A broad thoroughfare connects Arkansas’ head-turning natural beauty to its burgeoning art and restaurant scenes.
Arkansas has long enjoyed a healthy sibling rivalry between the central region, anchored by the state capital of Little Rock, and the northwest region, centered around the university in Fayetteville. In the past, stolid Little Rockians smirked at the hippies and hillbillies of the Ozarks but dutifully trudged up the winding mountain roads to Fayetteville for Razorbacks games, and the highlanders often decamped to the capital for jobs in government and banking. Over the past 30 years, Northwest Arkansas has boomed, thanks primarily to the economic engine of Walmart, and Little Rock has expanded its cultural footprint, reviving its riverfront around the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. Now with the driving time between the cities reduced to three hours by smooth sailing on Interstates 40 and 49, a visitor can easily take in the recent additions to both regions—and even make time to slow down and soak in the natural beauty in between.
The highest concentration of the city's best-known attractions and amenities hugs the river: the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, the Museum of Discovery, and the Old State House Museum, as well as hotels, restaurants, and music venues along and near President Clinton Avenue.
The gem of Little Rock's lodging options remains the Capital Hotel. The 1876 structure, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, had fallen into disrepair with the decline of Little Rock's downtown in the 1970s and 1980s. It was saved and restored even beyond its former opulence in the mid-eighties and got another reboot in 2007. In April, when comic essayist David Sedaris performed down the street at the recently overhauled Robinson Center, someone in the audience asked what he liked best about Little Rock. Sedaris responded with praise for the Capital Hotel. "The ceilings in the rooms are as tall as they are in here!" he gushed.
Order a drink at the Capital Bar & Grill off the lobby, and take it up to the wicker loungers on the mezzanine porch before having dinner at One Eleven restaurant, remodeled and reconceived in 2014. Decorated chef Joël Antunes' menu is understatedly European with a hint of Southern flavors. If you’re looking for something with a twist, head over to The Southern Gourmasian and order the Thai chicken wings.
For a homier (and literally homegrown) vibe, venture less than a mile south on Main Street across I-630 to Quapaw Quarter, where you will find some of the city's most historic homes along with a small strip of interesting restaurants, retail, and entertainment venues. To avoid the inevitable lines for breakfast, lunch, and brunch at The Root Cafe, arrive at the early end of its opening hours. Patched together from a 1950s Sweden Creme dairy bar and old shipping containers, along with artfully mismatched furniture, this casual restaurant prides itself on utilizing local producers to create unfussy but elegantly flavored dishes. Try the Spicy Banh Mi sandwich for lunch or heartier options like Beef Short Rib with Cauliflower, Lentils, and Berbere Spice from the changing dinner menu.
Adjacent to The Root's parking lot is a huge mural on the wall of the ESSE Purse Museum, which holds the enormous personal collection of Anita Davis, a prime mover in the revitalization of the neighborhood. Besides Davis' own holdings, the museum mounts rotating exhibits. The aim here is not just a mere display of fashion. "The museum honors and celebrates women," says Davis. "I never know who is going to show up, and I love seeing the different reactions to using a purse to remind visitors of the history of the American woman—and the women important to them personally." The museum's shop is filled with ethically sourced jewelry and handbags (the store can account for where and how each one was made), and they are available in a wide range of prices.
The area's best restaurant, bar, and entertainment venue is South on Main, where chef Matthew Bell serves elevated Southern favorites and the Oxford American literary magazine puts on a concert series that includes a stellar lineup of established artists and up-and-comers. Check in advance to see who might be on the bill during a visit, and enjoy an intimate concert while savoring one of Bell's signature dishes and an original cocktail from the bar. We recommend the Catfish Hoppin John with Tasso, Tomato, Field Peas, Okra, and Grit Sticks.
Before leaving for your northwest passage, you can browse Arkansas-made gifts at the Green Corner Store or grab a cone of Little Rock-y Road at local Loblolly Creamery. Check out the city's growing microbrewery scene nearby at Lost Forty Brewing and Stone's Throw or across the river in North Little Rock at Flyway Brewing.
Petit Jean State Park
At Petit Jean State Park (pronounced "Petty Jean"), about 70 miles from Little Rock through Morrilton and up the switchbacks to the flattop mountain, see the real waterfall of the award-winning 2016 children's book Petit Jean: A Wilderness Adventure by William B. Jones. With a 95-foot drop, Cedar Falls is only one of the dramatic vistas along some 20 miles of crisscrossing trails in the park's 2,600 acres.
After a day of hiking or trail running, you'll discover that the Mather Lodge provides creature comforts and more stunning views. The original lodge was built back in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. Some of its public spaces were renovated in 2012. With only 24 guest rooms and 33 cabins nearby, you'll need to book your stay well in advance; camping in the park is also an option. For a change of pace, the nearby Museum of Automobiles exhibits restored historic vehicles, including a rare 1923 Climber, made in Little Rock.
WATCH: Top 10 Things To Do in Arkansas
Even though the interstate has made speedy travel a snap, it still cuts through a roller-coaster Ozark landscape of captivating beauty. (Note to book lovers: For a lovely read set during construction of the highway, pick up a copy of Steve Yates' novella Sandy and Wayne at local Nightbird Books.)
Like most college towns, Fayetteville has a main drag of restaurants and bars frequented by students and professors. Dickson Street is within a short walk of two main lodging options, the historic Inn at Carnall Hall on campus and the sleekly modern Chancellor, close to the city's main square. By day, the intersection where Dickson crosses the railway tracks provides a convenient jumping-off point for a morning jog, bike, or stroll on the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 36-mile paved trail that opened in 2015. It runs north from Fayetteville through Springdale and Bentonville to Lake Bella Vista. Before you go, fuel up at Arsaga's Coffee Roasters at The Depot, a busy java purveyor and restaurant that adjoins the trail and provides bike racks. You can grab lunch there or head over to Wicked Wood Fired Pizza for a personal pie.
By night, make like a local and stop at Maxine's Tap Room for a cocktail such as the Texas Coma—it's made with mezcal, Aperol, and we forget what else—and some music. This longtime (1950) hangout is a perennial favorite.
Since the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in 2011, it has transformed the cultural life of the entire region, and it keeps transforming itself. In 2015, it saved one of Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian homes, the Bachman-Wilson House, from total disrepair by transporting it from New Jersey to the museum's grounds. (Guided tours are available by appointment.) Two years ago, a newly commissioned sculpture by Maya Lin called Silver Upper White River made its debut. And until next spring, visitors can see Buckminster Fuller's 50-foot-wide Fly's Eye Dome, a 1980s prototype for sustainable housing.
The museum's art trail can lead you to downtown Bentonville, where the 21c Museum Hotel continues to tempt your eye with wondrous art (it's always worth lingering on the cushy round seating in the video-installation room). You can also tempt your palate with the wondrous food at The Hive restaurant by acclaimed chef Matthew McClure, who gained his fourth James Beard Award semifinalist nod in 2017.
Stop at Onyx Coffee Lab for a pick-me-up and visit Phat Tire Bike Shop for a rental to get around town. Now that you’re on the town square, head to The Walmart Museum to see how Sam Walton built an unassuming five-and-dime into thousands of stores and created a powerful legacy that turned once-sleepy Bentonville into a thriving art mecca. For more things to see and do visit arkansas.com.