Hike, bike, camp and get historical across Arkansas this month.
Photography by Bobby Burton
[dropcap]It’s[/dropcap] hard to resist the invitation to get off the couch and just go somewhere. You can feel the clock ticking down to summer. The crowds won’t be this thin again until after Labor Day, and the weather won’t be this nice again until October. It’s the perfect time to throw a few things in a bag, grab the 2016 Arkansas State Parks Guide — or log on to its online equivalent arkansasstateparks.com — and hit the road.
Arkansas has more than 50 state parks throughout, so no matter where you live or in what direction you want to travel, you’ll most likely find one nearby. This month, we’re taking a look at some that don’t typically get as much attention as superstars like Petit Jean and Mount Magazine state parks.
If you live near or grew up in Central Arkansas, you’ve probably visited or at least heard of Toltec Mounds State Park in Scott; two parks in Eastern Arkansas also preserve and interpret the history of the state’s original inhabitants. The Hampson Archeological Museum State Park in Wilson and the Parkin Archeological State Park in nearby Parkin give visitors a look at two American Indian communities from the Mississippian Period, active between about 1000 and 1600. At Hampson, the museum showcases a collection of artifacts excavated by plantation owner James K. Hampson from his land in the first half of the 20th century. The artifacts include distinctive red and white pottery, uniquely shaped arrowheads, and pots sculpted in the shape of heads with detailed faces.
“There have only been 137 of them found in the world, all in Arkansas and Missouri,” Sherry Hawkins, museum program assistant, said.
Parkin, in contrast, gives visitors a firsthand look at the Arkansas Archeological Survey’s research in action. You can tour a platform mound on the banks of the St. Francis River and imagine what the village may have looked like when, as is widely believed, Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto visited it in 1541. In their prime, the two Indian communities were constantly at war, Hawkins said, but today, the two state parks often help each other with programming. Upcoming special events include a Historic Women’s Skills Workshop at Parkin on May 21.
If you’d like to explore the Delta region in a less traditional way, plan a trip to — well, along — the Delta Heritage Trail State Park. This park is actually a rail-to-trail project being developed along a former railroad right-of-way through the Delta’s forests and croplands. So far, 21 miles have been built from the Helena junction to Elaine. The park’s visitor center, where you can rent bikes and sign up for guided bike and kayak tours, is on U.S. Hwy. 49 in Barton. For more information, call 870.572.2352.
Heading into Southeastern Arkansas, Cane Creek State Park near Star City is a 2,000-acre outdoor playground that includes Cane Creek Lake and Bayou Bartholomew, the world’s longest bayou. You can fish; rent a boat or bicycle; hike along trails that go along the lake and across several suspension bridges; and explore the lake and bayou in a canoe or kayak. You can bring your own tent or camper for an overnight stay or book the park’s Rent-an-RV, which sleeps up to eight and includes satellite TV.
Almost directly across the state from Cane Creek is another of Arkansas’ history-focused state parks: Historic Washington State Park. Located 8 miles northwest of Hope on Hwy. 278, this park preserves a number of 19th-century buildings from the town, including two courthouses, a blacksmith shop, weapons museum, print museum, private homes and other structures. Park interpreters often dress in period costumes and sometimes conduct tours in 19th-century character. The focus is on creating an immersive, hands-on experience of history, Shelia Little, the park’s sales director, said.
“We have things you put your hands on,” she said. “In the print museum, they’re going to let you print something you can take home with you. You get to dip a candle and take it home with you.”
The park doesn’t have outdoor activities, but it does host a steady stream of history-themed special events. This month, check out Dancing with the Stars Washington Style on May 14. For more information, log on to historicwashingtonstatepark.com.
Moving into the west-central region of the state, Mount Nebo State Park outside Dardanelle is one of the most fun parks in the state to drive to, and one of the prettiest from which to gaze. The park’s Civilian Conservation Corps cabins, bridges and trails hug the rim of the mountaintop and offer stunning views of the Arkansas River Valley. There’s also a swimming pool and tennis courts, making Mount Nebo a great destination. For more information, call 479.229.3655.
Northwest Arkansas offers so many opportunities for outdoor-centered fun it’s almost overwhelming. Among all of the possibilities, Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area east of Rogers stands out as the only state park where hunting is allowed. A public outdoor shooting range is available as well. Its 12,000-plus acres also make it the largest state park, and a network of hiking, biking and horseback riding trails wind through a diverse landscape on the south end of Beaver Lake. There’s a lot of water and lot of limestone in the park — a combination that’s created a lot of sinkholes and hollows to explore. Only five primitive campsites are within the park, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates several hundred sites nearby on Beaver Lake. Call 479.789.2151 for information.
The final stop on our tour is Mammoth Spring State Park on the north-central edge of the state. This charming little park is home to the state’s largest spring, which sends more than 9 million gallons of water an hour into a 10-acre spring pool and is the source of the Spring River. The spring itself is underground, but you can rent a pedal boat and meander around the surface of the pool. The park is also home to pieces of Mammoth Spring’s human-created history, including a restored 1886 train depot and caboose as well as the remains of a mill and hydroelectric plant. There are no campsites or cabins at the park, but it’s a beautiful spot for a lazy picnic by the water. For more information, call 870.625.7364.
Central Arkansas usually brings to mind urban images of the downtown Little Rock skyline, but the middle of the state is also home to some great state parks — and we don’t mean just Pinnacle State Park.
Woolly Hollow State Park near Greenbrier is a great destination for a Little Rock-based day trip. Hit the first-class, lifeguard-staffed swimming beach on Lake Bennett — open Memorial Day through Labor Day — or rent a pedal boat for two and explore a little further out into the water. The Enders Fault Mountain Bike Trail, a 10-mile trail divided into two loops, has garnered rave reviews since it opened almost two years ago. The 3.5-mile Huckleberry Nature Trail circles the lake, and there’s a playground, a barrier-free fishing pier and plenty of picnicking and campsites. For more information, call 501.679.2098.
If you’re a history buff, you can get your fix at the Plantation Agricultural Museum in Scott. The museum tells the story of cotton farming in the state from 1836 through World War II, when mechanization put an end to traditional farming practices. Exhibits focus on growing, picking and ginning cotton. For more information, call 501.961.1409.