I’d never really considered Arkansas.
I had heard it was pretty and that it was popular among outdoor enthusiasts — the official state motto is “the natural state,” after all — but I simply never had any reason to go.
Until, that is, my friend who lives in Atlanta and I started planning a summer trip. We both wanted somewhere we could drive with our kids — mine are 7 and 4, hers is 8 — so I pulled up a map to see what was in the middle of Austin and Atlanta: Arkansas.
Arkansas it was. We left early one July morning and eight hours later arrived at the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Ark., hoping the natural state could offer a respite from our natural state, which too often lately on those lazy days of summer consisted of iPads, apps and Nickelodeon.
The Kings River
Looking out at the Kings River, I felt like I had stumbled into a National Geographic documentary.
Dollops of clouds punctuated the bright blue sky, and a blanket of trees lined the cool, crisp river. It was like the “babbling brook” button on my sleep machine at home had come to life.
Then a thin, pointed stream of water splattered against my face — a water gun squirt from a mischievous second-grader — and pulled me right back to reality.
Kings River Outfitters specializes in canoe and kayak trips on the river, complete with shuttle service back to your car. But if you just want to spend a couple hours paddling around the launch site, as we did, you can do that, too.
A morning spent paddling, catching tadpoles, squirting water guns, splashing in the water and tiptoeing across the rock-dappled shoreline was just the thing we needed to kick off our back-to-nature time in Arkansas. I highly recommend bringing water shoes, though — the shoreline can be difficult to navigate barefoot.
Info: Kings River Outfitters offers canoe and kayak rentals for $75, which includes life jackets, paddles and shuttle service to your car. 8190 AR-221 in Eureka Springs. 479-253-8954, kingsriveroutfitters.com
Flying Q Farms
No one has more fun at Flying Q Farms than Lance, who loves splashing his roasted-marshmallow-hued hoof in Lake Sequoyah and soaking his peers and their riders every chance he gets. On a hot summer day, no one seems to mind.
Flying Q Farms was established in 2000 by Susan Sullivan as a small horse training business and in 2007 expanded to offer horseback riding lessons. During our hourlong trek over the river and through the woods of the scenic property that lines the lake, Sullivan displayed a patient, kind demeanor, even as my 4-year-old, whom she was tethered to with a “rainbow rope,” quizzed her on everything from the colors of the rainbow to the theme of her birthday party.
Our whole group was fascinated by Zoey, Sullivan’s 7-year-old terrier mix, who proudly escorts most of the trail rides and seems to believe she’s actually a horse. When she’s not running alongside Sullivan, you’ll find her perched on top of a member of her equine brethren.
Info: A one-hour trail ride is $50 per horse. 201 South Lake Sequoyah Spur in Fayetteville. 479-283-6788, flyingqfarms.com
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge
Lions and tigers and bears — oh my. To visit Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, which was founded in 1992 and cover 450 acres in Eureka Springs, is to meet all sorts of exotic and native animals that have been rescued from private owners or defunct facilities that could no longer care for them. Once they arrive at Turpentine, the plan is for them to stay for life.
When you visit, you’ll hear some sad stories. Like one about a tiger who was fed dog food because his owners thought it would make him docile, when in fact he was starving to death. Or another about a rhesus monkey who was thrown against a wall by a previous owner. But you’ll also be glad to see those animals now, doing well.
We took a one-hour walking tour of the property with intern Kelly Hurlbut, who was a knowledgeable, and funny, guide, sprinkling in tidbits about the animals as we passed. It was educational and fun, and for a good cause — the money that comes into this nonprofit goes back to supporting the animals.
Info: 239 Turpentine Creek Lane in Eureka Springs. 479-253-5841, turpentinecreek.org
Mount Magazine State Park
This was supposed to just be a pit stop on our way to Hot Springs. But the minute we took in the view from the Lodge at Mount Magazine, which at 2,753 feet is the highest point in Arkansas, we knew we had to stay. We canceled our previous plans (sorry, Hot Springs!) and planted ourselves there for the night.
Rates start at $118 at the lodge, which overlooks the Petit Jean River Valley and Blue Mountain Lake and affords stunning views and temperatures that are about 15 degrees cooler than the rest of the state. During our July stay, it got so cool in the evening that we needed jackets. Jackets! In July!
The lodge advertises daily activities such as birding walks and guided hikes and is a great jumping off point for exploring the rest of the park, which also features mountain biking, rock climbing, horseback riding and backpacking. We were content, however, to take in the view, as well as a glass of wine and some stuffed mushrooms, on the patio at Skycrest Restaurant as the kids accumulated grass stains by rolling down the hill nearby.
That night, we slept with our balcony door open, the cool breeze leading to a peaceful slumber. It was a relaxing, refreshing stay — well worth the change of plans.
Info: 16878 AR-309 in Paris. 479-963-8502, mountmagazinestatepark.com.
Crater of Diamonds State Park
We were positive we were going to find a diamond at Crater of Diamonds State Park, which is home to a 37.5-acre plowed field where visitors are invited to mine for gemstones, rocks and minerals. Find a diamond? You keep it. Over the years, there have been some big finds, including the “Uncle Sam” diamond, which was discovered in 1924 and is the largest documented diamond find at 40.23 carats.
When we arrived, we rented equipment, including buckets, shovels and screen sets used for sifting, then picked out a patch of dirt and got to work.
Mining for diamonds is exciting, but it’s also harder than it looks. Even when you find something, it can be difficult to distinguish if it’s a precious gem or a routine pebble. After an hour under the blistering midday sun, we threw in the shovel and opted to cool off at Diamond Springs Water Park, the park’s adjacent mining-themed aquatic playground.
As the kids made their way excitedly down the slide and the cool water washed over my toes, I thought about this one-of-a-kind park that came complete with a swimming pool. We may not have spied any gems, but we had still discovered a diamond in the rough.
Info: 209 State Park Road in Murfreesboro. 870-285-3113, craterofdiamondsstatepark.com.
IF YOU GO
We spent the majority of our time in Eureka Springs, a small town in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas, before heading south to Mount Magazine and Crater of Diamonds. Eureka Springs is a solid home base for Arkansas visitors — it’s known as a haven for artists as well as a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts.
- The Crescent Hotel was built in 1886 and is known for its colorful, ghost-filled past. You can learn about famous ghosts, including the so-called “Lady in the Victorian Lingerie in Room 3500,” during the hotel’s nightly ghost tour. You’ll also find older but charming rooms, a sprawling yet affordable breakfast buffet ($14 for adults, $9 ages 5-12, free younger than 5) and a pool perfect for an evening dip. Don’t forget to say hello to resident cats Casper and Jasper, who like to plant themselves at the concierge desk. Don’t be offended if they don’t respond to your questions, however — they only answer when they feel like it. 75 Prospect Ave. 855-725-5720, crescent-hotel.com
- When my daughters and I walked into Italian restaurant Katherine’s Cafe Amore, we were greeted by a warm host who told the girls a joke and escorted us to our table. Then she told us about the menu, which she wrote, and the dishes, which she cooked, and took our order. To say that Chef Katherine Zeller does it all would be an understatement. The pasta dishes here were robust — my lasagna was among the best I’ve had. In terms of adult beverages, don’t miss the “Eureka Lemonade,” a delicious blend of lemonade, orange juice, triple sec, limeade, grenadine, sweet and sour mix, vodka and rum that goes down deceptively easy. 2070 E. Van Buren. 479-253-7192, cafeamorearkansas.com
- People in Arkansas love the outdoors, so it should be no surprise that one of the dining options in Eureka Springs allows you to eat inside a historic building that was built on solid rock and features a continuously running spring. The menu at Grotto Wood Fired Grill and Wine Cave includes fare such as shrimp ciabatta, wine-soaked mushrooms and a 10 oz. filet mignon. 10 Center St. 479-363-6431, grottoeureka.com
- If you’ve got a sweet tooth, make your way to Two Dumb Dames Fudge Factory, where fudge types such as vanilla salted caramel, chocolate chip cookie dough and pumpkin are sure to satisfy your taste buds. The shop also serves up giant s’mores, milk chocolate clusters, English toffee and saltwater taffy. 33 S. Main St. 800-237-7268, twodumbdames.com
- Yes, you can get old-time photos anywhere. But Judge Roy Bean’s Old Time Photos was the first place where I’ve seen a steampunk-themed photo shoot, complete with top hats, monocles and goggles. The store had a variety of fun costumes for adults and kids, and the photographer was patient with our excited, rambunctious crew. 29 S. Main St. 479-253-5848, judgeroy.com
- The signs along the highway instantly sparked interest: “Quigley’s Castle — Ozarks’ strangest dwelling.” Once we arrived at the castle, which is actually a home and meticulously managed garden that features 400 varieties of flowers, we marveled at the mosaic of stones, fossils, arrowheads and crystals that covered the facade. Quigley’s Castle was the dream home of Elise Quigley, who collected all the stones that adorn the house starting as a child and put painstaking care into other unique features, including a wall covered in mounted butterflies. Quigley died in 1984, but her granddaughter lives there now and carries on her legacy. 274 Quigley Castle Road. 479-253-8311, quigleyscastle.com
- Magic. Voodoo. Illusions. Hypnosis. You can see it all when you go to “The Illusionist and the Medium” at Intrigue Theater, located inside a century-old church, complete with chandeliers and stained-glass windows. Sean-Paul the Illusionist was entertaining, but the real magic happened during the second half of the show, when Juliana Fay took the stage and, blindfolded, proceeded to “communicate with the spirits” to offer personal messages to audience members. If it was a hoax, I still don’t know how they did it, and it was entertaining either way. 80 Mountain St. 855-446-8744, intriguetheater.com