||Summer days are prime times for exploring the natural and cultural heritage of Arkansas's Timberlands and Ouachita Mountains regions. Indoors, visitors can learn about famous Arkansas entertainers and South Arkansas's oil boom, take in live music and magic shows and tour the boyhood home of a former U.S. President. Outdoor possibilities include visiting a major theme and water park, touring a botanical garden, digging for "keeper" diamonds and quartz crystals, scenic drives, golf, hiking, canoeing and trout fishing. Here are some suggestions for one-day jaunts:
One could easily spend more than a day partaking of the varied attractions in and near downtown Pine Bluff, but a good place to start is the new $4.5 million Delta Rivers Nature Center. Its exhibits explore the natural history of the state's Delta region, while its hiking trails through 130 acres of woodland "bottoms" provide a look at the area's characteristic vegetation and wildlife. A 20,000-gallon "oxbow lake" aquarium contains native fish species and live snakes, turtles and alligators are also displayed.
Near the nature center, the 18-hole Harbor Oaks Golf Course stretches for a challenging 7,010 yards with numerous sand and water hazards.
The Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame spotlights accomplished entertainers with Arkansas connections. Visitors are greeted by an animatronic version of country singer Johnny Cash.
Pine Bluff's 12 downtown murals depict facets of local history and represent some of the finest outdoor art in Arkansas. "Southeast Shear: Barraque Bridge Plaza" is an outdoor artwork covering about a third of a city block with a soaring superstructure of bundled pine logs. The Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas offers art exhibits, community theater productions and other events throughout the year.
Local history is on display at the Pine Bluff-Jefferson County Historical Museum, while the Band Museum contains around 1,100 musical instruments, including some from the early 1700s. The museum's restored soda fountain offers sandwiches, sundaes, banana splits and drink floats.
The Arkansas Railroad Museum houses Engine 819 as well as a variety of restored railroad cars and railroad artifacts. In 1942, the 368-ton locomotive became the last 4-8-4 (which refers to its wheel configuration) steam engine built in the city.
Beginning in 1921, an oil boom brought thousands of newcomers to El Dorado. Oil-related paperwork overwhelmed the 1848 county courthouse, congregations outgrew their churches and business space was in short supply. Nearby, oilfields were unleashing a flood of wealth unparalleled in Arkansas history. The gush of prosperity would subsequently spread through 10 South Arkansas counties.
The Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources, located 10 miles north of El Dorado via Ark. 7, tells the state's oil story through films, historic photographs, geological and other exhibits, oil-era memorabilia and its Oil Field Park, which displays full-size derricks and pumping equipment.
Financed by the oil, El Dorado's outstanding legacy of 1920s and '30s architecture, including art deco, collegiate Gothic, classical revival and Venetian Gothic styles, represents a lasting echo of the oil boom.
Completed in 1928 in a Neo-classic design, the Union County Courthouse provides an inspirational centerpiece for the revitalized downtown, where a diverse mix of businesses offer antiques and collectibles, works by regional artists, and a host of other goods and services.
Several restaurants, an Italian-style deli, a tearoom, a café, lunch counters and a sports bar provide a variety of cuisines and settings for dining. Among the entertainment options available are live music, movies in the grand Rialto Theater (1929) and a 1920s-vintage pool hall.
At 6 p.m. on summer Saturdays, the square hosts "Showdown at Sunset," the reenactment of a feud-inspired gunfight that occurred there in 1902. In early October, the city's Musicfest brings national and regional music acts to downtown.
The 1849 John Newton House is a prominent reminder of El Dorado's pre-oil years, while the 13-acre South Arkansas Arboretum, an Arkansas state park, features flora native to the state's West Gulf Coastal Plain region along more than two miles of woodland trails.
The town of Hope's biggest claim to fame was once watermelons exceeding 200 pounds, but that changed in 1992 when native son Bill Clinton was elected U.S. President. Visitors to the Clinton Center can explore the home where Clinton lived with his grandparents from 1946 to 1950, redecorated to appear as it did in 1950.
The Hope Visitor Center and Museum, located in a restored railroad depot, contains Clinton and railroad memorabilia, historic photographs of the town and exhibits on the famous watermelons. Hope's renowned Watermelon Festival is held each August in the city's Fair Park.
Located eight miles north of Hope via U.S. 278, Old Washington Historic State Park preserves and showcases the history and pioneer culture of the town of Washington, which played a role in Texas's 1835-36 fight for independence from Mexico and served as the state's Confederate capital from 1863-65.
Park attractions include the courthouse that served as the Confederate capitol; weapons and printing museums; a re-creation of a blacksmith shop; the Pioneer Cemetery, where three veterans of the American Revolution are interred; and historic houses dating from the mid-1830s to the 1850s. The authentically furnished homes contain many items - furniture and ceramics in particular - that are 19th-century treasures.
Annual park events include the Jonquil Festival in early March, Frontier Day in late September, Civil War Days in late October and Christmas and Candlelight in early December.
Located near Murfreesboro about 35 miles from Washington via U.S. 278, Ark. 27 and Ark. 301 is the Crater of Diamonds State Park, the only place on Earth where the public can search for diamonds in their natural, geological matrix and keep any that are found. The site has produced more than 70,000 diamonds. An audio-visual presentation gives tips on diamond hunting and exhibits in the center's Diamond Museum detail the site's history and geology.
A rainbow-trout fishery is located on the Little Missouri River below the Narrows Dam six miles north of Murfreesboro. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission stocks the stretch with trout from late fall through April. Rental cabins and easy public access are available on the stream.
Millennia ago, thermal springs began attracting Native Americans to a narrow, misty valley in the Ouachita Mountains, and Hot Springs - the city that sprang from the springs - has long been Arkansas's top tourist destination. The spring waters are no longer believed a medicinal miracle, but therapeutic getaways can still be planned from among the area's many recreational opportunities.
The famed Bathhouse Row is the centerpiece of Hot Springs National Park, while Oaklawn Park, a thoroughbred racetrack since 1905, conducts live racing from late January through mid-April and offers simulcast races throughout the year.
A hot summer day is perfect for enjoying the Magic Springs theme park and adjoining Crystal Falls water park. They offer more than 25 rides and water features that include a 350,000-gallon wave pool. Admission is good for both parks.
The shores of Lake Hamilton are home to Garvan Woodlands Gardens, a new 210-acre botanical garden featuring a visitors center, stream courses with waterfalls, and Asian-inspired rock bridges, while the lake's waters hosts cruises aboard the 400-passenger riverboat Belle of Hot Springs.
A thriving arts community is another Hot Springs hallmark. A dozen or so world-class galleries were among the reasons art expert John Villani ranks the city among the top 10 in his book, "The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America."
The Hot Springs Jazz Festival each September brings nationally known jazz artists to town and the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival in October screens up to 70 non-fiction films. Poetry readings and other arts-related events are common throughout the year.
Live shows include "The Witness," a contemporary Christian musical drama; Maxwell Blade's Theater of Magic, a Las Vegas-style magic production; Music Mountain Jamboree, a country music and comedy show; and The Bathhouse Show, which uses comedy and music from the last six decades to highlight the city's history.
Within minutes of downtown, numerous private resorts and two state parks provide accommodations on three large, manmade lakes, each popular for fishing, swimming, motorboating, sailing and water-skiing. Lake Ouachita and Lake Catherine state parks feature marinas with rental watercraft, cabins, tent and RV camping and hiking trails.
Queen Wilhelmina State Park, atop Arkansas's second highest peak, and Mount Ida make great headquarters for exploring the recreational assets of the Ouachita Mountains and the Ouachita National Forest. The park, which has a 38-room lodge, restaurant, miniature railroad, animal park, miniature golf course and hiking trails, is located on the Talimena National Scenic Byway, a route especially popular for viewing colorful fall foliage.
The Mount Ida area is famous for its quartz crystal mines open to the public for small fees and for its numerous rock shops. Outfitters are available for canoe trips on the Ouachita and Caddo Rivers, and several private resorts are located nearby on the western end of Lake Ouachita, Arkansas's largest lake.
Throughout the national forest, the U.S. Forest Service provides campgrounds, day-use areas and trails, including the 223-mile Ouachita National Recreation Trail. Particularly popular are the Albert Pike campground, which features one of the state's best natural swimming holes, the Little Missouri Falls and the Winding Stairs scenic area, all located southwest of Mount Ida along the Little Missouri River.