As autumn's cooler weather looms and the delta variant of covid-19 persists, finding outdoor pleasure can be as easy as a walk in the park. That's literally the case at Wildwood Park for the Arts, home to multi-theme trails and gardens in a secluded expanse on Little Rock's western fringe.
In normal times, 105-acre Wildwood is better known for the arts and entertainment staged in its Lucy Lockett Cabe Festival Theatre. But the pandemic has limited these live events to occasional open-air performances. Meanwhile, the park's 105 acres are open daily free of charge from late morning until sunset. During two recent afternoon strolls, there was only a scattering of other visitors, adding to the sense of tranquility.
Near the parking area inside Wildwood's main entrance, visitors can pick up a map of the walking paths. Just ahead stretches Swan Lake, described on the park's website as "the focal point of Wildwood's gardens and trails." Fishing is permitted in the lake, with a policy of catch and release.
At the east end of the lake, the Gertrude Remmel Butler Gazebo gives photographers an architectural accent to the foliage lining the shore. The gazebo stands at the east end of Butler Arboretum, a centerpiece of the gardens with its winding paths among native trees.
Designed by celebrity gardener P. Allen Smith, the 10-acre arboretum contains the region's largest collection of native woodland azaleas, along with daffodils and Louisiana iris. Swings attached to several trees provide a recreational respite for youngsters who may be bored by walking a trail.
Tucked into the arboretum is Zahn Rock Garden, on a rise known as Butler Hill. Embedded in the slate and boulders are 56 varieties of plants, including Texas bush sage, California poppies and native butterfly weeds.
Just north of the gazebo is one end of the half-mile Ruth Allen Dogwood Trail. This route crosses a forested area and descends into a narrow valley. The trail's eastern half was created by gardener Tom Neale and Boy Scout David Curtis.
Wild 40 Trail, the park's longest walking path, zigzags for 1.9 miles east and south of Swan Lake. At its two main entrances are kiosks containing brochures with information about the park's ecology. Among developers of the trail were Central Arkansas Master Naturalists and Central Arkansas Trail Alliance.
Two small ornamental gardens are planted near the festival theater just west of the main parking area. Boop Water Garden combines native flora with splashing water pools. The plantings include deciduous azaleas and loblolly pine. Among Bruce Garden's featured plants are bottlebrush buckeye and autumn fern.
North of the theater, the park's most photogenic spot is Asian Woodland Garden. It was originally designed in the 1990s by P. Allen Smith as a memorial to Wildwood patron Doris Carre Gay. It was expanded a decade ago to add stepping-stone paths and a rock grotto with a waterfall. The garden's plants are native to Japan, Korea and China.
A highlight of the Asian garden is the Dodi Tea House, entered on a flagstone terrace. Its windows feature panels of etched glass with floral designs, an artistic touch that complements the natural surroundings. Several nearby sculptures, including Doug Zahn's "The Middle Kingdom," add an exotic touch to a walk in the park.