The 9 Best Uncrowded State Parks in Arkansas
Arkansas has seven sites managed by the National Park Service. Hot Springs National Park is the only official national park, but there are three National Historic Sites (The Bill Clinton Birthplace, Central High School, and Fort Smith), plus Arkansas Post National Memorial, Pea Ridge National Military Park, and the well-known Buffalo National River.
These preserved sites showcase some of the most impressive scenery in the Natural State, but they also attract crowds as some of the top tourist destinations in the state. Fortunately, if you’re interested in getting off the beaten track and exploring some of the smaller protected areas, Arkansas has 52 state parks with a wide variety of terrain, activities, and cultural experiences to fill your days.
With free admission, Arkansas state parks have great recreational opportunities, well-maintained facilities, and acres of green spaces. Ideal for families or outdoor enthusiasts, there’s something for everyone from digging for diamonds to camping under the stars to hiking to waterfalls and mountain biking through forests. Each of Arkansas’ state parks has something unique to offer, but if you’re unsure where to start, check out the top Arkansas state parks below to help you plan your next visit to the Natural State.
Petit Jean State Park
The idea for creating the Arkansas State Parks system was sparked in 1907 atop Petit Jean Mountain, which became the state’s first park in 1923. It encompasses an abundance of unmarred woods, ravines, streams, springs, spectacular views, and interesting ecological formations. The park’s early development was primarily done by the Civilian Conservation Corp between 1933 and 1938.
Petit Jean has three national Historic Districts with more than 80 buildings, structures, trails, and bridges still in use. Today, the park offers modern and rustic accommodations, including 33 cabins, a 24-room lodge, and 125 campsites for tents and RVs. In addition to a full-service restaurant serving classic Southern cuisine, the park has amenities such as swimming pools, playgrounds, ball courts, and an amphitheater.
The view from the lodge and restaurant looks out over the stunning Cedar Creek Canyon, making it easy to understand why the land was the inspiration for the state’s park system.
Crater of Diamonds State Park
Just as its name implies, Crater of Diamonds State Park is the eroded surface of a volcanic crater. But more interesting to the average person, perhaps, is the fact that it’s full of diamonds and other rocks and minerals such as amethyst, garnet, jasper, agate, and quartz.
Visitors can search the 37-acre plowed field and keep any treasure they find. Since the park opened in 1972, more than 33,100 diamonds have been discovered. One of the latest diamonds in the US, a 40.23-carat nicknamed Uncle Sam, was found in 1924. The Diamond Discovery Center is an educational station in the park where visitors can learn more about how to search and the history of the area’s unique geology.
The park also has campsites, a lunchtime cafe, and Diamond Springs Water Park, perfect for cooling off after a day of digging.
Devil’s Den State Park
Devil’s Den State Park derives a great deal of its identity from the rustic design of its historic cabins, as well as the rugged and largely undeveloped terrain. In the Ozark Mountains, the Arkansas state park is on the highest and most severely eroded of the three plateaus that form the mountain system. Lee Creek, which runs through the park, cuts through layers of sandstone, shale, and limestone, exposing the geographic features to the public. You may also recognize it from the third season of HBO’s crime drama True Detective, much of which was filmed in the park.
Devil’s Den has hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and backpacking trails that lead to caves, crevices, and bluff overlooks. Unfortunately, the caves in the vast sandstone crevice area are now closed to help stop the spread of white-nose syndrome in bats. That’s a good thing, as Arkansas caves are a habitat for numerous species, including the endangered Ozark big-eared bat.
Developed in the 1930s, the park is one of the most intact Civilian Conservation Corps parks in the US. Native stone and wood are prevalent in all the CCC-made structures in the park, especially trails, cabins, and scenic overlooks. It’s also one of the most popular Arkansas state parks for fishing and boating, and has 135 campsites that are usually easy to snag.
Village Creek State Park
In Arkansas’ upper Delta region, the unique element of Village Creek State Park is the Andy Dye-designed, 27-hole championship golf course set on the park’s forested hills. The nearly 7,000-acre preserved area, located about an hour from the Mississippi River, also has 33 miles of multi-use trails for hikers, mountain bikers, and horseback riders.
The equestrian campground and stables have horse stalls with wash bays and other conveniences to help riders unwind after a day in the saddle. Guests can also stay in modern cabins with full kitchens and satellite television or campgrounds with bathhouses, and a small museum tells the history and geography of the park. It’s one of the best Arkansas State Parks if you’re with a mixed group of some outdoorsy folks who want to hike, and some folks who like to golf, relax on a patio chair, and otherwise have their outdoor experiences be a little more upscale.
Hobbs State Park
Hobbs State Park near Bentonville is the largest of the Arkansas State Parks at more than 12,000 acres. So there’s plenty to do regardless of what outdoor activity you prefer. But it’s perhaps best known for it’s 40 miles of mountain biking trails, particularly the trails considered part of the Monument Trail System. Most mountain bikers probably already know Arkansas is a top spot for singletrack in the US, and a major highlight is the eight-mile Karst Trail.
It’s an intermediate, mostly cross-country trail that goes past some of the park’s best scenery. It’s an intermediate, mostly cross-country trail that goes past some of the parks best scenery. There are also bike-in campsites, and it’s pretty close to the more advanced Slaughter Pen Trails, in case you crush the blue/advanced blue trails at Hobbs without breaking a sweat.
Lake Catherine State Park
Arkansas may not be the first state you think of when imagining lush forest, but visiting Catherine Lake State Park may change your mind. Lake Catherine is home to Falls Creek Falls, a super-popular swimming hole and series of falls along a river. The water is almost tropical-blue, and there are 20 rentable cabins tucked into the park’s acreage in case you want to do a little Arkansas state park camping for a quick getaway without roughing it too much.
This is one of the must-visit Arkansas State parks for equestrians (or casual horse fans) as the park offers daily tours through the forest and along the river. The trails are pretty shady, so it can be pleasant even when it feels a bit toasty outside.
Lake Catherine State Park is fairly close to Hot Springs National Park, so it makes a good add-on if the national park starts getting too crowded in the afternoon.
DeGray Lake Resort State Park
Located on the shores of DeGray Lake just minutes from the popular tourist town of Hot Springs, the lodging and amenities at DeGray Lake Resort State Park are definitely more resort-oriented than what you would typically expect from a state park. The park’s 94-room lodge and convention center has a large swimming pool and on-site restaurant, and the whole park is on an island accessed by a causeway from the mainland.
Visitors looking for sporting fun can take advantage of an 18-hole championship golf course, pro shop, disc golf course, and tennis courts. Outdoorsy folks can hit the hiking trails, take a guided horseback ride, go fishing, and camp at one of the 113 campsites, most of which are surrounded by shade trees. It’s more like a hotel than a park.
Pinnacle Mountain State Park
Minutes from Arkansas’ capital city of Little Rock is the iconic Pinnacle Mountain State Park. Hiking to the cone-shaped top of Pinnacle Mountain is a must-do for an incredible view (and bragging rights, too). Two trails lead to the summit. Both are strenuous but the east trail is somewhat more rugged, crossing several boulder fields. There are more than 40 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails for all experience levels.
Mount Magazine State Park
Mount Magazine State Park, which includes the state’s highest point at 2,753 feet above sea level, is all about the views. Every room in the park’s lodge, which includes a swimming pool, fitness center, and game room, looks out to the Petit Jean River Valley and Blue Mountain Lake below. There are also 13 bookable cabins with the same view. Adventures here range from hiking and biking to rock climbing, hang gliding, and horseback riding.
Arkansas State Parks near Hot Springs National Park
The closest state parks to Hot Springs National Park are Lake Catherine (13 miles), DeGray Lake Resort State Park (28 miles), Lake Ouachita (32 miles), and Jenkins Ferry Battleground State Park (48 miles).
However, if it’s physical hot springs you’re after, rather than Hot Springs National Park, there are a few Arkansas state parks near hot springs, both natural and developed. There are developed hot springs bathhouses in the town of Hot Springs (not to be confused with the national park of the same name), and the town of Eureka Springs has nearly 60 natural springs. There are also a few natural springs around Bentonville.
Camping at Arkansas state parks
Good news for campers interested in the state — camping at Arkansas state park is fairly easy to do and rarely crowded, unlike some state parks in more popular “outdoorsy” states. Arkansas has 52 state parks, and fortunately, there’s a helpful website to help you figure out your lodging plans. You can pitch a tent at these 33 state parks, or rent a cabin or yurt for a slightly less rustic Arkansas state park camping experience at these 12 state parks. Arkansas also has plenty of private campgrounds, including KOAs with pools and restaurants, plus two national forests (Ouachita National Forest and Ozark-St. Francis National Forest) where you can dispersed camp just about anywhere.