Free stuff

Thursday, June 26, 2008

With rising gas prices and the cost of living skyrocketing each year, it's not as easy to take a nice, long vacation like folks used to do. We know, we've been there, and it's hard to stay on a budget. That's why we've put together a list of free activities for your family, so you can extend your stay, enjoy time with your family, and still have some cash left over for your favorite things, like a massage, music show tickets or an afternoon of shopping.

  One of the best family bargains, the new Great Passion Play has a whole day full of activities and attractions worth seeing. Head out to the grounds of the Play and visit the Christ of the Ozarks, seven stories of inspiration overlooking Eureka Springs. Sculpted by Emmett Sullivan, the same man who worked on Mount Rushmore, the stability and size of the monument is amazing. This massive statue of Jesus could support the weight of a Volkswagen bug from each wrist, and if He were any taller, He'd need blinking lights to warn aircraft at night. After more than 40 years, one question that locals still hear is, "Is that statue natural or man-made?" Believe us, the statue may have been inspired by higher powers, but it was definitely constructed by man. Admission to the Christ of the Ozarks is free, and another free attraction on the grounds is a 10-foot section of the actual Berlin Wall; the segment is a stirring tribute to faith and freedom, and has part of Psalm 23 inscribed on it. That inscription was written by residents of East Berlin before the wall came down. The Great Passion Play also has many other attractions available as part of a reasonably priced family package.

  Another inspirational free attraction is St. Elizabeth Catholic Church, located just below the Crescent Hotel on the Historic Loop. The church received a mention in the original Ripley's Believe It or Not newspaper column, because it is the only church that visitors enter through the bell tower. In fact, the bell tower came first; it marked the last spot that the builder had seen his beloved mother. The church has weekend services and a gift shop, and donations are gratefully accepted. Just up a flight of stone steps is the Crescent Hotel, built in 1886. The hotel has been featured in books and television shows, including Sci-Fi's Ghost Hunters program. After you catch your breath from the outside stairs, take the elevator to the top and see one of the best views anywhere in town, a panoramic view of the historic district that's breathtaking no matter the season.

  While the next inspirational stop may not be as old as the downtown district, it is one of the most spiritual and serene places in the area. Thorncrown Chapel, a 48-foot tall structure of wood and glass, was designed by noted architect E. Fay Jones and built in 1980, fulfilling the dream of Arkansas native Jim Reed, who wanted a place people could come to in the Ozarks and be refreshed and inspired. The chapel has 425 windows and more than 6,000 square feet of glass, and is set against the lush green of the woods. An incredibly popular spot for weddings, the chapel is also a wonderful place to just take a few minutes for yourself. Drive out US 62 West and watch for the signs. And, no, you can't see it from the highway; what folks see peeking through the treetops is the Worship Center, built after Thorncrown Chapel to accommodate Sunday services. No admission fee required, but donations are gratefully accepted.

  Continue just a stone's throw farther, and you'll find Lake Leatherwood Park. At 1,600 acres, this attraction is one of the largest municipal parks in the country. The park centers around the 85-acre Lake Leatherwood, and features one of the largest hand-cut native limestone dams in the country. The dam, along with the swimming platform and some outbuildings, were constructed as part of the WPA project in the 1940s, giving men valuable jobs during the Depression years. Bring some fishing tackle and you just might tease a largemouth bass or catfish out of the lake. If it gets too warm fishing from the shore, slap on the swimming trunks and take a leap off the diving platform, which still thrills kids after all these years. The park also has 15 miles of hiking and biking trails, so there's something for any outdoor fan. For a picturesque view of the White River Valley, head a few miles up the road to the Inspiration Point scenic lookout. Often in the Ozarks, you can't see the forest for the trees, unless you're atop a mountain. At the lookout, you can see the gently rolling hills for miles, and it's a perfect spot for photos.

  South of Eureka Springs is the historic War Eagle Mill. Walking right up to the mill is like discovering a live Norman Rockwell painting; the red three-story structure sports an 18-foot waterwheel. Inside, they sell a variety of grains and mixes, products of the water-powered grist mill onsite. In the top of the building, check out the Bean Palace Restaurant for the best beans and cornbread of your life. The mill area is also a lovely place for a walk; the quaint footbridge crosses the War Eagle River, and the wide spaces on either side of the bridge have hosted the region's largest arts and crafts shows for decades. War Eagle Mill is located 25 miles southwest of Eureka Springs by following US 23 South, then taking Highway 12 to War Eagle Road 98.

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