Arkansas National Parks

Hot Springs National Park
Hot Springs National Park. iStock / Getty Images Plus

Arkansas's national parks include monuments to important battles—from the Civil War Pea Ridge to the Little Rock Central High School battle for integration—and gorgeous scenery in the Buffalo River and the Mississippi floodplain. 

Arkansas National Parks Map
National Park Service Map of Arkansas National Parks. National Park Service

According to the National Park Service, there are seven national parks in Arkansas, including monuments, memorials, and military battlefields, which are visited by over three million people each year. Here you'll find summaries of the natural and historical gems of the state.

Arkansas Post National Memorial

Arkansas Post National Memorial
Cannon firing in 2006 for Colbert's Raid at Arkansas Post.

National Park Service 

Located at the mouth of the Arkansas River in the Mississippi River floodplain near Gillett, the Arkansas Post National Memorial honors a series of tiny outposts established by various European and American forces as a tool in the imperialist exploration of the New World. 

The Arkansas Post memorializes the entire history of the Louisiana territory, beginning in 1541 when the confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers was a target of exploration by Hernando de Soto. Here or within a few miles of this location was a French trading post established in 1686; during the 1749 Chickasaw Wars, the French survived an attack by Chief Payamataha; in 1783 and under Spanish occupation, one of the last battles of the Revolutionary War was fought here; and in 1863, the last fort, the heavily bastioned Fort Hindman, was destroyed by the Union Army during the Civil War. 

The park center has exhibits and a movie detailing the long history, and winding trails lead visitors through the historic townsite, a partly reconstructed 18th century fort, and the archaeological remains of Quapaw villages, and 18th and 19th century European and American settlements.

The Arkansas Post National Memorial is a peaceful region of oxbow lakes and cutoff meanders, with numerous bird species such as the prothonotary warbler, white-eyed vireo, wood duck, yellow-billed cuckoo, and the Louisiana waterthrush. Raccoons, opossum, and deer are found in the park, and nutria and alligators can be seen in the waterways.

Buffalo National River

Buffalo National River
Buffalo National River, Arkansas, USA. Danita Delimont / Gallo Images / Getty Images Plus

The Buffalo National River is one of the few completely undammed rivers in the continental US, and the park includes 135 miles of the river bottom. The river is set in a variety of forest types, beech, oak, hickory, and pine, and the underlying geology is karst topography

Features in the park associated with karst topography are caves, sinkholes, springs, seeps, and disappearing streams, all carved from the limestone by water into intricate maze-like fissures and conduits. The caves are primarily closed to the public because of White Nose Syndrome, a fungal disease that has decimated indigenous bat populations. The exception is Fitton Cave, open to experienced speleologists with a permit from the park geologist. 

Large springs such as Mitch Hill Spring and Gilbert Spring have voluminous water outputs and are little islands of aquatic and mesic habitat that are home to endemic species of macroinvertebrates and vascular plants.

Fort Smith National Historic Site

Fort Smith National Historic Site
Commissary Building at Fort Smith National Historic Park. mpuckette / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Fort Smith National Historic Site, located in central western Arkansas and crossing over into Oklahoma, commemorates the founding of a fort intended to establish peace between the Osage and Cherokee. It was also the scene of the Trail of Tears, where thousands of Cherokees and others were forced to leave their homes to reservations in Oklahoma. 

The site of the first fort was selected by explorer, inventor, and engineer Stephen H. Long (1784–1864). Established on December 25, 1817, the fort saw a cycle of raids and skirmishes over hunting rights between the Osage and Cherokee people. The worst battle was the Claremore Mound Massacre of 1817, when dozens of Osage were killed by Cherokee forces. The major diplomatic success of the fort was to defuse an attack of the fort by the Osage leader Bad Tempered Buffalo in 1821. 

The second Fort Smith was garrisoned from 1838 to 1871. While it was never used for defense, the fort served as a training ground for soldiers in the War with Mexico and became a major supply depot for the U.S. Army. During the Civil War, Fort Smith was occupied by both Confederate and Union forces.

Hot Springs National Park

Hot Springs National Park
Steam rises from a hot spring at Arlington Lawn in Hot Springs National Park. Richard Rasmussen / America 24-7 / Getty Images Plus

Hot Springs National Park, located in central Arkansas near the town of Hot Springs, includes a region used by Native Americans for thousands of years before William Dunbar and George Hunter arrived in 1804, one of four expeditions sent by President Thomas Jefferson to the Louisiana Purchase area. 

The Hot Springs region was known as the "Valley of the Vapors" by its native settlers; and by the 1860s, the town was a magnet for visitors seeking a dip in the healing waters. A row of Victorian-era bathhouses soon welcomed elite from Europe and the East into luxurious settings. The park center is located in the Fordyce Bathhouse (operated from 1915–1962), which has several exhibits; visitors can also experience the thermal water in individual baths at the Buckstaff or group pools in the Quapaw Baths and Spa. 

The combined flow of the 47 hot springs in the park ranges from 750,000 to 950,000 gallons per day. The origin of the springs is very rare: rather than being volcanic in nature, the water is rainwater which fell in the region 4,400 years and has been heated to 143 degrees F, likely by contact with rocks of high temperature at depths of 6000–8000 feet, picking up carbon dioxide gas on the way down, then forced upward to the pools. 

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, site of 1954 school desegregation battles. Walter Bibikow / The Image Bank / Getty Images Plus

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, located in the town of Little Rock in central Arkansas, is the only operating high school in the nation to be designated a National Historic Site. It is a symbol of the pain and anguish brought during the long-delayed desegregation of the south. 

Court cases such as Brown v. the Board of Education (1954) had been won in the Supreme Court, proving the "separate but equal" policy which had been established in southern cities was a failure. In the fall of 1957, the previously all-white Central High School was scheduled to admit African American high school students, but Arkansas Governor Orval E. Faubus directly questioned the authority of that decision. Nine brave African American teenagers were provided a safe corridor through an ugly mob into the high school by federal troops sent by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The student Ernest Green graduated on May 25, 1958, as the first African American graduate of Little Rock Central High School. 

LIFE Magazine Cover, October 7, 1957
The cover of LIFE Magazine features a photograph of members of the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army standing guard in order to enforce the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School, Little Rock, Arkansas. The LIFE Images Collection / Getty Images

That summer, Faubus retaliated by closing all four high schools to prevent further desegregation: no high school age child was educated at any public school in Little Rock for the entire school year of 1958–1959. In September 1958, a group of mostly white and wealthy women met secretly to form the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC)—they met secretly because it was dangerous for anyone in Little Rock to openly support integration. The WEC was the first white organization to publicly condemn the school closings and to support reopening the schools under the Little Rock School District’s desegregation plan. 

The WEC went door to door and contacted registered voters; in a special election, the segregationists on the school board were recalled and the three moderates were retained. All four schools reopened in August 1959 with limited desegregation. Full integration did not occur in Little Rock Central High School until the 1970s; the full 1,500-strong membership of the WEC was kept secret until the late 1990s.

Over 2,000 Little Rock students in grades 9–12 still attend school at the high school itself. Visitors can get a guided tour of the building by reservation only, and the park staff recommends making those reservations at least a month in advance. The park visitor's center features permanent exhibits covering the 1957 events, audio/visual and interactive programs, and a bookstore. 

Pea Ridge National Military Park

Pea Ridge National Military Park
Views around Pea Ridge National Military Park in Arkansas where a battle was fought during the Civil War. Wesley Hitt / Photographer's Choice RF / Getty Images

The Pea Ridge National Military Park, located in the northwestern corner of Arkansas, commemorates the Battle of Pea Ridge (also known as the Battle of Elkhorn Tavern), a conflict that decided the fate of Missouri and was the most pivotal battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi River. 

The Federal operations into Arkansas began in Lebanon, Missouri on February 10, 1862, and ended with the capture of Helena, Arkansas on July 12, 1862. On March 7–8, 1862, over 26,000 soldiers fought here–the Union forces headed by Samuel Curtis (1805–1866) and the Confederate forces by Earl Van Dorn (1820–1863)–to decide the fate of Missouri and was a turning point of the war in the West. 

The Union won the battle, but lost 1,384 men killed, wounded, or missing; the Confederate army lost approximately 2,000 men in battle, including hundreds who deserted and at least 500 taken prisoner. The park preserves the renovated Elkhorn Tavern itself, and many of the battlefields, Confederate and federal artilleries, and General Curtis' Headquarters.