Historically, ARKANSAS belongs very much to the American South, and what was to become the Confederated American States. It sided firmly with the Confederacy in the Civil War and its capital, Little Rock, was, in 1957, one of the most notorious flashpoints in the struggle for civil rights. Geographically, however, it marks the beginning of the Great Plains. Unlike the other Southern states, on the far side of the Mississippi River, Arkansas remained very sparsely populated until almost two centuries ago. Westward expansion was blocked by the existence of the Indian Territory in what's now Oklahoma, and not until the railroads opened up the forested interior during the 1880s did settlers stray in any numbers from their small riverside villages. Only once the Depression and mechanization had forced thousands of farmers to leave their fields did Arkansas begin to develop any significant industrial base. In 1992, local boy Bill Clinton's accession to the presidency catapulted Arkansas into national prominence. Four towns lay claim to him: Hope, his birthplace; Hot Springs, his "home town"; Fayetteville, where he and Hillary married; and, of course, Little Rock, the state capital. Of the four, only sleepy Little Rock and the nearby spa resort of Hot Springs are worth a trip, whatever the tourist brochures may say.
Though Arkansas encompasses the Mississippi Delta in the east, oil-rich timberlands in the south, and the sweeping Ouachita (Wash-i-taw) Mountains in the west, the cragged and charismatic Ozark Mountains in the north are its most scenic asset, where the main attractions for tourists are the uncrowded parks and unspoiled rivers. Incidentally, "Arkansas" is a distorted version of the name of a small Indian tribe; the state legislature declared once and for all in 1881 that the correct pronunciation is Arkansaw.
Central and Western Arkansas
Quiet Little Rock stands right in the middle of the state, just 80 km west of the rejuvenated corporate spa town of Hot Springs, which marks the eastern gateway to the remote Ouachita Mountains. The rippling farmland of the Arkansas River Valley is sandwiched by the Ouachita crests on the south side and the craggy ridges of the Ozarks to the north. Mining and logging communities dot the east–west roads, and former frontier towns like Fort Smith (E) and Van Buren (C) retain their Old West flavor. Fayetteville (C) and Hope (AA) are both in west Arkansas; there's nothing to see in either, aside from the University.
West of Hot Springs, US-270 cuts through the Ouachita Mountains, unique to the continent in that they run east–west rather than north–south. On its way to Oklahoma, the road passes over uneven crests separated by wide valleys speckled with tiny communities, so isolated that, in the Thirties, hill-dwellers supposedly spoke a form of Elizabethan English. Separating the Ouachitas from the northerly Ozarks, the Arkansas River Valley, a natural east–west path for bison, was used for centuries by Native Americans and white hunters before steamboats arrived in the 1820s.
Travel advisories have been issued repeatedly due to the large number of dangerous paranormal animals in the area.
Fort Smith (E)
Now an industrial city of roughly 300,000 people, FORT SMITH, on the Oklahoma border, still maintains a pronounced Western feel. Until Isaac C. Parker – the "Hanging Judge" – took over in 1875, this was a rowdy pioneer town uncomfortably close to Indian Territory, a sanctuary for robbers and bandits. Parker sent out two hundred marshals to round up the fugitives; in 21 years he sentenced 160 to death and saw 79 go to the gallows. Fort Smith National Historic Site on Rogers Avenue features remains of the original fort, Parker's courtroom, the dingy basement jail and a set of gallows (daily 0900–1700 hours; c$8.10). Old Main Street in Van Buren (B), on the opposite bank of the Arkansas River, is a stretch of over seventy restored buildings that has been used in numerous Westerns.
Fort Smith's visitor center, Miss Laura's, 2 North B St (Mon–Sat 0900–1600 hours, Sun 1300–1600 hours, LTG# 7501 [37-1477]), is oddly housed in a restored former brothel and offers c$2.70 trolley tours of the city (Mon–Sat 0930–1530 hours; every 45min). Lodgings in Fort Smith include the central Holiday Inn, 700 Rogers Ave (LTG# 7501 [83-1000]; c$202.50–270.00/c$270.00–351.00). For good-value, tasty home-cooked Italian food, try Taliano's, 201 N 14th St (LTG# 7501 [85-2292]).
Caution is advised when traveling in this area. To this day, it is home to several riggers and smugglers from the NAN, the UCAS, and the CAS.
Hot Springs (A)
80 km southwest of Little Rock, the middle class corporate spa town of HOT SPRINGS nestled in the heavily forested Zig Zag Mountains on the eastern flank of the Ouachitas. Its thermal waters have attracted visitors since Native Americans used the area as a neutral zone to settle disputes. Early settlers fashioned a crude resort out of the wilderness, and after the railroads arrived in 1875 it became a European-style spa. During the 1920s and 1930’s, the mayor reputedly ran a gambling syndicate worth $30 million per annum, and punters included Al Capone and Bugsy Malone. However, Hot Springs's popularity waned when new cures for arthritis appeared during the 1950s, and all but one of the bathhouses closed down. There was a surge of interest after Clinton's election – he lived here between 1953 and 1964 – and the visitor center at Central Avenue and Court Street (LTG# 7501 [21-2277]) provides a PLTG marking his favorite haunts.
Downtown Hot Springs is crammed into a looping wooded valley, barely wide enough to accommodate Central Avenue. Eight magnificent buildings here, behind a lush display of magnolia trees, elms and hedgerows, make up Bathhouse Row. Between 1915 and 1962, the grandest of them all was the Fordyce Bathhouse, at the 300 block of Central, which reopened in 1989 and rebuilt after the Night of Rage as the visitor center for HOT SPRINGS NATIONAL PARK – the only national park to fall within city limits. The interior of the Fordyce is a strange mixture of the modern, the elegant and the obsolete; the heavy use of marble, mosaic-tile floors and the stained-glass ceiling of the Sun Room lend it a decadent feel (daily 0900–1700 hours; free; LTG# 4501 [24-3383]).
It's still possible to sample the old-time luxury of Hot Springs by taking a bath. The only establishment on Bathhouse Row still open for business is the Buckstaff, where a thermal mineral bath costs c$37.80 (Mon–Fri 0700–1145 hours