June 20, 2011 by wcobserver
By Susan McCarthy
Towering rock bluffs, sandstone formations, “turtle rocks,” boulders and even a 95-foot waterfall cascading over a bluff. Big rocks and lots of them. Even Walt Disney himself would have been challenged in creating something as magical as Petit Jean State Park for those young or old with a passion for exploring. Add to that a lake, a swimming pool, and the fresh smell of pine trees and you’ve got the makings of a great escape.
Petit Jean State Park is located about 25 minutes off I-40 in Morrilton. It’s roughly a 2½-hour drive from West Fork and if you time it right you can hit a couple of good eats along the way in Rivertowne BBQ in Ozark or CJ’s Butcher Boy Burgers in Russellville.
You’ll need a reservation if you plan to stay overnight. There’s no shortage of things to see and do here; if you want to include time to get out on the lake and to do some hiking, you should plan on at least two nights.
Mather Lodge, which was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935, is closed this year for renovations. But the park offers a number of other lodging options including cabins, some of which were also built by the CCC and contain rock fireplaces. There are also over a 100 campsites available, some of which are along the lake. The spots are well-spaced and many are well-shaded. All of the campgrounds offer bathhouses.
The park offers up a number of options to take in its beauty. There are scenic overlooks throughout the park where visitors can simply pull over in their car and take in the views. Red Bluff Drive loops past two lookouts that offer expansive views. Much of this drive is on an unpaved, but well-maintained surface; most any vehicle could make the drive. The loop also circles past Rock House Cave, which offers an opportunity to see Native American art created over 500 years ago.
If you’re a CCC history buff, there are a several structures that still remain, including a water tower near Mather Lodge. It features a castle-like door that beckons and you can actually step inside to marvel at the rock and beam construction.
If you’re more adventurous and in decent physical shape, the park offers a number of hiking trails that range from just a quarter-mile to five miles. All showcase the park’s unique rock and if you thought the Buffalo River area had the patent on impressive bluffs, you’ll have second thoughts after a few hikes in this park. The bluffs don’t appear to be as tall, but they are everywhere. If you only have a day or two, you might want to check out these trails first.
Bear Cave Trail
There are no bears here and no real cave here, but the porous sandstone provides many small crevices and-hollowed out rooms. This easy, quarter-mile trail is unique not because of its stellar beauty and views of the surrounding bluffs – although it offers both. What makes this trail unlike any other is its almost theme-park-like rock formations.
The trail’s massive sandstone rocks have weathered, creating many handholds and footholds. If you’re brave enough, you can scale up the side for views a lot of visitors to the park will never see. The top also offers something more reminiscent of outer space with large rounded rock mounds that resemble mammoth-sized turtle shells. And from up high, you’ll have a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding area. For those who are not brave enough to scale up and down these formations, there are plenty of maze-like crevices to walk through as well as cave-like spots to explore making it a wonderland even for the youngest of kids.
Seven Hollows Trail
The Seven Hollows Trail is best if not traveled on a 98-degree day, but even in the heat and at five miles, this trail offers a lot of scenic variation. Perhaps most impressive is its expansive bluffs. There is a portion of the trail where hikers actually walk through bluffs on both sides. One of the trail’s highlights is the Natural Bridge, a stone “bridge” that is believed to have spanned the entire canyon. There are lots of massive rocks around the “bridge” area that offer the kid at heart a fun place to explore. The trail alters between shaded areas with towering bluffs and higher points where the trail crosses seemingly endless spans of rock. The views right now are pretty enough, but you can imagine eye-popping views during a fall or winter walk when the leaves are off the trees.
Cedar Falls Trail
Cedar Falls Trail is the park’s signature trail; it is well-traveled and ends at a 95-foot waterfall. The trail begins behind Mather Lodge and is probably the most “developed” of the trails with rock steps that guide you several hundred feet below the trail head before leveling off. One can’t help but think of the climb back up with every step down and it is a good workout. The trail is only one mile each way; you’ll travel the same path back the way you came. Much of the trail runs along dry creek beds and there is a really neat bridge that crosses one of wet creeks. The waterfall itself is said to run much of the year and it spills over a bluff that encompasses three sides. There is no shortage of boulders here, either.
One of the park’s campgrounds – Campground “A” – is situated along the park’s lake, Lake Bailey. There is a boathouse just down the road from the visitor’s center where you can rent kayaks, canoes or small fishing boats at reasonable prices. An Arkansas fishing license is required to fish, but can be purchased at the boathouse. The park’s picnic area is also located near the boathouse and some people spread blankets along the lake’s shore to enjoy their picnic.
With all the park’s beauty, it’s easy to overlook the park’s automobile museum, which was originally donated to the park by former Governor Winthrop Rockefeller and is now operated by a non-profit group of state-wide automobile collectors. The museum is open daily, except for Christmas Day and features nearly 50 cars and eight motorcycles. The oldest vehicle in the museum is a 1904 Oldsmobile and the newest is a 1967 Ford Fairlane that once belonged to Elvis Presley. There is a nominal fee to visit the museum.
To find out more about Petit Jean State Park, you can visit the website at www.petitjeanstatepark.com.