12 Attractions in Fort Smith, Arkansas

Last Updated on February 13, 2024 by Emily Johnson

Fort Smith is a city with rich history located along the Arkansas River in western Arkansas. While known for its frontier heritage, Fort Smith also has a thriving arts scene, plenty of family-friendly attractions, and opportunities for outdoor adventure.

With a charming downtown, historic sites, and natural beauty, Fort Smith offers something for everyone. This article highlights 12 of the top attractions in Fort Smith that you won’t want to miss!

The Fort Smith National Historic Site

No trip to Fort Smith would be complete without a visit to the Fort Smith National Historic Site located in downtown. This sprawling complex features six buildings preserved or restored to look like they did in the 1800s.

The centerpiece is the remains of the second Fort Smith built in 1838. Here, costumed guides bring the frontier fort to life and showcase the role Fort Smith played in settling the western frontier. Visitors can see the remains of the blacksmith shop, carpenter’s, and saddler’s shops, along with the commissary and barracks. The fort provided a vital military and law enforcement presence in early Arkansas.

Be sure to also tour the two restored officers’ quarters where you can imagine the domestic lives of those residing at the garrison. Finally, don’t miss Judge Isaac Parker’s courtroom which served as central location for the famous “Hanging Judge” to preside over Indian Territory court cases in the late 1800s.

The U.S. Marshals Museum

Another must-see attraction in Fort Smith is the U.S. Marshals Museum. As the first national museum dedicated to the history and legacy of U.S. Marshals, this modern museum brings to life riveting stories of America’s earliest lawmen.

Through engaging exhibits and interactive displays, visitors will learn about the legends of the Wild West like Bass Reeves – one of the first African American marshals who made over 3,000 arrests. Guests can also try their hand at shooting antique guns or participate in a hostage rescue simulation.

With three floors of galleries and a stellar view of the Arkansas River from the observation deck, the state-of-the-art U.S. Marshals Museum should top your list for things to do in Fort Smith, AR.

The Fort Smith Trolley Museum

All aboard for a ride into Fort Smith’s transportation past! The Fort Smith Trolley Museum offers a unique look at the history of the electric railway. Visitors can view a 1914 streetcar from Fort Smith along with various artifacts detailing the rise and fall of the street railway system.

Kids and kids-at-heart will especially love when they fire up streetcar #224 to give visitors a ride along the museum’s half mile of track. Along the way, costumed guides share stories and history to bring the streetcar era to life. For a memorable Fort Smith experience, schedule a ride on the vintage trolleys at the Fort Smith Trolley Museum.

Miss Laura’s Visitors Center

For a primer on Fort Smith’s rich history, pop into Miss Laura’s Visitors Center located downtown in a preserved 19th century bordello. This eclectic little museum packs a lot into a small space with intriguing exhibits on the city’s notorious wild west past.

Here, you’ll find artifacts like vintage firearms and lawmen badges along with memorabilia from the more illicit establishments like brothel tokens used by ladies of the night. The house itself was run by famous madam Laura Zeigler who leased properties to other working girls. Costumed guides offer insight into the seedy stories behind the exhibits for a glimpse at Fort Smith’s Wild West frontier culture.

The Clayton House

For a glimpse into Victorian life on the frontier, schedule a visit to The Clayton House museum in downtown Fort Smith. Built in 1882, this beautifully preserved house museum offers a look at late 19th century domestic life.

Costumed guides lead visitors through the 14-room Queen Anne style mansion brimming with original furnishings from the Clayton family estate. Throughout the house, exhibits spotlight life in the Victorian era from women’s fashions to entertainment to technology innovations that arrived during that period like telephones and lightbulbs.

History buffs will delight in the stories and details offered on tours at The Clayton House showcasing Fort Smith life during a transformative time in Arkansas.

Parker Homestead

Located a short drive outside downtown sits Parker Homestead – the preserved birthplace of the notorious Judge Isaac Parker. Born in 1838, Isaac Parker served as U.S. Federal Judge over the Western District of Arkansas and Indian Territory throughout the late 1800s.

Nicknamed the “Hanging Judge”, Parker gained a reputation for his tough stance on frontier justice where he sentenced 160 people to the gallows. Visitors can tour his boyhood home to see where his formative years unfolded before taking the bench as judge.

This pioneer cabin offers a glimpse into humble beginnings on the Tennessee frontier with artifacts from the Parker family along with period furnishings. Outside you can take in the tranquil homestead with heritage gardens and nature trails that wind through the wooded property.

Arcade Department Store Museum

Downtown Fort Smith was once a booming shopping district in the early 20th century. One of the highlights was the thriving Arcade Department Store drawing shoppers from throughout the region. Today, you can step back in time to experience this retro shopping icon at the Arcade Department Store Museum.

Here shopping lovers can browse goods of yesteryear in the faithfully preserved multi-level department store showcasing original furnishings. Displays transport you back to the golden era of department store shopping from 1910-1987 when the Arcade Department Store occupied this space. Don’t miss the high-fashion gowns, vintage beauty products, toys and games, and collectibles filling the shelves!

Fort Smith Museum of History

For a comprehensive overview of Fort Smith history, spend some time at the Fort Smith Museum of History also located downtown. This extensive museum traces life in Fort Smith from frontier times to World War II and beyond.

Spread throughout three floors, exhibits spotlight various eras and influences in the city’s vibrant history. Highlights include the military history wing showcasing artifacts like uniforms and weapons from Fort Smith’s frontier fort era along with later battles. Other exhibits highlight the immigration stories that shaped Fort Smith from Italian stonemasons to Lebanese merchants. Don’t miss the large model train display!

The Western Arkansas Nature Center

A top spot to enjoy natural beauty in Fort Smith is the Western Arkansas Nature Center located just west of downtown. Nestled on 150 acres lies this nature lover’s paradise with four miles of woodland hiking trails showcasing native ecology.

Inside the LEED-certified interpretive center, visitors can explore educational exhibits highlighting the flora and fauna found throughout western Arkansas. Make sure to visit the raptor center where injured birds of prey undergo rehabilitation before release back into the wild.

The nature center also offers an array of outdoor adventures through guided mountain bike rides, kayaking excursions, and seasonal catch-and-release fishing trips – ideal for enjoying the gorgeous scenery near Fort Smith.

Bell’s Amusement Park

When you’re looking for family-friendly things to do in Fort Smith, head to Bell’s Amusement Park. This lively park has been a favorite of local families since the 1960s who come to enjoy the wide variety of rides and attractions.

Kids can zoom around in bumper cars or soar on rollercoasters and other thrill rides. Other attractions include midway games, mini golf, and even a petting zoo. You’ll also find shady picnic spots when you need a break plus snack bars and old-fashioned ice cream shops sprinkled throughout the tree-lined park.

Affordable and entertaining, Bell’s Amusement Park is a can’t miss attraction when visiting Fort Smith with kids!

Chaffee Crossing Historic District

Once a US Army facility since 1917, Chaffee Crossing has transformed into a vibrant Fort Smith neighborhood with shopping, dining, entertainment and historic sites. History lovers will especially enjoy exploring significant attractions that pay tribute to Chaffee Crossing’s military past.

At the Fort Chaffee Museum, see tanks, artillery equipment and transport vehicles used at the base along with indoor exhibits showcasing military life history. Nearby at the Chaffee Barbershop Museum visitors can experience an authentic 1940’s barbershop preserved just as it looked when it gave soldiers their characteristic crewcuts and shaves.

For art aficionados, don’t miss the Pearl Gallery exhibition space located in a restored military chapel featuring rotating fine art shows. And be sure to explore down Syndicate Avenue to view the Historic Area architecture from warehouses to officer family housing.

Bike trails also wind through so visitors can fully explore the Chaffee Crossing grounds and history.

Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center

An ideal family outing awaits at the Janet Huckabee Arkansas River Valley Nature Center located along the shores of the Arkansas River in Fort Smith. This hidden gem operated by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission offers 170 acres packed with family fun.

Nature lovers will delight in over three miles of trails showcasing diverse ecology like wetland marsh, prairieland, bottomland forest and limestone glades. The Interpretive Center features excellent wildlife exhibits and daily educational raptor shows.

Kids will love interacting with reptiles at the center’s large reptile and amphibian house. Outside, spot wildlife from bison to elk grazing in conservation herds. After exploring the grounds, unpack a picnic or try your hand at catch-and-release fishing in the well-stocked pond. With so much to do just minutes from downtown, the Arkansas River Valley Nature Center promises an exceptional outdoor adventure for visitors of all ages.

Conclusion

As these 12 attractions highlight, Fort Smith offers an abundance of things to see and do for visitors of all interests. From frontier history and military heritage to Victorian house museums and family fun, Fort Smith shines with cultural gems rooted in the city’s colorful past and present.

With vibrant neighborhoods like Chaffee Crossing on the rise along with an ever-expanding downtown and riverfront scene, Fort Smith continues to grow as a top destination in Arkansas. So whether you’re a history buff, art lover, outdoor enthusiast or theme park fan, discover why Fort Smith deserves a spot on your travel bucket list!

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