Without a doubt, the year 2020 has turned our world upside down. The relentless and ever-changing updates on the COVID-19 pandemic have left us weary, frightened and desperately seeking hope for better days ahead. More than ever, time with our family in the outdoors has become sacred and therapeutic, serving as a prime opportunity to escape from our homes and yet feel safe while doing so.
Whether you are ready for a road trip now or you’re just planning for a future getaway, western Arkansas is an incredible destination to consider. The Ozark Mountains are on full display here, where forest trails frequently lead to stunning overlooks and waterfalls. Bentonville, located in northwest Arkansas, brings a perfect blend of outdoor adventure and indoor spaces to delight in art and delicious food. And with fall on the horizon, the Ozarks are a sight to behold from mid-October to early November, so your family can take in all those glorious colors of autumn along the way. Enjoy our family’s favorite long weekend itinerary!
Fort Smith, Arkansas is a great place to start your trip, located less than 3 hours from the OKC metro area. If you can get there by lunchtime, Rolando’s Restaurante will please both your eyes and your taste buds with the most colorful and beautifully-plated Latin cuisine. Guest favorites include the queso blanco, enchiladas and el plato Cubano. The restaurant’s interior is its own work of art, decorated with vibrant colors and Ecuadorian tiles, but they also have an outdoor dining space and curbside pickup options.
Next, make your way north toward Devil’s Den State Park. This iconic park, located in the Lee Creek Valley, is studded with unique caverns and multi-use trails surrounded by the Ozark National Forest. A remarkable rock dam spans the creek next to Lake Devil, where families can fish or rent pedal boats.
The most popular trail in the park, especially for small children, is the Devil’s Den Self-Guided Trail. This 1.5-mile loop has several points of interest to keep the kids engaged and excited to learn about their surroundings. The park offers 17 full-service cabins, many built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). They have been modernized with kitchens, heat and air and satellite TV. During the COVID-19 pandemic, you can have peace of mind knowing Arkansas State Parks are taking extra precautions by allowing 24 to 48 hours between guests in all lodges and cabins.
Lake Fort Smith State Park is just a 30-minute drive from Devil’s Den for even more exploration. The visitor center offers several fun exhibits for children to learn about pioneer life, including a replica log cabin and covered wagon. Arkansas State Parks require guests to wear masks prior to entering their indoor facilities. For families ready to take in those majestic lake views, the marina at Lake Fort Smith offers boat and kayak rentals.
My family members all agree the most incredible panoramic views of the Ozark Mountains are from the White Rock Mountain Recreation Area, which is just an hour away from Devil’s Den and Lake Fort Smith State Parks.
Getting there is half the fun! All roads leading in are well-maintained but do have a few gravel sections that some drivers may feel more comfortable traversing in an SUV or truck. Once you arrive, I highly recommend hiking the White Rock Rim Trail, a 2-mile loop that encircles the mountain’s peak and yields breathtaking vistas. Keep in mind, there are several high cliff areas where children and leashed pets need to be monitored closely. We embarked on this hike when our boys were 5 and 6 years old and they did great, so don’t let this warning keep you from exploring the area. Enjoy one of the trail’s four stone shelters along your trek, perfect for a lunch picnic with your family.
After an adventurous morning, take a break in the car as you head toward Bentonville, which is about 1 hour and 45 minutes away. This beautiful city in northwest Arkansas has been home to Walmart since 1950 after Sam Walton purchased a store in its town square.
Our family’s favorite Bentonville attraction is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which was founded by Alice Walton, Sam Walton’s daughter, in 2011. Admission is always free for guests and the museum remains open during the pandemic with extra safety measures in place, like required face masks and timed-entry tickets you can reserve in advance. The museum features a wide range of American art, from Colonial to contemporary eras. The outdoor walking trails are brilliantly woven with sculptural art, evidence of the museum’s mission to appreciate and connect with nature. An original Frank Lloyd Wright home stands proudly in the center of the grounds and is worth touring once it’s safe to reopen to the public.
There are lots of hotel and Airbnb options to consider near Bentonville, but we were most impressed with the new Trails Edge Cabins located in Bella Vista, nestled among wooded hills and rocky bluffs, where mountain bikers and hikers have easy access to the Back 40 Trail System. Northwest Arkansas is truly a biker’s paradise with miles of both paved and dirt flow trails as well as several bike parks and pump tracks for even the youngest bikers to enjoy.
The culinary scene is expansive in Bentonville, where local chefs embrace the farm-to-table culture, offering guests healthy and unique dining experiences. Crêpes Paulette will satisfy everyone with a wide variety of sweet and savory combinations. Patio dining is available but they also take online orders for curbside pickup. The Preacher’s Son consistently treats guests to exceptional service and artfully crafted meals in a beautifully restored historic church. The atmosphere is ethereal, with natural light pouring in through art glass windows. Head chef Matthew Cooper has a passion for creating rustic and flavorful dishes, many of which are gluten-free.
Before heading home, consider exploring a family-friendly trail that leads to alluring waterfalls and creeks within the Tanyard Creek Nature Park. Nearby, step inside the Cooper Chapel, an awe-inspiring cathedral composed of glass and steel where towering arches create transformative light and shadows. For a more historic experience, families can even visit a former Civil War battlefield at the U.S. Pea Ridge Military Park. Cell phone driving tours are available for guests to learn more about the significant people and events of the Civil War era, or you can stretch your legs on some of the site’s hiking trails.
Your drive home will take you right through Siloam Springs, a perfect place to stop for a mid-day meal at Fratelli’s Wood Fired Pizzeria, conveniently located within walking distance from the city parks surrounding Sager Creek. Expect plenty of shady places to picnic with your family while enjoying the views of cascading fountains and stately trees.
After a trip like this, you’ll see why Arkansas is called “The Natural State.” It’s an ideal place to renew your family’s wanderlust spirit while sharing some incredible outdoor adventures together.