What are the hallmarks of a great summer road trip? Scenic drives? Outdoor adventure for the whole family? Budget friendly accommodations and attractions? Ability to travel as much or as little each day as you wish and still find plenty of options for the whole family? Happy kids (whether they be the smaller or the more teenage variety)? The Ozarks region of Arkansas has them all.
Located in the northwest region of Arkansas, the Ozarks extend north and east throughout much of southern Missouri and are the most mountainous region between the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains. In other words, the basis of scenic drives.
But the mountains are only one of the natural features that draw visitors from all over the world, the waterways are also some of the country’s finest. The Buffalo National River, America’s first national river, and the combination of water, mountains, sparse population and unique geological conditions make this region extremely popular with road tripping families who want to enjoy the outdoors. This region is also home to the Ozark Medieval Fortress, where you can interact with artisans building a castle using 13th century techniques and tools.
Whether you arrive in the area by car or fly into Fayetteville (XNA), it is nice to get acclimated and spend a day exploring the Fayetteville/Bentonville area. Let everyone stretch their legs and maybe even make a friend or two at The Jones Center in Springdale (midway between Fayetteville and Bentonville). With a pool, gymnasium, ice arena and community park and trail that includes includes a one mile walking trail, eight fitness stations, nine-hole disc golf course, a universally accessible playground, picnic tables and a basketball and volleyball court, there’s something for everyone.
Plan your Springdale visit ahead and take a trip on the Arkansas & Missouri Railroad. The excursion to Van Buren is fun for families of all ages and there are also excursions for special events such as spring break. Check the calendar ahead of time to make sure you are in Springdale on a day when your excursion operates.
Bentonville history is obviously tied to retail giant Wal-Mart. But the small town roots of the company are still evident in the well preserved historic areas of the town, including downtown. In the city limits there are 72 historical buildings and homes, and Walton’s 5-10, the original location of Sam Walton’s variety store on the downtown square. Table Mesa Bistro, also on the downtown square, is family-friendly but sophisticated.
Take a stroll on the Crystal Bridges Trail to check on construction progress of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. When completed (opening date will be announced this fall), the museum will house a permanent collection of masterworks of American art ranging from the colonial era to contemporary work. Visitors will be able to enjoy the collection within the state-of-the-art galleries and throughout the surrounding park. The museum is being constructed on over 100 acres of undeveloped woodland and will include scenic walks, integration of the natural stream and sculpture gardens.
Hobbs State Park is Arkansas’ largest state park in terms of land mass. It’s an excellent place to introduce the family to the Karst topography that creates the unique caves, waterways and springs found in this region of the US. That might sound boring to the kids until you explain that this area is home to over 300 caves. That’s cool! The new visitor’s center at Hobbs is a great place to get help planning your camping trip, interacting with some of the animals from the area or even attending some of the special events for families. Contact them before your visit to get the latest calendar of events. Highly recommended is the Historic Van Winkle Trail. It’s 1.5 miles and takes your family through a tunnel under the highway to the site of the historic Van Winkle lumber mill and home. The trail is barrier-free and there are interpretive panels along the way.
Buffalo River Adventure
The Upper River (Ponca to Pruitt) section of the Buffalo offers the most impressive scenery. Floating season is usually March to June, and families of all ages will enjoy the Ponca area with its variety of hiking, floating and wildlife. The road trip in and out of the Ponca region is beautiful and kids will love the curves and promise of seeing plenty of elk around the Ponca Elk Education Center. Elk were hunted to extinction in the region in the 1800’s. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission reintroduced elk to the area in the early 1980’s and now the herd numbers over 800. There are dozens of options for camping and hiking in the area, and be sure to visit the little town of Jasper. The drive between Ponca and Jasper is one of the curviest and most exciting in the region.
For canoe rental, river maps, shuttle service, advice, cabin rentals and more, talk to the folks at Buffalo Outdoor Center. They have cabins for every size family and their floating/shuttle service makes it easy to put the family on the water, take-out at the destination of your choice and hop in the family car for more road tripping. The owners of Buffalo Outdoor Center have lived in the area for years, have experience with every skill level, and they especially love putting kids on the river for their first float. The staff can also recommend family-friendly hikes. After a long day and the kids are in bed, have some relaxing adult time in the outdoor hot tub at your cabin. Ask about their new zip line, opening this summer.
Spend some time on the middle and lower parts of the Buffalo, making camp in Harrison. With small town appeal and modern amenities, Harrison is family-friendly with easy access from the north (Branson) and is a popular base camp for exploring the area. The 1929 Hotel Seville is a fully restored historic hotel with modern necessities yet is very family-friendly. Get complimentary passes to the city pool for some extra water fun, and enjoy the game room for older kids. Continental breakfast is included with your room and the only bar (Harrison is in a dry county) for miles around gives parents the option for a late night glass of wine. While in the Harrison area, don’t miss DeVito’s Restaurant and Bear Creek Springs Trout Farm. Take the kids in the afternoon and they can catch the trout they eat for dinner that night at DeVito’s. You’re guaranteed to catch a fish (huge plus for kids) and the trout farm staff will clean and pack the fish for you (huge plus for moms).
Eureka Springs is the little town you visit once and then dream about visiting again every chance you get. Said to be a place of relaxation and healing for the Native Americans, the springs were promoted as miracle cures by some of the first settlers in the 1800’s. A boom followed with mineral baths, health spas and bottled water. Take one of the historical tours and see how the town was built almost literally overnight (which accounts for the fun winding streets and crazy addresses) and learn about the underground. Kids will love learning that the old main street is still under the current road.
The entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places and has been named a top arts destination and is home to the Eureka Springs Carnegie Library, dozens of B&Bs, unique shops and Victorian homes. But it’s also a family playground. The outdoor options within the immediate area include world-class fishing, water sports and hiking. Outdoor adventure in Arkansas comes as exciting as you dare, so the area will be especially interesting to teens. But there are also plenty of ways to enjoy the outdoors with a younger family. Local resident Nicole Egan, mom to a four year-old son, recommends Onyx cave in Eureka and Cosmic Cavern in Berryville as especially family-friendly for young children as well as the hikes around Black Bass and Lake Leatherwood.
The Eureka Springs Trolley is the perfect way to get to know Eureka Springs and avoid some of the walking (or uphill stroller pushing) that’s inevitable. From there you can decide how much history the kids want to absorb or if they’d rather save it for the ghost tour. The 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa has been linked to the supernatural for several decades and their ghost tours are extremely popular with visiting families. Whether you believe in ghosts or just want to check out the folks on the tour that do believe, they are entertaining.
The Crescent Hotel makes history cool enough to get young history buffs in the making excited about the past. Choose one of their historical rooms and learn about all the famous (and infamous) folks who influenced the hotel and maybe even the very room you’re staying in. Learn about the restoration of the hotel while enjoying a cocktail or snacks in The Balcony Bar & Restaurant, and scope out the giant Christ of the Ozarks Statue from afar. Be sure to ask about family specials at the hotel, and send mom for a treatment or two at the New Moon Spa & Salon while dad takes the kids for the afternoon. Horseback riding is plentiful in the area, ask the Crescent concierge to help you pick an appropriate stable.
Speaking of giant statues of Jesus, The New Great Passion Play is one of the most famous attractions of the area. The statue is available 24 hours a day at no charge and the play is billed as the #1 attended outdoor drama in the US. Staying with the theme of uplifting and inspiring, visiting Thorncrown Chapel is very road trip friendly. It’s only a short trip out of town through beautiful scenery. The chapel is non-denominational and you can stay as long as you wish (or as long as little attention spans allow). The story behind the chapel is inspiring and it has won many very prestigious architecture and design awards.
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge is a guaranteed hit for both kids and parents. One of the very few licensed facilities for large carnivores in the US, Turpentine Creek rescues neglected and unwanted big cats and gives them a safe, humane and loving home while educating families about the dangers of owning wild animals. Both self-guided and guided tours are available. Every kid’s dream is to spend a night in the tree house, one of the overnight lodging options available at the refuge. The tree house is fully equipped with a kitchenette, television, shower and fantastic view (the big cats are visible from the wrap around deck). At bedtime, make popcorn and listen to the carolling of the lions. The refuge also has B&B rooms, a Safari Lodge and RV and tent camping sites.
While driving to the castle, stop at Keels Creek Winery & Art Gallery for family-friendly wine tasting. Sparky’s Roadhouse makes a fun pit stop for lunch and you will be back in town in time to enjoy the Pine Mountain Theater for some bluegrass, gospel and country jamboree. Kids under 12 are free and who doesn’t like free popcorn?