Cruising along with our Midwest National Park Road Trip recap. As we made our way from Hot Springs National Park through the rest of Arkansas’ national park units, we ventured next to the state’s capital city for a visit to Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. Our March 2020 visit here marked 89 of the 400+ units on our #parkchasing list. The Little Rock Central site lays claim as the only fully operating high school within a National Historic Site. More than 2,500 students attend Central each year. That means that unlike other parks, school takes priority–including over visitors and tours. Today we’re sharing what we learned about visiting the school and the site so you’re prepped for your own visit to this unique park.
About Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Park Website: https://www.nps.gov/chsc/index.htm Location: Little Rock, Arkansas Site Details: Right now, Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site in Arkansas serves two roles: to educate a new generation of Little Rock teens and to preserve the stories of nine African American students who, in 1957 bravely sought their own education (and equality) while the rest of the world watched. The site includes the existing High School Building, a restored gas station where members of the media staged broadcasts during the events at Central High, and the Visitor Center (across the intersection from the High School). The park service recently acquired some of the homes near the school in hopes of preserving some of the surrounding neighborhood.
What You Need to Know Before Visiting Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Expect to dialogue about difficult issues.
The goal of a visit to Little Rock Central High School NHS goes so far beyond just checking off another box on the #parkchasing list. It’s about learning, listening, and committing to walking a better path forward than our history tells. An hour or two of wandering the museum exhibits and the grounds around the school leaves you with a good sense of the events of 1957, but so many questions. Expect to have conversations with yourself and with others in your travel group about the events and what’s transpired in America since then. It’s not a national park site we wanted to jump back in the car and rush to the next item on our vacation itinerary. We gave ourselves plenty of time after to discuss and unpack the difficult questions. The newly renovated Little Rock riverfront area and the grounds of the Clinton Library offered some good outdoor spaces for reflection after.
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Tours of the High School MUST be booked in advance.
As mentioned above, the National Historic Site is the only site with an operating high school. That means that tours must happen in the background while students and teachers are in session. It also means that tours of the school building itself aren’t open to the general public without a park ranger. Tours happen twice per day and absolutely must be booked in advance. The park service recommends at least 2 days in advance, however we recommend booking much earlier if possible. And don’t assume that an early reservation equals a guaranteed tour. Even though we called well in advance, during our weekday visit in March, all tours were pre-booked by students from surrounding school districts.
The "Streetscape" Tour is an option on the weekends.
If you don’t happen to visit Little Rock while the school is open, there’s still an option for a ranger-led experience. Streetscape Tours, offered twice daily from the visitor’s center on weekends, take visitors around the school campus and tell the story of the Little Rock Nine through the surrounding buildings. Streetscape Tours must still be reserved in advanced and should be booked at least 2-4 weeks in advance.
If you don't have a tour, allow about 60-90 minutes for your visit.
If you don’t have a tour booked in advance, you’ll still want to allow enough time to experience as much of the site as possible. The Visitor’s Center has an outstanding park film that details the story of the Little Rock Nine and the events before and after 1957. After the film, we spent about 30-45 minutes in the exhibit hall and talking with the ranger at the desk before walking the grounds of the high school and outdoor public art exhibits.
There's a Junior Ranger Program for younger visitors.
A visit to Little Rock Central High School can spark a lot of questions, especially from younger, school-aged children. Race and racial inequality can be sensitive issues that many families need safe spaces to unpack and understand. Thankfully, the National Park Services offers a terrific Junior Ranger Program at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site. The packet can be downloaded online and completed before your family’s visit, giving parents and caregivers a chance to answer questions and start important conversations.
Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site is part of a larger National Park Service Civil Rights travel itinerary.
After visiting Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, we both recognized how much more we have to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and the events that shaped racial inequality in America. If you’re interested in combining your tour of the school with other NPS sites, the park service maintains a list of key locations from the Civil Rights era called the We Shall Overcome Travel Itinerary. You can also check out our 2020 list of 70 National Parks to Learn About Racial Inequality.
Nearby Little Rock Central High School NHS
If you’re visiting Little Rock Central High School as part of a longer Arkansas stay or while passing through on your own national park road trip, consider stopping at a few of these other national park sites along the way:
- Hot Springs National Park
- President William Jefferson Clinton Birthplace Home National Historic Site
- Arkansas Post National Memorial
- Buffalo National River
- Fort Smith National Historic Site
- Ozark National Scenic Riverway
- Arkansas State Capitol Building
- Clinton Library and Museum