Arkansas is a state that revels in its independent culture, but few towns exemplify this quirky rebelliousness like Eureka Springs. Nestled in the northwest of the state, amid the green slopes and karst cliffs of the Ozark Mountains, Eureka Springs tends to defy expectations.
In some ways, this has always been a tourism town, attracting visitors first for its eponymous springs (said to possess healing powers) in the 19th century. Then, starting in the late 1960s, a low cost of living, historical architecture, and relative isolation led to Eureka Springs becoming a surprising locus for LGBTQ+ life in the middle of the South.
A commitment to the town’s handsome architecture and aesthetics led to the preservation of Eureka Springs’ historic core; the Natural State’s libertarian streak attracted the biker community; the Ozarks’ well-deserved reputation for natural beauty attracted outdoors enthusiasts; a network of artists expanded the area’s creative capital.
All these elements have combined to form the Eureka Springs of today: a town of winding streets nestled in a steep valley, where rainbow flags fly proud and artist residences are common, existing side by side with the conservative cultural values of Arkansas and nearby Missouri and Oklahoma.
The Eureka Trolley
The Eureka Trolley is the go-to solution for visitors who want to get around town. Four fixed-loop routes wind around town, but the one for most travelers is the red route – a 3.3-mile track that takes in the town’s well-regarded historic district. Highlights include Spring Street, which coils and twists like a caffeinated snake through downtown, winding past the largest collection of Victorian architecture in the central USA; Ellis Grade, a beautiful lane that ascends the mountain; and the Crescent Hotel, one of the state’s grand dame historical buildings, a structure that looks like Downton Abbey tucked onto an Ozark summit.
Shopping in the valley
Speaking of Spring Street – that thoroughfare, as well as nearby Main St and Center St, combine to form a fine shopping triangle. In other parts of town, you’ll find studios that sell locally made arts and crafts. What can you buy? The big blue Arkansas sky is the limit. Gourmet Eureka sells fancy groceries for that crucial picnic in the mountains; Wilson & Wilson is a gallery for bright, heartwarming contemporary folk art; a quick walk from here takes you to the Ladybug Emporium, a friendly store that sells … well, just about any gift or souvenir you can imagine, as long as your imagination has an irreverent sense of humor.
There’s no shortage of live shows in Eureka Springs, a town that likes to shout its appreciation of a good time to the world. The town has gone through many iterations as a tourism destination, and The Aud (i.e. The Auditorium) has seen its fair share of that evolution. Since 1928, this live music venue has hosted the likes of BB King, Willie Nelson, and Emmylou Harris. The Opera of the Ozarks is a beloved, long-running musical institution that showcases high-quality theatrical and musical productions far removed from any major urban enter. Eureka Live Underground is known for both its enormous beer garden and a ton of live music, plus a general schedule of bacchanalia. Chelsea’s is a good spot for a pizza, and maybe better for some live music.
Brew and you
Folks come to this mountain town to relax and have a good time, and having a beer is often a main part of those activities. To this end, Eureka Springs boasts some fine craft breweries, which are all family-friendly. Eureka Springs Brewing is where small-batch beer variants are served under the sun and you can get a view of people playing frisbee golf across the mountains (it has to be one of the most beautiful disc golf courses in the USA). Gotahold Brewing earned its clever name because the town of Eureka Springs well, got a hold on the owners. It boasts a lovely taproom, fire pits, a stage for live shows, and plenty of lawn games. Finally, it may not be a brewery, but when you call a business Brews, you can expect good craft beer, plus great coffee and tea.
Outdoors in the Ozarks
Eureka Springs is an exceptionally pretty town, and it is situated in the Ozarks, home to some superlative upland natural scenery. Get out into Lake Leatherwood City Park, home to some 25 miles of hiking trails through deep green woods, over rushing whitewater streams, and across slabs of moss-kissed granite. If you’re comfortable on two wheels, consider taking a shuttle to the top of a nearby summit and plunging down a 7-mile downhill trail. If you like beautiful landscapes and watching them whiz past you at terrifying and/or thrilling speeds, this is an experience not to be missed. If you engage the outdoors in a more casual manner, or have young kids in tow, check out Black Bass Lake, which can be explored via an easy 1.8-mile loop trail.
A calendar of quirks
There’s always something popping in Eureka Springs. Arts walks kick off on a regular basis, and there are regular drum circles in Basin Spring Park. But there’s also something special about this town’s festivals. Hillberry has only been around since 2015, yet it has already carved out a reputation as a must-attend event for lovers of mountain music. On the flip side, the Ozark Folk Festival also celebrates the region’s considerable music culture, and bills itself as the oldest continuously running folk festival in the country. Finally, make sure to check out Blues Weekend, which gathers some of the nation’s most soulful performers. It’s a celebration of the nation’s deepest musical roots, as well as a celebration of this most independent of communities.