When Arkansans hear that relatives or friends are heading for the beach, the sandy shores that first come to mind may be the saltwater expanse of the Gulf Coast, stretching from Texas to the Florida Panhandle.
But the landlocked Natural State is blessed with much closer beaches, most of them open free of charge. Equipped with picnic tables and other amenities, they provide playful summer pleasure at 10 Arkansas state parks. Another seven parks feature swimming at pools for a small fee. Four parks have pools available to guests staying overnight at their lodge or cabins.
“Swimming is one of the most popular seasonal activities in our state parks,” says Monika Rued, public information officer for Arkansas State Parks. “It’s definitely a favorite of youngsters, especially during the hottest days of summer when temperatures hit the 90s.”
The park system’s swimming pools opened on Memorial Day weekend and will welcome visitors through Labor Day. Weekends can be crowded, with pools sometimes packed figuratively to the gills, so weekday swimming may be less hectic. Rued suggests checking online (arkansasstateparks.com) to be sure your park of choice is welcoming swimmers that day.
“Due to a lifeguard shortage, we are not able to guarantee that every pool is open on schedule,” she says. “We do our best, but sometimes staffing is an issue, and we have to alter hours. We post special notices on our website in those instances.”
Rued notes that a state park beach may be closed temporarily due to concerns about pollution. The park system’s website also keeps tabs on those occasional circumstances.
Lake Ouachita State Park, a dozen miles northwest of Hot Springs, maintains two swimming beaches. The larger one is near the visitor center and marina. The second stretches along a more secluded site at the eastern end of a paved shoreline road. Just above it stands Three Sisters Springs, a stone pavilion built in the late 19th century to collect mineral water believed to have healing powers.
Lake Catherine State Park, a dozen miles southeast of Hot Springs, welcomes visitors to a crescent-shaped sand beach. More than a dozen picnic tables overlooking the water are shaded by a pavilion and leafy trees.
Two swimming beaches, at Crowley’s Ridge west of Paragould and Woolly Hollow north of Greenbrier, maintain lifeguards and charge a small fee for that service. The Crowley’s Ridge beach, on the smaller of the park’s two lakes, is overlooked by a massive log-and-stone pavilion built by the federal Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Next to the beach are a fenced playground and a court for beach volleyball.
Among the swimming pools, the 4,166-square-foot setup at Crater of Diamonds State Park near Murfreesboro is distinctive for a couple of reasons. Not merely a “pool,” it is Crater of Diamonds Water Park. Described as a “mining-themed aquatic playground,” it is shallow and meant only for wading or splashing. The fun includes spray geysers, water jets, cascades, animated waterspouts and two water slides. A deck with pool furniture caters to parents and other adults.
Unlike the other pools, Crater of Diamonds’ is open only Wednesdays through Sundays, plus holiday Mondays. It is also the most expensive in the system, charging by height. Youngsters shorter than 42 inches pay $6, while those 52 inches and above are charged $10. Adults who sit by the water pay $2.
Charges for swimmers ages 6 and up are $4 or $5 at the system’s other six public pools. Tykes 2 to 5 are charged $1 less. Several of the parks offer season passes, while Crater of Diamonds sells a single-day group admission pass at $170 for up to 20 people.
Mount Magazine State Park, in Logan County near the state’s highest point, boasts an indoor pool suited to swimming all year long. It is open to guests at the park’s lodge and cabins. Petit Jean State Park’s Mather Lodge, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, has an outdoor pool reserved for guests. So does DeGray Lake Resort State Park Lodge, as well as Ozark Folk Center’s Cabins at Dry Creek.
“People who come to state parks for swimming should remember that they are great places to do a variety of activities,” Rued says. “Visitor centers have information on everything from hiking and biking to interpretive programs on nature and history. The beaches and pools are a summer bonus.”
Natural State swimming guide
These Arkansas state parks have swimming beaches: Crowley’s Ridge, DeGray Lake Resort, Jacksonport, Lake Catherine, Lake Charles, Lake Dardanelle, Lake Ouachita, Mississippi River, Village Creek, Woolly Hollow. Lifeguards are posted at Crowley’s Ridge and Woolly Hollow, where a small fee is charged. The other eight beaches are free.
These parks have swimming pools with lifeguards and are open to the public for a fee: Crater of Diamonds, Devil’s Den, Lake Chicot, Lake Fort Smith, Mount Nebo, Petit Jean, Withrow Springs.