserved Civilian Conservation Corps projects in the US.
The young men of the CCC used native wood and stone to build the park’s structures, which include pavilions, 17 cabins, and the rock dam on Lee Creek that formed Lake Devil. The eight-acre lake attracts anglers as well as boaters, who can rent canoes and pedal boats on site. In recognition of its unique, rustic architecture, Devil’s Den State Park was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.
The CCC were also responsible for creating the park’s trails, which extend to the adjacent Ozark National Forest. Nearly a dozen trails take visitors past waterfalls, caverns, and interesting rock formations. The trails are popular with hikers, mountain bikers, backpackers, and horseback riders.
9. Eureka Springs
Just east of Beaver Lake in northwest Arkansas is one of the best small towns in Arkansas for history buffs. The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Eureka Springs one of America’s Distinctive Destinations in 2001, and the city’s entire downtown area was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970 as the Eureka Springs Historic District.
The most popular tourist attraction by far in Eureka Springs is its downtown historic district. A significant portion of the downtown area was constructed between 1880 and 1910 and demonstrates well-preserved examples of Victorian architecture. A visit to the Eureka Springs Historical Museum provides further insight into the town’s past in addition to an art gallery and heritage gardens. Unique boutiques and restaurants and an active nightlife scene contribute to the district’s charms.
Some of Eureka Springs’ most-visited spots require a short drive out of the city center. Families flock to the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge about nine miles south of downtown. The refuge specifically serves neglected and abused big cats, focusing on cougars, leopards, lions, and tigers. Roughly three miles northwest of downtown is the iconic Thorncrown Chapel. The distinctive structure opened in 1980, and its unique wooden and glass design has attracted more than seven million visitors.
10. Petit Jean State Park
History and geology are forever intertwined at Petit Jean State Park, the first designated state park in Arkansas. The park is located at the top of Petit Jean Mountain, with the Ozark National Forest to the north and the Ouachita National Forest to the south. Petit Jean’s rugged terrain is reflected in the park’s architecture, which was constructed in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps using native stone and wood.
Petit Jean Mountain rises 1,120 feet above the Arkansas River Valley, so it’s no surprise that some of the park’s most beloved spots are its overlooks. Multiple overlooks offer views of the Petit Jean River, Cedar Creek Canyon, and various mountains. Don’t forget your camera; these vistas are popular with photographers, especially at sunset. Another must-see for shutterbugs is the Cedar Falls Trail; its namesake 95-foot waterfall is one of the most photographed waterfalls in the state.
Petit Jean’s CCC-built cabins and lodge have made the park a great historic vacation spot in Arkansas. In fact, Mather Lodge is the only lodge in Arkansas built by the Corps. The lodge features 24 guest rooms and a dining room with large windows that give guests a scenic view of Cedar Creek Canyon.
11. Buffalo National River
In 1972, the US designated the lower 135 miles of northern Arkansas’ Buffalo River as the country’s first National River. The Buffalo National River is one of only a few rivers in the lower 48 states to remain undammed. The river’s path through the Ozark Mountains has resulted in a waterway surrounded by giant bluffs.
The most popular pastime on the river is paddling, which can be done via kayak, canoe, or tube. The river’s water level is dependent on rainfall, so the length of the paddling season varies from year to year. The river also attracts anglers thanks to its 12 species of game fish, including smallmouth bass and rainbow and brown trout. Activities such as hiking, bird-watching, camping, and horseback riding are available on the river shores.
The Buffalo National River is one of the best places to go in Arkansas to engage in some serious stargazing. The river was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2019 after the National Park Service adjusted the restroom and facility lighting in order to reduce the effects of light pollution. The park hosts multiple night sky programs throughout the year, so astronomy fans may want to keep an eye on the Buffalo National River’s event calendar.
With a population of 87,590, Fayetteville is one of the biggest cities in Arkansas. The city is less than 30 miles south of Bentonville but has its own distinct personality and attractions. Fayetteville bills itself as the entertainment capital of northwest Arkansas, and the presence of the University of Arkansas campus ensures that a youthful energy pervades the city at all times.
The Dickson Street Entertainment District is all about fun. By day, enjoy downtown’s unique boutiques, restaurants, and art galleries. After dark, bars and clubs offer live music most nights of the week. A standout is George’s Majestic Lounge, the oldest continuously operated live music venue in the state. The lounge opened in 1927 and began hosting music and social events as early as the 1930s. For big names in live music and comedy, check out the Walton Arts Center’s event calendar.
Fayetteville residents take pride in the city’s extensive trail system, which includes paved multiuse paths as well as natural, unpaved trails for mountain biking. The city is also home to a portion of the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 36-mile shared-use trail that connects Fayetteville, Johnson, Springdale, Lowell, Rogers, and Bentonville.
13. DeGray Lake Resort State Park
Are you planning an outdoorsy vacation in Arkansas but aren’t a fan of roughing it? DeGray Lake Resort State Park may just be the ideal spot for you. Located on the shores of its namesake lake in the Ouachita Mountains, DeGray Lake Resort State Park combines comfortable lodging and a plethora of amenities with a gorgeous natural setting.
The star of the park, unsurprisingly, is the 13,800-acre DeGray Lake. The lake’s sandy beach is a favorite with families, and shaded picnic tables nearby provide a welcome respite from the sun. The beach faces a designated swimming area in the lake that is off-limits to boats. The rest of the lake is complemented by a full-service marina with watercraft rentals, dock space, and a bait and tackle shop.
Not a fan of water sports? No problem. The resort park also features an 18-hole championship golf course, a disc golf course, and an escape room. Six distinct hiking trails can be enjoyed with a guide or on your own, and a guided horseback riding experience takes guests along the lakeshore and through stands of pine trees, with no equestrian experience required. Amenities at the lodge include a heated swimming pool, sand volleyball court, playground, and fitness center.
14. Lake Hamilton
One of the state’s most popular lakes, Lake Hamilton is a great choice for a weekend getaway in Arkansas, particularly if you’re based in or around Hot Springs. The 7,200-acre lake stretches about 18 miles long, providing plenty of shoreline for resorts, condominiums, motels, and restaurants.
The artificial lake was created in 1932 when the Carpenter Dam impounded the Ouachita River. The dam was built to generate hydroelectricity, but the resulting reservoir proved to be a valuable tourist attraction that continues to benefit Hot Springs’ economy. All the usual water sports are available here, including swimming, waterskiing, parasailing, boating, and fishing. The Belle of Hot Springs Riverboat offers sightseeing cruises on the lake.
For a little break from the water, consider an outing to Garvan Woodland Gardens, located on a 210-acre peninsula that juts into the lake and is accessible by boat. The botanical gardens, which belong to the University of Arkansas’ Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design, are fantastic for fans of photography. A bonsai garden, beautiful bridges, a koi pond, and a children’s adventure garden are just a few of the attractions here. If you want to see the ground blanketed with tulips and wildflowers, make sure to stop by in spring.
15. Hot Springs
Nestled in the Ouachita Mountains, Hot Springs is one of the best places to visit in Arkansas for some rest and relaxation. The resort city is named for the area’s natural heated springs, which have been enjoyed for centuries by residents and visitors alike. Whether you choose to relax with a rejuvenating spa treatment or a meditative sojourn into nature, you’ll leave Hot Springs feeling refreshed in both body and mind.
For a peek into Hot Springs’ history as a resort destination, visit Bathhouse Row, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark District in 1987. The site is operated by the National Park Service and comprises eight bathhouse buildings built between 1892 and 1923. Most of the buildings have been repurposed, but the Buckstaff Bathhouse has been continuously operating since 1912 and still offers thermal treatments today. Hot Springs’ modern spas provide a wide array of treatments ranging from thermal baths to Swedish massage to reiki healing.
If exercise is your way of relaxing, tackle the trails in Hot Springs National Park. The park has 26 miles of trails in total, and their forested surroundings will make you forget that you’re a stone’s throw from the city. Visitors can spend the night in nature at the park’s Gulpha Gorge Campground, which also has areas for swimming and picnicking.
There is no shortage of beautiful and interesting things to see in Arkansas, as long as you know where to look. Whether your preferred view is of mountains and canyons or historic architecture and bustling downtowns, Arkansas has plenty of fascinating places that prompt tourists to stop and stare.
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