11 Reasons to Drive to Little Rock, Arkansas
Barbecue, soaring hikes, and loads of U.S. history.
Despite the high price of gasoline, when it comes to vacationing, a road trip destination will often be one of the most affordable options—not to mention one bursting with things to see and do before you ever get to the final stop. So, when the impulse strikes to jump in the driver’s seat, load up your cup holder with a Texas-sized caffeinated beverage and ask Siri for turn-by-turn directions to somewhere far out yonder. But with so much to explore in our very own Lone Star State, we all too often forget that our closest neighbors are similarly teeming with ways to satisfy our change-of-scenery yearnings.
Located less than five hours away due northeast, Central Arkansas promises to exceed expectations with some of Mother Nature’s all-time greatest hits, culture galore, and a bounty of trek-worthy food and drink. Cross over that border and you’ll soon realize that the Natural State is home to far more than the birthplace of mankind’s most mammoth retail chain. And you’ll also be glad you came on wheels because there’s so much to explore throughout the region.
Make your home base in Little Rock or North Little Rock (though you may not notice while driving or walking around, they’re actually two different cities separated by the Arkansas River). Map out your wish list with excursions both near and far, then get to exploring. To get your Little Rock bucket list started, here are 11 things guaranteed to make your journey to Central Arkansas the best damn road trip of the summer.
Located about three hours from Dallas, Hope, Arkansas makes for a great pitstop to break up the driving for a bit. Most famous as the birthplace of President William Jefferson Clinton, it’s also a great place to fuel up on a BBQ Fry at Big Jakes Bar-B-Que. A heaping double order of french fries gets topped with cheddar cheese and your choice of smoked meat (pulled pork is an ideal option) for a roadside snack large enough to share with everyone in the car. After all, you’ve gotta save room for all the fantastic places to eat within Little Rock and North Little Rock during your stay.
Before you plan everything else you’re going to do, you need a place to stay (unless, of course, you’re traveling by RV or are content crawling into a sleeping bag on the ground). One of the best accommodations in town to rest your weary head seamlessly combines history with luxe amenities for a one-of-a-kind experience. Located in North Little Rock, The Baker was built as a grand private home in 1886, but today guests can make themselves at home in one of its five gorgeously appointed rooms or in the picturesque on-site cottage. The inn boasts everything you love about full-service hotels combined with the privacy of an Airbnb thanks to self-check-in and unique codes to access each of the home’s rooms and suites. All guest quarters feature a complimentary in-room beverage fridge (stocked with local beers), snacks, a coffee maker, a smart TV tuned to Netflix, and sumptuous linens throughout. And depending on the suite, you might enjoy a fireplace, claw-foot tub, or more square footage in the bathroom than some entire hotel rooms. The desire to stay inside and hibernate may be strong, but remember, there’s too much to see and do outside the front door.
One of the major joys of travel is getting to experience the world as others do, however briefly that may be. And, if you can go home with a greater understanding of another person’s unique life experience, even better. The concept of guided tours often brings on the big-time yawns, but reconsider all your preconceived notions and book a tour of the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. The journey starts at the visitor center and takes you across the street to sites essential to the harrowing story of the Little Rock Nine, a group of heroic kids who dared to be the first Black students at an all-white school during the onset of desegregation. The tour culminates inside the still-operational school where a park ranger offers insight into the heartbreaking reality and cruel treatment the students endured in their far-from-equal education. You'll leave with a more empathetic understanding of the trauma surrounding America’s mid-century racism and how politics can skew the facts, while still finding inspiration to make a real difference in the world. It’s a heavy experience, but so very worthwhile.
Clear your mind with a hearty dose of fragrant, fresh, pine-scented air at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, laced with more than 15 miles of trails (including seven for mountain biking) across its 2,356 acres. Hoof your way to the top of the mountain for views of the rivers and the lush landscape below, while experiencing plenty of flora and fauna along the way. Bring plenty of water, pack a picnic if you’ve got the time, and plan to stay for sunset—but not too long after, because the park gates close an hour after the sun says nighty-night.
Visiting a new city, state, or country provides the opportunity to taste the local boozy wares wherever you can (don’t worry, Shiner Bock and Lone Star will still be on tap when you get back home). Must-visits in Central Arkansas include Flyway Brewing in North Little Rock (make sure to try the refreshing Bluewing Berry Wheat and a bacon-salt pretzel with smokey hickory mustard); Little Rock’s Lost Forty Brewing, where the Love Honey Bock will rock your world; and whiskey wows at Rock Town Distillery, along with vodka, gin, and moonshine plus their signature sweet-and-satisfying Bourbon Cream.
Book a kayaking adventure with Samuell Ellis, owner of Rock Town River Outfitters. He’ll bring along everybody’s favorite non-Gilligan first mate, Grizz Lee Bear, a doggie guide who loves to swim, fetch paddles, and jump between vessels for a few belly rubs as you float down the tranquil waters of the Little Maumelle River. Or, if you’re in the mood for self-guided exploration, you can always rent a kayak, fishing kayak, or stand up paddleboard to experience the river at your own pace. With some of the lightest currents on any river, it’s an awesome place for first-time kayakers to build their paddling skills, confidence, and upper body strength.
Experiencing a city through its culinary scene makes for a fantastic way to interact with locals and commune over one great meal after another. For brunch, check out 42 Bar and Table at the Clinton Presidential Center, offering tasty food with views of the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge. All your burning questions about what Ark-Mex food’s all about will be answered (including “cheese dip,” their version of queso) at Heights Taco & Tamale Co. in the Heights. Sims Bar-B-Que has been serving up ribs and traditional ‘cue since 1937 and now operates two locations. Three Fold Noodles + Dumpling Co. keeps things simply delicious with a small, focused menu of Chinese dumplings and noodle dishes in downtown Little Rock. Food presentations don’t get much more creative than they do at Brave New Restaurant in Cedar Hill Terrace. The eco-conscious Trio’s serves creative New American fare in Andover Square with delightfully affordable craft cocktails. Local Lime in the Villages of Wellington offers a variety of tacos and one of the best salsas ever spiked with roasted zucchini and green chile. Cache in River Market presents fine dining in an elegant atmosphere that somehow manages a casual, welcoming vibe free from any potential pretense. And make sure to save room for ice cream (especially the vegan coconut-based PB Crunch kind) from Loblolly Creamery in the Quapaw Quarter as well as a fortifying coffee from Fidel and Co. near Hanger Hill.
Reopened last summer after more than a year of pandemic-related closure, the William J. Clinton Library & Museum gives a glimpse into the high-stakes, powerful life of a world leader that will impress and educate, regardless of personal politics. Among the highlights on display are the presidential limousine, a recreation of the Oval Office, and a gallery of the interesting and unique gifts people from all walks of life sent to the Clinton family over the years. Additional exhibits delve into life inside the White House, behind the scenes of President Clinton’s two inaugurations, and the early years of Bill and Hillary.
Stationed about an hour’s drive from Little Rock, Arkansas’ first state park exudes national grandeur with its historic Mather Lodge featuring 24 rooms and several cabins for lodging if you want to make an overnight out of it. On-site, you’ll find a swimming pool for lodge guests as well as a surprisingly good restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. But the real draws, of course, await in the great outdoors with top attractions spanning several overlooks, including a bird’s-eye view of the majestic 95-foot Cedar Falls. The hiking trail to this roaring wonder is a little challenging at the onset but it levels out to be quite an easy trek with lots of shade covering the last few hundred feet. The reward is a magnificent waterfall bursting through a curved rock formation, but tempting as it may be, swimming’s not allowed in the natural pool beneath the falls. (Photoshop can change all that for the ‘Gram, of course.)
It may be one of the more bizarre-sounding exhibits, but the ESSE Purse Museum has a vast collection of the fashion accessory that defined many a 20th century woman. Marvel at hundreds of styles in one of only three purse museums in the world—then exit through the gift shop to purchase a new bag or two for yourself or as a gift. Who knows, “Purse First” might become your own new mantra.
Rent a bike (or electric bike if you want a little help along the way) then head out onto the Big Dam Bridge, the longest pedestrian/bicycle bridge in the world designed and built specifically for those activities. Marvel in the riverside scenery along 15 miles of trails, with connections to more than 7,000 acres of city, county, state, and federal parks.