Located in west-central Arkansas on the border with Oklahoma, Van Buren and nearby Fort Smith are easy stops from Interstate 40, which is one of the country’s most traveled east-west routes.
With a population of slightly more than 20,000 at the time of the last census, Van Buren stills retains that small town charm that’s getting harder and harder to find.
The city is located in Crawford County and conveniently sits between two of the largest parks in the region – Ozark National Forest and Ouachita National Forest.
Below are 15 fun things to do in and around Van Buren, Arkansas.
1. Van Buren River Valley Museum
Located in an old train depot, the Van Buren River Valley Museum would be a great place to stop off at first when you arrive in town.
It’s part visitor’s center too, and in addition to the interesting historical exhibits, it’s also full of brochures and other information that’ll give you lots of insights into the things you’ll want to see and do while you’re in town.
The old depot was built in the early 20th century, and there’s even a guided tour of the city via trolley. It’s a unique and fun way to see the sights, so take advantage of it if you have time.
2. Drennen-Scott Historic Site
Located on North 3rd Street Van Buren, the Drennen-Scott Historic Site sports some of the most unobstructed views of the Arkansas River; you’ll definitely want to capture the scenery with a photo or two.
Once the home of a well-known family who lived there as far back as the Revolutionary War Era, it’s managed today by the University of Arkansas.
Much of the work done on the home is performed by university students, and it offers visitors a fascinating look into the region’s historic past, which includes roles in The Trail of Tears and the Civil War.
A lot of the home’s furniture and furniture are authentic.
3. King Opera House
At more than 100 years old, Van Buren’s historic King Opera House is one of the area’s oldest venues of its kind, and it’s conveniently located on Main Street in the downtown area.
Though much of the opera house is original, a lot has been renovated over the years, but thankfully it still retains its original Victorian charm.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it currently hosts a wide variety of performances in addition to opera.
It’s an intimate venue and still has a balcony, so check out their website or ask around town to see what’s on the schedule.
4. Lee Creek Trails
Lee Creek Reservoir and the hiking trails on the grounds around it are two local hotspots for those who want to get outside, stretch their legs, and breathe some fresh air without traveling outside city limits.
The Lee Creek Trails are accessible from Gelly Drive in Van Buren; two of the most popular are the Homestead Trail and the Crack in the Rock Trails.
The Homestead trail is a three-mile loop. Much of it winds its way up onto the bluffs overlooking the reservoir, giving hikers some of the best and most panoramic views they’ll find anywhere nearby.
5. Chapters on Main
I love books and bookstores, and if you’re a book lover and avid reader like me, it’s always great to check out a new bookstore or two when visiting a new area.
Chapters on Main is locally-owned. They carry new and used books, many of which are obscure and out of print.
They’ve got fiction and non-fiction and a section for kids as well, so no matter who you’re traveling with, they’ll probably be able to find something that interests them.
They’re located on Main Street downtown, so if you find a book or two, you’ll be able to walk to a nearby café or coffee shop and read a few chapters.
6. Fort Smith National Historic Site
With an entrance fee that’s a bit hefty by rural historic site standards, the Fort Smith National Historic Site is still a place you may want to check out, especially if you’re interested in learning about the region’s history.
Centuries ago, the Van Buren and Fort Smith areas were on the edge of the great American Frontier. The historic site grounds here include old military quarters, a prison and courthouse, and even a gallows that was the preferred method of administering justice back in the day.
Consider checking out the introduction video that’s available before heading out to stroll around the grounds.
7. Ralph Irwin Studio
Artist’s studios and galleries are always interesting places to visit when exploring a new area.
Ralph Irwin Studios is full of a variety of artwork that has been created using many different mediums and techniques, including painting and sculpture.
The studio’s proprietor is well-known and has been commissioned to create works for institutions and businesses. Much of what he’s done is shown on his website, so take a look, or better yet, just stop by the studio.
Located near the downtown area, it’s convenient to visit in conjunction with other town sites. Seeing all there is to see shouldn’t take more than an hour.
8. Wheels in Motion
Roller skating is one of those activities that’s been around for ages, never seems to change, and is always a big hit with the little one.
It’s usually cheap as well and considering it’s a great workout, there isn’t any reason not to do it.
Located on Fayetteville Road, Wheels in Motion has been the area’s go-to spot for roller skating for years. It also offers rock climbing walls, a maze, and a special trampoline area.
For birthday parties, there isn’t a better place. When the weather is too hot, too rainy or too cold, it’s the perfect place to hang out indoors.
9. Kopper Kettle Candies
Most towns have at least one candy store that’s been around a while. Kopper Kettle Candies is one of Van Buren’s oldest; they’ve been dishing up the sweet stuff since 1925.
Most of their recipes are the originals, and considering how popular they’ve been over the years, there’s not much reason to change things now.
They offer a wide variety of candies and chocolates, and you can see where all the treats are made.
It’s the perfect place to satisfy your sweet tooth, and a good idea to pick up some unique Van Buren gifts for those who didn’t make the trip with you.
10. Great Escape Mystery Rooms
Located on Main Street in Van Buren, Great Escape Mystery Rooms is dedicated to providing its guests with a one of a kind experience that promotes thinking and teamwork and creates an aura of suspense that isn’t found in too many other leisure activities.
Located in the city’s historic downtown, it’s a great activity to do in conjunction with others, thereby utilizing your limited vacation time efficiently.
During the week, they cater to customers who’ve pre-booked, but they’re open to drop-ins on Friday and Saturday.
If you haven’t experienced an escape room, it’s the perfect time to do it – you’ll find out just why they’re so popular.
11. Fort Smith Museum of History
Just up the road from Van Buren, Fort Smith’s Museum of History is one stop that shouldn’t be missed, especially for those who are interested in learning about the area’s rich past.
The museum has quite an eclectic mix of artifacts, antiques, and exhibits that are from different eras and tell different stories.
They’ve even got an old fire engine and telephone exchange equipment from the days before computers were invented.
Many of their items are related to local history and include stories and accounts from men from Van Buren who fought in World War II and Vietnam.
12. Fort Smith Trolley Museum
The Fort Smith Trolley Museum is an interesting bit of history that’ll take visitors back to the days when streetcars were the primary mode of public transportation.
The Trolley Museum is located on South 4th Street in Fort Smith and was opened in 1985.
Their pride and joy is the last remaining streetcar. Though it’s no longer in official use, it’s possible to take a ride when you visit the museum.
The trolley’s conductor will give guests an interesting perspective into the city’s past. It’ll be one of those unique things you did on your trip that you’ll be glad you didn’t pass up.
13. Excursion Train
Seeing the countryside from the window of a moving train puts everything into a different perspective. If you have a few hours to kill, taking a ride on one of the city’s excursion trains would be a great way to spend your time.
The train’s depot is called the Old Frisco Station, and it’s conveniently located on Main Street downtown.
Once part of the now-defunct Arkansas – Missouri passenger line, the train now carries visitors on two-hour trips through the scenic Boston Mountains. One of the trip’s highlights is passing through a narrow, dark tunnel that’s nearly 1,700 feet long.
14. Fort Smith Dog Park
Traveling with pets can be downright difficult and stressful. Dogs aren’t allowed in most businesses or hotels, but the Fort Smith Dog Park is one place where you won’t have to worry about all those pesky rules.
Sections of the park are for dogs that are off their leashes, so they can run around and stretch those legs, which is a good idea if they’ve been cramped inside a car all day.
The park’s managers also offer recreational and educational programs for dog owners, so check their website or ask around town to see what’s on the horizon for when you’ll be in town.
15. Parrot Island Waterpark
Located on South Zero Street in Fort Smith, Parrot Island Waterpark is like a tropical oasis in the middle of Arkansas.
Rumor has it that there are nearly 400,000 gallons of water inside the park, and with too many features to mention, there’s a little something for everyone no matter their age or swimming ability.
The park often provides classes and hands-on activities for little ones and their parents, and they also offer cabanas and concession stands, so it’s really a place that you could spend a whole day without getting bored.
It can get very busy during peak times, so plan accordingly.