36 hours in Pike County 

You'll dig it.

If a friend suggested a weekend jaunt to Murfreesboro, you'd probably land somewhere between skeptical and "Hell, no." A quick Google search might suggest you're right, too; an image of a rusty old barn leaning Tower of Pisa-style appears, alongside a statistic about the population hovering around 1,700 people. The parking lot at the Crater of Diamonds State Park filled to the brim with out-of-state license plates on a recent Friday afternoon begs to differ, though. The locals probably would, too — at least those who weren't predisposed to keep the nearby Lake Greeson's charms under wraps. If your listlessness should steer you toward that great undiscovered country of Southwest Arkansas (or, if you're on your way to Dallas and looking to get off the highway for a spell), here are a few recommendations.

click to enlarge SINCE 1909: Murfreesboro mercantile.
  • SINCE 1909: Murfreesboro mercantile.

First stop: Hawkins Variety Store

As the diamond mine that Murfreesboro is best known for tends to stay hotter and sunnier than its densely forested surroundings, it's best to plan your dig for the morning. If you're an early bird coming from Little Rock to dig for diamonds, or even if you're a late sleeper coming from Hot Springs, that means you'll pull into town just in time to grab some sustenance at the Hawkins Variety Store, 51 Courthouse Square, an old-fashioned mercantile and soda fountain on the square in the historic Owens-Stelle Building. The structure was erected around 1909, during the diamond rush that followed farmer John Wesley Huddleston's discovery of the precious stones in what was said to be oddly greenish soil, and originally housed a doctor's office and a pharmacy. Today, the store's motto is "We have almost everything ... if you can help us find it!" Score some coffee, muffins, a peach Nehi soda or a baked-in-house cinnamon roll to take with you on your dig — or a vintage toy or puzzle to keep your kids occupied should digging for diamonds fail to command their attention.

click to enlarge GATHER HERE: Diamonds Old West Cabins guests can grill S'Mores in tepees.
  • GATHER HERE: Diamonds Old West Cabins guests can grill S'Mores in tepees.

Start digging

Somewhere between 66 and 144 million years ago, a volcanic vent called the "Prairie Creek" diatreme caused a bunch of rock, gas and minerals – including diamonds that had crystallized from carbon — to bubble up to the earth's surface. That explosion formed a crater. Forty-three years ago, the state created the Crater of Diamonds State Park, 209 State Park Road. Today, thousands of people gather to hunt the surface for diamonds after a heavy rain or to "wet sift," gathering a pile of gravel and dipping small batches of it into water-filled troughs under park pavilions in hopes of finding a diamond in the mix. There are lots of other gems and minerals to find, too, and park rangers to help you identify them: jasper, quartz, lamproite, barite, calcite and amethyst. The park offers buckets, shovels, sifting screens and all sorts of other tools for rental, or you can bring your own — as long as it's not battery-operated or motorized. Wear old shoes or boots and bring plenty of sunscreen — the sun in the diamond crater can be unforgiving. When you've had your fill of geological treasure hunting, check out the rest of the state park; the diamond crater is only about 38 of its 911 acres. There are three easy trails to hike: the Prospector Trail (1.2 miles), the Little Missouri River Trail (1.2 miles) or the Wildlife Observation Blind Trail, where you can observe and photograph white-tailed deer, gray squirrels and many bird species. Or, if your favorite wildlife is whatever's on the end of your hook, go for some largemouth bass, bream or catfish on the Little Missouri River. The Diamond Springs Water Park has a 4,166-square-foot wading pool with geysers, water slides and a deck to chill out on. Hours: 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily in peak season (Memorial Day Weekend-Labor Day), 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in off-season.

Head to the lake

Lake Greeson, north up state Highway 19 from Murfreesboro, is the result of the Little Missouri River's being penned up at Narrows Dam at its southern end, and is a stunner: 7,000 acres of hiking trails through the hardwoods of the Ouachita Mountains, a trail to an old Cinnabar Mine and a 31-mile Bear Creek Cycle Trail for ATVs, dirt bikes and mountain bikes. There's also great rainbow trout fishing — as well as striped, white, largemouth and spotted bass — in the tailwaters below the dam, swimming areas at Laurel Creek Recreation Center, the nearby Daisy State Park and elsewhere, two private resorts and a towering geological formation called Chimney Rock.

click to enlarge GATHER HERE: Diamonds Old West Cabins guests can grill S'Mores in tepees.
  • GATHER HERE: Diamonds Old West Cabins guests can grill S'Mores in tepees.

Check out the teepees

On the winding mountainside road to Lake Greeson, you probably noticed a conspicuous roadside oddity – a collection of small, two-story buildings meant to evoke the feel of an old frontier town. There's the Sheriff's Office/Jail, a "Crazy Diamonds" Saloon," the Livery and Stables, the Apothecary Cabin, the Church Cabin, the Pony Express Cabin, a faux brothel labeled "Miss Kitty's" and a sunny playground with giant musical chimes, a "corn pit" and a pedal car track. That's Diamonds Old West Cabins, a sort of miniature hotel complex with a well-stocked general store, two giant teepees for guests to gather in and make s'mores over a campfire and, despite the deceptively simple building exteriors, luxurious lodging. The interior stylings vary — a couple of the suites even come with specialty beds with music, massage and overhead light shows — but all cabins come with memory foam beds (some of them are canopied and curtained), flat-screen TVs, a porch or deck, an outdoor grill pit, fireplaces, wireless internet and other decidedly anachronistic creature comforts. It's a little "Silver Dollar City" kitschy and a little odd, but incredibly well-maintained and, we imagine, a perfect place to overnight with small children. Check them out at diamondscabins.com.

Pay homage to Glen Campbell

If you're on your way back to Little Rock, take state Highway 26 through Billstown and Delight, the home of a different sort Arkansas gem — Glen Campbell, who died in August at age 81 after suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Just before you get to Delight, you'll see a sign for Billstown, Glen Campbell's hometown. (If you get to the sign welcoming you to "Delight, Home of Glen Campbell," you've gone too far). Take the right turn onto the quaint, tree-canopied Billstown Road and look for a wooden sign on the left that reads "Campbell Cemetery." There lies Campbell, performer of "Rhinestone Cowboy" and star of the screen and studio.

click to enlarge RIDE TO BUBBA'S: From the Bonnerdale airport for craft beer.
  • RIDE TO BUBBA'S: From the Bonnerdale airport for craft beer.

Or have a cold one

Yes, there's beer, as well as diamonds, in them thar Ouachitas. If you've decided to head on to Hot Springs after your Pike County peregrinations, check out Bubba's Brews Sports Pub & Grill, at 8091 Airport Road in Bonnerdale. (If the parking lot is full, there's a trolley from the airport's parking area.) Bubba's brews a seasonal beer (like the fall Belgian-style witbier) and a range of year-round ales: the 10-point Bock, the Arkie Amber Ale, Bubba's Dirty Blonde, the Buckshot Pale Ale, the Wilford Oatmeal Stout, the Sandar Pilsner, the Skullcrusher IPA or "Scooter Trash," an American-style India Pale Ale. The pub food-focused menu includes crawfish tails, pulled pork sandwiches, onion rings and stuffed shrimp. Bubba's hours: noon-8 p.m. Thu. and Sun., noon-midnight Fri.-Sat.



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