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8 EPIC Arkansas National Parks (An Expert Guide)

More Than Just Parks is excited to share some of the best places to visit in Arkansas. Here’s a list of 7+ Arkansas national parks.

While the western national parks get the lion’s share of the hype, Arkansas National Parks are pretty amazing as well. Did you know the state is home to 8 national park sites?

Among these Arkansas national park sites is one “full-fledged” national park – Hot Springs National Park.

From historic forts to incredible hot springs to the birthplace of our nation’s 42nd president, Arkansas has some truly amazing places to visit.

Ready to dive in? Here’s our list of the best Arkansas national parks. Let’s go!

Arkansas is home to some truly amazing caves | Arkansas National Parks
Arkansas is an amazing place to visit if you like the outdoors.

1. The Arkansas Post National Memorial | Arkansas National Parks

Arkansas Post National Memorial is rich in history | Arkansas National Parks
Arkansas Post National Memorial | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’m a retired history teacher. I love nothing better than to pack up my car and go forth in search of interesting places with lots of history.

Speaking of history, the Arkansas Post National Memorial is a place that’s rich in it. It’s the first European settlement in the lower Mississippi River Valley. In 1686, Henri de Tonti established it as a French trading post.

For years afterwards, the French settlement traded with the Quapaw tribe of Native Americans. The trading post was unable to compete with the British fur trade. So, in 1699, the French abandoned their settlement.

After the French departed, Spain moved in. They renamed the post Fort Carlos III. The Spanish used it as a base to develop their own trade with the Quapaw Indians. 

The United States acquired the Arkansas Post as part of the Louisiana Purchase | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Louisiana Purchase

The United States acquired the Arkansas Post as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Originally a trading post, the American government discovered that it could not compete with private trading companies. The post was transformed into a frontier community. 

In 1819, the Arkansas Post was designated as the capitol of the Arkansas Territory. With the advent of the Civil War, however, the Confederate Army turned it into Fort Hindman. The Union Army subsequently put this fort out of commission with a gunboat attack on January 10, 1863.

Arkansas Post Becomes A National Memorial

By the twentieth century, erosion and other changes had left the post in a state of major disrepair. In 1964, the federal government came to the rescue. The Arkansas Post became a national memorial.

Since that time, the National Park Service has restored the visible remains at the site to their original 18th century appearance. Visitors will find reminders of America’s European heritage. You can also learn about its transition from a European trading to a military post then an American community.

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2. Buffalo National River

The Buffalo River is our nation's first national river | Arkansas National Parks
Autumn colors begin to take hold in the valleys of the Buffalo River | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Buffalo River is located in Northern Arkansas. In 1972, it became the first National River to be designated in the United States.

The history of this 152-mile long river, however, goes back hundreds of millions of years. During the Paleozoic Era, sediments were deposited. These sediments eventually formed the bedrock giving this region its rugged appearance.

Archaeological evidence suggests Native Americans were living near the Buffalo River as early as 9500 B.C.

The Osage Move Into The Region

The Osage moved into the region in the early 1700s. By 1818, the U.S. Government took this land from these Native Americans.

The Buffalo River Valley was divided during the Civil War between Union and Confederate sympathizers. Bat guano, found in the local caves, was used by the Confederacy to make gunpowder. The Confederate Army held control of these caves from 1861-62.

After the Civil War, mining of lead and zinc ore proved to be a lucrative business. By the time of the Great Depression, however, that business had dried up. Many families were forced to move away.

Artist Thomas Hart Benton was a huge fan of the Buffalo River | Arkansas National Parks
Famed artist Thomas Hart Benton made annual visits to the Buffalo River in the 1960s. Benton lobbied the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not to build a dam there | Courtesy of Wikimedia

Thomas Hart Benton

In the 1960s, some people became interested in building a dam at the Buffalo River. Thomas Hart Benton, who was a renown artist, had made annual trips to the area. He appealed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not to build the dam.

In 1972, the National Park Service made the Buffalo River the first national river in America. Since that time, it’s become a popular place for campingcanoeing, fishing and hiking. Visitors can bring their own canoes or rent them from local concessioners.

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3. Fort Smith National Historic Site

A Western Icon Goes for Gold

Actor John Wayne (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Who can forget that iconic line from one of the greatest western films of all time–True Grit. John Wayne, as U.S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn, is facing four desperadoes. He is mounted on his horse with a pistol in one hand and a rifle in the other.

Cogburn says to the leader of this ruthless gang, “I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience.”

John Wayne’s performance as a grizzled U.S. Marshall in True Grit earned him the Academy Award for Best Actor. The film further cemented his status as a western icon. Though the film was largely filmed in California and Colorado, the events are actually set in Arkansas, which was then considered the frontier.

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The Fort Smith John Wayne was referring to in True Grit is Fort Smith National Historic Site. Visitors can go there and explore 80 years of history. It’s a great place to learn about how the west was won.

fort smith arkanssas
Fort Smith National Historic Site | Arkansas National Parks

How Did Fort Smith Get Its Start

So, how did this fort get its start? At the dawn of the nineteenth century, a group of Cherokees moved into the Arkansas Territory. This happened to be the home of the Osage.

Conflict erupted between these two Native American tribes which prompted the U.S. Government to establish Fort Smith on December 25, 1817.

The fort’s goal was to maintain law and order during America’s westward expansion. It was designed by Major Stephen H. Long and built by Major William Bradford. It was built to last and last it has.

The “Hanging” Judge

Judge Parker was Fort Smith's iconic "hanging judge" | Arkansas National Parks
Judge Issac C. Parker | Courtesy of the National Park Service

After the west was won, the U.S. Army moved out of Fort Smith and the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas moved in. Fort Smith’s famous “hanging judge,” Judge Issac C. Parker, came along with the Federal Court.

Parker erected a gallows in the south corner. A replica of his famed gallows stands there today. It’s a reminder of Judge Parker’s efforts to bring justice and order to the Indian Territory.

Now here’s a interesting fact. In 21 years on the federal bench, Judge Parker tried 13,490 cases. In more than 8,500 of these cases, the defendant either pleaded guilty or was convicted at trial.  Judge Parker sentenced 160 people to death and 79 of them were executed.

You will find a recreation of Judge Parker's courtroom | Arkansas National Parks
Judge Parker’s famous courtroom has been restored to all of its former glory | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

“I have ever had the single aim of justice in view… ‘Do equal and exact justice,’ is my motto, and I have often said to the grand jury, ‘Permit no innocent man to be punished, but let no guilty man escape.'”

-Judge Isaac C. Parker, 1896

Fort Smith Today

Today visitors can see exhibits featuring the history of the military, the Trail of Tears, the Federal Court, and Judge Parker

Check out the park grounds to see the unearthed foundations of the first Fort Smith, The Trail of Tears Overlook on the Arkansas River, and the Second Fort Smith’s Commissary Building and its reconstructed barracks.

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4. Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs National Park has a unique series of hot springs | Arkansas National Parks
Gulpha Gorge Campground at Hot Springs National Park | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Hot Springs National Park is definitely worth seeing and experiencing. With ancient thermal springs, mountain views, incredible geologic features, magnificent forested hikes, and an abundance of creeks. Hot Springs National Park provides a memorable destination.

Valley Of Vapors

Originally known as the “Valley of Vapors,” Native Americans had been visiting the area for several thousands of years.

They came to bathe in its healing waters. In the nineteenth century, Americans started to explore this natural wonder too.

Al Capone visited the hot springs of Arkansas | Arkansas National Parks
Notorious gangster Al Capone came to Hot Springs National Park to experience its healing waters | Courtesy of Wikimedia

“America’s Spa”

The park is considered “America’s Spa.” It includes “Bathhouse Row.” The first bathhouses were crude structures of canvas and lumber. These were little more than tents perched over individual springs or reservoirs carved out of the rock.

As these places increased in popularity, the original construction was replaced with the masonry and steel bathhouses that we see today.

Starting in 1896, many of the wooden bathhouses were replaced with the bathhouses that we see today made of masonry and steel. Bathhouse Row (pictured above) is from the early 1900s. (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

Prominent people came to Hot Springs National Park to find healing in its soothing, warm waters. These visitors included: Al Capone, Herbert Hoover, Jesse James, Helen Keller, John F. Kennedy, Babe Ruth, and Cy Young.

Frederick Law Olmsted

America’s premier landscape artist, Frederick Law Olmsted was commissioned to landscape portions of Hot Springs Natural Park | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Beginning in the 1890s, the Interior Department appointed U.S. Army Captain John R. Stevens to oversee a number of ambitious landscaping and building projects.

The original plan was to hire Frederick Law Olmsted’s, America’s premier landscape architect, to provide the landscaping. After a series of misunderstandings and mutual dissatisfaction, however, Olmsted withdrew his firm from the project however.

Fun Things To Do in Hot Springs National Park

In addition to exploring the magnificent bathhouses or enjoying a soothing steam bath, you can also hike along the Grand Promenade which provides lovely shaded views above the bathhouses or visit the Hot Springs Mountain Tower where you will enjoy a breathtaking view.

While you’re there, you might also want to visit the Gangster Museum. It’s dedicated to the infamous history of the notorious mafiosos who spent time in Hot Springs, including Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello, Albert Anastasia, and “Lucky” Luciano.

Luciano wasn’t too lucky while visiting Hot Springs. He was arrested by the local police.

If You’re A Bird Watcher

And let’s not forget about all of that glorious nature. Hike part (or all) of Sunset Trail to get the full experience of it. This trail passes the park’s highest point, a peaceful pond, wildflower fields, wildlife, and much more.

If you’re a bird watcher, Hot Springs is a great place to see cardinals, eagles, finches, hawks, woodpeckers and wrens.

Things to Do:
  • Hike the Grand Promenade
  • Visit Hot Springs Mountain Tower
  • Enjoy a Soothing Steam Bath
  • Visit the Gangster Museum
  • Hike Sunset Trail
  • Go Birdwatching

5. Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Historic Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas | Courtesy of the National Park Service

On the morning of September 23, 1957, nine African-American teenagers stood up to an angry mob. They were protesting the integration in front of Little Rock’s Central High.

These brave teenagers had to endure hate-filled taunts and threats of violence as they entered the school for the very first time.

This event, broadcast around the world, made Little Rock the site of the first important test of the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. In that landmark decision, the Court had ruled in a unanimous verdict that separate but equal is inherently unequal.

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“Nobody presents you with a handbook when your teething and says ‘Here’s how you must behave as a second class citizen.'”

-Dr. Melba Pattillo Beals, Warriors Don’t Cry: A Searing Memoir of the Battle to Integrate Little Rock’s Central High

Central High is the only functioning high school to be located within the boundaries of a national historic site.  There is a museum across the street which depicts the struggle through moving exhibits and powerful photos.

In 2007, a visitor center opened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the desegregation crisis. It tells the story of the crisis through interpretive panels, artifacts, news clippings, photographs and original audio, and video recordings.


6. Pea Ridge National Military Park | Arkansas National Parks

Pea Ridge National Military Park Visitor Center | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

So much history, so little time! Another great historical site is the Pea Ridge National Military Park. In 1862, over 23,000 soldiers fought here to decide the fate of Missouri. It was a turning point of the war in the West. 

It’s a battlefield which even some Civil War buffs may not be familiar with. Pea Ridge, however, was the most pivotal Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River. Today, it’s one of the most intact Civil War battlefields in the United States.

"Strategically, the Battle of Pea Ridge/Elkhorn Tavern was one of the most important Civil War battles fought in the western theater of operations. Coming early in the war, it was politically as well as militarily significant. At the time, however, it was overshadowed by the precedent setting and crucial battle between the Monitor and the Merrimack (a.k.a. CSS Virginia) off Hampton Roads on March 9, 1862. Yet the Battle of Pea Ridge/Elkhorn Tavern was indeed important to the Federal cause. 

The Federal victory there allowed the Union to maintain a strong hold on Missouri for the rest of the war and use it as a base of operations for later advances into Arkansas. It prevented realization of the grand Van Dorn/Johnston strategy of flanking and surrounding Grant in Tennessee, thus forcing Johnston to take the fateful steps against Grant in April that resulted in the Battle of Shiloh."

-Richard H. Owens, The Battle of Pea Ridge/Elkhorn Tavern

“Thunder In The Ozarks”

THE EIGHTH MISSOURI VOLUNTEERS CHARGING OVER THE EIGHTEENTH REGULARS AT THE BATTLE OF PEA RIDGE, TENNESSEE. – SKETCHED BY MR. J. F. GOOKINS | COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Today visitors can begin their adventure by watching “Thunder in the Ozarks.” It’s a fascinating 28 minute film which explores the history of this place. There’s also a wonderful museum, which originally opened in 1963. Its exhibits were completely updated in 2010.

If you’re a history buff, like me, then the first place you should check out is the bookstore. The Eastern National Bookstore has one of the finest collections of Civil War books in the entire National Park System. So many books, so little time!

There’s also a seven mile driving tour with ten highlighted stops. Along the way, you’ll learn about the men who fought there and the sacrifices they made. It’s an incredibly moving experience.

RELATED: 9+ Mississippi National Parks For Your Bucket List (Expert Guide)


7. President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site | Arkansas National Parks

The birthplace of the 42nd and only President of the United States from Arkansas, William Jefferson Clinton | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Located in Hope, Arkansas, is a house built in 1917 by Dr. H. S. Garrett. It’s the house where the 42nd President of the United States, Bill Clinton, spent his first four years.

It was owned by Clinton’s maternal grandparents, Edith Grisham and James Eldridge Cassidy. They cared for him there when his mother, Virginia, was working as an anesthetist in New Orleans.

The house was added to the National Register of Historic Homes in 1994. On December 14, 2010, the home was officially established as a national historic site and a unit of the National Park System.

A Restored Home

According to the Jefferson National Parks Association:

“The restored interior has much of its original detail, including the staircase in the living room, with its turned balusters and massive, paneled newel post. A small pantry features built-in cupboards. Virtually all of the second floor finishes are original, including the flooring and the beaded board in the hallway and nursery.”

Today visitors can tour interpretive exhibits focusing on the life of the 42nd President. Park Rangers offer tours of the Clinton home upon request.

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Here’s A Fun Fact

Not only does Bill Clinton have his own national historic site, he also has his own Promo Trading Card too.

Now here’s a fun fact. Not only does former President Bill Clinton have his own historic home site, he has his own trading card too.

President William Jefferson Clinton Hot Springs Arkansas PROMO Trading Card was issued shortly after the 42nd president left office.

So, what’s one of these cards worth today? Well, if you have an autographed trading card from Hot Spring with his early history on the back then it could be worth up to $450.00.

The Antiques Roadshow has been to Hot Springs in search of rare treasures. You can travel there, too, and experience some treasures which may not be rare, but are wonderful nonetheless. If you’d like to learn about some of the national parks which have made cameo appearances in some of our most beloved television shows then check out our National Parks In Television Shows. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The Longest Running Antiques Collectibles Show

And, if you happen to be someone who enjoys owning (or buying and selling) collectibles then here’s another fun fact. The longest running antique collectibles show is the Antiques Roadshow.

The show, which has been on the air since 1979, has made more than one appearance in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

In addition to visiting the Crater of Diamonds State Park and Bathhouse Row, the Antiques Roadshow uncovered some rare treasures while in Hot Springs during a 2002 episode.

Whether you’re looking for rare treasures or treasures which can be enjoyed by everyone, Arkansas is a great place to visit. Go there and experience seven amazing national park units.

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List Of 7 National Park Sites In Arkansas

  1. Arkansas Post National Memorial
  2. Buffalo National River
  3. Fort Smith National Historic Site
  4. Hot Springs National Park
  5. Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
  6. Pea Ridge National Military Park
  7. President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site

Map of Arkansas National Parks

Tony Pattiz

Tony Pattiz is a retired history teacher currently researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks.

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