Published May/Jun 2005

Nature meets urban attractions
along Arkansas River Trail in Little Rock.
By Barbara Gibbs Ostmann

he Clinton Presidential Center might be the newest tourism draw for Little Rock, but there’s another jewel that is enjoyed by locals as well as visitors: the Arkansas River Trail.

The Arkansas River Trail is an urban success story, one that has involved public and private organizations and whose benefits are far reaching. When completed, the trail will connect the major tourist attractions in Little Rock and North Little Rock with the scenic natural areas in west Little Rock and Pinnacle Mountain State Park.

Headwaters Partnership

The Headwaters Partnership–a coalition of 34 federal, state, county, municipal, public and private organizations–is heading up the trail’s development.

“We are lucky to have so many different organizations and individuals not only supporting this project but directly involved in it,” said Terry Eastin, project coordinator for the Little Rock Parks and Recreation Department.
The Headwaters Partners are community leaders with a vision for the future of central Arkansas. They are actively involved in the river trail project, said Eastin, because they believe in its “triple bottom line” benefits: economic development, environmental conservation and quality of life, which includes community health improvement.

Medical community involvement

Key leaders in the trail drive come from Little Rock’s medical community. Cardiologists at Heart Clinic Arkansas (HCA) are heading the fundraising effort and have raised $750,000 for the river trail. This is the first time a trail partnership has included healthcare professionals, not only as partners but also as advocates and fundraisers, said Eastin.

According to an October 2004 study, “Recreation’s Role in Combating Obesity,” 59 million Americans are obese or extremely obese.

“Our population is overweight and needs encouragement to exercise. [We] want to be involved with something that will motivate them. That’s why Heart Clinic Arkansas doctors want to complete the Arkansas River Trail,” said Dr. Robert Lambert of HCA.

A highly visible segment of the trail in the downtown Little Rock area is the Medical Mile. Billed as an outdoor health museum, it will feature interpretive displays and information kiosks.

“We’re hoping this will be a model for the entire country,” said Marcia Atkinson, CEO of Heart Clinic Arkansas.

A City in a Park

The river trail is part of the city’s master plan to link parks, open spaces, natural areas, recreational sites, internal trails, historic districts and gateways to turn Little Rock into “A City in a Park.”

“This is the first time the private sector has stepped up to help the public sector,” said Bryan Day, Little Rock Parks and Recreation director. He said the river trail and its Medical Mile have the potential to become destinations.

“You see a lot of ethnic diversity among trail users, including lots of foreign visitors,” said Day. “We think the trail will be a cultural resource as well as a tourist attraction.”

Hitting the trail

When completed, the 24-mile Arkansas River Trail will enable walkers, runners, cyclists and skaters to enjoy a trip through Little Rock and North Little Rock, plus an extension to Pinnacle Mountain State Park. Eleven state parks, with more than 5,000 acres of recreation land, will be connected by the trail system. Twenty-four major local attractions, including the Clinton Presiden-tial Center and the River Market, are along the route. Plenty of benches and picnic tables can be found along the trail, as well.

Smoking while using the trail is discouraged. Pets should be kept on a leash, and people should remove their pets’ litter. The 12-foot-wide paved trail is accessible for people with disabilities. Only non-motorized transportation is allowed, with the exception of motorized wheelchairs.
The river trail currently spans more than seven miles in North Little Rock (NLR), and five miles in Little Rock. Other sections are under construction.

North Little Rock

On the north side of the Arkansas River, the trail extends from Cooks Landing to the downtown NLR area, passing alongside towering bluffs and through portions of Burns, Emerald and Riverview parks. With 1,600 acres, Burns Park is one of the largest municipal parks in the nation.

“I think the portion that passes underneath Emerald Park and the high bluffs is the most scenic part of the trail,” said Jay Harrod, a North Little Rock native who has walked and bicycled the trail many times. “It’s on the river’s bend, so the river is right next to the trail, with the cliffs as an awesome backdrop. You also can see the cityscape or look over into Rebsamen Park on the Little Rock side.”

Harrod, who works for the Nature Conservancy, also especially likes the part of the trail that passes through the woods in Burns Park. In the fall, the foliage is magnificent.

In the downtown NLR riverfront park area, the trail runs alongside the dock of the USS Razorback, a World War II submarine at the Maritime Museum that has been restored and eventually will be open for tours.

On the Little Rock side

On the south side of the river, the trail is complete from Interstate 430 and Murray Lock and Dam to Rebsamen Park and Golf Course. Downtown sections from the Clinton Presidential Center to city hall are expected to be complete by June.

The old Rock Island railroad bridge over the Arkansas River near the Clinton Library is being converted for pedestrian traffic. When completed, it will link the eastern side of the trail. A pedestrian bridge crossing the river at the Murray Lock and Dam will connect the western side of the trail system. It is scheduled for completion in September 2006. At 4,200 feet, it will be the longest pedestrian bridge in the country.

The next phase of development is a 10-mile spur that will connect the loop trail to Pinnacle Mountain State Park. At the park, the Arkansas River Trail will connect with the 225-mile Ouachita National Recreation Trail, which runs from the park’s visitor center to southeast Oklahoma.
Eastin notes that as momentum for the trail grows, other sites are seeking ways to connect to the trail system. Extensions to the state Capitol campus and Central High School National Historic Site are among the possibilities being discussed.

Although the entire trail won’t be complete until 2007, there are plenty of miles ready and waiting, offering a relaxing respite from a business conference or too many museum visits.

Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a contributor from Gerald, Mo.

Above: About seven miles of the trail are complete in North Little Rock.

Below: Portions of the trail pass through scenic natural areas. Chuck Haralson, Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism photos

Before You Go
For more information, contact:

• Arkansas River Trail at the Web site www.rivertrail.org;

• Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1-800-844-4781, or visit the Web site www.littlerock.com;

• North Little Rock Visitors Bureau, 1-800-643-4690, www.northlittlerock.org.

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