Situated comfortably in the Bible Belt and the mountainous corner of “the Natural State,” northwest Arkansas is an outdoor-lover’s haven and a booming business destination. The combination of arts and outdoors in Fayetteville, Bentonville and Rogers makes for a dynamic tour destination for church groups.
Northwest Arkansas is set deep in the Ozarks, a name inspired when the French came through the northernmost bend of the Arkansas River, the Aux Arcs, which means “top of the arches” but is pronounced by non-French speakers “Ozarks.” The name stuck, as that portion of the river was the jumping-off point for many explorers adventuring through the region. Even today, northwest Arkansas offers a great beginning to many a grand pilgrimage.
Northwest Arkansas is a global leader in business and is frequently ranked among the best places to live in the United States based on property values and quality of life. This section of the state is home to the headquarters of some of the biggest faith-based corporations and universities in the country, including Wal-Mart, Tyson, Ecclesia College and John Brown University.
But northwest Arkansas has come a long way as a progressive and welcoming region, emerging from a past littered with skirmishes and crossfires throughout the Civil War and the civil rights eras. Although the area has been through a lot over the years, it has finally settled into its own as a nature lover’s destination that manages to stay true to its humble Ozarks roots and faith-based values despite its big-business residents.
“What really amazes me about the region is the number of high-powered politicians and industries this part of the Ozarks has produced,” said Julie Pennington, group tour marketing manager for the Fayetteville Visitors Bureau. “Former President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, were married right here in Fayetteville at the Clinton House Museum while they were faculty members of the University of Arkansas Law School, and former Senator William Fulbright was born and raised here.”
Beyond the big names that have graced this portion of the state, northwest Arkansas offers a wide variety of activities for faith-based groups, from shopping for inspirational art and exploring the natural settings around the state to experiencing northwest Arkansas’ favorite near-religious event: a Razorbacks football game.
Nature and Outdoors
Outdoor options and experiences define Arkansas, hence the nickname the Natural State, and northwest Arkansas is the biggest culprit for contributing to this “dirty” title. The region is home to Beaver Lake, a 28,000-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers site located just 10 minutes from downtown Rogers. The lake attracts swimmers, boaters and even scuba divers. The rocky bottom of the lake makes the water crystal clear for both snorkeling around the surface and scuba diving into the deep bluffs in the lakebed. The annual Buddy Bass Tournament held each year lures a whole different breed of water enthusiasts.
“Beaver Lake offers tons of recreational opportunities for the community and visitors,” said Katelynn Cassidy, group sales coordinator for Visit Rogers Arkansas. “You can swim, boat, ski, wakeboard, fish and scuba dive on the lake. My favorite thing about Beaver Lake is meeting up with friends for a relaxing day on the water.”
Just off the shores of the lake sits another hot spot in the area where outdoor adventurers can roam across the more than 12,000 acres of Hobbs State Park Conservation Area. Hobbs is the state’s largest park and offers a transcendent playground full of disappearing streams, upland forests of hickory, and monumental plateaus and ridges to conquer. Hikers often take to the half-mile Historic Van Winkle Trail, which winds beneath Scenic Highway 12 to a historic lumber mill, or the Pigeon Roost Trail, where the eight-mile trek takes hikers through all of the region’s varied microclimates.
Some of the area’s best recreational gems and outdoor hangouts can be found just a bit farther south near Fayetteville, where residents and tourists are often found camping, climbing, caving and cooking out in the scenic parks along the Ozark Mountains. Despite its ominous name, Devil’s Den State Park is one of the most peaceful and lovely parks in the region and is a great spot to explore the expanses of nature before heading to the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, one of only 117 botanical gardens in the entire United States. The garden strives to showcase the natural beauty of the region with guided group tours, hands-on classes, amazing exhibits and the ever-so-popular Butterfly Days at the Butterfly House.
Sports and Food
There are three things the people of northwest Arkansas take seriously: their devotion to the natural beauty of their region, their commitment to local cuisine and, above all else, their die-hard loyalty and admiration for their beloved Hogs. The Arkansas Razorbacks are the celebrities of Fayetteville, where the University of Arkansas claims a spot among some of the winningest teams in college football. To attend a Razorbacks football game is like taking part in the birthright of every native Arkansan. Fans from all over come together, and the camaraderie that takes place in the stands and on the field at those games will make any group feel right at home.
Before games, most fans grill out at homes or in the parking lot for a tailgate party, and the best places to stock up on local foods for those gatherings are the numerous farmers markets around the region. Although it’s roughly a 30-minute drive, the Bentonville Farmers Market is by far the best in the region. The 38-year-old market has continually sold high-quality local foods, produce, meats, arts and crafts created in northwest Arkansas. The market is open every Saturday from 7:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. from late April until late October, and it is the best spot for sampling the region’s famous High South cuisine.
“High South cuisine is the edible culture of the Ozark region of Arkansas,” said John Lamparski, group sales manager for the Bentonville Convention and Visitors Bureau. “It’s a type of rustic, rural cuisine that uses fruits, vegetables, herbs and livestock harvested and raised in the area.”
The 21c Museum Hotel that recently opened in Bentonville does a great job of highlighting this cuisine and the local flavor of the region. Executive chef Matthew McClure whips up some amazing recipes for his guests at the hotel’s Hive Restaurant.
“Moving back to Arkansas six years ago gave me the opportunity to reconnect with the ingredients and food culture of my childhood, things like black walnuts and sweet onions,” McClure wrote in a recent press release. “The menu is my take on the foods and ways of cooking that are familiar to this region. For example, we are doing a lot of pickling and preserving, making jam and sourcing whole animals whenever possible.”
Arts and Culture
The influences of Wal-Mart, Tyson, J.B. Hunt and other major players in the world business scene have led to an amazing pool of culturally and ethnically diverse people in the region that have flavored the area with a unique blend of local and global art and music.
“Dickson Street is where Fayetteville comes alive,” Pennington said. “The street is a wonderful place to eat, hear local musicians at local bars or watch a Broadway show at the Walton Arts Center.”
The Fayetteville Walton Arts Center is Arkansas’ largest performing-arts venue and has been an ongoing gift of the Walton Family, the family behind Wal-Mart, to visitors and residents of the area. World-class plays and performances can be seen on that stage year-round, including an upcoming performance of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” from March 10-15, 2015.
Other places to soak in some local art and culture are the Art Center of the Ozarks in Springdale and the awe-inspiring Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Located in Bentonville and founded by Alice Walton, this Moshe Safdie-designed museum offers amazing tours that take groups through an intricate display of the American spirit.
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism