Sister cities Little Rock and North Little Rock have settled their differences, like many siblings, and today are a united front, rich in historic and cultural significance, artistic innovation, and culinary delights.
3-May-23 – Amid the gorgeous landscape of Central Arkansas, Little Rock and North Little Rock are sister cities. Like many siblings, they had their share of squabbles over the years, mainly over the independence or annexation of the smaller and younger North Little Rock.
Little Rock was founded in 1831, and North Little Rock was incorporated under the name Argenta (remember that name) in 1871.
They settled their differences, again like many siblings, and today the cities are a united front, rich in historic and cultural significance, artistic innovation, and culinary delights. The boundary line is the mighty Arkansas River, and I crossed the bridges to and fro many times while visiting.
All eyes were on Little Rock back in September 1957. Nine African American students made national history when they were denied admission to Little Rock Central High School even though the United States Supreme Court had ruled against segregated educational facilities.
Three weeks later, then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent 1,200 federal troops to escort the students into the school.
Swarms of international news reporters and photographers watched the goings-on from the nearby Magnolia Mobil gas station, sharing a solitary pay telephone to call in their stories.
Little Rock Central High School today is a functioning high school and the only one in the country to be designated a national park. You can sign up for a tour guided by park rangers at the Visitors Center across Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive and Park Street. Reservations are necessary.
Another popular attraction is the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum, also known as the Clinton Presidential Center and Park, a sprawling campus that documents the life and works of the 42nd president and five-time Arkansas governor. Among the sights are a full-scale replica of the Oval Office as it appeared in the White House during his two terms, the presidential limousine, thousands of gifts from foreign heads of state, and restored wetlands.
The onsite restaurant, 42 Bar and Table, presents Southern favorites with an international edge in a lovely dining room or covered patio overlooking the Arkansas River. The hardbound menus are embossed with a presidential seal.
Also on the heritage track are a plethora of fascinating museums and galleries.
The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, founded in 1882 as a fraternal organization, honors Arkansas’ African American culture, community, and contributions. The Old State House Museum, housed in the original capitol built in 1833, has a permanent display of gowns worn by the state’s First Ladies from 1889 to the present.
Recently opened is the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts, which underwent a years-long expansion designed by Studio Gang of Chicago. The project entailed new gallery space, state-of-the-art theater, 11 acres of landscaped grounds with outdoor sculpture and walking paths, and a full-service restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining options.
Spend some time in the fun and funky SOMA – Southside Main Street – a playful rejuvenated neighborhood just south of downtown. The avenue is lined with cute lifestyle shops and casual eateries.
Shopping mavens are sure to linger at the ESSE Purse Museum, the only such museum in the country. The collection consists of a century of handbags, from 1890 to 1999, divided by decade and accompanied by vanity items and cultural references of the time. The fashions are entertaining to look at and sometimes outrageous, but they also illustrate the evolution of women’s roles in the 20th century. I spotted a bag identical to the one I carried in 7th grade, but I won’t mention which decade that was.
Another bright spot in SOMA is Loblolly Creamery, a sweet emporium of hand-crafted, small batch ice cream and other confections including macarons and marshmallows. Try the Arkansas Mud, a milk chocolate ice cream with brownie pieces and housemade fluff.
When you’re ready for a break, sit a spell at The Bernice Garden, a community gathering spot and outdoor sculpture gallery. You’ll be shaded by a wooden pergola-style canopy that references a bird nest and the garden’s raven logo.
A few more Little Rock tastes I found especially delish:
Cache Restaurant is a chic dining venue with upscale dishes and unique presentations. The candied bacon strips were attached to a wire wicket with clothespins, so they dangled over mounds of cornichons and pickled onions.
Three Fold Noodles and Dumpling is a cherry fast-casual hot spot with a menu of traditional Chinese fare made from scratch. Choose your protein, choose your sauce.
Heights Taco and Tamale Co. introduced me to a mash-up of Southern and Mexican flavors, a flavor palette they call Ark-Mex.
On the menu are only two items: Fried catfish and fried buffalo fish ribs. The unassuming eatery was honored with an American Classics award from the James Beard Foundation in 2020.
North Little Rock
The Argenta Arts District is an eclectic, energetic neighborhood in downtown North Little Rock. Amble along Main and Maple streets, where vintage architecture mingles freely with chic eateries, laid-back bars, vibrant nightlife, and quirky artistic expressions. A few of my finds:
On the riverbank is the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum, where two distinguished war heroes are on display. The tugboat Hoga fought fires during the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack and rescued men from the water, and the USS Razorback, a Balao-class submarine, served in World War II and the Vietnam war.
Petit Jean State Park
Arkansas’ first state park, Petit Jean State Park, is a scenic, historic treasure about an hour northwest of Little Rock. Blanketing more than 3,000 acres of mixed-pine hardwood forest and ancient geology on its namesake mountain, the park was largely developed during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.
Petit Jean Mountain was named for an 18th century French woman who, according to legend, disguised herself as a man to follow her true love in his exploration of the Louisiana Territory. Sadly, she died before they could begin their lives together but not before she revealed herself to him and requested her burial on the mountain overlooking the Arkansas River Valley below.
Another historical reference, this one well documented, is the park’s certification as a Trail of Tears National Historic Trail Site. In the 1820s, Cherokee and other Native American tribes passed through during their forced migration westward.
Anchoring the park is the log-and-stone Mather Lodge built in “parkitecture” style, a rustic design that harmonizes new construction with the natural landscape. The lodge is appointed with overnight accommodations, outdoor swimming pool, full-service restaurant, spacious lounge areas, and enormous windows opening to panoramic vistas.
From the lodge, it’s a short walk to an accessible overlook, high above the canyon, where on the distant right you can glimpse the fall from above.
We were game for a closer look, so we followed the Cedar Falls Trail, designated a National Recreation Trail. One of eight marked trails in the park, this one is a two-mile trek between the lodge and the waterfall and back again. Park rangers rate the level of difficulty as “strenuous,” and I won’t argue.
From there, it roughly follows the rushing Cedar Creek for full-length viewing of the fall as it tumbles into a small lake.
Take in the wonder of it all and try not to think about the hike up just yet.
Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen except where noted otherwise.