Petit Jean State Park Experiences ‘Rebirth’

Article follows the photos:
Seven Hollows Trail, Petit Jean
Seven Hollows Trail, Petit Jean
Wildflowers at Petit Jean State Park
Wildflowers at Petit Jean State Park
Seven Hollows Trail, Petit Jean
Seven Hollows Trail, Petit Jean
Seven Hollows Trail, Petit Jean
Seven Hollows Trail, Petit Jean
May 8, 2001


Petit Jean State Park
Experiences 'Rebirth'

*****
Jill M. Rohrbach, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

MORRILTON -- With charred trees pointing skyward and vibrant shades of grass and wildflowers emerging from scorched soil, the Seven Hollows Trail at Petit Jean State Park is now a testament to rebirth after a forest fire.

Spring had just begun to beckon visitors this April when the park staff held a re-opening celebration of the trail, located in one of two areas of the park threatened by wildfire just before Labor Day weekend last year. It wasn't a natural fire, but one started by a negligent individual, according to investigators. The fire also touched Cedar Creek Canyon; but, from the canyon overlook it is difficult to identify burned areas amid the hues of leafing hardwoods and their overlapping layers of texture.

As far as the visitor's eye can detect, the damage was mostly sustained on the Seven Hollows Trail. But, hikers expecting a barren black landscape will instead find a trail passing through geography more beautiful and diverse than the previous year. In fact, the area provides interesting lessons on the appetite of a wildfire and Mother Nature's resilient nurturing ability.

The trail is a 4.5-mile loop that passes through a series of small canyons under the canopy of a dense hardwood forest. Features of note along the path include a natural stone arch, rock shelters, a boxy canyon and signs of prehistoric bluff-dwelling Native Americans. The hiking difficulty of the trail is moderate to strenuous.

The beginning of the trail shows damage from a backfire, a blaze set on purpose by firefighters as a combative measure. "It is an area set aside for natural succession," explained Park Interpreter Karen Westcamp-Johnson.

While some areas will experience a natural re-birth, the state Parks Division did replant portions with 40,000 trees, all of species natural to the area. It takes a keen eye to locate the new short-leaf pines and hardwoods such as oaks.

The fire jumped the hollows because it was in the treetops. And, because heat rises, the fire traveled uphill more easily than into the hollows, where it mostly burned leaf litter. "There were low, cool fires in [the hollows]," explained Park Superintendent Wally Scherrey. The high intensity, hot burns took place on ridges. Of the trees burned in the hot spots, "a lot of them were kiln dried," said Scherrey, explaining the intensity of the blaze.

"Crown fires are rare to this state," Parks Director Greg Butts said. The fire moved across the tree crowns at 30 to 40 miles per hour. But, "the big [hardwoods] in the hollows are pretty much untouched," said Butts. Along the entire trail, some trees were unharmed, some were barely blackened at their base, others on one side only, and some completely cooked.

The fire has changed the park habitat in several ways.

Soot and ash left the soil dark, so it is absorbing sunlight that can now break through the burned or partially-burned canopy. Some wildflowers, such as bluets, that don't usually grow in the Seven Hollows have found a new haven. Others, such as toadflax, wood sorrel, and coreopsis are finding more room to grow. With the underbrush burned out, the sun is now nourishing seeds that may have lain dormant for years or been brought to the area by birds or wind. The population of other low-growing plants -- mosses, ferns, lichens -- that were already in the Seven Hollows area can now expand as well.

With low-growing plants thriving in the first part of the succession, in a year or two there will be low bush growth, such as huckleberries. New growth from the root systems of dead trees has already popped up this spring. Tender shoots with red leaves rise about a foot high against the base of some charred parent plants.

Scherrey said the water running through the hollows in early spring was crystal clear. "It wasn't milky or full of any sediment," he explained. "The water was filtered through the ashes."

"The wildlife is just astronomical in there right now," added Scherrey. Wild turkeys and deer are munching on the fresh green growth and nibbling on burnt material containing minerals. It will only get better. As dead trees deteriorate insects and worms will feed on them bringing in more woodpeckers and warblers.

"Watching the Seven Hollows over time will be a unique experience that money can’t buy," explained Scherrey. "That's one thing about Arkansas. We're in such a temperate growing zone that it'll come back."

Staff and students of the University of Central Arkansas in Conway will work with the parks division to study examples of life after death in the burned areas. Specifically, there will be a study on lizard life.

"So, here's an outdoor lab," said Butts.

Months of work were required to clear the trail and make it safe again for hikers. There will be no logging of dead trees in the hollows. "To try to pick trees and harvest would do more damage," said Butts. The park staff will continue to monitor trees over future growing seasons and bring down any that pose a threat to hikers.

"The dead pine trees will stay upright for several years," added Butts. "Even dead trees here will hold the soil in place."

Scherrey said many people think the entire mountain burned or that the park's Mather Lodge was destroyed. The lodge was not touched and the entire park is open to the public -- from the trails containing massive "turtle rocks" to the camp sites and cabins to the restaurant that serves a decadent Chocolate Turtle Rock Delight dessert.

The beauty of Petit Jean Mountain inspired the creation of Arkansas's state parks system in the 1920s, and with it, Arkansas's first state park. Now Mother Nature is bestowing her gifts to a community that pulled together to save a piece of history, a place where roots and memories run deep, and a place of beauty that epitomizes The Natural State.

Directions: Take Hwy. 9 (Exit 109) off 1-40 at Morrilton south nine miles to Oppelo. Then head west 12 miles on Hwy. 154 to the park; Or, take Hwy. 7 off I-40 south; Or, off I-30 north to Centerville, then east 16 miles on Hwy. 154 to the park; Or, take Hwy. 155 north from Hwy. 10 at Casa.

For lodge and cabin reservations, contact: Mather Lodge, 1069 Hwy. 154 Morrilton, AR 72110, 1-800-264-2462. For further information on park hours, fees and programs, contact: Petit Jean State Park, 1285 Petit Jean Mtn. Road, Morrilton AR 72110, 501-727-5441. For more information, visit www.arkansasstateparks.com.

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Submitted by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism
One Capitol Mall, Little Rock, AR 72201, (501) 682-7606
E-mail: info@arkansas.com

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