An Epic Arkansas Road Trip: Itinerary from Bentonville to Little Rock
May 26, 2022
If you want to see the best places in Arkansas in one epic road trip, you’re in the right place! Arkansas is an underrated state packed with natural beauty, hidden gems and unique activities. This itinerary has suggestions for 10 days exploring ‘The Natural State.’
This road trip covers about 380 miles and focuses on the Northwest region of Arkansas. The 10 day itinerary is action packed and fast paced. If you prefer slower travel, I recommend spending longer than 10 days to complete the route.
This itinerary also includes a lot of moderate day hikes. If you are new to hiking, check out my beginner hiker tips!
There is really no bad time of year to visit Arkansas. Arkansas has mild winters and hot summers (although not as hot as other areas like Texas). The spring and fall are the best times to visit for mild temperatures and beautiful weather.
In the spring, you can see beautiful blooms at places like Garvan Woodland Gardens. In the fall, you can enjoy gorgeous fall foliage while hiking. For the most ideal conditions, the spring and fall are your best options.
This itinerary starts in Bentonville. If you’re flying here, you’ll fly into the Northwest Arkansas National Airport (XNA), offering direct flights to several major US cities and connections to many more.
You could also do this road trip in the opposite direction and fly into the Clinton National Airport (LIT) in Little Rock.
These airports are the two largest in Arkansas and both have onsite rental car facilities.
Bentonville is an artistic town located in the northwest corner of Arkansas. While it is most known as the headquarters of Walmart, the town will surprise you with world class mountain biking trails, colorful coffee shops and world class free art museums.
For your first day in Bentonville, start with coffee at The Meteor. This cafe/bar/bike shop has another location in Austin and you can feel the connection as soon as you walk in.
The artistic and quirky interior has light colored wood with brightly colored geometric shapes leading your eye around the room. This cafe is great at any time of day, because they serve beer, wine and food in addition to coffee.
When you’re properly fueled up, head to Crystal Bridges to take in the architecture and artwork. Named after the Crystal river running underneath, the building will catch your eye with huge glass galleries that hover over the water. Crystal Bridges is free to visit and has indoor exhibits along with sculptures outside.
If you have enough time, I also recommend visiting The Momentary. The Momentary is a contemporary art space that is essentially a branch of Crystal Bridges. It is located in a former Kraft cheese factory so you will see industrial elements throughout the space.
The museum has rotating exhibits so there is always something new and exciting to see. It also has an outdoor space with gardens, abstract chairs and a stage. Both Crystal Bridges and The Momentary are amazing free things to do in Bentonville.
End your day with one of the best restaurants in Bentonville, Preacher’s Son. This eclectic restaurant is located inside of a former church. I loved that the stained glass windows have bike motifs reflective of the town.
The food is made with locally sourced ingredients and I really enjoyed the crispy pimento potato croquettes and the vegetarian smoked branzino made with chickpeas, smoked tomatoes and brussel sprouts.
For a unique and centrally located hotel, I recommend staying at the Bentonville 21C. 21C has several locations throughout the United States and each one is an art museum in addition to a hotel. The hotel room was pretty standard but I really enjoyed the exhibits and restaurant (The Hive) in the lobby.
On your second day in Bentonville, rent mountain bikes and explore some of the bike paths and trails around the city. There are multiple mountain biking parks and bike rentals, but the most convenient option near the 21C is renting from Spoke Adventures and biking the Slaughter Pen trails.
Spoke Adventures is right across from the 21C hotel and centrally located in Bentonville. I recommend reserving ahead of time because they sell out during busy times.
When you have your bike, the Slaughter Pen trail system is located just about a block away. This trail system is great for beginners because there is a paved trail in addition to various mountain biking trails that stem from the paved path.
If you’re new to mountain biking, every trail is marked with a symbol to indicate the level of difficulty. I suggest starting on the All-American mountain biking trail. It is mostly doable for beginners but has a steep portion about 0.8 miles in.
You could easily spend as much or little time as you would like exploring the mountain biking trails. If you can transport the bikes in your vehicle, the Coler Mountain Biking Preserve is another great trail system near town.
After mountain biking, I recommend visiting the 8th Street Market for food, drink and dessert. This marketplace offers a mix of restaurants, shops and bars. If you enjoy beer, visit Bike Rack Brewing Co. for local brews and rotating food trucks.
If you’re looking for a refreshing treat, Happy Wagon serves an incredibly unique treat layered with Italian Ice and frozen custard. The two textures work together perfectly and this treat really surprised me.
Finally, stop by Markham and Fitz Chocolate for a chocolate cocktail, a slice of cake or several other tempting offerings.
On day three, I have two options for you depending on your preference and mood. These destinations can either be visited as day trips from Bentonville or you could stay the night there.
The first option is to take a day trip to Devil’s Den State Park. This park is known for its caves and rock formations and has one of the most intact CCC sites in the U.S. (The CCC was a government work relief program during the 1930s. They built several dams and other structures in parks throughout the country).
Devil’s Den is located about 50 minutes from Bentonville and free to enter. While you’re there, don’t miss the 1.6 mile Devil’s Den Trail and the 3.1 mile Yellow Rock trail. In addition to hiking trails, there are mountain biking trails, overlooks and canoes available to rent.
After Devil’s Den, I recommend spending one night in Fayetteville before heading to Buffalo National Forest.
While in Fayetteville, eat dinner at Hammontree’s Grilled Cheese. Hammontree’s offers a variety of creative grilled cheeses and hog dogs. On the menu you’ll find toppings such as tomato bruschetta, caramelized onions, buffalo sauce, sauteed mushrooms and many more. They even have vegan cheese and veggie dog options!
Fayetteville is home to another one of my favorite hotel chains: The Graduate Hotels. These hotels all have a stand-out theme based upon their city and typically are based on a college campus. This location is near the University of Arkansas the decor is both retro and unique. You’ll find a mismatch of camo carpets, floral chairs, a plaid exterior and a restaurant in the lobby.
Eureka Springs is a historic small town that is built up on a hillside in Northern Arkansas. It is about an hour’s drive from Bentonville and is known for Victorian architecture and natural springs. It’s worth spending a day exploring the town and some of the nearby attractions.
There are several great things to do in Eureka Springs. Start with a visit to the Thorncrown Chapel, a gorgeous glass church hidden away in the woods. Then, spend some time exploring the town and enjoy lunch at Mud Street Cafe or the Balcony Restaurant & Bar.
Spend the afternoon enjoying some nature or seeing more of the town. You’ll find unique rock formations at the Pivot Rock and Natural Bridge. For a quirky attraction, check out the strange and fascinating Quigley’s Castle, a home where fossils, arrowheads, crystals and more adorn the outside walls.
If you enjoy historic hotels, check out Crescent Hotel or Basin Park Hotel. Crescent Hotel is known to be haunted and also offers ghost tours, while the Basin Park Hotel is a great central location to walk around the city. If you enjoy glamping, take a look at Iris Hill to stay in a tiny cabin right outside of town.
For the next day of your road trip, I recommend exploring Buffalo National River. If possible, make your way to Ponca and the Boxley Valley Historic District at sunrise for the best chance to see wild elk. Ponca is a little bit over an hour away from both Fayetteville and Eureka Springs.
Fun Fact: Buffalo National River was the first National River in the United States, designated in 1972.
There are about 600 to 700 elk in the Boxley Valley. They are monitored by the Game and Fish Commission in partnership with the National Park Service. If you visit during the summer, you’re most likely to only see the elk around 6:30am or in the evening from 5-6pm onwards.
If you visit during the winter, you’re more likely to see them until 8 or 9 am and again at 4pm. There is an elk viewing area located across from the old Grist Mill along the road you would take to access the river. It is not clearly marked but you can navigate to these GPS coordinates: 36.018724, -93.357239.
Be sure to never approach elk, keep a safe distance of at least 150 feet and do not block driveways or cross fences.
After seeing (or attempting to see) the elk, there are several beautiful trails in the area. I highly recommend the 5.9 mile Centerpoint to Goat Bluff trail to enjoy the tallest sheer bluff between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains.
This out and back trail is mostly downhill until you reach the bluff, meaning you’ll climb over 1,000 feet on your way back to the parking lot. It’s a strenuous hike so you’ll need to be prepared with plenty of water and all of the hiking essentials.
If you’re up to the challenge, it’s a rewarding hike with an incredible view of the Buffalo River. When you reach the bluff, there is plenty of space to spread out and enjoy a packed lunch before climbing back out.
Either in addition to Goat Bluff or as an alternative, check out the 2.3 mile Lost Valley trail. This trail is rated moderate and leads to waterfalls and caves. You will see a natural bridge, a 200-ft bluff shelter and Eden Falls, a waterfall that cascades 53 feet over the cliffs above.
There is an additional spur trail to see Eden Falls up close and a cave that you explore if you have a flashlight and proper gear. This is the most popular trail in Buffalo National River, so expect crowds during peak hours and days.
If you are interested in primitive camping, I recommend finding a camping spot as close as possible to Hawksbill Crag, so that you can get an early start the next morning. The Ozark-St Francis National Park allows camping in the area as long as you keep a wide distance from creeks and tributaries and follow all posted signage.
Check iOverlander for campsite reviews. Buffalo National Forest also offers several campsites and they vary in terms of fees and amenities. One option is the Steel Creek campground, located just 3 miles from Ponca.
If you have more time in Buffalo National River, go on a rafting trip on the river!
This day will be filled with a lot of hiking and driving in remote areas. Be sure that you have a full tank of gas and be prepared to navigate without cellular service.
For day five of this Arkansas road trip, get an early start with one of the most famous and popular hikes in Arkansas: Whitaker Point/Hawksbill Crag. This iconic rock formation projects out over a valley and offers an incredible view.
Parking is limited here, so I recommend going at sunrise or before 8AM to beat the crowds. You can reach the trailhead by driving either direction on the road, but entering from the south is advisable if you do not have four wheel drive. Also note that this area is remote and there are no restrooms at the trailhead.
The trail is 2.9 miles and rated moderate. You will descend downhill first to reach the rock and then need to gain about 400 feet of elevation on your way back to your car.
Alum Cove is a 1.2 mile trail that leads to a large natural bridge. The bridge has been carved away by a small creek. The trailhead is located about an hour from Whitaker Point and a great stop for a quick hike to break up your driving time.
At Alum Cove, you’ll find caves, interesting rock formations and waterfalls along the way. The hike is rated moderate but is generally considered dog and kid friendly.
The Pedestal Rocks and Kings Bluff trails are a beautiful hiking area where you’ll find a variety of rock formations. There are two separate loop trails, so you can do one or both. Combined, the trails are 4.6 miles and rated moderate. Along the way, you’ll see rocks that resemble giant pedestals, caves, rock arches, a waterfall and beautiful views.
Just a few minutes from the Pedestal Rocks and Kings Bluffs trails, you will reach Falling Water Rd. This scenic drive follows along the Falling Water Creek and there are several beautiful waterfalls along the way. There was no cell service in this area when I visited, so be sure to plan ahead and either download offline maps or bring a paper map.
The first main point of interest is Falling Water Falls. This waterfall is located right off of the road and a popular swimming hole in the warmer months.
As you continue driving north and deeper into Richland Creek Recreation Area, there are several more hiking trails and waterfalls. I recommend hiking the 2.1 miles to Fuzzy Butt Falls, which leads to a waterfall inside of the grotto.
The trail is rated easy and the walls of the grotto are covered in fuzzy moss. This trail is not clearly marked, I recommend downloading the trailhead location on All Trails before you arrive.
Also be sure to stop at Six Finger Falls. This waterfall has six streams and is made up of layered rocks that almost resemble a cake. The waterfall is located very close to the road but there is no signage and it’s not very obvious.
I recommend saving the location ahead of time on Google Maps and downloading an offline version of the map because service is limited here. When you reach the spot, you will need to climb down a short distance to reach the waterfall.
If you are interested in more hiking after this busy day, another nearby trail to consider is Twin Falls, a 5.5 mile trail that leads to two large waterfalls side by side.
After a full day of exploring, I recommend either camping in Richland Creek, staying at a hotel in Russellville or driving all the way to the next day’s destination of Mount Magazine State Park.
Mount Magazine is two hours from Richland Creek and Russellville is about at the halfway point. Russellville has several hotel options, including a Holiday Inn Express, a Courtyard by Marriott and a Hampton Inn.
Mount Magazine State Park is home to the highest point in Arkansas and has several beautiful viewpoints. While the park does have several trails, I would treat this day as more of a rest day because the viewpoints you can drive to are honestly better than the views you can hike to.
On your way up to the park, stop at the Petit Jean Valley Overlook for a wonderful view facing south. Across the street, there is also a beautiful sign for Mount Magazine State Park.
As you continue to the top of the mountain, drive the Overlook Drive for several scenic overlooks. Along the road you’ll find an amphitheater where weddings take place, picnic tables, campgrounds and views in multiple directions.
If you are interested in saying that you’ve been to the highest point in Arkansas, be sure to hike the Signal Hill trail. However, be aware that there is no view at the top.
The hike takes you through the forest to a sign, bench and trail register at the top donated by the Highpointers Foundation. The trail is 1.8 miles and there were lovely wildflowers along the trail during my visit in September. It’s not the most eventful hike, but worth it in my opinion.
Another trail in the park to try is the North Rim Trail. You can combine this trail with the Greenfield Trail and the Mossback Ridge trails for a 4.2 mile loop rated moderate. There are a few viewpoints of the valley along the way.
While you should definitely check out the view from the Mount Magazine Lodge and I recommend staying there, I don’t recommend eating there.
You’ll find a unique dining option at the Wiederkehr Restaurant and Village located in Arkansas wine country. This Bavarian-themed restaurant has stained glass windows, a wood interior, dripped candles and a romantic feel. Here you can enjoy affordable wine, cheese fondue and sausages.
I recommend staying inside of the park at the Mount Magazine Lodge. The rooms offer an incredible view and each has a spacious balcony. You will be able to watch an incredible sunrise and sunset from your room.
Start this day with a hike in Mount Nebo State Park, which is located less than an hour from Mount Magazine. The Mount Nebo Rim trail is 3.6 miles and has several fantastic views along the way. However, you can also drive to each of the popular views instead of hiking.
Whether you hike or drive, be sure to stop at Sunrise Point, Lover’s Leap and Sunset Point.
After spending the morning at Mount Nebo, make your way to Petit Jean State Park (one of my favorite places in Arkansas!). If you haven’t eaten lunch, stop at the cute Petit Jean Coffeehouse right outside the park for a brown paper bag sandwich.
You’ll have more time to explore Petit Jean tomorrow, so today I recommend doing a short hike and visiting the overlooks around sunset. Start with the Rock House trail, a short trail that will lead you to an impressive cave with pictographs inside.
On your way to the cave, you’ll hike over the “turtle rocks,” which are interesting rock formations that resemble turtle shells.
After this trail, take the scenic Red Bluffs road and stop at the two overlooks along the way. You’ll even be able to see Mount Nebo from a distance!
Be sure to not miss the Cedar Falls Overlook. This will give you the perfect vantage point to see the 95-foot waterfall that is the focal point of the park. There is a nice and short boardwalk trail that leads up to the viewpoint.
Nearby, you can also make a quick stop at the Palisades Overlook, which offers a view of the Cedar Creek Canyon. It is similar to the overlooks on Red Bluffs Road.
Finally, catch the sunset from Stout’s Overlook. Stout’s is slightly outside of the park and offers a view of the Arkansas River. It also has the gravesite of Petit Jean and the ruins of a former inn. It’s a great stop on your way to your hotel or campsite for the night.
I recommend staying inside of the park at the Mount Magazine Lodge. The rooms offer an incredible view and each has a spacious balcony. You will be able to watch an incredible sunrise and sunset from your room.
On your second day in Petit Jean, explore some of the longer hiking trails in the park. Start with the popular Cedar Falls Trail, where you will hike to the base of Cedar Falls. This trail is 1.9 miles and begins by hiking down, meaning you’ll be hiking back out at the end of the hike. This iconic trail will lead you face to face to the bottom of the waterfall.
After the Cedar Falls trail, you can either hike a mile on a connector trail or drive a couple minutes to visit Bear Cave. Bear Cave is a small area of trails that weave in and out of huge rock faces. It’s a fascinating area that will remind you a bit of a slot canyon.
Finally, across the street from Bear Cave, I recommend hiking the 5-mile Seven Hollow Trail. This loop trail will take you past natural arches, a grotto, caves and a lot of beautiful rock formations along the way.
After a day of hiking in Petit Jean, I recommend driving to Little Rock to eat dinner and spend the night.
Little Rock has several hotel options to meet your needs! For something historic and luxurious, check out Capital Hotel. This downtown hotel is considered the “Front Porch of Little Rock” and a beautiful place to stay.
Other great options near the riverfront include the Little Rock Marriott and the DoubleTree by Hilton. For a more affordable option right outside of downtown, check out the Holiday Inn Express or the Comfort Inn & Suites.
Spend a full day exploring Little Rock with some of the best things to do in the Arkansas capital city.
If you’re up for more hiking, start your day with a visit to Pinnacle Mountain State Park, conveniently located about 25 minutes from downtown Little Rock. This park offers some of the best hiking near Little Rock.
The main trail Pinnacle Mountain is the Summit Trail, where you will rock scramble up Pinnacle Mountain for incredible views of the Arkansas River and surrounding area.
To reach the peak, you can either rock scramble up the west side of the mountain, or take the stone steps on the east side mountain. Either way, the hike is strenuous so make sure you are prepared with proper shoes and plenty of water.
Right outside of the park, stop for a coffee before or after your hike from Leiva’s Coffee stand.
After enjoying the Pinnacle Mountain views, immerse yourself in Little Rock history. Make sure to spend some time at the Little Rock Central High School museum.
If you’re unfamiliar with the history, the Little Rock Central High School is where nine Black students were enrolled as a test on the Brown v. Board of Education court ruling. The school is still in operation today, but there is a national park service museum across the street.
Another one of the best things to do in Little Rock is visiting the Old Mill. This local gem makes an appearance in the opening sequence of the move “Gone With The Wind.” The mill was completed in 1933 and is a historic re-creation of an 1880’s water-powered grist mill. It’s free to visit and a great spot for photography.
Finally, here are a few great options for the best food in Little Rock. If you are vegetarian or if you just love organic and locally sourced dishes, visit The Root Cafe in the SOMA neighborhood. This eclectic spot has a Southern inspired menu that includes things like fried tofu, mashed potatoes and corn bread.
While you’re in the SOMA area, also consider Loblolly Creamery for dessert or Rock Town Distillery for a cocktail.
Other great options for food include Lost Forty Brewing if you’re a brewery fan and Capeo if you’re looking for a more luxurious Italian meal.
I recommend spending the night in Little Rock again for this day. If you have more time to spend, check out my full guide of the best things to do in Little Rock!
On the 10th day of this Arkansas road trip itinerary, visit Hot Springs National Park. This national park is different from most other US National Parks: it focuses on history instead of nature. You should know that there are no natural hot springs that you can swim in here. However, you can bathe in the natural hot spring water inside of a spa.
Start your day exploring Bathhouse Row. This is the best thing to do in Hot Springs National Park! There are eight bath houses that are all leased out by the park service. Two of them are still spas, while the others have been converted into the national park museum, a brewery, a gift shop and more.
I recommend visiting the Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center to learn all about the area’s history, walking the Promenade behind Bathhouse Row and driving up to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower for beautiful views of the area.
When you’re ready for lunch, check out Superior Bathhouse Brewery. This is the only brewery inside of a national park. They use the natural thermal spring water to brew their beers. I love the Beez Kneez, a refreshing Honey Basil Kolsch.
In the afternoon, make a trip over to Garvan Woodland Gardens. This botanical garden managed in partnership with the University of Arkansas is about 15 minutes from the national park. The gardens are composed of 210 acres of trails and offer a great mix of plant life and unique architecture. Most famously, you can visit a stunning glass chapel on the grounds.
For dinner, visit the Ohio Club. This is Arkansas’ oldest bar and has been in operation since 1905. It used to be a popular spot for notorious gangsters and Major League Baseball players. There is often live music and a great moody atmosphere.
If you decide to spend more time in Hot Springs, enjoy a spa day at the Buckstaff Bathhouse or the Quapaw Bathhouse!
The most iconic hotel in Hot Springs is the Arlington Hotel. This historic hotel has been open since 1875 and is said to be haunted. Another great option that is centrally located is The Waters by the Hilton Tapestry Collection. It is located right across from Bathhouse Row and has modern amenities.
I hope this helps you plan your Arkansas road trip! I truly believe Arkansas is one of the most underrated US states because it has so much to offer. For more specific info on many of these places, check out my other Arkansas blogs:
- The Best Hiking in Arkansas
- Things To Do in Hot Springs, Arkansas
- Things To Do in Bentonville, Arkansas
- Things To Do in Little Rock, Arkansas
- A Guide to the Mount Nebo Rim Trail
- Things To Do in Petit Jean State Park
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