Long ago, in the 1700s, a young French nobleman named Chavet went to the New World to explore the Louisiana Territory. His fiancée, not wanting to be separated from him for possibly years, cut her hair, disguised herself as a boy, and secured a position on the ship as a cabin boy, never revealing her true identity to anyone, including her beloved. Called “Petit Jean” by the sailors, she and the crew eventually arrived in this area of Arkansas, now about an hour’s drive from Hot Springs, and spent the entire summer there. At some point, she became sick. On her deathbed, she revealed her identity for the first time, including to Chavet, and she died a few days later. She was buried on the mountain, not under her real name, but under her nickname, which leant itself to both the mountain and to the first state park in Arkansas, which, naturally, grew around the same mountain.
That irresistible story is only one of the charms of Petit Jean State Park that won me over. The path to state park status is another. The original campaign for the park was for it be a national park, but the then-director of the National Park Service decreed the intended area, of fewer than 3,500 acres, was too small to warrant national endorsement and administration. Thus rejected, the campaigners persevered and found a more receptive ear among state officials. In 1923, Petit Jean State Park was officially established and today remains one of the most beautiful areas of Arkansas.
Back in Hot Springs, I had already explored Garvan Woodland Gardens, one of the world’s top 10 botanic gardens. And now I was eager to take another walk in the woods, in a park that beautifully combines nature with history. Petit Jean State Park occupies a flat mountaintop and then descends from just over 1,200’ above sea level to about 750’ in a fairly linear pattern. I began my exploration with a hike on Cedar Creek Trail, a moderate 1.25-mile loop that gains just over 200’ in altitude. Amid its thick vegetation, I strolled alongside the creek, across a couple of bridges over ravines and the water, and past rough and unusual geological formations and under one of them — Leaning Rock, a giant slab tilting on the path at a 45-degree angle and resting against the jagged rock pile on the opposite side. Rock steps, created by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, lead to scenic bluffs for wonderful views and spots for bird-watching.
The CCC made major contributions to the park that both retained the rustic feel and are still in great condition. CCC crews laid out trails and cut roads, built dams and bridges, and erected buildings (which have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places), including administrative buildings, cabins, and Mather Lodge, a wonderful stone accommodation where you can stay if you don’t feel like camping. It’s positively glamorous compared to another cabin you’ll find in the park — a one-room pioneer cabin that once housed a family of nine (including five children who were born there without any medical assistance), reminding you of life’s difficulties not that long ago.
From the lodge, you can head out on the Cedar Falls Trail, a two-mile trip that has been designated a National Historic District. Hiking between massive boulders and huge trees, you’ll finally arrive at the 95’ Cedar Falls, one of the tallest continually flowing waterfalls in Arkansas.
Another trail took me to the mountaintop, where I was rewarded with sweeping vistas of the Arkansas River Valley, Arkansas River, Ouachita Mountains, Ozark Plateaus, bluffs, and waterfalls. And when a bird of prey silently glided across the sky, I achieved a wonderful sense of serenity and, as always when I gaze at unspoiled views, a tremendous appreciation of Mother Nature’s handiwork.
But what if you’re not much of a hiker and don’t want to walk along the 20 miles of interconnected trails? The park will surely still lure you here with other activities. You can explore caves or make use of the tennis and basketball courts and the swimming pools. Animal lovers should keep an eye out for adorable rabbits and quail. You can look for tropical fern fossils that date back 300 million years and for Indian pictographs in the rock shelters.
I ended my time here on the shore of the wonderful 100-acre Lake Bailey, created by the CCC when they dammed Cedar Creek. This idyllic spot is perfect for kayaking and pedal-boating. The lake is stocked annually, so fishermen can score their channel catfish for dinner.
I had arrived at the park by car but spent most of the day on foot, simply the best way to see its highlights and discover its secrets. But what if you really want to see Petit Jean State Park and don’t drive? Don’t worry: It has its own one-runway airport for general aviation usage.