1. Travel

Arkansas' Best State Parks

I'm responding to you from the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism on behalf of Richard Davies, our executive director, and Greg Butts, director of the State Parks Division. I [Joan Ellison] serve as the public information officer for State Parks. Our first suggestion for your "Best of the Best" article was an easy one on which to agree. We recommend Petit Jean State Park atop Petit Jean Mountain near Morrilton, Arkansas.

Petit Jean State Park
courtesy of Arkansas Dept. of Parks and Tourism

 

Petit Jean State Park is the flagship of the Arkansas state parks system that today totals 51 diverse parks.  The natural beauty of Petit Jean Mountain inspired the creation of this state park in 1923, and along with it the establishment of Arkansas's state parks system.  Petit Jean is a park --a very special place-- that gets into your heart and remains there. The word that first comes to my mind when I think of Jean State Park is "unforgettable." It will beckon you back again and again. And you want to share it--with family or with a friend. Petit Jean is a total park experience where all elements work in harmony: the natural beauty of the mountain and its windswept views of the Arkansas River Valley; the rustic warmth of the Civilian Conservation Corps-crafted, native stone and log park structures that mirror the mountain's rugged beauty; the sense of geologic history. Nature inspires you here, and you are inspired by the legacy left to us by the CCC.  The mountain was named from a romantic legend -- the story of Petit Jean, a French girl who disguised herself as a boy and secretly accompanied her sweetheart, an early explorer, to the New World and to this mountain. The 2,686-acre park features Mather Lodge, a CCC-rustic style hostelry with 24 guest rooms, a restaurant and pool.  Near the Lodge are 32 cabins, many offering kitchens. Some cabins share the same bluff overlooking Cedar Creek Canyon as the Lodge. At the opposite end of the park are 127 campsites and Lake Bailey, a 170-acre lake for fishing and pedal boating. A boathouse open during summers offers a snack bar, boat rentals and supplies. The park includes a visitor center with exhibits, hiking trails, picnic areas, playgrounds, pavilions, a recreation hall, launch ramp, swimming pool and tennis courts. Petit Jean's airport is open for daytime use; no flight services are available. Park interpretive programs are offered throughout the year. 

Musicians and dancers at Ozark Folk Center State Park 
courtesy of Arkansas Dept. of Parks and Tourism

 

Our second park suggestion is the Ozark Folk Center State Park in the rugged, scenic Ozarks Mountains. Located in north central Arkansas at Mountain View, this 637-acre park is the kind of special place that warms your heart, puts a smile on your face, gets your toes to tappin' and makes you feel oh so welcome. Visitors are treated to the rich heritage of life in the Ozark Mountains through music, crafts, dance and lore.  Stroll through the Crafts Village and watch artisans demonstrate over 20 homestead skills and crafts in a collection of quaint demonstration shops. Enjoy the Heritage Herb Gardens in the Village carefully attended to by the park herbalist, the Smokehouse or the Confectionery. Visit the outdoor stage where musicians fill the air with the contagious sounds of the dulcimer, fiddle, pickin' bow, mandolin and bass. Nearby, the Center's climate-controlled Music Theater hosts live entertainment in the evenings. Music is played here as it was before 1940; acoustic instruments only. This is toe tappin', hand clappin', spoon tunin' entertainment. The artisans and musicians are all here to entertain you and educate you. They'll inspire you, too. Visit the Center's Homespun Gift Shop offering handcrafted treasures including pottery, shuck dolls, quilts, white oak baskets, toys, and tasty apple and peach chunky. Head to the Iron Skillet Restaurant for delicious, down home Southern cooking. Stay overnight at the 60-room Dry Creek Lodge. The comfortable rooms and meeting/conference facilities are perfect for groups, too.

If there is room for one more park, Crater of Diamonds State Park in southwest Arkansas at Murfreesboro would be it. Crater of Diamonds offers you a one-of-a-kind adventure--the opportunity to hunt for real diamonds, and keep any you find! You'll search over a 36-acre plowed field, the eroded surface of an ancient, gem-bearing volcanic pipe.

"Finders keepers" at Crater of Diamonds State Park
courtesy of Arkansas Dept. of Parks and Tourism

 

 Prospectors access the field through the visitor center. Exhibits and an A/V program explain the area's geology and tips on recognizing diamonds in the rough. The park staff provide free identification and certification of diamonds. Diamonds were first discovered here in 1906 and over 70,000 have been unearthed at this site, including the largest diamond ever unearthed in North America--the 40.23-carat "Uncle Sam" diamond. Since the site became a state park in 1972, over 20,000 diamonds have been carried home by visitors. The state park offers campsites, picnic sites, a cafe, gift shop and hiking trail. Interpretive programs are offered throughout the year.

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