Four of Fifty-two

Four must-see state parks in Arkansas

By Richard Ledbetter & Photography by Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism

 

Arkansans are blessed with an abundance of state parks scattered about every corner of the Natural State. Fifty-two in all, our plethora of preserves includes wetlands, mountains, rivers and lakes offering camping, hiking, boating, biking, fishing, climbing, horseback riding and any outdoor activity you could want. Here are a few of our favorites:

 
A hiker greets the day at Petit Jean State Park, the state’s first and, arguably, still the best offering hiking, fishing, waterfall and a spectacular lodge.

A hiker greets the day at Petit Jean State Park, the state’s first and, arguably, still the best offering hiking, fishing, waterfall and a spectacular lodge.

 
Spring is a great time to visit Petit Jean as water levels in creeks and waterfalls are more likely to be high.

Spring is a great time to visit Petit Jean as water levels in creeks and waterfalls are more likely to be high.

Petit Jean State Park

GPS: 35.1221° N, 92.9286° W
1285 Petit Jean Mountain Road, Morrilton (501) 727-5441

Our first park, Petit Jean, was established in 1927. Just 90 minutes northwest from Little Rock up I-40, the natural beauty, ancient geologic wonders and spectacular vistas make it a must-see locale. 

According to Park Interpreter Matt Manos, “Our 95-foot waterfall is the number one scenic destination in Arkansas. There is a gorge-rim overlook of Cedar Falls at the trailhead. From that point, it’s a two-mile round trip down to the pool at the bottom of the falls, one mile down and one strenuous mile back up.”

“In addition to Cedar Falls Trail, there is the 4.5-mile Seven Hollows Trail, the quarter-mile Bear Cave Trail and a 1.25-mile Cedar Creek Trail that winds through the upper canyon following the creek that eventually makes Cedar Falls. To enjoy all four trails will probably take a couple of days.”

The park also offers cabins, lodge rooms and four yurts with exceptional views. The latter are popular, so you’ll need to book well in advance of your trip for a yurt. The lodge features a restaurant with a varied American menu, as well as a large swimming pool and rentable pavilions for events.

First-timers are often surprised to find a lake atop Petit Jean Mountain; the 124-acre Lake Bailey features good fishing. Amenities include a boathouse and rentals of flat-bottom boats with electric outboards, kayaks and paddleboats during spring, summer and fall.

“You can see eagles, beaver in the lake and lots of deer,” Manos concluded with obvious pride. “There’s no place in Arkansas with more beautiful sunrises and sunsets.”

Petit Jean's tranquil forests offer something for all ages to see, making it a natural for families.

Petit Jean's tranquil forests offer something for all ages to see, making it a natural for families.

The park provides plenty of trails from which to take in the view.

The park provides plenty of trails from which to take in the view.


Moro Bay State Park

GPS: 35.3527° N, 120.8393° W
6071 Hwy. 600, Jersey (870) 463-8555

Cypress trees provide beauty and wildlife cover at Moro Bay State Park.

Cypress trees provide beauty and wildlife cover at Moro Bay State Park.

Bald eagles are just one of the many species of birds found here.

Bald eagles are just one of the many species of birds found here.

Moving from the central highlands to the southeast lowlands, you’ll find Moro Bay State Park located approximately 30 minutes east of El Dorado and south from Warren.

“It’s a really beautiful park,” said Park Interpreter Jennifer Gammon. “Whether the river is low or high, it’s just awesome. Because we’re located on Moro Creek where it empties into the Ouachita River with the old river channel forming nearby Round Lake, we have a lot of big cypress with deer, waterfowl and the occasional alligator.”

There is a lot of history here, Gammon said. Being at the intersection of two major waterways, the site was a hub of activity well before highways existed with river traffic from as far away as New Orleans. This made it a major river port that attracted early settlement. There’s still occasional barge traffic on the river, thanks to the oil industry in El Dorado; large equipment too big for the roads travels up and downstream.

“There was a ferry crossing here for many years before the high-rise bridges were built,” she said. “We still have the old ferry on display. Our visitor’s center used to be a destination restaurant called The Gates that people came from miles around to eat fresh catfish.”

Sunset casts its splendor over the calm of Moro Bay. Once thriving with river traffic, the state park near El Dorado teems with various fish, wildlife and plant species.

Sunset casts its splendor over the calm of Moro Bay. Once thriving with river traffic, the state park near El Dorado teems with various fish, wildlife and plant species.

Visitors can bring their own boat to the state park or rent one at the marina, including flat-bottoms with outboards and kayaks. On weekends during the spring, summer and fall,  the park offers free party-barge tours that take up to 12 people out on the river. The park is also popular with duck hunters during the season.

At the entrance to the park, The Point at Moro Bay restaurant provides exceptional dining. Owner Bobby Richard said, “We specialize in 16- and 10-ounce sirloins. We spare no cost for our upper choice steak; you can literally cut it with a fork.”

“We flew in a steak expert from Texas Steak and Cattle Co. restaurant in Arlington, Texas, to show us how to prepare them the way they do. I guarantee, it’s the best steak you’ll ever eat. If you’re not a steak lover, people drive as far as 100 miles to eat our catfish.”


A view of the Ouachitas: From Queen Wilhelmina State Park

A view of the Ouachitas: From Queen Wilhelmina State Park

Queen Wilhelmina State Park

GPS: 34.6856° N, 94.3704° W
3877 Highway 88 West, Mena (479) 394-2863

Located near the Oklahoma border in West Central Arkansas, Queen Wilhelmina State Park and Lodge sits 13 miles outside Mena. Park Interpreter Melissa Phillips said, “The lodge and passenger train are among the highlights of our park. The incredible views of the mountain and amazing sunrises and sunsets make it a wonderful place to get out. You can see clear to Oklahoma.”

At an elevation of 2,681 feet, Queen Wilhelmina is the second highest point in Arkansas. The Ouachita Highlands Trail winds through the park, running from Tullahoma, OK, to Pinnacle Mountain outside of Little Rock. Hikers of the trail have been known to ship provisions to Queen Wilhelmina to pick up en route, while others use the park as the shove off or concluding point of their trek. 

The majestic beauty of the place is breathtaking. The Ouachitas are unusual as the only mountains in North America that lie from east to west and due to their fertile soil, there are a lot a varied hardwoods, including hackberry, magnolia and paw paws. 

“There’s an abundance of wildlife including numerous black bears and bald eagles,” Phillips said. “One of our most unique creatures is the Diplocardia meansi. It’s the second largest earthworm in North America. Spottings are rare, but you’ll find them occasionally, when they come to the surface following a heavy rain.”

Unique amenities include the aforementioned train, which runs six days a week, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m, from Memorial to Labor Day. As if that weren’t unexpected enough, there’s also a fantastic restaurant in the lodge featuring a full bar. Diners delight in watching the hummingbirds visit the many outdoor feeders while taking in the view of the Ouachita Mountains. 

Accommodations range from primitive shelters erected by the Friends of the Ouachita Trail System that sleep 20 at a time to 40 outdoor campsites. The ultimate experience, however, is staying in the lodge, which boasts 40 rooms and an available conference room for group gatherings.

“The (sleeping) rooms run from $100 to $110 per night; it’s worth the extra 10 bucks to be on the south side where the vistas are incredible,” Phillips said. “In the winter, when the leaves are off, the north facing rooms have a nice view as well.”


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Bull Shoals/White River State Park

GPS: 36.3533° N, 92.5912° W
153 Dam Overlook Lane, Bull Shoals 870-445-3629

Our final stop takes us to North Central Arkansas where the White River forms Bull Shoals Lake. The largest body of water in the state, Bull Shoals boasts 1,000 miles-plus of shoreline.

Bull Shoals/White River Superintendent Billy Lindsey came to the parks system from the private sector; his family operates Lindsey’s Resort on the Little Red River. He said the main attractions for the area, camping and fishing, are unparalleled anywhere in Arkansas.

“Numerous bike and hiking trails show off nature at her finest,” he said. “Big Bluff Trail winds to an overlook of the river with a pair of nesting eagles below. Twin Lakes area is one of the best kept scenic secrets in Arkansas.”

The park’s campsites span “from top-of-the-line to primitive,” Lindsey said. “The majority of our 112 sites are located right along the river. By the time spring break rolls around, we’ll be reopening ‘D’ Area; those 47 sites have been closed a year for total renovation.”

The renovated areas feature 34 AAA camper sites and 13 primitive tent sites, accompanied by a new bathhouse. Even the off-river campsites have great river views, thanks to layout and elevation.  

“We also have three, 30-foot, rentable RVs that are camper cabins with heat, AC and large decks overlooking the river for $85 a night,” Lindsey said.

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The park also includes outstanding amenities nearby, particularly when it comes to dining. Lindsey recommends Big Daddy’s in Mountain Home for “some of the finest shrimp you’ll taste away from the coast and a full seafood buffet on weekends.”

Other area recommendations include Anthony’s on the Lakeview side of the dam, a small Italian joint run by a Chicago transplant. The beef sandwich is not to be missed among the great fare and prices are a steal, but they only take cash, so come prepared. On the Bull Shoals side, try 178 Club, open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a Sunday brunch. Saturday is prime rib night that’s exceptional.

No trip to Bull Shoals is complete without a visit to the legendary Gaston’s Resort. The Arkansas landmark offers guided fishing trips, cabins to suit any group and a conference center in addition to the finest restaurant anywhere. Famous for its Sunday brunch, Gaston’s will also clean and cook your day’s catch.