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7 EPIC Arkansas National Parks (Helpful Guide + Photos)

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arkansas national parks
Autumn colors begin to take hold in the valleys of the Buffalo River | 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 7 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 National Parks Table Of Contents

  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

Arkansas National Parks

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 a whole lot of history. And, when I get there, I want to learn as much as I can about the history of the place.

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.

The French settlement proceeded to trade with the Quapaw tribe of Native Americans. Their trading post was unable to compete with the British fur trade however. It wouldn’t be the last time that the British would get the best of the French.

The French Depart, The Spanish Arrive

Aerial view of the Arkansas Post National Memorial | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

So, in 1699, the French did like so many others do when the competition becomes too intense. They abandoned their settlement.

After the French departed, Spain decided to try their luck. They moved in. And, they renamed the post Fort Carlos III. What’s in a name? Spain would find out.

The Spanish used this fort as a base to develop their own trade with the Quapaw Indians.  Fingers crossed.

The Louisiana Purchase

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

Fast forward to the establishment of the United States of America. Of course, Spain had to abandon its holdings just as the French had done before them.

The French did get a measure of revenge against the British, however, when they allied with the thirteen colonies. This time, they were on the winning side. And, it was Britain’s turn to lose a choice piece of North American real estate.

Twenty years later, the newfound American nation acquired the Arkansas Post as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Ironically, it was purchased from the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Viva la France!

From Trading Post To Frontier Community

Originally a trading post, the American government discovered that it could not compete with private trading companies. Perhaps they should have listened to the French on this one. The post was subsequently 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.

This is one place that keeps changes owners!

The Union Army became the next landlord. They put this fort out of commission with a gunboat attack on January 10, 1863. After that, it wasn’t much use to the Confederacy.

Arkansas Post Becomes A National Memorial

Arkansas Post National Memorial Visitor Center near Gillett, Arkansas. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Fast forward to the twentieth century. It turns out that the post wasn’t much use to the U.S. Government either. Erosion and other detrimental changes had left it in a state of major disrepair.

Things were looking bleak. Then, 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. It’s an incredible story!

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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

I like historical firsts and I’ve got one for you. The Buffalo River, located in Northern Arkansas. became the first National River to be designated in the United States. This happened in 1972.

The history of this 152-mile long river 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. That’s a long time ago!

The Osage Move Into The Region

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The Osage moved into the region in the early 1700s. The land did not remain theirs however. By 1818, the U.S. Government took possession from these Native Americans.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story which is one of the reasons that I love history so much. The Buffalo River Valley was divided during the Civil War between Union and Confederate sympathizers.

Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention | Or In This Case Bat Guano

Who would have thought that these unusual creatures would play a role in the Civil War | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

You would be amazed what productive uses can be made of the most interesting materials. Bat guano, found in the local caves, was actually used by the Confederacy to make gunpowder. That’s one job I would not have wanted.

The Confederate Army held control of these caves from 1861-62. I hope they used plenty of air fresheners.

After the Civil War, mining of lead and zinc ore proved to be a lucrative business. I think that the Bat Guano business had fallen off by then.

By the time of the Great Depression, however, all business had fallen off. Many families were forced to move away.

Thomas Hart Benton

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

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 did not want to see the damn destroy what he loved so he appealed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not to build it.

In 1972, the National Park Service made the Buffalo River the first national river in America. This meant no damn.

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)

I’m a diehard film buff. 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’s 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 an Academy Award for Best Actor. The film further cemented Wayne’s status as a western icon.

Part Of The Film Was Set In Arkansas

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Fort Smith National Historic Site | Arkansas National Parks

Though the movie was largely filmed in California and Colorado, the events are actually set in Arkansas, which was then considered the frontier. Believe it or not.

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. And, they did it without John Wayne which is even more impressive.

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How Did Fort Smith Get Its Start

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Conflict erupted between these two Native American tribes which led to the establishment of Fort Smith | Arkansas National Parks

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. You know where this is going, don’t you.

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.

The fort was built to last and last it has.

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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

And now we turn to the story of another one of those colorful characters who fill the pages of our history books. This is the story of a judge whom you would not want to meet in the courtroom for a speeding ticket. Or maybe your horse was double parked?

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. And, Judge Parker did not earn his famous nickname because he liked doing chin-ups.

He Brought Order & Justice To The Indian Territory

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

Judge 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.

I love doing research and I came across an 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.

“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

Fort Smith | Courtesy of the National Park Service

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

Before there were hot tubs there were hot springs.

Hot Springs National Park is definitely worth seeing and experiencing. It has 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

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 Commons

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 enjoy these waters too.

“America’s Spa”

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)

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.

Keep in mind that this was before the invention of Jacuzzis.

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

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. You never know who’ll you meet in a bathhouse.

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. I don’t know how much you know about Olmstead, but he was the man who practically invented landscape architecture in the United States.

After a series of misunderstandings and mutual dissatisfaction, however, Olmsted withdrew his firm from the project.

Learning More About Olmstead

Now as a retired history teacher, if you read these articles you’re going to get book recommendations from me too. I work for the Co-Founders of More Than Just Parks researching and writing these articles.

How did I get the job? I live with their mother. But that’s okay because I’m their father. The Pattiz Brothers pay me in books. I love it though their mother’s starting to worry that we’re running out of bookshelves. But I digress . . .

I just finished a wonderful book about Frederick Law Olmstead. It’s called Genius of Place: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted by Justin Martin. I would definitely recommend it if you want to learn more about the man who designed New York City’s Central Park and so many other iconic structures.

Fun Things To Do in Hot Springs National Park

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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

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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

The Only Functioning High School To Be Part Of A National Historic Site

Central High School | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

You don’t have to be a history buff to be moved by this place and what it represents. Imagine what it would have been like to walk into that school in 1957 especially if you were a person of color.


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, then the first place you should check out is the bookstore. Since my sons pay me in books they always try to make sure that I skip the bookstores though they’re seldom successful. I have a sixth sense when it comes to bookstores.

If You Love Books Then You’ll Love This Bookstore

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So many books, so little time!

The Eastern National Bookstore has one of the finest collections of Civil War books in the entire National Park System. I could spend my entire time there just browsing. Well, maybe not just browsing. So many books, so little time!

It is important to get in those steps, however, and my wife is always the first one to remind me that you can’t do that with your nose buried in a book.

Fortunately, there’s 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. And, you can be moved while you’re moving.

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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.

RELATED: 13 Reasons Why Jimmy Carter Is America’s Greenest President

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. It’s not a Mickey Mantle Rookie Card, but for a former president that’s not too shabby.

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.

My wife and I are huge fans of the show. I’ve been telling her that we should take one of our valuable collectibles with us to the show the next time they’re in town. She always reminds me, however, that we don’t have any valuable collectibles. I should have kept those baseball cards.

Check Out Crater of Diamonds State Park & Bathhouse Row

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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.

RELATED: Look Familiar? 10+ CLASSIC Television Shows Filmed In The National Parks


Map Of Arkansas National Park Sites

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
Tony Pattiz

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

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