This region is where stunning views, little known histories and treasures unfold
Deep among the crystal lakes, dark leafy hollows and mountain towns of Southwest Arkansas, explorers can find hidden histories and tranquil getaways. Known for its exceptional hunting and fishing areas around the Ouachita Mountains, the region draws adventurers and sightseers to its many resorts, golf courses, boating opportunities, water sports and scuba diving experiences. The city of Hot Springs catches the eye of travelers looking for a lush escape, and the healing waters the city was named for has drawn people to the valley for centuries. The city’s historic center used to be a vacation hotspot for bootlegging gangsters and leaders of organized crime of the 1930s, and is now filled with museums, gorgeous architecture, exciting activities and the natural beauty that the region is famous for.
Hot Springs National Park is located within Hot Springs and in 1832 was the first land set aside for protection by the federal government, essentially making it the first national park. Hot Springs National Park is best known for the 47 hot springs that come out of the Hot Springs Mountain at an average of 143 degrees Fahrenheit. Visitors can, and are encouraged, to drink the water when it arrives at the surface of Hot Springs Mountain. Thousands of visitors endorse the good quality of the hot springs water and fill bottles to take it home. The park is a popular place for hiking and also features a museum and visitor center. Another beloved element of the park is its historic Bathhouse Row, which features eight bathhouses that are designated as a National Historic Landmark District. These bathhouse buildings were constructed between 1892 and 1923 and are a wonderful place to stroll and enjoy the beautiful architecture. One of the more popular attractions in Hot Springs is the Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort.
Horse racing, sports wagering, live music, and of course, the casino, attract visitors year-round. Other highlights of the town include the National Park Aquarium, the Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo, Galaxy Connection, the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum and the Garvan Woodland Gardens, which sit on the peninsula of Lake Hamilton. With more than 100 permanent and traveling exhibits, Mid-America Science Museum is a favorite stop for student and adult groups. Visitors can retrace the steps of 20th century crime bosses at the Gangster Museum of America, which features exhibits on Al Capone (who frequented Hot Springs in the early 1920s), and other infamous outlaws across the country. After treating yourself to a dip in the springs, jump on board a cruise ship with the Belle of Hot Springs. Sightsee, dine and take in the sunset on Lake Hamilton with your own private party.
Just over 80 miles from Hot Springs is Hope, the birthplace of former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Groups can travel back in time to the President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site, which preserves the home where Bill Clinton spent his formative years. The home is the spot where Clinton says “In this house I learned to walk and talk, I learned to pray, I learned to read and I learned to count by number cards my grandparents tacked on the kitchen window.” Clinton lived in this house for the first four years of his life with his mother and maternal grandparents.
Stories have long told of El Dorado, a city of abundant riches. This town certainly lives up to the myth. El Dorado was at the heart of the 1920s oil boom, and its connection to the railroads helped launch the state’s petroleum industry. Here, visitors will find a wealth of excitement, and can join in on the Hot Springs National Park Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort 19 best of Arkansas’ festivals, carnivals, gun shows, historical reenactments, museums and dining experiences. The Murphy Arts District brings music, theater, dance, art and food to El Dorado through a range of immersive events and programs. Groups can visit one of the regular farmers markets, see a play in the renovated 1920s-era theater, explore photography and sculpture at the Mad Art Gallery, and finish off by dining on farm-to-table food at the Griffin Restaurant. If that’s not enough to satisfy a culture craving, the South Arkansas Arts Center offers monthly gallery exhibits, community theater productions and a range of creative classes for groups to get their hands on.
Crater of Diamonds State Park
Though this region is bursting with natural beauty, you can’t take the view home with you. But you can take home its treasures. The Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro is one of the only places in the world where the public can hunt for real diamonds. Visitors can search the 37-acre eroded surface of a volcanic crater for gemstones and rocks and take home their findings. The visitor center displays uncut diamonds and exhibits which demonstrate the unique geology of the region. Visitors can rent diamond-hunting tools and learn the best techniques to find precious stones. Not only has the public found more than 33,000 diamonds in this park, but it was also the place where the largest diamond in the United States, the 40.23 carat Uncle Sam diamond, was discovered.
For groups looking for a guided experience, the Wegner Crystal Mines in Mount Ida provide group tours where guides will bring you into the 40-acre mine site and teach you how to get the most out of your dig. Tools are provided in this collecting experience which is great for people of all ages. At the site’s museum, visitors can marvel at a 2,000-pound quartz crystal, a 4,400-pound amethyst geode and a hoard of other treasures. There are many mines to explore: The Crystal Forest Mine, the Phantom Mine (famous for rare Phantom Quartz Crystals) and the Tailings Area are just a few. Group accommodations and customized digs are available here.
By Lauren DeLorenzo