As a native Kansan, I’m used to hearing the Wizard of Oz jokes hitched to the Sunflower State. So I feel empathetic solidarity with my neighbors to the southeast when faced with unflattering stereotypes about wild boars and moonshine and barefoot hillbillies. Oh, my!
With her rugged mountains, healing hot springs, and unspoiled wilderness, it’s easy for me to see why Arkansas pulls so many Midwesterners south to relaxing vacation spots and comfortable retirement destinations.
Explore the most fantastic sights in the Natural State with this Arkansas road trip from Bentonville to Memphis, Tennessee.
By establishing its headquarters in Bentonville, one of the world’s largest corporations put this town of 50,000 on the map. Start your visit with a trip to the Walmart Museum, located in the original Walton’s 5 & 10 on the main square of this small Ozark mountain town. While there’s nothing quite as American as the Walmart versus Target rivalry, it’s hard not to admire Sam Walton’s work ethic and rules for building a business, no matter where your big-box loyalties lie.
Crystal Bridges Museum Of American Art
Made possible by the dedication of Sam Walton’s only daughter (and the generous support of Walmart), the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is one of the country’s most impressive art museums, inside and out. Designed to blend seamlessly with the natural beauty of the surrounding 120 acres, the museum’s smooth concrete walls and curved copper rooftops seem to float in the spring-fed water that surrounds its three buildings.
Entering the main lobby under the careful, eight-eyed watch of the 30-foot-tall bronze black spider Maman, visitors will love that there is no entrance fee to explore the American artists’ works on display. Don’t miss Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola, and Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington.
Once you’ve seen the sights and savored the local flavors of Bentonville, make a pit stop at Onyx Coffee Lab to fuel up with piping hot coffee before hitting the road.
Just 30 minutes south of Bentonville, Fayetteville is the artistic and educational heart of Arkansas, earning it the nickname the Athens of the Ozarks. Be sure to explore the Fayetteville Historic Square that brings together historic buildings, one-of-a-kind boutiques, and tasty eateries. The square’s center is a green space that hosts the Fayetteville Farmers Market. Open year round, it’s the perfect place to pick up seasonal produce and fresh flowers while enjoying live music.
If you visit Fayetteville on the first Thursday of the month, you’ll find the square transformed into an art fair displaying the works of a wide range of artists. And, if your travels take you there between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, you’ll find it decked out with more than 400,000 cheery lights.
Another hour south, Arkansas’s second-largest city (after Little Rock) is tucked into a bend of the Arkansas River near the Oklahoma border. Named for the original fort constructed by American soldiers in 1817, the Fort Smith National Historic Site is a can’t-miss stop. Originally intended to maintain peace between the Osage and Cherokee tribes, in less than a generation the fort became a stop on the heartbreaking Trail of Tears that led to the deaths of more than 3,000 Native Americans forced to relocate to Oklahoma.
A short walk south of the historic site is the Fort Smith National Cemetery. Shortly after the Civil War, a major disease outbreak swept through the fort, killing nearly 25 percent of the troops. The fort’s surgeon, Thomas Russell, was the first person interred in the wide-open green field just south of the base.
Between the historic fort and military cemetery lies the Fort Smith Trolley Museum. Preserving mule-drawn rail cars, electric streetcars, and other rides from yesteryear, this stop is a lighthearted way to wrap up your time at the fort.
As you head south to the next destination, stop in at the Chaffee Barbershop Museum. It was here in 1958 that top-of-the-charts singer Elvis Presley eased into a black leather chair, pulled on a cape, and received his G.I. buzz cut the day after he joined the Army.
Ouachita National Forest
On the way to Hot Springs, take time to linger in the Ouachita National Forest, where a variety of sturdy oak and evergreen pines blanket 1.8 million acres of land throughout central Arkansas and into southeastern Oklahoma. Stay on Highway 71 in Y City to veer toward Mena and drive the Talimena National Scenic Byway that offers panoramic views, scenic vistas, and historic sites.
To experience the forest more intimately, get out of the car and explore on two feet by hiking the Winding Stairs Trail near Caddo Gap. This 4.8-mile out-and-back trail follows the curves of the Little Missouri River, passing waterfalls and swimming holes. For a shorter, easier trek through the woods, stretch your legs along the 0.5-mile Orchard Loop Trail near Mena.
Surrounded by the densely covered, verdant Ouachita National Forest, Hot Springs is named for the scalding-hot thermal springs that flow through the area. For nearly 500 years, Native Americans and European settlers have soaked in the mineral-rich therapeutic waters to reduce stress, improve circulation, and mitigate arthritis pain.
Begin your visit by touring Bathhouse Row, a street of elegant buildings built at the turn of the 20th century. With tiled dome roofs, marble bathtubs, stained glass skylights, and other magnificent features, several of these luxurious bathhouses still offer spa services today.
Fun Fact: By naming Hot Springs the nation’s first federal reservation, Andrew Jackson essentially established the first national park four decades before President Ulysses S. Grant established Yellowstone National Park.
When you’re fully relaxed and your 50-something-year-old body has embraced the healing powers of the magnesium-, sodium-, and potassium-rich waters of Hot Springs, it’s about an hour’s drive northeast to the capital city of Little Rock.
If the capitol building looks vaguely familiar, that’s because it was fashioned after the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., and has served as a building double in several television shows and series, including Under Siege and God’s Not Dead.
Inside, marvel at the chandeliers created by Tiffany’s of New York and take in the dome’s cupola, plated with 24-karat gold. Outside, don’t miss the lifelike sculpture celebrating the Little Rock Nine. By walking through jeering crowds and up the steps to the city’s Central High School, these brave teens helped tear down school segregation barriers. Installed on the north lawn, facing the governor’s office window, this was the first civil rights monument to be installed on any state capitol grounds in the South.
Overlooking the Arkansas River, visit the Clinton Presidential Center to learn more about the life and times of the 42nd president, the only president from the state. Then, head north across the Arkansas River to Riverfront Park. Anchored by the impressive Junction Railroad Bridge, the park is a great place to wander along the water, snapping photos and admiring the sculptures.
When you’re ready to bid adieu to the Natural State, Memphis is a 2-hour drive east just on the other side of the Mighty Mississippi. Long associated with Elvis Presley (both before and after that famous haircut in Fort Smith), Memphis is known as the Birthplace of Rock and Roll. Whether you can lip sync all of the King’s songs or just mumble, “Thank you, thank you very much,” you’ll embrace your inner Elvis here!
Visit Graceland, Elvis’s home, to walk in the King’s footsteps, admire his pink Cadillac, and get a glimpse of his baby grand Knabe piano. You can also pay your respects in the Meditation Garden where Elvis is buried with his parents, Vernon and Gladys, and his grandmother, Minnie Mae. You’ll also see a small marker for Jesse Garon Presley, Elvis’s stillborn twin.
National Civil Rights Museum At The Lorraine Motel
While Atlanta proudly claims his birth, Memphis will always be known as the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. As the civil rights leader stood on the balcony outside the robin’s-egg-blue door of room 306, he was shot and killed on April 4, 1968. The former accommodation has been transformed into the National Civil Rights Museum, sharing the history of black Americans from the devastating transatlantic slave trade through the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter.
From the modest beginnings of one of America’s most successful businesses to the birthplace of rock and roll, this road trip through Arkansas to Memphis is packed with everything from forested hills to healing waters to historic sites.