By Saul Schwartz
My wife Fern and I took a three-state tour to see Civil Rights attractions and more sites during May. Most attractions are now open again after COVID closures. Little Rock and nearby Arkansas sites had an active vibe that we enjoyed. Little Rock is the capital and most populous city in the state with over 200,000 residents. We drove to Little Rock from our prior stop in Jackson, Mississippi.
Curran Hall (615 E. Capitol Avenue, Little Rock):
A great starting point is the Little Rock information center contained within historic Curran Hall. The Walters-Curran-Bell House, built in 1842, is one of the oldest houses in Little Rock. The private residence was purchased by the City of Little Rock in 1996, saving it from demotion. The Greek Revival style house is one-story, with a central hall with large rooms on either side. It is listed in the National Resister of Historic Houses. Today’s Curran Hall features a lovely garden landscape.
Curran Hall now serves as the city’s official visitor information and welcome center, with brochures of Little Rock attractions, restaurants, and hotels. Helpful staff answered our questions. Open daily, the visitor center was right down the block from our Airbnb where we stayed for four nights.
William Clinton Presidential Library, Museum & Park (1200 President Clinton Avenue, Little Rock):
The $10 admission fee included a guided tour. The official Presidential library is open daily. Our volunteer guide Dennis was very knowledgeable and answered many questions. The library contains three floors; Fern and I stayed for more than two hours. Some of the highlights included a full-scale replica of the Clinton era Oval Office, his Presidential Limousine and a replica of the Clinton White House cabinet room. Gifts provided to the Clintons when Bill was the 42nd President are on view on a rotating basis. Galleries begin with Clinton’s formative years through his life in the White House. Thematic alcoves provide multimedia and traditional exhibits. A fifteen-minute film narrated by President Clinton is a good introduction and orientation to the library.
Parking is free and plentiful, right by the library. There currently is some construction that required us to reroute to the site. Beautiful grounds surround the library. We walked over the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge, which was dedicated by President Clinton on September 30, 2011. The iconic pedestrian bridge goes from the library along the eastern loop of the Arkansas River Trail, over the Arkansas River.
Little Rock Sculptures:
The River Market District contains more than 100 pieces of sculpture along the Arkansas River. We enjoyed viewing some of them along the banks of the scenic river. The sculptures vary from whimsical (with quite a few animals doing humanistic activities) to majestic (including a timely area focused on the nineteenth amendment and the right to vote). One portion is called the Vogel Schwartz sculpture garden and is home to dozens of sculptures of every size and shape. Landscaped outdoor “rooms” create a gallery like experience alongside the riverbanks. Signage explains some Little Rock history, as well.
Downtown Little Rock:
We also walked over the Junction Bridge. This railroad bridge was converted to a pedestrian bridge over the Arkansas River in 2008. Access to the bridge is behind the River Market Pavilion. At sunset, the bridge gave us a great view of the Little Rock skyline. Several flights of steps need to be navigated, but benches are provided on the bridge in case you need to rest or to take in the view. The bridge connects the downtown to North Little Rock.
Parking is available along President Clinton Avenue with paid meters or parking lots. About half of the restaurants and stores are open into the evening.
Arkansas Capitol (500 Woodlane Avenue):
The Capitol building is the seat of the state government housing its legislative and governor’s offices. Its impressive dome is modeled on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Its grounds are home to several monuments, including an impressive statue of the Little Rock nine. We took a one-hour free tour with Nancy, a volunteer guide. Free parking is available nearby.
Our tour us to each of the four floors. The highlights included entering the state Treasurer’s Vault where we allowed to hold real money, viewing the old Supreme Courtroom restored to its original appearance, and visiting the public galleries of the state Senate and House chambers with their lovely chandeliers and stain-glass domes. Nancy provided us with extensive information about the building and the state government procedures.
Little Rock High School National Historic Site and Visitor Center (2120 Daisy Bates Drive):
In September 1957, Little Rock Central High School was at the center of international attention when the Arkansas Governor ordered the state National Guard to prevent nine African American students from attending. President Eisenhower sent in Federal troops to escort the students to class. The National Park Service led us on a free two-hour tour. Our ranger tour guide Patricia was extremely passionate about the 1957 events.
The Visitor Center itself contains TV footage and many exhibits about the Little Rock episode and its aftermath. The tour began in the Visitor Center and continued around the outside of the still operating high school. The massive school structure is a handsome blend of Art Deco and Gothic Revival styles. Free parking is available outside the Visitor Center.
For informal food in a cute area, we went to SOMA (1423 Main Street). SOMA (South Main Street) is fun and funky. In 2006, SOMA was transformed into one of the most popular spots in Little Rock after the opening of a public garden. The Green Corner Store had a very extensive tea bar, vegan food options and a wide variety of with earth-friendly goods. Right next door, the Loblolly Creamery offers small batch handcrafted ice cream. The vegan flavors were dangerously tasty! There is plenty of indoor seating and an outside bench.
Another great coffee options is Nexus Coffee and Creative in the downtown River Market District (301 President Clinton Avenue). The large coffee shop has extensive seating. We saw a potter working on his craft in the coffee shop.
“A stones throw” from the Capitol, the Capitol Bistro (1401 W. Capitol Avenue) offered a variety of coffee and tea drinks, as well as breakfast and lunch options. Indoor and outdoor seating is available.
In the Hillcrest neighborhood, Mylo Coffee Company (2715 Kavanaugh Blvd.) also has a nice array of tea and coffee offerings, along with intriguing desserts. Plenty of indoor and outdoor seating is available. Street parking is free. Fern and I enjoyed walking around this neighborhood, with cute stores over several blocks.
For eating at our Airbnb, we stocked up at one of the large local Kroger supermarkets.
Day Trip to Hot Springs National Park:
Hot Springs is about one hour and 50 miles southwest of Little Rock. There is no entrance fee to enter the National Park, as the Park is integrated into the town. Since 1921, the springs and historic bathhouses have formed the heart of a national park. Hot Springs is the only national park that protects geothermal springs.
The spa town is known for people coming to the area to soak in the hot water and recover their health. In 1832, Congress declared a four-mile square mile reservation to protect the waters for public use. By the early 1900s, Hot Springs was amongst the most visited health and wellness resorts in the United States. A large free parking deck is within a short distance of the Visitor Center and bathhouses.
With grand architecture, Bathhouse Row is a unique feature of the park. Eight historic bathhouses’ structures remain; they are the ones built of brick or stone. A good starting point is the Park Visitor Center contained within the Fordyce Bathhouse. Built in 1915, this elegant bathhouse contains rooms restored to their original state, in a free museum. Park staff here provided us with helpful information about the park, as well.
Our visit to the Quapaw Baths was amazing! The daily fee is $25 per person plus tax but allows admission for an entire day. We spent about 2 hours going through each of the five indoor baths with their different temperatures. Quapaw (413 Central Avenue) is one of the two remaining bathhouses that is still open to the public for baths. We advise going early (by 10 am) to avoid a wait, as admission is limited. The admission fee includes water, towels, and use of the lockers. Quapaw was built in 1922 and features a tiled dome scheme with an American Indian motif, scallop shells and fish. The baths offer a true European style bathhouse experience. Reservations are required for spa services other than bathing.
Before we left the town, Fern and I walked the Grand Promenade behind Bathhouse Row to view all the bathhouses. Six have been converted to new uses. We stopped briefly in several of the stores across the street.
The view from going up Hot Springs Mountain Road allowed us to see breathtaking mountain views of Hot Springs Mountain, the Diamond Lakes area and the Ouachita Mountains. The view from Mountain Tower is not that much different than the drive up and was probably not worth the $11 admission fee. Although there is some signage on the second floor of the Tower, we found the directional information confusing. The Tower is almost 66 meters high, and an elevator stops at two different observation levels.
As we concluded our three-state trip to Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas, Fern and I agreed that Little Rock was our most enjoyable stop. Our four days in Arkansas passed by very quickly.