10 Things To Love About Little Rock, Arkansas

  • Thursday, April 4, 2024
  • Ann N. Yungmeyer

Little Rock, Arkansas is in the spotlight as one of the places to be during the Great American Solar Eclipse 2024. The city of about 200,000 residents is in the path of 100% totality and has been eagerly anticipating the phenomenon. Zestful plans by city leaders include a three-day concert series, family-friendly events and watch parties with telescopes and viewing glasses at parks and museums.

Local enthusiasm over the grand event is no surprise, as Little Rock lives up Arkansas’s moniker “the natural state,” with a keen focus on exploring nature and outdoor recreation. The capital city is also home to many outstanding attractions including The William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum, Little Rock Zoo and the acclaimed Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts. In addition to these well-known stops on visitor itineraries, I noted during my recent visit many impressive and unique attributes that help tell the story of why people are “Big on Little Rock,” as the jingle goes.

1. The Arkansas River Trail is a 16-mile paved loop that travels along both sides of the river and is a great asset for walkers, joggers and bicyclists. A newly added 34-mile extension leads to Pinnacle Mountain State Park connecting with more trails to make an 88-mile loop for experienced cyclists. These trails are part of the city’s extensive network of more than 1,200 miles of road, mountain and gravel cycling trails that offer variety for every skill level. Rock Town River Outfitters offers tours and rentals of bikes, kayaks and paddleboards for exploring the river.

2. More adventure can be found at Pinnacle Mountain State Park with world-class MTB, hiking, paddleboats and kayaking. The not-to-miss hike here is Pinnacle Peak, offering both a challenging and easier path and sweeping views of the natural landscape. If you’re tempted, a post-workout reward awaits; the park’s brand new visitor center offers handcrafted, all natural ice cream from local creamery Loblolly.

3. Little Rock has spectacular bridges, six to be exact, thanks to its desirable location straddling the Arkansas River. Many were originally railroad bridges now dedicated to pedestrian/bicycle use, linking Little Rock and North Little Rock for commuter and recreational purposes. The city’s most famous bridge is called the Big Dam Bridge, touted as the longest pedestrian and cycling-intended bridge in North America. It’s a popular spot for watching sunset. Three of the celebrated river crossings – the Junction, Clinton Presidential Park, and Main Street bridges – are colorfully illuminated at nightfall, adding a whimsical feature to the dark skyline.

4. Public art is seen all around town from building murals and outdoor sculpture to dazzling art installations. The illuminated bridges are part of River Lights in the Rock, lighting up each night with multi-colored LED lights casting rainbow reflections on the water. Along the expansive Riverfront Park, the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden is a pleasant stroll amid terraced landscapes and more than 100 contemporary works by American sculptors.

5. A purse museum, really? Yes, Little Rock has one of only three in the world. The Esse Purse Museum features a permanent exhibit curated from one woman’s collection of handbags along with rotating exhibits. The museum examines over many decades the intersection of art, fashion, and women’s expression through their handbags and what they have carried inside. The museum owner describes it as “true history held in a handbag,” reflecting the museum’s mission to honor and empower all women.

6. Little Rock cheese dip: of quirky claims to fame, you’ll want to seek this out, for the city is regarded as the birthplace of cheese dip. Foodie researchers say that in 1935, restaurant owner Blackie Donnelly created a unique mouth-watering blend of cheeses and seasoning, and since then, attempts by restaurateurs to best the recipe continue. Thus, Little Rock takes its cheese dip seriously and holds the World Cheese Dip Championship annually. The award-winning Dizzy’s Gypsy Bistro is a great place to sample the famous delicacy.

7. Besides cheese dip, Little Rock boasts a bountiful food scene with many ethnic cultures and diverse multigenerational establishments. Soul food, Indian, Latin American, Asian, classic American and Southern cuisines, as well as local craft beers and spirits, are plentiful. The bustling River Market District is a hub for restaurants, bars and clubs, and another great feature of this area is the free Metro Streetcar, a fun way to hop around town.

8. Little Rock honors its rich history and notable landmarks, from an archeological site of ancient Indian Mounds to military museums and six civil rights sites along the U.S Civil Rights Trail. Most prominent on the trail is the Central High School National Historic Site, where the 1957 desegregation crisis happened. Nine black students known as The Little Rock Nine were prevented from attending school until President Eisenhower intervened with the National Guard. A poignant sculpture of each student is erected at the State Capitol, memorializing the students and serving as a symbolic reminder in the pursuit of justice.

9. The Arkansas State Capitol, built over a century ago, is an architectural showpiece in stunning Neo-classical design, modeled after the U.S. Capitol. Because of the likeness it has been used as a filming site for many movies. Other heritage gems include The Old State House Museum, which was the original state capitol, and the rustic Old Mill in North Little Rock, a re-creation of an 1880s water-powered grist mill. The mill was constructed in 1933 in a lovely park setting as a memorial to Arkansas’s early pioneers, and it became famous for its appearance in the film Gone With The Wind.

10. What’s in a name? In 1722, a French explorer traveling along the Arkansas River stopped at a rock outcropping that he called La Petite Roche, in contrast to a bigger rock he had spotted upstream. It became a landmark for travelers; thus, the name Little Rock took hold. You can visit the famous rock at La Petite Roche Plaza and follow a pathway to Junction Bridge where historical markers inform the significance of the area. Nowadays, “The Rock” is the common nickname fondly given by locals.

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Ann Yungmeyer is a freelance writer. Read more of her work at www.annyungmeyer.wordpress.com

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