I’m a transplant here in The Natural State. I’ve lived in plenty of places — Los Angeles, the Inland Empire, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Madison, Manado (Indonesia), Dalat (Vietnam) — but never the South.
I was warned I’d struggle here, by numerous, dubious people who’d had bad experiences on their cross-country road trip through the state. And then, of course, all those people who never left southern California–and conflated Arkansas with that scene from Deliverance–were sure I’d hate it here.
They were wrong. In fact, after a mere few months I have become a staunch defender of Arkansas in all its natural glory. Here’s why:
The State Park System
Arkansas state parks are amazing. Most of them have gorgeous waterfalls, eagles, moss covered rocks, clean but rustic and isolated campsites, and a serious dearth of visitors trampling around.
If you enjoy easily accessible solitude, well maintained but challenging trails, and wildlife (think snakes) these parks will blow your mind. And there are several a short drive from Little Rock.
Petit Jean and Mount Magazine are two of my favorites and Pinnacle is a weekly, butt-busting hike for me.
If you travel to eat and if you enjoy sweet, succulent pork and/or brisket, you’ve probably heard about Franklin’s, Oklahoma Joe’s, and Central BBQ. There are distinct styles of BBQ — Memphis Style, Carolina Style, Texas Style, Kansas City Style — though I have yet to see a reference to Arkansas Style BBQ in popular media.
It’s undoubtedly there but only if accept you that Arkansas style is a commingling amalgamation of myriad styles. If you haven’t spent time in Arkansas I’m going to presume you haven’t heard of Sim’s Bar-B Q (Little Rock), Lindsey’s Hospitality House (North Little Rock), Hog Pen BBQ (Conway), and there’s a tiny chance you’ve heard of McClard’s (Hot Springs).
These are some of my local (i.e. close-ish to Little Rock) favorites. Sim’s has amaaaaazing wet ribs, Hog Pen’s pulled pork and fried sweet potato pie (like the McDonald’s or Hostess hand pies you grew up on, but so much better…in fact it’s not even a fair comparison), and Lindsey’s is more of a comprehensive, everything is delicious kind of place.
Little Rock Central High School is a well done, visually stimulating national historic site with a very knowledgeable park staff. If you don’t know much about the Little Rock Nine, and even if you do, it’s an obligatory trip.
The Fort Chaffee Historic District (Fort Smith) is also an underrated historic space: Vietnamese, Cambodian, and other Southeast Asian refugees passed through after the fall of Saigon in 1975, followed by Cuban refugees in the early 1980s, and Hurricane Katrina refugees most recently.
Oh, and there is also a museum dedicated to Elvis Presley’s GI haircut in 1958.
“Valley of the Vapors” is the nickname for Hot Springs National Park and the name of the 1980s-esque film that screens at the park visitor center. It is, in a word, brilliant (if you like kitsch). The national park itself is not Glacier, Rocky Mountain, Bryce, or Joshua Tree.
It’s full of hot spring fed bath houses, ornate architectural feats, a brewery, and beautiful hiking trails to boot. It’s astoundingly beautiful and just one more reason I love Arkansas.
If you have the opportunity to spend some time in the Natural State, do it. It’s not a just place you need to rush through to get somewhere else.