Eureka Springs Is the Funkiest Town in the Ozarks

It’s like a haunted rainbow oasis on the Bible Belt

February 27, 2023 6:26 am
Aerial view of downtown Eureka Springs in fall
Eureka Springs

Arkansas is full of unexpected quirks and charms — and eccentric kitsch that tends to bubble up around natural hot springs, apparently. Much like Hot Springs, a hilly haven of mobster lore and vintage bathhouses, Eureka Springs is yet another thermal-themed oasis of Arkansan mythos. Unlike Hot Springs, though, Eureka is less about Al Capone and Babe Ruth and more about drag queens and the ghosts of fraudulent cancer doctors. As haunted as it is queer, and as metropolitan as it is rustic, this tiny Ozarks town may be one of the funkiest — and most unexpected — hamlets in the U.S. 

The downtown district
The downtown district

A Rainbow Bubble in Northwest Arkansas

For a town with a population just over 2,000, situated deep in the forested hills of the Arkansas Bible Belt, you probably wouldn’t expect Eureka Springs to be such a queer refuge in perhaps the least queer part of the least queer state. But as local lingo goes, “not even the streets are straight.” Which makes sense considering both the sloping nature of the Ozarks and the fact that 30% of residents identify as LGBTQIA+. In 2012, the town became the first in Arkansas to endorse same-sex marriage, and organizations like Out in Eureka promote inclusive education, resources, festivals and events, including multiple “Diversity Weekends” throughout the year and organized PDA, wherein couples gather en masse to kiss — a nod to just how far the community has come since the days when even same-sex hand-holding was taboo. 

The diversity and inclusivity can be traced back to Eureka Springs’ roots as a vacation destination, enticing folks from all walks of life to come bask in its healing thermal waters. Much like Hot Springs, it’s a town whose economy was largely built on springs, but while almost all of the town’s bathhouses have since shuttered (save for the ornate Palace Hotel), its sense of transient travelers and diverse tourism lingers. It’s paved the way for a small community with a huge heart, along with a bevy of queer-owned businesses, rainbow-painted stairs, a colossal gay bar in the middle of downtown and no matter where you venture, a general sense of welcome and warmth. 

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Blue Spring Heritage Center
Blue Spring Heritage Center

What to Do

Considering how unpopulated Eureka Springs still is, much of the area is rural and undeveloped, which means you’re never too far from a tranquil trail or a pastoral pond. Of course, the star attraction is still the natural hot springs — there are more than 60 within the city, many of which can be seen along the Natural Springs Trail, including Grotto Spring by Dairy Hollow Writers Colony and Crescent Spring alongside the Carnegie Public Library. For a larger body of water, Lake Leatherwood is a beautiful retreat flanked by a giant loop trail through the shore-hugging woods, with a vast network of offshoot trails extending in different directions. If driving is more your speed, this region of northwest Arkansas has some of the prettiest scenic drives, including the route to and from Ozark to the south, where meandering and looping roadways weave through dense forests, up and down hills, and by expansive valley overlooks. The whole drive feels like an Ozark-themed level from Mario Kart. 

Back in town, the strolls around downtown are just as scenic. That’s thanks to the surplus of historic, decadent architecture all over town. A simple self-guided walking tour is enough to ratchet up the wow factor, as you walk through a community so singular that the whole of downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Seemingly preserved in time, the larger-than-life buildings lend the same look and feel as they did when tourists first started flocking here in the 1800s. This is especially evident at places like the Basin Park Hotel, the Queen Anne Mansion and Resort and the New Orleans Hotel, a place that feels right out of the French Quarter, complete with strong Sazeracs and Vieux Carres at Voodoo Lounge. Just outside of downtown, Thorncrown Chapel is among the most famed architectural marvels in the nation — a soaring tower of wood and glass nestled in the forest. 

The shopping is just as funky as the architecture, too. All over downtown, indie boutiques sling all kinds of ephemera, from ritzy furs to healing gemstones. Pop into The Ladybug Emporium for a colorful collection of sequined jackets, sassy signs, Pride hats, candles and loud-and-proud shirts with phrases like “Let’s get one thing straight. I’m not.” Elsewhere, Crystal Waters is a great place to get stoned — as in, stock up on precious gemstones and crystals that allegedly have energizing and healing properties. Earthbound Trading Co. is a shockingly affordable apparel shop, considering the caliber and uniqueness of each item and accessory, and the Eureka Clock Company will keep you on time with its dizzying array of clocks, watches, chimes and music boxes. 

Rogue's Castle
Rogue’s Castle

Where to Eat and Drink

Despite its scant size, Eureka Springs boasts its fair share of high-quality wining and dining. A far cry from preconceived rural notions that tend to plague backwoods communities in the Ozarks, the miscellany of independently run restaurants, cafes and bars feels more akin to a big city masquerading as a small mountain town. Amidst the stone-clad architecture and rainbow murals downtown, hungry visitors will find plenty of satiating nooks, like Rogue’s Manor, a vintage house attached to a literal cave that now operates as a fine dining restaurant slinging curried chowder, pan-fried walleye and tarragon chicken. 

Because cave dining is apparently very en vogue here, Grotto Wood-Fired Grill and Wine Cave is another quasi-subterranean haunt with a portion of its dining room nestled alongside a rocky cave wall, so you can drink wine and eat smoked prime while feeling like a prospector. Then there’s Nyx Restaurant & Bar, yet another restaurant tucked alongside a hill, with a natural stone wall inside. The bi-level restaurant boasts regular live music and fajita-like platters of sizzling steaks and fish served on 750-degree volcanic stone. As one does. 

For valley views soaked in molten mozzarella, SkyBar Gourmet Pizza serves up artisan pies inside the historic — and, ahem, haunted — Crescent Hotel. Don’t let the ghost sightings deter you though. It’s worth enduring a haunting for one of their famous Crescent Calzones. 

One of the biggest dining surprises is The New Delhi Cafe, a two-story Indian-American entry inside a rickety and wonky building that looks like an elaborate tree fort. The food exceeds expectations with snacks like fried naan with cilantro chutney (basically an Indian riff on chips and salsa), chicken tikka masala and curried chicken and potato wraps. There’s also reliable American comforts, like burgers and loaded waffle fries, plus live jazz on a regular basis. 

The Bavarian Inn is another homey go-to. Nestled inside a chalet-style inn of the same, the family-run Czech-German restaurant peddles soulful standouts like sauerkraut soup, goulash, roast duck and all manner of crispy, plate-sized schnitzels. 

Later, the mere fact that nightlife exists in such a pint-sized town is surprising enough; let alone the fact that said nightlife is a sprawling gay club with the largest beer garden in town. Eureka Live is the raucous epicenter of queer culture in northwest Arkansas, home to drag performances, late-night dancing, karaoke, billiards and frills-free drinks. 

Crescent Hotel exterior
Crescent Hotel

Where to Stay

From castle-sized hotels to snug cabins and cottages dotted throughout the woods surrounding downtown, Eureka Springs’ lodging options provide something for everyone — including ghost hunters. 

As mentioned, the infamous Crescent Hotel, looming over town like a menacing Hill House, is rumored to be one of the most haunted hotels in the nation. As lore goes, the 1880s-era property is allegedly haunted by the likes of Michael, a construction worker who fell to his death from room 218. Most unsettling of all is the ghost of Dr. Norman Baker, a fraudulent cancer doctor who worked on the property in the 1930s when the building served as a hospital. Instead of actually helping patients, though, he conned them out of money by using phony remedies and medicines. Whether you’re brave enough to stay the night or not, the hotel offers ghost tours for guests and visitors alike.

More centrally located — and only slightly less haunted — is the Basin Park Hotel, another Titanic-sized property with legend all its own. Right at the nexus of downtown Eureka Springs, the colossal hotel boasts incredible views, a full-service spa, a whiskey bar and front-row seating from The Balcony Bar and Restaurant overlooking Basin Spring Park. 

Up in the hills, Wanderoo Lodge is a queer-owned abode with the vibe of a retro motel, complete with a smattering of handsome cabins for a little more privacy. The lodge features a charming cocktail spot and flatbread-slinging restaurant, Gravel Bar, and also offers guided adventure activities, like ghost tours (naturally) and kayaking trips (seasonally). 

Even cozier, Tall Pines Inn offers a lineup of rustic cottages just down the road from Wanderoo Lodge. In operation since 1947, these are the kinds of real-deal cabins that are built from pine logs and equipped with small fireplaces. In the warmer months, there’s a swimming pool, and the property is scattered with a few large outdoor fire pits.


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