View Travel Guide Request Info

Arkansas's National Park Sites Preserve Nature and History

Article follows the photos. Click on a thumbnail to view and download a high-resolution version of the image. Due to the large file size of the high-res images, they may take a few minutes to appear. You must be logged in to view the high-res images.

Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs National Park
    Ft. Smith National Historic Site
Ft. Smith National Historic Site
Central High School, Little Rock
Central High School, Little Rock
    Pea Ridge National Military Park
Pea Ridge National Military Park
Buffalo National River
Buffalo National River
July 16, 2004

Arkansas's National Park Sites
Preserve Nature and History

By Jim Taylor, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

HOT SPRINGS -- Eight architecturally stylish buildings dating from 1911 to 1939 stand in a row beside Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs, quietly testifying to the city's days as America's foremost spa. The bathhouses and the array of thermal springs that made them famous are nationally significant slices of Arkansas's landscape and history, a part of America's story as well as the state's.

A variety of other Arkansas places share that distinction, among them a free-flowing and remarkably clean river in the Ozark Mountains, the site of a frontier fort and federal court, a high school that became a symbol of the struggle for civil rights in America, the most important Civil War battlefield west of the Mississippi River, and one location (among several) of the first permanent European community in the Mississippi's lower valley.

The hot springs and the bathhouses are now preserved within Hot Springs National Park, but the Buffalo National River, the Fort Smith and Central High School national historic sites, the Pea Ridge National Military Park, and the Arkansas Post National Memorial are also units of the National Park Service (NPS). Scattered across the state, the six units protect outstanding natural features and preserve historically important locations, informing visitors about pivotal happenings in the nation's past at the places those events occurred.

Hot Springs National Park

In a misty Ouachita Mountains valley in 1804, two explorers commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson found steaming waters issuing from a lush hillside. To protect the rare thermal springs, Congress in 1832 declared the area around them a federal reservation. In 1921, the reservation was renamed Hot Springs National Park, the 18th site to receive such a designation. Among America's national parks, however, Hot Springs was the earliest site set aside for federal protection.

Bathhouse Row is the park's most celebrated feature. The 1915 Fordyce Bathhouse serves as the park's visitors center, where a 17-minute orientation film, "Valley of the Vapors," details the history of the springs, the city and the era of medicinal bathing. Self-guided tours of the building allow visitors to see first-hand the opulence associated with the bathing industry.

Forty-five of the 47 hot springs have been capped and their water is delivered to nearby locations offering thermal baths to the public. On the row, only the Buckstaff Bathhouse continues to offer bathing, as it has since 1912. Fascinated onlookers are common at an open display spring north of the row, where naturally heated waters cascade steamily down the lower slopes of Hot Springs Mountain.

Other park features include an observation tower providing a birds-eye view of Hot Springs and the surrounding Ouachitas; some 30 miles of hiking trails; scenic mountain drives with overlooks; the brick-paved Grand Promenade, a National Recreation Trail behind Bathhouse Row; and a campground along Gulpha Creek.

For more park information, visit or phone (501) 624-2701.

Buffalo National River

"Because it is a pure, free-flowing stream which has not been significantly altered by industry or man," a U.S. congressional committee said about Arkansas's Buffalo River in the early 1970s, "it is considered to be one of the country's last significant natural rivers." Thus, the Buffalo was protected by the creation of the Buffalo National River, becoming in 1972 the first stream to be so designated.

The Buffalo travels 150 miles through the Ozarks, while the national river site, with almost 96,000 acres, encompasses the lower 135 miles and adjoining lands. The pristine stream often flows beneath towering stone bluffs. Whitetail deer, raccoon, opossum, bobcat, mink, bear, and beaver are common along its path and the national river is home to the state's only elk herd. The Buffalo hosts 64 fish species and, because of elevation differences, a variety of soil types and other factors, more than 1,500 plant species have been recorded in the area.

Outfitters are readily available for float trips, the most celebrated Buffalo activity. Some of the more than 100 miles of hiking trails within the park are open to horses. Three wilderness areas are popular with backpackers. Modern and rustic campgrounds and cabins are available, and camping is permitted on gravel bars along the stream.

The Tyler Bend Visitor Center, located some 11 miles north of Marshall via U.S. 65, has exhibits on the natural and human history along the river corridor and shows a 17-minute orientation video upon request. For more Buffalo River information, visit or phone (870) 741-5443.

Fort Smith National Historic Site

In 1817, the U.S. Army established Fort Smith at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau rivers to quell intertribal fighting between members of the Osage and Cherokee tribes. Abandoned in 1824, the fort was reestablished in 1838 and served frontier needs until closed in 1871. The site then became home to the Federal Court for the Western District of Arkansas and its legendary Judge Isaac C. Parker, who sentenced more people to death by hanging than any other judge in U.S. history.

The Fort Smith National Historic Site preserves the foundation of the 1817 fort and, from the second fort, a commissary storehouse (the oldest extant building in the city of Fort Smith) and a barracks. The barracks structure, which now contains the site's visitors center and Parker's refurbished courtroom, was expanded with the addition of a new jail to replace a primitive, basement jail. A gallows where criminals sentenced by Parker met their fate has been re-created in its original location. On the yearly anniversaries of executions, interpretive programs are presented describing the court's role in frontier justice and the crimes, trials and executions of the outlaws hung on that date.

An orientation film, "Fort Smith: Peacekeeper of Indian Territory," and exhibits recount the history of the fort and the federal court, which administered justice to outlaws in western Arkansas and the adjacent Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). An exhibit on the U.S. deputy marshals who served Parker's court includes a video entitled "It Took Brave Men."

The Fort Smith National Historic Site, which completed an extensive renovation in 2000, is located at Third and Garland Streets in downtown Fort Smith. For more information, visit or phone (479) 783-3961.

Central High School National Historic Site

In September 1957, the nation watched while television news -- then in its early years -- seared images of a segregationist mob's racial hatred into America's consciousness. The images came from the grounds of Little Rock's Central High School, where nine African-American teenagers were seeking to become the school's first black students. In 1998, the school was designated as the Central High School National Historic Site.

Then-Arkansas Gov. Orval E. Faubus called out the Arkansas National Guard on Sept. 4, 1957, to block the students' entry to the school in the name of "safety," forcing U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower on Sept. 24 to send in U.S. Army troops to guarantee the Little Rock Nine their constitutional rights. The confrontation became an early, high-profile victory for the modern civil rights movement as Eisenhower demonstrated the federal commitment to ending segregation in the nation's schools.

The Central High visitors center and museum, located across the street from the school at West 14th and Park Streets, is housed in a former Mobil Oil service station restored to appear as it did in 1957. A major exhibit, "All the World Is Watching Us: Little Rock and the 1957 Crisis," reviews the school conflict and more than a century of events that led up to it and to the civil rights movement.

Through poster-size enlargements of photographs, projected front pages of Arkansas newspapers and a '50's era television playing clips of Faubus and Eisenhower from 1957 broadcasts, the museum recreates the drama of the confrontation -- governmental for Eisenhower and Faubus, personal for the nine teenagers trying to gain admittance to the school. For more information, visit or phone (501) 374-1957.

Pea Ridge National Military Park

On March 7-8, 1862, some 10,500 Union soldiers turned back about 16,000 Confederate troops who were marching through extreme northwestern Arkansas en route to Missouri with hopes of capturing St. Louis. As a result of the battle, Missouri remained in Union hands for the duration of the Civil War and the door was quickly opened to the federal conquest of Arkansas and the lower Mississippi River.

Located on U.S. 62 about nine miles northeast of Rogers, the 4,300-acre Pea Ridge National Military Park preserves the entire battlefield, much of it appearing as it did when the fighting occurred. The park visitors center shows a 30-minute film, "Thunder in the Ozarks," which recounts the battle and provides an informative and inspiring prelude to a self-guided driving tour with wayside exhibits and recorded messages further interpreting the battle. Highlights of the tour include the East Overlook, from which much of the battlefield can be seen lying below, and the reconstructed Elkhorn Tavern.

The Pea Ridge battle was also noteworthy as the first Civil War battle in which Native Americans took part on a large scale. Some 1,000 Cherokees participated, including Stand Watie, who would rise to the rank of brigadier general and be the last Confederate general to surrender at war's end. The park also contains a 2.5-mile segment used by 11 Cherokee groups in the late 1830s as they marched from the southeastern U.S. to the Indian Territory during the forced migration known as "the Trail of Tears."

For more Pea Ridge information, visit or phone (479) 451-8122.

Arkansas Post National Memorial

In 1686, the explorer Henri de Tonti founded Arkansas Post near the junction of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. The first permanent European settlement along the lower Mississippi, the Post predated New Orleans and remained Arkansas's lone European community at the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

The settlement became the site of Arkansas's only armed encounter of the Revolutionary War, the first capital of Arkansas Territory, the birthplace of the Arkansas Gazette newspaper (for many years the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi) and an 1863 Civil War battlefield for 30,000 Union and 5,000 Confederate troops.

The 749-acre Arkansas Post National Memorial preserves the settlement's 1819 site (it had moved several times to avoid flooding) and commemorates the people who lived its history. The visitors center offers a 22-minute film on the Post's history and exhibits on such topics as the Native Americans who once occupied the area, the fur trade conducted by the region's French, Spanish and Americans, the Post's flora and fauna and the steamboats that plied the two rivers. The town site is now an open field dotted with large oaks and a wooded area along the Arkansas, but the area features informational panels describing the Revolutionary and Civil war battles and the structures once located at the Post, including a tavern where the first meetings of Arkansas's territorial government were held.

The memorial is located in southeast Arkansas at the end of Ark. 169 about two miles east of its junction with U.S. 165 six miles south of Gillett. For more information, visit or phone (870) 548-2207.


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"

1 Capitol Mall, 4A-900 - Little Rock, Arkansas 72201 | 1-800-872-1259 or (501) 682-7777 (V/TT)
Copyright © 2017 Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. - Web Services by Aristotle Web Design
The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism is in compliance with the Freedom of Information, Ar. Code Ann., 25-19-101 et seq.