Arkansas is known as “The Natural State,” and for a good reason. From its stunning state parks to the miles and miles of riverfront trails to explore, there is no shortage of adventures to have and fun things to do.
While visiting the Clinton Museum is sure to be on everyone’s list while in the state capital of Litte Rock, there is also other fun, and often free, places to go and adventures to have. Some experiences will challenge you physically, while others will be a challenge to your sweet tooth.
I visited Little Rock in February, so the temperatures were quite cold. In fact, at one point, it started to snow during my trip, something we don’t see much of in southeast Texas. Since I had kept my eyes on the weather reports before the trip, I had everything I needed to brave the cold – gloves, scarves, long underwear, and the like.
Despite the weather, I was determined to get out and have some fun and mostly FREE adventures. Here are five great places to visit while in the Little Rock area that range from long walks with stunning views to a challenge for anyone on a diet.
1. The Big Dam Bridge
The Big Dam Bridge is definitely what the name implies. I had read about the bridge while researching fun things to do in the area, and I knew I had to see it and experience it for myself.
Spanning over 3/4 of a mile each way, it crosses the entire width of the Arkansas River and Murry Lock and Dam between Little Rock and North Little Rock. The bridge was initially going to be named Murray Bridge when it opened in 2006, but after a county judge stated, “We’re going to build that big dam bridge,” its name changed.
The reference intended was to the Murray Lock and Dam, which sits under the bridge at its southern end and not the expletive that I, and I’m sure countless others, thought of when I first heard it.
The bridge is the longest pedestrian-only bridge in the United States and is free to the public. It connects over 14 miles of river trails along the Arkansas River between the state capital of Little Rock and North Little Rock.
While bicycles, skateboards, and roller blades are allowed, there are no motorized modes of transportation allowed on the bridge.
When I arrived at the bridge, the first thing I noticed was how impressive it is. I honestly wasn’t sure I would be able to walk the entire distance and back, simply because I had been on my feet all day, and it was nearly 2 miles round trip, but I was certainly going to give it my best try.
I donned my coat, gloves, and scarf and headed for the base of the bridge on the North Little Rock side. As I made my way up the bridge, I noticed that it was marked similar to a road with a striped center line and markings indicating walkers/runners should stay right so cyclists can pass.
The walk up the ramp is quite easy, even on a cold day. The grade is just enough to be slightly challenging, but not so much that is strains the muscles, something I appreciate since I’m not exactly a marathon runner.
As I walked along, I couldn’t help but notice the beauty of the area, even though it was winter, and pretty much all of the trees were in their winter dormancy. There was a quiet beauty, with just the Arkansas River rushing below and the sounds of nature all around.
Looking ahead, it seemed like I would never make it to the center of the bridge. I was stopping about every 20 feet taking pictures and admiring everything around me, so that may have played a small part in the time it was taking to cross the bridge.
All along the hillside on the south side of the bridge are gorgeous homes with what I’m sure are stunning views of the river. It was easy to look at the houses and fantasize about what it must be like to live there surrounded by nature year-round.
Once I made it to the highest point, 90 feet above the river, I stopped to take in everything around me. Even though there is a freeway not too far away, the sounds seemed to be stifled by the sound of water rushing through the dam just a few yards away.
Looking towards the southern end of the bridge and Murry Park, I struggled with whether or not I should keep going or turn around and head back to my car. Standing there, enjoying the scenery, and arguing with myself about whether or not to push forward, a beautiful Great Blue Heron made my decision for me.
He flew right over me towards the riverbank, which was my cue to head that way and get its picture. I am a sucker for wildlife, and any time I can get them in their natural habitat, I’m all in.
The Big Dam Bridge is a place I would love to return in the Spring or Summer when the temps are warmer, and everything is full of color. I imagine it is even stunning in Fall when the leaves are turning the glorious shades of the season.
2. The Old Mill
Have you ever watched the movie “Gone With The Wind”? There is a scene at the beginning of the film showing an old water-powered grain mill. Well, what if I told you I found that exact location in North Little Rock? It’s called The Old Mill, and it’s a fun, somewhat whimsical place in the middle of a residential neighborhood.
Somewhat of a secret, The Old Mill was built in 1933 by a developer named Justin Matthews. While it was never a working mill, the design resembles an early grist-mill in Arkansas during the 1800s. Once a prominent landmark, it was built with hopes of attracting development. It is now on the National Register of Historic Places and maintained by the Friends of the Old Mill, Inc., Pulaski County Master Gardeners, and several other state and city groups.
I have to admit that when I heard about The Old Mill, I was a bit skeptical. I had a hard time believing that such a place would be sitting in the middle of a residential neighborhood, so I was determined to see it for myself.
While the park is open to the public, there is no designated parking area, you just park on the side of the road and explore. Protected on both sides sloped hillside, the park is a serene, calming place.
As I walked along the path into the park, I recognized the mill building from the movie, but what surprised me the most was the fantastic bridge that crossed over the creek that wound its way through the neighborhood.
The bridge is unlike anything I have ever seen before. It is sort of a cross between the Hobbit and Harry Potter. With arched openings on each side, it was as if the minute I entered, I was going to be transported to another time.
Everywhere I looked, I could see and hear water. The various waterfalls and creeks drown out so much of the sounds of modern-day life that it was easy to forget where I was, and I could imagine being back in a time and place where life was so different.
All through the park are paths that meander their way through the park, with fun and whimsical bridges crossing over the creeks and waterfalls and eventually lead to the main feature, the Mill itself.
As I came upon the Mill, I felt like I was standing in the movie. Touching the walls of the building and watching the water trickling off the wheel, I half expected Rhett Butler to step out from inside the Mill.
Inside the building, there is a grist mill that dates back to 1828, mill rocks from 1823 and 1840, and even milestones moved from an 1830’s military road in which the Cherokee and Chocktaw traveled into the Indian Territory which is now what we know as Oklahoma.
Each step I took was a reminder of a time when things were so different. A reminder of a time when making flour happened with the power of water and not machines. A time when the country was at war with each other, and life was so much more difficult.
All along my journey through the park, I could hear the squawks of geese and ducks as they followed people around, hoping someone would have a treat for them. Of course, I couldn’t resist getting as close as I could to these noisy residents.
I made my way to the car, grabbed a granola bar, and headed for the water. It seemed that they all knew what was coming once I opened the package because what started out as four quickly turned into around 20. I did what I could with what I had and made way to my car, being followed by one very persistent and noisy goose.
He quickly became my friend and stood outside my door, hollering at me. I couldn’t help but jump out and get a selfie with him since I may never see him again, and I had to have a memory of this, not to mention proof it happened for the doubters – aka Charlie.
As I drove away from The Old Mill, I couldn’t help but feel like I had just walked through a fantasy land. A land of history, sculpture, and wonderment. I hope that this hidden gem in North Little Rock remains just as it is, magical, and I can’t wait to return someday, hopefully when everything is in bloom, and it’s alive with color, not mention warmer.
3. Clinton Presidential Bridge
Located just to the side of the Clinton Museum, the Clinton Presidential Bridge is a beautiful example of how an old piece of architecture has been repurposed to a new and useful space.
I knew I wanted to visit Little Rock and stroll along the river, even if it was super cold and windy because I had heard from some of the other guests where I was staying that there was so much to see and enjoy beyond the museum.
While parking in Little Rock seemed to be plentiful along the streets, they do have parking meters, and I found it more convenient and free to park in the museum parking lot, which was mostly empty. The lot is also a short distance from the River Market District of Little Rock, so a trip to the bridge followed by a walk into downtown is a must.
The Clinton Presidential Bridge, formerly know as the Rock Island Bridge, connects Little Rock and North Little rock by spanning the Arkansas River, just as the Big Dam Bridge does.
Constructed in 1899, the bridge which was built for the Chocktaw and Memphis Railroad and led to the Choctaw Station. The station is now the home of the Clinton School of Public Service, the Clinton Foundation, and the Clinton Public Policy Institute. Located next to the Presidential Museum, the station is a beautiful red brick building that, when the sun is setting, seems to light up with shades of red and orange as if it’s on fire.
Spanning a little over 1/4 mile, the Clinton Bridge spans the Arkansas River, as many do in the state, and completes the 15 mile Arkansas River Trail loop.
I started my journey across the bridge as the day was drawing to an end, and commuters were filling the streets to head home. There weren’t many people walking on the deck, but I imagine when the temperatures are warmer, or on weekends, the bridge is full of people walking, running, and enjoying the backdrop of the Little Rock skyline.
The views from the deck of the bridge are breathtaking. Along with the capital city skyline, there are expansive views of the Arkansas River, the Clinton Museum complex, and the miles of trails that make up the Arkansas River Trail system. With the clouds breaking away, the city seemed to glisten as the sun started to reflect off the thousands of windows in the skyscrapers.
I could have stood on the bridge for hours, just gazing at everything around me and enjoying the stunning views, but I had more to see.
Walking away, I looked back at the bridge, starting to glow in the sunlight and wished I could have stayed longer. I was excited to see what I would discover next on my journey, so I headed into downtown Little Rock.
4. Storm Drain Murals
While many cities have street art or murals, most are on building walls or bridges, and I’m sure Little Rock has their fair share of them as well. After taking a stroll on the Clinton Bridge, I was cold and desperately needing something hot to warm my bones. As I walked towards the city, I noticed that the storm drains all had colorful murals painted on them. Why I had not seen them before I have no idea.
As I approached the first drain, I noticed that the artwork had a message. The artwork is part of a program called Central Arkansas Drain Smart in which artists compete for the chance to participate.
The goal of the program, which was started in 2014, is to remind the public that what goes down the street drains has a direct effect on the water supply as well as the wildlife.
Each artist chooses their mural, but they all must convey the importance of city storm drains and the effect they have on the environment. There are murals not only in Little Rock but in 5 other Arkansas cities as well. There is even a map to the locations of the paintings on the organization’s website.
Just like street murals, these pieces of art relay an important message as well as give the artist exposure. As I walked along the street admiring the artwork, I couldn’t help but think that if each city in the world had this type of program, what an impact it would make. It’s such an important message that affects every single person on the planet.
5. River Market District
The River Market District is an eclectic mixture of historic brick buildings and new, modern construction, all blending beautifully together along the Arkansas River. Touted as the unofficial cultural center of Little Rock, it has something for everyone.
With unique restaurants, fun pubs, shopping galore, live music, and art, there is so much to see and do that I knew I wasn’t going to see it all in the few hours I had left in my day.
As I headed from the Clinton Bridge into the city along President Clinton Avenue, I came upon a freeway overpass adorned with thousands of colorful tiles. Each painted in shades of blue, green, yellow, and black, some had messages of love, some had the names of the artist, and some were messages of peach and diversity.
Part of the City Tiles Millenium program, each tile was hand-painted by local children and placed on the bridge. I had so much fun reading the messages on the tiles and imagining the children who took the time to create them and how special they must feel, knowing they contributed to the beauty of the area.
All along the riverfront and streets are beautiful sculptures depicting everything from culturally significant reminders of history makers such as Harriett Tubman to some that evoked feelings of pride.
The further into the city I walked, the more unique and whimsical the sculptures got. My favorite, by far, was the father/daughter fishing sculpture located just outside the museum center. It reminded me of a time when I would fish with my father when I was a child.
Sitting along the riverfront is the Central Arkansas Nature Center. The center focuses on the varieties of outdoor activities that the Arkansas fish and wildlife resources provide. Along with the multiple exhibits and education information, visitors often see turtles basking outside along the river bank or even a Peregrine Falcon having it’s dinner as I did on my visit.
If you prefer live performances or maybe even a movie under the stars, then the First Security Amphitheater is the perfect setting. The outdoor amphitheater located right on the edge of the river has both seats and grassy areas.
It was easy for me to imagine grabbing a delicious picnic lunch or dinner, some wine, and sitting under the stars enjoying the backdrop of the Arkansas River while listening to a live band or perhaps watching a local theater group perform.
The temperature was rapidly dropping, so I started back towards my car when I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a man creating something in the window of a chocolate store.
At this point, I knew my efforts to stick with my diet and control my refined sugar intake were about to take a big nose dive. Now, I did try hard just to stand and watch from outside, but my curiosity about what he was making won over my logic and willpower.
Kilwins is a chocolate lovers nirvana. The man behind the giant spatula was the owner, David Lister. With a bit of a British accent, he told me that he was making not just fudge but my favorite kind, peanut butter. As he flipped and worked the tasty creation, he told me all about how he went from a career in corporate America to the owner of the shop and a candy maker. Before I knew it, I had learned all about his life of learning how to make candy, and the fudge ready to sample. As I had a taste of what was the freshest, and I might add the best fudge I’ve ever had, I was a bit overwhelmed by all the choices in the shop.
There were shelves with boxes of chocolate varieties, chocolate dipped pretzels and strawberries, and a case filled with hand made truffles, turtles, caramels, and just about any other type of chocolate treat you could want.
Deciding on what I was going to leave with was no easy task. I had to be able to travel with it and make sure it made it home in one piece, if at all. I couldn’t visit a chocolate shop without going back with a treat for Charlie. He’d never let me forget it.
When I finally made my decision, I grabbed my sweet treats and headed out, thankful to David for giving me a lesson in candy making and also for having enough self-control not to buy one of everything in the store.
Kilwins is a must if you visit Little Rock. Who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky and have the chance to meet David and see him make magic in the window and if you walk out without buying anything, I’d be shocked!
Even though my time in Arkansas was short, I had so much fun discovering new places, having adventures, and meeting people. Whether your interest is the great outdoors, history, music, art, or great food, the area in and around Little Rock is sure to have something you’ll love.
While I had a wonderful time during my visit, I can’t wait to go back when the temps are warmer, and everything is in bloom. I can only imagine how beautiful it is then.