A History of Arkansas State Parks

A scenic overlook at Petit Jean State Park
A scenic overlook at Petit Jean State Park
The Mather Lodge lobby in the late 1940s.
Fishing at Lake Bailey at Petit Jean State Park

March of 2023 marks the centennial anniversary of the legislation that created Arkansas’ first state park.

"To waste, to destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and developed." –  Theodore Roosevelt, Dec. 3, 1907 message to Congress.

The same year President Theodore Roosevelt said these words, the idea of creating a national park from lumber company land holdings was sparked in Arkansas. While the national park never materialized, the idea did culminate in the birth of Arkansas' state parks system.

On a trip to inspect its operations and timber holdings at Petit Jean Mountain, Fort Smith Lumber Company officials decided the Seven Hollows and canyon portion of its land was cost-prohibitive to log. Instead of selling the scenic hollows, it was suggested that the land be deeded for a national park. Beautiful as it was, the federal government felt the parcel of land was too small to merit national endorsement and administration. When Arkansas governmental officials were approached with the idea of a state park, they reacted in the spirit of Roosevelt's message.

However, while the seed was planted in 1907, it was 1923 before legislation was passed to accept land donations for state parks and reservations. Four years later, in 1927, the Legislature approved Act 172, establishing a seven-member State Parks Commission. The Legislature indicated its intent to create a system of parks by authorizing the panel to acquire any areas of natural beauty and historical interest that provided “educational, recreational, health, camping and other outdoor life advantages.”

The new law instructed the commission to use its lands “to protect and preserve in its original habitat and native beauty the flora, fauna and wildlife therein and preserve the same for all future generations, … and to attract visitors, home seekers and tourists to the State” in order to “increase the wealth and revenue of our State by means of such parks.”

With these acts, the Arkansas state park system was created, and Petit Jean State Park served as its cornerstone. Situated atop Petit Jean Mountain, the park today encompasses 2,658 acres of rare natural beauty – an abundance of unmarred woods, ravines, streams, springs, spectacular views and interesting ecological formations preserved much as French explorers found them 300 years ago.

A view from the porch of Mather Lodge.
A waterfall on the Cedar Creek Self Guided Trail at Petit Jean State Park

Among the 52 state parks now spread across Arkansas are sites atop the state’s most prominent mountains, on the shores of her largest manmade and natural lakes, and on lands where Civil War battles were fought and Native Americans thrived. While preserving the state’s natural and historical heritage and offering recreational opportunities for Arkansans and state visitors alike, the parks themselves have become a legacy passed from generation to generation.

The following is a timeline of the Arkansas State Parks system.


Acreage for Arkansas’ second park was obtained in 1927 by way of Act 39 of 1881, which transferred ownership of tax-delinquent lands to the state. Located on a 1,750-foot peak overlooking the Arkansas River Valley near Dardanelle, the initial land for Mount Nebo State Park was simply transferred by the state to the parks commission.

Next came the state’s first historical park. In 1929, the Legislature established by Act 57 the Arkansas Post State Park Commission and directed it to acquire the site of Arkansas Post. The Post had been the first permanent European settlement in the lower Mississippi River Valley and Arkansas’ first territorial capital. Sixty-two acres were purchased. In 1964, the site was transferred to the National Park Service and became the Arkansas Post National Memorial.


In 1933, two more park sites were established. Donations and purchases created Crowley’s Ridge State Park west of Paragould, while donations and the transfer of tax-delinquent land made acreage available for Devil’s Den State Park in a steep Boston Mountains valley of Lee Creek south of Fayetteville.

In 1935, Harvey Couch, founder of the Arkansas Power and Light Company, donated 2,000 acres along the lake for the creation of Lake Catherine State Park. The park’s namesake lake, located south of Hot Springs, was formed by Remmel Dam, the state’s first major hydroelectric project. Lake Catherine State Park was the first in a significant line of Arkansas parks that would be located on large lakes made by dams.

Buffalo River State Park in southern Marion County was added to the system in 1937 by a combination of donated, purchased and tax-forfeited land. The park was later closed, and its land transferred to the National Park Service in 1973 to become part of the Buffalo National River.

Though land acquisition was proceeding apace, it was 1937 before the State Parks Commission had control of funds for anything more than its own operating expenses; it had no money to develop the parks. After the Flood of 1927 had inundated one-fifth of Arkansas, the stock market collapsed in 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s ensued.

The stone-and-mortar phase of the parks system began in 1933, largely because of the Great Depression, the most severe economic disaster in U.S. history. Into Arkansas’ park-development void stepped the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public employment program created by the New Deal administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The fledgling state parks system benefited greatly as the work program created roads, trails, lodges, cabins, campgrounds, amphitheaters, bathhouses, picnic pavilions and beaches.

Civilian Conservation Corps men building the Mather Lodge dining room at Petit Jean State Park.
A view of the porch at Mather Lodge.


While serving as state attorney general in the mid-1930s, Carl Bailey made a special effort to become familiar with Arkansas’ fledgling system of state parks. The 1927 law creating the State Parks Commission had designated the attorney general as the panel’s chairman, and Bailey used considerable leisure time to visit the parks and better prepare himself for fulfilling that duty.

After serving as state attorney general in the mid-1930s, Carl Bailey became governor in 1937. He revamped the State Parks Commission and, though already a decade old, it received its first budget for more than its own administrative costs. It was also authorized to hire the first state parks director, Samuel G. Davies, who had been construction superintendent for the Civilian Conservation Corps at Petit Jean State Park.

Bailey’s reorganized commission, along with the State Planning Board and the National Park Service, conducted the first-ever study of Arkansas’ recreational needs, but its recommendations were never implemented. From the end of Bailey’s governorship in 1940 through 1954, there was virtually no capital investment in nor acquisition of new lands for the system, partly because of World War II.

Throughout their existence, Arkansas’ state parks have relied on the kindness of governors. From the late 1930s through the 1970s, Governors Bailey, Orval Faubus and Dale Bumpers were particularly kind, providing leadership needed for the system to greatly expand from its seven Depression-era sites and achieve prominence in state government.

The inside of a historic CCC cabin at Petit Jean State Park.
One of the CCC cabins at Petit Jean State Park.


Coinciding with Faubus’ rise to power, several major lakes created by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ dams had sparked increased interest in Arkansas recreation. The lakes made extensive stretches of open water a part of the state’s scenery, greatly enhanced opportunities for water-based sports and created cold tailwaters that would soon become nationally renowned for trout fishing.

In 1954, the state acquired park sites on the new lakes known as Bull Shoals, Ouachita and Greeson. These were the first major parks added since the Depression. (In 1953, the state Legislature declared the one-acre Herman Davis Memorial honoring a World War I hero a state park.)

However, years of neglect and lack of funding had taken their toll on the Depression-era facilities. In 1957, the state’s Legislature authorized the use of revenue bonds to finance park improvements. Federal funds were also becoming available for state recreation projects. Thus, it was during Faubus’ 12 years as governor that the parks system saw its first major expansion and improvements since the 1930s.

Sites were acquired in 1957 atop Arkansas’ second highest peak for Queen Wilhelmina State Park and on the shore of the state’s largest natural lake for Lake Chicot State Park. Also added were the Hampson Museum (now Hampson Archeological Museum State Park), to house a significant collection of Native American artifacts, and Old Davidsonville (now Davidsonville Historic State Park), to preserve the site of a historic frontier town, as well as Mammoth Spring State Park.


In the 1960s,15 more areas were acquired by various means, including purchases, donations and leases. By the end of 1969 the state park system contained 24 areas classified as state parks, state recreation areas, historical monuments and museums.

In 1969, yet another name change came for the panel overseeing state parks. From that point forward the State Parks Commission has been known as the State Parks, Recreation and Travel Commission.

Hiking at Petit Jean State Park.
A photographer takes a sunrise photo at Stouts Point at Petit Jean State Park.


The state parks system flourished under Gov. Dale Bumpers. In his 1971 inaugural address, he said: “We can and will intensify our efforts to both industrialize and develop a parks and recreation system which will, in turn, attract an increasing number of tourists.”

As part of his reorganization of state government, Bumpers made the executive director of the newly created Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism a member of his Cabinet. The state parks director would head the department’s Parks Division. And, at Bumpers’ urging, the 1971 Legislature approved $22.5 million for capital improvements in the parks and expansion of the system.

During Bumpers’ tenure, the system enhanced its administrative capabilities, added park rangers with law enforcement training and accelerated the hiring of interpreters to conduct programs for park visitors. In 1973, a systemwide plan was developed that would serve as a blueprint into the 1980s.

With the impetus Bumpers provided, the 1970s became the greatest decade of expansion in the history of Arkansas’ parks. The 17 parks acquired during that time that remain today are: Powhatan Courthouse State Park (now Powhatan Historic State Park), Woolly Hollow, Crater of Diamonds, Pinnacle Mountain, Toltec Mounds Archeological (now Plum Bayou Mounds Archeological State Park), Logoly, DeGray (now DeGray Lake Resort), Cane Creek, Lake Frierson, Millwood, Conway Cemetery (final resting place of the state’s first governor), Oil Heritage Center (later named Arkansas Oil and Brine Museum and now Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources) Beaver Lake (now Hobbs State Park-Conservation Area) and the Prairie County Museum (now Lower White River Museum State Park).


Mount Magazine, Plantation Agriculture Museum, Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area and Arkansas Post Museum were added to the parks system in the 1980s.

By 1983, the parks system had grown to more than 40 sites and increased in popularity and political status, but the expansion and other accomplishments of the previous three decades proved no guarantee of a secure future. Financial difficulties were lurking ahead.

Tent camping at Petit Jean State Park
The Boy Scout Trail at Petit Jean State Park


During the decade of the ’90s, Delta Heritage Trail, South Arkansas Arboretum and Mississippi River State Park were added to the parks system.

Parks became a low priority for state spending, continually receiving flat or reduced annual budgets. Aging facilities, increased use, inflation and legislative initiatives adding new sites without supporting appropriations for operating them exacerbated the system’s financial problems. Millions of dollars were sorely needed for maintenance projects and anticipated expenditures for undeveloped park sites.

In 1993, the ADPT and Arkansas Game and Fish Commission officials, working in concert with state legislators, devised a funding proposal: Arkansas’ voters would be asked to approve a constitutional amendment establishing a 1/8th-cent sales tax to provide monies for those two agencies, the Department of Arkansas Heritage and the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission. All four agencies had related missions and similar funding problems. The size of the proposed tax was based on careful calculations of the agencies’ needs.

Mere days before the 1994 election, however, the measure was stricken from the ballot. The secretary of state had not properly advertised the text of the proposal prior to the vote. The Legislature again placed the proposed amendment before the voters in 1996. Parks officials based their campaign for the measure on a detailed 10-year plan, drafted in 1993, for spending the anticipated tax revenues.

The plan called for 54% of the funds to be used for capital improvements; 22% for major maintenance, repairs and renovations; 13% for operating costs; 6% for capital equipment; and 5% for land acquisition.

Voters were also promised that during those 10 years, parks officials would not support adding any new sites to the system (but would develop previously authorized parks) and that the 1/8th-cent funds would be new monies for the parks, not replacement for funding from existing revenue sources.

The tax proposal received an unexpected and effective boost from the state’s new governor,  Mike Huckabee, who had become the state’s chief executive in July 1996 and campaigned actively in support of the measure. He brought focus to the issue when, accompanied by First Lady Janet Huckabee, he boated down the Arkansas River and made 16 campaign stops in four days.

In November 1996, the voters approved Amendment 75. For the first time since its inception, the state parks system had substantial and ongoing financial support, launching one of the most exciting eras in its history.

2000s to Present

State Legislators deserve special recognition for appropriating the Amendment 75 revenues in keeping with promises made to the voters. Existing parks have since been placed in first-class condition and the undeveloped parks from that time period – Mount Magazine, Beaver Lake, Cossatot River, Delta Heritage Trail and Mississippi River – have been developed. Arkansas now has 52 state parks.

In January 2023, Mike Huckabee’s daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, was sworn in as the governor of Arkansas. One of her first executive orders was to establish The Natural State Initiative and The Natural State Initiative Advisory Council. The Council will provide advice to the governor regarding the promotion of outdoor recreation and the outdoor economy in Arkansas. While not specific only to state parks, the initiative will certainly help outdoor recreation in the state park system.

With more support from the government and Arkansas’ people, the parks department continues building on the foundation handed to it by previous generations and pursuing improvements that make the system of diverse parks among the finest in America.