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Hidden Gems and Friendly Folk

by Michael Morcos

For those who enjoy the back roads and corners of America, hidden histories and real people, you will be completely satisfied travelling through the often overlooked and undiscovered gem of Southwestern Arkansas.

We landed in Little Rock, and after a quick tour of the local historical monuments we had lunch in a local landmark, the Whole Hog Cafe. This stop was our first experience with the legendary Arkansan friendliness. We were a little overwhelmed as we were welcomed like long-lost relatives!

Our first stay over was the Mountain Harbor Resort, a destination on its own, on Lake Ouachita. Being Arkansas’s largest lake, it has over 700 miles of shoreline and is completely surrounded by the Ouachita National Forest. The Chalet we were offered was magnificent and well equipped, with a full kitchen, spacious balconies facing the lake, and an inviting private Jacuzzi.

Our Chalet had two floors with two lovely bedrooms containing beds that were comfy, contemporary and stylish. The furniture was so unique that we asked the front desk where to buy one like it!

All the lodges have native stone gas-fired fireplaces and a charcoal grill on the deck, and free wireless to boot. It was a delight to spend time there – the staff even had swan towels placed on the pillows to welcome us!

Just outside the Chalet, there were plenty of low-key activities to enjoy. We found horseshoe pits, volleyball nets, and lots of room for kids to play. The first evening we enjoyed a sunset boat ride, leaving from the Mountain Harbor Resort on a private, luxurious two story houseboat for a cruise and dinner on the lake.

The next day was filled with opportunities for canoeing, hiking, family fishing, scenic driving, and just plain relaxing-by-the-lake. I took the occasion to find out if the fishing was as good as they said it was! It lived up to and beyond my expectations as the fishing is world-class with largemouth bass, walleye and stripers filling the lake. Many an article could be written based on the outstanding conditions and quality of the sport and flavour of the catches!

The next morning was spent cruising along the Ouachita Mountains Scenic Drive. That title does little justice to the magnificence of the area. South of the Ouachitas is the Gulf Coast Plain, a remnant of the Gulf of Mexico which once extended to central Arkansas and formed after the mountains rose. The land is lower, flatter, and only slightly rolling, but filled with brilliant colours, sights and sounds. We returned and enjoyed a night cap in the lounge, then discovered just how soft the beds were!

Lunches were extraordinary throughout our trip, and one that stood out the most was our stop at the American Artisan Restaurant. Gallery, store and restaurant come together in this amazing space. I enjoyed gazing at all the USA-made art, toys, games and odds and ends while enjoying their famous quiche and soup!

We stopped for a coffee break at the Friendship House Gourmet Coffee Shop, a great local cafe and landmark popular with citizens and visitors alike. Salad bar and treats awaited us and it was nice to take a break in our busy schedule. Set-up to offer peace and warmth, they succeed on both counts!

Whenever I can, I enjoy checking out the oddities and antiquities of the places I visit. This trip offered me a glimpse of the way things were as we visited several antique shops in the town of Mena. Abounding in great bargains and some strange artifacts, my favorite was the Cowboys and Indians Trading Post. Seeped in “old west” history, this store took my breath away…as well as a few of my dollars!

Coupled with the Trading Post is the Lum ‘n’ Abner Museum & Jot ’em Down Store. Lum ‘n’ Abner was a famous duo from radio and TV who brought many tales of the area alive with the colorful characters created for their Lum ‘N’ Abner” Program. The Huddleston Store hosts the souvenir and gift shop and offers Lum ‘N’ Abner programs in addition to antiques and crafts. The smaller A.A. McKenzie Store that was built in 1904 is next door and displays the many pieces of Lum ‘N’ Abner history, preserving an important era in American life for all to explore.

Early the next morning, we were taken to the Wegner Crystal Mines, close by the resort. Quartz crystals from Wegner’s are renowned and the owner has ties with other mines from around the world which has helped him collect a vast array of amazing gemstones for sale. For patient visitors or some true family fun, you can spend a couple of hours hunting for quartz or finding diamonds and other precious gemstones in Richard Wegner’s Diamond Room. More adventurous folks can visit the Wegner Crystal Mines and Museum, where you will explore cavern and learn about the mining industry and its lasting mark on the State.

We drove a little to the south and were welcomed at another wonderful locale – the DeGray Lake Resort State Park. DeGray Lake Resort State Park is Arkansas’s only resort state park and is famous for their crystal clear waters, acres of shoreline, the almost unlimited amount of outdoor adventures, as well as the high quality of an Arkansas State Park combined with resort class amenities.

The park’s main building, the DeGray Lake Resort State Park Lodge, is situated on an island and offers guests spectacular views of the distant mountains and the lake itself.

Most of our fondest memories started from this delightful resort. The first evening, we were treated to a boat tour of the lake, a true highlight of the trip due to the hilarious and knowledgeable park ranger who guided us through the tour.

Our first full day here started with a visit to Historic Washington, a very interesting outdoor museum. During the Civil War, Washington was the Confederate capital of Arkansas after the Union Army occupied Little Rock. Today, this rich history is preserved at Historic Washington State Park.

We followed that with a stop at the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in Smackover, which is filled with state-of-the-art indoor exhibits and working equipment on display outside. In the Oil Field Park next to the museum, we explored the stories of this region’s natural resources along a trail with full-sized operating examples of vintage equipment used from the 1920s to the modern era. Another great feature is the recreation of the streets of a 1920s Arkansas boom town!

Our trip into the past continued with a bit of antebellum history in Camden. We saw the 1847 McCollum-Chidester House, built by merchants who were selling to cotton plantation owners. A personal favorite was a visit to the town of El Dorado, where we had lunch at Favrays (named after the famous actress Fay Wray from the original King Kong movie). The town is charming with many old fashion shops, barbers, state buildings and cinemas – felt like we had stepped into a period film! Continuing down memory lane, there were many wonderful and very well kept old homes that are part of the American civil heritage trial.

I was one of the people offered a morning at Crater of Diamonds State Park, a diamond mine. It is a 37-acre field where diamonds are often found close to the surface and is the only diamond-producing area in America open to the general public. The best part – if you don’t mind getting a little dirty and search for a diamond, you can keep it!

And if you think that it is just a tourist trap, MANY diamonds have been found there, including the largest diamond ever found in North America—the Uncle Sam at 40.23 carats, discovered in 1924.

Our biggest thrills were yet to come, though, and began when we were greeted by the wild crew at Rowdy Adventures. Offered many different options, I chose Rowdy Adventures’ Explore Tour, which is basically an ironman tour of thrills and excitement!

Well, it certainly started with a BANG – a speedy, steep and thrilling zip line. Next, a ‘swamp buggy’ ride into the bottomlands of the Little Missouri River, a muddy and messy excitement-fueled speed fest. There was no slowing down after that, as we hopped off the buggies and onto some ATVs for a 5-mile ride to the Rowdy Ranch. Once there, we mounted some magnificent horses for a ride to the Little Missouri for a cookout, and a well needed lunch. After eating, we had the choice of heading back the easy way or continuing the adventure. Seeing as I was to spend the next day in the spa, I chose to continue and ended the adventure with a four-hour paddle trip on the Little Missouri!

The next morning, my sore body recovered some energy and flexibility in the Blue Heron Spa, a fully loaded paradise of relaxing features. It was a wonderful and delightful stay in the DeGray Lake Resort State Park Lodge.

Our final stop on this great trip was a stay in the lodge on top of Mount Magazine, but on the way, we passed by Fort Smith to visit the Fort Smith Museum of History and Fort Smith National Historic Site. A surprise treat was a flyover the area – a great experience and a unique perspective!

A side note – not far from Fort Smith is (or was) Fort Chaffee, where a famous event took place: “the haircut heard ‘round the world.” Now named the Barbershop Museum, it was where Elvis Presley got his first G.I. buzz cut!

Once we got to Mount Magazine, we started with a relaxing moment on the veranda to enjoy the magnificent view overlooking the Petit Jean Valley and Blue Mountain Lake from Arkansas’ highest point.

I was so tired from the days filled with adventure that I decided to forgo some great hikes to the park or a guided hike to waterfalls.

A quiet end to a trip filled with great people and hidden gems!