Gas up the jalopy and tag along as we visit our estimations of (maybe) the most interesting thing to see or do in every county in the state.
If you’re like most Arkansans, you’ve lived here awhile — we’re a bunch that tends to stick close to our birth ZIP code, by and large — but you haven’t been everywhere, even within the borders of the state you call home. Some places, even some places you really need to visit if you ever hope to call yourself a Certified Arkie, are damn hard to get to. But you should make the effort. It’s definitely worth it.
Arkansas, unlike some states, has a shocking amount of geographic and cultural diversity out there. The Mississippi Delta around Helena, for example, has about as much in common with the mountains around Fayetteville as Tibet has with Romania. Meanwhile, the rice fields around Stuttgart might as well be on another planet from the Oklahomaesque Wild West around Fort Smith. It goes even deeper than the way things look from a passing car. In many cases, likely because of how the geography of the state tended to isolate people from one another before the advent of the automobile and Interstate Highway System, you’re talking different accents, different foodways, different thinking and worshipping and ways to spend free time.
In an effort to do a little cultural exchange right here in our own backyard, we’ve spent the last few months putting together a list: our estimation of the some of the most interesting things to see or do in all 75 counties in Arkansas.
While some of the counties we looked at were slim pickins — we’re looking at you, Calhoun County, where the trophy whitetail deer easily outnumber the human beings — many more were an embarrassment of riches, requiring us to do some deep and meaningful soul searching to decide what to include and what to leave out.
Above all, forgive us our trespasses on what we excluded. Because this list was, by and large, written by outsiders to these places, we’re never going to truly capture the best of the county like a native, who knows where the choicest fishing hole, swimming hole, donut hole and slice of pie in their neck of the woods are lurking. We tried to do our due diligence, however, drawing on both what we’ve enjoyed in our travels and the wisdom of as many native sons and daughters as we could track down.
It’s not a perfect list, but if you’re looking for a reason to roll some miles onto the odometer as the chill of winter gives way to spring and summer, you could definitely do worse than to follow our lead.
Six Bridges, plus one
In 1961, state Highway and Transportation Department photographer Johnnie Gray took a striking aerial photograph of the six bridges that cross the Arkansas River, from the Rock Island Bridge in the foreground to the Baring Cross Bridge in the background. Frances Mitchell Ross used the photograph, given to her father, Will Mitchell, to persuade the city to frame downtown riverfront development as the “Six Bridges Project.” Hence, the Six Bridges Regatta, among other things.
Humans moved from walking to the wheel; in Little Rock, as in the rest of the country, the recent progression has been in reverse. The first three bridges across the river (Baring Cross, 1873; the Junction Bridge, 1883; and the Rock Island Bridge, 1899), were built for big wheels of the locomotive kind, the train companies having wearied of using ferries. When Arkansas got The Car, construction of vehicle bridges soon followed: the Broadway Bridge (1923), the Main Street Bridge (1924) and Interstate 30 (1958).
When locomotive traffic declined, so did the need for the Junction and Rock Island bridges. The Six Bridges Project, emerging from the Downtown Framework for the Future (1999), envisioned converting the abandoned railroad bridges to pedestrian and bike use, to better connect Little Rock and North Little Rock and create park amenities on both sides. The Junction Bridge was reopened in 2008 for foot and bike traffic; the Rock Island Bridge became the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge in 2011.
Around the corner and out of sight from Johnnie Gray’s photograph is the seventh bridge and the first wonder of Little Rock’s world: the Big Dam Bridge. At 4,226 feet, it’s the longest pedestrian/bike bridge never used by trains or cars in North America, and it has spurred a bike culture in Little Rock that has given the city an identity other than the place where the white folks wouldn’t let the black kids go to Central High. It also forms the western end of the River Trail Loop along the north and south sides of the river, and the spur to Two Rivers Park means you can get on your bicycle downtown and ride it to Pinnacle Mountain and never have to get on Cantrell Road, unless you stick to the Little Rock route (Dillard’s headquarters won’t allow the trail on its property). If you have not walked or biked on the bridges or the trail, you’re missing one of the best things Little Rock has to offer.
Pop. 119,580 – 664 square miles
Cadron Settlement Park
6200 State Highway 319 W.Conway
Its reputation was sullied for decades because it was known as a haunt for sexual imbroglios and ensuing sting operations, but Cadron Settlement Park got a new lease on life a few years ago when the City of Conway entered into a long-term lease with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to maintain and resuscitate this riverfront gem. With a desire for the public to rediscover and reclaim the park and with redoubled security efforts, Conway made the rustic, wooded area feel homey again. The conventional amenities are there — hiking trails, picnic areas and various historical markers — but it obviously sells itself first and foremost on observation alone. Cadron offers one of the more picturesque vistas of the Arkansas River, not to mention boat ramp access thereto, and the trails that wind through the park were cleaned up and maintained through volunteerism to allow for other angles of view to the water to be availed to the public and enhanced. Its roots as a former French trading post are explained through signage; it is on the National Historic Places registry. You won’t find a great deal of modern accoutrements here, no smattering of anachronistic pavilions or sporting courts to enjoy. Instead, the site is well known for its blockhouse restoration and a Trail of Tears exhibit.
Pop. 96,024 – 735 square miles
Hot Springs Arkansas Historic Baseball Trail
Though Hot Springs can seem a bit shabby in places now, there was a time in her history when the Spa City was a jewel box resort, drawing folks from all over the United States in search of hot, healing waters and equally hot nightlife. Encouraged by the Chicago White Stockings (now the Chicago Cubs), who made great strides in strength, stamina and play after coming down to Hot Springs in the late 1880s to shake off the winter bear fat in the temperate spring of Arkansas, other teams followed suit. Five baseball diamonds were constructed around the city, and a who’s who of baseball greats made their way to town every spring for long and legendary stays in the city’s hotels, including Babe Ruth (who hit the first known 500-foot-plus home run from Wittington Park, a 573-foot shot that landed inside a gator pond at the Arkansas Alligator Farm), Hank Aaron, Honus Wagner, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Dizzy Dean, Yogi Berra, Denton “Cy” Young, Stan Musial, and over 75 other players who would eventually be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Though this hidden history was long known only to a dedicated few, the city of Hot Springs recently launched the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail to spotlight the role the city played in sports history and the development of spring training. Featuring plaques around town with the who, what, when and why, plus an interactive and informative website with over two dozen themed tours based on the lives and haunts of individual players who came to Hot Springs, it’s a treat for anyone who ever loved the crack of the bat.
If you’re there on the first Friday of the month:
Hot Springs is many things, thanks to horse racing, lake living and, of course, the hot springs. It’s also an arts magnet: On the first Friday of every month is the after-hours art event called Gallery Walk; Central Avenue’s many galleries will offer refreshment and often talks by the artists featured in the galleries.
Pop. 115,719 – 723.60 square miles
5151 Marylake Drive
A beautiful stone castle on a lake 13 miles south of Little Rock, Marylake is the home of the Discalced Carmelite Friars of the Province of St. Therese. The building’s greater historical interest, however, is as the one-time headquarters of Dr. John R. Brinkley, a flim-flam man who set up shop there in 1938, having raked in bundles of desperate dough since the ‘teens from his mail-order sales of quack potions and performing surgeries that he claimed could restore a man’s lost sexual virility by transplanting goat gonads into the scrotum. His web of lies already coming unraveled by the time he moved to Central Arkansas, Brinkley was later indicted on charges of using the U.S. mail as an instrument of fraud, but died before the trial. The story of the famous goat gland doctor lives on, however, as does the castle where he once practiced his mad science. Note: Discalced, in case you are wondering, means shoeless.
Pop. 70,753 – 802 square miles
Charlotte’s Eats and Sweets
290 Main St.
The home of perhaps the state’s finest coconut meringue pie — the meringue is about 5 inches tall — Charlotte’s is an ideal destination dining spot for Central Arkansans who are looking to step out, but don’t want to drive too far, and like browsing nearby antiques stores. Coconut, chocolate and caramel pies are served every day along with seasonal varieties, including, during winter, pecan pie made from nuts gathered from a local orchard. Cash only, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.
Pop. 10,245 – 551.40 square miles
Part working farm, part educational hub, the Heifer Ranch draws everyone from gap year high school grads to octogenarian idealists, from incipient back-to-the-landers to church groups from Bentonville.
A few miles south of Perryville on the Fourche LaFavre River, the ranch comprises 1,200 acres of hills and bottomlands bracketed to the north and south by long, low Ouachita ridges. When Heifer Project International first acquired the land in 1971, it served as a holding farm for cattle destined to be given to families overseas. Eventually, the Little Rock-based nonprofit switched to sourcing those animals from the countries in which it operates — after all, Uganda has cows, too — and the ranch was repurposed as a place to educate the public about hunger, poverty, agriculture and (of course) Heifer International itself. Today, it’s powered by a rotating community of volunteers who welcome visitors, maintain the facilities, tend to gardens and livestock, and teach youth from elementary school to college who cycle through on field trips, overnight visits and weeklong service projects.
Countless thousands of kids from Arkansas and beyond have slept in the “Global Village,” a collection of sites meant to showcase Heifer’s work around the globe (there’s the “Guatemala House,” the “Zambia House,” and so on). Divided for the night by lottery into “families” of varying resource levels, children have to decide: Share food or hoard it? Extend a helping hand or guard every ounce of randomly assigned privilege? “We Are the World” or “Lord of the Flies”?
Unless they’re chaperoning a group of youths, adults typically aren’t Global Village material. But anyone can drop in at the ranch’s visitor center from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday to take a self-guided tour of the premises and see its livestock. Right now, that means llamas, donkeys, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens, ducks and bees. (Visit during the right time of year and you’ll be mobbed by curious baby goats, which is probably one of the best things that can happen to a human being.) The lineup once included water buffalo, and perhaps it will again: Rebecca Roetzel, the Ranch’s Volunteer and Outreach Manager, said the facility is striving to include “every animal species represented in Heifer’s gift catalog.”
For those interested, Heifer Ranch offers lessons in small-scale sustainable agriculture at every turn, from flocks of free-range poultry pecking away inside “chicken tractors” to various composting schemes. The premises also include a farm that’s at the center of an ongoing effort by Heifer to construct a self-sufficient Community Supported Agriculture model, or CSA, by networking small farmers in Central Arkansas and finding larger-scale buyers for their goods than they could secure individually. (Consumers in Central Arkansas interested in purchasing a CSA share should visit heifer.org/csa)
Visitors can join volunteers to eat in the cafeteria, which exclusively sources its beef, pork, chicken and other meat from the ranch, and most produce as well. (Cafeteria drop-ins are welcome from March to November, Roetzel said, but make a meal reservation if you visit during the off-season.)
A day trip is well worth it, but those in a position to live apart from the world for a season or two might consider long-term volunteering at the ranch. Potential volunteers should check out Heifer’s website for details, or send an inquiry to firstname.lastname@example.org
Pop. 21,245 – 567 square miles
Petit Jean State Park
1285 Petit Jean Mountain Road
Well, this one is obvious. Outside of the Ozarks, Petit Jean Mountain holds the best day hikes in the state, with miles of trails winding over a landscape of myriad streams, ridges, canyons and caves. There are rare patches of old growth forest, odd critters like the collared lizard, and gorgeous sights ranging from Cedar Falls to the overlook at Stout’s Point, the supposed burial site of Petit Jean herself. Eat lunch at Mather Lodge in all its cozy, imposing grandeur — a juxtaposition of adjectives possibly unique to Civilian Conservation Corps architecture — and stop by the privately owned Museum of Automobiles, which sits just to the east of the park. If you want to rent one of the 33 cabins at Petit Jean, call way ahead. If you want the one with the hot tub, call Jan. 1, when the parks department starts taking reservations for the year.
While you’re there:
Check out the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute of the University of Arkansas, on 1 Rockefeller Drive, formerly the ranch of Gov. Rockefeller and later headquarters of Winrock International. Besides the lodge and conference center, there’s an exhibit about the New Yorker turned Arkansan, four fascinating films he had made to document his life and cattle farm on Petit Jean, and a gift shop. You’ll also find information about the cooking classes offered there.
Pop. 242,321 – 847.36 square miles
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
One Museum Way
Though the patrons of the arts in New York City and Chicago and L.A. may shake their heads about it, Bentonville is home to a national jewel of an arts museum. Billionaire Alice Walton got it in her head that her hometown should have a first-class place to see a first-class collection of American art. She hired a world-renowned architect, put the museum on her 100 acres of nearly pristine woodland in the middle of town and created a collection that ranges from the 17th century to now. The big news once was Walton’s acquisition of Asher Brown Durand’s “Kindred Spirits,” which she bought from the New York Public Library much to the consternation of Yankee-folk; today’s is the commissioned Maya Linn sculpture and the $7.7 million acquisition of a floor of candy by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Here are some of the artists whose work is in the collection of Crystal Bridges: Thomas Eakins. Jackson Pollock. Winslow Homer. George Catlin. Louise Bourgeois. Andy Warhol. Georgia O’Keeffe. Edward Hopper. Mark Rothko. Claes Oldenburg. John Baldessari. Marsden Hartley. Martin Johnson Heade. Benjamin West. Kerry James Marshall. Hans Hoffman. Got the picture?
Where to eat:
After seeing the masterpieces of the 19th century, including Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, return to earth at Tusk and Trotter, where you can get some fine fried pig jowls, hamburgers and more elevated fare.
Pop. 17,805 – 608.86 square miles
Growing up about 15 minutes down the road from Altus, my parents always had a half-empty bottle of long-forgotten Post Familie table wine shoved in the same dusty cabinet that held the sorts of kitchen appliances that see once-per-year usage (juicer, bread machine, Salad Shooter, etc.). This arrangement was convenient for sneaking gulps as a teenager, though not so great for the quality of the wine itself, which was probably three-quarters vinegar by the time I got my hands on it. As a nominal adult, I still know nothing about wine, but Post continues to offer me (and anyone else) free sips of the stuff. The Altus wineries of Post, Wiederkehr and Mount Bethel have each been growing and fermenting grapes in the Ozark foothills for a century; they were joined about a decade ago by a fourth vineyard, Chateau Aux Arc. All offer tours and tastings, some for free. All are within yodeling distance from one another, off state Highway 186 (St. Mary’s Mountain Road).
Pop. 36,903 – 602 square miles
The former site of Dogpatch U.S.A.
State Highway 7, between Jasper and Harrison
Return with us now, children, to the days when the newspaper comics section was such a force in American life that a strip like Al Capp’s “Lil’ Abner” — a hicksplotation epic about barefoot yokels wiling away their shiftless lives in the Ozarks while whacked out of their gourds on Kickapoo Joy Juice — could make the jump from two- to three-dimensional space, in the form of the Dogpatch U.S.A. theme park outside Harrison.
Opened in 1968, the 124-acre park featured rides, a log flume, trout fishing, a train ride, and arts and crafts demonstrations. The majority of the buildings in the park — aside from several relocated historic cabins meant to evoke the rustic domiciles of Lil’ Abner regulars — were built in the strip’s signature swaybacked style. Though investors had hoped for a million visitors per year through the turnstiles, the park never really attracted throngs, especially after the Lil’ Abner strip began disappearing from American newspapers.
After several ownership changes and some financial troubles, the park closed on Oct. 14, 1993. Since then, there have been ups and downs, including a 2005 lawsuit involving an ATV accident that resulted in the park’s being awarded to the teenage victim. Though the park was purchased in August 2014 by a spill-proof dog bowl inventor who promised to bring it back to former glories, it’s been shuttered other than two weekends so far. Even so, it’s still quite a sight to see if you’re into that sort of thing: a decrepit amusement park in the middle of nowhere, like something out of an episode of “Scooby Doo.”
You can’t get inside these days without permission, but you can still look into the park from surrounding roads and the former gift shop at the top of the mountain above. From there, you can look down into gone-to-seed Cartoonland and recall what it must have been like to spend a Heckuva Day at Dogpatch, U.S.A.
Pop. 61,948 – 604 square miles
Mountainburg Dinosaur Park
101 U.S. Highway 71 in Mountainburg
Arkansas is full of quirky roadside attractions, and they don’t get much quirkier than the dinosaurs of Mountainburg. Built in 1980, according to an attached plaque, the concrete reptiles in Mountainburg’s cozy city park — a rather elongated triceratops, a green brontosaurus and a snarling T-rex with a mouthful of spike teeth (and, when we visited, a large bird nest on his tongue) — are what family vacations are all about. The bronto and triceratops have hollow bodies and ladders to get little ones up and through, so kids can climb inside and pretend they’re … what? Lunch? Dino poo? Something. Who knows what gets into kids’ heads when they’re playing? Whatever your kid wants to get up to, the unexpected inhabitants of Mountainburg’s city park will be a sure-fire hit with dino-loving kids. It’s free, and the park is only a short detour from Interstate 540, with a drive through some fairly majestic countryside to get there. If you’re planning on turning your trip to Mountainburg’s low-rent Jurassic Park into a picnic, though, be sure to pick up food elsewhere. Even the grocery store and the local gas station have closed in The Land That Time Forgot.
Pop. 26,005 – 659.80 square miles
Big Piney Creek and Mulberry River
Cousins of a sort, the Mulberry and the Big Piney provide some of the state’s best canoeing and kayaking spots as they tumble down from the Ozark highlands to the bottom country of the Arkansas River Valley. When flow is high, the Mulberry’s whitewater is a bit wilder, but both streams contain Class I to III rapids. If you prefer hiking to floating, explore the Hurricane Creek Wilderness by way of the Ozark Highland Trail. If you prefer burgers to either, stop at the Ozone Burger Barn on state Highway 21 north of Clarksville.
Pop. 27,446 – 639 square miles
Now, you might be asking yourself: How can a whole dang town be the most interesting thing in a county? If you’re asking, however, you’ve obviously never been to Eureka Springs.
Incorporated in 1880, with most of the town lying in rugged terrain that a mountain goat would have probably shied away from as a proper home, Eureka is one of those towns like Hot Springs in Garland County that was built solely on the shoulders of the Victorian belief in magic, healing waters in the days before medicine became, you know, medicine. What sprang up there among the town’s many free-flowing springs was a strange little anomaly in the middle of nowhere: a picture-perfect Victorian village, with lovely old shops, spectacular churches, grand turreted houses, world-class hotels and gingerbread cottages perched in the rocks like orchids. The whole town is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Though the fortunes of Eureka faded as modern medicine supplanted a belief in miracle waters, this was actually kind of a good thing. It remained pretty much trapped in amber until the late 1960s and early ’70s, when hippies fleeing the cities to live a simpler life in the Ozarks settled there on the cheap. What grew from that seed of peace and love is the most funky and progressive little town in the whole state, with art galleries and high-end stores sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with quirky bars and antique shops.
With a large gay and lesbian population, Eureka has often led the way on the issue of LGBT rights, including establishing a domestic partnership registry so couples could get a government stamp of approval on their relationship long before same-sex marriage became the law of the land. In May 2014, the first same-sex marriage license in the state was issued from Eureka’s quaint brick courthouse, and almost exactly a year later, the town passed a broad nondiscrimination ordinance to protect LGBT people from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations, an ordinance the voters there later upheld overwhelmingly at the ballot box. Pretty dang good for a town built on water.
Pop. 22,353 – 732 square miles
Mount Magazine State Park
While there are plenty of places to get high on a mountaintop in Arkansas, none comes higher than Mount Magazine, reaching 2,753 feet above sea level. The 2,234-acre Mount Magazine State Park, transferred from the U.S. Forest Service and established as a state park in 1998, includes majestic views of the surrounding countryside and some of the best hiking, bicycling and horseback riding trails in the state, along with 13 private guest cabins perched on the cliffs, a hang-gliding launch, two campsites with provisions for campers, and 16 tent-only campsites. The jewel of the park is the Lodge at Mount Magazine, a 66,000-square-foot showpiece that opened in 2006, replacing the original, WPA-built Mount Magazine Lodge, which burned to the ground in 1971. While the loss of the old lodge was a blow to tourism on the mountain for years, the new version is definitely a step up in style and features, with rustic, traditional lodge architecture and furniture, 60 guest rooms, a fitness center, an indoor pool, conference center, outdoor sittin’ areas and the Skycrest Restaurant, said to serve some of the best food to be had in Logan County. While the trip up the mountain can be enough to scare the bejesus out of you, especially in the dark or when a fogbank settles over the peak, it’s well worth the trip for one of the premier views and natural attractions in Arkansas. A plus: It’s the only place in Arkansas where you’ll find rufous-crowned sparrows, a Western bird that comes to Arkansas to nest on Mount Magazine’s south-facing bluffs.
Pop. 15,740 – 834.26 square miles
Orval Faubus’ gravesite
Orval Faubus was one of seven children born in a two-room shack in the hills of Northwest Arkansas. He was the son of a prominent socialist — his middle name was Eugene, after the Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs. He grew up without running water or electricity; spent his summers hopping trains, harvesting apples and cutting timber; and fought in World War II. When he first ran for governor, he ran as a populist — and won. That was 1954. He was governor for 12 years.
Faubus did many positive things for the state, but none of it will resonate in future generations as vividly as his decision — still debated, still complex, still revolting — to defy the federal court order to desegregate Little Rock schools in 1957. When he died in 1994, his obituary in the New York Times read “Orval Faubus, Segregation’s Champion, Dies at 84.” He was indisputably one of the state’s most darkly fascinating political figures — as the Arkansas musician Tav Falco, who once interviewed Faubus, recently said of him, “He was a man riddled with inconsistencies.”
Combs Cemetery was in his hometown in Madison County. On his gravestone, he commissioned the following message: “When I come to this, my last earthly resting place, may it be said of me: In the rise from obscurity, he served his country and the people well. He forsook not his own kind — the common people; he dealt fairly with all men; his promises were kept; his debts were paid.”
After visiting Orval’s grave, lighten up: Remember that rockabilly star Ronnie Hawkins, of Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks and Band fame, was born in Huntsville.
Pop. 16,367 – 597 square miles
Rush Historic District
Buffalo National River
The scatter of old and charmingly decrepit buildings that you pass on the way to the Rush campground on the Buffalo National River in the southern part of Marion County is all that remains of a mining town founded in the mid-1880s by prospectors drawn by a legend that said there was silver there. They didn’t find silver, but they did find zinc. It’s hard to believe now, but 5,000 folks once lived here — some of them on the lam, all seeking a fortune. A 13,000-pound zinc nugget nicknamed “Jumbo” hacked from the Morning Star mine won a blue ribbon at the St. Louis World Fair in 1893 and is said to be in the collection of Chicago’s Field Museum. One of the charms of Rush is that one just sort of stumbles onto it: No big brassy signs show the way. It’s tucked away along a steep Ozarks road to the National Park campground river access; no souvenir shop or other silliness mars the ghost town. There is a steep and rocky hiking trail, but the mines and buildings are fenced off and you should leave them alone. Put up your tent at the rustic Rush campground in the fall and listen to the whinny of screech owls in the night. Or sleep in Yellville, the closest town and home of the Turkey Trot festival, which this year dropped a turkey from an airplane as in days of yore and is in plenty of hot water from the FAA and animal rights groups over it. Maybe go protest. The festival is in October.
Pop. 7,904 – 823 square miles
Compton Loop Trail/Hemmed-in Hollow
Buffalo National River
What’s this endless fascination with superlatives? The first thing everyone mentions about Hemmed-In Hollow is that it’s the tallest waterfall between the Appalachians and the Rockies, as if the measurement itself — 209 feet — were the main attraction. Fact is, the waterfall is secondary to what it has wrought over the centuries: an immense bowl of rock hammered out of the sandstone bluffs that swaddle the Buffalo River, streaked with pale colors of the earth and ringed by trees. The falls slow to a trickle during much of the year, but the cathedral of the canyon always remains.
Hemmed-In Hollow can be accessed by canoe — it’s less than a mile’s hike from the Buffalo — but it’s better as the centerpiece of an overnight backpacking trip on the Compton Loop trail, which is among the very best one-night camping excursions in Arkansas. The hike drops over a thousand feet in elevation as it descends into the Buffalo River valley, so be prepared to sweat.
You’ll also want to take along a map, since the trail isn’t always marked clearly with blazes, despite being well traveled. (And, of course, take all the normal precautions that come from spending a night in the woods: Bring plenty of food and water, tell someone where you’re going beforehand, don’t leave chunks of raw meat scattered around your tent before bed, etc. Your cell phone is not going to work here.)
You couldn’t ask for a better showcase of the Ozarks: High up, you’ll see vistas of the valley carved by the river, untainted by any visible human presence. You’ll get to explore a long-abandoned settler homestead, Granny Henderson’s Cabin, which we’re absolutely sure isn’t even a little bit haunted. For much of its length, the trail follows a stream called Sneed’s Creek, which spins its own meandering narrative of cascades, pools and miniature bluffs. Perhaps the most captivating feature is an area called Rocky Bottom, which consists of a vast slab of treeless rock traversed by Sneed’s Creek. We don’t know why this moonscape is parked insolently in the middle of a forest, but there it is; take a geologist with you on your trip and get back to us with an answer.
To get there, take state Highway 21 north from Clarksville, then follow state Highway 43 to Compton, which consists entirely of a post office and a gas station (well stocked with camping supplies and gear). Turn right at the gravel road across from the post office, followed soon by another right. About a mile later, a sign will direct you to take a third right for the trailhead and parking area.
Not up for a strenuous hike?
Try Lost Valley, a wonderland of a canyon on Highway 43 just south of Ponca. You’ll see multiple waterfalls, a cave, a natural bridge and looming boulders scattered through gorgeous woodlands, all within only 2.2 miles of moderately level terrain (round- trip). The first half-mile of the trail is handicapped-accessible.
Pop. 126,776 – 531.91 square miles
“Unexpected Project” murals
Downtown Fort Smith
You don’t think of Fort Smith, home of the hangin’ judge, as being a place where eight terrific mural and street artists native to London, Brazil, Belgium, Portugal, Dublin and Puerto Rico might gather for a week of painting, all under the guidance of a curator from France. But that happened, when the 64.6 Downtown, a local group supporting the city’s historic riverfront, sponsored the Unexpected Project’s Festival of Murals in September. Over nine days, the walls of Fort Smith’s historic buildings came alive with massive paintings: A skeletal hand firing a gun as a cowboy gallops by (317 Garrison Ave.), a nod to the U.S. marshals of Fort Smith’s wild past. The outline of a heart and arrows, sharing its brick wall with ghost signs from the building’s heyday (Fifth and Garrison). The encounter of a giant squid and shrimp with human faces (800 block of Garrison). The face of a Native American jackhammered into a concrete wall (900 block of Garrison). A huge mole (505 Rogers Ave.), a huge otter (702 Garrison). Eleven murals in total, astonishing, first-rate public art. See the work at 646downtown.com, or, better, go to Fort Smith.
VAN BUREN COUNTY
Pop. 16,932 – 724 square miles
Do you need a fabulously ornate 12-foot-tall sideboard made in Austria sometime in the middle of the 19th century? With little Austrians carved in relief all over the place? For just slightly north of $18,000? Then the Antique Warehouse in Botkinburg, just outside of Clinton, is your place. It’s got hundreds of antiques from Europe, including a large collection of stained glass — even some that cost less than a car — in its 90,000 square feet of floor space. That’s the largest inventory of antiques in the U.S., according to the store.
Pop. 63,201 – 812.55 square miles
Big Piney Creek
The kind of swimming that Long Pool is made for is the July-August variety, when immersion in water feels like your only hope of surviving the afternoon. At this spot on Big Piney Creek — a few miles north of Dover — the stream still runs cold and clear but widens into a pool deep enough to allow for real swimming, at least when the canoeists aren’t being too aggressive.
Pop. 10,950 – 898 square miles
Ouachita National Forest
U.S. Highway 71 N. from Waldron
The Ouachita National Forest — the oldest and largest national forest in the South — came to be in 1907 during President Theodore Roosevelt’s vast conservation efforts. It was originally called the Arkansas National Forest. Almost 20 years later, in 1926, President Calvin Coolidge changed the name and pushed for the forest to extend into eastern Oklahoma. Today, the forest accounts for nearly 1.8 million acres in 13 counties in Arkansas and two in Oklahoma. Scott County, with 369,618 acres, has more of the forest than any other county. Hiking the entirety of the 225-mile backcountry Ouachita National Recreation Trail, which runs from Pinnacle Mountain to Talimena State Park in Oklahoma and cuts through a small portion of Scott County, is the best (also most demanding and time-consuming) way to experience unspoiled Arkansas in all of its grandeur. If you have an SUV or a truck with good clearance, you can get a good (and easier) view by driving Forest Service Road 158, on the border of Scott County and along the peak of Poteau Mountain. The road is gravel and rough in stretches. But you’ll be rewarded with beautiful vistas and all sorts of wildlife crossing your path.
Pop. 220,792 – 941.97 square miles
Northwest Arkansas Razorback Greenway
Fayetteville to Bella Vista
It boggles the mind that there is a 36-mile trail for bikers and hikers through the Ozark Plateau from (roughly) the back of Arsaga’s at the Depot restaurant in Fayetteville to the Bella Vista trail in north Bentonville and that little of it is shared with cars. Though Arkansas contains some nutcases who believe bike trails are a U.N. plot to take over the U.S. (no kidding), fortunately they weren’t able to stop the $38 million Razorback Greenway, the creation of wise transportation planners, the Walton Family Foundation and benefiting cities, which also include Johnson, Springdale, Lowell and Rogers. The Waltons kicked in $15 million and paid for the design team; cities won federal funds to match the Waltons’ gift. Now, after 15 years, the trail is complete. At the trail’s website, nwatrails.org, you can see pictures of the views from multiple stops: along the railroad tracks near Dickson Street, the wooded and beautiful stretch of Clear Creek Trail east of Johnson, along the boardwalk at the Shiloh Museum in Springdale and near Lake Springdale, on the spur through the grounds of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville and the Wishing Springs Trail, to the Veterans Wall of Honor in Bella Vista. Part of the trail is rigorous, part is easy sailing, all of it is something to brag about. Also for trail seekers: the new Mount Kessler Trail, 328 acres on Mount Kessler (1,854 feet above elevation) purchased with a matching grant of $1.5 million from the Walton Family Foundation. It features a challenging hiking, biking and running trail through narrow limestone formations, wooded paths and grassy meadows.
Pop. 22,185 – 949 square miles
You wouldn’t know it by looking, but hidden behind the Dardanelle Police Station is the quiet little oasis of the Merritt Park walking path. It is not that long (just walk around again), dogs are not allowed (in theory), and you’re likely to step in goose droppings (it’s nature); but let’s face it, if you live in Dardanelle and feel hemmed in by all the things small town life can’t offer, the walking path is a godsend. The path actually winds through a wildlife hotspot (hence no dogs) and is home to the occasional beaver family, migratory geese, turtles and more. All this is just up the road and around the bend from Tom Cotton’s old place, so enjoy the peace and quiet while you can before Cotton becomes president in some dystopian future and the tourists come.
Pop. 8,023 – 669 square miles
If for no other reason, go because the Kenda has stuck it out. Since 1966 — through the emergence of VCRs and good TV and the Internet and Netflix — feature-length movies have screened at least every week at the outdoor theater in Marshall. Today, it’s one of only three drive-in movie theaters still in operation in Arkansas and the only one that stays open year-round. From roughly the end of September to the end of March, it operates on a winter schedule, only showing films on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. During the summer season, it’s open every day but Wednesday and Thursday. Ticket prices haven’t changed with the times, though the Kenda has upgraded to a digital projector and allows you the option of either using the traditional speaker that plugs into a pole or tuning in on a local FM frequency. Double features are common. Also, come with an appetite. The concessions include better-than-average cheeseburgers, nachos and chocolate rolls.
Where to eat:
Ferguson’s Country Store and Restaurant rises up like an oasis as you travel through St. Joe on U.S. Highway 65, just a mile from the Buffalo at Gilbert. There are buttermilk biscuits and 6-inch cinnamon rolls for breakfast, catfish for lunch and pie any time, and it’s all made from scratch. There’s a gift shop, too. Open March through December.
Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Education Center
1021 W. Cherry St.
Some people believe that Piggott native/Vogue writer and editor Pauline Pfeiffer, who met and married Ernest Hemingway in Paris (causing Hemingway’s divorce from his first wife), co-wrote his books. Who knows? (Her father, Gus Pfeiffer, for sure supported them, paying for their homes, cars and a safari in Africa.) But Hemingway was prolific during his 13-year marriage to Pfeiffer, producing eight books. You can see where the author of “The Sun Also Rises” (revised in Europe after he met Pfeiffer) and “A Farewell to Arms” (thought to have been rewritten 17 times when he and Pfeiffer lived in Key West and on visits to Piggott) tapped away in the barn studio during your visit to the house, which has been renovated to its 1930s appearance, and there is, of course, a gift shop. The museum is operated by Arkansas State University, which opened it to the public in 1999; had you visited in February 2014, you would have seen performance artist Tim Youd retype “A Farewell to Arms” on a single sheet of paper, which he then was to frame as artwork. There’s a fall writer’s retreat at the museum each November. Admission is $5.
Where to stay in Piggott:
The museum website lists three places: The Inn at Piggott, which is downtown in an old bank building (870-598-8888); the Rose Dale Farm Bed and Breakfast, which has two rooms in a 1917 bungalow set on 18 acres (870-634-7100); and the Copper Heron Cottage (870-634-6438).
Pop. 49,528 – 609.76 square miles
Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuge
178 Hammond Ave.
In 1886, the prestigious Wapanocca Outing Club was formed on this bit of virgin cypress swamp and bottomland hardwood forest 4 miles west of the Mississippi River in Crittenden County. Now it’s owned by Uncle Sam and is a refuge for wildlife whose surrounding habitat has been farmed to a fare-thee-well. By providing a place for hunters to blast away at ducks on the Mississippi Flyway, the refuge has also preserved woods for warblers, nesting places for bald eagles and anhingas, and is thus a destination for birders, too, looking for songbird migrants in spring, shorebirds in summer and waterfowl in fall.
By the way:
The town of Turrell (pop. 615) was the retirement home of James G. Tarver, the “Texas Giant” of the Barnum and Bailey Circus from 1909 to 1935. His height was, depending on the source, either 8-foot-6 or 7-foot-3, and was said to have weighed 435 pounds.
Pop. 25,686 – 592 square miles
Greers Ferry Lake
For much of the early part of the 20th century the Little Red River flooded annually, until Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build dams on river systems throughout the country. That led to the Greers Ferry Dam, which created a reservoir of 30,000 to 40,000 acres, depending on the water level. President Kennedy dedicated the dam in 1963 in one of his last public appearances before his assassination. There are eight marinas on the lake and 10 campsite areas operated by the Corps with swimming beaches. The Dam Site Recreation Area and Campground in Heber Springs is near good hikes and cliffs that are fun to jump off of into the lake.
Population 102,518 – 707.21 square miles
Bradbury Art Museum
Arkansas State University
Bradbury Art Museum, named to honor alumna Charlotte Bradbury and formerly known as the Bradbury Gallery, is the place to go for fine art when you are in Northeast Arkansas. Arkansas Artist Laureate Evan Lindquist, a printmaker of national repute, taught at ASU before his retirement, which is why it is fitting that the museum hosts the Delta National Small Prints Exhibition every year.
Pop. 40,857 – 554.28 square miles
Cotter claims to be the “Trout Capital of the USA,” and while that’s a mighty big claim, Cotter is nevertheless an out-of-the-way place on the White River to catch some mighty big fish. It’s the kind of place that time forgot, where I was once advised to dip my dog in gasoline to rid her of fleas.
Pop. 78,483 – 1,042 square miles
Little Red River
For years, the 40-pound, 4-ounce brown trout that 64-year-old Howard “Rip” Collins reeled in from the Little Red River in 1992 held a place in world record books. Collins caught his prize a couple of miles upstream from the Barnett Access point in Cleburne County, where the river flows from Greers Ferry Dam. That water from the depths of Greers Ferry Lake stays cold enough for 29 river miles to support brown and rainbow trout, from the dam to the state Highway 305 bridge in northern White County. The upper, Cleburne section of the river probably gets fished most, but we’ve always been partial to the downriver access points near Pangburn — Dripping Springs, Pangburn Bridge (where you can fish from the bank or wade in) and Ramsey. The crowds are usually thinner and there are fewer docks. Consider recent rainfall and call 866-494-1993 for a schedule of when the dam is releasing water for generation; when the water is high, it becomes difficult to fish except from a boat. When the water is low, you’ll need a canoe or a boat with jet-powered motor to navigate the shoals.
Pop. 17,227 – 616.38 square miles
Johnson’s Freeze Inn & Fish House
223 U.S. Highway 64
Students of Delta cuisine, old-timey fast-food, vernacular architecture and faded relics of Americana would do well to check out Johnson’s. Variously called Johnson’s Freeze In, Johnson’s Diner, Johnson’s Fish House or some combination of all of these, the restaurant is a community staple — “a little bit of everything,” as Kat Robinson and Grav Weldon describe it in their book, “Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta.” Once a popular low-key BBQ joint, it was handed over to a trusted employee, Carolyn Johnson, who renamed it Big Johnson’s, and sustained it for several decades (it was rebuilt in 2008). The restaurant is divided in half: There are even two separate phone numbers, one for the Freeze Inn (home of the Big Daddy Burger) and one for the Fish House.
Pop. 12,304 – 620 square miles
A few hundred feet south of the Missouri border, 9.78 million gallons of water per hour bubble up from Mammoth Spring. From the 10-acre Spring Lake, the water — always a constant 58 degrees — forms the headwaters of the Spring River. That consistent flow and cool water temperature make the Spring an ideal canoeing or tubing destination in a dry spring or in the summer, when other rivers that are dependent on rainfall aren’t fit to float. For those reasons and perhaps because it offers a mix of long, languid pools and thrilling but manageable whitewater, the river often attracts a raucous crowd. Among the sights we’ve seen over the years: a man whose canoe had capsized hollering for someone to grab his beer while his young child bobbed away helplessly down the river (thankfully, in a life jacket); a pleasant looking boomer-aged couple on a deck overlooking the river who smiled and waved at a canoe passing by before shooting bottle rockets and blaring Metallica; a snorkeler with a metal detector working a stretch of rapids where about one in five canoes flip and paying for it when the business end of a canoe cracked him on the head; and dozens of unbidden bared breasts. The fishing is good, too.
Pop. 6,910 – 586.79 square miles
The Tamale Factory
When George Eldridge first opened Doe’s in Little Rock 1988, he got the restaurant’s famed Delta-style hot tamales from the original Doe’s in Greenville, Miss. Then the U.S. Department of Agriculture told him he couldn’t do that anymore. So he bought a plant in Newport to make them, before moving the operation to Augusta. Then he sold that factory, but kept buying tamales from the new owners until they closed shop. For a time thereafter, Eldridge made thousands of tamales in his 19th century colonial revival farmhouse in Gregory, but after a while he got tired of his house smelling like tamales, and he decided to turn part of the barn where he raises quarter horses into a tamale factory. In the course of construction, he added to the original plan — a big kitchen, a bar, a banquet room — and before long he had a restaurant.
In many ways, the Tamale Factory is just like Doe’s. The menu is almost identical, with hot tamales (natch) and chili, broiled or fried shrimp, fried catfish, massive steaks and salmon fillets as the specialties. There is a full bar. The wall is covered in pictures of Eldridge and his sometimes-famous friends. On the wall in the back is a reprint of Velazquez’ “The Triumph of Bacchus,”which you’ll also find in the Little Rock Doe’s.
But the Tamale Factory is in the middle of nowhere. “It’s the hottest spot in Gregory,” Eldridge jokes, since there is nothing in Gregory, which is about 10 minutes from Augusta. Still, the restaurant, which is only open Friday and Saturday, is typically busy enough that you’re advised to call ahead and make a reservation or be prepared to wait. That’s not such a bad thing if you get there before dark. Eldridge usually has one of his horses running around in the adjacent arena.
Pop. 43,694 – 577.70 square miles
Frank Nash’s grave
Frank Nash, nicknamed “Jelly” (as in Jellybean), is often called “the most successful bank robber in U.S. history,” though the source of that designation is unclear. He spent much of his childhood in Paragould. His father, Pappy, owned several successful hotels around the state, for which Nash worked as a teenager before joining the Army. He was first convicted of a crime in 1913, when he stole a thousand dollars from an Oklahoma store with his friend “Humpy” Wortman. They decided to bury the cash, and when Wortman turned his back, Nash shot him. He was sentenced to life in prison, a predicament reversed by the courts after Nash convinced them he wanted to re-enlist to serve his country during World War I.
Which, to be fair, he did: He was stationed in Belleau Wood, France, and saw action there toward the end of the war. A couple of years later he was arrested again for trying to blow up a safe, though he again talked his way into an early release. Over the next several years, Nash established an impressive pedigree as a freelance outlaw, working with the Al Spencer gang, the Barker gang, the Dillinger mob. One year he fled to Juarez, Mexico, and got married. Soon after that, he was arrested for the robbery of the Katy Limited train. For this he received a 25-year sentence in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., a prison he one day walked out of (“on an errand”) and never returned to. In Chicago he fell in love with a barmaid named Frances and she became his third wife, not that he had ever divorced the first two. In 1932, the couple resolved to pick up and move to Hot Springs. Jellybean Nash, a family man.
In June 1933, the FBI learned of Nash’s new homestead and sent two agents to collect him for breaking out of Leavenworth. The agents found and arrested him, either in a hotel or in the White Front Cigar Store, depending on which account you trust. That night, they boarded a Missouri Pacific train headed to Kansas City. If you’ve never heard of the so-called Kansas City Massacre, it’s a Wikipedia page I’d highly recommend. The shootout occurred outside the Union Station railroad depot on the morning of June 17, 1933. A group of outlaws led by the infamous bootlegger and bank robber Vernon Miller — a crew that may or may not have included Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd — found Nash in the front seat of a car. The three mobsters approached and, according to the FBI file, “were observed carrying machine guns and other weapons, and in approaching the automobile, shouted ‘Up, up!’ ”
“An instant later,” the report goes on, “the voice of one of the gunmen was heard to say, ‘Let ’em have it.’ Immediately a fusillade of gunfire came from the weapons of the attackers.” Four agents were immediately killed. Unfortunately for the outlaws — or was it their plan all along? — so was Frank Nash. Vernon Miller was found beaten and strangled shortly after the failed rescue. Two days after his murder, Nash’s relatives buried him in Linwood Cemetery.
Pop. 13,486 – 580.58 square miles
The old steamboat landing of Calico Rock owes its existence to the White River, which curls its way along the colored bluffs that give the town its name. A century ago, Calico Rock was a hub of local commerce, home to a railroad, a ferry, even a street of ill repute with the illustrious name of Peppersauce Alley. Though that’s all long gone, the local museum preserves artifacts from the riverboat era, and Calico Rock remains an ideal place to rent a cabin or a cottage for a weekend — or longer, if you can manage it. Izard and most surrounding counties being dry, you’ll need to bring your own pepper sauce.
Pop. 17,534, sometimes 17,535 – 633.94 square miles
White River Monster Refuge
The southern part of the White River known as Old Grand Glaize and a northern point known as Rosie.
The White River monster, described variously as a beached seal as long as three cars, or spiny backed, or having a horn in the center of its forehead, hasn’t been seen lately, but if you do see the monster on its refuge, it’s illegal to harm it. The 1973 legislature passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Robert Harvey creating the refuge and protecting its inhabitant, which had been seen off and on from 1915 to 1971. After Bramlett Batemen spotted “Whitey” in the river near his plantation in 1937, folks nearby began to make a net to catch the creature but ran out of money, leaving the monster unmolested. Evidence of Whitey’s existence in 1971, which sparked the 1973 legislation (when the legislature had a sense of humor), included brief sightings of the creature’s horned head and a trail of three-toed, 14-inch footprints along the White.
Old Grand Glaize, a riverport town in its heyday, is 10 miles south of Newport. It produced the Grand Glaize Rifles in the Civil War, later a company in the famous Seventh Arkansas Infantry. Rosie is in Independence County, about halfway between Newport and Batesville but, according to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, is more closely associated with Newport because of its topography and family ties. If you put in the White at Old Grand Glaize and take out at Rosie, you will have shared the river with the monster. Good luck.
What else to do:
If you are unsuccessful at locating Whitey, there are several historic buildings to visit in Jackson County, including the 1872 courthouse at Jacksonport State Park, the Phillips 66 station in Swifton (home of baseball stars George and Skeeter Kell) and the Missouri Pacific Depot in Newport.
Pop. 36,997 – 1,042 square miles
Batesville Motor Speedway
Rumbling engines, dirt clouds and hot dogs — what more could you want from a Friday night? From March until September, just outside of Batesville in the base of the Ozark foothills, come the drivers from Bald Knob, Rose Bud and other small towns throughout the South and Midwest. They’re in highly modified late models, tricked out street stock and custom-built sprint cars, and they’re often competing for the sort of money that would change most of our lives — $5,000, $10,000, $30,000. NASCAR legend Mark Martin got his start here as a teen (there’s a Martin museum in the Ford dealership he owns in Batesville), but the dirt track circuit isn’t the minor leagues of NASCAR; it’s a self-contained spectacle, with all the drama and glory of the pros. The 3/8ths-of-a-mile red clay oval track has been substantially updated since it opened in 1971. There’s a grandstand, with seats salvaged from Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in Georgia, where the Braves once played, and climate-controlled skyboxes. Check batesvillemotorspeedway.net for race info and look out for the annual topless race. No, nothing risque there: it’s when the late model cars lose their tops, so the crowd can see the drivers.
Pop. 24, 246 – 758.39 square miles
Southern Tenant Farmers Museum
117 N. Main St.
In July 1934, more than two decades before the civil rights movement caught fire in the South, a group of seven black men and 11 white men formed an integrated union of sharecroppers and tenant farmers at a church outside of Tyronza. Over the next four years, despite threats and violence from landowners, the Southern Tenant Farmers Union grew to include some 35,000 members in the Arkansas Delta, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and beyond. The union’s ability to bridge the racial divide in the name of labor solidarity is memorialized in the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum, operated by Arkansas State University and located in the building once occupied by Harry Mitchell and Clay East, two Tyronza businessmen (and avowed socialists) who led the creation of the union.
Pop. 16,931 – 587.61 square miles
S.W. Second Street
The first cold nights of the year come in September. Summer is over all of a sudden, and the days are still warm, but when the sun goes down the temperature falls off steeply. Imagine you’re 13 or 14 or 15, and let’s say it’s 1964 and maybe you’re bored, because what do you do at night in Walnut Ridge when you’re 13 or 14 or 15? You’re with two of your friends and it’s late, and the city is quiet. Everything is closed, you can look up and see nothing but black and stars. And you hear the whirling roar of a low-flying plane, and this in itself is a remarkable thing — the airport is a vestige from the war, nobody ever lands there at night. The engine cuts through the quiet. And so you take off running to see it land — just to watch it, because it’s fun and something to do, and maybe you’re a little curious. And your friends find a good vantage point and you lie down in the grass and watch four men climb out of the plane, and you know these men: Theirs are the most famous faces in the world. You could be wrong, but you don’t think so, and it occurs to you then — a thought that is both horrifying and thrilling — that nobody will ever believe you.
The Beatles played New Orleans only once. They played Atlanta only once, and Miami, and Memphis. They never made it to Nashville or Austin or Tulsa or Little Rock at all. If their American campaign seems like it lasted forever, that’s an illusion — the band gave its only performances in the American South in the span of about a year, 1964-65. Talk to a Baby Boomer about their memories of The Beatles, and you’re talking largely about mediated experiences — records they bought and TV shows they stayed up late to watch. You’re talking about something other than a band. You’re talking about an imaginary generational divide, and a political awakening, and nostalgia for the idea of a monoculture, a sensation that the whole disparate country experienced together.
Not in Walnut Ridge, though. Here, the world doesn’t acknowledge you much. You don’t get the sense that you’re a protagonist in the popular narrative. Culture happens elsewhere, and if you’re lucky, you might hear about it.
Two days after The Beatles first landed in Walnut Ridge, they came back, and the city was ready for them. You skipped church to congregate at the airport and watch for another low-flying plane. You wanted to see those men, but more importantly, you wanted to be seen by them. It’s easy to laugh at a city building a monument to something like this, something that happened a half-century ago and wasn’t all that important to anyone elsewhere. But don’t you think they know that?
“We were in shock,” a local woman named Carrie Mae Snapp remembers in a video tribute. “It was a holy moment for me. Everyone else tells how they heard screaming and yelling — I didn’t hear anything. I heard the angels sing. I remember it being eerily quiet, the world stopped and I was close enough to touch these guys. And what are the chances of that?”
Pop. 12,494 – 606.41 square miles
Blanchard Springs Caverns
Sylamore Ranger District, Ozark National Forest
Some people just can’t work their nerve up to go into the deep dark nothingness that is a cave, and for that we are truly sorry. Because in Blanchard Springs Caverns amateur spelunkers can easily see magnificent underground formations on the simple, spectacular and sparkling Dripstone Trail. Heck, you don’t have to crawl to enter the trail; you take an elevator there. The flowstones, the guano, the cheesy but still gorgeous light show that highlights the crystalline formations, are worth more than one trip. There are more challenging trails as well for adventurous would-be spelunkers. This is a living cave, still growing in the Ozark karst, so keep your oily, life-killing hands in your pockets as you go through. (Fortunately, white nose syndrome, which is killing Southeastern bats by the millions, has not closed this cave, though caves on state property have been.) The caverns are named for Blanchard Springs, which feed Sylamore Creek, where you’ll find lovely Blanchard Springs campground. $5-$10. 870-757-2211.
The Craft Village at Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View is the Six Flags of the 19th century — soap! dulcimers! blacksmithing! — and the town square and park auditorium are famous for their music performances and workshops, from shape-note singing to Celtic to country and a little clogging, too.
Pop. 17,571 – 652.19 square miles
Black River Meteor
Randolph County Courthouse lawn
An old, yellowed newspaper article pinned to the wall of the Randolph County Heritage Museum recalls a night in July of 1859, when Pocahontas residents collectively looked up and “observed a bright light in the night sky, accompanied by explosions like thunder.” Some took it for a tornado, or a rogue planet. Its approach was swift. The town fell into a state of dread, convinced that “some heavenly body was about to collide with and destroy the earth, or at least the part on which they lived.” As it neared the surface, the flaming sphere discharged a dazzling light. “It was eerie light,” the article notes, “much brighter than the noon-day sunlight.” The city ran for cover, back into their homes and cellars. There were “hissing noises,” then a “tremendous thud, like a gigantic cannon ball striking the earth.”
It was dark again after that. The newspaper account notes a vaguely sulphuric smell. A Confederate soldier named Sam Brown witnessed the fall and ran toward the thud. The meteorite — that’s what it was: an enormous meteorite — had buried itself in the banks of the Black River, a short distance from the front door of the Pocahontas Grocer Co. The next morning Brown and a group of other men began to dig. It took them several days to extract it, which they did with the help of oxen. They pulled it to the surface and it remained in that spot for 76 years.
Over the following decades, samples of the meteorite have been chipped away piece by piece by tourists and scientists alike, to the degree that the rock is now a third of its original size. According to the museum, the meteorite is of a silicone base, rather than iron (there are different species of meteorite). Writing in the third person, the author of the article notes that he “sharpened his knife on it to a razor edge with only a few strokes.” The meteorite was donated to the county by the surviving family of A.H. Keith, who was 8 years old when it fell and who claimed it for his own. They made the donation on the occasion of the Arkansas Sesquicentennial, in March 1986.
Note: It’s been brought to our attention that some experts have cast doubt on the provenance of the Randolph County meteorite. Certain scientists have examined the rock and, according to our sources, have concluded it originated on Earth. We say to hell with them.
ST. FRANCIS COUNTY
Pop. 26,899 – 634.77 square miles
Village Creek State Park
201 County Road
(exit I-40 at Forrest City)
OK, so Wynne is not in St. Francis County. It’s in Cross County. But Village Creek State Park is in both Cross County and St. Francis County, because it’s along Crowley’s Ridge, that skinny hill of windblown “rock dust” called loess that runs from Missouri down to Helena, rising above the Delta farmlands, a refuge for tulip, basswood, butternut and cucumber trees, for American bellflower and crimson catchfly. You can walk a remnant of the Trail of Tears, a sunken bit of the military road from Memphis to Little Rock. You can ride horses on some of the trails, bikes on others. You can camp. You can golf. You can swim. You can rent cabins. It’s the second biggest state park, at 6,911 acres, and it’s the best thing going in St. Francis County. Now, St. Francis County has a lot of history. The county seat, Forrest City, is named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate lieutenant general who distinguished himself by becoming the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and who was responsible, historians say, for the brutal massacre of surrendering African-American troops at Fort Pillow in Tennessee. The county could distract folks away from that awful memory by creating a monument instead to Scott Winfield Bond of the little town of Madison on the St. Francis River, a slave woman’s son who made millions in farming and with his sawmill and gravel pit business. Or it could reopen Wildwood Lodge, where Gordon Hughes Satterfield ran a nudist colony in the 1950s. An article in the newspaper about Satterfield’s arrest said that “Forrest City residents have wondered for several months about the so-called hunting lodge located in the remote area near the St. Francis River. On weekends, they reported seeing a large number of automobiles with out-of-state licenses congregated at the camp.”
Pop. 46,480 – 920 square miles
Johnny Cash boyhood home
Memphis may have locked down the musical tourist trade with Elvis, Sun Studios, Beale Street and Graceland. But when it comes to finding the roots of early rock ‘n’ roll royalty, we’d much rather take a trip to the humble little cottage in Dyess where a young John R. Cash lived as a boy. Created as part of FDR’s New Deal, Dyess Colony was completed in 1934 as a hand up to 500 impoverished families, including the family of young Johnny Cash, which had previously resided in Kingsland in Cleveland County. Included in the Dyess Colony were administration buildings, a movie theater and a series of sturdy clapboard houses with amenities most of those living in them had never experienced in their lives. These days, most of the other cookie-cutter houses built for the one-time residents of Dyess have long since been abandoned and plowed under, more valuable for the black, fertile soil they sat on than as homes after 70-plus years bearing all the weather Northeast Arkansas could throw at them. It’s kind of a miracle, then, that the house where Cash found his voice has survived to the present day. It was in sorry shape up in 2011, when Arkansas State University purchased the house from the owner for $100,000. Restoration efforts were started in February 2012, and completed in August 2014; the $3.3 million revamp included several structures in Dyess, including the Cash house, the Dyess Administration Building and the original facade of the movie theater. If you’ve ever loved the music of The Man in Black, it sure is something to stand in the quaint little house where he found at least part of the roots of his light and darkness as a child. Admission is $10, $8 for seniors and $5 for students.
Pop. 17,049 – 683 square miles
A couple of years ago I drove up to Hardy looking for a prominent catfish noodler and reality TV star named Crowbar. He was the star of a Discovery Channel series that portrayed the city as a lawless, backwoods Wild West of blood feuds and snake churches and shoeless mountain men. I was intrigued. I didn’t find him. What I did find was a Hardy that very little resembled the version promulgated by Discovery Channel. Main Street, in particular, is a gorgeous, homey tourist mecca, with crowded antique stores and local craftspeople and shops and eateries of all varieties. There are pottery studios, guitar stores, a British Pub run by an actual British transplant (he said he met his wife, a Hardy native, on a Carnival Cruise). It’s a beautiful community, and a place worth stopping by. And if you see Crowbar, tell him I said hello.
Pop. 11,180 – 644.30 square miles
On your drive to Lakeport Plantation, I recommend that you listen to the “History of American Slavery” podcast from slate.com — specifically Episode 6, in which writers Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion dig into the antebellum cotton economy of the Deep South. The nature of chattel slavery itself changed dramatically in the first few decades of the 19th century, they explain, when the invention of the cotton gin made it possible to process the crop at a much faster rate. This meant the limiting variable in the production of cotton became its speed of harvest, which in turn meant ambitious planters needed larger and larger armies of field labor to compete in a transformed marketplace. Cotton production exploded, and slavery, which was brutal enough in Old South states like Virginia, took on an even more grotesque character in the mid-1800s in then-frontier states like Alabama and Mississippi, where enslaved people were reduced to cogs in a machine demanding ever more productivity and ever higher daily quotas of cotton, often with violent consequences for those who failed to meet them.
When a Kentucky planter named Joel Johnson established Lakeport in the 1830s, Arkansas was on the very edge of the wilderness; by the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, his son Lycurgus’ holdings had grown to include 155 slaves and the grand house that today is Arkansas’s only surviving antebellum plantation home on the Mississippi River. Today, painstakingly restored by Arkansas State University, the Lakeport house is a lovely sight to see. But it also calls to mind the line from Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” in which Sethe remembers her former plantation, Sweet Home, decades after fleeing slavery: “It rolled itself out before her in shameless beauty. It never looked as terrible as it was and made her wonder if Hell was a pretty place too.”
How to reconcile the dual visions of a plantation home — on the one hand a piece of history to be marveled over, and on the other an emblem of an evil system, the consequences of which we continue to live with? The lives of the Johnsons are intriguing, recreated through letters, ledgers and other artifacts. (My favorite: a display case filled with a century’s worth of items small and flat enough — postcards, photographs, keys, coins — to have fallen irretrievably into the crack between mantelpiece and wall over the generations.) Notably absent, though, are artifacts from the other families who lived on the plantation, the ones whose labor was forcibly distilled into the wealth that bought those magnificent doors, that beautiful rose window, those faux-Doric Greek revival columns. Of the former slaves’ quarters, one tilting wooden building remains, repurposed at some point in the past into a makeshift garage.
Blake Wintory, ASU’s director of the historic site, frames it like this: “We had about 10 Johnson family members living in this 8,000-square-feet house … and then about 10 slaves each living in those quarters, which were about 200 square feet [apiece].”
The restoration of the house took the ASU team five years of work, from reproducing the original colors of the shutters and ironwork (details ascertained through tricks of chemistry) to installing a geothermal climate control system that heats and cools the house without the presence of decidedly ahistorical, under-the-floor HVAC ductwork. Today, restoration of the main house is complete, but Wintory said he and his colleagues are still working on restoring outbuildings and researching the history of the place — especially what became of the men, women and children once considered the property of the Johnsons.
“We don’t know exactly where these slaves went,” Wintory said. “Some of the men likely joined U.S. Colored Troop regiments as soldiers. We know there were slaves from Chicot County who did join … [but] we are not blessed with a lot of records.”
Pop. 11,508 – 653 square miles
Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge
Established in 1975, the 65,000-acre Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge sits at the confluence of the Ouachita and Saline rivers and covers parts of Union, Ashley and Bradley counties. Low-lying, swampy bottomland threaded with creeks and sloughs, the Felsenthal Refuge looks like just the kind of place Bigfoot might hang out, though you’re much more likely to see deer, feral hogs, quail and turkey. There are even a few very shy black bears in the Felsenthal Refuge now, the result of a program by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the federal government to relocate the bears from the White River National Wildlife Refuge. It’s also a refuge for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, which the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services is working to conserve. Those looking to fish, meanwhile, can take almost every game fish that swims in Arkansas, including crappie, bass, catfish and bream. While much of Lower Arkansas has long since been given over to the chemical plants and timber industry, if you’re looking to see L.A. the way it was a couple hundred years ago, you can get a pretty good idea of that in the Felsenthal NWA.
Pop. 18,622 – 828.36 square miles
705 N. Main St.
The Allen House was built in 1900 by a wealthy Delta farmer named Joe Lee Allen. It’s an enormous, imposing, white Gothic mansion on North Main Street, situated behind a wrought-iron fence. It was always an impressive sight, but the place became infamous after Christmas Day 1948, when one of Joe’s daughters, Ladell Allen Bonner, committed suicide by ingesting mercury cyanide, an unexpected and apparently inexplicable tragedy. Soon after her death, the building was converted into apartments, largely for UA-Monticello student housing, and over the decades it developed a reputation as a haunted house. Tenants heard moaning and heavy footsteps, and saw furniture and belongings knocked over and go missing. Teams of paranormal investigators explored the house’s every corner and bookshelf and loose floorboard. The mystery of Ladell’s death remained until 2009, when the house’s new owners, Mark and Rebecca Spencer, discovered a cache of letters in the attic above her old bedroom. The letters painted a bleak portrait of a doomed affair between Ladell and a married man, Prentiss Hemingway Savage. Today, the letters are on display at the Allen House, which offers haunted tours (and dinner).
Pop. 8,449 – 597.78 square miles
There are but 14.5 people per square mile in Cleveland County, but you are bound to see at least one person as you drive through Cleveland County. Johnny Cash was born in Kingsland, but there is only a marker to note his life there (the Cash house in Dyess is where you’ll find traces of Arkansas’s famous son). You can get a Coke at the Kingsland Mercantile store. You might check out the Saline River, too.
Pop. 12,264 – 768.15 square miles
WWII Japanese American Internment Museum
100 S. Railroad St.
In February 1942, two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, setting in motion the removal of around 110,000 U.S. citizens and residents of Japanese descent from their homes in California and much of Washington, Oregon and Arizona. This swath of the Western U.S. was dubbed the “exclusion area,” and the bureaucratic euphemisms only multiplied from there: Japanese-American families were quickly “evacuated” from their homes and forced into “relocation centers” until the war’s end. Jobs, homes, property and businesses were often swept away permanently. In Arkansas, the Jerome and Rohwer internment camps housed some 17,000 men, women and children in military barracks, and the newcomers were referred to as “colonists” by the statewide press — at least when they weren’t simply called “Japs.”
This is the history preserved at the Japanese American Internment Museum, which opened two years ago in a renovated railroad depot building in downtown McGehee, about 12 miles from Rohwer. Photos document evacuation of families from the West Coast — fearful parents, crying children, “Everything Must Go” signs hanging in San Francisco storefronts — followed by the new normal of life under armed guard in the Arkansas Delta. Existence at Rohwer seems always to have been backdropped by row after row of barracks, and, beyond that, row after row of cotton. In the words of one inmate quoted in the exhibit, Eiichi Kamiya, their new residence was “far enough south to catch Gulf Coast hurricanes, far enough north to catch Midwestern tornadoes, close enough to the river to be inundated by Mississippi Valley floods, and lush enough to be the haven for every creepy, crawly creature and pesky insect in the world.”
The museum includes letters and newspaper clippings, school assignments and personal effects, but nothing is more striking than the artwork made by Rohwer residents: reproductions of murals painted on the walls of the camp school’s art classroom, an owl in wooden bas relief, a carving of two Japanese characters that translate to “stoically enduring the unbearable.” Yet for all the indignities those families suffered, the exhibit also notes that 1940s Desha County life outside the fences of Rohwer and Jerome was in some ways worse than life on the inside — at least if you were unlucky enough to have been born poor, or, especially, African American. The American government stripped Japanese inmates of their rights and their liberty, but it gave them sufficient food, clean water and electricity. Those were luxuries the tenant farmers of the Delta often lacked.
After exploring the museum, it’s worth the 15-minute drive to pay a visit to Rohwer itself. All that remains of the complex is a smokestack in the far distance and a cemetery memorializing the inmates who died there and the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the legendary combat team of Japanese-American soldiers who fought for the U.S. in World War II. A series of voice kiosks provide a walking tour narrated by George Takei of “Star Trek” fame, who was imprisoned at Rohwer as a small child with his mother and father. The barracks and other buildings are long gone, though, and the land, like almost every acre of arable soil in this part of the state, is returned to dutifully producing row crops.
The museum is free and open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Pop. 18,594 – 988.77 square miles
Mack’s Prairie Wings
2335 U.S. Highway 63
Stuttgart is at the heart of waterfowl country, and duck hunters have been shopping at what was originally McCollum’s Hardware store since the 1930s. Back then, Mack’s Prairie Wings history has it, rubber boots sold for $6, long underwear for $1.50, and a Winchester shotgun sold for $65. It became Mack’s Sport Shop in 1944 and the mail order Mack’s Prairie Wings in 1993. Get your duck calls, waders, guns and gossip here.
Pop. 13,970 – 561.52 square miles
State Highway 388
Apologies to the many fine restaurants, attractions and monuments in Gould, Grady and Star City, but Cummins Prison is one of the state’s most darkly fascinating places, a heart of darkness that sits on 16,500 acres in Lincoln County. Opened in 1902, Cummins has a long and grotesque history of abuses, allegations of horrific torture (spurred by the discovery of human skeletons on the property in the 1960s), riots quelled by tear gas, bottomless manual labor and absolutely brutal conditions, which culminated in the construction — in 2000 — of Arkansas’s first lethal electrified fence, which was of course built by the inmates themselves. It’s where Arkansas’s executions are held (death row prisoners are housed in the nearby Varner Unit). Johnny Cash played the prison in 1969, and sponsored the building of a chapel on the farm’s grounds. Also look out for the 1970 Top 40 hit “Cummins Prison Farm” by Calvin Leavy, who himself — in a kind of tragic irony — received a life sentence at Cummins after making the recording.
Pop. 77,435 – 914 square miles
The Arkansas Railroad Museum
1700 Port Road
The golden age of train travel may have come and gone, but the rails of America are still humming with commerce, as witnessed by mile-long strings of boxcars and tankers rushing through crossings at the worst possible time for your schedule. A place where you can get a fascinating glimpse at the glory days of rail is the Arkansas Railroad Museum in Pine Bluff. A hidden gem, even when measured against the state’s crop of numerous history museums, the Arkansas Railroad Museum is housed in a 70,000-square-foot former engine shed built in the 1890s of brick, rivets and American steel. Though part of the museum’s collections are safe behind glass — railroad china, pocket watches, train schedules and the like — the bulk of what’s on display is hands-on in every sense of the word. Scale a steel ladder to the prow or cab of a giant diesel locomotive. Stroll through three restored cabooses, and a line of sleeping cars and dining cars. Sit behind the wheel of a 1940s Sebring fire truck, while surrounded by pumper handcarts, model trains and enough railroad memorabilia to fill a boxcar or two. The delight of the collection is St. Louis Southwestern Engine No. 819, a 200-ton, steam-powered behemoth that was the last locomotive built in Arkansas. Completed during World War II, No. 819 ran the Cotton Belt Line until her retirement in ’53, and languished in a park for decades before being restored to working condition in the 1980s. You can climb up into the cab of that one, too, perch on the seat, and pretend you’re Casey Jones. The museum is an easy day trip from Little Rock, and well worth the drive to Pine Bluff, especially if you’re a history buff or have a little one who is nuts for trains. Don’t forget your neckerchief, overalls and pillowtick cap. The free museum is open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
Pop. 19,930 – 695.66 square miles
Delta Cultural Center
323 Beech St.
Helena’s annual King Biscuit Blues Festival — now in its 30th year — has put this timeworn Mississippi River town back on the map, but there’s more to Helena than a weekend of fun in October, and more to the Arkansas Delta than the blues. The exhibits at the Delta Cultural Center span almost two hundred years of battlefields and levee failures, Native American history and sharecropper folk art. At the center of it all is the Delta Sounds exhibit, which showcases the astounding musical harvest of the region, from Levon Helm to Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Each weekday, the museum broadcasts the King Biscuit Time radio show, still hosted by “Sunshine” Sonny Payne, a radio legend who started his career at Helena’s KFFA-AM, 1360, in 1951. The show broadcasts weekdays at 12:15 p.m. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Pop. 20,948 – 925.35 square miles
The Crossett Light
Intersection of County Road
425 and County Road 16, in the dead of night
What is it about railroad tracks and ghostly balls of light? As it happens, Gurdon, famous for its light, has got nothing on Crossett. Crossett’s spooklight predates Gurdon’s by about 30 years, having been reported since the early 1900s. It hovers just above the ground on an abandoned railroad bed and comes in assorted colors, and if it passes through your car, your ignition won’t start. They say.
Pop. 13,970 – 561.52 square miles
Louisiana Purchase State Park
State Highway 362
The Louisiana Purchase is a staple of any elementary school education — 830,000 square miles of land we convinced France to sell us for just about nothing (less than 3 cents per acre) — but what isn’t taught is the arduous effort that went into surveying, determining and arranging this land. There were no fences or flags marking its boundaries; to explore and map it required years of epic, deadly, Hollywood-ready adventure into the treacherous, densely wooded middle of America. This work began in what is now eastern Arkansas, just southeast of Blackton. There’s a monument there today in the swamplands of the Louisiana Purchase State Park. It’s a 6-foot granite marker that stands in shallow water and partially reads, “This stone marks the base established November 10, 1815, from which the lands of the Louisiana Purchase were surveyed by United States engineers.”
Pop. 9,860 – 606.62 square miles
219 W. Louisiana St.
A sign by the kitchen window at Jones spells out the full range of your options in factors of three: One sandwich is $3, two sandwiches are $6, three are $9, and so on. Wonder bread, slaw and a secret homemade sauce complete the picture, compliments of owner James Jones, who smokes his pork in a cinderblock pit out back six days a week (when the meat runs out, Jones closes for the day, so get there early). The two-table diner has been open since the 1910s, which — apocryphally at least — means Jones might be the South’s oldest continuously operated African-American-owned restaurant. In 2012, Jones Bar-B-Q rose to national attention when it received a much-coveted “American Classic” award by the James Beard Foundation.
Pop. 8,304 – 647.96 square miles
Craig’s Barbecue and Mary’s Pie Shop
Has anyone ever driven through DeValls Bluff without stopping for pie at Mary’s Pie Shop or barbecue at Craig’s? Many’s the time we’ve knocked on Mary Thomas’ door, trembling in fear that we’ve missed her there in her cinderblock kitchen in the back of her house. Happily, we’ve found her there more often than not. Chocolate pie. Egg custard pie. Buttermilk pie. Karo nut pie (call ahead). Apple pie. You go in the small anteroom, lean over the dutch door and hail Mary at the stove. She comes, tells you what’s available, you buy two because who knows when you will be in DeValls Bluff again? You can’t miss Mary’s: Pie Shop is painted right on the side of the building (though the Internet will tell you the name is Family Pie Shop, everyone calls it Mary’s). Craig’s, just across the street, has spiffed up in recent years, closing up the hole in the floor. Pork sandwiches, pork plates, ribs, in three levels of heat, from hot to devilish. If you plan to do both (and why wouldn’t you?) go to Mary’s first so you won’t miss the pie; Craig’s hours are later. How did DeValls Bluff get so lucky to have two great eateries only steps from each other? Call Mary’s at 870-998-2279. Call Craig’s at 870-998-2616.
Pop. 17,853 – 633 square miles
The Richard Harrison Collection of Military Vehicles
Grant County Museum
521 Shackleford Road
County museums in Arkansas are, in general, lackluster, usually featuring a loose and fairly uncoordinated quantity of Old Timey-ness, donated from the barns, desk drawers and cedar chests of local old-line families. The Grant County Museum in Sheridan, however, clearly isn’t like most county museums. A clean white building on the far outskirts of town — so far on the outskirts we had a bit of trouble finding it — the collections there are large and well appointed, something that probably has at least a little to do with the name on the building: that of Grant County son done good, W.R. “Witt” Stephens, who made a fortune in investments and the natural gas industry before dying in 1991. Inside — along with excellent collections of artifacts from World War II and Vietnam and from the 1943 crash of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress in the woods near Sheridan that killed all nine aboard — there’s a virtual temple to Stephens in one room, featuring signage, industrial artifacts and memorabilia from Arkla Gas, as well as two of the three surviving examples of the Handywagon, a tiny, sturdy truck designed by Arkla engineers at Stephens’ request for use by meter readers and repairmen.
Though the museum is fairly impressive, including the great collection of restored buildings that have been moved to create a small village outside, the draw for any military buff has to be the Richard Harrison Collection of Military Vehicles. Situated in a building a few steps from the backdoor of the main museum, the collection — assembled by a World War II veteran from Little Rock — is a step back into history, featuring over two dozen military vehicles: Jeeps, ambulances, staff cars, a giant Dodge Power Wagon emblazoned with a call to re-enlist for the war effort, an O.D. green Ford firetruck built at the height of the Second World War, two massive armored half-tracks (one with the ubiquitous .50 caliber machine gun, the other with a four-barreled anti-aircraft set up) as well as armored personnel carriers and the like. Like the man said, war is hell, and the machines built for war carry the truth of that statement, most of them bearing literal tons of armor. These were the mechanical horses that carried brave young people to battle for their country, willing to risk their lives to keep us free. When you look at the Harrison collection that way, it becomes less a kind of Army surplus used car lot and something more like a church. Donations are welcome. In theory, admission to the museum is $3 for nonresidents of Grant County, and $1 for nonresident students, but we’ve found that doesn’t always apply. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.
Pop. 7,755 – 667.39 square miles
101 Main St.
The seat of government in Fordyce might not look like much, but it’s plugged into the heart of Arkansas’s rock ‘n’ roll lore as the place where Rolling Stones guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood were pulled over for reckless driving by the local fuzz on July 5, 1975. They were motorvatin’ through the area from one concert in Memphis to another in Dallas. Two grams of coke were found in a briefcase belonging to a passenger and Richards was cited for carrying a hunting knife, but neither spent time in the slammer during their approximately nine-hour detainment. Word of two rock gods in sleepy Fordyce prompted a scene, with a mob of fans and the curious gathering outside City Hall as the British Embassy and lawyers for the Stones worked to secure their release. Eventually, Richards posted $162 bail and he and Wood were whisked to the airport. The story, and the coke spoon remain in Fordyce, however.
Pop. 8,723 – 617.84 square miles
Prairie D’ane Battlefield
Maybe you’ve heard of the Camden Expedition and maybe you haven’t. This was in Arkansas, April 1864. The Union Army had a plan to scrape and fight its way down to Shreveport, where it would link up with another division making its way up the Red River Valley, two “pincers” that were supposed to converge and cut off the Confederate forces before they realized what hit them. One reason you might not have heard of it is that it didn’t work. Leaving Little Rock — which had already fallen — the Union troops were able to fend off a surprise attack at Elkin’s Ferry, but they hit a brick wall of rebel forces at Prairie D’Ane, an open plain surrounded by dense pine forests in Nevada County. The Confederates had used slave labor to dig trenches and build fortresses of logs on the north edge of the field. The skirmish was rainy and deadly; as one soldier later wrote, “The horizon from east to west was one leaping incessant blaze of about six thousand muskets lighting up the very sky and making night hideous with the screaming missiles.” By the end, the South lost 50 men and the North lost twice that. The Union troops gave up on their drive southward, diverting to Camden. Today the battlefield is still a prairie surrounded by woods, and the soldiers you see are re-enactors.
Pop. 9,082 – 779.88 square miles
Nestled in the center of Norman’s town square is a building often credited as the smallest free-standing public library in the United States. Open three days a week, it’s a tiny brick structure as long and narrow as a conference room table. The building was apparently the result of a circa-1939 Works Project Administration initiative, and contains mostly books, newspapers and photographs of regional interest. I imagine there’s not much room for anything else.
Nashville City Park
In 1983, a Southern Methodist University graduate student named Jeffery Pittman was studying rocks at the bottom of an active gypsum quarry near Nashville when he realized the potholes he’d been driving over every day were massive, fossilized footprints — between five and ten thousand of them, in fact. That made the Nashville sauropod trackway the largest such discovery in the world (“sauropods” being long-necked, big-bodied dinosaurs, like the Brachiosaurus that sneezes on the kids in “Jurassic Park”).But weather had already begun eroding the newly exposed rock, and the mining operator was impatient to resume digging up gypsum: Thus did the Nashville sauropod trackway meet the fate of its forebears. The best-preserved portions were cleaned and molded in silicone, however, and a concrete-cast replica of a print still sits in the city park. Others can be found at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, the Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs and Little Rock’s Museum of Discovery.
Pop. 22,576 – 866.07 square miles
There are two important things in Gurdon: 1. It is where the Concatenated Order of the Hoo-Hoo was founded, in 1895, by six men in the timber industry; the forestry fraternity still operates internationally. 2. It is the home of the Gurdon Light, which floats above railroad tracks outside of town. (See Ashley County.) The light, according to legend, comes from the lantern of a railroad worker killed when he fell in the path of a train.
Pop. 23,933 – 766.05 square miles
Magnolia Bake Shop
103 N. Jefferson
There are old-line businesses, and then there are those that have become tradition and legend. Such is the case with Magnolia Bake Shop. Now on the third generation of family owners, the shop has been in business since 1928, turning out cakes for weddings, birthdays, anniversaries and get-togethers, along with bread, donuts, pies, cookies and all the other stuff you probably shouldn’t be eating. There’s nothing like a bit of history to make a great sweet a bit sweeter.
Pop. 7,111 – 528.27 square miles
Maya Angelou City Park
Maya Angelou was born in St. Louis but spent most of her childhood living with her grandmother and an uncle in Stamps. For many years, there was no love lost between Angelou and the city — it was an unforgiving place for an African-American woman to grow up, much less an artist. But times have changed, more or less. Angelou fans now at least have landmarks to visit, if they choose. There’s the Lafayette County Training School (1046 Berry St.), a small brick building with six classrooms that served the area’s black population through the late ’60s. Angelou attended the school, and it’s now on the National Register of Historic Places. More importantly, there’s the former Lake June Park, which last year, following her death, was renamed the Maya Angelou City Park in her memory.
Pop. 43,428 – 625.58 square miles
Charles B. Pierce Tour
No single person has contributed more to the cultural patrimony of Miller County than the pioneering independent filmmaker Charles B. Pierce, who moved to Texarkana in 1969 to start an advertising agency. He bought a 16mm camera and shot commercials for local companies like Ledwell & Son Enterprises, which built farm equipment and trailers. Expanding his repertoire, he began appearing on local access TV, playing a character called Mayor Chuckles on a children’s show called “The Laffalot Club.”Along with the rest of the county, Pierce became fascinated, in 1971, by the story of Miller County residents Bobby and Elizabeth Ford, who reported being harassed and attacked by a 7-foot-tall Bigfoot-like creature, which in newspaper reports became nicknamed the “Fouke Monster.” Pierce borrowed some money from Ledwell & Son and began filming interviews with locals who claimed to have seen the creature.
The result was the 1972 film “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” an independent horror milestone and an immediate drive-in classic. The film is notable for its striking sense of place, powerfully capturing the region’s swamp ambiance and odd, droning rhythms. It premiered at the still-standing Perot Theatre (221 Main St.), on the Texas side of Texarkana. A box-office hit with a dedicated cult legacy, the film made Pierce’s career and solidified the small town of Fouke in the popular imagination. Sightings of the monster have continued in the area — most recently in Miller County’s Sulfur River Wildlife Area — and Fouke still attracts Bigfoot seekers at tourist stops like the Monster Mart (104 state Highway 71), a family-run convenience store that doubles as a museum, gift shop and kitschy photo-op.
Pierce directed a handful of films in other places — including the Ozark moonshine epic “Bootleggers” — before returning in 1976 to immortalize another Miller County nightmare in “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” The film portrayed the Texarkana Moonlight Murders, a series of brutal killings in the spring of 1946 that sent Texarkana into a panic: stores sold out of guns and ammunition, the police patrolled the streets at night, rumors spread haphazardly. The murders — some of which occurred in still-accessible areas like Spring Lake Park — have gone officially unsolved, though the evidence pointed to a local ex-con named Youell Swinney, who died in 1994. Pierce shot his film mostly in Texarkana, casting locals (including himself, his girlfriend and local weatherman Vern Stierman) alongside better-known actors like Dawn Wells (“Gilligan’s Island”). The film sparked a handful of lawsuits, including one from the city of Texarkana, which objected to the tagline’s assertion that “Today [the killer] still lurks the streets of Texarkana, Ark.” These days the film is screened outdoors in the city every year around Halloween, a tradition that itself inspired a (horribly reviewed) sequel in 2014.
Pop. 26,120 – 740 square miles
330 Clifton St.
Arkansas is full of mysteries great and small, but if you’re talking South Arkansas mysteries, you’re probably talking about the still-unsolved disappearance of Camden attorney Maude Robinson Crawford, who vanished without a trace from her home in the historic Richie-Crawford House on March 2, 1957, leaving behind her car, car keys, a purse containing a sizable wad of cash and purple hull peas cooking on the stove. The first female attorney to practice in Camden, Crawford was once a law partner to future U.S. Sen. John McClellan. At the time of Crawford’s disappearance, McClellan was heading an investigation into mob ties to organized labor, leading some armchair gumshoes to speculate that Crawford was kidnapped as part of an attempt to force McClellan to call off the dogs. An extensive look at the case by the Arkansas Gazette in 1986, however, pointed the finger at a less cinematic suspect: a well-to-do local businessman who apparently had been attempting to defraud his elderly aunt, who was the client of Maude Crawford. Whatever happened to ol’ Maude, she’s surely long gone now, but the mystery of what became of her still haunts Camden. Until someone either stumbles upon her bones or an old and faded photo, circa 1961, of her sipping mojitos with some Latino hunk on the beach in paradise, it probably always will.
Pop. 5,202 – 632 square miles
Look, there’s not a lot going on in Calhoun County, and believe us, we tried to find it. With only 8.5 souls per square mile, it’s the least populous county in the state. Charles Pierce, who directed “The Legend of Boggy Creek” (see Miller County), was born in Hampton, the county seat and the only town with over 1,000 people in the county, as was “Designing Women” and “Evening Shade” creator Harry Z. Thomason. The most interesting thing in Calhoun County since Charlie and Harry left town (and, come to think of it, before) is Boone’s Mounds, a 40-acre site that’s the biggest Native American ceremonial mound complex in the Ouachita River valley. The best archeological estimate is that the Coles Creek culture started construction there around 600 A.D., with the site continuing to be used until less than a hundred years before the Declaration of Independence was signed. Unfortunately (or fortunately, given the way lookie-loos and “pot hunters” have pillaged historically significant sights all over the United States), Boone’s Mounds is on private property, and the location is not really disclosed to the public even if you could get in to see it. Just know it’s there, though, and interesting.
LITTLE RIVER COUNTY
Pop. 12,532 – 532.25 square miles
White Cliffs Natural Area
State Highway 317From Brownstown (Sevier County)
Chalk puts the white in White Cliffs, said to be the highest grade of chalk in the United States, and the mineral also means this is a place of unique plant life. There is a short trail here — one and three-fourths mile — and you can see Lake Millwood and the 100-foot chalk bluff over the Little River from the parking lot. If you’re really lucky, you might also spot the famously flat-headed grasshopper sparrow here.
Pop. 20,225 – 857.68 square miles
Mena Intermountain Airport
210 State Highway 980 (520 Mena St.)
To be honest, it’s not much to look at. There’s a sign and some big aluminum hangars and the treeless expanse found at airports everywhere. But if these runways could talk, the tales they would tell. This is where Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal, Arkansas’s most notorious drug smuggler/government informant/obsession-of-conspiracy theorists, based his operations in the early 1980s.
Seal ran millions, perhaps billions, of dollars worth of cocaine on behalf of the Medellin cartel through Mena, all the while, or at least some of the time, working as an informant for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration and possibly for the CIA. Seal’s participation in a sting operation in Nicaragua involving the Sandinista government and the press leak about the operation ultimately led to the Iran-Contra Affair.
Assassins hired by the cartel killed Seal in 1986 after he was exposed as a DEA informant. That Seal had direct ties to then-Vice President George Bush and was running drugs through Arkansas during the time Gov. Asa Hutchinson was U.S. attorney of the Western District (which includes Mena) and President Clinton was governor has led to endless speculation about who knew what when, or should have. The investigation continues. Look for a book on Seal and Mena from Arkansas Times contributing editor Mara Leveritt in 2016 as well as “Mena,” a film starring Tom Cruise as Seal in early 2017.
Pop. 11,024 – 600.62 square miles
Crater of Diamonds State Park
209 State Park Road
As the old advertising slogan that roped many a month’s salary goes, a diamond is forever. How awesome would it be, though, to go dig one up instead of taking a trip to the mall with a fat bankroll? You can try your luck at that at Crater of Diamonds State Park. Opened as a state park in 1972, Crater of Diamonds consists of 911 acres of greenish kimberlite, the eroded throat of a volcano that pushed raw diamonds to the surface of the earth millions of years ago — a fact discovered way back in 1906, when farmer John Huddleston picked up two strange crystals on his property that turned out to be a girl’s best friend. Since then, diamonds as big as the 15.33 carat Star of Arkansas have been found on the property. The 37.5-acre plowed field at the center of the park is where the action is, with searchers digging and sifting in pursuit of their diamond dreams. For at least 600 visitors per year, that dream pays off, with the unearthing of stones of all sizes, clarities and qualities. Most of those discovered are tiny, but every once in a while, somebody hits the jackpot. Best of all, you can keep anything you find.
HOT SPRING COUNTY
Pop. 33,368 – 615.20 square miles
Magnet Cove Rocks and minerals
About 12 miles south of Hot Springs, you’ll find the small community of Magnet Cove. With the possible exception of a tiny patch of land somewhere in Russia (I forget where), it’s generally accepted that you’ll find more distinct minerals here in a 5-square-mile radius than any other place on earth. You can find apatite, quartz, schorlomite, biotite, brookite (briefly nicknamed Arkansite), kimzeyite, perovskite, anatase, rutile, magnetite and feldspar. Among others. You can find the planet’s purest novaculite. Looking for some quality kolbeckite crystals to better channel your spiritual energies? Look no further. This place is heaven for rock collectors, mineralogists and New Age crystal fiends alike.
Pop. 41,639 – 1,055 square miles
Site of the Tucker-Parnell Shootout
Courthouse square El Dorado
From the Hatfields and the McCoys to the OK Corral, feuds and shootouts are, of course, stitched right into the lore of America, the country that seems to have invented gun violence and that has over the years honed it into something like a bloody, performance art masterpiece. Little do most Arkansans know, however, that Arkansas has our own “High Noon” showdown of yore, smack dab in the middle of sleepy El Dorado in 1902. The feud apparently kicked off, as so many bloody things do, over love: a woman who came to town to marry one man, while another swore she was his betrothed. Things boiled and simmered for weeks until the bloody afternoon of Oct. 8, 1902. At around 4:30 p.m. that day, groups of rivals and their supporters happened upon each other on the courthouse square and swapped fightin’ words before an unknown number of heavily armed men slapped leather and threw down, filling the street with lead, blood and death. When the gunsmoke cleared, three men were killed, including two members of the Parnell family and El Dorado Constable Harrison Dearing. Three others lay gravely wounded, including Union County Marshal Guy Tucker — grandfather of former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker — who was shot six times but somehow survived. In ensuing weeks, the shooting touched off a long-running feud between backers of the Parnells and the Tuckers, including an August 1903 incident in which Guy Tucker was sent a bottle of poisoned whiskey, and an incident in which Tucker shot and killed yet another member of the Parnell family in downtown El Dorado. Today, two bronze plaques on the Union County courthouse square in El Dorado commemorate one of the bloodiest incidents of street violence in Arkansas history.
Pop. 17,366 – 581 square miles
Pick up a De Queen Bee
404 W. De Queen Ave.
Is there a more charmingly named newspaper in Arkansas? No, there is not. Are there older newspapers still in operation in towns with fewer than 10,000 people? Probably not, we’re guessing. The Bee began publication in 1897. So buy a paper — for a keepsake and a sign of support for the folks pounding the pavement in De Queen to keep the lights on. Bonus: The potential for the sort of gold contained in a recent edition, which told of a woman being arrested for shoplifting from Walmart while more than two dozen law enforcement officers were inside the store as part of the annual Shop with a Cop program.
Pop. 22,327 – 727.52 square miles
Rick Evans Grandview Prairie Conservation Education Center
State Highway 35
Imagine standing in a field of tall prairie flowers, with brilliant painted buntings — Arkansas’s answer to parrots — and butterflies darting all around you. Up one road is a prehistoric mound; over there is what remains of a historic plantation. Your paleontologist pal is pleased as punch with the Cretaceous fossils here, too, and your hunting buddies are applying for their Sweet 16 licenses to get deer. Grandview Prairie, 4,885 acres of rolling grasslands acquired several years ago by the state Game and Fish Commission, hard by the state’s Civil War capital (in Washington) and the old town of Columbus, has much to offer in the way of history and nature. The property, the former home of Caddo Indians and Arkansas farmers, is the largest continuous tract of blackland prairie in public hands in the United States. You can stay the night there: Game and Fish operates two lodges that accommodate 40 people total, and has an education center there as well.
Also in Hempstead County:
Historic Washington State Park, the antebellum town where the Bowie knife was forged.
If you are at the state park, you must eat at Williams’ Tavern, which serves up Southern cooking family-style in the 1832 home and tavern built by John Williams. Open daily 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.