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The Natural State Is Accessible to All

By Kerry Kraus, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism

Below is a sampling of Arkansas tourist sites available to disabled persons who are planning wheelchair accessible vacations. Because the listed sites have varying degrees of wheelchair accessibility, visitors are encouraged to call ahead.

Arkansas is blessed with many natural and man-made attractions. Two mountain ranges, a national park, four national historic sites, a national river, three national forests, 52 state parks, historic towns, bustling cities full of excitement, festivals blanketing the state, water parks, theme parks, botanical gardens - what more could a traveler ask for?

But for a tourist with a physical disability, these places aren't always easy to visit. The tourism industry in Arkansas has made great strides in making wheelchair accessible vacations possible with attractions, lodgings and restaurants that feature wheelchair accessibility since the federal Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted in 1990.

Few have made greater efforts in this area than the Arkansas State Park system. Currently all 52 parks are accessible, and there are plans to make more activities and structures available to disabled persons.

Petit Jean State Park, the state's first, provides a perfect example of facilities being retrofitted to meet the demands of modern society. When its original facilities were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, accessibility was not a major consideration. Today, however, one rustic and four duplex cabins are now totally accessible. Both types offer fireplaces, fully equipped kitchens and coffee makers, but no television. The rustic cabin even boasts a hot tub. The park's Mather Lodge has been outfitted with two accessible rooms, one with double beds, the other a queen. Both have views of the surrounding woods and satellite television – ideal accommodations for wheelchair accessible vacations to this beautiful park.

Even the park's centerpiece - Cedar Falls - is accessible. A boardwalk provides access to an elevated view of the natural wonder. The alleged gravesite of the tragic heroine of the Legend of Petit Jean, for which the park is named, also has an elevated boardwalk leading to it.

"Every state park that offers lodging, be it cabins or a lodge, has barrier-free accommodations," said Greg Butts, Arkansas State Parks director. "And as renovation work continues during the next few years, there will be even more accessible facilities available."

Petit Jean and several other state parks, such as Cane Creek, Lake Chicot, Crowley's Ridge, Lake Charles, Lake Dardanelle, Lake Frierson, Davidsonville Historic and Pinnacle Mountain, have accessible fishing piers. Parks with barrier-free trails include Pinnacle Mountain, Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources, Bull Shoals-White River, Crater of Diamonds, Crowley's Ridge, Louisiana Purchase, Davidsonville Historic, Parkin, Petit Jean and Toltec Mounds. Five parks have swimming pools that can be used by the disabled, and there is a barrier-free firing range at Beaver Lake State Park.

Many private and other public facilities around the state are also suitable for wheelchair accessible vacations. One of the most scenic trails in the state is The Grand Promenade in Hot Springs National Park. A National Recreation Trail, the promenade is one-third of a mile in length and runs parallel to Bathhouse Row. Along the brick-paved path skirting Hot Springs Mountain are benches, game tables, native and ornamental plants, an abundance of birds, and the springs that gave the park its name. Several scenic overlooks offer views of the city and the Ouachita Mountains. The promenade provides wheelchair accessibility via steep ramps at its south and north ends. A brochure and maps are available at the National Park Visitors Center. For more specific information, call (501) 624-3383.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has provided an accessible trail to explore the beauty of the Ozarks around Greers Ferry Lake. The Mossy Bluff/Buckeye Trail, also a National Recreation Trail, is one-half mile in length, a portion of which is wheelchair accessible. Located downstream from the Greers Ferry Dam, the Mossy Bluff Trail meanders along a bluff overlooking the Little Red River. The trail is mostly level, except at each end, where mossy bluffs are crossed by flights of stairs. The trail provides excellent views of the lake and river valley from an overlook shelter at the dam. The Buckeye Trail was constructed in conjunction with the Mossy Bluff Trail to provide a quality trail experience for persons who are not physically able to negotiate the more difficult areas. Displays are provided alongside these trails for interpretation of interesting natural features. Call (501) 362-2416 for more information.

Blanchard Springs Caverns near Mountain View offers spectacular glimpses of the underground world. One of the cave's two trails, the Dripstone Trail, is open year-round and is accessible to people in wheelchairs, provided they have some assistance. This scenic tour covers seven-tenths of a mile in about 90 minutes. It is not a strenuous walk, and there are two seating areas along the trail. The few stairs that comprise a portion of the Dripstone can be bypassed using alternate trails. The trail showcases practically every type of calcite formation found in limestone caves, from delicate soda straws to massive flowstones. The trail leads through two major rooms in the upper level of the cavern system: the Cathedral Room, big enough to hold more than three football fields; and the Coral Room, which features many snow-white formations made of pure calcite. For more information, contact the U.S. Forest Service at (870) 757-2211.

One the most popular attractions in The Natural State is Magic Springs Theme Park/Crystal Falls Water Park in Hot Springs. Several of the rides at Magic Springs are classified as accessible, as are three of the water attractions at Crystal Falls. The park encourages disabled guests to have someone with them for assistance if needed. A Disabled Guest Guidelines brochure is available at the park office. Call (501) 624-0100 for more details.

A good portion of the hotels and motels around Arkansas provide some type of accessible accommodations. Even some of the historic hotels have been adapted to meet the needs of all travelers. It can be difficult, however, to find a bed and breakfast inn that is accessible. This is especially true when considering that more than two-thirds of Arkansas's bed and breakfasts are located in structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are therefore exempt from the accessibility law unless they undergo major renovations.

More recently constructed bed and breakfasts are more likely to provide barrier-free accommodations. One such establishment is the Mountain Thyme Bed and Breakfast Inn in Jessieville. "Nancy's Room" provides wheelchair accessibility for visitors, including a private entrance with ramp, a wheelchair-accessible shower with bench (no tub), and plenty of room to navigate. According to owner and innkeeper Rhonda Hicks, the room has been praised by visitors with disabilities who have stayed in it, including those in wheelchairs.

In Helena, the Delta Cultural Center is another excellent example of a historic building being adapted for modern-day use. The center is housed in a restored 1912 Missouri-Pacific train depot. Located at 95 Missouri Street, the depot includes a permanent exhibit highlighting Arkansas Delta themes, such as the Civil War, Native American culture, Old Man River and the African-American experience. Down the street at 141 Cherry, the Delta Cultural Center Visitors Center includes a museum store, gallery space for temporary exhibits, and an interactive exhibit featuring the music of the Arkansas Delta.

According to the museum, the entire center is accessible. The depot has ramp access and an elevator to the second floor. The visitors center is accessible by a concrete sidewalk ramp. Call (870) 338-4361 for more information.

Little Rock's earliest structures are preserved through the Historic Arkansas Museum. These structures were formerly called the Arkansas Territorial Restoration since they dated to the state's territorial days. The Hinderliter Grog Shop (circa 1826) is Little Rock's oldest building still standing. The circa 1848 Brownlee house is a Federal style brick house constructed in the late 1840s by Robert Brownlee. The Woodruff Print Shop is a two-room brick structure built circa 1824. The McVicar House, circa 1848, is a wooden house constructed of white oak logs and square pegs. Also on the museum grounds is the Plum Bayou Log House, circa 1830s.

The renovated and expanded main building of the museum houses permanent displays of the state's outstanding collection of furniture, silver, pottery, textiles, paintings and firearms, all made by Arkansas artisans and artists over the past 200 years.

According to a museum spokesperson, all the buildings that comprise the complex are barrier-free except for the second floor of the Hinderliter Tavern. For more information call (501) 324-9351 or (501) 324-9304.

The history of the Grand Prairie and the German immigrants that settled the east-central Arkansas town of Stuttgart can be found at the Museum of Arkansas's Grand Prairie. The prairie's natural and cultural heritage, the history of its rice production, and the popularity of duck hunting in the area are all explained in exhibits. Another display replicates Stuttgart's Main Street during the town's formative years, featuring recreations of period businesses. An early prairie village found on the museum grounds includes an authentic one-room schoolhouse, a re-created home and a reproduction of Stuttgart's first Lutheran church.The 20,000 square-foot main museum and all but one of the prairie buildings are barrier-free. The contact phone number is (870) 673-7001.

One of the state's most enduring attractions is The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs. The focal point of the sprawling entertainment complex is the play itself, which portrays Christ's final days on earth. A re-creation of Jerusalem, the colorful market place, the crucifixion, and the awe-inspiring ascension are all depicted in the outdoor amphitheatre. Other attractions include the seven-story-tall Christ of the Ozarks statue, the New Holy Land, the Sacred Arts Center, the Bible Museum and the Smith Memorial Chapel. A spokesperson for the Elna N. Smith Foundation, which runs the compound, said all facilities are ADA compliant. For more information or to make reservations, call 800-882-7529.