Touring the heart of Arkansas

STUNNING SCENERY AND a year-round temperate climate draw visitors to Arkansas, "the natural state." Its central area is home to Little Rock, the capital, set on a bend of the Arkansas River; Pine Bluff, noted for its historical murals; and the resort town of Hot Springs, which encircles Hot Springs National Park and where Bathhouse Row re-creates the turn-of-the-last-century era of "taking the waters." Our 275-mile journey begins and ends in Little Rock.

LITTLE ROCK

Riverfront Park, stretching for 10 blocks along the Arkansas River, is a center of activities with its festivals, promenade, amphitheater, concerts, and riverboat excursions. Nearby are the River Market district, a cluster of shops and restaurants; the Museum of Discovery with many science and technology exhibits; and the 1836 Old State House, the oldest extant capitol west of the Mississippi. Today it holds a museum of Arkansas history. Under construction nearby is the Clinton Presidential Library. Also of interest are the Decorative Arts Museum, the Arkansas Arts Center galleries, and the Aerospace Education Center, offering a virtual-reality flight experience. Five original Little Rock dwellings form the Arkansas Territorial Restoration, where guides describe life on the Arkansas frontier. The Central High Museum & Visitor Center (across from the high school that is now a national historic site) commemorates the 1957 segregation conflict, when the federal government integrated black students into the previously all-white school. Wildwood Park for the Performing Arts has festivals and offers walks through its gardens. The Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau distributes guides for three walking tours and a driving tour: MacArthur Park Historic District of antebellum and Victorian homes, the Downtown Riverfront district, and the Governor’s Mansion area.

PINE BLUFF

Little Rock Convention & Vistors Bureau (800) 844-4781, www.little rock.com. Museum of Discovery (800) 880-6475. Old State House (501) 324-9685. Decorative Arts Museum, Arkansas Arts Center (501) 372-4000. Aerospace Education Center (501) 376-4629. Arkansas Territorial Restoration (501) 324-9351. Central High Museum (501) 374-1957. Wildwood Park (501) 821-7275.

On Route 165, stop in Scott to visit Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park, the remains of a civic and ceremonial center for a Native American culture dating to 650 A.D. The visitors’ center displays excavated artifacts and a slide show. Also in Scott is the Plantation Agriculture Museum, which interprets the history of plantation life and cotton farming in Arkansas.

A dozen murals make the walls of Pine Bluff’s buildings an outdoor art gallery, depicting such scenes as Main Street in 1888 and life on the Arkansas River in 1900. The Arkansas Railroad Museum exhibits a restored steam engine and railroad memorabilia. The Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame chronicles the careers of entertainers with Arkansas roots. The Band Museum depicts the history of the band movement in America and displays hundreds of instruments dating to the early 1700s. The Martha Mitchell Home, built in 1887, is the birthplace of the wife of President Nixon’s attorney general, John N. Mitchell. The Convention & Visitors Bureau has information on tours of other 19th-century homes. Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park (501) 961-9442. Plantation Agriculture Museum, (501) 961-1409. Pine Bluff Convention & Visitors Bureau, Arkansas Railroad Museum, Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame, and Martha Mitchell Home, (800) 536-7660, www.pinebluffsonline.com. The Band Museum (870) 534-4676.

HOT SPRINGS AND HOT SPRINGS

NATIONAL PARK

If you have time before reaching Hot Springs, stop in Sheridan on Route 270 to explore the Grant County Museum/Heritage Village, a collection of 21 restored buildings, one featuring a Depression-era cafe.

Set in the Quachita Mountains and surrounded by lakes and the Quachita National Forest, the town of Hot Springs has drawn visitors to its 47 thermal springs since the 143- degree waters were declared a "place of peace" by Native Americans. In 1541, explorer Hernando DeSoto lingered for days to enjoy the waters. In 1832, a federal reservation was set up to protect the springs, and by the 1870s it was known as "The National Spa." Until the early 1900s, Hot Springs attracted visitors from all over the world to its thermal baths, thought to be therapeutic for a variety of ailments. Opulent bathhouses and luxurious hotels rivaled the famous spas of Europe, and Hot Springs was called the "Baden–Baden of America." The reservation became a national park in 1921. Today, Buckstaff Bathhouse on the Row still offers baths, whirlpools, and massage, as do five other hotels and spas in town. The most elaborate bathhouse, Fordyce with its stained glass ceilings and DeSoto Fountain serves as a visitors center and museum. Gui ded walking tours of the springs are offered from March through October; visitors can take self-guided walks anytime. The downtown historic district’s Victorian buildings house shops, restaurants, and art galleries. Guided gallery walks are offered on the first Friday of every month. Several cultural festivals take place annually, including a music festival in June and a documentary film festival each fall. The Convention & Visitors Bureau provides a booklet for a self-guided tour of historic downtown and information on a tour visiting President Clinton’s boyhood home, schools, and hangouts. For a view of the area, visit the 216-foot Hot Springs Mountain Tower atop Hot Springs Mountain.

Leaving Hot Springs, take the Scenic Route 7 Byway through the Ouachita National Forest for sweeping vistas, picturesque creeks, lakes, state parks, and country stores.

Grant County Museum/Heritage Village (870) 942-4496. Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau (800) 543-2284, www.hotsprings.org. Buckstaff Bathhouse (501) 623-2308. Other five bathhouses (800) 772-2489. Hot Springs Mountain Tower (501) 623-6035. Hot Springs National Park (501) 624-3383.

RUSSELLVILLE, MORRILTON, AND CONWAY

"Renaissance of a River," at the Arkansas River Visitor Center in Russellville, chronicles the waterway’s history. Arkansas Tech University’s Museum of Prehistory and History displays Native American artifacts. In Morrilton, the Museum of Automobiles exhibits vintage cars. At Conway, the Faulkner County Museum has a general store, jailhouse, and exhibits. The Cadron Settlement Park replicates an 1814 blockhouse and features the Cherokee Trail of Tears Memorial.

The Arkansas River Visitor Center (501) 968-5008. Museum of Prehistory and History (501) 964-0826. Museum of Automobiles (501) 727-5427. Faulkner County Museum (501) 329-5918. Cadron Settlement Park (501) 329-2986.

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