Located on the Mississippi River close to the neighboring state of Mississippi, the town of Helena – West Helena is considered the birthplaces of blues, and hosts the ever-popular King Biscuit Blues Festival each October.
The town and surrounding area were home to many battles in the Civil War, and there are a few nearby museums dedicated to local history.
Helena has always been an enclave of blues musicians but is less so now than it was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, as much of the town’s jobs have dried up.
Below are 14 of the best things to do in Helena – West Helena, Arkansas.
1. Arkansas Welcome Center
Between the Arkansas and Mississippi border lies an Arkansas Welcome Center that deserves a few minutes of your time, especially if you’ve been wondering what you’d do to occupy yourself on your trip to Helena – West Helena.
The center is full of helpful maps, brochures, and magazines that are there for the taking. The staff will be glad to answer any questions or point you in the right direction to some of the area’s most notable sites.
They’ve got a few historical items on display as well, so in addition to its role as a welcome center, it’s also a modest museum.
2. Phillips County Museum
Arkansas’ Phillips County Museum is housed in an old firehouse dating back to the 1870s and is very well done, considering the town’s small size.
The building has been restored over the years but still maintains its unique Victorian-era architecture. Previous visitors have called it an unexpected gem.
As a young man, Mark Twain worked on a number of riverboats in the area; later, when he became successful, he assisted the local library with financial support. The museum has a few interesting exhibits dedicated to this famous American author and includes letters, photos and other unique odds and ends.
3. Fort Curtis
During the Civil War years, Fort Curtis was a bustling center of Union war activity; many of the campaigns in surrounding states were supplied and kicked off in Helena – West Helena.
Arkansas was hotly contested as both the Union and Confederacy saw it as a key state, along with neighboring Missouri.
The fort now consists of reproduction buildings and fortifications, as well as a number of in-depth exhibits that highlight the lives of some of the more prominent military leaders, and some local infantrymen as well.
It’s part of the Delta Cultural Center, and well worth a stop, especially for history buffs.
4. Delta Cultural Center
The Delta Cultural Center in Helena is the area’s premier destination for all things relating to the history, culture and musical traditions in this part of the Mississippi and Arkansas River Deltas.
The center is full of interactive exhibits, displays, and photographs that chronicle the region’s past.
Much of the center is dedicated to the blues legends that have called this region of the country home over the years, and the country’s longest running blues radio show called King Biscuit Time.
If your time in town is limited, consider putting the Delta Cultural Center at the top of your list – you won’t be disappointed.
5. Robert Nighthawk Gravesite
Though he’s not so well known outside diehard blues circles, Robert Nighthawk was a musician who made his mark in the ‘40s, 50’s and ‘60s, and was also the father of another famous bluesman named Sam Carr.
Robert Nighthawk was his performing name; his real name was Robert Lee McCollum, and he was born in Helena, Arkansas in 1909.
Though his gravesite isn’t much to see, for serious blues fans, it’s one of those irresistible bits of Americana that shouldn’t be passed up if you’ve got a few extra minutes to spare, especially considering that it’s free to visit.
6. Quapaw Canoe Company
Located across the river from Helena – West Helena in Clarksdale, Mississippi, the Quapaw Canoe Company has been leading outdoorsy visitors on canoe tours of the local waterways for years.
Tours are offered on the Mississippi and Big Sunflower Rivers, to name a few, and you don’t need to to have experienced on the water to sign up for one of their tours.
There are plenty of options to choose from. Canoe tours are great ways to get some exercise, breathe some country air, and see things from a whole new perspective.
The tours are also great ways to see lots of local animals.
7. King Biscuit Time Marker
Years ago, when I spent countless hours in the car late at night, I listened to a program called, The King Biscuit Flower Hour. Little did I know then that the program had its roots in the town of Helena – West Helena.
According to the plaque near the marker, the radio show is the longest running blues radio program in the country. Over the years, they’ve featured a few non-blues bands of international acclaim, like The Who and Yes.
The time marker is conveniently located near the Delta Cultural Center, where the program is still aired.
8. Sonny Boy Williamson’s Boarding House
Another native son who’s considered a legend in the blues world is Sonny Boy Williamson, who died at a boarding house in Helena – West Helena in 1965.
Though the boarding house is long gone and only an empty lot remains, it’s still a musical and historical site that’s worth a quick look.
Like many former blues greats, Sonny Boy Williamson’s career brought him fame, but the fortune was nowhere to be found, and he died penniless.
It’s a sad but fitting ending for a man who spent his life singing the blues, so swing by on your way to the Delta Cultural Center.
9. Helena Confederate Cemetery
Though it was a hotly contested area during the Civil War, most locals will tell you that Arkansas was a southern state through and through, and it’s no surprise that the Helena Confederate Cemetery is so revered.
Full of worn gravesites that have faded over the years, the graveyard is a bit of local history that should be checked out.
Many of the headstones are illegible, but the information on some can still be made out; if you happen to be from the area, you may see a familiar last name or two.
The cemetery is located on Holly Street in Helena.
10. Pillow Thompson House
During the Victorian era, many southern towns like Helena – West Helena were at the height of their prosperity. The Pillow Thompson House is one that’s been carefully preserved and is open for the public to see.
It’s located downtown, and in addition to being a museum, it’s a venue that’s often used for weddings and other special events.
Depending on your timing, you may get the dime tour, which is like a look into the past. They also hold special lunches on the first Friday of each month that are a big hit and full of southern charm.
11. Freedom Park
Located along the banks of the Mississippi, Freedom Park is a great place to stretch your legs and learn a little local history in the process.
The park’s paved walking trails are dotted with historical plaques that offer interesting tidbits of history. The park is often staffed with volunteers, who are there to answer any questions you may have. It’s a great place for some relaxation, learning, and quiet contemplation.
Previous guests have remarked that the park was immaculate and well worth the stop even though they didn’t stay too long.
It’s located within walking distance of the Delta Cultural Center.
12. Frank Frost Gravesite
Born in 1936, Frank Frost was a dedicated pianist, harmonica player, and bluesman from his early teens until his death in 1999.
Much of his life was spent in St. Louis playing with legends like Sonny Boy Williamson, B.B. King and Robert Nighthawk.
Though he wasn’t a local, Frost spent a lot of time in the area. He often assisted with and performed on the King Biscuit Time radio show throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, making him a household name.
He’s now buried in the town’s Magnolia Cemetery, which is free to visit and conveniently located near other Helena – West Helena attractions.
13. The Moore-Hornor House
According to local historians, the Moore-Hornor House was built in 1859. It was purchased years later by a local man named Robert Caswell Moore, who returned to the area after the Civil War to build a business and start a family.
The home is done in a unique architectural style that incorporates many different international design influences, including Greek and Italian.
Now owned and managed by the Delta Cultural Center, the home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s full of era-specific furniture, art, and housewares that were pretty pricy and opulent by the standards of the day.
14. Delta Heritage Trail State Park
Comprised of nearly 1,000 acres, the Delta Heritage Trail State Park covers ground in three Arkansas counties.
Much of the trail runs along the previous route of a stretch of Union Pacific rail line that’s been out of use for years and travels for nearly 15 miles from the town of Barton to Lexa.
It’s the perfect place to experience nature without venturing too far outside of town. The park and trails are open to walkers, joggers, and bikers.
Free to use, it’s a great place to get a glimpse of local wildlife, especially if you visit early in the morning or in the evening when the animals are most active.