Little Rock is a capital city any Washingtonian should keep on their radar as a vacation destination, because it’s a true hidden jewel in the South. The sprawling city is the largest in Arkansas, boasting a robust 197,706, per a 2014 US Census, and located at the intersection of Interstates 40 and 30. It sits about two hours west of Memphis, five hours east of Oklahoma City, and five hours northeast of Dallas. The Ozark Mountains, the Ouachita Mountains, and the Mississippi Alluvial Plain (the Mississippi Delta) surrounds the region that makes up Little Rock.
When flying into newly renamed Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport the word diversity may not come to mind, it’s what you can expect from Arkansas’ capital city. Before we delve into what makes the Little Rock of today so worthwhile, we first should briefly look at how it all began.
Arkansas was largely a backwoods wilderness inhabited by the Quapaw or Arkansa First Nations people, before the Spanish gold hunters and itinerant hunter-trappers arrived. Frenchman explorer Benard de la Harpe found the area while traveling up the Arkansas River on April 9, 1722, due to it being the first high upstream his expedition saw. He named it ‘la petite roche’ (the little rocks) and built a trading post. Nearly a century later, William Lewis, a hunter-trapper, built a seasonal home in 1812, and lived there for four months – he was the city’s first true white settler. During this time Arkansas was a territory (Arkansas Territory), Arkansas Post was its capitol. The capital was moved to Little Rock in 1819, after several floods at Arkansas Post. The summers can reach above 90°F (32°C) and sharply drop down to below freezing in the winter months. Locals generally say the spring and fall seasons are the best times to visit, partly because of its natural beauty with the changing of the leaves.
The city’s airport has a single 12-gate terminal building which services all major airlines: American– Chicago O’Hare, and Dallas/Fort Worth; Delta– Atlanta, Detroit, and Memphis; Frontier– Denver; United– Chicago O’Hare, Denver, and Houston George Bush Intercontinental; and USAirways– Charlotte and Washington Reagan National. Southwest Airlines is the airport’s largest carrier with service to seven destinations: Baltimore, Chicago Midway, Dallas Love Field, Houston Hobby, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and St. Louis. There’s also Amtrak service on its Texas Eagle line, as it travels from Los Angeles to Chicago, with stops in Little Rock (westbound from Chicago arrive at 3:10 a.m., and eastbound from L.A. arrives 11:39 a.m.). Once you arrive taxis can get you into the city quickly or, consider the #20 bus. It’ll will take you directly into downtown.
Below are a dozen things you can do once you arrive.
The River Market sits on the Arkansas River. It houses over a dozen permanent vendors, and Farmer’s Markets on Tuesdays and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. between May and October. It’s closed on Sundays.
Once you get to downtown, and walking isn’t your thing, consider the city’s River Rail Trolley system, opened in 2004. Kids ride for free, while adults pay $1 per ride, or $2 for a day pass. The day pass is a good option because many of the city’s attractions are along its route. The River Rail tracks are on Markham, Second, and Third Streets near the River Market and Clinton Library in downtown Little Rock and Main and Maple Streets in North Little Rock. Parking on these streets can be cumbersome, so city officials recommend parking on other streets or taking public transit or taxis to get to the area. You can get a schedule at any hotel or practically any downtown attraction.
If you’re looking for more physical approach, consider cycling. Cycling around Little Rock has been on the rise; especially with mixed use pedestrian and bike loop spots lining many streets in the downtowns of Little Rock and North Little Rock. There are many bike rentals to choose from. Be advised, cycling around the River Market area can be dicey because there aren’t any dedicated bike paths on the street due to narrow roads, parked cars, and the METRO Streetcar tracks; they have deep ruts along its route, and if a bike tire gets stuck in a rut, it can knock off cyclists not paying attention. Use the Arkansas River Trail.
The Arkansas River Trail is a circular route that runs from downtown Little Rock, west along the Arkansas River to the Big Dam Bridge, crosses it, then runs back east to downtown North Little Rock, finally completing the loop after crossing the historic Junction Bridge. If you enjoy a nice scenic bike ride, stroll, run, or roller skating, it’s a perfect for that.
The 4,226 feet long Big Dam Bridge is the centerpiece of the Arkansas River Trail. The creation is regarded as the longest bridge in the United States dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists. Visitors travel across the Murray Lock and Dam, linking Little Rock’s Murray Park with North Little Rock’s Cooks Landing Park, on this part of the River Trail.
The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Park is the anchor of the River Walk. It’s the eleventh Presidential Library of the National Archives and Records Administration, and the largest in the system. Former President William “Bill” Clinton was born in Arkansan and served as the 42nd President. Visitors can expect to see a huge collection of memorabilia from Clinton’s two presidential terms, including a replica of the Oval Office. The Clinton School of Public Service is also on the grounds.
Next to the Clinton Library is Heifer International Center and Heifer Village. The nonprofit is dedicated to ending global hunger and poverty. On their grounds is the Green Headquarters building, an interactive museum, and a learning center designed to promote environmentalism, and a world without poverty and hunger.
The Arkansas State Capitol should be on your list; besides, it’s hard to miss. It was modeled after the U.S. Capitol in DC, and was completed in 1915. Tours are offered, but only if the state legislature is not in session. Not to worry if it is, because The Arkansas Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Arkansas Law Enforcement Memorial, and a monument honoring the Little Rock Nine are on the grounds.
The Central High School National Historic Site and Museum is a jaw-wrenching reminder of one the darkest events in American history; but out of something so vile comes a chance to learn and grow. The racial integration of Central High in 1957 was a violent event in Little Rock, as nine students were set to be the first blacks admitted as students. The governor, National Guard, civil rights activists, Little Rock Police Department, and US President were all actors in events that changed the lives of all during and after. The visitor center is free and open to the public, but reservations are required to go into Central High because it’s the National Park’s only fully functioning high school.
The Old State House is Arkansas’ old capitol building, now a state history museum. It’s the oldest surviving state capitol building west of the Mississippi. Visitors can see the old House of Representatives Chamber, a permanent collection of history-related exhibits, and temporary exhibits are shown occasionally. The children love visiting Grandmother’s Cottage, a hands-on room where people examine a variety of objects from the 1920s-30s.
The Quapaw Quarter is a collection of 19th century Victorian homes in a residential area adjacent to downtown Little Rock. Several of the homeowners open their homes to the public for viewing twice a year (the first weekend in May and the first weekend in December). One of the homes in the neighborhood is the Villa Marre. It was built in 1881, and was the home used in the TV sitcom Designing Women as the home of the interior design company. The Arkansas Governor’s Mansion is also in the neighborhood and was the home used in Designing Women, as Suzanne Sugarbaker’s home. There’s no fee, but reservations are scheduled in advance.
Riverfront Park overlooks the Arkansas River. It’s also the site of de la Harpe’s La Petite Roche. The actual formation can’t be viewed today because it was dynamited years ago. There are tidbits of Arkansas to be learned, stunning sunrise and sunset views, and you can see North Little Rock across the river. Riverfront Park is the site for the annual Riverfest, a popular event held on Memorial Day weekend.
Overall, Little Rock offers something for almost everyone. I haven’t even begun to reach the tip of the iceberg, but have given you a few options to help get you started. There’s fun for adults and kids alike. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience that only Little Rock can offer.