Zoie Clift, travel writer, Arkansas Tourism
Camping is a wonderful way to enjoy Arkansas’s natural beauty. The views, fresh air and nighttime under the stars can revive the mind and refresh the spirit. Plenty of opportunities to pitch a tent can be found across the wide range of topography found here. Arkansas is home to mountains, lakes, rivers, forests and prairies, and each distinct area provides a portal to enjoying nature and the outdoors.
"Arkansas is a beautiful state,” said Shannon Caldwell, program director at the Arkansas 4-H Center in Little Rock. “There are a lot of outdoor opportunities here. We’ve got lakes, rivers, streams, mountains, and you don’t have to go very far to get to a camping location. Our winter is typically mild and our spring and fall are beautiful. Our summers are hot but we have so many water options that even in a hot summer there are places to go cool off. So you can camp in Arkansas really most of the year.”
For those who are interested in camping but might not know where to begin the process, Caldwell, who has worked at the 4-H Center for 22 years and has taught several classes on camping basics, said a good starting spot is at home. “Try things and equipment at your house first so you are familiar with items like your tent, stove or anything you might need to do at a campsite,” she said. This helps prep you for various unexpected scenarios you might encounter like potentially arriving at a site after dark or as it is raining. “The more knowledge you have before you get out there the less stressful it will be on you once you get to the campsite,” she said. “Try to do a practice run camping close to your home if possible, especially if you have kids. This way, if the venture becomes a bust, you have the option to easily get home.”
A vital step before heading out on a first venture is to research the area you’re going to. Reach out to people who’ve been there before for information and try not to solely depend on the Internet. Make sure there is camping space available where you’re going and become familiar with the accommodations available there: for instance, whether it is a primitive campsite or if there are restrooms, water or animal-proof trash cans onsite. Also, keep an eye on the weather. Prepare for it and for what kind of climate you’ll be in because this helps prepare for the type of clothing you’ll need to take. Also, because Arkansas weather can change quickly, practice layering clothing: for example, having a moisture wicking layer against your skin and a breathable waterproof outer layer if rain is expected. “Don’t make your trip so complicated that you don’t have fun though,” Caldwell said. “Do your research but be flexible and remember that this is about having a good time.”
For first-time camping with kids, Caldwell said a number one recommendation is to keep them involved in the planning process. “The more the kids are invested the more successful you’re likely to be if they’ve had a hand in planning where you’re going and what you’re doing." Enrolling them beforehand in area outdoor day camps, such as the Arkansas Outdoor School Day Camp hosted at the 4-H Center each summer, is also an option where they can learn skills like building a fire or learning to fish or canoe. "The more you can help them be familiar with an activity beforehand the better,” she said.
Another suggestion for first-timers is to borrow equipment from friends and family if you can before buying a bunch of gear or spending money on something that might not end up being your thing. For example, if you are planning fishing as part of your camping experience, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has a rod-and-reel loaner program through the public libraries. If you want to do other activities like canoeing or biking as part of your trip, many Arkansas State Parks have these items onsite to rent as do various local outfitters across the state. Many universities also have outdoor rental equipment options that students and staff can check out too. Caldwell advised going to local outdoor stores such as Ozark Outdoor Supply in Little Rock, Ouachita Outdoor Outfitters in Hot Springs and Pack Rat Outdoor Center in Fayetteville when you are ready to buy your own gear because the people who work there have first-hand experience with the Arkansas outdoors.
Ready to camp? Below, Caldwell shares some of the many spots you can find across Arkansas that make good options for beginning ventures:
Blanchard Springs Recreation Area in Mountain View
“This is my favorite group campsite I’ve been to in Arkansas. In general the campsites have shade and there is a creek and a lake you can go trout fishing at and Blanchard Springs Caverns are a top thing to see in Arkansas.”
Maumelle Park in Little Rock
“This is an easy to get to location. They have a lot of campsites, there is a playground and basketball court and it is also close to Pinnacle Mountain so you can camp and then go hike there. It is also close to stores if you forgot something.”
Lake Ouachita State Park near Hot Springs
“If you are into water, this is a great place for swimming, boating, fishing, along with camping. Because Lake Ouachita is such a large lake there are a lot of options.”
Village Creek State Park in Wynne
“I haven’t camped here yet but it has been mentioned to me. They have a small museum, lakes, trails, horse camp sites, and you can hike on part of the Trail of Tears there.”
Devil’s Den State Park
“I haven’t camped here either but I know several people who have and it has got a lot of options. You can do horse camping there, there is hiking and mountain biking there and there are lots of campsites too. We are really fortunate to have as many state parks as we have and as many outdoor opportunities too.”
Buffalo National River
“It is cool this is America’s first national river. Buffalo River has several options of places to camp. It is also a good place to learn to canoe and they have a variety of trails to hike too.