The natural beauty of Arkansas’s first state park, Petit Jean, inspired the creation of the state park system. Situated on Petit Jean Mountain, the park encompasses forests, ravines, streams, springs, vistas, and unusual geological formations preserved almost as French explorers found them in the early part of the eighteenth century. Today, Petit Jean State Park is one of the most popular state parks in Arkansas.
Popular legend holds that the mountain got its name from the story of a young French girl who, in the 1700s, disguised herself as a cabin boy so that she could secretly join a company of explorers and accompany her fiancé to the New World. Petit Jean, or “Little John,” became fatally ill while the explorers were visiting the mountain and requested to be buried there.
The idea of creating a national park from lumber company land holdings on Petit Jean Mountain began in Arkansas in 1907 during a survey expedition of the area. While the national park designation did not occur, the idea did culminate in the birth of Arkansas’s state park system.
On a trip to inspect its operations on Petit Jean Mountain, officials of the Fort Smith Lumber Company decided that it was too expensive to log the Seven Hollows and canyon areas of the company’s timber holdings. Instead of selling the scenic area, it was suggested by Thomas William Hardison, the lumber company’s physician, that the land be deeded to the federal government for a national park. Hardison headed the campaign. The campaign for a national park ended in 1921 when Stephen Mather, director of the National Park Service, decided the parcel of land was too small to merit national endorsement and administration. Hardison and his associates approached the Arkansas state legislature, and state officials embraced the idea of developing the area for a state park. In 1923, Petit Jean State Park was officially established.
Early development of the park was done by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which, from 1933 to 1938, constructed roads, buildings, bridges, lakes, and trails that are still in use today. Most of the existing CCC structures, which were built in the rustic architectural style, are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Mather Lodge, a twenty-four room guest facility, is one of the most significant CCC structures in the state and is the only lodge built by the CCC in an Arkansas State Park. The Cedar Falls Trail, a two-mile round trip hike that begins behind Mather Lodge, is designated as a National Historic District. Mather Lodge closed in December 2010 for renovations and reopened in May 2012. The $4.32 million renovation sought to create an updated, modern facility while having little impact on the original 1930s CCC work.
More modern architectural styles were introduced to the park in 1948, with the construction of a two-story dormitory, and continued from the 1950s through the 1970s with the construction of facilities such as cabins and swimming pools and the renovation of the interiors of some existing buildings. Since the 1980s, the emphasis has been on restoration of original design elements during renovation of historic structures and modifying the structures from the 1950s and 1970s to fit the dominant rustic style.
Comprising a flat mountaintop with an elevation of about 1,180 feet, the terrain of Petit Jean includes areas along Cedar Creek Canyon, unique rock formations which include carpet rocks and turtle rocks, springs, caves, and steep slopes. The park contains plants that are very rare to the state.
In August 2000, a forest fire swept through the Seven Hollows area of Petit Jean State Park. This fire burned approximately 864 acres within the state park, as well as many acres of private land. Although many of the large trees were killed, life returned to the area quickly. Wildlife, including rabbits, quail, and many other birds, have found the area’s dense underbrush since the fire to be a perfect habitat.
The park offers lodging in cabins, the lodge, and campsites. The lodge has a restaurant and gift shop. Amenities include bathhouses, two swimming pools, playgrounds, a lighted tennis court, a softball field, an outdoor amphitheater, fishing boats, pedal boats, and a boathouse with a snack area and game room. At the visitor center, interpretive exhibits and brochures detail the park’s history and environment. The park has two lakes, Lake Bailey and Lake Roosevelt, which are stocked annually with fish, including channel catfish. There is also a fly-in campground at Petit Jean Airport, which is owned by the state park.
A park trail system provides twenty miles of interconnected trails that range in length from a quarter mile to twelve miles. The trails lead to unusual rock formations—including turtle rocks, the shelters of Rock House Cave and Bear Cave, and seventy-foot Cedar Falls—and pass underneath a natural bridge in the Seven Hollows.
The park’s historical elements include tropical fern fossils (the oldest dating back 300 million years), a cabin constructed in 1845 by John Walker (the second white settler on Petit Jean Mountain), and Indian pictographs in the rock shelters. The supposed resting place of the legendary Petit Jean is also preserved on the mountain.
Also atop Petit Jean, in a building leased by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism to a nonprofit organization, is the Museum of Automobiles, which displays a collection of fifty regularly rotated vintage vehicles, loaned to the museum from across the United States, dating from 1904.
The park hosts several annual events, including Eagle Awareness in January; Hikes, Hearts, and Hugs in February; Wildflower Weekend in April; a Swap Meet and Auto Fair in June; Fun and Games Day on July 4; Fall Senior American Special in October; Mountain Man Rendezvous in November; and a Christmastime Open House in December. During the summer, park interpreters provide guided hikes, nature talks, and workshops, plus evening programs at the outdoor amphitheater.
For additional information:
Arkansas State Parks–Petit Jean State Park http://www.petitjeanstatepark.com (accessed June 23, 2014).
Moran, Matthew. Guide to the Trails of Petit Jean State Park. N.p.: Moran Books, 2014.
Nixon, Jennifer. “Peak Travel.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, June 3, 2012, pp. 4E, 5E.
Staff of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism