Growing up in the foothills of the Ozarks in Arkansas, I would spend nearly all my free time exploring the treasure trove of natural wonders the state had to offer. I would be all but consumed with researching the best spots to catch a glimpse of a waterfall, or finding paths less traveled. And the national parks in Arkansas offer so many great views and hidden gems!
The Natural State is certainly no misnomer, with breathtaking rivers, parks, and trails, but there is much more than just hiking to be done in Arkansas. There is no shortage of rich history tucked between the outcroppings and foothills, with bustling river cities and monumental Native American and Civil Rights landmarks.
The birthplace of an American leader, the very first National River, and a hanging judge dead set on “justice” are just a few examples of the type of enriching spots you’ll find in Arkansas’s National Parks. No matter the season, there is something here for everyone.
With such an expansive resume of sights to be seen, it can be difficult to decide just where to start. The eight National Parks in Arkansas are a great place to start planning your exploration of this picturesque state!
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The Eight National Parks in Arkansas
I’m covering these in alphabetical order because they are too amazing and diverse to try to rank!
Arkansas Post National Memorial
The first European establishment in the lower Mississippi River Valley, the Arkansas Post has served as an integral meeting point since 1686. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 officially made the Post part of the United States, and it was selected as the capital of the Arkansas Territory in 1819, (look out Little Rock!).
Since its establishment, the Arkansas Post has been witness to pivotal points in American history – from the only Revolutionary War conflict to occur in Arkansas to a Confederate fort destroyed by the Union. There is a Visitor Center and Museum where you can learn all about the Post’s past, as well as guided tours and historic weapons demonstrations.
While you’re learning about the Post’s long history, you will also be able to take in its beautiful flora and fauna. Situated on the Arkansas River, the Arkansas Post is home to glorious creatures of land, sea, and air.
When visiting in late summer to early spring, you will be able to snap envy-worthy photos of the lily pads and gorgeous blossoms of the American Lotus. The Arkansas Post is home to such magnificent wildlife that you may even catch a glimpse of an alligator or bald eagle!
There are both paved and unpaved trails to explore, and fishing is permitted in all waters in and around the park. If you bring the little ones along they can participate in the Junior Ranger program and become mini-experts on the Arkansas Post!
Plan Your Visit: Directions to the Arkansas Post are available on the National Park Service’s website here.
Buffalo National River
An absolute personal favorite, the majestic Buffalo River is America’s first National River! With 135 miles of free-flowing river, be prepared to get wet.
Floating is the great Arkansas passtime, and at the Buffalo River there are plenty of modes of transportation to choose from – rent canoes, kayaks, or tubes, and float the day away (just don’t forget the sunscreen on the tops of your thighs).
After a long day of watersports, you can settle down at one of the Buffalo’s many campsites. Choose between primitive campsites for the rugged tent-camper or sites with electric and water hookups for the RV enthusiast. Backcountry camping is allowed in designated parts of the park, for the truly untamable.
After your campfire has burned out for the night, be sure to look up. The Buffalo National River is an International Dark Sky Park. The park follows strict guidelines to maintain this designation, making the nightly view of the stars an unforgettable show.
Pets are allowed in designated areas of the Buffalo River park, so check the rules at your specific destination and bring Spot to share in the fun (where allowed).
During your visit, you can wander the trails in the over 95,000 acres of land surrounding the river – so be sure to bring your hiking shoes!
Plan Your Visit: For directions to the different sections of the Buffalo River, visit the National Park Service’s website here.
Fort Smith National Historic Site
Fort Smith, my hometown, sits right on the border between Arkansas and Oklahoma. It is a river city absolutely bursting at the seams with history.
At the Fort Smith National Historic Site building, you can live out your John Wayne dreams by exploring the building’s two jails, “Hanging Judge” Parker’s courtroom, and exhibits on the Deputy US Marshals, Military Outlaws, and the Indian Removal’s mark on Arkansas.
If your youngins are tagging along, they can participate in the Junior Ranger program and earn their Fort Smith National Historic Site badge.
Once you’ve seen all the inside has to offer, wander out to view the gallows where eighty-six men were executed between 1873 and 1896. Free walking tours are available in both English and Spanish, and there are plenty of information placards situated around the park for reading at your leisure.
Besides the rich history you’ll be immersed in here, The National Historic Site sits right off the Arkansas River and has a beautiful landscape. Walk one of the many trails around the river, visit the Historic Officer’s garden, or take the short walk to Fort Smith’s charming and historic downtown!
Part of this site is actually one of Oklahoma’s national parks, so you can even visit both states in one park!
Plan Your Visit: The Fort Smith National Historic Site is located at:
301 Parker Avenue, Fort Smith, AR 72901.
Detailed directions are available on the National Park Service’s website here.
Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs is one of the most charming towns in Arkansas! The Hot Springs National Park, which lies right outside of Hot Springs city limits, is the source of rich cultural history and absolutely breathtaking views.
Take in the fresh air while hiking one of Hot Spring National Park’s many trails in the Ouachita Mountains. Tent and RV camping is available at Hot Spring’s Gulpha Gorge Campsite, all sites are first come, first served so get there early to claim the perfect spot. But of all the park’s natural wonders, its namesake thermal springs are by far its biggest selling point!
In 1804, Thomas Jefferson ordered the Dunbar-Hunter expedition to explore the southern region of the Louisiana Purchase. The hot springs that the expedition came across caused the area to explode with bathhouses and visitors seeking their healing benefits.
To this day, the town of Hot Springs is home to Bathhouse Row, where eight historical bathhouses remain. After strolling down Bathhouse Row, you can visit the famed Arlington Resort, where celebrities, politicians, and even Al Capone have hung their hats.
If you’re feeling lucky you can head down to the Oaklawn Race Track and Casino, the site of the Arkansas Derby. There is certainly no shortage of things to see or history to learn in Hot Springs, Arkansas!
Plan Your Visit: The Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center and Fordyce Bathhouse is located at:
369 Central Ave., Hot Springs, AR 71901
Detailed directions are available on the National Park Service’s website here.
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
My husband’s alma mater, Little Rock Central High School, in the only high school in the United States which bears the National Historic Site title.
One of my favorite stories my husband tells of his high school years is about how he could be sauntering through the halls on his way to second period and pass by a tour group. The school is the site of the historic Little Rock Nine, the nine Black students who were a part of the forced desegregation of the school in 1957.
Little Rock Central is still an operating public high school that allows you take guided tours through the school’s beautiful neo-gothic hallways, learning about the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957, and those nine brave students who walked fearlessly through the clouds of hate surrounding the school’s doors, and changed Arkansas history forever.
Call ahead and reserve your spot on one of these incredibly informative tours!
Plan Your Visit: Little Rock Central High School is located at:
2120 W Daisy L Gatson Bates Drive, Little Rock, Arkansas 72202
For operating hours and tour information, visit the National Park Service’s website here.
Pea Ridge National Military Park
Pea Ridge, located in Northwest Arkansas, is a National Military Park. In 1862, Pea Ridge was the site of the pivotal Civil War battle in which the Union took control of Missouri.
The Pea Ridge National Military Park serves as a monument to those who fought and those who were lost at the 4,300-acre battlefield. This park is revered as one of the best-preserved Civil War battlefields in the country, making it a perfect destination for the history buff in every household.
Make the beautiful drive up to the Ozarks and visit Pea Ridge’s visitor center and museum, or take a driving tour around the expansive battlegrounds. See the restored battlefields, the pre-Civil War Old Telegraph Road, two and a half miles of the Trail of Tears, and the restored Elkhorn Tavern.
Once your history tooth has been satisfied, stay awhile and explore the hiking trails around the park. See the area’s incredible foliage in the fall, and explore the quaint town of Pea Ridge, where all of the streets are named after those who fought at the Battle of Pea Ridge.
Once you’ve gotten your fill of history and nature, take the short 15-minute drive down to Bentonville for some culture at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
Plan Your Visit: Pea Ridge National Military Park is located at:
15930 E Hwy 62 , Garfield, AR 72732
For detailed directions, visit the National Park Service’s website here.
President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site
On August 19th, 1946, William Jefferson Blythe III was born in the town of Hope, Arkansas. Most people know him as Bill Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, but regardless of what you call him, you can visit his birthplace home, which is now a National Historic Site!
The house, located at 117 South Hervey Street, was built in 1917, and is where President Bill Clinton spent the first four years of his life, living with his mother and maternal grandparents. You can take a tour of the property and then explore the town of Hope and imagine what it may have been like being a pre-presidential toddler in the Southwestern Arkansas town.
If you happen to be in Hope during the watermelon season of summer, you won’t want to miss the Hope Watermelon Festival! Once you have a belly full of watermelon and an understanding of President Clinton’s first four years, head up to Hot Springs, where President Clinton lived out the rest of his childhood!
Plan Your Visit: For detailed directions to President Clinton’s birthplace home and the adjacent visitor center, visit the National Park Service’s website here.
Information on hours and tours is available here.
Trail of Tears National Historic Trail
As great as it is to explore all of the treasures Arkansas has to offer, it is impossible to do so without acknowledging and learning about the state’s complex history. To truly understand the state’s history, it is imperative that we educate ourselves on Indian Removal and the mark it left on Arkansas.
The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail is a 5,043 mile trail, stretching westward from the south Appalachian mountains, passing through nine US states. In the 1830s, seventeen different groups of Cherokee people were forcibly removed from their homelands and moved along this trail.
Several sections of the trail fall within Arkansas state boundaries and are open to visitors wishing to travel along this historic path, remembering the lives lost, and celebrating the strength and resilience of the Cherokee people.
There are twenty different sites in the state where you can visit historic sites, museums, and interpretive centers to engage with the historical and cultural significance of the Trail of Tears.
Plan Your Visit: For more information about Arkansas sites along the Trail of Tears, you can visit the National Parks Service website here.
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Kendall Davis is originally from Fort Smith, Arkansas, and graduated from Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. She currently lives in New York City with her husband and their dog, Scout.