Trip Report: Petit Jean State Park

Nothing like big rocks to make you feel small.

As far back as June, my family was already thinking about a Christmas vacation. Our last vacation was to the Texas Hill Country in August 2017, and for reasons I won’t get into our last vacation prior to that was in June 2013. As I mentioned in 2018: The Year in Review, 2018 was transitory not only for me but also for my whole family, so we didn’t have an opportunity to travel at all until after Christmas.

A few ideas were tossed out: Washington, D.C. Memphis, TN. Head south to a beach somewhere. (Being Texans, we didn’t really want to go north into the cold!)

We quickly decided that D.C. would make a better spring or summer trip, and also that most everyone else would be heading to a beach this time of year. With those narrowed down, it sounded like we were going to Memphis.

One of the main drivers for going to Memphis was Graceland, Elvis’s home there. Mom’s a big Elvis fan and wants to tour the house someday, and the fact that it would be decorated for Christmas made it more tantalizing to visit. Instead of listening to Elvis along the way (something we did on another family road trip!), Daniel and I joked about annoying Mom and Dad by playing Paul Simon’s Graceland album the whole way there.

Unfortunately, Mom decided that, aside from Graceland, there wasn’t much else we’d want to do in Memphis. Visiting a few blues bars and checking out Sun Records (Elvis’s record label) would be cool, but that was about it.

So, since we would be driving through the state or Arkansas to get to Tennessee, Mom started researching what we could do in The Natural State. She found Petit Jean State Park, booked two rooms in the park lodge (one for her and Dad, one for me and Daniel), and then told us about it.

Thankfully, we were all on board with the idea. A few days of hiking through the mountains and warming up by the lodge fire sounded pretty sweet. (Way to be proactive, Mom!)

Cedar Creek running through Petit Jean State Park.

Petit Jean is about an hour northwest of Little Rock, two hours east of Fort Smith, and just under six hours northeast of DFW. It’s also just north of the Ouachita National Forest, which we drove through to get there. The nearest “big” town is Morrilton, about twenty minutes away. It has both a Kroger and a Wal-Mart. (You’re never too far away from twenty-first century necessities when you need them.)

After opening presents on Christmas morning, we packed our bags that afternoon and left the following day. The drive, with stops, took about six-and-a-half hours, and would have taken longer had we stopped more than twice. We arrived just before sundown, so we had enough light to see where we were going on the winding two-lane roads up the mountain to the park.

We checked in at the Mather Lodge lobby, stopped by our cozy log cabin-style rooms to drop our gear off, and then ate dinner in the lodge dining room. We had the best seat in the house: Our table sat right before a panoramic window that looked out over the canyon and towards other mountains in the distance. We watched the sun set and twilight diminish as we noshed on hamburgers and quesadillas while marveling at the Canadian ponderosa pine fittings of the lodge.

The view from Mather Lodge in the daytime.

The dinner menu also explained to me (the ever curious one) the origin of the name Petit Jean. Legend has it that a French explorer was going to leave his young fiancée to explore the Louisiana Territory (then called New France or La Louisiane française) in the eighteenth century. His fiancée didn’t want him to leave her, so she cut her hair short, disguised herself as a boy, and joined the voyage. The other voyagers nicknamed her “Petit Jean,” or “Little John” in English. Unfortunately, as they explored the Arkansas River Valley and established relations with the Native American tribe in the area, Petit Jean fell ill. As the explorer and his crew tried to aid her, they quickly discovered who she really was. She knew she would die soon, so she wanted to be buried atop one of the nearby high points where they had stood and looked out over the New World. When she passed away, her fiancé, his crew, and the tribe honored her request, and now, over two-hundred years later, the park bears her nickname.

It’s a tragic story, for sure, but is it true? I don’t know, but there is an overlook where you can view what people believe to be Petit Jean’s gravesite. Apparently a later explorer found a marker-like cluster of rocks that could only have been made by human hands, and appeared to corroborate the story. I’d like to believe that the tale is true, and that Petit Jean was the best little déguisuse this side of the Mississippi.

Petit Jean’s grave, now gated.

We spent the next three days hiking Petit Jean and exploring the vicinity nearby. Daniel and I hiked ten miles in three days, while Mom and Dad hiked just over eight. (There was a two-mile trail Daniel and I wanted to do that our parents didn’t, which accounts for the difference.) All the trails were excellent, but by far the most rewarding, and most popular, was the Cedar Falls trail to, well, Cedar Falls.

Cedar Falls from above…
…and below.

We also visited the nearby Museum of Automobiles, which housed a cool collection of classic cars, including one of Elvis’s Fords, one of JFK’s presidential Lincolns, and a DeLorean with under two-thousand miles on the odometer. This museum was not something I’d expect to find in rural Arkansas, but there it was, and it was totally worth visiting!

The King’s Ford…
…the President’s Lincoln…
…and the DeLorean.

One evening, we ventured into Morrilton to try something different for dinner, rather than eating the lodge food again (which, don’t get me wrong, was excellent). We stopped at the highly-recommended Ortega’s for Mexican food, where I had the best and biggest portion of carne asada ever. Since we were there at night, though, we didn’t get to see much else of the town, but I hear it has some pretty, antiquated churches there that are worth checking out.

After hiking up and down hills and clambering over rocks all day, we enjoyed our evenings by the communal fireplace. We met people from all over the place: Arkansans (obviously), Missourians, Marylanders, Wisconsinites, and quite a few fellow Texans. I spent my time reading No Traveller Returns by Louis L’Amour, a book Mom gave me for Christmas, and one published posthumously by L’Amour’s son, Beau. Daniel and I also finished a five-hundred-piece puzzle of a country church in New England that someone had started before us. (When I say “finished,” I mean we put together all the pieces we had. There were about ten missing, but we called it a victory regardless.)

Despite temperatures in the thirties and forties, the cold didn’t really bother us. We came prepared, and found that we all enjoyed hiking in colder conditions than we do in warmer ones (because you don’t sweat as much in the cold!). Your body learns to adapt to the conditions and, as long as you keep moving, generates its own heat to keep you warm. It’s still crucial to stay hydrated, obviously.

The Natural Bridge, and Daniel climbing up.

We played in the mountains in Petit Jean for three days and all agreed that it was the perfect amount of time for everything we wanted to do. Even though we were ready to do something else, we hated to pack up and return home.

A small waterfall in The Grotto, something you have to deviate from the standard trail to get to. It was a detour that was completely worth it.

We will never forget our experiences in Petit Jean and hope to return one day. We found a handful of other places in the Arkansas River Valley and in the Ozarks that we hope to visit in the near future, including Mount Magazine, Mount Nebo, Devil’s Den, and the Buffalo River Valley.

Most importantly, we spent time together as a family, away from home, and in the great outdoors. We made great memories that we’ll never forget. That’s what travel should be all about: having unique experiences with those you love that you can cherish forever.

Big rocks and small passageways make for a grand adventure.

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