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Settle into a scenic Arkansas lodge for a cozy, winter getaway

Mather Lodge, Petit Jean State Park, Morrilton Snow blankets Petit Jean State Park and its Mather Lodge, which provides stunning views of Cedar Creek Canyon below. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Few other outdoor experiences in Arkansas compare to the natural beauty within its state parks. And while each park offers campsites and cabins aplenty for the back-to-nature experience, if you like your wild spaces with a side of comfortable accommodations, you’ll want to check out one of Arkansas State Parks’ four picturesque, cozy lodges for a winter escape.

Any time of year is a great time for an Arkansas lodge getaway, but winter offers special delights. The higher elevations often attract a dusting of snow, and the crisp air makes for a bracing hike or bike ride. Plus, there’s nothing more festive during the holidays than gathering with friends and family around a crackling fire in the hearth.

Mather Lodge

Petit Jean State Park, Morrilton

Originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the log-and-stone Mather Lodge has been updated through the years to offer modern conveniences while preserving its rustic ambience. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the log-and-stone Mather Lodge has been updated through the years to offer modern conveniences while preserving its rustic ambience. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

As historically significant as it is picturesque, Mather Lodge (501-727-5431) is the only lodge in Arkansas built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Named after Stephen Mather, the first director of the National Park Service, the log-and-stone lodge astonishes guests with its view off the back patio overlooking Cedar Creek Canyon. With several trailheads nearby, you can get up from the breakfast table to commence a calorie-burning hike.

While the original portions of the lodge date from the 1930s, upgrades and renovations in recent years have given the place a modern edge while maintaining the rustic feel. With 24 guest rooms—some allowing dogs—the lodge delivers a luxury cabin-in-the-woods ambience. During late fall and winter, the main stone fireplace provides a cozy gathering point with brilliant sunsets as your backdrop.

Among several overlooks around Petit Jean Mountain, Stout’s Point draws visitors to see the simple grave site of a young French girl who posed as a cabin boy to accompany her fiancé to the New World. Succumbing to disease, she was buried by her heartbroken suitor atop the mountain now named for her. While learning about Petit Jean’s legend, visitors take in arresting views of the Arkansas River valley below.

The centerpiece of the park’s many other outdoor attractions is Cedar Falls, a 95-foot waterfall spilling year-round over the lip of a horseshoe-shaped box canyon. Follow a trail from Mather Lodge to observation decks and to the canyon floor, where splashdown makes for dramatic photo ops.

In addition to its natural attractions, the mountain celebrates mechanical creations in the Museum of Automobiles, featuring more than 50 vintage vehicles dating from 1904 to 1967. Believed to be home to the only Arkansas Climber automobiles known to exist, with the 1923 Climber Touring on display, the museum that’s adjacent to the park hosts various car shows and swap meets.

The Lodge at Mount Magazine

Mount Magazine State Park, Paris

The Lodge at Mount Magazine is perched on mountain’s south bluff, the highest point in Arkansas. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

The Lodge at Mount Magazine is perched on mountain’s south bluff, the highest point in Arkansas. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

The Lodge at Mount Magazine (479-963-8502) offers the highest level of accommodations anywhere in the Natural State. And we mean that literally—the 60-room lodge sits atop Mount Magazine, Arkansas’s highest point at 2,753 feet.

Perched on the mountain’s south bluff, the lodge affords breathtaking views overlooking the Petit Jean River Valley and Blue Mountain Lake. Built in three wings that stretch along the bluff, the hotel showcases those incredible vistas from every guest room, the central hearth room, the swimming pool, and the Skycrest Restaurant. Step out onto the back patio and you’ll have a birds-eye view of hawks and other raptors swooping and soaring in the valley below.

Being up so high lends itself to rock climbing, and Mount Magazine offers some of the best in the state. Traditional bouldering, sport climbing, and rappelling are allowed in a designated area on the south bluff. This 1,500-foot-wide stretch boasts more than 100 routes up to 80 feet high, ranging in steepness and difficulty. Thrill-seekers also have the option to hang glide here, one of only two Arkansas State Parks that allow it (nearby Mount Nebo State Park is the other).

Of course, there are other ways to take in the flat-topped mountain, including an extensive trail system dotted with plenty of pavilions overlooking the gorge. Hike, mountain bike, or bring your mount and see the park on horseback. You’ll not only be treated to a spectacular mountain vista and some of the last virgin forest in Arkansas, but you’ll also be surrounded by watchable wildlife, from 86 species of butterflies to deer and black bears.

Nearby, visit the Cowie Wine Cellars and Vineyards in Paris or take a short hop next door to Subiaco, where you can visit two breweries: Prestonrose Farm and Brewing, which is located on a working farm, and Country Monks Brewing, run by the Benedictine monks at Subiaco Abbey. (Be sure to designate a driver if you plan to drink alcohol.)

Queen Wilhelmina Lodge

Queen Wilhelmina State Park, Mena

An inviting wrap-around porch was added to Queen Wilhelmina Lodge atop Rich Mountain during a massive renovation about six years ago.  | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

An inviting wrap-around porch was added to Queen Wilhelmina Lodge atop Rich Mountain during a massive renovation about six years ago. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

The center-set jewel of Queen Wilhelmina State Park, Queen Wilhelmina Lodge (800-264-2477) perches atop Rich Mountain—the state’s second-highest peak. Built in 1898 by the Kansas City, Pittsburg, and Gulf Railroad, the original inn proved unsuccessful. For more than 50 years, the “Castle in the Sky” changed hands and decayed where it stood

With State Park designation in 1957 came plans to rebuild the lodge, which was completed in 1963. Ten years later, the second lodge burned down, leading to the current structure, completed in 1975 on the original inn’s footprint. Remodeled between 2012 and 2015, the facility added around 11,000 square feet of space to the lodge and restaurant, more sleeping rooms, and an inviting wrap-around porch for relaxing.

The park’s natural amenities complement the accommodations. Whichever way you turn, miles of lush forests stretch into the valley below. There’s even a miniature train that takes visitors on a short tour of the park—a nod to the railroad portion of its origin story.

In addition to being located near the park’s internal trail system, Queen Wilhelmina sits on two federally designated recreational travel routes. By car, you can cruise the Talimena Scenic Drive, a National Scenic Byway that runs for 54 miles along the crests of Ouachita and Winding Stair mountains between Mena and Talihina, Oklahoma. On foot, stroll a section of the Ouachita National Recreation Trail that connects Oklahoma’s Talimena State Park with Pinnacle Mountain State Park in Little Rock. You never know who you might meet on the 223-mile trail, a bucket-list adventure for hikers the world over.

If you’re looking for some local flavor, visit Mena’s charming historic Main Street. Known for excellent antiques shopping, Mena has enjoyed a revival of new businesses in recent years, including The Ouachitas, a coffee bar and bistro that recently added brewery operations to the mix.

DeGray Lake Resort State Park Lodge

DeGray Lake Resort State Park, Bismarck

Located on its own island, the DeGray Lake Resort State Park Lodge offers lovely lake views and amenities like a heated outdoor pool, courtesy dock, golf course, and more. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

Located on its own island, the DeGray Lake Resort State Park Lodge offers lovely lake views and amenities like a heated outdoor pool, courtesy dock, golf course, and more. | Photo courtesy Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism

If you’re going to bill yourself a “resort state park,” you’d better deliver the goods, and that’s just what DeGray Lake Resort State Park (501-865-5850) does, starting with the stately lodge. The second you walk into the common area with its soaring stone fireplace, you know you’ve found something special for your reunion, family vacation, or couple’s getaway

The idea for a state-owned resort began percolating among local officials during the late 1960s as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Caddo River to create the 13,400-acre DeGray Lake. Arkansas wanted to offer a property to compete with resort state parks in Oklahoma and Texas, and the lake provided an ideal opportunity to do just that.

The 96-room lodge occupies its own island off the north shore of the lake, situated in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains. Amenities include a heated outdoor swimming pool, an 18-hole golf course, a playground, tennis and sand volleyball courts, and a day-use courtesy dock.

With large windows overlooking the lake, the Shoreline Restaurant offers a great place to enjoy sunrise and a hearty breakfast. You’ll need the fuel for a hike on one of the parks’ six trails. On the 1-mile Island Trail during winter, you’ll likely spot loons, ducks, and eagles. Guests also can tour on horseback via trail rides offered through Thanksgiving from DeGray Lake’s stables.

But the lake’s shimmering cobalt-blue waters top the park’s list of charms. Bring your own watercraft or rent one from the marina and spend the day cruising the channel or fishing for crappie, bream, catfish, and hybrid stripers.

Or just drop anchor and relax at one of several nearby islands as the setting sun puts on its nightly finery. When conditions allow, eagle-watching tours are offered during the winter.

If you go

For more information or reservations, call the lodges or visit the Arkansas State Parks website. Lodge room base rates range between $110 and $243 depending on the location. Some holidays and peak weekends may have a slightly higher rate, while some off-season and nonpeak times may be discounted.

Dwain Hebda is a contributor from Little Rock, Arkansas.

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