From floating down the river, to high-energy mountain biking, there are plenty of exciting things to do in the Ozarks © Wesley Hitt / Getty Images
No landscape is as iconically associated with Arkansas as the Ozark Mountains. These forested highlands are crucial to the state’s self-conception as a natural, rugged wonderland that incubates deep folk culture and a cherished sense of independence. The Ozarks dominate northwestern Arkansas, where they are divided into two geologic categories: the Springfield Plateau and the Boston Mountains.
Drive the looping roads that spiderweb across the region and you’ll plunge into a world of dramatic rock formations, muscular cliffs and deep, dark groves of short leaf pine and red oak. You’ll also find a population that is oft-mythologized in popular culture but rarely understood. Yes, there are mountain folk out here – and there are also artist colonies in Eureka Springs, microbrewers in Bentonville, and literary magazine publishers in Fayetteville.
From following hiking trails and visiting state parks to having an adventure on the Buffalo River, here are the best things to do in the Ozarks.
Float down the Buffalo River
The first national river in the USA is still one of the most beautiful. The Buffalo National River runs across a wide swathe of northern Arkansas, and the western portion of its watershed, which touches the Boston Mountains, is widely considered one of the most beautiful stretches of this waterway. Head to a town like Ponca to connect with adventure outfitters who can help you set up a "float" adventure into limestone gullies and sedate sandbars, or direct you towards some of the area's many stellar hikes. Bring a tent, because camping out here with the river lapping nearby and the stars soaring overhead is kind of unbeatable.
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Mt Magazine State Park is the highest point in the Ozarks © Bonita R. Cheshier / Shutterstock
Hike or drive to the summit of Mt Magazine State Park
The highest point in this mountainous state is Mt Magazine State Park, but don’t let that statistic deter you. The Mount Magazine Scenic Byway is a drivable road that leads to the summit of the mountain where you’ll find the well-appointed (and enormous) Lodge at Mount Magazine, along with some excellent views across the Arkansas River Valley. If you do want to hike, there are nine routes to choose from, including the recommended Bear Hollow Trail, which condences most of the park’s scenery into a 2.8-mile hike.
Appreciate a masterpiece at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Amidst the state parks and renowned hikes, you will find something completely different – Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art – an art museum that looks like a set piece from a science fiction movie, built by the Walton family (the folks who started Walmart). The building alone, designed by architect Moshe Safdie, is worth visiting, and consists of pavillions nestled in 120-acres of Ozark woods, connected by bridges that span natural streams, all within walking distance of downtown Bentonville. Concerts frequently kick off here, and the museum itself boasts a permanent collection that spans the breadth of American art.
Have an adventure by mountain bike on the fantastic biking trails in the Ozarks © Wesley Hitt / Getty Images
Cycle some of the best mountain biking trails in the US
We are going to really annoy some people in Colorado with this next claim, but here goes: the Ozarks might be the best mountain biking destination in the USA. Local town planners, the Walton Foundation, and adventure outfitters have been working overtime to create an unparalleled network of mountain biking trails that take full advantage of the region’s forested, shady pathways, limestone ridges, and sheer outdoors accessibility. In Eureka Springs, you can tempt fate with the downhill only tracks at Lake Leatherwood, or hit a route like Back 40 in Bella Vista, which has plenty of kid-friendly stretches. Check out the OZ Trails map for a good catalog of the fantastic mountain biking options in the area.
Discover a magical waterfall at Petit Jean State Park
Within the crowded pantheon of Arkansas State Parks, Petit Jean holds a special place in many hearts. This may be partly down to it being the oldest state park in Arkansas, but it could also be this is simply a handsome, well-run, thoughtfully designed outdoors space. That said, even the artificial stuff here is beautiful, like the solid, wonderfully crafted stone-and-wood cabins built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression, which remain standing and host visitors to this day. Don’t leave without making the relatively short (two mile roundtrip) hike to Cedar Falls, which are, when it comes to natural beauty, soaring head and shoulders above the rest (literally, the falls are 95ft high).
Hardcore hikers will want to hit the Ozark Highlands Trail
For the hardcore hikers or someone who just wants to disappear into a particularly beautiful corner of creation, we offer up the Ozark Highlands Trail. This one’s a doozy, clocking in at 270 miles (and counting, as more extensions are planned). The 164-mile section that traverses the Boston Mountains crosses over rivers, ridges, outcrops, and piney wood canyons – in short, some of the most compelling scenery in the US Interior Highlands, the largest mountain range between the Rockies and the Appalachians. There are trailheads all along the OHT, so if you want to just "dip" into the experience for a day hike, that’s certainly feasible.
Explore the many hiking and biking trails of the stunning Devil's Den State Park © Wesley Hitt / Getty Images
Soak up the incredible beauty of Devil’s Den State Park
Devil’s Den sort of crams everything that is naturally great about the Ozarks into a 2500-acre slice of mountain bliss. You’ll find lovely stone cabins built by the CCC, mountain biking trails that wind past rock formations and exposed fossil beds, an amazing waterfall, and no fewer than 11 trails to get pleasurably lost on.
See nature’s power surge through Mammoth Springs
Mammoth Springs State Park is one of the less outdoors-oriented pieces of protected land in the Natural State. Instead, it showcases the largest springs in the state, which are, well, of mammoth proportions. That’s not hyperbole; almost 9.8 million gallons of water flow through the springs per hour. The preserved if rusty remnants of a hydroelectric facility are of some interest, but the main reason to come is to stare out over the old dam and feel the power of all that water thundering into the Spring River.
Feel the music and folk culture in Mountain View
The regional folkways of the Ozarks have been lionized, satirized, mocked, and described in mawkish terms. Too few people with strong opinions on mountain life take the time to appreciate it on its own terms. The town of Mountain View is a good place to start this process. The musical traditions of the Ozarks are both preserved and interpreted here, both in an institutional sense, like at Ozark Folk Center State Park, and a dynamic one, like weekend jam sessions of mountain music, held at the town square. Have a wander, ask some questions, and sit for a spell on someone’s porch if they invite you around – it happens a lot around here.
Find inspiration in Eureka Springs
There are few places like Eureka Springs, one of the most eclectic towns in a state that does not lack for settlements with a feisty unique streak. Eureka Springs simply has a lot to offer. There’s a handsome historical hotel, coffee shops galore, a church that finds the divine in the presence of sacred nature, and a historical loop hike that manages to tick the boxes for both activity seekers and those who want to be surrounded by all manner of good-looking late 19th- and early 20th-century architecture. Come the evening, take advantage of the good weather (especially in summer) and clean mountain air with a stroll down main street, and lose yourself amidst a glut of independent artisans.