Petit Jean State Park and Petit Jean Mountain
Petit Jean State Park, situated on Arkansas’s Petit Jean Mountain, which rises above the south bank of the Arkansas River between the Ozark and Ouachita mountain ranges, is 3,471 acres in size and was the first park in Arkansas’s system of state parks. Buildings of log and stone, constructed during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), are found in many areas of the park and impart a rustic feel. CCC Company V-1781 was formed on Petit Jean Mountain on July 15, 1933, working from 1933 to 1938, building roads, trails, pavilions, overlooks, cabins, two recreational lakes and historic Mather Lodge, the only CCC lodge in an Arkansas park. While most of the “CCC boys” around the country were eighteen and nineteen years old, at Petit Jean, the crew was made up of World War I veterans – men who were more skilled than the average CCC worker. After CCC involvement in the park ended, work continued on park projects under the Work Progress Administration (WPA).
Petit Jean, the “flagship” of the Arkansas state park system, is managed by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Petit Jean is Arkansas’ only state park with its own airport.
Petit Jean – source of the name of the mountain
Petit Jean Mountain is said by many to have been named for the legend of Petit Jean – the story of a young French woman, Adrienne Dumont, who disguised herself as a cabin boy called Petit Jean (French for Little John) to secretly accompany her fiancé, a nobleman named Chavet traveling to America to explore, and claim, part of French Louisiana. The ship crossed the ocean and ascended the Mississippi and the Arkansas as far as the mountain. After the expedition spent an entire summer on the mountain with friendly natives, Petit Jean fell gravely ill and, after her identity was discovered, asked to be buried on the mountain at a spot overlooking the river if she died. Long afterwards, a mound of earth was found on Stout’s Point in a location now touted, and marked, as Petit Jean’s Grave. The legend of Petit Jean has several variations.
Petit Jean Mountain was once known as Impassible Mountain because it blocked passage along the west bank of the river during periods of low water. The mountain is called Petit Jean on maps created as early as 1844, while the Petit Jean River was used in a county line boundary description in 1822. The name may have been derived from a half-French frontiersman and War of 1812 veteran named John Walker who settled in that area with his war land grant. When he filed his land grant petition to acquire land on the top of mountain, he identified himself as John Walker of Petit Jean Mountain. However, John “Little John / Petit Jean” Walker isn’t nearly as romantic an origin for the name as the legend is.
“Petit Jean’s Mountain: The Origin of the Legend,” a book written by Dr. Lee W. Woodard purports to provide historical evidence suggesting that the legend may be traceable to known historical records of the drowning of a young French noble called variously De Marne or De Marle. According to this account, seven survivors of the La Salle expedition were at what is now known as Petit Jean Mountain on June 24, 1687, when one of them, Petit Jean De Marne (Marle) – or, possibly, “Petite Jeanne” De Marne – drowned while bathing and was subsequently buried at the east end of the mountain.
Tradition recorded by longtime mountain resident and country physician Dr. T. W. Hardison holds that the first European-American settler on Petit Jean Mountain was a political refugee named Jean La Caze, who fled the French Revolution in about 1790 with his wife and young son, Petit Jean, and settled on the southern brow of the mountain. Early American immigrants reported that La Caze died around 1820, and another quarter century passed before John Walker brought his family from Tennessee and began to farm the center of the mountain.
A 1941 book, Arkansas: A Guide to the State, has a similar story:
The mountain, actually a part of the Arkansas River’s southern valley wall, is reputed to have been named for Jean la Caze, A French aristocrat who fled the Revolution with his wife and eight-year-old son, outfitted a boat at New Orleans, and made his way up the Mississippi and Arkansas. The wife and son, unable to stand the the rigors of the wild country, soon died, but La Caze lived on, subsisting on berries. The first American settlers who came up the valley found him, driven mad by his misfortunes, playing a flute he had brought with him. Old-timers say that when the wind whistles around the south side of the mountain, where La Caze lived, the sound of his flute can be plainly heard.
An 1891 book, Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Western Arkansas, tells still another early tradition for the name of the nearby Petit Jean River.
According to tradition this river derived its name from the following circumstances: When the Territory was under the dominion of the French, a party of explorers or hunters visited the head of the stream, having with them a small man whose name was Jean in French, or John in English. Petit means little, in French, and being a small man they called him Petit Jean (Little John). While there, they had a fight with the Indians and Petit Jean was wounded, and afterward died from the effects of the would as the party was returning down the river, hence the name Petit Jean River.
If this tradition were true, it would make sense that the nearby mountain derived its name from the river. Whatever the case, the true origin of the mountain’s name, Petit Jean, may be lost to history. There may be no more special story about the derivation of the name. After all, when the United States acquired Arkansas as part of the Louisiana Purchase, about the only people in Arkansas were Native Americans and a few French. French derived place names in Arkansas include: Fourche la Fave, Ouachita (French spelling of the name of an Indian tribe), Poteau, Petit Jean, De Vall’s Bluff, and Maumelle.
Dr. T. W. Hardison, an early 20th century resident of the mountain, described it this way:
A great flat-topped mountain rising 800 feet above the valley and river, 1,200 feet above the sea, reaching seven miles from point to base, and having on its summit 28 square miles of level or gently rolling land; its sweeping brow line, more than thirty miles in extent, rimmed with a continuous battlement of huge, gray boulders; a creek rising near the point, flowing down the center of the mountain finally to hurl itself over a sheer precipice 95 feet high, then winding its way on down the mountainside in a broad canyon from 200 to 400 feet deep; great fields of boulders, fifty to a hundred feet high, set in a primeval forest of pines, places where one stands and looks away to where mountain and sky blend their purple and blue; where one sweeps with a glance fifty or sixty miles of rolling hills and narrow valleys; such is the summit of Petit Jean Mountain.
Lodging and Dining
Mather Lodge, overlooking Cedar Creek Canyon and the Arkansas River Valley beyond, is a massive stone and log building constructed by the CCC in the 1930s. A 2011 – 2012 renovation replaced the lodge’s 1960s-era dining room with a more rustic design. The kitchen was expanded, a 50 person meeting room was added, guest rooms were enhanced and a new swimming pool was constructed. The renovated portion now mirrors the Adirondack-style park architecture of the 1930s portions of the lodge, the only CCC lodge built in an Arkansas state park.
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism description of the most recent work:
The renovation was designed to have minimal impact on the original CCC and WPA work from the 1930s while providing an updated modern facility. Now, a new entrance, lobby and dining room waiting area provide improved access and increase the lodge’s capacity to welcome guests and operate efficiently.
The previous dining room and kitchen, built around 1967-68, were demolished and replaced by a new lobby, restrooms, offices and full-service dining room. The lobby and restaurant feature exposed log construction, use of natural materials and extensive glass window walls that provide a full view of the natural beauty surrounding Mather Lodge.
The new dining room has seating for 104 people. The design takes advantage of the lodge’s setting on Petit Jean Mountain, providing diners with seating near windows that are open to expansive views of the natural terrain. The additional natural light enhances the lodge’s dining experience far beyond what was provided by the ’60s addition. … The new kitchen facility features upgraded utilities and new equipment.
The renovation included the construction of a fully accessible lodge swimming pool. Due to the proximity to one of the park’s most popular hiking trails, public restrooms were added as part of the pool complex.
Parking had been expanded from 44 spaces to 81, including four ADA accessible spaces. A new barrier-free walkway connects the parking area to the lodge’s new entrance.
Fully equipped and modernized, Mather Lodge has 24 guest rooms, 6 with 2 full size beds and 18 with 1 full size bed. All rooms have satellite TV, clock radio, coffee pot, ironing board and iron. There are no phones in any of the guest rooms.
Scattered in the woods near Mather Lodge are fully equipped cabins. Nine are 1930s CCC rustic and five are modern duplex designs, 2 units each with an adjoining door between them, and one, the honeymoon cabin, has a hot tub. All are heated and air-conditioned and have fireplaces and all electric kitchens with cooking utensils and tableware. Six other duplexes (12 units) without kitchens, but with fireplaces, are located near the lodge.
Camping (Detailed Campground Map – 6.2 Mb pdf.)
Petit Jean State Park campgrounds are open year round and have both wooded and lake view sites. There are 125 camp sites. All have water and electrical hookups. Thirty-five of the sites have sewer as well as 50 amp electrical service. The campground is divided into 4 areas, each area having a modern bathhouse. A 44-unit rally style camping area available for group rallies is also designated as overflow camping for busy periods of the year. A dump station is provided for RVers near the overflow/rally camping area. All sites are reservable year round. Even during the fall and spring, on weekends, reservations are advised for the full hookup sites.
A reservable Group Camp Area available all year is located across the stone bridge over Cedar Creek downstream from Lake Bailey. It has a bathhouse that is heated in winter.
Four Rent-A-Yurts, each accommodating up to six people, are available from March through November for those who do not own their own camping equipment. The yurts are round, high walled tents with electricity, screened windows, and doors with locks. The rental includes cots, a lantern, stove, and ice chest.
Fly-in camping is available at the Petit Jean State Park Airport with five tent sites with water and electric hookups, picnic tables, grills, lantern holders, and tent pads. One site is barrier-free for handicap accessibility and there is a modern bathhouse with flush toilets and hot showers. Call the Petit Jean State Park Airport (501-374-5022) for more details and to make reservations at Arkansas’s only fly-in campground. The airport is open for daytime use only.
The Petit Jean State Park trail system provides over 20 miles of interconnected hiking trails. Constructed mainly by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, the trails range in difficulty from easy to strenuous. Three of the trails – Cedar Falls, Seven Hollows, and Cedar Creek – are designated as National Recreation Trails.
Cedar Falls Trail (2 miles, 2 hours to the falls and back) is the most popular trail in the park. The trail begins through the Mather Lodge breezeway and returns to the same point. Rated as moderate to strenuous, in its first half mile, this hiking trail descends over 200 feet into Cedar Creek Canyon over switchbacks and steps cut from rock by the CCC in the 1930s. Those considering taking this trail should take into consideration that the trail returns back up the same steps and switchbacks. Only those in good shape should take this hike. Hikers should wear shoes or boots that provide good ankle support and a firm grip. The last half mile follows Cedar Creek to one of the state’s most impressive sights, Cedar Falls, which cascades more that 90 into the canyon. During the wet times of the year, the flow over the falls can be very spectacular, often dwindling to a trickle in the hottest and driest part of the year. Cedar Creek was added to the register of Arkansas Natural Areas in 1977.
Seven Hollows Trail (loop trail: 4.5 miles, 4 hours; to Natural Bridge: 1.3 miles; to Grotto: 2.25 miles) actually only goes through the four most interesting hollows. Rated as moderate to hard, this trail passes through open areas, immense rock formations, rock fields with near desert-like conditions and the lush moss and fern understory of a hardwood forest. The trail passes through areas that have successfully recovered from an August 2000 wildfire. The trailhead begins 1 mile west of Mather Lodge on highway 154.
Cedar Creek Trail (1.25 miles, 1.5 hours) is a moderately difficult loop trail that begins and ends at the Pioneer Cabin, 1 mile west of the park’s visitor center on highway 154. Constructed by the CCC in the early 1930s, the trail meanders along a scenic section of the rocky Cedar Creek above Cedar Falls, sometimes just above the level of the creek and other times climbing high above it. One section of the trail has two branches – one that climbs above the stream in the wetter months and one that follows the stream bed during the dry months when the creek has dwindled to little more than a trickle.
Canyon Trail (1 mile, 2 miles if backtracking to Cedar Falls Trail, 2 hours) begins from the Cedar Falls Trail after it crosses Cedar Creek, turning left to go downstream away from the falls. Some sections of the trail are on terraces of rocks built up by the CCC. The trail follows Cedar Creek and its many small falls and deep pools. Large boulders, some the size of boxcars, fallen from the canyon’s cliffs partially block the stream in places. Along the trail are large old growth sycamore and pine trees. Canyon Trail was once part of Boy Scout Trail. The two trails join near a long deep pool called Blue Hole. From here, hikers can backtrack to Cedar Falls Trail or loop back to Mather Lodge on the Boy Scout Trail via Seven Hollows Trail and Bear Cave Trail. Canyon Trail is rated as easy, though it is accessed by way of trails of higher difficulty.
Winthrop P. Rockefeller Boy Scout Trail (12 miles, eight hours) starts across from the Group Camp at the north side of the CCC bridge over Cedar Creek and loops back to the starting point. It connects to and follows portions of almost all of the trails in the park. Hikers planning to hike the entire trail should register at the visitor center.
Rock House Cave Trail (.25 mi., .5 hr.) starts 1 mile west on Red Bluff Drive. Rated as easy, this trail crosses a broad rocky area where “turtle rocks” are s dominant feature. Rock House Cave is a large rock bluff shelter, not a true cave. High on the roof of the shelter can be seen the remnants of ancient pictographs – protected by antiquities and archeological heritage statutes.
Bear Cave Trail (.25 mi., .5 hr), a short loop trail, is located 1 mile west of Mather Lodge on highway 154. While there is no true cave, huge sandstone rocks in the area form rock shelters and narrow passageways that visitors can explore. A tall narrow passage running down the center of the trail, called “The Eye of The Needle,” is thought to have been cut by Cedar Creek long ago.
CCC Hike & Bike Trail – newest trail. From the park’s web site:
This shaded trail connects Mather Lodge to the park campgrounds and is named in honor of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) who constructed Mather Lodge and built many structures that the trail passes. The winding trail offers access to the Cedar Falls Overlook, the Cedar Creek trailhead at the Pioneer Cabin, the park swimming pool, tennis courts and the visitor information center. Using the CCC Hike & Bike trail offers a safe and scenic alternative to traveling along Highway 154 while walking or cycling.
The concept of a public park on Petit Jean Mountain had its beginnings in the first decade of the twentieth century. With 80 acres of land around Cedar Falls initially set aside in 1923 as public land, Petit Jean became the first park in the Arkansas state park system.
Besides hiking and camping, other activities in the park include fishing, picnicking, swimming, tennis or volleyball. Pedal boats, water bikes and flat bottom boats are available for rental on Lake Bailey.
The lodge restaurant provides a good selection of reasonably priced food for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
80 acres (0.3 km²) – original size of park in 1923
3,471 acres (14.05 km²) – size of park today
1,207 feet – elevation above sea level
65 miles – park’s approximate distance northwest of the state capitol, Little Rock
24 rooms in rustic Mather Lodge
20 cabins with kitchens
12 cabins without kitchens
126 camping sites
37 RV pull-through sites
170 acre (69 ha) – size of Lake Bailey
95 feet (21 m) – Cedar Creek’s drop over Cedar Falls
20 plus – number of miles of trails
8 – number of trails:
- Cedar Falls –]2 miles, 2 hours
- Boy Scout – 12 miles, 8 hours
- Cedar Creek – 1.25 miles, 1.5 hours
- Seven Hollows –]4.5 miles, 4 hours
- Canyon Trail – 1 mile, 2 hours
- Rock House Cave – .25 mile, .5 hour
- Bear Cave Trail – .25 mile, .5 hour
- CCC Hike & Bike Trail – 1.75miles
80 plus – things built in the park during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps, including buildings, bridges, roads and hiking trails
30 plus – number of automobiles donated by private collectors to the Museum of Automobiles near the park
before c. 1000 A.D. – Rock House Cave home to Native Americans
1840s – John Walker family makes their home on the mountain
1854 – Walker Family moves to Carden Bottoms at the foot of the mountain on the west
1856 – Owen West moves into the Walker cabin
1891 – Nelson family builds a large two story home near the Petit Jean “grave” site; planted apple orchard; successful in apple business for several years
abt. 1897 – William Cummings Stout and his wife buy the Nelson land; open Hotel Petit Jean in what had been the Nelson’s home; supposedly had a copy of the “original” legend of Petit Jean written in French that was kept in the back of an old bible. Land in area of “grave” becomes known as Stout’s Point
1907 – inception of the idea of a national park on the mountain
1920s – Mr. Stout sold the hotel property. Later property was donated to YMCA, who operated it as a children’s summer camp, constructing several more buildings including College Lodge, used as an administration and meeting facility.
1921 – Ft. Smith Lumber Company offers to deed their land to the federal government for use as a national park; Petit Jean National Park bill introduced in Congress
1933 to 1938 – Civilian Conservation Core Company 1781, a company of mostly World War 1 veterans with construction work experience, builds structures, roads, and trails on the mountain that are still in use today. Walker cabin is moved to present location at head of Cedar Creek trail.
1940s – College Lodge is destroyed by fire.
1955 – Marguerite Turner wrote “Petit Jean,” embellishing the legend, giving the French Captain the name “Chavet” and Petit Jean the name “Adrienne Dumont.”
1964 – Winthrop Rockefeller establishes the Museum of Automobiles on Petit Jean Mountain near the park. After his death, his private collection of automobiles is sold and the building an grounds are donated to the state of Arkansas
1976 – The Museum of Automobiles is reopened by a non-profit organization with the collection restocked
1985 – renovation and upgrade of camping area A (50 amp electrical, water and sewer hookup)
More places on Petit Jean Mountain
The Museum of Automobiles, located east of the main part of the Petit Jean State park on Petit Jean Mountain, includes a permanent collection of 30 automobiles donated by supporters from Arkansas and surrounding states. The museum was founded in 1964 by the late Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, housing his collection of antique and classic automobiles until the collection was sold in 1975, with building and grounds donated to the Arkansas Department of Parks. In 1976, a non-profit corporation was formed and reopened the museum with cars loaned from collectors around the country. The national headquarters of the Mid-America Old Time Automobile Association is located in the museum. The museum co-hosts with MOTAA in June the annual Petit Jean Antique Car Show and Swap Meet. The museum also hosts a Fall Swap Meet and Military Vehicle Show. Hours are 10 am to 5 pm daily. (The Museum of Automobiles)
Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, part of the University of Arkansas system, is a non-profit educational center with conference and lodging facilities. Lodging is open to the public and facilities are available for special events, meetings, conferences, and retreats. Registered guests have access to activities including the fitness center, indoor tennis and basketball courts, bicycles, and paddle boats and fishing on Lake Abby. The grounds have demonstration gardens, water features, and walking and jogging trails. Originally part of the farm and home of Governor Winthrop Rockefeller, the 188 acres on which the Institute now stands was the home of Winrock International for over 3 decades. In 2005, Winrock relocated to Little Rock and Washington, D.C. and the property reverted to the Winthrop Rockefeller Charitable Trust. Together with the University of Arkansas, the Trust decided to develop an educational conference center. (Winthrop Rockefeller Institute)