As I got ready to head north from Louisiana into Arkansas, I tried to recall what I already knew about Arkansas, and the answer was: not very much. I had vague images of moonshine whiskey brewed by hillbillies in the Ozarks, and, well, that’s about it. Oh, and Bill Clinton was governor there. And wasn’t that where Walmart started? Everyone I asked in Shreveport, Louisiana, just across the state line, apparently doesn’t go into Arkansas much either, and they had hardly any helpful suggestions for where to go except that they all said, “Hot Springs is pretty.” Even looking on the internet, I couldn’t find much to do or see that got me too excited. Should I even bother to go that route?
Well, I didn’t come out here to stick to what I already knew, so I picked out a couple potential, though underwhelming, stops along the western site of the state, and set out.
Upon crossing the state line, Arkansas certainly made a good first impression. When I crossed from Texas into Louisiana, the very first billboard advertised the local “Gator Park”—way to reinforce stereotypes—and the second was some sort of running gag advertisement that simply showed a man in a business suit against a yellow and red background, a phone number, and “Shreveport” in small letters. I saw this billboard all around town and still have no idea what service or business it is trying to promote. However, when I crossed from Louisiana into Arkansas, the very first billboard pictured several happy babies and announced that “Arkansas is breastfeeding friendly.” The second asked me to “Help keep Arkansas green” because Arkansas is “the natural state.”
Their welcome center was even better. Several states have had friendly, helpful staff, free coffee and maps, clean bathrooms, and a library of brochures, and in this Arkansas was no exception. Yet a poster told me about some of their other highlights: some of the best air quality in the country, an average 21 minute commute, a high percentage of forest areas remain forested, and a very strict littering law to keep trash out of their scenic rivers, lakes, and streams.
People in Arkansas also seem to have a sense of humor about themselves. Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I enjoyed the names of towns I passed through or saw signs for:
Near the state lines to Texas and Oklahoma:
- Texarkana, AR
- Okolona, AR
- Arkadelphia, AR
- Yell County, AR
Also, in close succession:
- Social Hill, AR
- Friendship, AR
- Hope, AR
With little else in the way or recommendations, I went to Hot Springs. And yes, it really has hot springs. The town was once a draw for health seekers and money makers of every description. The natural hot springs throughout the area became a financial boon as businesses erected first tents and then more stately bath houses over the natural pools, drawing both people in search of cures and services to keep the “patients” busy and entertained between dips in the waters.
The town also quickly got a reputation for its gambling houses and saloons, and a plaque on main street now recounts the story of a major shootout in which 23 people were killed, including the sheriff. The Gangster Museum also promises modern visitors an insight into the disreputable history of the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s when mineral water, gambling, bootlegging, and other extreme pleasures brought some of the most notorious criminals in America to this quaint valley town in the mountains of central Arkansas. I didn’t visit the museum myself, but a number of historical plaques along the main street are enough to get an idea of the town’s two-sided past.
Speaking of that other side, a number of the old bathhouses are still there, though most have been turned into historical sites. One is now the visitor center for Hot Springs National Park. Everywhere you turn around here you can buy souvenir bath items such as scented soaps, loofas, and small bathtub shaped knickknacks. I confined my own debaucheries to filling my water tanks from the public spring-fed water fountains that dot the town.
There are a number of lovely decorative fountains around town as well. I liked this one, set back into an alcove between buildings, with just a few benches and this pretty water display.
I also drove up Hot Springs Mountain Scenic Drive, a 3.5 mile one way loop to an absolutely gorgeous scenic overlook of the region. The picture at the top of this post is also from this mountaintop view.
My plan was to spend the afternoon in town and then drive into the nearby mountains for a few days of lakeside camping. However, I decided that the town was cute and I wanted to spend more time walking around, so I spent the night in the local Walmart parking lot, and walked around town the next morning before heading into the mountains. More on that in the next post.