by Jane Dennis | Photos Provided by Arkansas State Parks
Arkansas is called The Natural State for good reason. The state’s unsurpassed beauty is readily discovered in its rich patchwork of rivers and streams, bayous and bottomlands, forested mountains and sprawling prairies. The sights, sounds, scents and textures of Arkansas are immediately within reach, whether one heads east or west, north or south.
Enjoying these natural resources is as easy as taking a short hike, strapping on a biking helmet and peddling away or pitching a tent along a babbling stream. For those who are ready to bike, hike and camp across Arkansas, consider the following opportunities for adventure that perfectly capitalize on our state’s breathtaking natural beauty.
Arkansas offers diverse options for cycling enthusiasts. There are protected, paved paths like the 17-mile Arkansas River Trail in central Arkansas. The Razorback Greenway offers 37.6 miles of primarily off-road, shared-use trail in Northwest Arkansas. The Delta Heritage Trail near Helena is a 14-mile rail-to-trail conversion open to those looking for an experience in some of the most remote and scenic areas remaining in eastern Arkansas’ Mississippi Delta.
“Due to the diverse topography of the state, you can ride flat farmland areas or the mountains of the Ozarks and Ouachitas,” says Joe Jacobs, marketing and revenue manager for Arkansas State Parks and a member of the Governor’s Task Force on Cycling. You may want to give gravel grinding a try. Arkansas is at the forefront of this new trend of riding gravel roads on bikes designed for that.
Arkansas is home to some of the best mountain biking trails in the country “and incredible cycling infrastructure for all types of riders,” Jacobs observes. For the novice, he suggests joining a local riding club that will help cyclists enjoy the road routes more safely and find mountain bike trails best suited for their skill and experience. Many local riding groups across the state have their own Facebook groups with event information and are open to new members.
The Ozarks and the Ouachita Mountains are hiker heaven. That’s the unvarnished opinion of veteran hiker and backpacker Jim Warnock of Alma.
“These regions contain a multitude of beautiful hiking trails, but every area of Arkansas has some gems,” Warnock says. “You can walk trails specifically meant for day hiking or shorter sections of the Ozark Highlands Trail as an out-and-back. With some planning, you may also walk one trailhead to the next where you’ve placed a shuttle vehicle.”
One of Warnock’s favorite routes is the Marinoni Scenic Area that follows a portion of the Ozark Highlands Trail. It’s accessed by the Dawna Robinson Spur Trail east of the town of Cass. “The Marinoni is beautiful in all seasons,” he says, “with towering bluffs, waterfalls and Briar Branch that flows most of the year.”
He also recommends the 4-mile Lake Alma Trail and the White Rock Mountain Loop, which gives hikers a 360-degree visual treat in a 2-mile hike that’s fairly level. For a real challenging option, the 14-mile Shores Lake White Rock Mountain Loop could include camping or a stay at one of the rustic White Rock Mountain cabins.
Warnock’s best advice for beginners is to keep it simple, start small and have fun. “Nothing is more discouraging than trying to hike farther than you should,” he advises. “So, plan an outing you think is too short and add distance to your next trip. Get some good wool blend socks, comfortable running shoes and take a walk on a trail close to home.”
With campsites at 32 Arkansas state parks, take your pick from camping on top of a mountain, on the shore of a lake or other scenic spots. Campgrounds range from primitive, hike-in tent sites to the high-end type with easy accessibility and modern conveniences such as water, electric and sewer hookups for RV campers. Adventurers can rent a cabin, an RV or a cozy yurt (a circular, high-walled tent).
For novice campers, Meg Matthews, public information coordinator for Arkansas State Parks, suggests calling the park you want to go to and ask the staff about the options they offer there. “All parks are different, and the staff lives at their park, so they know on a personal basis what they think is the best way for novice campers to enjoy their stay.”
Camping is a great family activity, not only because many state park cabins are designed specifically with families in mind but also because so many activities are available year-round. Programs led by park interpreters add a fun and educational aspect to camping. These range from crafts to cast-iron cooking demonstrations to eagle cruises. Boats and kayaks can be rented at parks with lakes. And don’t forget to bring your fishing pole.
“And last but certainly not least,” Matthews adds, “all Arkansas state parks are free to get into – that’s the kind of price point many families are looking for.”
If you’re averse to roughing it in the great outdoors but still want to breathe in the natural beauty of Arkansas, then “glamping,” or glamorous camping, is for you. Enjoy nature but with all the comforts of home.
Beckham Creek Cave has to be one of the state’s most unusual glamping venues. Located in a natural cavern near Parthenon (Newton County), the subterranean getaway is set in a private 260-acre resort just minutes from the Buffalo National River. The cave home is a self-contained masterpiece of architecture that can accommodate eight guests. Rock walls, hanging stalactites and a labyrinth of caves, caverns and rock trails surround the 6,000-square-foot underground maze. Amenities include a large game room, modern gourmet kitchen, natural rock waterfall and a helipad. Hiking, canoeing, fishing, helicopter rides and horseback riding can be arranged during stays.
If an above-ground experience is preferred, glampers will find plenty to love in Arkansas, from rustic cabins and luxury yurts to teepees.
The state park cabins at Mount Magazine, the highest peak in Arkansas, get a thumbs-up from JJ Whitney of Conway, who stayed there in March with her husband and two sons. “They were very nice, quiet and comfy with a full kitchen and great beds plus a hot tub and wood-burning fireplace,” Whitney says. “The boys loved it.” As a bonus, the food at the lodge was very good, she says, “with lots of options for younger kids.”
Want a bird’s eye view of Arkansas? Luxury treehouse accommodations are available at Mountain View, Eureka Springs and other locales. Most offer soothing accommodations of tranquil seclusion perched high in the trees.
Some glampers take their homes on the road with them. Members of Arkansas’ Razorback Airstream Club circle the wagons (or, in this instance, their gleaming aircraft-like RVs) across the state and beyond. The club boasts 65 rigs and 130 members who gather for 10 rallies or campouts annually, centered around Razorback sporting events, city festivals and other recreational draws like water activities at rivers and lakes.
“The club includes retirees, young families with kids, single and widowed people… It’s a cross-section of all ages, all interests,” says member Mark Magie, of Little Rock. “What we have in common is we love adventure.”