The Ozarks is another often overlooked, but interesting, part of America. Located mostly in Missouri and Arkansas, Ozarks is a physiographic as well as cultural region with boundaries quite difficult to define. Most Europeans (and some Americans too), have probably never even heard about it. Which is a shame as it is a fascinating place.
I started my Ozarks exploration in the capitol city of Arkansas, Little Rock. The capitol building was an obvious place to start. You might have realised by now that as a bit of geek I never skip capitol building if I’m close to one. The Arkansas capitol is so similar to the national one in Washington DC that it was apparently used as a substitute by film crews on a few occasions. The interior offers the usual mix of frescoes which sometimes makes you feel more like you’re in an ancient Roman temple or renaissance church than in government building. It is fun nonetheless.
But the biggest attraction of Little Rock is the William J Clinton Presidential Library, one of 13 currently administered by the Office of Presidential Libraries. Located right next to the Arkansas River, on 30 acres of a former run-down warehouse district, it is a great example of urban renewal. Exhibits are of course quite biased (no mention of Monica here) as the place was founded by donations from Bill supporters. You can see the presidential limo and the full size replica of the oval office among the more serious documents. The building itself is quite an attractive, cantilevered, steel and glass structure reaching into the river. The whole complex is located in a nicely landscaped park just a short walk away from the River Market district, in itself an attractive part of Little Rock.
Next I headed west to Hot Springs which is a historic spa town as well as a national park. In fact it is the oldest federal reserve which makes it the oldest part of the National Park System, even older than the famous Yellowstone or Yosemite. There are 47 hot springs protected in the historic downtown district of the city. The most interesting part of the town, and a great place for an afternoon stroll, is the Bathhouse Row. It consists of eight historic buildings from the beginning of the 20th century and is managed by the National Park Service. Two buildings (Buckstaff and Quapaw) still operate as a spas, another one (Fordyce) was converted into a museum and visitor centre. The bathhouses are all quite eclectic buildings in neoclassical, renaissance-revival, Spanish and Italianate styles aligned in a linear pattern with formal entrances, outdoor fountains, promenades and other landscape-architectural features.
Hot Springs was for many years an illegal gambling mecca and among its many guests was Al Capone, whose favourite retreat was the impressive Arlington Hotel which still dominates the town’s skyline. A great way of getting orientated is a visit to the viewing tower on top of the Hot Springs Mountain offering fantastic panorama of the whole town. Alternatively, (if you don’t want to pay the tower admission for example) there are good viewpoints on the West Mountain Drive.
North of the Hot Springs I entered deep into the Ouachita Mountains. These low but rugged mountains are technically hills, but let’s not be too precise and allow for some justified exaggeration. Ouachitas are not geologically part of the Ozarks Plateau but they are often included in the wider, cultural meaning of the Ozarks. And the scenery is definitely mountainous and even more scenic than further north. I chose state Hwy 7, officially designated as an Arkansas Scenic Byway and it was an excellent choice. The road twists and turns deep into the lush forested countryside and every moment offers new great views. Traffic was sparse, surface smooth and nicely profiled curves made it an absolutely fantastic drive. Not to enjoy it you must either hate driving or suffer severe motion sickness. By the way, if you have any of the aforementioned problems you shouldn’t visit rural America in the first place.
After two hours of fun I arrived to the Magazine Mountain State Park. With an elevation of 839 m it is the highest point in the state of Arkansas. Fortunately for all the lazy folks you can drive almost to the top of it and from the parking lot it is just short walk to the highest spot itself. Unfortunately, Magazine Mountain is a flat topped plateau and the highest point is in the middle of the forest so there is no view whatsoever. But don’t be worry, there are good vista points along the road encircling the mountain and some of them offer truly spectacular panorama of the surrounding landscape.
Still heading north I crossed the Arkansas River and entered the Ozarks proper. This time I chose the state Hwy 23. It is another Arkansas scenic byway, imaginatively called Pig Trail Scenic Byway due to its steep hills and hairpin turns, especially in the middle section. Later the land gets a bit less forested, more of the farmland, and less mountainous. Traffic was as sparse as on Hwy 7 before, so it was another splendid drive. Good empty road and country music made a perfect combination. I was really enjoying every minute of it.
Route 23 led me straight into an absolute gem of the Ozarks. The town of Eureka Springs. I have to admit that before planning this trip I had never really heard about it. I guess most people in Europe, and many in the US as well, are in exactly the same situation. I find it a real shame as this small town (population just over 2000) is absolutely fantastic. The area always had a reputation as a healing place and when Europeans arrived they quickly established a spa town. By the middle of the 19th century it was a flourishing tourist destination. The entire town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a unique Victorian resort village. Its steep, winding streets are filled with well preserved Victorian villas and mansions, many with lush gardens. Due to the hilly topography some buildings have street level entrances on more than one floor. For example the Catholic Church has a street-level entrance to its bell tower. Many of the old houses were converted to small, independently run, B&Bs and hotels while buildings in the historic downtown offer some interesting shopping.
The best way of exploring Eureka Springs is simply to wander aimlessly for hours. Getting lost greatly enhances the experience. Just remember to take an extra memory card and batteries because the place is so photogenic, you won’t be able to stop snapping picture after picture. The inhabitants are a friendly, diverse crowd, with a sizeable artistic and retired community. It’s a bit out of place in the conservative and homogeneous Ozarks.
But the traditional south is never far away. Just outside of town there is a big (seven-storey high to be precise), concrete statue of Jesus, known as Christ of the Ozarks. It is a rather kitschy structure, part of the religious entertainment complex. You can actually see it above the trees looking south from Eureka Springs.
One religious attraction you definitely shouldn’t miss is the Thorncrown Chapel. Built in 1980, it is one of the most stunning buildings I have ever seen. The structure, constructed largely of local wood and other materials, gives the impression of being open-air but is in fact glass-enclosed. And because it is located in the dense forest when you enter inside you still somehow feel outside and connected to the nature. It’s an absolutely amazing piece of art, architecture and human ingenuity. It is located a few miles west of Eureka Springs, just off the US Hwy 62.
I place Eureka Springs high on the list of my favourite American destinations, but the most popular destination in the Ozarks is actually the town of Branson, located just across the state border in Missouri.
Sometimes called the Live Music Show Capital of the World it is a family friendly place whose biggest attractions are various live shows. According to some statistics it has actually more theatre seats than NYC’s Broadway. Some less enthusiastic folks call it Las Vegas for the hillbillies and seniors, which might be a bit harsh judgement, but it’s definitely not my sort of thing. So after a really tasty barbecue I continued moving north heading towards Kansas City, which I describe in different article. As I already mentioned the Ozarks boundaries are hard to define but somewhere between Springfield and KC you will see the landscape getting definitely less exciting.
The Ozarks have much more to offer than I described here; wild rivers, lakes, rugged topography, great barbecue joints hidden in small towns and much, much more. I simply didn’t have enough time to explore it all. I especially wish I had spent more time in the Missouri part of the Ozarks. Well, maybe next time. All I can say after my short visit, it is definitely an underrated region and well worth visiting.