It’s the simple life full of family, fun, and a whole bunch of Wal-Marts. When I traveled as a kid, people from other states or countries asked if I owned any shoes or hung out in Wal-Mart parking lots for fun…both of which were questionable at the time because I still love being barefoot to this day, and I probably did hang out in Sam Walton’s parking lots a time or two.
People’s perception of places is so funny. You never know until you go, and that, in a nutshell, is one of the reasons I love to travel. But this is home. Arkansas carries a southern comfort that wraps me up in layers of sweet relaxation, strong accents, and even stronger humidity. I thrive in that heat and, thus, shiver in the L.A. coastal summers. With seven national parks, 50 state parks, 600,000 acres of lakes, and 9,700 miles of streams and rivers, there is so much to explore. I recently took a road trip through this great state, the preferred way to travel in 2020!
I didn’t know a ton about the capital of AR (not AK) until my parents moved here from Fort Smith a few years ago. I have a lot of respect for this little city along the Arkansas River! With a population of around 200,000, it’s the largest city in the state with a lot to do.
- William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum
- Pinnacle Mountain hike – the west summit is 1.2 miles out and back with gorgeous views
- Arkansas River Trail – spanning just over 21 miles, the Arkansas River Trail runs riverside and extends from the Clinton Presidential Library to Two Rivers Park
- Two Rivers Park – rent kayaks with Rock Town River Outfitters
- Big Dam Bridge – the longest pedestrian and bicycle bridge in the world, built specifically for that use
- Museum of Discovery (kids)
- Altitude Trampoline Park (kids…okay fine adults, too)
- Dust Bowl Lanes Bowling
- Allsop Park Trail – a 3.7 out and back trail that’s great for kids and pets
- Barefoot Yoga
- River Market District
- Faulkner Farm for peach picking
- The Old Mill (North Little Rock)
- Heights Taco & Tamale – everything on this food and drink menu is good
- Cheers in the Heights – look no further than the chopped salmon salad
- Mugs Cafe – the best cappuccino in the land
- The Pizzeria – damn good pizza in a cute pizzeria
- Three Fold – noodles and dumplings and steamed buns, oh my!
- Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe – God bless this greek salad with chicken
- Purple Cow Diner – because everyone needs a purple milkshake in their life
- Poke Hula – poke bowls, enough said
- kBird – pad thai so good that you’ll think you’ve arrived in Thailand
- One Eleven – fancy establishment in one of my favorite hotels around
- Samantha’s Tap Room & Wood Grill – downtown LR with some down home comfort
- Doe’s Eat Place – mmmmm steak
- Rock Town Distillery – tours, tasting rooms and damn good vodka
- Lost Forty Brewing – craft microbrewery in the heart of downtown Little Rock
- Cathead’s Diner – southern comfort served on a plate
- The Root Cafe – cutest eatery with locally sourced ingredients
- South on Main – cultural experience with a restaurant and performance venue
- Loblolly Creamery – small-batch, handcrafted ice cream and sweet treats
- Local Lime – your local taco and marg purveyor
- Mike’s Cafe – yummy Vietnamese and Chinese cuisines
- Raduno – brick over pizza and Italian inspired menu
- Capital Hotel, the one and only
Oh Fort Smith, I will always love thee. How can I begin to wrap up almost two decades here? Growing up in this bubble provided a beautiful childhood, but there’s no sugar-coating it – Fort Smith has a bit of a tumultuous past. I don’t resent this town for it, and I will always look fondly upon my memories here. Back in 1861, the city was used as recruiting and training grounds for Confederate forces until Union forces ultimately reclaimed the fort in September 1863 after many bloody Civil War combats. For decades following, the infamous Judge Isaac C. Parker sentenced more people to hang than any other judge in American history. With the largest criminal jurisdiction of any federal court at the time, Fort Smith handled all executions by hanging the guilty at the gallows, and most were of the BIPOC community. The court closed in 1896 after ‘The Hanging Judge’ fell ill.
- Fort Smith National Historic Site
- Fort Smith Museum of History
- The Park at West End
- Old Fort Days Rodeo
- The Unexpected Art Project
- George’s – feta burger or bust
- Yellow Umbrella – ICONIC burger joint and crinkle fries
- Geno’s Pizza – by the slice. BY THE SLICE.
- Fort Smith Coffee Company – downtown eatery with a good kale breakfast sandwich
- Ed Walkers Drive-In & Restaurant – 1950s institution that only gets better with age
- Rolandos – Ecuadorian goodness
- Pho Vietnam – an old gas station serving up some v authentic food. A Fort Smith treasure.
- Las Americas Too – a family-run business with authentic Salvadoran, Mexican, and Tex-Mex food
- Neumeier’s Rib Room – best BBQ in the nation
- AJ’s Oyster House – good vibes, good people, good food
- 906 Cocktail and Cigar Lounge – upscale social lounge offering the finest spirits, wine, and cigars
- 21 West End – this place kicked me out after trying to order a drink at 18 years of age. A girl’s gotta try. Current day, it’s still great.
- Doe’s Eat Place – steak. NOM.
- Fort Smith Brewing Company – beer and a tasting room
- Uncork’d Wine Bar – cozy seating, an atmosphere quiet enough for intimate conversation, and a tapas menu
- Hardscrabble Country Club – what you’d typically find at a country club (find a member and order a club special)
- My old house is for sale. Dear 4620 Free Ferry, I love you forever.
NWA (Northwest Arkansas)
An hour north of Fort Smith lies northwest Arkansas, a region that has seen immense growth for the past few years. When Sam Walton opened the dime store in Bentonville in 1950, nobody dreamed it would evolve into the giant retailer that is Walmart today. Throw in Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Transport and you got yourself a triple threat worth of Fortune 500 companies. The economic engine that is Bentonville, Fayetteville, Springdale, and Rogers is powerful.
- Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium – go hogs!
- Dickson Street / Fayetteville Square (especially the Farmer’s Market on Saturday mornings when in season)
- Botanical Garden of the Ozarks
- Lake Fayetteville 5 Mile Trail
- Elxr Yoga Lounge
- Spoon Moon Cosmic Community
- Razorback Greenway Trail for running, hiking and biking
- Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, The Momentary, Amazeum
- Prairie Grove Battlefield Park
- Downtown Bentonville Square
- War Eagle Mill & Cavern
- Arsagas on the Depot – a coffee shop staple in NWA
- Doe’s Eat Place – more steak
- Rick’s Bakery – for all things sugar
- Vetro 1925 – refined Italian and scrumptious wine
- Theo’s – blends the freshness of coastal cuisine with the comfort of southern cooking and hospitality
- The Farmer’s Table Cafe – vegan friendly farm-to-table
- Stone Mill Bread – turkey sandwich on cranberry pecan bread, that’s all
- Pesto Cafe – don’t let the seedy motel that it resides in deter you! If you’re looking for traditional Italian food with red-checkered tablecloths and wine, look no further
- Cafe Rue Orleans – authentic award winning cajun dishes straight from New Orleans
- Bordinos – restaurant and wine bar with northern Italian influence
- Mockingbird Kitchen – mmmm brunch (and other things)
- Fox Trail Distillery – the only spirit distillery in NWA with a great tour of the production facility ending with a bourbon tasting
- Hugo’s – great burgers, funky vibes
Lake Ouachita / Mt. Ida
If you can’t point it out on a map, Arkansas is very landlocked. It takes hours to get to a coastline, so the state enjoys its many lakes. I grew up going to Lake Ouachita (“Wash-ah-taw”) with my family every weekend during the summer. Arkansas’ biggest lake makes up 40,000 acres and one of the cleanest lakes in the country. When I was about six years old, my mom threw me in the water and bribed me with $10 to get up on skis. It worked, and I thank her for it! Fun fact: Mount Ida, the city where my parent’s lakehouse is located, is known as the Quartz Crystal Capital of the World 🙂 Over Christmas, I went digging for diamonds at Crater of Diamonds state park, the world’s only diamond-bearing site accessible to the public!
- Boating, wakeboarding, water skiing, tubing, swimming, fishing, kayaking, and even scuba diving
- Harbor Marina
- Turtle Cove Spa
- Horseback riding
- Ouachita National Forest
- Crater of Diamonds State Park (an hour from Mt. Ida)
- Shangri-La – fried chicken and pie, the best way to spend an afternoon
- The Dairyette – a no-frills diner that’s a must-do for chicken fingers, shakes, and whatever else your heart desires
- Burl’s Smokehouse – turkey, beef jerky and cinnamon rolls, the foods of my childhood
Lake Hamilton / Hot Springs
Ouachita is only about 30 minutes from Hot Springs, the hometown of Bill Clinton (although born in Hope, AR). I grew up visiting my grandparents who lived here on Lake Hamilton. The difference between Lake Ouachita and Lake Hamilton is that you can actually build on Hamilton, but the lake is much smaller than Ouachita.
- Boating and water sports on the lake
- Oaklawn Horse Racing
- Bathhouse Row
- Hot Springs National Park
- Rolandos – Ecuadorian goodness
- The Pancake Shop – it’s all in the name
- Luna Bella – chic kitchen serving italian meat, seafood & pasta dishes plus cocktails
- Stubby’s BBQ – smoked meats are served 3 ways (traditional, healthy & sassy)
- Cajun Boilers – laidback spot with a back deck featuring fried & boiled seafood, classic Cajun dishes & draft beer
- Sam’s Pizza – great food, great prices, great menu
- Deluca’s Pizza – so popular that you need to call ahead and reserve your dough!
- Grateful Head Pizza – live music, fabulous drinks and of course, pizza!
- Airbnb a house on the water
Eureka Springs is the quirkiest town in Arkansas hands down. It’s built on a steep hill and the entire city is on the National Register of Historic Places. The little village is sometimes referred to as “the little Switzerland of America” and I can confirm – European vibes are around every corner. With shop names like ‘Awakening the Divine’ and ‘The Essential Oil Shoppe’, this little yogi was in heaven 🙂 Historians say indigenous cultures traveled to the “Old Indian Healing Spring” long before European Americans incorporated the city. Whatever the case, if Eureka Springs doesn’t already have it’s very own ‘Keep Eureka Weird’ bumper sticker, it needs one.
- Thorncrown Chapel
- Eureka Springs Downtown
- Lake Leatherwood
- Crescent Hotel ghost tours
- I’m pretty sure we always stopped at Main Street Cafe on the way to Kanakuk Kamp, and do to COVID, everything was closed on my most recent trip!
Ask people what to do in Arkansas and you’ll probably hear about the Buffalo River. This stunning river is one of the few remaining unpolluted, free-flowing rivers in the lower 48 states, and the city of Jasper is a base for lots of adventuring. Think waterfalls, hiking, kayaking, and canoeing. The town of Jasper itself only has about three restaurants, but the people are lovely and the diners suffice for a few days in the area!
- Float the Buffalo River with Buffalo River Outfitters
- Horseshoe Canyon Ranch for rock climbing and horseback riding
- Triple Falls
- Hemmed-In Hollow Falls
- Big Bluff / Goat Trail
- Whitaker Point (Hawksbill Crag, shown below), 3 miles round trip
- Blue Mountain Bakery – adventure awaits…and so does coffee 🙂
- Ozark Cafe – burgers and shakes and a descent chicken salad
- Sharon K’s Cafe
- Buffalo Outdoor Center – stopped here on the way to Whitaker Point & FYI there’s a deli in the back!
Thirsty for more 🙂
Obviously, I missed a few places. I’ve spent countless days at my grandparent’s old home in Helena and Pine Bluff and have visited some insanely small towns while playing junior high basketball (go Buffs). I went on field trips to Petit Jean and Devil’s Den State Park where both have great trails and waterfalls. I learned how to shoot a gun in De Valls Bluff near Stuttgart, the duck hunting capital of the world. I’d love to see the highest point in the state at Mount Magazine alongside Blanchard Springs and the White River on my next trip!
Please use this guide on your next road trip through the Natural State – no travel agent fees required! As we continue to navigate what travel means post-pandemic, domestic travel close to home is always a good idea.