5 Cool Things I Did in Little Rock
TRAVEL – I visited Little Rock in late September 2022, as the world embraced travel and holidays again after what seemed like an eternity. I’d been invited as a guest of the Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau to experience a part of the world I’d never been to, and even if it’s not the first place on your holiday list – I discovered warm and friendly people, a big dam ride, a central place in America’s Civil Rights history, some lively nightlife and delicious food & drink in the hometown of the country’s 42nd President On the north end of America’s Deep South.
Getting to Little Rock from Vancouver is like getting most places outside the West Coast from here – not simple. But with a little planning, I found a two flight journey and minimum transfer times through Dallas on the way down, and Denver on the way home, and the 2 hour time zone change wasn’t too bad either. And they didn’t lose my luggage.
The Coastal & Rocky Mountains now long in the rearview mirror, the patch-worked Great Plains offer stretch to the horizon enroute to Little Rock.
So after a pretty full day of travel, I touched down in Little Rock around 4:00PM local time – and was immediately pleased to be landing at a small airport, just a few minutes car ride from downtown. Easy access from the airport? Check.
Now let’s get to the list…
1. Big Dam Bridge 100 Ride
My hosts put together a 3 day itinerary to sample some of the best things Little Rock has to offer, and naturally what got me excited was a chance to ride the Big Dam Bridge 100 cyclosportif bike ride. We live in an era where big organized bike rides are expected to run like clockwork, and the folks who run the Big Dam Bridge 100 have it dialed.
The 7:00 Am start time was a few minutes before the sun actually came up – but the sky was light and I did get to see it rise over the Arkansas River as I pedalled over the Two Rivers Bridge – one of the 6 bridges that cross the river in the area.
The ride is named after the “Big Dam Bridge” – which is claimed to be the world’s longest pedestrian-only bridge. Yes – it’s built across the top of a dam on the gently flowing river that flows 1,469 miles (2,364 km), from Colorado to the Mississippi as the sixth-longest river in the US.
Terrain on the ride is gentle, rolling hills – the longest climb on the 120km medium route I chose was only a couple of miles, and gained just over 100m – while the rest of the ride was so fast, I averaged almost 30kmh for the 4 hours of riding. The biggest challenge was the humidity – which required six cold beers post ride to being the rehydration process.
Rest stops were plentiful and well stocked – I’d never seen pickles at a ride before, but learned a lot of people like ’em to avoid cramps in the humidity, and I was darn pleased to see endless peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (the volunteers made thousands) – and the choice to eat “real” food along the way was another sign they know how to please a crowd.
But my fave was the cold beer and tiny margaritas at the second to last stop – the perfect toast to a fun ride. I should also shout out to my new pals John & Steve – who I met at rest stop #2, and who invited me to ride with them the rest of the day. Those 3 hours on the road turned into another three drinking cold ones at the finish. Good times, indeed.
2. Kayaking Along the Arkansas River
If doing the big ride with thousands of your closest friends isn’t quite your thing, the region is well equipped for more relaxing outdoor pursuits, like exploring the 88 miles of paved loops along the Arkansas River Trail, between metropolitan Little Rock and North Little Rock.
As much as I find cycling very relaxing, I was reminded that paddling along a serene river is also right up there. The crew at Rock Town River Outfitters are experts when it comes to the best ways to explore the area. In addition to offering every bike you’ll need – the most popular are e-bikes and mtbs to explore a local portion of the State’s massive mtb trail & pathways network, they’ll get you onto the water with such ease, all I had to do was show up.
They guided us on a serene paddle down the Little Maumelle River, which is an estuary off the Arkansas River, but much smaller and calmer – and teaming with wildlife. There’s also the abandoned rail car balanced seemingly precariously on the river bank – storied to be once part of a travelling circus that came through town decades ago.
Company owner Sam Ellis provided engaging and entertaining commentary along our 2 hour paddle, while his “water” dog Grizz Lee Bear (even has his own IG account) had us believing he was part fish as he spent half the time jumping into the river to swim and chase birds, while every so often basking in the sun on Sam’s kayak… until the next bird was spotted.
3. Cocktail Hour
This may be a thing about travel writers, or people who like to travel in general, or just me – but exploring the local food and beverage offerings of a new place (ie: anywhere outside of my own home) is usually the first thing I do after dropping my bags in the hotel.
The Big Orange is billed as “burgers, salads and shakes,” but in fact hosts one of Little Rock’s best cocktail bars. It was a little off the beaten path, but this Old Fashioned was worth tracking down.
Little Rock has a lot to offer in the food and beverage department – and while my samplings covered breakfasts, lunches, dinners and drinks x 3 days, there still seemed like we left a lot of ground uncovered.
Standout visits included clearing up my misunderstanding that bourbon has to be made in Kentucky. In fact it does not, as we saw – and tasted – first hand at the Rock Town Distillery – where they produce a wide range of spirits. I was impressed by the massive vats of fermenting yeast – and the biggest copper still I’ve seen.
Wisely, they also have a well appointed cocktail bar conveniently located on site to satisfy a post-tour craving. Naturally I went for another Old Fashioned. They actually make a few different bourbons, but I liked their Arkansas Bourbon whiskey to take home.
Like most places, the craft beer craze has taken a solid hold on Little Rock, and a visit to Lost Forty Brewing reveals a production facility that made me thirsty just looking at it.
Further proof that this is a local favorite was the simple fact that I’d found their beer on tap and available almost everywhere I stopped during my visit – and their 2nd Rodeo Lager was essential to my “rehydration” after the Big Dam Bridge ride.
The Heirloom Tomato salad at the Brave New Restaurant was as good as it looks.
My first time trying Fried Green Tomatoes – pretty tasty. They do know how to fry food in this part of the world – so don’t forget to pack the Tums, because they do know how to make things taste pretty good.
William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum
I did not expect to find a Presidential library & museum to be this interesting – but you don’t have to be a fan of modern politics to appreciate modern history. Regardless of political orientation, it was easy to see the value of the Clinton’s investment to create a cultural center in what was once a run down part of town. The area has been cleaned up and revitalized, and now anchored by a shrine to … himself. Being the leader of the most powerful nation in the world does have its privileges, and the museum offers us common folk a glimpse into many of them.
As the last President before filing went 100% digital, the museum houses thousands of pages of actual government documents from Clinton’s administration. I really liked the year by year world’s history accounts displayed on large format boards in the center of the library.
The Clinton Presidential Park Bridge dates to 1899, and while once a railway bridge, it’s now pedestrian and bikes only, and served as our first river crossing on the Big Dam Bridge ride.
The museum features full scale replicas of the Oval Office, which admittedly I recognized more from the Netflix series House of Cards – but regardless we did get to sit in a replica of the President’s chair.
Little Rock 9 & Central High School Tour
If there’s one thing I’d recommend doing in Little rock , it taking the tour of the Little Rock Central High School – site of a turning point in the Civil Rights movement.
The tour retraces the events surrounding the 1957 integration of the “Little Rock 9” – the first Black high school students allowed into the all-white school, brave kids who “believed they could change the world” and the subsequent explosion of racial hatred, exacerbated by the Arkansas State Governor Orval Faubus and supported by many of the city’s residents and the school’s students, and the terrorism and abuse the nine students received as a result of standing up for their basic civil rights.
The school is now fully integrated, with over 2500 students from grades 9-12. The cheer squad was doing a photo shoot on this day.
The school is a National Historic site and part of the National Park system, and there’s a dedicated visitor center across the street which chronicles in detail the struggles of the time. They also offer a must-do guided tour – ours was led by the most impassioned tour-guide I’ve ever seen – and evoked some powerful emotions in our group as we walked through – in real time – the horrific events of the day.
This statue of the Little Rock 9 stands in front of the State Capital, with the members poignantly facing the Governor’s window.
Later we had the unexpected surprise of attending a press conference held by 5 of the remaining members of the original Little Rock 9. The usually inquisitive press corps was surprisingly subdued, perhaps unsure about just how much to ask these people about the abuse and trauma they’d suffered as young teenagers. The scars of the time are still visible, and while they were unexpectedly chosen as lifetime protagonists in the Civil Rights movement – it was sobering to hear that their live’s work has barely moved the needle on Civil Rights.
I went in late September and the weather was nice – dry, warm – in the 80sF, a bit humid, but overall pleasant. The downtown is walkable, and some cool neighbourhoods with their accompanying restaurants and bars are only a few minutes drive away. There’s a lot of history here, I met some really cool people, and they do make some fine cocktails. And – it was all pretty inexpensive compared to prices I’ve seen in bigger cities.
See more at www.LittleRock.com