by Joe David Rice
With summer now in full swing, families across Arkansas are eagerly looking for options for close-to-home getaways. The good news is that the Natural State has dozens and dozens of wonderful choices, many of which aren’t on everyone’s radar. Following last month’s example, we’ll take a look at five more high-quality but lesser-known attractions. As before, it’ll be a regional tour: one destination in each of the state’s four corners plus another in Central Arkansas.
Northwest Arkansas will be our starting point and the Scott Family Amazeum in Bentonville is the first recommendation. Throw out all your preconceptions about museums, for this dynamic 50,000-square-foot facility is definitely designed to be touched, fully experienced and absolutely enjoyed – in short, an interactive delight for the entire family. Although much of the space is geared toward children from 4 to 9 years old, there are two areas set aside for toddlers (ages 2 and under), plus stimulating labs and studios perfect for older elementary- and middle-school students. Popular sections include a climbable tree canopy, indoor cave and Nature Valley Water Amazements where getting wet is part of the fun (think about bringing a change of clothes). In addition, there’s an acre of exciting outdoor space with connecting bike trails to the Razorback Greenway.
SCOTT FAMILY AMAZEUM
The Scott Family Amazeum, conveniently located at 1009 Museum Way next door to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, includes the Zing Café and the Curiosity Corner Store. Admission is free for kids under 2; everybody else pays $9.50. Open six days a week (closed on Tuesdays, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day), the museum welcomes visitors from 10 a.m. through 5 p.m. (1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays). Several times a month (usually Wednesdays) the museum offers “Priceless Nights,” where guests are invited to pay what they wish. Complete details can be found at amazeum.org.
HAMPSON ARCHEOLOGICAL MUSEUM STATE PARK
The Northeast Arkansas stop is Hampson Archeological Museum State Park, an intriguing attraction a short distance off Interstate 55 in the bustling community of Wilson. Nearly a century ago, Dr. James Hampson began excavating Native-American sites on Nodena, his family’s plantation a dozen miles south of Osceola. His discoveries from two prehistoric villages along the Mississippi River (inhabited from AD 1400 to 1650) ultimately formed the basis for the park’s superb and nationally recognized collection of tools, bowls, jars, bottles and weapons. The amazing creativity of the indigenous people is clearly evident in the beautiful clay pots and effigy vessels.
Important note: For years, the Hampson artifacts were housed in an inadequate building. They are now being moved to a spacious new $3.6 million facility on the square in downtown Wilson, with a soft opening anticipated in late July. Be among the first to experience the new 8,500-square-foot museum – but call beforehand (870-655-8622) or visit arkansasstateparks.com/hampsonmuseum/ to confirm this schedule. The Hampson Archeological Museum State Park is open daily (except Mondays) from 8 a.m. through 5 p.m., and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays (closed on major holidays). Admission is free. While organizing your trip, don’t forget that the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess is only 13 miles away.
MID AMERICA SCIENCE MUSEUM
Plan on spending a couple of hours at the Mid America Science Museum in Hot Springs, our southwestern Arkansas recommendation. The state’s largest hands-on science center and a Smithsonian Institute Affiliate since opening day, the museum will soon celebrate its 40th anniversary. But don’t expect a collection of boring and dusty displays. Following a $7.8 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the 65,000 square-foot structure holds more than 100 new state-of-the-art exhibits. For a truly electrifying experience, you’ll want to observe 1.5-million volts of electricity sparking and crackling at the Tesla Coil (the most powerful example on Earth, according to the experts at Guinness World Records). Other highlights include the Light Bridge, the Science Skywalk, a Tinkering Studio and the Arkansas Underfoot Gallery – with a challenging cave maze and even a mastodon. And be sure to visit the Oaklawn Foundation DinoTek and its collection of 18 life-like dinosaurs, complete with realistic sound effects.
In summer months, the Mid America Science Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. through 6 p.m. (1 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays). During the rest of the year, it’s closed on Mondays (and Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s Day) and the doors close at 5 p.m. Located several miles west of the city at 500 Mid America Boulevard, the museum can be reached via Whittington Avenue and Blacksnake Road or off Arkansas Highway 227 (Mountain Pine Road). Admission is $8 for children 3 to 12 (infants free), $10 for adults, and $8 for seniors (65+). You can find more information at midamericamuseum.org.
DELTA RIVERS NATURE CENTER
Our southeastern Arkansas suggestion is the Delta Rivers Nature Center on the north side of Pine Bluff. This handsome facility, operated by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, sits on 130 acres of bottomland forest bordered by Black Dog Bayou and Lake Langhofer. Children particularly relish the “please touch” exhibits and the two large aquariums (one holds 20,000 gallons). The fish-feeding programs (11 a.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 p.m. on weekends) are not to be missed. Same for the eagle feeding and presentation sessions every Saturday and Sunday at 3:15 p.m. Hikers and wildlife enthusiasts will be drawn to the Center’s four trails, two of which are paved. Expect to see native wildflowers, wetlands, birds and other wildlife on these twisting paths through the prairie and forest.
Admission to the Delta Rivers Nature Center, located at 1400 Black Dog Road (off US Highway 65B) is free. It’s open year-round from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesdays through Saturdays (closed on Mondays and major holidays) and from 1 p.m. through 5 p.m. on Sundays. For more information, check out www.deltarivers.com.
WOOLLY HOLLOW STATE PARK
Woolly Hollow State Park, located six miles east of US Highway 65 north of Greenbrier, represents the Central Arkansas option. Nicely situated on the foothills of the Ozarks, this family-friendly retreat came under state ownership in 1972. A highlight of the park – especially during the summer months – is Lake Bennett, a clear and cool 40-acre reservoir with a sandy swimming beach overseen by lifeguards. Canoes, kayaks, pedal boats and fishing boats can be rented and a launch ramp is also available. Since there’s no commercial dock, anglers need to bring their own bait and gear. Thirteen picnicking sites are in the park, along with 30 Class AAA campsites and 10 tent sites, a snack bar, gift shop and pavilion. Hikers will enjoy the 3.5-mile Huckleberry Nature Trail and mountain bikers will appreciate the 9.4-mile Enders Fault trail. The pet-friendly park is a perfect destination for those who have four-legged family members, too.
Open year-round, Woolly Hollow State Park is truly one of Arkansas’ hidden treasures. For more information on the park, its interpretive programs, events, and activities, visit arkansasstateparks.com/woollyhollow.
For additional details on these and Arkansas’ many other vacation choices, spend some time at arkansas.com – the outstanding website operated by the good folks at the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.
Let’s resurrect an old phrase and “See Arkansas First” this summer!