Experience Fall in the Ozarks
Where can you go to experience glorious fall foliage, enjoy first-rate cuisine, explore architectural treasures by Frank Lloyd Wright, Moshe Safdie and Buckminster Fuller, and view hundreds of masterpieces by American artists from over the past 500 years? It’s all available in one remarkable package: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
You may have heard of Bentonville as being the home of retail giant Walmart—Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime store was located on the town square—but Crystal Bridges has helped turn this small town of some 40,000 people into a destination for art and architecture lovers, foodies and outdoorsy types alike. There’s plenty to do and see here, and all within a four-hour drive of Cleveland County.
Crystal Bridges opened in 2011, and in just six years has made a name for itself, not just for its terrific collection of American art (admission to which is free, by the way), but for its unique mission to “welcome all to celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of nature.”
The art is stunning. Crystal Bridges’ permanent collection includes works by artists like Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Rockwell, John James Audubon and Andy Warhol. Every gallery seems to offer up images you are probably familiar with from books or magazines, like Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter, Warhol’s iconic Coca-Cola  or Asher B. Durand’s wonderful landscape, Kindred Spirits. But the museum building, and the 120-acre grounds it’s located on, are equally impressive.
Crystal Bridges’ building was designed by internationally renowned architect Moshe Safdie, who has designed a number of world-famous structures. The museum sits at the base of a ravine in the middle of a forest just a short walk from downtown Bentonville. Its galleries form a ring of structures situated around a set of ponds fed by the natural stream that passes through the complex. Two striking bridge structures with glass walls and suspended, arched copper roofs span the water. One houses gallery spaces, the other a first-rate restaurant, called Eleven, where diners are treated to lovely views of the museum architecture and surrounding landscape.
If you’re an architecture buff, you’ll want to visit two other structures on the museum grounds while you’re there. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1954, the Bachman-Wilson House was disassembled from its original site in New Jersey and moved to the grounds of Crystal Bridges in 2015. On the other end of the museum campus, and just opened for viewing this summer, is the Fly’s Eye Dome: a 35-foot-tall geodesic dome covered in round openings like a fly’s eye. Designed in 1980 by architect and innovator Buckminster Fuller as a prototype for inexpensive, efficient housing, this building, too, has been relocated to Crystal Bridges’ grounds. Both are open for viewing at no cost.
Outside, a series of trails wind through the Ozark woods past natural springs, landscaped gardens, outdoor artworks and towering trees. Autumn is an especially lovely time to visit, especially this year, when a special outdoor exhibition of glass sculptures by artist Dale Chihuly graces the newly renovated North Forest Trail: a mile-long paved and lighted loop complete with restrooms and a food truck offering fresh, hot sandwiches. Chihuly: In the Forest is open through Nov. 13; the trails are open year-round.
Speaking of food: the chefs at Eleven, the restaurant at Crystal Bridges, have created their own style of cuisine, dubbed “High South,” which uses locally produced foods to draw upon the area’s culinary heritage, then infuses it with flavors inspired by the region’s various immigrant populations. Several nearby independent restaurants offer original cuisine and artisanal cocktails in styles for every taste.
Bentonville is nestled in the Ozarks and surrounded by hills, forests and rivers. Bentonville offers mountain biking trails that were rated among the top 10 best east of the Rocky Mountains (bikes can be rented in town). You’ll find hiking trails for all abilities offering breathtaking views of rocky bluffs, waterfalls and caves, plus plenty of kayaking or canoeing spots, including the Buffalo National River, Beaver Lake, the White River and the Elk River, all within an hour and a half’s drive, often over scenic, curvy roads favored by motorcycle and roadster enthusiasts.
What with the art, architecture, nature, and culture of this little patch of magic in Northwest Arkansas, if you can think of a better way to spend a beautiful autumn weekend, I’d like to know about it!