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20 Spring Break Ideas in the Natural State
By Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

No plans for Spring Break yet? No sweat. Many Natural State destinations offer entertainment especially for children and teenagers in addition to tempting diversions for grown-ups. Listed below are a few ideas to help you plan a perfect Spring Break vacation.

1. Buffalo National River -- Spring and early summer are the prime times to float the Buffalo National River, although the lower section can be floated year-round. The first stream to receive the designation (1972), the Buffalo flows roughly 150 miles and includes nearly 95,000 acres of public land along its corridor. The river descends nearly 2,000 feet through layers of sandstone, limestone and chert. One immediately obvious result is bluffs and more bluffs -- the highest in all the Ozark Mountains. Hidden away, ready for discovery, are other geologic marvels -- springs, caves, waterfalls, natural bridges and box-like canyons, where trails are abundant. Numerous outfitters (for canoeing, rafting, horseback riding and fishing) service the river, and there are several campgrounds, cabins, motels and other lodging options nearby. (870) 741-5443; www.arkansas.com/outdoors_sports/float/.

2. Hot Springs -- Fishing, skiing, pleasure boating, sailing, houseboating, parasailing and scuba diving are popular lake activities, while attractions such as Hot Springs National Park, the Mid-America Science Museum, a 210-acre botanical garden, live music and magic shows, and a host of other family-oriented activities have made the Hot Springs area one of Arkansas's top tourist destinations. Hot Springs is also a nationally renowned arts community and the boyhood home of former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Three area lakes -- Hamilton, Catherine and Ouachita -- accommodate water-based recreation and are home to private resorts and two state parks. The town and Hot Springs National Park owe their existence to a remarkable array of springs, which still supply naturally heated water for thermal bathers. The Fordyce Bathhouse, located on famous Bathhouse Row, serves as the park's visitors center. Garvan Woodland Gardens, located on the shores of Lake Hamilton, is one of the state's newest major attractions. Hot Springs National Park: (501) 624-3383; www.nps.gov/hosp. Garvan Woodland Gardens: 1-800-366-4664; www.garvangardens.org. The Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau (provides information on other attractions and area lakes): 1-800-SPA-CITY; www.hotsprings.org.

3. Devil's Den State Park is nestled deep in a picturesque Ozark valley where you can explore caves, crevices and bluff overlooks. Selected as a park site in the 1930s, Lee Creek Valley provided materials for the Civilian Conservation Corps to build the park's rustic-style wood and stone cabins and other structures (which today offer modern conveniences). The mountain stream forms a peaceful eight-acre lake before cascading over a native stone dam. Hiking and backpacking trails access backcountry areas of the park and the surrounding Ozark National Forest. Other park amenities include campsites, a café, picnic areas, pavilions, a swimming pool (open seasonally), tennis courts, a playground and mountain bike trails. The park is located in West Fork. (479) 761-3325; www.ArkansasStateParks.com

4. Arkansas North by Northwest -- A glittering gem of Northwest Arkansas, Beaver Lake's 28,000 acres of clear water attract thousands of water sport lovers, fishermen, hikers and birdwatchers. The lake is surrounded by forests, tall bluffs and meadows crisscrossed by hiking trails. Campgrounds, resorts, marinas, outfitters, restaurants and shops serve the lake area, which is located in the Ozark Highlands near Rogers, Eureka Springs, Springdale and Fayetteville. Trout fishing on the White River is popular below Beaver Dam. Rogers has a variety of retail stores in its historic downtown district that covers eight square blocks. Brick-paved streets lead to old-fashioned storefronts filled with unique furniture, antiques and gifts, to cafes, and to the Daisy International Air Museum and the Rogers Historical Museum. Springdale is an ideal place to comb antique stores or catch a ride on the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad in a beautifully restored turn-of-the-century passenger car. Its downtown is also home to the Shiloh Museum, which offers Ozark history and buildings dating back to the 1850s. The Fayetteville square is known for its colorful gardens and Farmer's Market that runs three days a week beginning in spring. Just blocks away, Dickson Street is the hip place for unique shops, dining locales and tons of live music venues. Completing the scene are symphony concerts and dance and theatrical performances at the Walton Arts Center. Rogers: (479) 636-1240; www.rogerslowell.com/visitorsguide/. Springdale: 1-800-972-7261; www.springdale.com/visit/. Fayetteville: (479) 521-1710; www.fayettevillear.com/visitor.htm.

5. Eureka Springs -- Haunted hotels, great food, shops full of toys and funky clothing, natural springs and homes built on the sides of rock cliffs make up this interesting town, nicknamed "America's Victorian Village." Nestled in the Ozark Mountains, Eureka Springs' entire downtown area is on the National Register of Historic Places. It's packed with attractions such as gardens, caves, an exotic wildlife ranch, a doll museum, live music and magic shows, and train excursion rides. Unique boutiques offer everything under the sun -- antiques, fine art, contemporary and vintage clothing, bells, handmade crafts and more. One store dedicates itself to everything frogs. A portion of history is uniquely preserved through ghost tours at the Crescent Hotel, one of several historic hotels. Eureka Springs was named one of America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Kids can also enjoy nearby Dinosaur World that has more than 90 life-sized dinosaur and prehistoric animal replicas spread across the 65-acre park. 1-800-6EUREKA; www.eurekasprings.org.

6. Mt. Magazine State Park -- Near Paris, the highest point in Arkansas rises from the Arkansas River Valley to an elevation of 2,753 feet. It offers hang gliding, rappelling, rock climbing, horseback riding, camping and hiking. The mountain's main road has bicycle lanes, and from its eight scenic overlooks visitors can see hundreds of miles of beautiful forested lands and mountains. It is also known for its outstanding butterfly population, boasting 94 of the 126 species found in Arkansas. A new, large visitor center has an exhibit gallery and gift shop. Nearby, the Blue Mountain Lake offers more camping and outdoor recreation. Mount Magazine Scenic Byway leads travelers across the top of Mount Magazine and past the Cove Lake Recreation Area and the Cove Lake Trail. (479) 963-8502; www.ArkansasStateParks.com.

7. Blanchard Springs Caverns -- Ranked among the most beautiful underground discoveries of the 20th Century, Blanchard Springs Caverns is located deep in the Ozark National Forest, 15 miles north of Mountain View. It is the only developed cave system operated by the U.S. Forest Service and is open throughout the year. Lighted walkways lead to stunning limestone formations and massive rooms, one as long as six football fields. For the more adventurous, Blanchard Springs also offers guided hikes into undeveloped reaches of the federally protected underground system. Helmets, lights, gloves and kneepads are provided for the four-hour tour, which is limited to eight persons. The Wild Cave Adventure is open every day and reservations are required. (Reservations are recommended, but not required, for normal cave tours.) For more information or to make reservations, phone 1-888-757-2246. Blanchard Springs Recreational Use Area provides scenic campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails, a massive natural spring and a trout-stocked lake. Off Ark. 14 near the town of Fifty-Six. 1-888-757-2246; www.fs.fed.us/oonf/ozark/recreation/caverns.

8. Lake Chicot -- A former main channel of the Mississippi River, Lake Chicot is the largest oxbow lake in North America. The lake and its environs are one of the state's top-rated birding areas. Lake Chicot State Park, located on the northeastern shore of the 20-mile-long lake, offers cabins, campsites, boat rentals, levee tours and barge tours of the lake for sunset and wildlife viewing. The visitor center interprets the area's history and natural resources through exhibits and programs. Bicycles are available for rent. On Ark. 144, eight miles northeast of Lake Village. (870) 265-5480; www.ArkansasStateParks.com.

9. Mt. Nebo State Park -- This mountaintop park in Dardanelle is the epitome of a family vacation spot with a little romance thrown in for mom and dad at Sunrise and Sunset points. The Civilian Conservation Corps-built park contains cabins, tennis courts, a swimming pool (open seasonally), campsites, a playground, a hang gliding area and group pavilions. It has 14 miles of trails. Bikes can be rented at the visitor center. (479) 229-3655; www.ArkansasStateParks.com.

10. Little Rock -- The bright lights and big city of Little Rock host numerous attractions, including the Historic Arkansas Museum, the Arkansas Arts Center, the Old State House Museum, the Aerospace Education Center and IMAX Theater, and the Museum of Discovery. The downtown riverfront area offers fine accommodations, dining and shopping. More than 600 mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians are on display at the Little Rock Zoo. Across the Arkansas River in North Little Rock, the ALLTEL Arena is home to major sporting events, headliner concerts and other happenings. Little Rock: 1-800-844-4781; www.littlerock.com. Little Rock Zoo: (501) 666-2406; www.littlerockzoo.com.

11. DeGray Lake -- The 13,800-acre lake, about eight miles north of Arkadelphia, is home to the only resort state park in Arkansas. The 96-room lodge at DeGray Lake Resort State Park is on an island accessible via a causeway and features a large hot tub, a heated swimming pool, a well-equipped exercise room and a full-service restaurant. Other park facilities include a challenging 7,200-yard golf course with pro shop, a riding stable, campgrounds and hiking trails. Visitors can avail themselves of rental watercraft at the park marina to take advantage of the lake's fishing or can launch for free their own craft. Sailing, jet-skiing and pleasure boating are other popular DeGray activities. Also located on the lake are U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recreational areas, most of which have campsites. Iron Mountain Lodge and Marina has the only fully-equipped lakeside cottages and its own full-service marina featuring ski boats, party barges, small fishing boats and houseboats. In Arkadelphia, visitors will find a variety of restaurants and, between the town's two universities, a planetarium, galleries and available theatrical and musical performances. Also in Arkadelphia, a driving tour highlights several homes listed on the National Register, some of which date to the 1840s. State park: (501) 865-2801; www.degray.com. Corps of Engineers sites: (501) 246-5501. Arkadelphia Chamber of Commerce: (870) 246-5542. Henderson State University Planetarium: (870) 230-5006; www.hsu.edu/dept/phy/planetarium.html.

12. Petit Jean State Park -- In Morrilton, this flagship of the state parks system encompasses 2,658 acres of rare natural beauty -- an abundance of unmarred woods, ravines, streams, springs, spectacular views and interesting ecological formations preserved almost as French explorers found them 300 years ago. In addition to its cabins and Mather Lodge, it has a restaurant, two swimming pools (open seasonally), campsites, boating, fishing, hiking trails and the spectacular Cedar Falls. Also on Petit Jean Mountain is a collection of 50 regularly rotated vintage vehicles dating from 1904 to 1967 on display at the Museum of Automobiles. Petit Jean: 1-800-264-2462; www.ArkansasStateParks.com. Museum: (501) 727-5427; www.museumofautos.com.

13. Crater of Diamonds State Park -- North America's largest diamond (40.23 carats) and more than 70,000 others have been found in a field south of Murfreesboro since farmer John Huddleston discovered the first such gems there in 1906. Now the eroding surface of a volcanic pipe, located about three miles south of Murfreesboro, is preserved as Crater of Diamonds State Park. It is the world's only site where, for a small fee, individuals can dig for diamonds and keep what they find. The park's visitors center offers an audio-visual presentation giving tips on diamond hunting, a display of diamonds in the rough and exhibits detailing the site's history and geology. The park also has a campground, a hiking trail, a picnic and play area, and, new in 2003, a water play area. A rainbow-trout fishery is located on the Little Missouri River below the Narrows Dam some nine miles north of the park. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission stocks trout there from late fall through April. (870) 285-3113; www.ArkansasStateParks.com

14. Lake Ouachita -- Arkansas's largest reservoir at 40,000 acres, Lake Ouachita offers fishing for striped and largemouth bass and other sport fish in the midst of outstanding scenery. It is also a popular destination for scuba diving, pleasure boating, sailing and water skiing. A number of private resorts with marinas and other recreational amenities are located on its shores. And some of the marinas offer houseboat rentals. Lake Ouachita State Park has a marina, rental cabins, campsites and hiking trails. Numerous U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recreation areas are also located on the lake, which was formed by the completion of Blakely Mountain Dam in the early 1950s. Resorts: (870) 867-2723, www.mtidachamber.com/motels-resorts. Lake Ouachita State Park: (501) 767-9366; www.ArkansasStateParks.com. Corps of Engineers: (501) 767-2101.

15. Greers Ferry Lake/Little Red River -- Commercial and public use campgrounds, first-class lodging, resorts and championship golf courses are trademarks of the Greers Ferry Lake and Little Red River area. Nestled in the hardwood forests and foothills between Clinton and Heber Springs, Greers Ferry is the third largest lake in Arkansas's Ozark Mountains (31,500 surface acres). The Little Red River emerges icy-cold from Greers Ferry Dam and provides excellent trout fishing waters for miles downstream. The current world-record brown trout (40 pounds, four ounces) was landed on the Little Red in 1992. Resorts and outfitters are available. Ark. 25 passes the lake and river visitor center at the dam on the western end of the reservoir. (501) 362-9067.

16. Queen Wilhelmina State Park -- Spectacular vistas, a miniature golf course, miniature train rides and hiking trails -- lined with colorful wildflowers in the spring -- provide family activities at Queen Wilhelmina State Park. Its lodge accommodates travelers with 38 rooms, a restaurant and a gift shop. Guests using the park's campground often include hikers on the 223-mile Ouachita National Recreation Trail, which runs through the park. (479) 394-2863; www.ArkansasStateParks.com.

17. White River and Bull Shoals Lake -- Another favorite family destination, Bull Shoals has almost 1,000 miles of rugged shoreline. People come to fish, scuba dive, houseboat, water ski, camp, hike and relax. Nineteen parks, including Bull Shoals-White River State Park, with camping and picnic facilities can be found around the lake. Fishing on Bull Shoals is excellent all year with peak action in March, April and May. Internationally famous for its beauty and great fishing, the White River flows through the Ozark Mountains and across the Delta (over 700 miles) before joining the Mississippi River. Trout fishing below the dam, which is the fifth largest concrete dam in the U.S., is a major draw. Resorts and full-service marinas are available as are many accommodations and guide services. Corps of Engineers: (870) 425-2700. State Park: (870) 431-5521; www.ArkansasStateParks.com.

18. Crowley's Ridge National Scenic Parkway -- Created by water, wind and glacier action over the past 50 million years, the ridge is a series of tree-covered rolling hills stretching 200 miles, north to south, in the midst of the great east-Arkansas delta. Geologists proclaim it one of the great natural oddities of the world. Since the arrival of settlers in the early 19th Century the ridge has served as a recreational retreat. The parkway is one of only 53 Federal Highway Administration Scenic Byways in 27 states. From St. Francis to Helena, the route passes by or near the home where Ernest Hemingway wrote portions of "A Farewell to Arms," five state parks, a national forest, Civil War sites, historic homes, museums, rich agricultural areas, and the Delta Cultural Center. Activities along the route include lake fishing, picnicking, hiking, and boating. Cabins, campgrounds, bathhouses, playgrounds, and visitor centers can be found at the state parks. Jonesboro, the largest city on the parkway, has shopping districts, a historic downtown, a civic center, plus Arkansas State University with its public museum, art gallery and convocation center. The parkway and Crowley's Ridge end at Helena at the Mississippi River. Handsome antebellum and Victorian homes stand on the gentle slopes just before the ridge disappears into the delta. Lodging at hotels and bed and breakfast inns is also available. For information about the parkway, call (870) 910-8080 or visit www.deltabyways.com.

19. Ouachita National Forest -- Within the 1.7 million-acre Ouachita National Forest (est. 1907) are back roads and hiking trails that provide visitors with an up-close experience of the aged mountains. Among the forest's most popular campgrounds are the Albert Pike Recreation Area on the Little Missouri River and the Shady Lake Recreation Area, located on a scenic 25-acre lake formed by a Civilian Conservation Corps dam constructed in the 1930s. The forest also provides several float camps for canoeists on the upper Ouachita River. The nearby Crystal Mountains range of the Ouachitas contains some of the world's finest deposits of quartz crystals. Several area mines allow patrons, for a fee, to dig and keep their finds. Quartz specimens and a variety of other rocks and minerals are available in area rock shops. Also in the Ouachitas, the Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area extends for 11 miles along the Cossatot River. The wild and scenic river forms Cossatot Falls, a rugged and rocky canyon that challenges the most experienced canoeist and kayakers and attracts those who like to watch the sport. With rapids rated up to Class V in difficulty, the Cossatot is only for very experienced floaters. Though renowned for its whitewater, the Cossatot is not consistently at floatable levels. It is generally floatable for at most a few days after significant rainfall. The U.S. Forest Service provides numerous recreational amenities within the national forest, including campgrounds, day-use and scenic areas, hiking and backpacking trails, and many miles of backcountry roads for touring. National Forest: (501) 321-5202; www.fs.fed.us/oonf/ouachita.htm. Crystal Mining: (870) 867-2723; www.mtidachamber.com/quartz-crystal.htm. Cossatot: (870) 385-2201; www.ArkansasStateParks.com.

20. Calendar of Events -- Other vacation ideas can be gleaned from the state's Calendar of Events. Spring events include children's theater productions, a home and garden show, a family-oriented Mardi Gras parade and festival, interpretive river cruises, barrel racing, a daffodil festival, lake kayak tours, a backpacking basics workshop, a bluegrass festival, Arkansas Riverblades ice hockey, a Navajo sandpainting workshop, outdoor walking tours, a kite festival, a pioneer craft festival, an alligator river cruise, an outdoor living series, and much more. Some events are free or have a small admission charge. The calendar can be perused online at www.arkansas.com/calendar/.

To find all the entertainment and vacation options available in these locations and other parts of the state, call (501) 682-7777 for a free vacation kit or pick one up at a tourist information center. Thirteen centers are operated at points of entry into the state. Trained travel consultants from the state tourism division provide suggested tour routes, an Arkansas Tour guide, and other literature on places of interest.

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