The beauty of Petit Jean Mountain inspired the creation of Arkansas’s state parks system in the 1920s, and with it, Arkansas’s first state park. So the history of Petit Jean State Park, constructed in 1933, is as rich as its scenery and facilities, which include the legendary Mather Lodge. The lodge reopens at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, May 8 after having been closed since December 2010 for renovation.
The renovation work replaced the 1960s-era dining room with a more rustic-style design, expanded the kitchen, added a meeting room, relocated the guest registration desk, enhanced the guest rooms, and constructed a new swimming pool. The renovation did not affect any of Mather Lodge’s original Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and later Works Progress Administration (WPA), work dating from the 1930s.
I commend the Arkansas State Parks personnel for giving us an updated modern facility with minimal impact on the historic building. Now we have the best of both worlds. The renovated portion mirrors the Adirondack-style park architecture of the original 1930s portions of Mather Lodge. And anyone who has hiked the beautiful trails of the park will appreciate the addition of restrooms underneath the pool due to its proximity to one of the park’s most popular hiking trails.
Petit Jean lies in a unique area between the Ozark and Ouachita Mountain ranges in west central Arkansas. Situated on Petit Jean Mountain, the park encompasses 2,658 acres of rare natural beauty. Thick woods, ravines, streams, springs, spectacular views and interesting geological formations are preserved almost as French explorers found them 300 years ago.
The park trails system features 20 miles of interconnected trails and quintessential Arkansas scenery. Trails range in length from one-quarter mile to 12 miles.
These hikes are not simply walks in the woods. They illuminate history and nature. One can visit a cabin constructed in 1853 by slaves and tenant farmers, or walk on stone steps cut and laid in the 1930s by men using only hand tools and teams of mules. These hard working men of the CCC drew a wage of only a dollar a day.
The park’s unique “carpet rock” formed when crisscrossed fractures in sandstone were filled by quartz cement. Since quartz is very resistant to weather and erosion, the filled fracture lines now stand out in relief like a man-made pattern imprinted in each boulder’s surface. Equally intriguing are the huge “turtle rocks,” which appear to be just what their name implies.
Just as flowing water over countless centuries has carved the valleys, so have lichens, living on the surface of bare rocks and producing acidic secretions, dissolved rock and created fissures, eventually breaking larger stones into smaller ones.
Wildlife watchers can observe mink, kingfishers, herons and raccoons foraging the creeks for meals, which might include fish, frogs, crayfish and mussels.
Birding enthusiasts frequent the park to see the double-crested cormorant, great blue heron, ring-necked duck, bald eagle, wild turkey, spotted sandpiper, pileated woodpecker, Carolina chickadee or golden-crowned kinglet. Field checklists are provided by the park.
The park drew its name from the legend of a young French girl who disguised herself as a cabin boy so she could secretly accompany her fiancé to the “New World.” Petit Jean, or “Little John,” became fatally ill and requested to be buried on the mountain. Many believe she is in fact buried at a point overlooking the Arkansas River Valley. The “gravesite” is one of the most popular sites to visit at the park. The spirit of Petit Jean is said to hover over the mountain, giving it an air of strange enchantment.
As Petit Jean State Park reveals its history, legend and nature, it also provides peaceful and serene venues.
Lush tree canopies shelter plants such as wild hydrangeas, violets, mosses, ferns and liverworts. Running water along Cedar Creek Self-Guided Trail tempts passers-by to cool their feet in the summer. A 94-foot waterfall gives hikers of Cedar Falls Trail a refreshing spray, while Cedar Falls Overlook provides a magnificent view of the falls from above.
Other natural attractions at the park include Rock House Cave, Bear Cave, and a natural bridge along Seven Hollows Trail. The hollows inspired those who wanted to preserve the area as a state park. Sunsets over the river valley are spectacular from Palisades Overlook.
Mary Ann Richter Overlook provides a scenic view of the peaks of Mt. Nebo, Mt. Magazine and of Dardanelle Rock on the south bank of the Arkansas River. The flatlands visible in the distance include Carden Bottoms and Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge.
The CCC Overlook with a view of Petit Jean River to the west, gives visitors an opportunity to watch black and turkey vultures as they soar the windy bluffs and roost on the sheer canyon walls below.
In addition to the new lodge, the park offers cabins, individual campsites and pull-thru sites, all with water and electrical hookups. Modern bathhouses are also available. You can also Rent-A-Camp and Rent-A-Teepee.
Picnic and grocery supplies, firewood, horseback riding and arts and crafts shops are located near the park. Some facilities are open seasonally only. Petit Jean is Arkansas’s only state park with its own airport, open for daytime use only.
Take Hwy. 9 (Exit 109) off 1-40 at Morrilton south nine miles to Oppelo. Then head west 12 miles on Hwy. 154 to the park. Or, visitors approaching from the west can head south on Hwy. 7 at Russellville off I-40 to Centerville, then east 16 miles on Hwy. 154 to the park. Visitor’s approaching from the southwest can take Hwy. 7 off I-30 north through Hot Springs to Centerville, then east 16 miles on Hwy. 154 to the park. Or, from Hwy. 7 off 1-30 north through Hot Springs take Hwy. 10 east to Casa and Hwy. 155 north to the park.