It’s not hyperbolic to think of Arkansas as the most adventure-heavy destination in the United States, east of the Rocky Mountains. In this state, if you’re not in the mountains, you’re in a primeval forest, and if you’re not in a primeval forest, you’re in a river delta, and if you’re not in any of those things, then you’re not in Arkansas.
The nickname ‘The Natural State’ is not a misnomer – but beyond pretty nature, Arkansas offers exciting ways of accessing its physical beauty: river rafting, backcountry hikes, small plane tours and mountain biking among them.
Geographically, Arkansas is a complex state, roughly divided into the highlands of the north and western parts of the state (themselves split between the Ozark and Ouachita mountains) and the southern and eastern lowlands, including the Mississippi Delta and alluvial plain. The mountains and forests form a rugged spine for the state, and because of the rough topography there are no straight routes from A to B.
That’s if you’re on the ground. If you’ve got wings, you can soar as the proverbial crow flies.
Backcountry aviation trips are increasing in popularity across Arkansas, with most tours concentrated in the mountainous northwest and north-central portions of the state. There are more than 60 airstrips within 100 nautical miles of Bentonville in the state’s northwest corner.
Backcountry flying is popular with both amateur pilots, and adventurers who want to access remote parts of the state where the most convenient entry point may well be a grassy airfield. Thaden Field, located at Bentonville Municipal Airport, is the home base of the backcountry experts of Summit Aviation and the Fly Oz. Popular remote destinations include the Bermuda grass airstrip at Gaston’s, a truly epic site for remote flyfishing
But an engine isn’t the only way to get into the air in Arkansas. At Loco Ropes in Mountain View, smack in the north-central part of the state, you can get airborne via a series of rope bridges, treetop platforms, and zip lines that crisscross a pretty forest canopy.
Mountains are synonymous with Arkansas, even though much of the state actually consists of riverine lowlands. Nonetheless, a good chunk of the state is part of the U.S. Interior Highlands region.
Hiking is the obvious means of accessing the upland beauty of Arkansas, and you’ll find no shortage of trails here, some of which are within Pinnacle Mountain State Park, itself within spitting distance of Little Rock, the state’s largest city. The Whitaker Point Trail has become the star attraction of countless social media feeds, while the Seven Hollows Trail in Petit Jean State Park is simply a classic American trek.
You don’t have to be on two feet to tackle a mountain; two wheels help as well. Mountain bikers: make sure you don’t miss the shuttle accessible downhill mountain bike trails that form the iconic Lake Leatherwood Gravity Project, which has quickly become one of the nation’s premier mountain biking experiences.
Torn between hiking and biking? Why not both – the monument trails at Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area in Northwest Arkansas include some nail-biting downhill tracks and a tunnel connector. Hikers and bikers can make a multiday adventure out of a visit to Hobbs, as they are granted exclusive access to six unique campsites on the Karst Loop Trail.
There’s more to Arkansas than upcountry adventure. The state is rife with wetlands, many of which can be found in the heart of Little Rock itself. Gillam Park, operated by the Arkansas Audubon society, consists of some 400 acres of bottomland hardwood forests and wetlands, while the William E. “Bill” Clark Wetlands at the Clinton Presidential Park, also a part of Little Rock, are a fantastic example of an urban greenspace and recreational activity rolled into one.
Of course, the area’s wetlands extend far past Little Rock. Little-known to most folks from outside the state – and it’s even relatively obscure if you’re from Arkansas – the St Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area is a strip of some 27,000 protected riparian wetlands that offers superlative birdwatching and hunting opportunities. The Sunken Lands themselves constitute a slice of three northeast Arkansas counties that literally sank into the river during the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-12.
Mountain biking isn’t the only type of cycling within Arkansas. The entire Delta region is cut through with hundreds of miles of scenic byways, many of which are relatively flat, making for a more easily accessible brand of biking. That said, the Delta is bisected by Crowley’s Ridge, a scenic upland spur that adds a bit of elevated biking to an otherwise lowland landscape.
The Buffalo River was the first in the USA to be named a national river, and it remains simply one of the country’s most scenic watercourses. This 135-mile river flows undammed and without interruption (a rarity in the lower 48) through the heart of the state. The cool waters of the Buffalo run under enormous stone bluffs furred with strands of deep green tree cover. This is hands-down one of the most beautiful experiences you’ll have in a state rife with gorgeous backdrops.
The Buffalo has many moods, from buzzing rapids to slow stretches perfect for a relaxing natural escape. You can get information on logistics and float packages at the Buffalo Outdoor Center in Ponca, which rents boats, books tours, and operates some fine cabins. The National Park Service also operates plenty of campsites along the river.
In Northwest Arkansas, carve out time for Kings River Outfitters, which also conducts tours, does boat rentals, and is generally a great base for exploring the outfitters’ namesake, which curves through some of the loveliest landscapes of the Ozarks. Bear in mind that float trips do not run at times of years when the water level is too low, so call ahead before booking anything.
Adventure and Arkansas go together like – well – miles of mountain ranges and good hiking. A trip here can be relaxing, of course, but there is something to be said for the rewards of independently exploring a state so tied to nature’s beauty, they made it into their nickname.