Before beginning my series posts about our four weeks of California wandering, I thought I would share some more recent travels from this winter and spring. I hope that our posts will inspire you to add some of these lesser-known tourist destinations to your travel list.
What the Ozark Mountains lack in elevation, they make up for in character. So what makes the Ozarks so special? The wooded limestone bluffs. The wealth of pristine water. Those crazy-curvy roads. And some really interesting small towns and cities.
You may already know that Northwest Arkansas offers a perfect environment for a wealth of outdoor activities. The area has become a legendary mountain biking destination, and the many lakes and rivers offer fishing and boating opportunities. Vast expanses of public land have been protected and offer recreational activities including wildlife observation, hiking, camping, and backpacking. The Ozark and Ouachita National Forests, Hot Springs National Park, and a dozen state parks are found in Northwest Arkansas.
What you may not know is that Northwest Arkansas’ collection of notable art and architecture rivals those of the biggest cities in the U.S. But I’m getting ahead of myself here, so let’s start at the beginning of our five-day trip to Northwest Arkansas.
Day 1: Eureka Springs
Eureka Springs surprised us in so many wonderful ways. We were surprised by the manner in which the Victorian city was built right into the mountainside. Even more surprising is the town’s tolerant and inclusive vibe – one that isn’t always present in this extremely conservative state. For example, the spring Diversity Weekend (held three times a year) fell just before our visit, and the 32nd annual UFO Conference was to begin the following weekend.
For five decades, the socially liberal town – a significant portion of whose current population of 2,000 are reported to identify as LGBTQ – has peacefully coexisted (though not without some hiccups) alongside The Great Passion Play: a devout and conservative theme park whose landmark seven-story-tall Christ of the Ozarks statue looms large in the Ozark hills just outside of Eureka Springs.
Basin Springs Park is a pretty little pocket park in the middle of the old downtown commercial district. We climbed the stone steps up to the bluff overlooking the park, and circled it from above.
Many of the shops and restaurants are found on Spring Street.
We had anticipated that Eureka Springs would be a lot like other southern mountain tourist towns such as Gatlinburg, Tennessee or Helen, Georgia. We expected faux-facade buildings constructed in the 60’s around a few historic buildings; another tourist town filled with tacky gift shops and tourists who’d never set foot on a mountain trail.
Don’t get me wrong, we made childhood trips to Gatlinburg and can still have fun in a tacky tourist town. That said, we enjoyed Eureka Springs – an authentically old and interesting tourist town – so much more.
While Eureka Springs does of course have the obligatory fudge shop, the town’s style leans kind of hippie and funky. The presence of a large artist population is apparent. The historic commercial buildings and homes have been lovingly maintained and restored, in fact there was a lot of residential renovation going on around town.
One of our favorite shops was Tee-Rex Toys, which specializes in vintage toys and fun t-shirts of their own designs.
The streets of Eureka Springs are curvy and hilly. Wooded paths weave through the city, and right next to some of the town’s famous springs. There are more than 60 springs within the city limits, including the Gadd Spring inside the Mountain Eclectic Antique and Gift store, which was built around the spring.
These stone stairs led us to an uphill path through the woods and historic neighborhoods and eventually to the Crescent Hotel. This was just one of dozens of stairways in the city used as shortcuts to access the different street levels.
The Crescent Hotel & Spa, built in 1886, is the town’s crown jewel. Recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of America’s Dozen Distinctive Destinations, the Crescent is perched atop one of the highest points in the city.
The Crescent Hotel is surrounded by 15 acres of manicured gardens and wooded hiking, biking, and walking trails.
We descended from the mountaintop via a different path through the woods as we headed back toward the commercial district. This perfect craftsman home was nestled in the woods just below the Crescent Hotel.
The wooded path ends in a residential neighborhood, where we ambled down more interesting historic streets. I love the quieter residential districts in old cities. Often one can wander just one block off the main drag and see the most interesting things.
The “Free Public Library” (one of only two Carnegie libraries still standing in Arkansas) looks quite similar to when it was built in 1913.
What is most remarkable about the construction of this Victorian city is not the architecture of the beautiful homes and commercial buildings themselves, rather the manner in which the town was built. These homes were built right atop and around the limestone bluff.
Some major engineering took place in order to build this town. The roofs or back walls of some houses reach within inches of the limestone bluffs. In some cases the houses on the opposite side of the street may be a story lower.
An estimated 56 miles of stone retaining walls were built between 1885-1910, and thousands of tons of rock must have been blasted away in order to build Eureka Springs.
We reached the edge of the commercial district and found more interesting shops. Unfortunately MoJo’s Records and an amazing-looking antique store on this street were closed this Wednesday, as was this art gallery.
Although the Palace Hotel & Bath House appears a little worn on the outside, it gets good reviews and from web pictures looks quite nice on the inside.
Later in the day a sweet gentleman of 85 stopped me in front of the post office and shared some stories about Eureka Springs. One remark I found funny was his notation of the Palace Hotel’s sign being “the most photographed subject in Eureka Springs”.
This church has three street addresses.
Below you can see the switchback where the two main commercial streets in Eureka Springs meet: Highway 23 and Spring Street.
There are a several good antique stores in the area, and although half of them were closed because we visited on a Wednesday, we did wander through a few shops. One antique store worthy of specific mention is Eureka West Antiques Market, located about five miles northwest of downtown on Hwy 62. This shop was a joy to browse.
Hungry for a late lunch, we stop at Sparky’s, which – in spite of its dive bar exterior appearance – is actually a really cute restaurant with friendly service. We opted for a table on the screened porch, soaking in the atmosphere while looking forward to a local brew and something unhealthy but delicious to eat. I don’t even recall what we ate (either burger or sandwich special), but I do recall it was really, really good. Perhaps I cannot remember my meal choice because I was overwhelmed by how tasty the west-coast style Slaughter Pen IPA from Bike Rack Brewing was. No, it was not that swill Yuengling in our glasses.
Heading northwest on Hwy 62 from downtown Eureka Springs, we came to E. Fay Jones‘ architectural masterpiece Thorncrown Chapel. Jones is considered one of the “Ten most influential architects of the 20th century”, and the influence of his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright is apparent in his designs. Thorncrown Chapel is non-denominational, and is open to the public. Free admission, donations accepted.
Just past the Chapel on Hwy 62, we came to a creek crossing, and turned off to see what Lake Leatherwood Park was all about. We drove past the recreation fields, up into the woods, past mountain biking trailheads, and found a lovely lake. Oh how I wish we’d had kayaks with us!
The park’s historic WPA-era bathhouse still stands, and is a little odd inside, but functional. Hopefully it can be restored one day. The park has some tiny rental cabins and a campground that are open year-round.
On the way back to Hwy 62 we stopped at a trailhead to check out the mountain bike trail maps for the Lake Leatherwood Gravity (downhill) trail system. The park’s 25 miles of trails offer something for every skill level, but seem to cater to very experienced riders.
We also encountered Bigfoot here. He is a lot bigger than I anticipated, but appears quite tame.
With plenty of daylight left, we drove past our campground and down to the big and beautiful Beaver Lake. Even if you are not able to do any water-based activities when you visit, I encourage you to take the scenic drive from Eureka Springs down to see Beaver Dam and the White River.
We camped two nights at the Eureka Springs KOA, conveniently located within a few miles of downtown Eureka Springs, Thorncrown Chapel, Leatherwood Lake Park, and Beaver Lake. This is a great KOA in a pretty woodland setting. The campground even has its own short hiking trail, which we walked before sunset on our last night here. Sometime soon I will do a campground review.
I have barely scratched the surface on what there is to see and do in this area, so if you are planning a visit to Eureka Springs, I recommend starting here.
Next stop, Bentonville!