When you live in Georgia and you love the American West, you end up traveling across the country a lot. Our route west usually goes one of two ways: a southern route through Arkansas, Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle or a more northern route across Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska.
We’ve done both routes a few times. We REALLY hate driving through St. Louis… The traffic is just horrible. On top of that, Kansas and Nebraska just aren’t that exciting. Then we found a Hampton Inn in Clarksville, Arkansas right off I-40 that was a steal at 5,000 Hilton Honors points. After a couple of stays, the reward redemption rate went up to 10,000 points, but it is still fantastic.
Thus, the trek across Arkansas became more common for us. I can’t even count how many times we’ve driven west across I-40. Since we build most of our road trip itineraries around visiting National Park Sites, we try to stop at a couple along the route west.
When the time came to plan our 2017 road trip through the American West, the time was right for us to visit our last few Arkansas park units.
We stayed in Hot Springs, a good-sized, centrally located city. On our central Arkansas itinerary: Hot Springs National Park, Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site.
Somewhat at the last-minute, my mom and sister decided to meet us in Hot Springs. We really enjoyed visiting with them and taking them with us to our last few stops in Arkansas.
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Hot Springs National Park
No visit to Hot Springs, Arkansas would be complete without a visit to Hot Springs National Park. The town got its name from the thermal springs, after all. And the town and the national park intertwine, to the point that it is sometimes difficult to tell when you’re in the park and when you’re just in town.
The highlight of Hot Springs National Park is the thermal water. Bathhouse Row, the main attraction of the park, preserves nine historic bathhouse buildings. Two bathhouses are active today, providing a soak in the mineral water or other spa treatments such as a massage or a manicure.
Additional buildings house the visitor center, a retail shop and an art center. One building is even a brewery. Yep, one of the unique finds at Hot Springs National Park is Superior Bathhouse Brewing, the only brewery within a national park. Despite being mostly an urban park, there are a few hiking trails at Hot Springs.
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
If we weren’t National Parks enthusiasts, we probably would have skipped this site. Not because it isn’t interesting or worthwhile, but because we’re teachers and this is a school. Not just a historic school, but an active school. Typically, visiting a school when you’re a teacher on summer vacation just isn’t high on the list!
But, we went because we are trying to visit every site within the National Park Service and we know it is significant. Our visit was interesting, even if it was a tour of a school.
We started at the Visitor Center, located diagonally across the street from the school. The high school was at the center of the desegregation efforts after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Unfortunately, the decision called for desegregation with “all deliberate speed,” a vague statement that allowed local entities to drag their feet.
The focus of the Little Rock Central HS NHS is on the “Little Rock Nine,” nine black students who fought to attend the formerly all-white school. The exhibits and park film highlight not just these nine students and their fight, but other significant “fights” throughout history.
The film weaves the story of the “Little Rock Nine” along with more current stories, such as the fight of Native Americans against poverty, inner-city youth and better education and fights against environmental pollutants in New Mexico. It was very interesting to see the mix of old and new and the motivating message to fight for what you think is right.
While the exhibits and park film were great, the presentation within the guided tour was even better. The ranger provided more information on the history of the school, the students, the community at the time and all the events that surrounded these nine students in search of quality education.
The ranger encouraged participants to ask questions to make sure we understood the events and the significance of everything that happened. Once finished with the presentation, we walked over to the school. As it is a still-functioning school, you can only enter with a guided tour, even in the summer.
The outside of the building is beautiful. Seriously, one of the prettiest school buildings I have ever seen. The city built the school in 1927 and is still in good shape! The inside is pretty much exactly what you would expect from a school.
We walked through the halls to the auditorium and cafeteria. While everything was in pretty good condition, it was much more evident on the inside that the school is 90 years old!
The guided tour ended in the Commemorative Garden, a small park between the visitor center and high school.
Little Rock Central HS NHS is a worthwhile stop, even if you can’t get a guided tour of the school. Honestly, the exhibits, film and information provided by the rangers are the highlights. The school is just that, a school. There’s nothing special about the tour inside, though it was interesting to see a building so different from the one we teach in, which dates back only to the mid-1990s!
Located in Little Rock, Arkansas, Little Rock Central HS NHS is about one hour from Hot Springs. Our visit lasted about 1.5 hours.
President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site
I am not sure why or when birthplaces became a “thing” within the National Park Service. But, they are. There are many president’s birthplaces that are now National Historic Sites… George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover and more.
We are in the age of folks being born in hospitals, which don’t make good National Historic Sites, thus, the “Clinton Birthplace Home.” This house is where President Bill Clinton spent the first four years of his life. The home was actually owned by Clinton’s grandparents. His grandparents cared for him for several years while his mother earned a degree and worked in New Orleans.
The home is nice, with a large living room, dining room, kitchen and butler’s pantry and three bedrooms upstairs. The park offers tour of the home roughly every 30 minutes, as needed.
The ranger who led our tour did a great job of explaining the early life of President Clinton and the furnishings in the house. The tour was not at all political!
Regardless of your feelings of Clinton personally or politically, he was a United States President and deserves the respect of that office. The site visit and home tour were informative, though brief.
Located in Hope, Arkansas, President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home NHS is about 1.5 hours south of Hot Springs. Our visit lasted about an hour.
Crater of Diamonds State Park
As you (should) know, our travels usually center on National Park Service sites. It’s not that we don’t like other points of interest, there’s just so much cool stuff out there, we feel using NPS sites allows us to focus our efforts a bit. But, we do visit other interesting sites from time to time, such as Disney World, Historic Banning Mills in Georgia or the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, WY.
Admittedly, though, I have to give my sister credit for suggesting we stop at Crater of Diamonds State Park. Crater of Diamonds is the world’s eighth-largest diamond-bearing volcanic crater. For just a $10 entrance fee, visitors can search for real diamonds.
Since he had work to do, Grant decided to sit this one out and allow my sister and I some time to bond over our diamond search. After paying the admission fee, we headed downstairs to get some equipment. You can bring your own or rent theirs for a small fee. As all we had were some rubber boots, we definitely needed to rent some equipment!
We opted for the Basic Diamond Hunting Kit, which comes with a small shovel, a sifting screen set and a bucket. The rental fee is $12, plus a $45 deposit. The park will refund your deposit you when you return the equipment.
Hunting for Diamonds
We probably should have looked through the exhibits a bit more, or maybe watched the video, on exactly how to search for diamonds. But, my sister had done a bit of prior research and we read the quick signs and just dove right in!
What I’m saying is we had absolutely no idea what we were doing! On top of that, as soon as we got out to the search “field” it started to rain! We quickly grabbed a bucket of dirt, then headed over to the covered water troughs to sift through everything.
Once under cover and out of the rain, we sifted and sorted. Basically, we just looked around to see what everyone else was doing and followed. It was cool to dump a bit pile of dirt/mud that looked like nothing interesting and sift it down to tiny pieces of various rocks and minerals.
Ultimately, we didn’t find anything of value, but we had fun. We probably could have been a bit more prepared by wearing different clothes (stuff you don’t mind getting dirty) and studying up on the best ways to search for diamonds.
And, though we didn’t find anything, other visitors found two diamonds found that day. Grant met a guy in the bathroom claiming to have found a four-carat diamond. Yes, you do get to keep anything that you find!
Located in Murfreesboro, Arkansas, Crater of Diamonds SP is about 80 minutes southwest of Hot Springs. Our visit lasted a little over an hour, though you could easily spend a full day here.
Final Thoughts on Arkansas
While we find ourselves driving through Arkansas a lot, we really can’t get excited about it as a destination. We’ve enjoyed most of our stops, but they just aren’t places that we are eager to return to.
Hot Springs is an interesting town and makes a good base for exploring other sites in central Arkansas. Hot Springs National Park is certainly unique and much different from other National Parks. For that reason, I would encourage a visit. One day is more than enough to experience Hot Springs NP. You can easily spend additional time visiting other nearby sites.
I can see many of these sites being good weekend visits for folks who live nearby. I might be more willing to make another stop here if it was closer to home. As it is, we’ll probably just view Arkansas from the windows for a while.
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