Travel

This Small Town in Arkansas Celebrates Pride All Year Round

If it's a drag show you're after, head to Eureka Springs, population 2,000.

There’s a saying among the LGBTQ+ community in Eureka Springs, Arkansas: “Not even the streets are straight.” 

It’s barely hyperbole: Over 30 percent of the 2,000 residents in this Ozark mountain town identify as LGBTQ+. The winding roads are narrow and dizzying, with zero traffic lights; it’s not uncommon to see a confused out-of-towner driving the wrong way up a hill, to the ire of residents and all those that know the Eureka rule: Just park and walk. 

In 2012, Eureka Springs became the first city in the red state of Arkansas to endorse same-sex marriage. When marriage equality passed in May of 2014, Jay Wilks—the director of LGBTQ+ organization Out in Eureka—and his husband Keith were second in line to tie the knot. They became the fourth same-sex couple ever married in the South, thanks to logistics: The measure passed on Friday night, and Eureka’s license office was one of the few opened on Saturday, with people driving in from all over to make their relationship status legal. 

“Eureka is Pride every day. The city is so accepting,” says Wilks, who originally hails from Oklahoma City. Rather than throw a Pride parade in June, Out in Eureka coordinates not one but three “Diversity Weekends” in April, August, and November.  (For official Pride events, residents head to nearby Fayetteville, Dallas, Kansas City, or Tulsa).

Drag legends like Lady Bunny and Miss Coco Peru have performed at past Diversity Weekends; playwright and actor Del Shores put on a show one year. There’s drag bingo, art exhibitions, live music, guest speakers, educational workshops, and even meet-and-greets to find new friends or, perhaps, a significant other. Buy a wristband for $5 and get a discount at over 60 participating businesses.

One of the best memories I have of Diversity was when I was on stage introducing some of the drag performers,” Wilks recalls. “And I looked across the street, and all these people had just stopped and lined up in front of the shops. There were people in motorcycle gear, grandparents with grandkids….and they were watching the drag show. To look out and see that mix of people, chills just went up my spine.” 

On Saturdays at the “Diversity in the Park” event, rainbow leis are handed out to the crowd at 12:15; then at 12:30 is the PDA, the public display of affection, which according to Wilks is the largest display of affection in the Midwest. “The park is just packed with people. Straight people, gay people, parents with kids. Everybody’s doing that one kiss for that one photo.” He notes that there used to be protesters, but none since 2017. Right before the pandemic, they went through 800 leis.

Kiss! | Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Alvarado

If the people of Eureka Springs seem particularly relaxed, there's a good reason. The town was first billed in the 1800s as a vacation resort; tourists were drawn to the supposedly healing waters of its cold springs. The medicinal qualities were eventually debunked, but the springs remain, with upwards of 63 within city limits. You can stroll past them on the Eureka Springs Natural Springs Trail, visit the lagoon at the Blue Spring Heritage Center, or just choose your own adventure. Stay at the Palace Hotel, which features the last remaining bath house to use spring water.

Another vestige from the Victorian era is the city’s spectacular architecture. Eureka’s entire downtown is a designated historic district, and a self-guided walking loop takes you past houses that date back to the 1800s (you can also take a trolley—the roads are pretty steep). 

Unsurprisingly, many of them come with ghost stories—like the stately 1886 Crescent Hotel, recognized as one of the most haunted hotels in America. It leans into its legacy with nightly ghost tours and murder mystery plays, but it’s not the only game in town: The Basin Park Hotel offers a "Spirits of the Basin Tour," and the Victorian-era cemetery has a variety of creepy walking tours, some led by guides wearing period costume.

Other than ghosts, you might see a sixty-seven foot tall Jesus. Eureka is home to a world-famous Passion Play—a performance of Christ’s last days on earth, which religious acolytes travel from all around the South to witness. The Christ of the Ozarks memorial statue—the largest of its kind in the US and fourth largest in the world—embraces the town, arms-outstretched, from its 1,500-foot perch on Magnetic Mountain.

The play, its conservative fanbase, and its seemingly startling contrast to the area’s LGBTQ+ scene is the subject of the 2019 documentary The Gospel of Eureka, narrated by musician and actor Mx Justin Vivian Bond. The film also helped showcase the inclusive spirit of Eureka Springs, and just how fun it can be: It spotlights the bar Eureka Live, which holds weekly drag shows and is a self-proclaimed “redneck Studio 54” the rest of the time. 

“We definitely saw more people coming to Eureka after the movie,” says Wilks. During Diversity Weekend, drag shows can also be found at bars like  The Rowdy Beaver, and BREWS. The historic Grand Central Hotel brings in Drag Race girls like Willam, over-the-top drag splendor fitting in its historic Victorian digs.

You could spend a whole weekend in Eureka Springs and only frequent LGBTQ-owned businesses. For accomodations, check out the clothing-optional Magnetic Valley Men’s Resort or get a cabin at the Pond Mountain Lodge & Resort, featured in Out magazine. For something historic, try the Grand Central Hotel established in 1883, or the Ridgeway House B&B from 1908. The Wanderoo Lodge and Gravel Bar will set you up with a range of guided outdoor activities; for a woodsy option, try the Iris Hill Glamping Resort or the Grand Treehouse Resort

You’ll encounter all the classic small-town charm you could possibly handle in Eureka’s hilly streets: art galleries and boutiques, soda fountains and really good fudge. You get your hair done, or buy herbal supplements, blown glasspotterysoap, popcorn, handmade clothing, candy (in a store named Sugar & Spite), or nuts (that one’s called Eureka’s Nut House. It’s worth clicking through for a photo of a squirrel in a straitjacket.) And that’s only scratching the surface of Eureka’s LGBTQ+ presence. Not bad for a town of 2,000.

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. Please give her all the fudge. 
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