Rolling in Little Rock

Wheelchair-accessible and very affordable, this Southern city is a hip destination for leisure travelers

Two wheelchair-accessible Little Rock sites are the Junction Bridge and the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum. Photo: Haralson and Crocker
Article Highlights:
  • Writer Barbara Twardowski, who has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, recommends touring Little Rock, Ark., on your next leisure vacation.
  • Little Rock offers several wheelchair-accessible activities, many of which are free, ranging from the Clinton Presidential Library and Museum to the River Market District and the Little Rock Zoo.
by Barbara and Jim Twardowski on March 31, 2011 - 11:05am

QUEST Vol. 18, No. 2

Bright red and warm gold foliage creates an autumn bouquet shimmering through the tree-lined streets of downtown Little Rock. Restaurant windows are wide open to capture the crisp November air. Walking along the busy sidewalk, we are tempted to reach out and shake hands with the patrons. Fall has arrived in the Arkansas capital.

Over at the Arkansas Studies Institute, a crowd of folks are sipping wine, munching on fresh-baked cookies and tapping their toes to live accordion music. The five galleries are filled with photos, paintings, jewelry and sculpture produced by local artists and many are on hand for the Second Friday Art Night. Businesses, galleries and museums stay open late for the after-hours art walk.

After viewing the art, we head for the Capitol City Bar and Grill. A trio plays jazz in the corner. We are lucky to snag a table. The menu is impressive, and Jim can’t decide between the Blue Plate Special (grilled fish tacos with habanero jam) or the quintessential Southern favorite — chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and white gravy.

Our first evening in Little Rock is amazingly wheelchair friendly. Always a magnet for politicians and business travelers, now the capital city is a hip destination for leisure travelers.

An accessible trolley
Little Rock's trolleys may look old, but they're outfitted with state-of-the-art wheelchair lifts.

“If you haven't been to Little Rock in the last five years, you are in for a surprise,” says Gretchen Hall, communication director of the city’s Convention and Visitor's Bureau. The Clinton Presidential Library revitalized the former warehouse district, spurred new development and is attracting more tourists each year.

Tour by trolley

The best place to begin your Little Rock visit is by touring aboard the River Rail Electric Streetcar. The trolleys look vintage, but every one of them is wheelchair-accessible. The driver pushes a button, and a wheelchair lift pops out of the steps. Aboard the streetcar, a long bench seat folds up and out of the way so a wheelchair user can fit easily.

Two lines take passengers either through downtown (green line) or across the Arkansas River to North Little Rock (blue line). The 2.5 miles of track has stops at major attractions. The cost for a ride is $1 or $2 for an all-day pass (exact change is required). The three-day pass provides unlimited rides for three consecutive days for $5.

What to see:

The Clinton Presidential Library and Museum
Documents, photos, videos and interactive station tell the story of the 42nd president of the United States, William Jefferson Clinton. A highlight of the museum is the replica of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. Take the time to view the short film that describes Clinton’s life. A timeline depicts the major events during Clinton’s administration and years in the White House.

An attentive group of volunteers are eager to share their knowledge Clinton and of things to do and see in Little Rock. Wheelchairs are available on the premises. A shuttle takes visitors to the gift shop. Although the shuttle is not wheelchair-accessible, a short trolley ride also whisks passengers to the gift shop. If the weather is nice, explore the grounds, which feature more than 700 indigenous trees.

Heifer Village
Across from the Clinton Presidential Library is the headquarters for Heifer International. The organization’s mission is working with communities to “end hunger and poverty and care for the earth.” The new Heifer Village is an interactive exhibit that addresses poverty, health care, education, sustainable agriculture, infrastructure and fair trade. The adjacent wetlands support native species.

The World Headquarters was built in 2004 and offers free “Green Building” tours Monday through Friday. Buy lunch at the Heifer Cafe and eat outdoors. The Shop@Heifer gifts are artisan friendly. Pick up a new scarf or a compost crock. Wheelchairs are available.

Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center
The indoor nature center with ceiling-high windows looks out on dozens of birds fighting for a place on the feeders. Live catfish swim inside a toddler-high aquarium. Visitors can learn about the state’s recreation options, enjoy educational programs and shop for gifts.

Little Rock, Arkansas' Junction Bridge
The historic Junction Bridge used to carry trains across the Arkansas River; now it's a pedestrian walkway.
A trolley makes a stop at the River Market District, overlooking the Arkansas River.
Little Rock Zoo
The winding paths through the Little Rock Zoo present no problem for a power wheelchair. Photo: Catharine Sekani

Junction Bridge Pedestrian Walkway
Forty feet above the Arkansas River, the Junction Bridge is a wheelchair-accessible structure linking Little Rock to North Little Rock. Formerly used to carry trains across the river, it now is a 17-foot-wide walkway with an elevator and benches. We shared the elevator with a cyclist from Memphis. The Junction Bridge is part of the Arkansas River Trail, an ambitious project that will eventually link 24 miles of trails.

River Market District
Overlooking the Arkansas River, downtown Little Rock’s River Market District is a mix of shops, dining, parks, playgrounds and an amphitheater. We bought bagels from the Boulevard Bread Company and lingered in the market where a vendor was sewing handmade purses. The Little Rock Farmer’s Market is open every Tuesday and Saturday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., May through October, and is held under two open-air covered pavilions.

Riverfront Park
Stretching for 11 blocks along the south bank of the Arkansas River, Riverfront Park is behind the River Market District. The sculpture garden is a great place to take pictures or a leisurely stroll. Children will enjoy the outdoor playground with underground tunnels, tube slide and climbing wall. In warmer months, they can splash in the fountains.

Arkansas Art Center
Located inside McArthur Park, the Arkansas Art Center collection of American and European art ranges from the Renaissance until present day. The bulk of the collection is on paper, so the lighting level of the museum often is lower than conventional exhibits due to the high sensitivity of the medium.

Some of the most recognizable artists include: Cézanne, Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Georgia O'Keeffe, Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Gogh. The large museum shop is a treasure trove of unique gifts designed by the state’s artists. Live theater and art classes also are available. Have lunch in Best Impressions Restaurant with panoramic views of the garden.

Little Rock Zoo
More than 700 animals are housed in the 33-acre Little Rock Zoo. The hilly terrain is lushly landscaped with native plants and vegetation from around the world. The winding paths are easy to maneuver in a power wheelchair. The zoo has several programs that allow visitors to have intimate encounters with the animals.

Breakfast with the Animals is a special program held one Saturday a month from April through October. Advance reservations are required. On our visit, we toured with the “Carnivore Keeper” and stood a few feet from lions, jaguars, tigers and leopards.  Check the website for details.

Where to stay:

The “Grand Dame” of downtown Little Rock is the Capital Hotel. The 94-room property is more than a century old. A recent multimillion-dollar renovation installed modern amenities such as Internet, while maintaining the charm of a place that has hosted both President Ulysses S. Grant and President Bill Clinton.

Our king-size room with 14-foot ceilings had plenty of room to maneuver a power chair. The only area of the hotel that is not wheelchair-accessible is the second-floor exterior balcony. The second-floor mezzanine is a quiet place to read the newspaper. On the day we visited, a guest was playing the grand piano.

Two onsite restaurants and room service provide dining options. The upscale restaurant Ashley’s is an elegant choice for a special occasion dinner (reservations recommended). The elegant restaurant serves a scrumptious breakfast. Try the signature chocolate French toast served with sorghum peanut butter. The hotel’s Capital Bar and Grill is a more casual choice with an affordable and hefty menu.

Little Rock rolls

Little Rock is an affordable vacation destination. More than 75 percent of the city’s attractions are free. If you travel in early November, as we did, a bonus freebie is the gorgeous fall foliage.

The compact downtown is easy to navigate — even with a power wheelchair — and filled with lovely walking paths. Our three-day visit rocked, and we’d love to return — maybe in the spring.

The Twardowskis are freelance writers based in Mandeville, La., and are frequent contributors to Quest. Barbara has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.

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