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.