National Parks Near Little Rock. There’s so much more to the Natural State than Big Dam Bridge.
In this article, we’ll familiarize you with the incredible national parks that are within a day’s drive of downtown Little Rock.
To be clear, this list includes national park sites (as in sites managed by the National Park Service) as well as full-fledged national parks. To learn more about the difference between the various National Park Service designations check out our article that explains everything!
Now let’s go ahead with 5 reasons why you’ll want to hop in your car and make a day’s drive from Little Rock to one of these truly amazing places.
Best National Parks Near Little Rock
1. Arkansas Post National Memorial
Distance From Little Rock: One hour 34 minutes (98 miles) via I-530 S & US-65 S.
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.
From Trading Post To Frontier Community
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!
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 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
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!
2. Buffalo National River
Distance From Little Rock: One hour 56 minutes (107 miles) via I-40 W & US-65 N.
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.
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 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.
Things To Do At The Buffalo River
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 camping, canoeing, fishing and hiking. Visitors can bring their own canoes or rent them from local concessioners.
3. Fort Smith National Historic Site
Distance From Little Rock: Two hours 18 minutes (159 miles) via US-40 W.
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.”
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.
Fort Smith Today
Today visitors can see exhibits featuring the history of the military, the Trail of Tears, the Federal Court, and Judge Parker who served as a legendary “hanging judge” when Fort Smith was an outpost during the days of the Old West.
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.
4. Hot Springs National Park
Distance From Little Rock: 54 minutes (54 miles) via I-30 W & US-70 W.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I recommend the following fun activities: (1) Hike the Grand Promenade, (2) Visit Hot Springs Mountain Tower, (3) Enjoy a Soothing Steam Bath, (4) Visit the Gangster Museum,
(5) Hike Sunset Trail and (6) Go Birdwatching.
5. Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Distance From Little Rock: It’s in Little Rock!
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.
The Only Functioning High School To Be Part Of A National Historic Site
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
Distance From Little Rock: Thee hours 21 minutes (224 miles) via I-40 W & I-49 N.
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.
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.
Map Of National Parks Near Little Rock
List Of National Parks Near Little Rock
- Arkansas Post National Memorial
- Buffalo National River
- Fort Smith National Historic Site
- Hot Springs National Park
- Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
- Pea Ridge National Military Park
About the Folks Behind More Than Just Parks
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. My sons have spent their entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
As for me, I’m a retired lifelong educator and a proud dad of these two wonderful guys who are hopelessly obsessed with the national parks. I taught history for over a quarter of a century. Now I enjoy researching and writing articles for the More Than Just Parks website. I’m always on the hunt for topics where nature and history intersect so please feel free to share any ideas that you might have with me.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
The Parks Brothers
We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
We hope you’ll follow our journey through the parks and help us to keep them the incredible places that they are. If you’re interested in joining the adventure then please sign up below!