Get outside this summer in the Rock: Checking in with Parks & Rec

July 31 - August 6, 2023

By Becca Bona


Summer conjures up images of travel and outdoor bliss, but most destinations come with a hefty price tag. Lucky for Little Rock residents and those who call central Arkansas home, an expensive trip isn’t the only way to enjoy the season. Little Rock has over 63 parks available to residents and visitors, as well as over 100 miles of trails for cyclists and anyone who’s looking to spend a little time outside.


The City of Little Rock’s Parks and Recreation Department acts as the steward of these amenities. Director Leland Couch notes that while programming is a huge draw for residents - maintaining the built and natural environments is a full-time operation.


“Our infrastructure is always in need of improvements, so when we are able to pull improvements off, it’s a big deal for our residents,” Couch said. Whether those improvements are due to regular wear and tear or a natural disaster, Parks & Rec is always at work behind the scenes. 


Reservoir Park, Murray Park, & Rock Creek: Post Tornado Update


The devastating tornado that ripped through the capital city on March 31, 2023, left more than a few land scars. “I think people that weren’t directly affected by the tornado have already started to move on,” Couch observed. However, many residents and city departments remain involved in the clean-up and efforts to rebuild, and Little Rock’s Parks & Recreation Department is no exception.


“The tornado greatly affected our maintenance and ongoing work on some projects,” Couch said. “We have an in-house staff that works on projects, and we’ve been utilizing them and others to help us do a lot of the clean-up in the parks that were affected by the tornado.” 


Three parks took a direct hit - Murray Park, Reservoir Park, and Rock Creek. Reservoir will remain closed for the foreseeable future. The playground - which was only five years old - was destroyed, along with the disc golf course, the tennis courts, and baseball field and lighting system.


Parks & Rec has been heavily involved in the clean-up efforts, which includes managing contractors and working with insurance entities and federal agencies such as FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to ensure that the park will be able to return one day.


The local disc golf community was clamoring to help in the early days of the clean-up. “The problem was the hazards, the question of what tree is going to fall next,” Couch explained. “A couple of weeks after the tornado, we allowed the disc golfers and staff to secure as many signs and baskets that weren’t damaged, but they only got a handful out of all of them. 


“Reservoir has been a big lift,” Couch said. “We’re starting to look at what we’re doing there and how we might bring it back.”


The department is in the process of meeting with engineering firms to see what the future might hold for Reservoir.


“We don’t even know what exactly will go back there,” Couch said, “but we are working with the disc golf community to figure out what would be best. The landscape is completely different, and while it creates a bunch of constraints, it also creates a lot of opportunities. We just have to look at what the next opportunities are.”


Murray Park also sustained damage from the tornado, however, not on the same scale as Reservoir. The Parks & Rec team has reopened the park in phases. “We are essentially fully open down there, but some of our pavilions are still damaged.” Because they need to be rebuilt, they’re not currently available for rental. 


Rock Creek is a wooded area that was heavily damaged in the tornado, but because it doesn’t have facility amenities - it was not an immediate priority for clean-up.


“Because it was closed and because of the hazards - we started to have challenges with the homeless, trash, and things popping up,” Couch said. “We worked with homeless advocates and we’ve made great progress there.”


The department secured funding from NRSC (Natural Resources Conservation Service) to help rebuild the Rock Creek area without destroying the creek and wooded natural features. 


Cycling: From Mountain to Road


Sure, everyone knows about the Arkansas River Trail. But what about the Southeast or Tri-Creek Trails? Where would one go to try mountain biking for the first time in Little Rock? Director Couch said that there’s work ongoing to improve cycling in the Rock from the road to the mountain and everything in-between.


Enter River Mountain Park. It opened to Little Rock residents in 2021 and contains the first professionally built mountain bike trails in the city’s cycling system. Located on River Mountain Road (on the way to the base of the Two Rivers Bridge), the addition includes beginner-friendly mountain bike trails topping out at a little over ten miles. The addition was jointly funded by the Arkansas Parks & Recreation Foundation and the Walton Foundation.


Couch said the idea was to provide a gateway to mountain biking for beginners in a fun, low-stakes way. “I wanted to introduce this whole idea of a gateway-type trail. New mountain cyclists will try it and think, ‘hey, this  is pretty cool, I want to try something more.’” 


The trailhead is also directly near a portion of the Arkansas River Trail system, so road cyclists are more than likely to take note.


“I have two children and we take them out there and they love it. The trails have a chipseal surface, so they aren’t as intimidating as fully loose gravel. “It gives it a little bit more of a surface that is more friendly to ride on,” he explained.


The River Mountain Project was completed before a proposed trail project at Boyle Park, which was originally slated to finish first. “Boyle was one of the first areas that had mountain bike trails,” Couch said, “but it was entirely built by volunteers.”


Now that contractors have been sorted, mountain bikers and road cyclists can expect more to come at Boyle Park - “It’s still really exciting because we have 14 features that we’re going to build - balance features, ramps, and different things - all in one area. A bike park, if you will.”


Couch is also excited about the Southeast Trail and the Tri-Creek Greenway - both of which will provide connectivity and accessibility to Little Rock’s ever-growing cycling trail network.  


The Southeast Trail will connect the Clinton Library area to the Little Rock Airport and eventually the Little Rock Port. “Public works is really leading that right now,” Couch said. “Connecting all that infrastructure - the airport and the port - back to the city will be incredibly impactful.”


Towards the Future: Slated Projects


Oftentimes it can be tricky for a public entity to find the funds needed for maintenance and improvement. Parks and Rec is very busy at the moment thanks to private donations and publicly funded grants.


The Vogel Schwartz Riverfront Sculpture garden was recently appraised and came in at over $8 million. “We’ll be adding new sculptures,” Couch said. “We’ve just finished a tree house that hangs out over the Arkansas River and we decided to add an additional cool feature to that.”


The city also recently received over 6 million in ARPA funds (federal COVID-funding) which will go to the community centers. Little Rock Parks and Rec also just received over $24 million to be utilized in bond packages. 


“Right now a big chunk of that is going to Jim Daily fitness center - that’s our big fitness center with indoor and outdoor areas. If you talk to anybody out there they’ll be upset to tell you that we’ve closed our indoor pool. We had to close it because our HVAC finally completely failed.” However, Couch said that the team has finalized the mechanical aspects of that and should be working on it soon. 


While the above is not an exhaustive list of all that Little Rock Parks and Recreation is responsible for (think Little Rock Marathon and so much more), it’s a start. Grab a bike or a pair of shoes and hit the door. Little Rock has so much to offer residents looking to enjoy a slice of the Natural State cityside.  


1. Little Rock continues to embrace cycling culture, and the Parks & Rec Department acts as a steward of new trails and projects coming down the line.


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