Nestled at the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers, Fort Smith began as a frontier military post. Barely a decade after the Louisiana Purchase, the new lands were still being explored. With over 200 years of history under its belt, the city has a lot to offer visitors. We dropped in to explore the downtown region and discovered 8 top activities in Fort Smith, Arkansas. With so much to see and do, we knew that we would have to stay on track if we wanted to accomplish our itinerary.
We want to thank Experience Fort Smith and the local businesses for hosting our visit. rest assured all opinions are our own.
Patrolling the Frontier
The original stockade, built in 1817, was situated on the edge of the western frontier. By the time they decided to move farther west, into what would become Oklahoma, a small settlement had sprung up surrounding the fort. By 1838, the Army decided to return to this site, as the Indian Removal Act was enforced. Fort Smith saw minimal action during the Civil War but gained notoriety at the end of the 1800s. It was the appointment of Judge Isaac Parker (The Hanging Judge) that drew the attention of the nation. His jurisdiction included 74,000 square miles of Indian Territory, which was filled with lawbreakers bent on taking advantage of the Five Civilized Tribes. Parker presided over around 13,500 court cases and dealt out 160 death sentences.
Engaging the Locals
We were enjoying our history lessons but wanted to learn from the locals. A couple of stops on our schedule offered a chance to do that. Miss Laura’s is one of the original bordellos that were frequented by cowboys fresh from the trail. These days it serves as home to the Visitors Center. We were offered a tour and quickly jumped on it. A local character actress, playing the part of Belle Starr, helped fill us in on some of the sordid details. Later, we would run into her at the Fort Smith Trolley Museum, when her partners in crime held up our tour. Once the action ended, we were able to chat with the characters. What we discovered was there are a lot of people in Fort Smith who love sharing their city’s stories with visitors.
We had already seen three of the 8 top activities in Fort Smith but were eager to continue learning about this Wild West town. Located just steps from the trolley we found the Fort Smith Museum of History. Inside, we uncovered more details from the past. Not only did we find exhibits about the fort, but we took a stroll forward in time. Just as we’ve discovered in other cities, the local history museum has stories to tell that are complete eye-openers. Have you ever heard of Brigadier General William Darby? We had not, but after reading his tale, we found out he created the Army Rangers unit.
Take a Walk
The weather during our visit was perfect for outdoor exploration. There’s no better way to enjoy a beautiful Spring day than with a walk along the river. The Fort Smith National Historic Site runs along the bank of the Arkansas River. We followed the path and found the walk has some informational plaques that tell about the area. We followed the path to Belle Point, which is the confluence of the two rivers. This excursion was a quiet break from the bustling downtown but soon we were anxious to do more exploring.
Urban Art Abounds
Many cities are finding a rebirth of interest in their downtown corridor. To help spark more activity, urban art has been used as a catalyst to draw visitors and potential new businesses. Fort Smith has done this through the Unexpected Art Project. All around the downtown, you will discover vivid murals created by world-famous artists. They now number around 30 with the list growing each year. Since we enjoy exploring on foot, these murals added a nice surprise during our walks.
To minimize our travel time, our lodging was also downtown. The Fort Smith Downtown Courtyard made the perfect home base for exploring. Located just a block off of the main drag (Garrison Avenue), we were able to enjoy quiet nights and easy access to the downtown corridor. During our walks along Garrison, we found a bunch of plaques that detail stories from Fort Smith’s past. While I captured images of our visit, Crystal was busy making mental notes of the history.
It is a rare visit where we don’t carve out time for exploring some of the local shops. Fortunately, there was an assortment of shops located along our path. this made it easy to pop into one or two between our other stops. We even made it to their weekly farmers market on our last morning in town. You can bet that we brought home plenty of souvenirs, as well as some tasty treats. It’s hard to beat the tastes of a new town. You can learn about some of our meals and treats in this Fort Smith foodie article.
8 Top Activities in Fort Smith
As you can see, we had a wonderful time exploring the downtown region. Our visit to the confluence of the Arkansas and Poteau Rivers left us star-struck with its down-to-earth vibe. The 8 top activities in Fort Smith are just a portion of the long list of attractions in this frontier town. If you’d like to learn more about our visit, you can select from our other Fort Smith articles here. We’d love to hear about your experiences in this city, so drop us a note in the comments section below.