Leaving the Fort Smith area I headed east on I-40, with a stop at Petit Jean State Park. Miles of creek side trails and a big lake make Petit Jean a great spot for outdoor adventures. One of the central features is Cedar Falls, which tumbles 90 feet into a gorge. There’s a couple of vantage points above it that are easy to get to, but to see it from below requires a hike down into the canyon. Another interesting spot is Rock House Cave, a petroglyph site. Beautiful Civilian Conservation Corps construction on roads, trails, and picnic areas round out this gorgeous location.
Right smack in the middle of Arkansas is its capital city: Little Rock. Once upon a time this was the place everyone was talking about as nine black teenagers struggled through the integration of all-white Little Rock Central High School. The school itself still operates so you can’t just go wandering around in it (although there are tours occasionally, see the NPS website for info) but the grounds are open and the National Park Service operates a very nice (and free) visitor’s center kitty corner to the school. I was there in the afternoon and watched for a bit as the students were heading out for the day. Black, white, sixty years after the National Guard was used to keep out the Little Rock Nine everybody mingled together and it didn’t seem to matter a bit what color anybody’s skin was.
The River Market District is a beautiful section of the city packed with restaurants, shops, and historic buildings. I stopped for lunch at Ottenheimer Market Hall where stalls offer just about any kind of food you can imagine. Pizza, ice cream, Asian, Middle Eastern, soul food, nobody could possibly go hungry in this place. While I was there I saw everybody from bankers to construction workers chowing down. I was basically eating with the Village People. Wandering along the street I came to the Old State House, where Arkansas seceded from the Union on May 6th, 1861. The free museum inside covers every aspect of Arkansas history you can think of. There were big sections on governors, civil rights, the history of bicycles, movies with any sort of tie to Arkansas, there was even a whole room of dresses worn by governor’s wives. When my feet started to hurt I hopped on a trolley; for $1 it meandered through the river district, over the Arkansas River into North Little Rock, and back again while the driver pointed out interesting things along the way. North Little Rock holds T.R. Pugh Memorial Park which contains The Old Mill. This was never actually a mill, it was created purely as a picturesque ruin, but it is pretty enough to have made it into the opening scenes of Gone with the Wind.
Continuing along I-40 there are three different archaeological parks to visit. These are mound sites, created hundreds of years ago by the ancestors of modern Native American tribes. Some of the mounds have fallen victim to farming over the years but several are still visible. Toltec & Parkin have trails going out to their mounds, but Hampson is just a small museum dedicated to a site that remains privately held and can’t be visited. The ranger at Toltec told me that they had excavated one mound for study and when they rebuilt it they had to bring in 18 dump trucks of dirt. Imagine doing that by hand, carrying the dirt in baskets. Village Creek State Park also resides along this corridor and has some nice trails.
I really didn’t expect Arkansas to be so incredible, but I’m already scheming to go back.