Why you should care
Because such proximity to beauty is a truly rare thing.
The age of Nintendo 64s and mood rings, Rollerblades and other things has passed us by. Sure, there are some regrets of the ’90s: bleached hair, the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, to name a few. But one unexpected gift from the era? Some of the most underrated nature escapes in America. And you have Mike Huckabee and the state of Arkansas to thank for that.
Confused? See, before Huckabee ran for president and became that guy always on your TV, the Arkansas governor pushed a sixth-of-a-cent sales tax to help fund wildlife conservation and the state’s parks system. He took flak from the right at the time, but ultimately, the move proved savvy. The parks system has thrived, becoming “shockingly robust and beautiful,” says political scientist Janine Parry, adding good-humoredly, “and I’m from the Pacific Northwest, so I have pretty high standards.” There’s a reason Arkansas is called the Natural State, from the first national river to the Ozarks. Of the state’s 52 state parks and three national forests, here are just a few of the places worth exploring.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
It might seem an odd beginning to a wilderness reflection, but Crystal Bridges, in the north Arkansas town of Bentonville, is home to a stunning array of art depicting America’s haunting natural beauty. Sculptor Roxy Paine’s 30-foot silver tree adorns the entrance to the free museum, while galleries inside include the works of Georgia O’Keefe, Jackson Pollock and Norman Rockwell.
An elevator, with a view that overlooks a sparkling restaurant and waterfront, lifts visitors up to 120 acres of Ozark trails. Squirrels dart between the fake limbs of an exhibit by Washington artist Dale Chihuly, whose glass sculptures breathe man-made creativity into nature’s handiwork. Walk amid turquoise glass reeds, neon spaghetti bushes and the Fiori boat, a cornucopia of colored crystal masterpieces — all while soaking in the crisp mountain air. Incorporating a glass-and-wood design by architect Moshe Safdie, a central pond is fed by two local creeks: a reminder of the way humanity continues to touch, and interpret, the natural gifts all around us.
Crater of Diamonds State Park
Diamonds are a girl’s best friend, the song goes, and if you find one here? You get to keep it. Across 37.5 acres, visitors are welcome to explore the surface of the world’s eighth-largest diamond-bearing volcanic crater for the white, brown and yellow gems. Tools are optional; however, folding shovels, screen sets and diamond hunting kits are recommended, and can also be rented. Murfreesboro, south of the Ouachita National Forest, is replete with camping sites to extend your gem expedition to an overnight stay.
The state’s tallest mountain looms 2,753 feet over river valleys and rocky canyons, but the drive there alone makes the journey worth it. Your ears might pop during the ascent along the scenic byway starting at the tiny city of Paris, a drive that drops from the cliffsides into the rolling abyss.
Hike the eastern trail, a short mile-long loop that takes you down stone steps along a path that’s often more moss, rock and roots than dirt. Dozens of crickets leap at your feet. Take in the canyon views, then cross the pavement to the cliff edges. It doesn’t take much luck to find falcons, hawks and even eagles here, roosting high above the world below; they suddenly shuffle and then lurch out from the trees. One overlook reads, charmingly: “Come again to the Arkansas high point. You are always welcome here.” Such proximity to beauty is a rarity, and it hurts to imagine not returning.
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