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Celebrate 100 years of Arkansas State Parks

The CCC Overlook at Petit Jean State Park offers stunning vistas.

The true joy of traveling comes in the “wow” moments: turning a corner or fixing your eyes on the horizon and seeing the world around you as you have never seen it before. I’ve lived nearly half my life in Arkansas—aptly nicknamed the Natural State—and I’ve had many such encounters. One of the most memorable and moving was an impromptu visit to Petit Jean State Park.

It was late spring when I found myself near the park, centrally positioned outside of Morrilton, with some time to kill. Having heard native Arkansans rave about Petit Jean Mountain, I thought it was time I discovered what all the hype was about. Along a pleasant winding road, glimpses of the mountain steadily grew until my truck finally nosed its way up to the summit.

I parked at Stout’s Point, situated on the mountain’s east brow and arguably its most famous overlook. It was before noon and the morning sun had yet to ripen into the full heat of the day. The lookout’s wooden decks showcased the Arkansas River Valley that spread out below. Visitors may walk out onto the rocky perch at their own risk, so I found a spot safely away from the edge and sat down.

The view, the morning’s still-cool air, and the occasional bird of prey soaring by created nothing short of a spiritual moment. As a speck on the mountain’s face, I felt small and yet part of something grand. It was the quietest, most beautiful natural setting I had ever laid eyes on, and subsequent visits have done nothing to diminish the awesome experience.

And that was just the appetizer.

The rest of the state park, Arkansas’ first, still lay ahead. As I ventured into the stately pines and cool glades, I discovered a grand lodge, cabins, and campsites still fragrant with remnant smoke and campfire cooking. Families hiked, biked, and took to the lake together as laughter rang out like birdsong.

When I finally left, I resolved to return with my loved ones, and beyond that, to visit other Arkansas state parks. Without exception, the parks have delivered well-kept, scenic, and relaxing visits—each in a unique setting.

There’s never been a better time to experience the Arkansas State Parks system, which is celebrating its centennial. Check out the parks and you’ll find pristine places as lovely as the day they were born. I haven’t touched all of them yet, but I’ve seen enough to suggest several ideal places to start your own exploration.

Mount Magazine State Park

Cameron Bluff at Mount Magazine State Park

Sunsets dazzle from Cameron Bluff at Mount Magazine State Park.

For a vacation in the clouds, Mount Magazine is the place to go. Featuring Arkansas’ highest point, at 2,753 feet, Mount Magazine resides in the state’s northwest corner, in the Ozark–St. Francis National Forests. Together with Petit Jean Mountain and Mount Nebo, the trio make up the region’s “Tri-Peaks.”

Wildlife abounds on Mount Magazine; drive carefully to the park’s lodge and cabins, as you might encounter deer lazily crossing the road around any corner. Campers are advised to secure food so as not to tempt black bears.

Multiple trails crisscross the park for hiking, off-roading, and mountain biking, all set against a breathtaking backdrop of the world below. For a more extreme experience, consider the park’s rock-climbing and hang-gliding opportunities.

At the base of the mountain outside the park boundaries to the north, visit Cowie Wine Cellars & Vineyards, a small family-run winery in Paris.

Nearby you’ll also find Subiaco Abbey, a Benedictine monastery where you can enjoy craft beer brewed by the monks and then take home some of their famous habanero hot sauce.

For a different take on craft beer, check out nearby Prestonrose Farm and Brewing Company, a certified organic farm that doubles as an artisan brewery.

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Historic Washington State Park

Woman at Historic Washington State Park clad in period attire

Staff and volunteers wear period attire during festivals at Historic Washington State Park.

If you like a little history with your scenery, make your way to Historic Washington State Park in southwest Arkansas. The park preserves the pioneer town of Washington, a major stopover on the Southwest Trail.

Notable figures like Sam Houston and Davy Crockett traveled through Washington, as did countless settlers on their way to Texas. American frontiersman and soldier James Bowie even commissioned resident blacksmith James Black to create a custom-designed knife, which some historians regard as the original Bowie knife.

Washington also played a role in some less-honorable chapters of U.S. history. In the 1830s, bands of Cherokee and Choctaw came through as part of the government’s Indian Removal policies, bound for resettlement in what is now Oklahoma. Thirty years later, Washington served as the state’s Confederate capital from 1863 to 1865.

This history, along with aspects of frontier life, can be explored here. Visit the 1874 Hempstead County Courthouse, now the park’s visitors center, then tour the Blacksmith Shop, B.W. Edwards Weapons Museum, Print Museum, and a host of 19th-century buildings.

Enjoy home cooking at Williams Tavern Restaurant, and for a unique lodging experience, stay in the Jailhouse Bed & Breakfast, the renovated town jail updated with modern amenities. Rates start at $100.

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Mount Nebo State Park

Mountain biker on a Mount Nebo State Park trail

Mountain bike trails at Mount Nebo State Park appeal to all skill levels.

Of the state’s Tri-Peaks, Mount Nebo in west-central Arkansas has arguably the least name recognition. That is, unless you’re a mountain biker, in which case this park is likely high on your list of places to ride.

Mount Nebo carries Arkansas’ reputation for world-class mountain biking proudly, with 25 miles of routes on the Monument Trails system that offer something for every taste and experience level. Looping together to give riders almost unlimited options, the trails wind through gorgeous forests and rock gardens and near waterfalls.

Not a biker? No problem. All but 2 of the trails are mixed-use.

The 1,350-foot mountain is also famous for its sweeping views. Shaped like a teardrop, the flat-top mountain gives you easy access to morning and evening splendor at the appropriately named Sunrise Point and Sunset Point.

Most of the campsites and cabins are situated along the bluff, offering spectacular views of Lake Dardanelle, the Arkansas River, and surrounding mountain ridges.

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Degray Lake Resort State Park

DeGray Lake Resort State Park lodge

DeGray Lake Resort State Park’s lodge occupies an island just offshore.

The only Arkansas state park with “Resort” in its name, DeGray Lake lives up to that moniker by providing virtually anything you could want for an unforgettable stay. Sapphire-blue waters and lush surrounding forests highlight this tranquil spot outside Bismarck in west-central Arkansas that features a 90-room lodge and restaurant situated on an island. Rates start at $105.

Accommodations also include yurts and campsites. After you settle in, head out for hiking trails, guided horseback riding, tennis, swimming, or nearby mountain biking. The resort’s golf options include the disc variety and an 18-hole championship course. Or take to the water with a kayak or pedal boat rental from the full-service marina.

As if all that weren’t enough, you can find plenty of entertainment in Hot Springs, less than 30 miles from the resort. Enjoy year-round gaming and horse racing in season at the famed Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, eat and drink like a 1930s mobster at The Ohio Club (visited by Al Capone), or stroll Bathhouse Row and soak up the history tied to the town’s mineral springs.

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Bull Shoals–White River State Park

A couple kayaking at Bull Shoals-White River State Park

Water sports abound at Bull Shoals-White River State Park.

No visit to Arkansas is complete without sampling its outdoor sporting traditions, and a great place to start is Bull Shoals–White River State Park in north-central Arkansas. As the name suggests, the park gives access to both the famed White River and the mammoth Bull Shoals Lake, created with the completion of Bull Shoals Dam.

Boasting 822 miles of shoreline at the top of the flood-control pool, Bull Shoals Lake produces tournament-quality lunker bass, crappie, and bream. Plus, you’ll have access to every kind of water sport imaginable.

For an entirely different type of quarry, some of Arkansas’ best trout fishing is found below the dam. Infused with regular cold-water releases from the dam, the White River provides excellent conditions for rainbow, cutthroat, and brown trout. Fly-fishing enthusiasts from across the country converge here to try their luck in bucolic surroundings.

Check out a local fishing lodge: Stetson’s on the White and Gaston’s White River Resort both come highly recommended. And don’t miss the opportunity to visit the nearby towns of Flippin, Cotter, and Mountain Home, all featuring fresh local fare and friendly people.

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Origins of the Arkansas State Parks system

Black-and-white portrait of Dr. T.W. Hardison

Dr. T.W. Hardison was instrumental in establishing the Arkansas State Park system.

The Arkansas State Parks system doesn’t have the Sierra Club or another conservation agency to thank for its development. In fact, of all the entities that could have campaigned to create the parks, a lumber company that harvested trees from the state’s forests might have been the last one you’d expect.

But that’s exactly what happened.

When officials with the Fort Smith Lumber Company toured Petit Jean Mountain in 1907, the rough terrain dissuaded them from logging there. But they were so taken with the region’s beauty that they thought it should join the national park system. Company physician T.W. Hardison approached National Parks Director Stephen Mather with the idea.

While Mather agreed that the property was striking, he thought it was more locally significant and challenged Hardison to establish a state park system instead. Hardison embraced that suggestion, and with land donations and legislative support, he helped secure the passage of Act 276 in 1923. With that, Arkansas State Parks were born.

Today, the system’s 52 parks comprise more than 54,000 acres of land. More than 8 million people annually visit the parks, which welcome overnight guests with 1,800 campsites, 208 cabins, and 5 lodges. The parks not only feature spectacular scenery, but they also preserve archaeological treasures, Native American sites, Civil War battlefields, and other places central to Arkansas’ history.

Dwain Hebda is a freelance writer from Little Rock, Arkansas.

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