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Eureka Springs, Arkansas: An Ozark Gem

Beautiful Ozark mountain terrain, a charming historic district and a thriving arts community come together to make Eureka Springs one of the most beloved destinations in northwest Arkansas.

“We have more than 100 structures that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” said Karen Pryor, director of sales for the Eureka Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. “We don’t have any chains, outlet malls or discount stores in the downtown area. We have 80 to 90 shops that are independently owned. The owners will probably greet you when you walk in because they’re also the people working there.”

The downtown district is built on the side of an Ozark hill, and the steep incline and winding streets make it impossible for motorcoaches to drive through. The best way for groups to explore the area is by tram.

“It goes through the historic district, where motorcoaches aren’t permitted to go,” Pryor said. “You learn all about the history and architecture of Eureka Springs and see houses of famous and infamous people who lived here. You also make a stop at one of our 62 in-town springs.”

Church groups that visit Eureka Springs almost always plan to see a performance of the Great Passion Play, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this season. In addition to the large-scale production, which tells the story of Jesus’ ministry, death and Resurrection, visitors can eat dinner, attend a preshow and even take a behind-the-scenes tour of the large outdoor set.

“I suggest groups see the play and then come back the next day to do the behind-the-scenes tour,” Pryor said. “If they do the tour first, they’re going to learn some of the special effects and see how Jesus is raised from the dead. To me, it’s more meaningful if you’re surprised along the way by the way they do their effects.”

Groups that make the return trip for the behind-the-scenes tour can also enjoy some other attractions at the complex, including the Sacred Art Center, a bible museum, a re-created Holy Land streetscape and the iconic Christ of the Ozarks, a 67-foot-tall statue of Jesus with outstretched arms that overlooks Eureka Springs.

In addition to these essential Eureka Springs experiences, groups can supplement their itineraries with numerous other attractions and activities around town.

Thorncrown Chapel

About five miles outside town, 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. Groups can take a self-guided tour of the chapel or arrange for a tour and a half-hour presentation about the building’s history.

Blue Springs Heritage Center

Not far outside of town, the Blue Springs Heritage Center is both a natural wonder and a historic attraction. The 33-acre site contains a spring that pumps more than 38 million gallons of crystal-clear water each day into a gleaming blue pool. The pool is surrounded by a botanical garden. The spring served as a resting place for Native Americans traveling the Trail of Tears and has some Civil War history.

Groups can watch an introductory video and shop for gifts at the on-site visitors center, then take self-guided tours on walking trails around the spring. There is also space available for catered lunches.

St. Elizabeth Catholic Church

Touring historic churches is a popular activity for faith-based groups wherever they travel. But in Eureka Springs, groups are guaranteed an experience they won’t find anywhere else. The city’s St. Elizabeth Catholic Church is built into the side of a hill, and because of its unusual situation and architecture, visitors enter from the bell tower before proceeding down a series of steps to enter the sanctuary, which sits farther down the hill.

The church is certified by Ripley’s Believe It or Not as the only church in the world where visitors enter through the bell tower. Groups can arrange to tour the church by contacting Pryor.

Ozark Mountain Hoedown

Groups that stay in Eureka Springs a second night can enjoy an evening of music and humor by attending a performance at the Ozark Mountain Hoedown. First created by locals in 1981, this show was recently rebooted by a team of award-winning entertainers. Today’s version features a variety of musical genres, including rock, country, bluegrass, western swing, patriotic and gospel, as well as a variety of comedic characters.

The Ozark Mountain Hoedown is open on weekends in April, then Tuesday through Saturday throughout the summer. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the show begins at 8.

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.