Already a member? Please login below for an enhanced experience. Not a member? Join today

'A new American town''A new American town'

Bentonville, ArkansasBentonville, Arkansas

A momentous event in the history of Bentonville, Arkansas, took place March 9, 1950. On the west side of the little downtown square, a man named Sam Walton opened a variety store he named Walton’s 5&10. It was the beginning of what would become the world’s largest retailer, Walmart. Today the company remains headquartered in Bentonville, in the northwest corner of Arkansas, and Walmart remains its largest employer. But where the town once was a destination only for Walmart vendors, it’s now a world-class art mecca. In 2011, the Walton Family Foundation made Walmart heiress Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art an $800 million reality. The museum has attracted high-quality hotels, boutiques, galleries, and restaurants. Now, Bentonville finds itself transformed. Tourism officials call it “A new American town.”

  • Funded by the Walton Family Foundation, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in November 2011. In its first three years, the museum drew 1.6 million visitors, thus transforming Bentonville, Arkansas into an internationally recognized destination. Surrounded by a 120-acre woodland, the museum is within walking or biking distance from downtown. Photo by Timothy Hursley courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
  • With art installations outside the building and inside the lobby, Bentonville’s 21c Museum Hotel is itself a destination. Overnight guests will find more art inside this pet-friendly hotel, augmented by The Hive restaurant, which offers refined country cooking for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Photo courtesy 21c Museum Hotel.
  • It’s an easy walk or bike ride from the 21c Museum Hotel to the art museum, via a paved “art walk” lined with sculptures. Photo courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
  • Other trails lead deeper into the woods, feature native stone walkways, and are perfect for hiking and exploring. Photo by Dero Sanford courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
  • Museum visitors walk from gallery to gallery via covered bridges. Glass walls and even ceilings allow views of more art outside. Photo by Timothy Hursley courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
  • View of the Colonial to early 19th century art gallery in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Photo by John Owen courtesy Visit Bentonville.
  • The Crystal Bridges Museum Store offers some of Bentonville’s finest shopping. Photo by Timothy Hursley courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
  • Eleven is named after the opening date of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in which it is housed, 11/11/2011. The restaurant’s location in a high-ceiling, glass-enclosed bridge allows beautiful views from both sides. Fine Southern cuisine, a Sunday brunch, and culture hour in late afternoon with live music make Eleven a destination in itself. Photo by Stephen Ironside/Ironside Photography.
  • Architecture buffs will want to visit Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House, originally built in 1956. The house was moved from its original location in New Jersey, where it was vulnerable to flooding, to a patch of forest on the Crystal Bridges museum property. Nancy Nolan photography courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
  • Also on the museum property is designer/inventor/theorist R. Buckminster Fuller’s Fly’s Eye Dome with its circular openings, or “oculi,” in a pattern similar to the lenses of a fly's eye. Photo by Stephen Ironside/Ironside Photography, courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
  • The museum’s lights are beautifully reflected in the surrounding ponds at night. Photo by Timothy Hursley courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
  • It’s easy to spot the Walmart Museum and Walton’s 5&10 on downtown Bentonville’s city square. Photo courtesy Walmart Museum.
  • At the Spark Café, adjacent to the Walmart Museum, you can try some Arkansas-made Yarnell’s Ice Cream, the first brand Sam Walton sold in his stores. They even have a flavor called Spark Cream in blue-and-yellow, Walmart’s colors. Photo courtesy Walmart Museum.
  • Right next to the bike rental shop, you can fuel up with an espresso and a healthy lunch at Pressroom. Photo courtesy Pressroom.
  • Enjoy easy biking around town and on the art trails, or go for mountain biking. The 20-mile Pen Flow Trail draws mountain bikers from around the country. Photo courtesy Visit Bentonville.

Bentonville’s Thaden Field is named for famed aviatrix Louise M. Thaden. Born in Bentonville in 1905, she earned her pilot’s certificate in 1928 and then set aviation records on her way to co-founding The Ninety-Nines international organization for female pilots. The full-service fixed-base operation provides fuel, and courtesy and rental cars.

From the airport, you’ll either head straight to the Crystal Bridges museum or to the Bentonville city square. Depending on the time of year, the square hosts an ice rink, farmer’s market, concerts, or open-air film screenings. It’s also where you’ll find locally owned restaurants, food trucks, and shops, plus the very chic 21c Museum Hotel and its onsite The Hive restaurant. When the hotel opened in 2013, it was the third location for the 21c chain, which Condé Nast named among its Top 10 world’s best hotels. Anyone can view the curated art exhibitions that begin outside and continue into its free street-level gallery. Hotel guests can explore the art throughout the hotel, including a video art channel on the rooms’ HD flat-screen televisions, and rent cruiser bikes.

The most popular painting in the museum’s permanent collection is “Rosie the Riveter” by Norman Rockwell (1894-1978). Past temporary exhibits have featured such acclaimed artists as Vincent Van Gogh, Jamie Wyeth, and Andy Warhol. Photo by Dwight Primiano courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The hotel’s location on the northeast corner of the square puts you just a mile’s bike ride or walk down the art trail to an entrance for the Moshe Safdie-designed Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Yes, the museum is surrounded by thick woods traversed by art trails, worth exploring for their sculptures and bridges that cross babbling brooks. A natural spring fills the ponds that surround the museum. You’ll walk across the water inside bridges with floor-to-ceiling glass walls. The museum’s astounding permanent collection showcases five centuries of art that tells the history of America in chronological order. There are also free and fee-based educational activities for all ages, free drop-in tours on the architecture and art collection, and the fabulous Eleven restaurant overlooking the water.

Back at the city square, there’s more to see. The original Walton’s 5&10 store is now occupied by the Walmart Museum, easy to spot with its retro red-and-white striped awning and a replica of Sam Walton’s pickup truck out front. Inside, you can see the original truck along with Sam Walton’s pilot logbook and read how he used an airplane to scout new store locations—and count the cars in competitor’s parking lots. (Several of the Walton family are pilots who have quietly contributed to aviation projects around the country.) Beyond the exhibits you’ll find Walton’s 5&10, now selling retro toys and candy, plus locally crafted gift items. Pick up a hand-mixed soda or a scoop of Arkansas-made Yarnell’s Ice Cream at the Spark Café. Espresso, microbrews, and light meals can be had at Pressroom. Have at least one “High South Cuisine” meal at the award-winning Tusk & Trotter American Brasserie; you’ll probably want to eat there again the next day.

A strawberry crêpe from the Crêpes Paulette food truck, which serves both sweet and savory crêpes on weekends at the Lawrence Plaza. The 8th Street restaurant is open daily. Photo courtesy Crêpes Paulette.

A few miles west of downtown you’ll find the Museum of Native American History, with its gigantic woolly mammoth skeleton outside and a comprehensive collection of Native American displays and artifacts inside that date back over 14,000 years. One of some 140 Civil War sites in Benton County, Pea Ridge National Military Park is five miles northeast of Bentonville. The 4,300-acre battlefield is one of the most intact in the United States.

Bentonville has become a mountain biking destination too, with bike shops and over 35 miles of interconnected trails that are a pleasure to ride. The surrounding area offers plenty more in warmer months, including fishing, lake water sports, golf, hiking, and camping. As the seasons change and museum’s exhibits rotate, you’ll want to visit this New American Town again.

Pea Ridge National Military Park honors those who fought and died here on March 7 and 8, 1862, during the most pivotal Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River. Over 23,000 soldiers fought at Pea Ridge. One of the few in which a Confederate army outnumbered its opponent, the battle essentially established Union control of most of Missouri and northern Arkansas as the Confederates were driven off the field. Photo courtesy NPS.

Share your favorite destination in the AOPA Hangar: Places to fly, things to do, where to eat!

Crista Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy

Crista Videriksen Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to [email protected]
Topics: US Travel

Related Articles