It’s hard to believe it’s been a year since one of the first signs of the COVID-19 pandemic in Arkansas was an extension of spring break for many state schools. At the time, more than a few students thought that would be the beginning and end of the virus. Yet a year later, cautious parents are approaching spring break planning with virus mitigation measures foremost in their minds. That’s got a lot of families staying closer to home this year but spending much of spring break outdoors.
Jerrie Ott of rural Lonoke County says she’s expecting to take some spring break day trips, like
nature hikes with her daughter, Julian, age 11, but isn’t comfortable going on a real trip this year. “We’re definitely not going anywhere that requires overnight stay, eating out (except takeout or drive-thru), or contact with other people unless it’s masked and socially distanced and outside,” she says. “We’ve talked about taking a couple of hiking trips here in Arkansas, so we don’t have to overnight anywhere, but we’re still waffling on location.”
Dr. Jennifer Dillaha, chief epidemiologist at the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH), in an email to Arkansas Living urges people to check on the CDC guidelines before planning trips. “People should consider a ‘staycation’ for spring break,” she writes. “We are particularly concerned about the spread of COVID variants, and minimizing travel will help to lessen the spread of these variants.” She strongly suggests people seek information on travel precautions by checking the latest guidance on the CDC website (shortened URL for COVID-19 travel information: bit.ly/3oTWBSO), which is updated as conditions change. Dillaha also advises Arkansans to avoid indoor activities where there are more than 10 people present.
Luckily, here in The Natural State, there are limitless opportunities to enjoy time outdoors instead of booking that trip to Florida or the Grand Canyon this year. Keeping in mind to minimize contact with people outside your immediate household, here are a few in-state staycation activities that allow your family to enjoy time with each other in the wide open air.
Visiting Arkansas state parks
Rebecca and John McGraw are Conway parents of two: daughter Sophia, age 16, and son Alex,
age 9. Rebecca says their family plans to explore some Arkansas state parks this spring break if conditions allow. They’re especially fond of some of the lesser-known ones.
“I feel like driving someplace like Toltec Mounds or down to Cane Creek State Park in Star City will be in the cards for us this March. I’m not comfortable going where there are a lot of people,” she says. “Last year we went to Crowley’s Ridge State Park. They have cabins for lease there, but it’s not nearly as crowded as the larger parks. Nice short hikes. … Alex loved the fishing lake. They rent kayaks, and we had a really good time.”
Rebecca also recommends the state park in Parkin, an archaeological site. “It’s really nice!” she says. “It has an interpretive walking path and takes you around the site of a former Native American settlement. It’s very powerful to think about how these native Arkansans lived before the white people came.”
Stacy Hurst, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, says, “Our
52 Arkansas State Parks stack up favorably against any state parks in the country. They offer memorable ways for families to spend time together, especially outdoors in our beautiful state.”
During the height of the pandemic this winter, the parks system shortened hours for day-use only and canceled most programming. Hurst says much depends on how the state’s new coronavirus cases are trending, but that staff are working diligently to ensure the parks are “as open as possible” in time for spring breaks in late March and early April. “We’re hoping to bring back many of the interpretive programs that children especially enjoy,” she says, “and we’re getting the lodging and restaurants in top shape at the parks that offer those amenities.”
A new type of lodging offered at some state parks is the camper cabins, which Hurst says are proving popular with families and couples. Bringing their own linens, campers stay in a small cabin with basic amenities (except a bathroom) and a screened-in front porch. Hurst says a family of up to four could stay in the camper cabins comfortably. “Everyone staying in the camper cabins shares a communal bathroom facility, so you don’t have the same level of privacy as in a regular cabin,” Hurst explains, “but they’re a lot of fun, and a more affordable option many families appreciate. Kids love them.”
Overnight options vary by park, ranging from grand lodges to basic campsites, and Hurst says all are employing pandemic precautions recommended by ADH. Some parks offer Rent-a-Yurt, Rent-an-RV or Rent-a-Tent options. Camping is popular, and campsites are available at 32 of the parks. Visit arkansasstateparks.com to explore the different parks’ activities, programming, lodging and amenities, whether for a day trip or overnight stay.
Exploring Arkansas Natural Areas
Our state parks’ lesser-known sisters are Arkansas’ 76 designated Natural Areas managed bythe Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC). These are sites scattered around the state with restored and preserved ecosystems: The Natural State — you might say — at its
ANHC Director Bill Holimon explains, “Our mission is to restore, preserve and protect our natural heritage. We protect rare plants and animals and aim to restore habitats to what they looked like at the time Arkansas was first settled. Our Natural Areas are the best places to go in the state to see how Arkansas looked at the time of settlement.”
Though some people expect these protected areas to be off-limits to visitors, and people should follow “Leave No Trace” protocols, Holimon encourages Arkansans to fully explore the
Natural Areas. Many of the sites have parking lots and trails (some improved trails, some primitive). Motor vehicle traffic is prohibited, but hiking is not. “Even if they don’t have trails, people can go hiking. There’s no limitation on hiking here,” he says. Each Natural Area and what you can do there is described in detail in a searchable database at naturalheritage.com.
Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area, is a hybrid between the state parks and ANHC. Holimon says it is “just about” the only Natural Area where camping is allowed, though 38 of the Natural Areas do allow hunting.
Holimon says some of the most accessible Natural Areas for families include Lorance Creek
Natural Area south of Little Rock, where a well-built boardwalk extends over a “very pretty” swamp; Warren Prairie Natural Area near Warren and Monticello, which has trails alternating through a diverse and unusual set of habitats; Devil’s Eyebrow Natural Area east of Rogers, a fairly large area with a good trail system; and Rattlesnake Ridge Natural Area near Pinnacle Mountain outside Little Rock, where there are hiking trails for every skill level, from easy hikes along the base to steep climbs to the top. (Be careful up there! True to its name, a small population of Western diamondback rattlesnakes lives on top of the ridge.) Rattlesnake Ridge is also the only Natural Area with a mountain biking trail.
Water and adventure
Jeremy Gilmer is a Colorado transplant who works year-round as a fly fishing and river guide for Rising River Guides (risingriverguides.com) on the White River and Norfork River at Cotter. He says that unlike many industries, the river and fishing guide business has been booming since the pandemic hit. “We have been catching a lot of people who didn’t go to Florida to do that beach vacation,” he says, adding that spring break is expected to be busy. “People still want to get out on the water.”
Gilmer says he left Colorado for the better fishing and opportunity in Arkansas, and the milder winters that allow fishing 365 days a year. He says he loves the recreational options here. “Besides the fishing, there’s access to so many different trails, hiking, biking. And the fishing itself is great, so many types here besides just fly fishing. It’s a good option for families, especially here near Cotter: plenty of places to stay and all kinds of things to do outdoors.”
The outdoor recreation and guided trips are popular with families, he says. “We get kids, we get families, grandpas with grandsons. It’s a total mixed bag. Everyone loves it.”
One especially rare feature in the area is Dry Run Creek, which Gilmer says is one of the only of its kind in the country. The creek stays well-stocked from the Norfork Fish Hatchery and is reserved exclusively for children under 15 and for the mobility-impaired. “It’s the perfect place to teach a kid to fish,” he says, “and they fish with amazing success because it’s specifically protected for the children.”
Hurst says Arkansas’ lakes — most of which have a state park attached — are popular destinations every spring break. The state park marinas will be open and stocked with fuel and bait and tackle, and some offer rentals of boats, canoes, kayaks or pedal boats.
Likewise, the Buffalo National River will likely have ample numbers of people on it for float trips and other recreation. Because it is a national river (the nation’s first) and therefore federal property, masks are now required inside National Park Service buildings there and
anywhere on the land that physical distancing is not possible. Its website, nps.gov/buff, cautions visitors to avoid crowded spots and to ask a park ranger to direct them to less congested areas where social distancing is easier. The park’s phone number is 870-439-2502.
Zip lines and ropes courses are another kind of outdoor adventure gaining popularity in the state. Ropes courses can test agility (and courage!), and zip lines give brave souls an adrenaline rush high in the trees. There are now zip lines at a number of privately owned businesses in the state. Look for listings of them at arkansas.com.
Spring break down under (a light layer of dirt)
Maybe you’re wanting a spring break activity that’s a little slower-paced. How about a bit of mining? At Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, visitors in 2020 found 80 carats of diamonds, including a 9.07 carat diamond — the second-largest ever found at the park — that was found on Labor Day weekend. Visitors get to keep any diamonds they find.
Likewise, industrious visitors can dig for Arkansas quartz crystals at several crystal mines open for tourists around the state. The hills of the Ouachita National Forest near Mt. Ida, Jessieville and Hot Springs are particularly rich in crystal, and visitors have the option of digging for the quartz themselves or shopping the impressive, already mined minerals found at the region’s many rock shops.
Gardens and growls
Other day trips worth taking as spring makes itself known this March include strolls through gorgeous botanical gardens and fields of bright yellow daffodils (see Uniquely Arkansas on page 42 for more on daffodils). In Fayetteville, the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks (bgozarks.org) invites visitors to wander at their leisure through 12 themed gardens and a native butterfly house. The state’s other major botanical garden is Garvan Woodland Gardens (garvangardens.org) in Hot Springs, where the annual Daffodil Days and Tulip Extravaganza will be in full bloom through mid-April. Garvan Gardens has 19 distinct areas, including a Children’s Adventure Garden and the Bob and Sunny Evans Tree House, a modern architectural wonder.
Ott says she has promised Julian a spring break visit to the zoo. “To me, it’s one of the safer things we can do that is inexpensive but doesn’t require much physical effort,” she says with a laugh. Starting March 20, the Little Rock Zoo (littlerockzoo.com) plans amphitheater shows and heritage farm shows Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, in addition to daily public penguin feedings and zookeeper chats. For some parts of the state, the Memphis Zoo (memphiszoo.org) is the closest option, another excellent day trip. And near Eureka Springs, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge (tcwr.org) has dozens of rescued big cats, bears and other exotic animals. Stay overnight in their private lodging options, or just spend a few hours viewing the beautiful animals.
Wherever you choose to spring break, have fun, be safe and make happy memories.