@story TODD WHETSTINE
@images WILD WOODS PHOTOGRAPHY
The splendor of Petit Jean State Park started as a business venture of a few local businessmen. They owned Fort Smith Lumber Company and most of the land that is now Petit Jean. At first they planned to profit from all the timber that lay in and around the valley. But after doing their homework they realized they’d actually be taking a loss on the project, because the lumber was in such steep, rugged terrain.By then they’d fallen in love with the land and started a campaign to turn the land into a state park. It’s easy to see why. Petit Jean, just a couple of hours from both Fort Smith and Fayetteville, is home to breathtaking views atop sheer bluffs, a gorgeous cascading waterfall, and plenty of trails and camping spots.
Be sure to take in the romantic story behind the park’s name when you visit the historical gravesite of the woman for which the park’s named. Adrienne, taking a new name Petit Jean, dressed as a cabin boy to steal away to the Americas from France with her explorer fiancé Chavet in the 1700s. When Petit Jean became gravely ill she requested to be buried in the heart of what is now one of Arkansas’ most popular parks.
The history of this place draws in troves of visitors, but it’s the beauty that keeps them coming back. I love to come here, listen to the birds sing their first song of the day, and wait for the early morning sun to peek over the horizon where the Arkansas River splits the flatlands of the Delta and the Ozark mountains.
Watch the sun set on the river valley from the Palisades Overlook. Or climb to the Mary Ann Richter Overlook on Red Bluff Drive where you can see the peaks of both Mt. Nebo and Mt. Magazine. You can also see Dardanelle Rock and Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge from this point.
Walk through sandstone passageways and across sandstone boulders on Bear Cave Trail. Or enjoy one of the other nine trails ranging from one-fourth mile to twelve miles in varying difficulty, from easy to strenuous.
Rent a flat-bottom boat, peddle boat or a water bike and hit one of the two lakes, Roosevelt or Bailey.Grab a pole and enjoy the great fishing. There’s also a marina for your convenience.
Take a couple of days for a family vacation or a couple’s retreat at Mather Lodge that was recently renovated to accommodate large groups, with guest rooms and meeting spaces. There are two pools, a playground, and a great restaurant. Tall pines shade the campgrounds that accommodate everything from primitive camping to RV hookups.
Speaking of camps, there are more than 120. Twenty-six of these are pull-through RV sites with electric and sewer, and can be reserved all year long. Each site is shaded by tall pines with a fire ring, picnic table, and a lantern hanger, plus a nice flat spot to pitch a tent. These sites are unbelievable, and we had a great time at camp. But what happens if you show up unprepared to spend the night? No problem. The park can rent everything you need, from sleeping mats, a camp stove, and believe it or not, a canoe with paddles, lifejackets, and tush cushions! What more do you need? A gift shop? They have that too.
Bo, my four-legged hiking companion, and I took it easy on this trip. Instead of blazing trails and pushing as hard as we could, we slowed down, taking strolls and enjoying the beauty of Petit Jean. I even spent some time in the hammock, which is unusual for me.
The highlight of Petit Jean is the Cedar Falls trail, which is an extremely steep hike where you must pay attention and use caution as you maneuver it. The pot of gold at the end of this rainbow is well worth the effort. A thundering ninety-five foot waterfall plunges down into the bubbling, boulder-strewn Cedar Creek.
Looking for a place to go this summer? Petit Jean State Park is your spot. Photographers love this place, and you’ll likely see at least one of us snapping photos while you’re there. Petit Jean even has its own landing strip. Fly in if you’d like and enjoy the peace, tranquility and spirit of Petit Jean. It’s one of the crowning jewels of Arkansas.
For more information, visit www.petitjeanstatepark.com