Last Updated: JUNE 4th, 2020
Fort Smith, Arkansas - Where The New South Meets The Old West
There are a TON of fun things to do in Fort Smith! Over the years, Fort Smith has truly revitalized into “historical cool”. Fort Smith offers parks, an emerging food & art scene, a taste of the Wild West and history that isn’t boring.
Fun Facts about Fort Smith:
- In 1817, Fort Smith was established as a military outpost. By 1858, it was a division center for the Butterfield Overland Mail Route.
- You may be somewhat familiar with Fort Smith as it was featured in the book & movie “True Grit”.
- Before he was President, Zachary Taylor was Commander of the garrison in Fort Smith. The home he lived in
burned just before the turn of the century, but the chimney remained and you can see it today.
- JFK visited Fort Smith and gave a speech at the airport on Oct. 29th, 1961.
- When Elvis was inducted into the Army in 1958, he famously had his hair cut at Fort Chaffee. The chair in which “the haircut heard around the world” occurred can be seen in the Chaffee Barbershop Museum
- Arkansas became the first southern state to allow women to vote. On November 13, 1917, Dymple Johnson voted in the special Mayoral election in Fort Smith making her the first southern woman to vote.
Continue reading to find out why Fort Smith, Arkansas should be on your list of places to visit and all things to do that you can’t miss!
Unexpected Murals Project
One of the top things to do in Fort Smith is search for the murals! More and more cities are showcasing local and international talent with murals. However, Fort Smith has been leading the pack in this effort. These surprising & beautiful murals throughout the downtown area will inspire you. The project began in 2015 and now has more than 30 pieces from artists all over the world!
Download the UNEXPECTED FS App which contains maps, schedules and a list of art and artists HERE
Fort Smith National Historic Site
Wrap yourself in history by visiting the place where Fort Smith truly began on December 25th, 1817 as an Army outpost. As Fort Smith grew, the need for law and order across Indian Territory is where Fort Smith’s history became more widely known. The Army built barracks in 1851 and, by 1872, the barracks were converted into the courthouse and jail. Today, you can visit the “Hell on the Border” jail cells and also visit the Visitor’s Center.
You can also visit the famous restored courtroom of “Hanging”‘ Judge Isaac Parker. During his time on the bench, Parker presided over 13,000+ cases with over 8,500 pleading guilty or being convicted. Of those, Parker sentenced 160 men and women who had been found guilty of committing serious crimes to death ( with 79 actual executions at the gallows which you can visit).
Also, take some time to check out the Trail of Tears Overlook along the Arkansas River which is a quick walk from the National Historic Site. We always love adding anything history related to our “things to do” and “places to visit” list!
Ride The Trolley
One of the cool things to do in Fort Smith is riding the trolley. In 1893, the first electric streetcar service was franchised to the “Fort Smith & Van Buren Electric Street Railway Light & Power Company”. Certainly a long name for a company, but they were onto something. By 1899, all the lines in Fort Smith were electrified and using open platform cars.
Today, you can ride the trolley around the downtown area and learn more about the history of this once Wild West town. You may also want to to visit the Fort Smith Trolley Museum which is fun and informative. They also have a western theme village just outside the museum.
Creekmore Park is hands down our favorite park in Fort Smith! After a day of good food and finding all the beautiful murals, Creekmore Park is the perfect place to let your kids have fun and burn some energy! The park has an 18-hole mini golf course, a walking trail, tennis courts, playground equipment and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. The park is beautifully shaded with large trees and there is something for everyone in your family. However, our favorite part of the park is the train! Yes, I said the train! A park that has its own train makes Creekmore Park a special one indeed.
While donations are accepted, there is no cost to ride the train. How wonderful is that?! It’s such a fun experience and if there is anyone in your family that loves trains, definitely add Creekmore Park to your things to do in Fort Smith itinerary.
The Park At West End
Conveniently located downtown, the Park at West End will be a treat for your kiddos! It’s prominent feature is the 56 foot Ferris Wheel from the 1935 World’s Fair. There’s also a hand-painted carousel from Italy. A converted rail car is now the Nickel & Dime Diner where you can grab a quick snack or bite to eat.
Location: Garrison & 2nd Street
Hours: Tuesday-Friday 4pm-9pm; Saturday 10am – 10pm, Closed Sunday & Monday
Cost: No park admission; $1 for each ride
Parrot Island Waterpark
If you plan to visit Fort Smith in the Summer, then you MUST add Parrot Island Waterpark to your list of things to do in Fort Smith!
This fun, family friendly waterpark has everything for a great day of fun! The long lazy river is relaxing and Parrot Island has plenty of inter-tubes to go around. There are also three slides that the kids and maybe you (if your kids can talk you into it), will enjoy!
One of our favorites is the wave pool! When the waves come on, everyone gets excited and you feel like you’re at the beach. This past Summer, Parrot Island added the super fun Flowrider! Try your hand at surfing or body surfing all while being in landlocked Arkansas! Another area for older kids and adults alike is the Toucan’s Cove activity pool with close to 250,000 gallons of water. Who doesn’t want to play a little water basketball or try and balance across like an American Ninja Warrior?!
One of the great aspects of Parrot Island is the area for smaller kiddos. Turtle Island is a perfect area to take your baby or toddler and they get to enjoy a safe day of water fun!
There are also cabana rentals and a snack shop offering lots of food choices.
Over 48 inches tall $15
Under 48 inches tall $10
Children under 3 swim free
Adult non-swimmer $5
They offer a Military appreciate discount as well
Darby House & Clayton House
Located in the 22-block Belle Grove Historic District is both the Darby House and the Clayton House.
The Darby House is where William. O. Darby grew up and lived until his service in World War II. William O. Darby was a World War II hero that became famous for leading Darby’s Rangers, which eventually evolved into the U.S. Army Rangers. While serving in Italy, he was issuing orders to cut off a German retreat when he was killed by an exploding artillery shell. He was posthumously promoted to Brigadier General. His heroism and valor is remembered in Fort Smith and in Italy. In Cisterna, Italy a high school was named in his honor. During his career, he was awarded three Purple Hearts, the Silver Star, The Legion of Merit, two Distinguished Service Crosses, The Russian Order of Kutuzov and the French Croix de Guerre. General George Patton said William Darby was, “The bravest man I ever knew.”
The Darby House now serves as a museum. The inside of the home contains personal belongings of William Darby and other WWII memorabilia.
The Clayton House is a beautiful home that was built in the 1850’s. In 1882, federal prosecutor William Henry Harrison Clayton moved his family into the home and then doubled its size and added ornate design elements to its exterior. Appointed by President Ulysses S. Grant, Clayton came to Fort Smith and served in Jude Isaac Parker’s court. Judge Parker said Clayton was, “close, shrewd and prudent examiner of witnesses”. The tour guides are engaging and the tour will last about an hour.
Fort Smith National Cemetery
What started as a small post cemetery officially became a National Cemetery in 1867. The cemetery includes more than 1,400 unmarked graves, most of which are Union and Confederate soldiers. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places on May 29th, 1999.
It may seem odd to add a cemetery to your things to do in Fort Smith list, but it’s a remarkably peaceful and beautiful place to walk around. “Hanging Judge” Isaac Parker and William O. Darby are some of the more famous people that are interred here.
US Marshalls Museum
One of the most exciting things coming to Fort Smith is the US Marshals Museum! Scheduled to open in the next couple of years, it will be a fantastic addition to Fort Smith. Immersive exhibits and interactive displays will help you learn about the many aspects of the US Marshals service.
So why a United States Marshal Museum in Fort Smith? Many famous US Marshals were based in Fort Smith, including Heck Thomas, who many believe the character of Rooster Cogburn was based on in the book and movie True Grit.
Another famous US Marshal was Bass Reeves. Bass was the first African American deputy west of the Mississippi. He is credited with arresting more than 3,000 felons. Many believe the character of the Lone Ranger is actually based on the tales of Bass Reeves long career. As the US Marshals service is the oldest Federal Law Enforcement agency, expect the museum to be a great showcase of stories and interactive exhibits.
To learn more about the US Marshals Museum and its progress, please visit their website HERE
Where To Eat
There are several great locally owned restaurants that are delicious!
First up is River City Bistro, located at 7320 Rogers Avenue #7
River City offers up some great food including freshly baked bread and homemade soups. My personal favorite is the chicken salad. It’s the perfect balance and they don’t get too fussy with it, just good food on delicious bread. You must get their homemade potato chips that come with a dill sauce that is to die for! My husband always enjoys their hot pastrami sandwich and says it’s as good as he had in NYC. That’s saying something!
Taliano’s Italian Restaurant has been a Fort Smith tradition since 1970! The pasta, salads and dressings are made fresh everyday and boy is it delicious!! Taliano’s is located at 201 N. 14th Street inside a mansion built in 1887 that’s now on the National Registry of Historic Places.
If you love Italian food, then Taliano’s is a must stop!
Where To Stay
Since we live close to Fort Smith, we’ve not had the need to stay in a hotel, but there are two options that we feel comfortable in recommending.
First is Home2Suites by Hilton located at 7400 Phoenix Avenue. It’s in a perfect location and also offers free breakfast!
Next is Fairfield Inn & Suites located close by Home2Suites at 7601 Phoenix Avenue. Like the Hilton, it’s a newer hotel with a lot of amenities, including free breakfast! Both of the hotels are located near several restaurants and a quick drive to any of the above things to see.
Other Fun Suggestions
Miss Laura’s Visitor’s Center – Visit the house of “ill-repute” that is now the only bordello on the National Register of historic places
Fort Smith Museum of History – With over 40,000 artifacts showcasing Fort Smith’s interesting history, it’s definitely worth a stop
Fort Smith Regional Art Museum – A perfect stop to look at more beautiful art. Check our their website for current & upcoming exhibits
Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center – 170 acres of trails, wildlife watching and good fishing!
Chaffee Barbershop Museum – See where Elvis Presley received his famous G.I. haircut
Since my husband was born and raised in Fort Smith, he has first hand knowledge of the growth and changes Fort Smith has seen over the years. Fort Smith is one of the best historical cities in all of Arkansas and the most prominent city in Arkansas with real Wild West roots.
It’s exciting to see artists from around the world showcase their talent in Fort Smith with the amazing murals and art installations. The downtown area is very walkable and offers a variety of things to do and places to eat. Make sure to visit the riverfront and watch the Arkansas River gently meander on its way to the Mississippi.
Whether you enjoy history ( as we do), exploring an active and developing art scene, delicious homemade food, or outdoor activities, we know you’ll enjoy visiting Fort Smith, Arkansas!