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Petit Jean Has a History of Recreation

Article follows the photos:
  • Petit Jean Mountain

  • Cedar Falls, Petit Jean State Park

  • Petit Jean State Park

  • Petit Jean State Park

May 16, 2003

Petit Jean Has a History of Recreation
By Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

"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.

In the same year that 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's state parks system.

Officials of the Fort Smith Lumber Company on a trip to inspect its operations and timber holdings at Petit Jean Mountain decided the Seven Hollows and canyon portion of its land was cost prohibitive to log. Instead of selling the scenic hollows, it was suggested the land be deeded for a national park. Beautiful as it was, the 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.

While the seed was planted in 1907, it was 1932 before Petit Jean opened to the public as Arkansas's first state park. 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.

Passing through much of these ecological characteristics is the park's hiking trail system, consisting of some 20 miles of interconnected walkways that range in length from a quarter mile to 15 miles. At places, the trails meander past outcrops of "carpet rock," formed when sandstone is crisscrossed with fractures that are later filled by quartz. Since quartz is very resistant to erosion, these lines now stand out in relief as if imprinted by a man-made pattern. The paths also lead to scenic overlooks, Rock House Cave and Bear Cave, pass underneath the natural bridge at the Seven Hollows, and cross creeks that have worked countless seasons to form valleys. Several different trails offer distinct perspectives of the park's centerpiece, the spectacular 95-foot Cedar Falls.

"People come here for the scenery and hiking trails," Superintendent Wally Scherrey said. "And for people with limited access, we have barrier-free overlooks and boardwalks."

The joy of a hike at Petit Jean is not just in its natural beauty, but also in the historical elements to be discovered. The park contains a cabin constructed in 1853 by slaves and tenant farmers with stone steps cut and laid by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. The resting place of Petit Jean is also preserved here. The park drew its name from the story of the young French girl who disguised herself as a cabin boy so she could secretly accompany her fiancé to the "New World." When Petit Jean, or "Little John," became gravely ill, she requested that she be buried on the mountain.

Recreational opportunities abound at this park that has a long tradition of entertaining visitors. Petit Jean offers playgrounds, a lighted tennis court, a softball field, and a snack area and game room found at the boathouse, where fishing and pedal boats can be rented during the summer. At the visitors center, interpretive exhibits and brochures detail the park's history and environment. During the summer, park interpreters provide guided hikes, nature talks and workshops plus evening programs at the outdoor amphitheater.

Petit Jean State Park also has 127 individual campsites, all with water and electrical hookups. Sites are divided into four areas with a bathhouse at each, and a swimming pool (separate from the one for guests of Mather Lodge) is available for campers.

For those who don't own camping equipment, a Rent-A-Camp package, that includes tent, mats, stove and other camping gear, is available March through November. Another unique option is the Rent-A-Teepee, which comes with a canoe for exploring one of the two lakes at Petit Jean -- Lake Bailey and Lake Roosevelt. A reservable group camp area, which has a newly built bathhouse and 50 camping units, is available for tent camping only, April to October.

Twenty fully-equipped housekeeping cabins, including one honeymoon unit with a hot tub, are available at Petit Jean. These heated and air-conditioned cabins include linens and all-electric kitchens with cooking utensils and tableware. Some sleep up to six persons. There are 12 additional cabins without kitchens. While the cabins do not have televisions or telephones, all have fireplaces for seasonal use.

Petit Jean's rustic stone and wood Mather Lodge, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, offers 24 guest rooms. The lodge also has a full-service restaurant, swimming pool and gift shop.

A fly-in campground at the nearby Petit Jean Airport features five campsites with water and electric hookups, picnic tables, grills, lantern holders and tent pads. Each campsite, including one barrier-free site, rents for $18 per day. The campground, which overlooks the 170-acre Lake Bailey, also features a modern bathhouse with hot showers. Shuttle service to the park is available for a fee. Parking is available for five planes, and additional parking is available adjacent to the airport hangers. Fuel is available at the Petit Jean Airport, which is open to daytime flying only. To reserve a fly-in campsite, contact Morrilton Aviation, Inc., at 1-800-344-5907.

Picnic and grocery supplies, firewood, stables offering horseback rides and arts and crafts stores are located near the park. Some facilities are open seasonally only.

Also on the mountain, the Museum of Automobiles displays numerous antique and classic autos from the U.S. and abroad. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and an admission fee is charged. For more information, contact the museum at (501) 727-5427 or visit

Petit Jean, located on Ark. 154 about 20 miles southwest of Morrilton, offers special events that continue to swell in popularity each year, including Fun and Games Day on July 4; Fall Senior American Special in October; Mountain Man Rendezvous in November; and a Christmastime Open House and Elderhostel in December.

For lodge and cabin reservations, phone the staff at Mather Lodge at 1-800-264-2462. For more information on park hours, fees and programs, call (501) 727-5441 or visit


Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606

May be used without permission. Credit line is appreciated:
"Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism"