Petit Jean State Park is Arkansas’ first state park and it is a beauty! Don’t be fooled by the French name – in the Ozarks a lot of places have French names, but we have our very unique way of pronouncing things. For example Petit Jean is pronounced ‘pet-it jean’ with no sort of French accent, just the charming southern accent from Arkansas.
A Little History:
The legend of the name of Petit Jean comes not from a man (Jean is the French form of John) but from a woman who dressed like a man to gain access to the New World in the 1700’s. When France had this land, a French Nobleman named Chavet got permission to explore this region. He was engaged to be married and his fiancée wanted to get married right away so she could come explore as well (sounds like a case of wanderlust to me!), however Chavet thought that sounded too dangerous and said that they would be wed when he returned safe & sound and that they could perhaps move back to the New World together. This was not okay with her, so she disguised herself as a man – and apparently did a good job at it – because she applied to be a cabin boy on the ship and got the job, even fooling her fiancé! Because she was so small, they gave her the nickname Petit Jean, or Little John. The night before they were to return to France Jean came down with a mysterious illness, and her identity was discovered. She begged Chavet’s forgiveness and requested to be buried on top of the mountain she had grown to love. The Native Americans in the area built a deer-skin stretcher to carry her to the top of the mountain. She died there just before sundown.
Later, in the mid-1800’s pioneer days, a farmer from North Carolina settled here, built a log cabin and lived here. Jump ahead another 50+ years and see Petit John become Arkansas’ very first state park! Originally, they applied to have this park be one of the nation’s first national parks, but it didn’t have enough acreage. While I could see this being national-park-status, I am just grateful that someone found it beautiful enough and worthy of being preserved. (source)
What To See & Do?
⋙ Hike – Matt and I went there for the hiking, but there are several miles worth of hikes here to lots of beautiful sites! What were our favorites?
» Cedar Falls, The Natural Bridge and Rock House Cave.
⋙ Davies Bridge – This stone bridge built in the 1930’s is one of only eight masonry arch bridges left in Arkansas. It spans Cedar Creek and has a small (what appears to be man-made) waterfall flowing under the arch. Be sure to stop and appreciate this beautiful bridge.
⋙ Go to the Automobile Museum – it’s technically outside of the park, but if you’re interest in the history of automobiles, I heard it’s nice! We skipped it, trying to fit as much hiking in as we could in our visit.
⋙ Stay & Eat -Mather Lodge looks like an incredible place to stay and I can personally attest to the deliciousness of their meals! I had their chicken fried chicken and Matt had a burger – we both enjoyed them very much!
» In addition to Mather Lodge itself there are campgrounds and yurts to stay in. All of which seem to be extremely reasonably priced!
⋙ Get out on the Lake – There are loads of fishing opportunities and you can rent fishing boats, as well as kayaks, canoes and water bikes to get a different kind of exercise out there on the water.
More About The Hikes & Overlooks:
⋙ Cedar Falls Overlook – This boardwalk overlook takes you down into the woods, to the edge of the canyon. All of this was once part of an ancient ocean millions of years ago. I love seeing waterfalls from above, but theres this special thing with some of the Arkansas waterfalls. The cliffs make this sort of semi-circular alcove for the water to flow into and you really notice it from above.
Hey look! It’s a waterfall!
⋙ Canyon Trail & Cedar Falls Trail – Both of these trails start at the Mather Lodge. You start out looking at a glorious view of Cedar Creek Canyon. I just adore this view. In fact, we think this might be where we celebrate our first wedding anniversary.
This view is from beside lodge down into the canyon.
These two trails start out along the same trail. Then, you cross a footbridge and if you turn right you take the Canyon Trail – leading to the Blue Hole Area. If you turn right it takes you to the bottom of the 95 foot Cedar Creek Falls.
» We started to the left to complete the Cedar Falls Trail (about 2 miles roundtrip). I would definitely say that the most strenuous part of the trail is the quarter mile or so at the beginning & then the end. You go down a decently steep bluff, but it isn’t anything crazy. Just remember it’s quite humid in the Ozarks if coming in the summer.
Unlike many of the waterfalls in the Ozarks, it is illegal to swim at the base of this 95 foot beauty.
» So, what if you turn left at the footbridge? That takes you on the Canyon Hike (approximately 2 miles if you go there & back) to the Blue Hole Area. That sounds like a magnificent pool, right? In my head I was picturing a cenote, but that was not what I found. Because I made the mistake of comparing it before I even saw it, I was disappointed. It’s also mosquito season, so we got eaten alive on this trail. While, it was pretty and it a spot that connects three trails, it wouldn’t make the top of my list on a return visit.
This rock walkway leads you to a connector trial & even the remains of an old stone building, but it was a once & done trail for us. The Blue Hole is that area to the right… Not exactly blue, or much of a hole.
⋙ Seven Hollows Trail (about 4.5 mile loop) – I would highly recommend this trail – it takes you through four canyons, a massive natural bridge, a wet-weather-waterfall and more! It’s an extremely well-blazed trail that takes you over rocks, down into canyons, looking up bluffs and through the first. Be sure to bring plenty of water and maybe some tick-repelent.
I LOVE rock formations. The magic of water & wind never ceases to amaze me. This natural bridge is HUGE and I loved being able to explore it!
This was on top of one of the bluffs. We had just been in that canyon that Matt is overlooking. This area has these formations known as turtle rocks, but I think that the turtle rocks on another hike were much more distinct.
⋙ Rock House Cave (.25 miles) this barely constitutes as a hike, but it is totally worth it! This is the trail with the incredibly distinct turtle rocks – rocks that look like giant turtle shells sitting on top of the mountains, and then at the end there’s this bluff overhang. This was a bluff shelter for Native Americans and over 500 years ago they left their mark, literally, with their Rock Art.
Can’t you see the Turtle Shells?
Standing on the back of a “turtle shell”.
Inside the cave shelter it was just the two of us basically the whole time we were here,only meeting people only upon arrival and when we back on the trail back to the car. It was nice to be able to take your time strolling through the shelter sharing it only with the birds who nest in the bluff. It’s just a beautiful place and this archaeological site is thankfully protected by state law.
Petit Jean State Park is a truly beautiful place. There are plenty of hiking opportunities whether you’re looking for a short stroll or an all-day, 12-mile hike. You can swim, eat delicious food, kayak and just relax. This is the perfect Arkansas Mountain getaway for the day or even for the week. Don’t miss Arkansas’s first state park.
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