FEEL AT HOME, ON THE RANGE.
Whether you’re into horseback riding, zip lining, rock climbing or porch sitting, the 350-acre Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, located in the Ozark hills between Jasper and Ponca, has the perfect activity for you and your little ones. And for tots ages 3-5, the ranch offers a kids’ program that includes everything from pony rides and arts and crafts to bug hunts and nature walks. You’ll probably be exhausted after such a fun-filled day, so plan to spend your evening in one of the ranch’s rustic-yet-modern log cabins, or pitch a tent if you feel like roughing it. (horseshoecanyonadventures.com)
STOMP IN THE SWAMP.
It’s only three hours from Little Rock, but the swampy, Spanish-moss-strewn Caddo Lake—the largest natural lake in the South—might as well be on another planet. Straddling the border between Louisiana and Texas, the 26,800-acre lake looks like it’s straight out of Disney’s The Princess and the Frog: miles upon miles of boggy bayou, populated by thousands upon thousands of ancient bald Cypresses (as well as river otters, blue herons and more than a few gators). The closest town—the mysteriously named Uncertain, Texas—is home to Lafitte’s Landing, a quartet of Acadian cottages boasting names such as “Thibodeaux” and “Fontenaux,” and is in proximity to Caddo Lake State Park, where one can rent canoes, take a hike or cast a line. But for a true backwater experience, seek out one of the swamp-boat tours, which will take wide-eyed wanderers into the thicket of things. (caddolodging.com)
There are 200-ish “islands” in Lake Ouachita, depending on the lake level, which means 200-ish opportunities to play castaway for the night. All U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property, the sunken mountaintops are open to campers on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you’re a boat owner, this is a no-brainer; if you’re not, consider renting canoes or kayaks and paddling out from Mountain Harbor Resort’s marina. Whichever way you get there, once you’ve staked your claim, you and yours will be lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves and will have easy access to a (possibly self-powered) sunrise cruise. (arkansasstateparks.com/lakeouachita)
SEEK HIGHER GROUND.
If you’ve seen one Arkansas mountaintop lodge, you’ve seen ’em all, amirite? Well, not necessarily. Odds are you’ve spent a day or many at Petit Jean’s Mather Lodge or farther north at Mount Magazine. But what about the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge, which sits atop Arkansas’ second-highest peak, the 2,681-foot Rich Mountain? A stay at the recently renovated resort—once dubbed “the Castle in the Sky”—puts you in proximity to several Ouachita Mountain hiking trails, as well as the stunning Talimena National Scenic Byway, which wends its way through the hills from Mena to Talihina, Oklahoma. And if panoramas and walks in the woods aren’t enough for your brood, fear not: There’s a playground, a mini train and mini golf on-site, too. (queenwilhelmina.com)
PUT A SPRING IN YOUR STEP.
There are many perfectly lovely places to go camping in Arkansas. But there’s only one—Blanchard Springs Recreation Area—that combines hiking trails, waterfalls, a fishing lake, not one but two swimming holes and a massive underground cavern to explore, all under one roof. (Erm, canopy.) The crystal-clear waters of the spring-fed North Sylamore Creek are perfect for cooling off on those hot summer days, and the springs themselves can be visited via a short paved trail, making it easy on any small fries in tow. But the real stunner here is the caverns themselves. A variety of guided tours allows visitors to take in the living cave, featuring a beautifully lit system of continuously changing stalactites and stalagmites shaped by the mineral-rich waters that drip through the cavern. Kids ages 10 and older can even explore the undeveloped sections to see what a “wild” cave looks like. (fs.usda.gov)