If your kiddos are the thrill-seeking kind, the average summer outing might seem a little … boring. Good thing there’s nothing boring about soaring through the trees while dangling from a steel cable at Adventureworks Hot Springs. You and yours can get an adrenaline fix on the outdoor park’s mile-plus-long zip-line course or test your mettle on the brand-new Aerial Adventure course, featuring a challenging series of swinging bridges, hanging vines and the like, all while suspended 40 feet in the air. Who needs solid ground anyway? (adventureworks.com/hotsprings)
There’s no shortage of places to paddle here in Arkansas. But when it comes to places to paddle with kiddos in tow in the heat of the summer—well, that’s a different story. For guidance, we turned to Mike Bezemek’s Paddling the Ozarks, which lists the 3-mile Illinois River float from the Siloam Springs Kayak Park to the take-out at Arkansas Highway 59 as one of the best options for families. More experienced paddlers can play in the park’s engineered “green waves” and “play holes,” while little ones who might not be ready for rapids will enjoy splashing in the calm eddies. Downstream from the park, the float is an easy Class I and will be runnable most of the year. (Added bonus: The park is alcohol-free, making this a safer bet than some of the area’s more adult-oriented, booze-cruisey rivers.) (siloamspringskayakpark.com)
HOOK A BIG ONE ON THE FLY.
Wanna wish you were a kid again yourself? Take yours fly-fishing on Dry Run Creek, and you’ll be envious of all the 16-and-unders hooking big ol’ rainbows on one of Arkansas’—and arguably, the nation’s—pre-eminent trout streams. This three-quarter-mile catch-and-release fishery near the Norfork National Fish Hatchery is set aside for young anglers (and adults confined to a wheelchair) and has special boardwalks and docks designed for easy casting. “Every guide on our team, and every adult we know, wishes they could get a pass to fish Dry Run Creek for the day,” the folks at Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher say on their website. “It’s just that much fun.” (norforkhatcheryfriends.org)
GET TOTALLY TUBULAR.
You don’t need a canoe or a kayak to cool off in the Ouachita River. Thanks to regular dam releases from Lake Catherine, the stretch of river from the dam to the whitewater park in Malvern is consistently deep enough that all you need is a tube (rentable from a number of local outfitters) and a life jacket to navigate the flow. The park offers easy access—think paved trails and ladders—to the water near Rockport Ledge’s gentle rapids. We’ve seen kiddos hop in a tube upstream, cruise through the eddy, then hop out and do it all over again. And again. Annnnnd again. If the water’s rolling a bit too much, cool off downstream; then watch the playboaters do their thing in the waves. (facebook.com/ouachitariverwhitewaterpark)
Surely you’ve seen it—the 500-ish-foot, bluff-lined dome of a mountain erupting from the middle of Greers Ferry Lake opposite the Fairfield Bay Marina. But have you been to the top of it? Sat on the bluff line and looked out over the water? If not, there are a couple ways to reach the trails at Sugarloaf Mountain. Those up for a challenge can rent kayaks and paddle the 1.5 miles out to Sugarloaf’s dock, and those who’d rather save their energy for the moderate-to-strenuous hike on the hill can opt for the marina’s shuttle service. Either way, your efforts will be rewarded with jaw-dropping views—and there’ll be ice cream waiting for you once you make your way back to the marina. (visitfairfieldbay.com)
SCREAM FOR ICE CREAM.
“We just read of someone driving all the way from Oklahoma City to get one of our famous ‘GIANT’ ice cream cones,” reads a post from last summer on Short Stop Grill’s Facebook page. “How far away have you driven to eat one of our cones?” Here’s the answer to that: Quite far. And here’s why: They. Are. HUGE. Like, a foot-tall huge. Like, hold-it-with-two-hands-huge. Like, hope-you’re-not-wearing-a-white-shirt huge. If you’re in the Beaver Lake or Eureka Springs vicinity, stop by and see for yourself: This Garfield gas station ain’t messing around when it comes to the soft serve. (facebook.com/shortstopgrill)
If it’s been a few years since you visited Hot Springs’ Mid-America Science Museum, here’s what you’ve missed: A LOT. Like 75-new-exhibits a lot, thanks to a $7.8 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation and a complete overhaul. Let’s start with the Bob Wheeler Science Skywalk, which is essentially The Treehouse of Our Dreams, complete with a network of intertwining bridges that lead 32 feet up into the canopy surrounding the museum. Then there’s the digital-dome-theater-slash-planetarium, the two-story water vortex, the “underground cave,” the gyroid climbing structure …. You might even have more fun than the kiddos. (midamericamuseum.org)
Citizen scientists, unite! A visit to Fayetteville’s Botanical Garden of the Ozarks is not only a walk in the park, but an opportunity to contribute to University of Arkansas professor Erica Westerman’s butterfly research. Pick up a checklist at the garden’s welcome center; then wander the 40-acre site collecting data about our winged friends. Continue your foray into lepidopterology at the on-premise butterfly house, the only one of its kind in the state. If you visit on a Wednesday, be sure to take advantage of the “Little Sprouts” program for preschoolers and “Garden Buds” program for elementary-age kiddos. (bgozarks.org)
STAY ON QUARTZ.
Any rockhound worth their weight in gold knows that if you’re planning to dig for quartz crystals, there are only two worthwhile destinations: Brazil and Arkansas. (Mount Ida is even known as “The Quartz Crystal Capital of the World.”) And while there are more mines open to the public around the state than you can shake a shovel at, if you’re looking for the best bang for your buck, plan on visiting Ron Coleman Mining in Hot Springs Village. For $20, adults get a full day of mining, and kids ages 7-16 get in for $5. (Free admission for tykes under 7.) Combined with a complimentary gem bag and a satisfaction guarantee (meaning, you can apply your admission fee to something in the gift shop if you come up empty-handed), this activity’s a true gem. (colemanquartz.com)
GET ON BOARD.
Don’t get discouraged if your kiddos are quicker to perfect the art of stand-up paddleboarding than you are, what with their nimble joints and seemingly boundless energy. With a little practice, you’ll be up on that board in no time, and you’ll probably only fall off, like, a couple of times. The Islets Cove Paddle Trail on DeGray Lake is a great place to practice, thanks to the slow-moving nature of the water and the many points of interest along the trail—and the fact you can rent boards from the state park’s marina. The 3-mile loop takes paddlers along a marked trail, dipping in and out of peaceful coves and forested shore that’s excellent for viewing wildlife, from beavers to bald eagles. (degray.com)
SCOPE IT OUT.
Why not give your mini-yous a little space, huh? And by that, we mean show them the universe by attending one of the Central Arkansas Astronomical Society’s Star Parties, held each month this summer at Pinnacle Mountain (and occasionally Woolly Hollow State Park). The amateur astronomers of CAAS will take your munchkins on a telescopic tour of the cosmos, showing off several planets, the moon and any other celestial objects on display in that night’s sky. It’s one thing to see a photo of these heavenly bodies, but seeing the real thing up close? Outta this world. (caasastro.org)
DINE ON THE LINE.
Revel in the nostalgia of a bygone era while taking in the landscape of The Natural State. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, the Eureka Springs & Northwest Arkansas Railway takes passengers on a lunchtime dining experience right out of the Roaring Twenties. Eat in style while you ride the rails in a 1927 dining car pulled by a 1940s-era locomotive. The hour-and-a-half-long trip follows the path of the old Missouri & Northwest Arkansas Railway line on a journey about 4.5 miles long. Tickets include train fare and lunch. (esnarailway.com)
If you didn’t already know, let us fill you in: Fruit just tastes better when you pick it yourself. And we’re talking off the tree, not out of the bin, people. If you don’t believe us, head down to Peach Pickin’ Paradise in Clarksville. The family-run orchard contains row after row of trees bearing delicious, juicy peaches and nectarines ripe for the picking. There are several varieties to choose from, and since the owners don’t mind if you try before you buy, you shouldn’t have too much trouble satisfying any picky youngsters. But while you’ll come for the fresh fruit, you’ll stay for the delightful hospitality of the Morgan family and the beauty of their 423-acre farm. (facebook.com/peachpickinparadise)
STRIKE OUT ON THE TRAIL.
Listen up, sports fans: Baseball history runs deep in Hot Springs. Beginning in the late 1800s, baseball players flocked to town for spring training, making use of the mountain trails, the healing waters and, of course, the resort hotels and bustling nightclubs. Even legends like Jackie Robinson and the Great Bambino himself spent time in the city. And now you can visit the spots they frequented and the fields they practiced on easier than ever before with the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail’s smartphone app that leads you along the way. Peanuts, popcorn and Cracker Jacks not included. (hotspringsbaseballtrail.com)
At just shy of an hour’s drive from Little Rock, it’s hard to pass up the allure of Lake Sylvia on a hot summer day. Just make sure you bring a picnic lunch and plenty of sunscreen, because once you get to this swimmin’ hole, you won’t want to leave. Between the lake’s beach area and a diving platform perfect for doing cannonballs, your tots likely won’t want even want to leave the water. But if they don’t mind spending some time on dry land, you can take a leisurely stroll through the Ouachita National Forest on the area’s wildlife interpretive trail. (fs.usda.gov)
Your littles have likely seen the Arkansas River from many vantage points over the years—driving across the I-430 bridge, strollering along the river trail, looking down from the top of Pinnacle Mountain. But thanks to the folks at Rock Town River Outfitters, your family can experience the river up close and personal in a kayak. Learn about local Little Rock lore as a river guide leads you past the city’s sights and bridges on your choice of a 2- or 6-mile float, depending on how much time you want to spend out on the water. Or better yet, take the evening sunset tour, and witness the bridges light up the night. RTRO offers a Kayak 101 class for newbies, and if you’re already pros, they offer kayak rentals so you can paddle out on your own. (rocktownriveroutfitters.com)