Arkansas is a state near the center of the Southern United States. It is known as the "Natural State".
Arkansas' state motto is "The Natural State" and that tells you a lot. It has great state parks with wilderness comprising broadleaf forests. The northwest boasts the Ozark Mountains while the south and east of the state has flatter land and shows more of its agricultural heritage. The Mississippi River forms the eastern border of the state and gives a great blues music heritage, great country music elsewhere (Johnny Cash was an Arkansan) and folk and bluegrass everywhere. There are wonderful state parks with camping facilities and some with cabins. The Buffalo River has majestic scenery and easy canoe float trips (but go in late spring to be sure there is enough water). The summer is HOT and humid; spring and autumn are wetter but mostly from intermittent heavy rain showers. Winter brings a little snow, but this time of year can still be humid. Spring is tornado season.
The spelling and pronunciation of "Arkansas" (it is always ar-kan-saw) reflect the state's heritage. The name is a French pronunciation of a Siouxan word meaning "land of downriver people" and was prescribed by law in 1881. It is technically still illegal to mispronounce the name (the law contains a clause stating that "the pronunciation with the accent on the second syllable with the sound of 'a' in 'man' and the sounding of the terminal 's' is an innovation to be discouraged"), so be careful!
English is the prevalent language in virtually the entire state - although Spanish has become much more apparent in Northwestern Arkansas in recent years. Many rural (and quite a few urban) Arkansans have distinctive dialects, which is generally a source of pride. Speakers of English as a second language may face difficulty with some speakers - and relatively few Arkansans are truly bilingual, and menus, signs, and other information is rarely presented in a language other than English.
Little Rock National Airport, located dead center, is Arkansas' main air terminal, although XNA near Bentonville is another option. Other airports can be found in Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Texarkana, and Memphis, Tennessee.
Car travel here, as in most of the United States, is quickest. Interstate 40 crosses the state from Fort Smith to Memphis, passing through Little Rock. Interstate 30 also goes south from Little Rock to Texarkana.
Arkansas' food resembles that of its southern neighbors. Much truly authentic and worthwhile southern cuisine is made in private homes, cookouts, or church functions, rather than actual restaurants. One exception is barbecue, particularly pork barbecue, which is widespread, and available in restaurants, roadside stands, and even trucks. Another regional staple is fried catfish, often it is served with hushpuppies, cole slaw, and french fries or a baked potato. Catfish is especially prevalent in the lowland and Delta regions of the south and east.
Traditional African-American cooking, or "soul food" is generally very similar to the traditional cooking of white southerners in terms if ingredients or basic dishes. It tends to be spicier, and may make more extensive use of ingredients more affluent whites or blacks shun. Likewise, it is rarely presented in formal restaurants, but at cookouts and church gatherings.
One unusual highlight of the Delta region is "tamales." These are very distinct from Latin American tamales, even though they were originally introduced by Mexican farm workers in the early 20th century. In the northwestern part of the state, recent growth in Mexican immigration has brought more authentic Mexican cooking to the state.
Little Rock has the most cosmopolitan dining in the state, with Eureka Springs a close second. Fort Smith and Bentonville also have excellent options in certain cuisines due to large immigrant/foreign populations.
Iced tea and lemonade are stereotypically southern beverages and are prevalent in the state along with bottled soft drinks. Both are generally served very sweet, though most restaurants will offer an unsweetened version.
Keep in mind many Arkansas counties are "dry" and do not have retail alcohol sales. However bringing alcohol for private use into a dry county is legal for those over 21 years of age.
Crime is generally low in most of the state, the main exceptions being the larger cities. Even though many small-town Arkansans view Little Rock as a particularly dangerous and unsafe city, its violent crime rates are in line with other United States cities of similar size. Property crime is more prevalent.
Drunk driving can be a danger, especially in rural areas at night. Arkansas is divided between "wet" and "dry" counties, so many drinkers in the state must drive 10-30 miles away from home for a good time.
In terms of race relations, Arkansas has progressed in many respects since the 1950s. However, many small towns in the state, especially in the highlands, are mostly or entirely white, and people of color may attract stares or unwanted attention. People of Hispanic background may be assumed to be recent immigrants. Likewise, some areas of the Delta, and of the cities of Little Rock, North Little Rock, and Pine Bluff are almost entirely African-American; and even absent overt racial tensions; poverty is widespread in these areas, and wealthier visitors of any background need to be aware of economic and social tensions. However, some areas in larger towns and cities are decidedly integrated.
Gay and lesbian travelers may face unwanted attention or hostility in Arkansas, as Arkansas is generally a very socially conservative state. Little Rock does have an active GLBT community and clubs and other places which are decidedly gay friendly. The rest of Arkansas, even larger towns, have very limited opportunities for openly gay travelers or residents. That being said, in Eureka Springs, a famous resort town, most people are accepting and it has a flourishing GLBT community.
Severe thunderstorms and flash floods often occur during the spring and summer months. While generally mild, winter storms can also strike the state - especially in the northwest. Perhaps the most likely environmental danger is the intense summer heat, compounded by the humidity from June through September. Keep well hydrated, and avoid overexerting yourself.
Arkansas, though not officially a part of the country's "tornado alley," is frequently affected by tornadoes during the storms which occur throughout the spring and summer seasons. Weather conditions can change rapidly and it is important to stay informed during tornado season as to the current weather outlook while traveling across the state.
If you are planning on traveling to Arkansas during the spring or summer months, refer to the Tornado safety page for important precautionary information.