Petit Jean State Park
Fall in love with this majestic land, where winding river waters meet a mountain.
The Arkansas River begins its winding journey to the Mississippi from high in the alpine headwaters of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. Midway through the state of Arkansas, flowing between the Ozarks to the north and the Ouachitas to the south, it curves around the north face of Petit Jean Mountain. The landscape is a singularly beautiful union of river and rock.
Local folks from Arkansas pronounce the name “PETT-ih jean,” while visitors usually say “PETT-ty jean.” However you pronounce it, Petit Jean boasts overlooks along the shoulder of the mountain offering astounding views of the river and its rolling valley.
The mountain’s history is based in the folklore originating from one of Arkansas’ best romantic legends, a story set in the 1700s about a French stowaway. Adrienne Dumont disguised herself as a cabin boy to go along with her beloved, an explorer named Chavet, to America. Neither Chavet nor the shipmates who tagged her with the moniker Petit Jean (French for Little John) discovered her secret during the lengthy journey.
Upon reaching the mountain now named for her, Dumont fell ill. She died, but not before her true identity was revealed to her beloved Chavet. A fenced-in grave, said to be hers, can be found atop Stout’s Point on the park’s eastern edge; some say it is haunted.
While the story of Petit Jean is captivating for its drama, it’s also worth noting the tale is grounded in early French exploration, fur trading and settlements along the Arkansas River—a superhighway of the era connecting the resources of the Rocky Mountains with commerce flowing along the Mississippi.
In the early 1900s, the lumber company that owned forest land on Petit Jean Mountain concluded that the terrain was too steep and problematic to log profitably. So they surveyed the location, intending to donate it to the federal government for use as a national park.
While the national park status never came about, this location did become Arkansas’ first state park and the genesis of the Department of Parks and Tourism. It was largely developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, and many of the stone structures and trails from that era are still in use.
The historic Mather Lodge is a product of the CCC. Its native stone and log construction is an imposing presence, affording mesmerizing views above the dense forest canopy of Cedar
Creek Canyon and the Arkansas River Valley. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is one of the state’s architectural and cultural gems.
From the lodge, hikers can follow the short trail to the Cedar Falls Overlook or descend into Cedar Creek Canyon for an up-close view of the creek and 95-foot Cedar Falls, one of the tallest continuously flowing falls in Arkansas.
A short drive will take you to the Palisades Overlook, with views into the canyon, and the nearby trailhead for Seven Hollows Trail. This moderately difficult 4 ½-mile forested loop has fascinating geological features like Turtle Rocks (mounded polygonal structures that look like turtle shells) and a natural stone bridge.
I especially like taking the Red Bluff Drive to CCC Overlook, a picnic shelter and walkway following the northwest scarp of the mountain.
Photographers and romantics alike know this to be a perfect destination at sunset. In addition to the sweeping vistas of the Arkansas River Valley, make sure to take note of Magazine Mountain, the state’s highest peak at 2,753 feet, prominent on the horizon.
This drive also provides access via a short quartermile walk to Rock House Cave, a large rock shelter with pictographs and evidence of Native American habitation going back about 8,000 years.
Stout’s Point, believed to be the site of Petit Jean’s resting place, is situated at the mountain’s far eastern end. There, past Lake Bailey and the campgrounds, this famous scenic overlook offers a panoramic vista with a commanding perspective of the Arkansas River flowing to the east. From this position, you can admire vibrant fields and meadows and watch boats navigate the waters and channels of the river.
Regardless of the season, Petit Jean offers much to the day-tripper as well as those willing to spend more time exploring the natural and historic features of the highlands of the Arkansas River Valley.