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Four Days in the Arkansas Highlands

Thermal baths, scenic roads, a Clinton home, Civil War history, beautiful chapels and more

road map of Arkansas road trip from Eureka Springs to Little Rock, and a photo of the town of Hot Springs in the evening

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Twist and turn your way through Arkansas’ two major mountain ranges on this four-day road trip packed with natural beauty. Your drive starts in central Arkansas in the Ouachita Mountains, a range that runs east to west into Oklahoma, and it ends in northwest Arkansas in the Ozarks, the largest range between the Rockies and Appalachians, extending northward into four other states. These mountainous regions with peaks exceeding 2,000 feet charm with crystal-clear lakes, rivers teeming with fish, splendid mountain vistas, old-growth forests that give leaf peepers a brilliant color show in fall and outdoor activities aplenty (hiking, biking, fishing and more). 

Adding to their appeal are small towns with surprising attractions, including a national park with ornate Victorian-era spas and a world-class art museum financed with Walmart money that showcases masterworks by the likes of O’Keeffe and Warhol. And for a bit of nostalgia, you’ll even flash back to the late 1950s and the King of Rock ’n’ Roll himself, Elvis Presley

Hot Springs, USA - June 4, 2019: Historical natural mineral water spa bath house, bathhouse row with Fordyce sign building in National park

Alamy Stock Photo

Day 1: Little Rock to Hot Springs (55 miles)

Fly into Little Rock, then drive 55 miles southwest on Interstate 30 to the small resort town of Hot Springs (population about 39,000) in central Arkansas. Native Americans first settled here thousands of years ago, drawn to the area by thermal springs believed to have healing properties. Fast-forward to the turn of the 20th century, and several Victorian bathhouses were built to attract visitors eager to get treatments in these waters. This bathing tradition eventually fell out of favor, but the structures remain — clustered together in a central downtown location — and are the nucleus of Hot Springs National Park, which extends out into the Ouachitas. Two of the bathhouses (Buckstaff and Quapaw) still offer treatments (mineral baths, massages), and another one (Fordyce) serves as the park’s visitor center, with interesting exhibits showing what the bathhouses were like during their heyday. Tip a brewski in Superior Bathhouse Brewery, a pub and restaurant serving beer made with the thermal water.  

​You can’t soak in the outdoor springs like the early inhabitants did, but you can go hiking on the plentiful trails. The easy Hot Springs Mountain Trail is a 1.7-mile path (with paved and unpaved sections) with scenic valley overlooks and an observation deck with an elevator. 

​Away from the park, roam the serene (and mostly accessible) paths of Garvan Woodland Gardens, a 210-acre lakeside botanical garden in the mountains 8 miles south of downtown. Its Anthony Chapel is a glass eye-catcher set amongst pine trees. 

​At day’s end, unwind at Arkansas’ oldest bar, The Ohio Club, which Al Capone reportedly frequented during Prohibition, when it had a front as a cigar shop. (The city’s secluded location made it a perfect hideout for mobsters, who could gamble at a casino and horse track.) Dine with locals at the old-school McClard’s Bar-B-Q Restaurant. 

Where to stay: Hotel Hale, built as a bathhouse in 1892, was recently converted into a downtown boutique hotel with nightly rates typically north of $200. Its nine art-filled rooms have soaking tubs, just what you’d expect in this city of thermal baths. Book early because there’s only one ADA-compliant room (accessible for people with disabilities).

Arkansas, Barling, Fort Chaffee Barbershop Museum, site of Elvis Presley's first US Army haircut in 1953

Alamy Stock Photo

Chaffee Barbershop Museum

Day 2: Hot Springs to Fort Smith (154 miles)

​Before departing Hot Springs, drop into The Pancake Shop, a downtown favorite for made-from-scratch buckwheat pancakes. 

Lake Ouachita Point, Arkansas

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Lake Ouachita

Leave town on U.S. Route 270, skirting Lake Ouachita, until it meets U.S. Route 88, a.k.a the Talimena Scenic Byway. The road weaves through mountains with oaks and maples that turn bright shades of orange, red and yellow in fall. At scenic overlooks, snap photos and listen to the symphony of cicadas and the hum of passing boats on the Ouachita River, popular with fishermen for its bass, bream and white perch.​

In about 30 miles, before the Oklahoma state line, take U.S. Highway 71 north to Fort Smith, a former frontier town on the Arkansas River in the valley separating the Ouachitas from the Ozarks. The namesake fort was established in 1817 as a buffer between the Cherokee and Osage tribes. Confederate troops occupied it during the Civil War, and it later served as a federal courthouse. Today, the Fort Smith National Historic Site includes a reconstruction of the gallows used by the federal court, the 1838 Commissary building and the foundation of the first Fort Smith. ​

At the Chaffee Barbershop Museum, flash back to a 1958 event seen around the world: Here, Elvis Presley famously got his buzz cut for his Army duty. You can see actual video of television news coverage from that day in the museum.

​There’s plenty more to see around Fort Smith, including more than 30 eye-catching murals by celebrated international public artists such as D*Face and Okuda San Miguel. Pick up a map of the artwork at the downtown visitor center (formerly a bordello in the town’s rowdier days).

The Belle Grove Historic District, just north of downtown, features more than 20 Victorian-style homes, most from the late 1800s. You can tour a handful, including the Italianate-style Clayton House, with ornate coal-burning fireplaces and period furnishings.​

Come dinnertime, dig into award-winning barbecue and Delta-style tamales at Neumeier’s Rib Room & Beer Garden, a few blocks from the fort.

Where to stay: The moderately priced 138-room Courtyard by Marriott Fort Smith Downtown is convenient to local landmarks and attractions. Its accessible rooms have roll-in showers and lights that alert the hearing-impaired to knocks at the door. 

The Walmart Museum, housed in the Walton's 5&10 in Bentonville, Arkansas, which Sam Walton opened in 1950.

Alamy Stock Photo

Walmart Museum

Day 3: Fort Smith to Bentonville (83 miles)

​Head north on Interstate 49 into the Ozarks. Fifty-eight miles from Fort Smith, stop in Fayetteville and shift your attention to two former residents who moved on to a much bigger stage: As law professors at the University of Arkansas in the 1970s, a young Bill and Hillary Clinton lived in this college town before becoming political heavyweights. The modest one-bedroom home where they were married is now the Clinton House Museum, with an array of campaign memorabilia and even a replica of Hillary’s wedding dress. ​

If you’re up for a little physical activity, go cycling on the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 36-mile bike and pedestrian trail through northwest Arkansas that starts in Fayetteville and takes you over bridges and past parks, playgrounds and more.

​Next stop: Bentonville, 27 miles farther north on I-49. Walmart is headquartered here, and the company’s influence is found in museums and venues built by founder Sam Walton and his family. At the Walmart Museum, set in the family’s former downtown 5&10, exhibits trace the company’s evolution, including one explaining how its trademark slogan — Every Day Low Prices — came about. 

​In 2011, Walton’s daughter, Alice, founded the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, a lauded attraction north of downtown with an impressive collection showcasing five centuries of American art, from early-American to contemporary. Visitors with impairments can enjoy the museum via audio tours, guided tours with sign language interpretation and specialized glasses for colorblindness. Serene trails dotted with sculptures connect the museum to downtown. You might want to also visit Momentary, an affiliated contemporary art space Alice subsequently opened in the arts district southeast of downtown.

​Restaurants nominated for James Beard Restaurant and Chef Awards make good dinner options. Yeyo’s El Ama de Mexico, in the arts district, serves traditional Mexican street food; try memelas, a Oaxacan tortilla dish stuffed with black beans and cheese. For seafood and steaks, opt for The Preacher’s Son, set in a former church a block from the city square.

Where to stay: The modern and moderately priced 21c Museum Hotel Bentonville impresses with its curated art gallery and the original artwork in its 104 rooms. Accessible rooms feature roll-in showers.


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Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, completed and opened to the public in 1980.

Alamy Stock Photo

Thorncrown Chapel

Day 4: Bentonville to Eureka Springs (39 miles)

​The forested, hilly drive northeast on Arkansas Highway 72 and U.S. Highway 62 shows off northwest Arkansas at its finest, especially as the colors change in fall. Fifteen miles out of Bentonville, stop at the 4,300-acre Pea Ridge National Military Park, one of the most intact (well-preserved and authentic) Civil War battlefields. Here, an instrumental Union victory in 1862 turned the tide of the conflict.

​Twenty-five more miles on U.S. 62 brings you to Eureka Springs (a small town of about 2,200) near the Missouri border, an artsy, somewhat quirky mountain community also blessed with natural springs, though its spas aren’t as flashy as the Hot Springs bathhouses. The shops, galleries and restaurants in its eclectic downtown are housed in preserved buildings with a mix of architectural styles, from Romanesque to Victorian. Duck into Magpie for reasonably priced women’s clothing, gifts and home décor. For weird and wacky art for every budget, head to Zarks Gallery. 

​In a forest on the city’s outskirts, don’t miss Thorncrown Chapel, a light-filled architectural gem designed by noted Arkansas architect E. Fay Jones. South of downtown at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, hop on a tram tour to see big cats (cougars, lions and tigers), which this animal sanctuary rescued from abuse and neglect.

Where to stay: Take a ghost tour at the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa, considered one of the country’s most haunted hotels. Some of its affordable 76 rooms, inspired by the Victorian era, come with balconies overlooking the town. Wheelchair-accessible accommodations are available. 

Caroline Eubanks is an Atlanta-based writer and author of This Is My South: The Essential Travel Guide to the Southern States. Her work has appeared in Afar, Conde Nast Traveler and and Hemispheres.​​

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