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With Arkansas' alluring forests, lakes and mountains, it's no wonder most of the state's visitors come in search of outdoor adventure. The state's rock climbing opportunities, particularly in the sandstone crags of the northwest, are first rate; its rivers and streams, bursting with trout, are perfect for fishing, canoeing and rafting; and hunters enjoy abundant wildlife and comparatively liberal regulations. Arkansas features more than 50 parks scattered across the state, which offer excellent hiking, backpacking and mountain biking; also known for its digging sites, holiday 'geologists' can unearth their own quartz, judged to be among the world's finest, and occasionally even find a diamond. The Crater of Diamonds State Park is the only diamond mine in the world where visitors can pay an entry fee and keep whatever gems they find. The state's off-the-beaten-path reputation makes it quite an affordable holiday destination as well.
Once, however, Arkansas had a slightly different reputation among travellers. In the early 1900s, due to its thermal springs, it was an elite hideaway for those seeking health, rejuvenation and luxury. Hot Springs National Park, with its magnificent stone and marble bathhouses which are now historic landmarks, was the most famous spa, and it remains the most visited spot in Arkansas, attracting both bathers and history buffs. Eureka Springs is another picturesque historic town that grew up around its hot springs, situated far north in the fabled Ozark Mountains.
The Ozarks are one of the unique cultural regions in America. This mountainous plateau covering northern Arkansas, as well as parts of bordering states, was settled mainly by Scottish-Irish immigrants. As in Appalachia, the area's beautiful but harsh terrain led to a hardscrabble existence. However, from this lifestyle blossomed an ingenuity that has led to generations of Ozark artisans excelling in quilting, knife and instrument making, wood carving and other crafts. 'Mountain music', in which masters of the fiddle, dulcimer, autoharp and banjo join together for jamborees, is another intrinsic part of Ozark heritage. The Ozark Folk Center is dedicated to maintaining a living history of the Ozark way of life.
The southern region of Arkansas opens up into flatter land, the heartland of Arkansas' agricultural background. Two of Arkansas' most famous sons, Johnny Cash and Bill Clinton, were born in this area. Clinton's birthplace is the town of Hope, but his true Arkansas legacy is to be found in the capital, Little Rock. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum houses history's largest collection of presidential papers and artefacts. It is located in Little Rock's vibrant River Market District, on the banks of the Arkansas River, a revitalised warehouse area that now hosts a thriving farmers' market and is home to countless galleries and boutiques, fine southern restaurants, trendy cafés and lively bars. Travellers in search of more history can visit the Little Rock Central High School, now a national historic site, where, in 1957, President Eisenhower dispatched federal paratroopers to force the local government to allow nine African-American students to attend the school.
After a ruling by the US Supreme Court that segregated schools were unconstitutional in 1954, a group of African-American students known as the 'Little Rock Nine' were enrolled in Little Rock Central High School in 1957, much to the dismay of their fellow all-white classmates. The move was considered to be one of the most important events in the African-American Civil Rights Movement. On 4 September 1957, several segregationist councils held protests at the school to deny the new black students entry, and angry mobs spat at and verbally abused the nine teenagers as they made their way to school.
On 25 September, the Little Rock Nine were finally admitted to the school under the protection of the US Army, with 1,000 US paratroopers protecting them from segregationist whites, but they still endured a full year of physical, verbal and emotional abuse from fellow white students. Nevertheless, on 27 May 1958, Earnest Green became the first black student to graduate from the school. Finally, in 1964 the Civil Rights Law prohibited racial discrimination in education, employment or in public places. Little Rock Central High School still functions as part of the Little Rock School District, but is home to a National Historic Site that houses a Civil Rights Museum.
History buffs visiting Little Rock should be sure to visit the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Park, the presidential library of former US president Bill Clinton that features the Clinton Presidential Library, the offices of the Clinton Foundation, and the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. Visitors can enjoy viewing artefacts from Clinton's two terms as president at the museum, including full-scale replicas of the Clinton-era Oval Office and Cabinet Room. Other exhibits include Clinton's Cadillac One, a gallery consisting of a 110-foot (34m) timeline of each of Clinton's years as President and 14 alcove displays featuring the Oklahoma City bombing, and Northern Ireland and Middle East peace efforts, as well as personal letters written to and by the Clinton family and family photographs. The Clinton Presidential Center is a slick attraction and a popular stop in Little Rock.
The official residence of the Governor of Arkansas and his family, this mansion is located within the Governor's Mansion Historic District. Before its construction in 1950, there had never been an official residence of the state's chief executive. Eleven of Arkansas' 45 governors have lived in the Mansion with their families and pets, and many of the rooms feature heirlooms handed down through the years. Tours of the gardens are a must for visitors, as the sweeping vista of botanical beauty makes an afternoon stroll an experience to remember. Tours of the mansion itself are available upon request, although they must be booked at least a day in advance by telephone - find details on the official website listed below. These tours are offered free of charge.
Located just 43 miles (68km) outside of Little Rock, Hot Springs is a popular weekend getaway and excursion for both locals and tourists in Arkansas. The small city takes its name from 47 natural hot springs, which supply heated water to a number of spas in town, most notably in the beautiful old buildings on Bathhouse Row, designated a Historic Landmark District. Most of the popular attractions in and around Hot Springs, apart from the spas, involve outdoor activities like mountain biking, hiking, golf, horseback riding and fishing. Parts of the town are actually located within Hot Springs National Park, making it easy to explore the beautiful landscapes of the area. Hot Springs describes itself as 'America's first resort' and the town has been attracting eager travellers for decades.
Little Rock has a humid subtropical climate with hot summers and fairly cold, but short winters. The average daily temperatures during the summer months, between June and August, range from 69°F (21°C) to 92°F (33°C), while the winter months can be relatively cold, with plenty of rainfall and average temperatures between 31°F (-1°C) and 55°F (13°C). Snow is not unheard of but is seldom excessive. The spring and autumn months of March and April, and September and October, respectively, are the best times of year to visit Little Rock as the weather is pleasantly mild and the colours during these shoulder seasons are glorious, with blossoms and new foliage in spring, and dramatic, rich colours in autumn.
The climate in Arkansas is characterised by four distinct, yet temperate, seasons. It is far enough south to have extremely hot, humid summers, during which thunderstorms occur quite frequently. Arkansas does border the so-called 'Tornado Alley', and severe tornadoes have struck in the past, most often in the spring months of May and June. Spring and autumn are the best time to visit Arkansas, being particularly mild and pleasant. Winters are chilly, but not unbearably so, and while snow is not uncommon, it is seldom excessive.
Renting a car is the best option for those planning to travel beyond the downtown area of Little Rock. Taxis are available in the city, but are not plentiful so it is best to call in advance as they can be difficult to hail on the street; the exception is the airport, where taxis are always available. The Little Rock Metro Streetcar services most of the main tourist attractions and entertainment venues downtown and is a cheap and convenient transport option for travellers. There is also a bus system which services most of the city, but it is less popular with visitors. Little Rock has a sizeable population of cyclists and renting a bike is a fun option.
Little Rock is a springboard to the many natural wonders of the region, but the city also boasts some interesting attractions. One of Little Rock's prime tourist sites hearkens back to the turbulent Civil Rights Movement: Little Rock Central High School, now a National Historic Site with a memorial and visitor's centre, attracts many visitors keen to commemorate the brave Little Rock Nine. For lovers of politics, The Clinton Presidential Center is fascinating, and the Arkansas Governor's Mansion beckons history buffs. Visit the oldest surviving Capitol building west of the Mississippi; shop for unique antiques and trinkets around town; take a ride on a riverboat down the Arkansas River; enjoy a drive through the picturesque historic Quapaw Quarter; view the Villa Marre, the home featured in the 1990s sitcom, or relish teeing off on a championship golf course.
Nature lovers can hook a fish from a world-class trout stream, walk in the scenic Ouachita Mountains where the Hot Springs National Park awaits, or enjoy breathtaking views, pristine lakes, rivers and vast underground caverns in the Ozark Mountains and River Valley. Especially worthwhile for nature lovers, the city of Little Rock is worth a visit for all who visit Arkansas.
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