Bentonville, Arkansas, tucked into the far northwestern corner of the state, is a delight to visit. It’s got a small-town charm, a friendly, family vibe, and it’s a foodie’s paradise with several incredible restaurants. And oh, by the way, it’s also the spot where Sam Walton founded a little five-and-dime store called Walmart. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
But the hands-down cultural superstar of Bentonville is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The museum, founded in 2005 by the Walton Family Foundation, is a modern architectural marvel, and has quickly become a darling of the art world. Designed to effortlessly blend into the surrounding Ozark woods and built over two spring-fed ponds, Crystal Bridges features some delightful, gorgeous, and extremely recognizable works of American art by some of our country’s best-known artists.
Past exhibitions have included works by Dale Chihuly, Georgia O’Keeffe, and even 1800s naturalist John James Audubon. This mix of older works and contemporary pieces has delighted visitors from across the country and around the world. To top it off, there’s a wonderful cafe and a terrific, well-curated gift shop -- better than those of most other museums we’ve visited.
If you’re looking for a great late-fall or winter getaway, the greater Bentonville area -- and Crystal Bridges, specifically -- is a terrific option. In addition to its amazing rotating exhibitions and permanent collection, the museum recently debuted a new outdoor treat for its visitors. It’s called the North Forest Lights, and it brings a new dimension of art, light, and sound to the museum’s surrounding woods for the winter season.
This multi-sensory experience, developed in partnership with a Canada-based multimedia studio, truly lights up the night around Crystal Bridges. The experience was created expressly for the museum and is open in the evening hours after sunset. While the display isn’t holiday-themed, wandering its five glittering installations is a great way to celebrate both the wonder and the spirit of the season.
Expect about a mile of walking as you wander North Forest Lights’ five multi-sensory installations. Crystal Grove represents young trees with thin beams of light. The Forest Frequencies area combines music and light to put visitors in touch with the Ozark forest while The Hearth is a light sculpture reminiscent of a bonfire where visitors can warm up midway through their strolls. The Whispering Tree will teach you about the hue of your own voice, and finally, the Memory of Water area blends light with the sounds of a beautiful, burbling brook.
It takes about 45 minutes total to travel between North Forest Lights’ five stations, but you can take as much time as you’d like to experience the scope and depth of the outdoor exhibition. The museum is working to make the exhibit as accessible as possible: Wheelchairs are available, as are shuttles from the museum’s main parking lots, which can be requested when you arrive. While the trails built for the North Forest Lights are both wheelchair and stroller accessible, they are not completely flat. You’ll want to watch your step as you meander through.
Of course, you’ll want to check the weather forecast ahead of time and bundle up accordingly. Be on the lookout for designated selfie and photo stations along the paths for the perfect snap, further adding to the fun. And if you can’t bear to leave your beloved four-legged friend behind, no worries. Leashed dogs are also allowed into the experience.
While you can’t bring in outside food or drinks, Crystal Bridges has a couple of great dining options for you on site at the North Forest Lights. The Village, located in the food court area inside the exhibition, will offer a mix of sweets, savory snacks, and beverages -- including coffee and hot chocolate -- to help warm you up along the trail. If you want to elevate your experience, consider ordering a special food basket when you snag your tickets online. One contains a bottle of wine, the other sparkling apple cider, along with treats and noshes. Word to the wise: Baskets must be ordered 24 hours in advance of your ticket entry time, and this can be done online.
While entrance to Crystal Bridges is free, tickets for the North Forest Lights are $22 for adults (or $15 with museum membership). North Forest Lights runs now through February 16, 2020. For more information, visit the Crystal Bridges North Forest website. If you’ll be staying for a long weekend, consider booking a room or suite at the 21c Museum Hotel, a boutique offering within walking distance of Crystal Bridges. The hotel also features curated galleries in its lobby and other public areas.
Visiting Bentonville, Arkansas? Here’s what to see and do while you’re in town.