To complete my 50 before 50 Quest, my best friend, Laurie, and I set out on a road trip through Arkansas, Kansas, and Missouri and just ducking into Nebraska and Oklahoma. We were most impressed with the mountains of Arkansas and the metropolis of Kansas City but also loved cute stops on Route 66 and a wildlife refuge in Missouri. These are easy states to drive through, and we spent just under a week on our trip. If you are planning a midwest road trip and are looking for things to do in Arkansas, Missouri, and Kansas, continue reading.
A Northern Arkansas Road Trip
Like I said our favorite spot was Arkansas. The northern part of the state is full of deciduous forests, caves, hot springs, and mountains. It is the home of the famous Ozark Mountains. We visited in the summer, but I would ideally love to visit in the fall as I am sure with all the trees the area would be gorgeous.
We landed in Little Rock for convenience. I have heard that the restaurants here are great, but we just passed through this capital city. I tend to enjoy nature more than cities, so we headed right out into the woods.
How Long is the Drive from Little Rock to Hot Springs National Park?
The drive from Little Rock to Hot Spring National Park is only around an hour. This short drive makes this a top day trip to take from Little Rock.
Hot Springs National Park
What is Hot Springs National Park and Why Should I Visit it?
This national park is one of the most interesting I have visited. Rather than being only nature, part of this park is in a city and consists of buildings.
The natural part of Hot Springs National Park is on the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain in the Ouachita Mountain range. It is one of the smallest US National Parks, only a little less than 8.5 square miles.
What Should I Do in Hot Springs National Park?
Take a Walk
Going up the mountain are 26 miles of hiking trails, many of which are pretty easy and start in town.
If you are only going to take one trail, but sure to walk the .4-mile brick-paved Grand Promenade on the hill behind Bathhouse Row. This trail will give you views of the town as well the nature of the mountain.
You can also take an easy walk on Central Avenue’s Bathhouse Row.
Drive the Hot Springs Mountain Scenic Drive through Hot Springs National Park
This road begins at the end of Fountain Street right near town. The former carriage road switches back and forth through the national park. At its peak, you will find an observation tower.
Climb the Hot Springs Mountain Pagoda
There is a charge to ride the elevator or climb this 127-foot tower perched atop Hot Springs Mountain Pagoda, but it provides an excellent view of the historic town and the Ouachita Mountains.
Explore Bathhouse Row
Take time to walk inside any of the eight historic bathhouses on Bathhouse Row which were built between 1892 and 1923. The bathhouses serve many functions now such as stores, the park service center, a brewery, with some still as bathhouses. Read more on the NPS site about each bathhouse.
If you only get into one bathhouse I recommend the Fordyce Bathhouse. This free museum shows what these houses used to look like, including their medical uses. There is also some beautiful stained glass inside.
Be sure to explore all the grounds in this area as springs are hidden all around. At the corner of Central Avenue and Fountain Street be stop onto Arlington Lawn.
If you want to relax in the purifying waters, book a bath at the Buckstaff Bathhouse.
Fill Up Your Water Bottle at the Natural Springs
Unlike some springs in Saratoga Springs, New York the water from these springs is cool, sweet, and delicious.
How Long Should I Plan to Spend at Hot Springs National Park?
I would recommend a full day to really give yourself time to explore this US National Park.
Take a Scenic Drive
I didn’t expect to like the actual driving part of my road trip as much as I did, but Arkansas has gorgeous, tree-lined roads winding through the Ozark Mountains. Whether you get to Eureka Springs by Arkansas 7 Scenic Byway, the first byway designated by the state as scenic, or “The Pig Trail” (a reference to the University of Arkansas Razorbacks), Route 23 you are in for a driving treat.
La Popular Panderia, Rogers, Arkansas
Also surprising to me, there is a large Hispanic population in this area of Arkansas. La Popular Panderia has some of the best Mexican pastries I have had in the United States.
Eureka Springs was the place I was most looking forward to seeing on this road trip. This quirky town built into a mountainside has manicured springs, a lively downtown, and natural beauty. It really made my time in Arkansas great. We stayed in a haunted hotel atop the mountain, had a spa day, and had a great time exploring. Read about my weekend in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.
Road Trip Through Missouri and Kansas
Bluff Dwellers Cave, Noel, Missouri
We are big fans of touring caves, so researched the many caves in the area and picked Bluff Dwellers Caves to visit. This cave is unique in that the cave spaces were tall and thin. We took the guided tour which lasted about an hour. A highlight of the visit was baby cave salamanders, only about the size of an exclamation point!
Undercliff Bar and Grill, Joplin
Since we were on a cave theme, lunch in this restaurant built into a cliff made a lot of sense.
We actually enjoyed Eureka Springs so much that we cut our time in Oklahoma short. If we had enough time we planned to eat at The Pioneer Woman’s restaurant, The Merchantile, and visit the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prarie Reserves.
This small monument right off the highway lets you stand in Oklahoma, Missouri, and Kansas at one time.
Braum’s Ice Cream, Miami
My rule to count a state is I have to eat there and there is nothing better than eating locally-produced ice cream.
Route 66, Kansas
This famous east-west highway passes through the southwest corner of Kansas, providing a cute stop on your trip from Oklahoma into KC. The Rainbow Bridge is right off the route. It is called Rainbow Bridge due to the shape of the bridge, which is no longer part of the road.
We then headed up to see my friends in Kansas City. This is a large, beautiful town full of fountains, history, and incredible barbeque.
If they had cornbread it would be the best barbeque I have ever had. KC barbeque is strongly smoked with thick sweet sauce, a bit of spice, and a ton of flavor.
Sage Scott, of Everyday Wanderer, planned my fun-filled day in Kansas City. For more ideas about what to do in Kansas City, be sure to check out her site.
One thing bizarre to this non-local is that there is both a Kansas City, Missouri and a Kansas City, Kansas, and traveling between them is seamless. Even though it is two different states, sometimes with two different sets of laws. There is a street called Stateline that separates the two cities.
What To Do in Kansas City in Two Days
- Liberty Memorial/ World War II Museum- Go into the museum or just visit this spot for a panoramic view of the city.
- River Market- This neighborhood has many spots to eat and shop.
- I enjoyed River Market so much I came back the next day to walk the Riverfront Heritage Trails with Alexa Meisler of Travel in Missouri. These trails walk along the Missouri River and have placards providing the history of Kansas City. You will also see many cool bridges.
- Betty Rae’s makes my list of best ice cream around the world. This creamy ice cream has so many unique flavors to choose from, even KC barbeque at certain times of the year.
- Ewing and Muriel Kauffman Memorial Gardens- Both Sage and I are big fans of gardens and this place is a gem full of many varieties of plants and butterflies.
- Remember what I said about Kansas City having great Barbecue? I would seriously eat it for each meal I ate here. I tried two of Sage’s favorites. First I went to Joe’s Kansas City Bar-B-Que. The original restaurant was in a gas station. You can still visit it or one of their other locations around town.
- Gate’s Bar-B-Q has been family-owned since 1949 and still has that feel. It was my favorite because it is spicy!
- 18th and Vine and the American Jazz Museum
- Percheron Rooftop Bar at Crossroads Hotel- Ending your night with a drink and a fantastic view of the city lights!
Where to Stay in Kansas City
Hotel Kansas City is a beautiful old building reimagined as a modern hotel smack in the middle of the Light and Power District.
Another great option is Crossroads Hotel, the one with the rooftop bar.
Four-State Lookout, White Cloud, Kansas
From this platform on top of a hill, you can spy Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, and Iowa. Nearby you can also see spots where Luis and Clark passed on their expedition.
Loess Bluff National Wildlife Refuge, Forest City, Missouri
On our way up to Nebraska, we came across this Wildlife Refuge. You can hike through the hills or take the 10-mile auto loop. The loop will take you through marshes full of birds, animals, and native plants. There are stops to get out and look. I would recommend heading through here when it is cooler, as you have a greater chance of seeing animals. There is an audio tour available. I would plan at least 3 hours for this stop.
Have you visited these states? What was your highlight? I would definitely love to come back and spend a whole day in the wildlife refuge, which could be an easy day trip from KC where I would have more BBQ, as well as more Betty Rae’s Ice cream!