Experience Fort Smith, Arkansas

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!  

 

Downtown Fort Smith - Photo courtesy of Experience Fort Smith

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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 

brightly colored mural on brick building in fort smith
"Catira" by Bicicleta Sem Freio
mural on brick wall
"Warbirds" by Ana Maria
opossum mural in brick wall in fort smith
"Opossum" by Bordalo II
"American Heroes" by Guido Van Helten

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! 

 

fort smith gallows
Photo courtesy of Experience Fort Smith
inside the jail of fort smith historic site
The famous "Hell on the Border" jail. Photo courtesy of Experience Fort Smith

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. 

 

Fort Smith trolley car

Creekmore Park

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. 

children playing on playground in fort smith park

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 

Park at West End & Mural - "War Paint" by D*Face
ferris wheel at a small park

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. 

One-day Admission:
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 

 

Aerial View Of Parrot Island- Photo courtesy of Parrot Island
Wave Pool! Photo courtesy of Parrot Island Waterpark
girl on waveboard
The Flowrider! Photo courtesy of Parrot Island Waterpark
toddler with water spraying trunk at waterpark
Turtle Island play area! Photo courtesy of Parrot Island Waterpark
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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. 

National Cemetery in fort smith decorated with christmas wreaths
National Cemetery at Christmas

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

US Marshall Museum in Fort Smith
Thank you to the city of Fort Smith and the US Marshals Museum for providing these beautiful pictures of what the future museum will look like
Loby entrance of future US Marshalls museum in fort smith
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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! 

homemade potato chips with a dill sauce in a white bowl
corned beef hash with two eggs on top
corned beef hash with two eggs

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! 

spaghetti valentino
Photos courtesy of Taliano's

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! 

Home2Suites by Hilton hotel sign

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. 

picture of Fairfield Inn and suites in Fort Smith

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

Upcoming Events

Final Thoughts

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! 

To access this article and GPS locations for all the fun stops and activities please click HERE

Travel Well,   

Nicole

This Post Has 25 Comments

  1. Josy A

    Oooh very cool. Fort Smith sounds like a fantastic place to visit with kids. I guess that is perfect for whenever you visit grandparents!

    I especially love those murals, The “Opossum” by Bordalo II is awesome!! 😀

    1. Nicole Claesen

      Fort Smith is indeed very kid/family friendly! So much to see and do

  2. Jenny

    Wow. You listed so many things to do. Love the murals especially. I have noticed cities doing those murals. So pretty and fun. I wonder how long it would take to do all of these activities? A week?

    1. Nicole Claesen

      You could see everything we listed in a weekend. However, there are even more things to do and some other
      great cities to visit that are in short driving distance.

  3. Lauren

    This looks like the perfect family getaway! I love all of the history and my kids would love that water park! Pinning for future reference.

  4. Dani

    Okay, that waterpark looks amazing, I’m sold! Haha. Those murals are awesome as well, looks like a really cool place.

    1. Nicole Claesen

      Parrot Island is great! We always look forward to going. Hope you can visit soon!

  5. Emma

    Those murals are incredible. I’m all about seeking out street art when I travel now. Looks like there’s a lot more on top of that to offer though and you certainly won’t go hungry there

  6. Michele

    That sounds like an interesting place to visit. Those murals are amazing!

  7. Amanda

    Wow, those murals are amazing! Every time I travel somewhere new and find murals I get so excited, we don’t have any yet in my home town. This looks like a perfect getaway!

  8. Chrissy

    Great post! Your photos make me feel like I am there. It looks like a lot of fun and worth taking a visit.

  9. Dee

    Love the murals, and the waterpark makes a great family activity!

  10. Gabby

    What a fascinating place! And those wall murals are just amazing! Definitely a place worth visiting!

  11. Destiny

    Wow Arkansas is peaking my interest now! The Darby House seems so beautiful and historic I’d love to check it out. Also, the map feature you have where all the places are tagged is so awesome!

    1. Nicole Claesen

      Thank you! So glad you like the map, it can be really helpful! Arkansas is a gorgeous state with a lot to offer.

    1. Nicole Claesen

      They really are impressive and they add new ones each year.

  12. Rocio

    Wow I am blow away. I didn’t know all of this about Arkansas. You have have great artist

  13. Kiana

    This looks like a great destination to visit. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Megan

    What a neat looking place! I’d love to visit that waterpark, it looks like a blast!

  15. Trevor

    What a great looking place, will need to add it to my list!

    1. Nicole Claesen

      Hi Trevor! I hope you’re able to visit someday. Fort Smith, Arkansas isn’t on everyone’s radar, but it definitely should be.
      It’s a great city with such a fun mix or history, but with their eye on the future.

  16. Alissa

    Wow who knew there was so much to do here!? I especially love anywhere where I can ride a trolley! This would be a great addition to my bucket list.

  17. Shannon

    I love the street art! One of my favorite things to do is find street art in new cities I go to 🙂 Fort Smith looks like a good mix of fun and history.

    1. Nicole Claesen

      Hi Shannon! Street art is so amazing and unique. Fort Smith has really been ahead of the curve in having talented artists
      from around the world showcase their artwork.

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