SOME STORIES, when they present themselves to us here at Arkansas Life, require some heady pros-and-cons-ing. Is it something we want to pursue? A story that should be told? That needs to be told? And are we the ones to tell it?
This is one of those stories.
It’s a story that, for me, began in the summer of 2016, when my family and I pulled off of Arkansas Highway 21 near the Kings River, climbing up and up and along a ridge atop a forested county road and then, tentatively, down an unmarked gravel drive.
“Is that … is that it?” I remember asking my husband, pointing a tentative finger at a low-slung, wood-sided house. In my mind, I was expecting grandeur—a house large enough to shelter the 16 family members I’d convinced to spend the weekend with us on—wait for it—5,200 riverfront acres owned by The Nature Conservancy.
This? This wasn’t grand.
We’ll just call it “rustic.”
He shrugged and kept following the drive, which wound through the woods, eventually curling around the rural version of a cul-de-sac. On its fringes sat two glass-walled bungalows, partially concealed by greenery; at its apex, a modest-looking, though undoubtedly oversized, cabin. “That must be it,” I said, still somewhat puzzled. Big, it was. Grand, it wasn’t.
Then I opened the door.
What follows can only be likened to that moment on every reality TV show ever when the mishmash of folks who’ll be shacking up together arrive at the multimillion-dollar pad chosen for them by production, screaming like schoolgirls and scurrying up and down stairs and flinging themselves onto overstuffed beds. Because that was me in the rock-walled kitchen with its hibachi grill, butcher-block island and double fridges. In the dining room with its monstrous wooden table and seats for 14. In the two-story living room where there were no walls, only glass. And, my goodness, on the 2,000-square-foot deck, which had, hands down, the loveliest view I’ve ever beheld in all of Arkansas. Seriously.
My first inclination? Get out the iPhone, open Instagram, go nuts. But then I thought better. If I share this, I thought, then people will know about this place. I put the phone back in my pocket.
“Is that it?” Emma says from the passenger seat. I smile.
Same story, one year later. Staff in tow, I’ve made the same turn off Arkansas 21 and down the same unmarked gravel drive. Same door opening, same reality-show montage: one’s shrieking from the kitchen, one’s climbing stairs two by two to the sleeping loft, one’s flipping on lights in a bedroom, one’s playing bartender in the wet bar. I’m watching, knowing exactly what’s about to happen. Almost at once, they find their way into that majestic glass-walled living room and get their first peek at that view, then start scrambling for the sliding door, tumbling outside and sprinting to the deck’s railing.
After listening to a chorus of are-you-kidding-me’s, I give them the backstory. That river down there? That’s the Kings River, I tell them, and The Nature Conservancy owns, maintains and conserves 10.5 miles of it. I tell them that the house was built as a vacation home by a Houston oil family in 1970, who sold it to The Nature Conservancy in 2013, and that the proceeds from each stay go to support the Conservancy’s effort on the Kings.
They nod, turning to face the house, turning back to take in the view. “I feel like a millionaire,” Wyndham says.
Our stay unfolds, much like my stay the previous summer, in a series of Instagram-worthy moments. Cocktails on the deck. Burgers with a view. A hike at dusk. Ukulele jam sessions by the fire pit. The Milky Way and the brightest shooting star we’ve ever seen. As I’m wont to do, I snap a hundred pictures. This time, I post a few.
Immediately the comments flood in. Where is this place? Um, where’s my invite? HOW DO I STAY HERE? I hesitate. Should I respond, knowing that if the world knows what’s at the end of that nondescript, unmarked gravel drive, I’ll have to share it? Or should I keep it to myself?
Reluctantly, I make my decision. Secret’s out, folks. Have at it. Just make sure you save a room for me.
Kings River Deck House
Near Eureka Springs
Sleeps: 12 in the main house; four in each of the two bungalows (20 total)
Amenities: Hiking trail, gourmet kitchen, six bathrooms, wood-burning fireplace, fire pit, grilling pavilion, record player, treasure trove of 1970s-era vinyl. Oh, and did we mention 5,200 acres?
Rate: $950/night for main house and bungalows
Listen, you’re not gonna want to leave. But if you do, here’s where to go
Kings River Deck House Trail
Just kidding—you don’t even have to leave for this one, since it’s on the property. Built by volunteers, this out-and-back trail starts right behind the main house and switchbacks about a mile through the woods to a bluff overlooking river. Thing is, though, it’s a mile back up and out. Worth it? Yes.Pro-tip: Wear bug spray.
Kings River Outfitters
Renaissance man Ernie Kilman—half landscape painter, half river guide—is the man behind this canoe/kayak service just down the road from the deck house. For those who aren’t staying at the deck house, know this: Ernie’s got a trio of cabins and a campground on his scenic riverfront property. (8190 Arkansas Highway 221; kingsriveroutfitters.com)
Trust us: Everything tastes better on that deck. But if you want a break from the kitchen, this Main Street eatery’s got a great wine list, an inventive menu and a to-die-for patio. If you’re in town on the weekend, sister restaurant Aquarius Taqueria offers Oaxacan-style Mexican food and—bonus!—mezcal margaritas. (71 S. Main St.; localflavorcafe.net)
Sparky’s Roadhouse Cafe
Worked up an appetite on the river, or the trail, or the lake? (Beaver Lake is nearby, BTW.) Sparky’s is A) relatively close, B) outrageously delicious, C) super quirky and D) OK with the fact that you’re, um, river-y. Our rec? The enchiladas. And get a chocolate milkshake while you’re at it. We won’t tell. (147 E. Van Buren; sparkysroadhouse.com)