Photography by Eureka Springs Tourism.
A certain intrinsic appeal of Americana is its charming small towns. long before John Mellencamp sang an ode to small-town living, fictional places like Avonlea, Mayberry, and Bedford Falls left their own indelible impressions. Many people have enjoyed growing up in a small town or at least passing through one—regardless of where they were in the country.
One place that exudes this captivating aura is Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a town of approximately 2,100 people nestled in the Ozark Mountains less than a half hour from Missouri. Even though it doesn’t even crack the top one hundred most-populated places in the state, it’s been lauded as one of America’s best small towns by publications as varied as Fodor’s, Smithsonian Magazine, Reader’s Digest, House Beautiful, and Architectural Digest. When you take a trip to this charming, eclectic hamlet, you’ll experience the best that small-town life has to offer
You’ll want to find an enjoyable place to stay while visiting, and the town has ample options, including hotels, inns, cottages, and even treehouses. A popular choice in the heart of the city is the 1905 Basin Park Hotel. Located on Spring Street, it’s heavily used for the city’s events and is thus known as “the most fun downtown.” In a typically Eureka Springs twist, it ushers guests out onto street level, regardless of what floor they’re on. A fifteen-minute walk north, a bit deeper into the Ozarks, lies the majestic 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa, which oozes with historical charm.
Downtown Eureka Springs is a sight to behold and a treasure to explore. Most noticeably, its streets are lined with Victorian-style buildings—a nod to the town’s late-1880s origins—and its quaintness is only enhanced by the utter lack of traffic lights and the fact that none of the streets cross at right angles. (Think about that.) It’s no surprise, then, that it’s the only entire downtown district in the country listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The businesses that make up the downtown area only add to its charisma. For example, when it comes to dining, the most difficult part will be narrowing own where to eat. With over one hundred eateries, as varied as Creole, Cajun, French, and Tex-Mex, you’re sure to find the food and ambience that suits your mood. Best of all, virtually every establishment is locally owned, giving you a true taste of the area.
If you’re a fan of big-box stores or malls, this is definitely not the place for you—downtown Eureka Springs is a cavalcade of quirky, interesting, locally owned shops. For example, Eureka Market is the place to visit for all-natural shopping, including food, candles, and skin care items. You’ll find just the right outfit at boutiques like C’est la Vie and the Eureka Clothing Company. There’s even a unique store called KaleidoKites that, as the name suggests, offers mostly kaleidoscopes and kites. Artistry also abounds in the downtown area; working artists comprise around 15 percent of the population, so you’ll be sure to find art that suits your fancy.
You can certainly take in the entire downtown area by walking. However, you can also consider one of its plentiful trolley tours and walking tours.
The Natural State
A must-see are the five beautiful parks in town, which offer endless opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors. Basin Spring Park is a hub of activity in downtown Eureka Springs, hosting live music and other events, and it also provides access to picturesque Basin Spring—one of sixty natural springs within the city, which people from far and wide have visited for over a century for their purported healing properties.
At around 1,800 acres, Lake Leatherwood City Park is one of the largest city parks in the country and features an 85-acre spring-fed lake offering a variety of water activities, including canoeing, swimming, kayaking, jet-skiing, and fishing. The lake, created by Lake Leatherwood Dam, one of the largest handmade limestone dams in the country, is almost a century old and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The area offers even more to do on land, such as over twenty miles of hiking and biking trails, including cross-country bike trails and gravity trails, the latter of which shuttle you to the top of trails and let you bike to the very bottom.
Travel three miles northwest of downtown Eureka Springs on Highway 62, and in the middle of the woods you’ll find the world-renowned structure Thorncrown Chapel. Built in 1980 by noted architect E. Fay Jones, this forty-eight-foot-high architectural marvel is made of 6,000 square feet of glass and contains 425 windows, allowing for a perfect marriage of inside and out. Because of its significance, the American Institute of Architects named it the fourth-most important American building of the twentieth century.
Finally, to get a complete glimpse of nature in all its glory, be sure to visit the popular Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, one of the largest big cat sanctuaries in the United States. On its over 450 acres, you’ll witness rescued lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, and even bears.
All in all, with its numerous parks, bodies of water, wooded areas, and trails, Eureka Springs certainly does its part to help Arkansas earn its moniker, the Natural State.
Above and below
The fun here doesn’t necessarily keep you tethered to the ground, either. If you love adventure, then you must try the highest-rated zipline experience in the country, Ozark Mountain Ziplines. There are ten ziplines to choose from—as high as three hundred feet in the air, with cables up to 2,000 feet long—as well as a swinging bridge. The company welcomes thrill-seekers ages three and up, so strap in and enjoy the ride and the views!
If you prefer your adventure underneath the town, Eureka Springs also has you covered. About fifteen minutes northeast of downtown is Onyx Cave Park, where people have been taking tours since 1893. Today, tours are self-guided so you can discover the beauty at your own pace. Afterward, you can pan for gemstones or buy them at the gift shop, or you can enjoy the park’s latest offering, ax-throwing. Want to go directly beneath Eureka Springs? You can take an underground tour of the town to literally explore the foundation of this fabulous place.
With its mix of quaint and outdoorsy, modern and classical, traditional and progressive, Eureka Springs is a one-of-a-kind destination and a diamond in the rough for curiosity-seekers in the southern United States.
For more info, visit eurekasprings.org