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An Ozark Enclave

Courtesy Ark. Dept. of Tourism

Find a remote area in the southern Ozark Mountains, where spring-fed creeks run a narrow valley between the steep hill slopes blanketed with hickory, maple, cedar and pine. Add a host of historic buildings; narrow, windy streets that crisscross their way down the mountainsides; and a community of artists, boutique retailers and performers that thrive on the small-town feel and fresh Ozark air. Mix in a handful of outstanding faith-based attractions, and you’ve created Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Combining nature, art, history and faith, Eureka Springs is an American treasure and a perennially popular Arkansas destination. The 2,500 residents of this town know how to make the most of a visitor’s experience with dynamic storytelling and a charming brand of hospitality. For groups, that translates into a tour that is entertaining, inspirational and a breath of fresh air.

A tourism treasure
“Tourism is not our main industry; it’s our only industry,” said Karen Pryor, sales director at the Eureka Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We started out over 40 years ago with ‘The Great Passion Play,’ and people came by the busloads to se the re-enactment of the last week of Christ’s life on earth.”

Now four decades later, “The Great Passion Play” is still a driving force in Eureka Springs tourism. From late April through late October, a cast of more than 200 actors, along with a cadre of camels, donkeys, horses and other animals, put on a passionate performance using a stage the size of two football fields. Groups flock to the 4,100-seat amphitheater to see scenes from the life of Christ, including seven miracles, the Crucifixion and an Ascension scene that features Jesus rising 100 feet into the air and disappearing.

Over the years, the attraction has grown to encompass much more than just the play. Groups that visit today can attend Top of the Mountain Dinner Theater, a gospel show and dinner that takes place before the passion play, or visit the Sacred Arts Center, the Bible Museum and other features.

“We have the Living Bible Stories. It’s a walking tour that has stations along the way where costumed actors give a presentation as a character from the Bible,” Pryor said. “You’ll see Moses, Matthew, Ruth and the woman at the well. At the end of the walking tour, David gives you a tour of the tabernacle.”

Capping off the campus is “Christ of the Ozarks,” a seven-story statue that towers above the mountains and is visible from much of Eureka Springs.

A chapel in the wilderness
About five miles outside of town, church groups will find a place where nature, art and faith come together to form the magnificent Thorncrown Chapel. Opened in 1980, this nondenominational chapel uses 100 tons of native stone and 6,000 square feet of glass walls to create a space where people of faith can pray and worship while surrounded by the natural splendor of the Ozark wilderness.

The chapel was the dream of Jim Reed, a local resident, and designed by E. Fey Jones, an architecture professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The fact that the project was ever completed is in itself a testimony.

“Halfway through the project, the funding started to run out, and construction came to a halt,” Pryor said. “They tried to raise money but weren’t successful. So Mr. Reed prayed about it — it was the first time he had gotten down on his knees and actually prayed. Within a few short days, all of the money that he needed to finish the project became available.”

Today, Thorncrown Chapel is a popular spot for Arkansas weddings, with a three-year waiting list to get a time slot for a ceremony. Traveling visitors needn’t be so patient, though; groups can take a self-guided tour of the chapel or arrange to meet with a member of the Reed family for a tour and a half-hour presentation about the building’s history.

Groups interested in visiting churches will also enjoy a stop at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, an underground structure billed as the only church in the world where you enter through the bell tower. St. James Episcopal Church, the first congregation founded in Eureka Springs, also offers tours of its historic building.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.