20 Cool Things To Do: A Guide to Activities, Attractions in Northwest Arkansas

by NWA Metro Guide Staff  on Monday, Dec. 9, 2013 12:00 am  

1. Devil’s Den State Park
Devil’s Den has been a touchstone of Ozarks tourism since 1933, and still maintains the New Deal-era stone structures to prove it. This 2,500-acre wooded playground boasts bluffside vistas, abundant caves, horse trails, picturesque waterfalls and swimming holes. The field trip every junior high kid in the area takes at some point becomes the quick overnight camping trip that every college kid takes. Soon it’s the easy overnight cabin stay for couples, and, as the circle of life would have it, the short-hop day hike destination for families. Head down early, head down often, and still, you’re not likely to outgrow it. In West Fork.

2. World Championship Squirrel Cookoff
For as much as Arkansas advances in commerce and culture, there will always be a faction in the area — partly sincere, partly mischievous — that strives to remind us of our roots. Thus, not so long after the New Yorker and the New York Times arrived in Bentonville to ballyhoo the new Crystal Bridges museum, no less than the Wall Street Journal arrived on the equally brand-new scent of barbecued squirrel. “This year’s culinary creations ranged from squirrel with cashews and spring rolls to Caribbean jerk squirrel and fried plantains,” the paper wrote. Check out this emerging, uniquely Ozark tradition in the Bentonville town square in September.

3. Beaver Lake
If you want to go for a swim, head to Beaver Lake. Unless you want to fish, or go boating or water skiing, or camp, or hike, or picnic, or watch wildlife, or simply relax. In that case, go to Beaver Lake. At 28,370 acres, this impound lake links Benton and Carroll Counties, offering 487 miles of shoreline, paved access roads, 12 developed parks, 2,008 acres of campgrounds as well as picnic sites, swimming beaches, boat ramps, showers, marinas, amphitheaters and cabins. Site of the first-ever B.A.S.S. tournament, the lake sports diverse gamefish, including crappie, bream, channel and spoonbill catfish.

4. Fayetteville Ale Trail
It wasn’t too long ago that the only locally made beer in Northwest Arkansas was confined to a couple of Fayetteville brew pubs. Now craft breweries have sprung up all over, helped along perhaps by Benton County’s 2012 decision to go “wet” — that is, to allow packaged alcohol sales. Seven breweries in Fayetteville and Springdale — Apple Blossom, Hog Haus, Core, Fossil Cove, Saddlebock, Tanglewood Branch and West Mountain — have linked together to welcome thirsty visitors who get “passport” stamps for sampling the wares. Map out your sudsy sojourns here.

5. Fayetteville Farmer’s Market
For 40 years this has been the region’s premiere spot for local growers and craftspeople to share their wares. Lately, though, it has garnered national attention. In 2012 it was voted America’s favorite large market in a survey by the American Farmland Trust; in 2013, the Daily Meal named the market the 14th-best in the country. Look for it three times a week, with the main event on Saturday mornings, in Fayetteville’s historic downtown square.

6. Lost Valley Trail
A short day trip east is Lost Valley, tucked near the Buffalo River, full of the sort of year-round splendid scenery that keeps calendar photographers in business. Waterfalls, caves, cliffs, bluffs, streams and a natural bridge have made the 2.2-mile Lost Valley Trail the most popular hike in the state. The back of the cave (bring lights, pack skinny) opens into a large room with a 35-foot waterfall. Even in a region full of great hikes, it’s hard to get more for your time on a trail.

7. The Symphony
Actually you have your pick here, amid a surprisingly varied orchestral music scene. Year-round there’s the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas, back after a short hiatus at the beginning of the recession, and the Arkansas Philharmonic Orchestra, in Bentonville. Then in the summertime, there’s the Artosphere Festival Orchestra, which brings top-flight young musicians from around the country to the Walton Arts Center. If that’s not enough, the nearby Fort Smith Symphony is the state’s oldest orchestra, and another option for the classically minded.

8. Floating the Buffalo
Paddling down the Buffalo National River is a rite of passage not just for area residents but for outdoor enthusiasts across the Mid-South. The Buffalo, designated in 1972 as the country’s first national river, winds through the hills and valleys of the Arkansas Ozarks. It offers up whitewater action for canoes and kayaks, and more laid-back, family-friendly floating for just about anyone who can swing an oar. Plus, it provides fishing, camping and perhaps the best scenery between the Smokies and the Rockies. Numerous outfitters in the area can equip veteran floaters or big-city plebes for a simple day trip or a more intense dive into the wilderness.

9. Clinton House Museum
Far from Pennsylvania Avenue sits a glimpse into the days before Bill Clinton became the Comeback Kid and Hillary became a senator and Secretary of State. This unassuming one-bedroom just off the University of Arkansas campus is a cozy, 1,800-SF charmer, a perfect starter home for young political power couples. The living room offers a romantic ambiance — the Clintons were married there — and the First Ladies Garden is a great place to unwind after a hard day of campaigning, passing legislation or negotiating treaties.

10. Bikes, Blues & BBQ
Even for a town that loves to call the hogs, Bikes, Blues & BBQ dominates Fayetteville when it rolls in each September. What began in 2000 as a 300-motorcycle rally, partially inspired by police chief Richard Watson after he bought his first Harley Davidson, has grown into a four-day event that now claims 400,000 annual attendees. A family-friendly nonprofit, BBBBQ features the motorcycles, music and food that give the event its name. But it has expanded over the years to feature car shows, lawnmower pulls, beauty contests and vintage warplanes.

11. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Upon its opening in 2011, Crystal Bridges instantly took its place among the great art museums in the region, and indeed the country. Accessible yet profound, the museum was a gift to Bentonville from Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton, and houses paintings, drawings and sculptures by some of the nation’s most noteworthy artists: Jackson Pollack, Norman Rockwell, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, among many others. Nestled amid ponds in a creek ravine, the museum is a work unto itself, with a design by architect Moshe Safdie that embraces the surrounding dogwoods and springs. Best of all: admission is always free.

12. Arkansas Music Pavilion
Musicians like to play to a big room, and what could be bigger than the great outdoors? The AMP, as locals know it, is a venue of the Walton Arts Center currently located on the Washington County Fairgrounds, and is one of the top 100 amphitheaters in the nation. The AMP has offered concerts in every genre for close to a decade: Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Black Crowes, Three Days Grace, Cake, Alabama Shakes, you name it. The pavilion has announced plans to relocate to a new, permanent amphitheater in Rogers in 2014 in order to keep the hit-makers coming.

13. Rodeo of the Ozarks
What began as one-shot event to ease wartime blues in WWII turned out to have staying power. The annual Fourth of July event, coming up on its 70th year, continues to draw bull riders and calf ropers to Parsons Stadium, which sits on the same site the first rodeo was held. While the rodeo itself is held the first week of July, other events such as the Arkansas High School Rodeo, the Professional Bull Riding Touring Pro Division, barrel racing championships, fall carnival, Christmas parade, demolition derby and monster truck rally keep the stadium busy.

14. Bentonville Square
Rockwellian at its core, Bentonville’s downtown square — indeed, the city itself — has undergone something of a renaissance the past decade. The square still recalls iconic America, now tinged with urbanism with the arrival of the chic 21c Hotel. Old favorites such as the Farmer’s Market continue to draw visitors, as do new events such as Around the Bloc, First Fridays, Backstage Downtown, Lighting of the Square and the annual Christmas Parade. Balanced against an influx of high-end shops and restaurants, it’s truly where Arkansas’ past and future meet.

15. War Eagle Mill
This Rogers landmark is the only working mill in Arkansas and continues to grind out fresh flour as it has since 1832, four years before Arkansas became a state. (Talk about job security.) Then as now, it was all about location, and the mill thrived, grinding away despite flood and fires. Visitors can observe the century-old milling process, take in the mini-museum and shop for food, recipes and kitchenware or enjoy the Bean Palace Restaurant on the third floor. The fall craft fair is an annual attraction.

16. Northwest Arkansas Naturals Baseball
A major part of northwest Arkansas’ recent growth has been the addition of minor-league baseball. The Naturals are the Double-A farm team of the Kansas City Royals — a fitting affiliation, considering the Royals’ owner is Wal-Mart CEO David Glass. Arvest Ballpark in Springdale was named the Ballpark of the Year in 2008, when the franchise began. If you need an excuse to visit the wide-open concourses, luxury boxes, restaurant, party area, souvenir shop and kids zone at the $50 million park, come for promotions such as “Kids Eat Free Family Sundays,” “Buck Night & Thirsty Thursday” and “Ozark Electric Monday Night Lights.” Also, they play baseball.

17. Razorback Greenway
It’ll be 36 miles when complete in 2014, linking Bentonville, Rogers, Lowell, Springdale, Johnson and Fayetteville via a scenic, multi-use trail for cyclists, walkers and runners. The $38 million Northwest Arkansas Razorback Regional Greenway — Razorback Greenway, for short — is funded primarily by a federal transportation grant and a gift from the Walton Family Foundation. It’ll connect area attractions such as Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art to the north and the University of Arkansas to the south. In between, trail users and commuters will be able to access attractions and the home offices of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Tyson Foods and J.B. Hunt Transport Services.

18. Eureka Springs
This hamlet is many things — historic, artsy, charming, relaxing, perhaps even therapeutic — but most of all, it’s just Eureka. Part Hot Springs, part Breckenridge with helpings of Branson and New Orleans thrown in, Eureka Springs is a Victorian resort jambalaya nestled into the Ozarks just east of Bentonville. It’s known as America’s “Little Switzerland” for the alpine feel afforded by the winding streets and paths at its core. Plus, the entire city is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

19. Tontitown Grape Festival
Gobs of spaghetti, carnival rides, live music. Need we say more? The annual Tontitown Grape Festival, held to commemorate a 1898 thanksgiving by Italian immigrants, brings the vibrant culture to the forefront of a festival offering acres and acres of crafts, games and rides. The star attraction, though, is the multi-night dinner of homemade pasta sauce – 6,000 pounds, to be exact — served up with fried chicken and all of the fixings. Other standout activities include the Run for the Grapes, a large book sale in the church onsite and the Queen Concordia Pageant. The festival is typically held in early-to-mid-August.

20. Prairie Grove Battlefield Historic State Park
On Dec. 7, 1862, Confederate troops attempted to stop Union forces from advancing south on Fort Smith, a clash that resulted in some 2,700 casualties. More than 150 years later, the park has a one-mile walking trail with markers describing the battle and the pre-Civil War Ozark Village, which is open for tours. Make it a day trip and take your lunch out to the picnic tables and playground and make the rounds at the museum housing artillery and weapons from the battle. The state’s largest battle re-enactment happens here in even-numbered years in early December.



Please read our comments policy before commenting.