No matter where in Arkansas you choose to retire or relocate, there’s a guaranteed adventure around every corner. Here, we’ve compiled a list of 10 of our favorites that run the gamut from quirky to quintessential. They’re in no particular order, and their inclusion doesn’t mean they rank higher than activities that don’t appear here – activities like sampling wine in Altus or stargazing atop Mount Magazine, the state’s highest point. Arkansas just offers too many great adventures to list them all! Find out more about these adventures and others at Arkansas.com.
1. Relax at Garvan Woodland Gardens
Nestled in the Ouachita Mountains on a peninsula in Lake Hamilton, the 210-acre Garvan Woodland Gardens is a botanical retreat. Philanthropist Verna Cook Garvan began the gardens several decades ago, before donating them to the University of Arkansas School of Architecture as a tribute to natural preservation. Formally opened in 2002, one of the highlights of the garden is the architecture, inspired by Arkansas native and renowned architect E. Fay Jones. Holding the belief that architecture should reflect and fit within the natural beauty surrounding it, Jones designed the Garvan Pavilion, which serves as the garden’s centerpiece. The gardens are open all year, except January. Lectures and special events are scheduled year-round, including the popular Festival of Lights, which illuminates the garden with almost a million twinkling lights during much of November and all of December.
More info: 800-366-4664, 501-262-9300, GarvanGardens.org
2. Dig for Diamonds at Crater of Diamonds
One of the gems in Arkansas’s crown is Crater of Diamonds State Park, the only diamond-producing site in the world that is open to the public. The largest diamond ever found in North America – at 40.23 carats – was discovered here. For a small rental fee, the park provides all the tools necessary to prospect in its diamond search area, a 36-acre plowed field that is the eroded surface of a 95 million-year-old volcanic pipe. Along with diamonds, more than 40 types of rocks and minerals can also be found, including amethyst, agate, jasper, garnet, quartz, hematite and more. Lucky enough to find a diamond? The park’s “finders’ keepers” policy ensures that anything you unearth is yours to keep, regardless of value.
More info: 870-285-3113, CraterOfDiamondsStatePark.com
3. Cruise the Great River Road
If you need a good excuse to rent a convertible, here it is. Named a “Southern Travel Treasure” by AAA’s Southern Traveler magazine, the 363-mile Arkansas Great River Road is a National Scenic Byway that runs parallel to the Mississippi River in Eastern Arkansas. The road begins in Blytheville and winds down through Osceola, West Memphis, Helena-West Helena, DeWitt, Dumas, Lake Village and Eudora before ending at the Louisiana state line at the very southeast corner of the state. Gaze at expansive rice, cotton, wheat and soybean fields, as well as swamps, bayous and the oxbow lakes created by the Mississippi River as it changed its course. Along the way, stop to visit museums, monuments and any of six state parks which highlight Delta heritage and history. Brochures and maps are available at towns along the drive and at the State Welcome Centers at Blytheville, Helena-West Helena and Lake Village. The Arkansas Delta also is a prime location for hunting, fishing and bird watching. Ask any local for details, and they’ll point you in the right direction.
More info: 870-972-2803, DeltaByways.com
4. Bite Into Arkansas’ Juicy Watermelons
How far can you spit a watermelon seed? Find out at one of the state’s famous watermelon festivals. Hope, the birthplace of President Bill Clinton, and Cave City are known in Arkansas and beyond to produce some of the largest, sweetest and juiciest watermelons. To celebrate the succulent, summery fruits, each city holds an annual three-day August festival. Both include lots of watermelon-related and Southern activities for the whole family, including watermelon eating and seed-spitting contests, watermelon weigh-ins, fish fries, 5K run/walks, lawnmower races, musical entertainment, crafts and more. Of course, you can also buy melons to take home and enjoy.
Regions: Hope – Timberlands; Cave City – Ozarks
5. Chug Along the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad
Step back in time and take a ride on the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad in one of its beautifully-refurbished antique passenger or parlor coaches. Established in 1896, the A&M Railroad meanders over tall trestles and through a quarter-mile tunnel to the top of the scenic Boston Mountains and into the historic Arkansas River Basin. Jovial conductors enhance the experience with tales about the area’s rich history, while tending to passengers’ needs. Rides depart from Fort Smith, Springdale and Van Buren. Adult tickets begin around $35; senior citizens and active or retired military personnel receive a 10 percent discount.
More info: 479-725-4017, AMRailroad.com
6. Savor the State’s BBQ
Arkansas is known for amazing Southern food, and its barbecue is no exception. Lucky for natives and visitors alike, exceptional barbecue restaurants abound in all regions of the state. In central Arkansas, Little Rock’s Whole Hog Café remains Arkansas’s only “World Champion” barbecue café. It was even featured on Food Network’s “Tasty Travels with Rachel Ray” and listed in Fodor’s as a “don’t miss” in Arkansas. If you’re in the Delta, duck into Craig’s in DeVall’s Bluff; it might not look like much, but its flavorful barbecue will leave you begging for more. In the Timberlands, try JJ’s in El Dorado; in the Ouachitas, don’t miss family-owned McClard’s in Hot Springs; and in the Ozarks, pop into Penguin Ed’s in Fayetteville. There are also a number of festivals around the state that celebrate barbecue, including Fayetteville’s Bikes, Blues & BBQ (Sept. 28-Oct. 1, 2011) and the annual Smoke On the Water barbecue competition at the Pine Bluff Regional Park (Sept. 16-17, 2011).
More info: Arkansas.com/Dining
7. Walk, Jog or Bike Over the Big Dam Bridge
The world’s longest pedestrian bridge built especially for that purpose, the Big Dam Bridge is a central Arkansas must-see. Towering above the Arkansas River and connecting the cities of Little Rock and North Little Rock, the bridge offers a breathtaking view of the river and the flora and fauna that line its banks. The peaceful and scenic setting is perfect for a relaxing walk, jog or bike ride over the bridge and along the 14 miles of nature-enshrouded trails on either side. Even if you didn’t bring a bicycle along, you can rent one for a full or half day for as little as $16 from River Trail Rentals, located in River Trail Station on North Little Rock’s riverfront and on the bottom level of the Peabody Hotel in Little Rock.
8. Visit the Clinton Presidential Center
Designed to tell the story of how a young man from Hope grew up to become the 42nd president of the United States, the 148,000-square-foot William J. Clinton Presidential Center & Park encompasses a museum, presidential archives, and educational and research facilities. Must-see permanent exhibits include full-scale replicas of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room, decorated exactly the way they were during Clinton’s time in office. There’s also a 110-foot timeline, complete with books filled with Clinton’s presidential schedules for almost 3,000 days of his term. A steady stream of visiting exhibits comes through the center each year as well. Recent and upcoming ones include “The Secret Art of Dr. Seuss,” “Elvis at 21” and “Nathan Sawaya: Art of the Brick.”
More info: 501-370-5050, ClintonPresidentialCenter.org
9. Get Down at the King Biscuit Blues Festival
Held annually for three days in October, the King Biscuit Blues Festival takes place in historic downtown Helena-West Helena, on the banks of the Mississippi River. Each year, tens of thousands of people flood downtown Helena-West Helena to hear the soulful tunes of notable blues musicians like B. B. King, Taj Mahal and Dr. John & the Lower 911. Since its inception in 1986, King Biscuit has grown to include three stages and additional activities, including the Kenneth Freemyer 5K, the Blues in Schools program and the Tour da’ Delta Bicycle Tour. Check the website for the current lineup.
More info: KingBiscuitFestival.com
10. Float Down the Buffalo River
For those seeking a little one-on-one with nature, a leisurely ride down the Buffalo National River will fit the bill. Located just off Scenic Byway 7 near the town of Jasper, the 150-mile Buffalo River winds through the Arkansas Ozarks, flowing into small rapids and calm pools before emptying into the White River. The Buffalo’s beauty and mild manner make it a popular destination for canoeing and fishing, and the 95,000 acres of public land surrounding the river offer campgrounds, cabins and other lodging, as well as springs, caves, waterfalls, natural bridges, and walking and hiking trails.
More info: 870-741-7286, NPS.gov/Buff