Arkansas’s First State Park

Every June and September, car-lovers and bargain-hunters alike join together for a week of entertainment, food, fellowship, cars and beautiful scenery. The event I’m talking about is the Annual Petit Jean Show and Swap Meet at Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas.

This swap meet has brought Cody and I to Petit Jean twice and each time we go we discover a little more of Petit Jean’s beauty. With fantastic overlooks, a gorgeous waterfall, towering trees and numerous fun hiking trails, Petit Jean State Park is one you don’t want to miss.

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The swap meet grounds

Petit Jean is Arkansas’s first state park, so there is a great backstory of history to experience when you visit the park. It is located near Morrilton, Arkansas.

According to the Petit Jean State Park website, the history of Petit Jean is rich with diversity. Petit Jean was home to Native Americans, French explorers and later, settlers. Eventually, a lumber company saw the undisturbed beauty of Petit Jean as something that should stay that way–untouched. Through their determination and strong will, they eventually helped play a part in making Petit Jean the first state park in Arkansas.

Petit Jean has plenty of options for lodging–campsites, cabins, yurts and rooms at the Mather Lodge are all great options. While there you can fish, kayak, hike, swim at the pool, play tennis or volleyball, visit the Museum of Automobiles and much more! They even have a petting zoo close to the car museum.

Petit Jean hosts several events each year, but the show and swap meet has to be one of its biggest attractions. Finding a place to stay last minute during the week of the swap meet can almost be impossible. People plan months ahead for the event and a wide sense of community is felt while perusing through the grounds.

The event is at the Museum of Automobiles, located within the park only a couple of miles from the campgrounds.

The campsites are great! They are spread out well, where you still have privacy and shade from the trees. The campsites have a picnic table, fire ring and grill, along with a pad to set up a tent. There are some primitive campsites that don’t have electric, but we try to opt for a site with electricity so we can power a fan to keep us cool.

Our First Visit to Petit Jean

The first year Cody and I visited Petit Jean we only stayed one night, so it was a rush to fit in the swap meet and the other activities we wanted to do. We absolutely loved the feel of the swap meet, open and not overly crowded.

We knew we wanted to see the overlook at Petit Jean’s Gravesite and hike one of the trails. We drove up to the overlook and the views did not disappoint! Everything seems so small when you are up high on a mountain.

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Overlook at Petit Jean’s Gravesite

While there, we were able to use the Dutch oven Cody had gotten me for my birthday. We broke it in by frying some fresh crappie fish served with homemade tartar sauce and delicious fried potatoes! Everything came together perfectly because right as the potatoes were finishing up, rain started to come down so we grabbed the food and enjoyed our dinner in the tent by lantern light.

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Down the road from the campground is the Cedar Falls Overlook. A short walk on the well-maintained path will lead you to the amazing view of Cedar Falls. This overlook gives viewers a vantage point of the waterfall. The best time to visit is in the morning when there is the least amount of foot traffic. You can soak in the views without feeling rushed.

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Since we were novices at hiking at the time, we chose to hike the Bear Cave Trail, a half-mile roundtrip hike. Bear Cave has a plethora of rocks to climb under and over. It makes for a fun and engaging hike! This hike is perfect for beginners clocking in around 30 minutes for the entire hike (depending on how long you stop and enjoy the sights).

There is a little “cave” along the trail that you can go in and look at. Stepping into the small cavern the air was incredibly cooler! It was neat to imagine all the people from years past experiencing this same thing.

As we kept on walking, we came up on a path that took you between huge stones, raising high above us. The weather through time had cut through this stone making what they call the “Eye of the Needle.” The trail ended with us climbing over some rocks to get back to the parking lot.

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That ended our stay at Petit Jean. We experienced the swap meet, a couple overlooks and a trail. We already knew we wanted to come back and discover more of the gorgeous Petit Jean State Park!

The Second Time Around

Two years later, we finally made it back to Petit Jean. Being more familiar with the area this time, we were ready to take our time and really see everything that makes this park the gem it is.

We, of course, came during the annual swap meet in June again. We didn’t leave with any items, but the swap meet and car show was still just as great as the first year we visited!

The weather was ideal. Back in Oklahoma, it was a hot mess, but on top of the mountain at Petit Jean we were blessed with cool breezes and shade from the trees.

We decided our first trail would be an easy, short one since it was later in the afternoon and let’s be real…Cody and I still aren’t expert hikers. The Rock House Cave Trail was the trail for us! It is similar to the Bear Cave Trail, same length and amount of time to hike it.

Rock House Cave was more open and vast than Bear Cave. Once you park in the parking lot, you go down steps until you are out in the open enjoying the treetop views of Petit Jean.

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From there, you hike over rocks until you reach the path to descend down into the forest. The hike is fairly short from there. You don’t see the Rock House until you come around the trail and then suddenly, your eyes are greeted with a huge, expansive cave beckoning for you to come explore!

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We were alone when we hiked this trail, so walking around the cave was so much fun with just the two of us. There is supposed to be historic art on the cave walls; we spent some time looking for the symbols until we think we found some still viewable to the  eye.

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From the Rock House Cave, we decided to loop around the park and check out some of the overlooks. We drove on a road where houses were on the mountainside…I couldn’t imagine actually living near Petit Jean and waking up every morning to the gorgeous views.

The first overlook we came up on was the M.A. Richter Memorial Overlook. Wow, I was in awe. The sun was on the verge of setting, painting the sky in yellow and blue hues. Something about overlooks really humbles me. Wherever we go, I love to stop and enjoy the views from the top. Being up so high makes all the little petty problems we deal with daily, seem so useless.

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M.A. Richter Memorial Overlook

The next overlook was the CCC Overlook. Another overlook with amazing views! I absolutely recommend both of these overlooks. They don’t disappoint.

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CCC Overlook

We still had time to enjoy the rest of the evening back at camp–one of my favorite things to do on a camping trip. We relaxed in the tent enjoying the break from technology, Cody reading his magazine and me reading my book.

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The next day we were aiming to take on the Cedar Falls Trail. Our last trip to Petit Jean, we saw the falls from a distance, but this time we were ready to see them up close and personal.

The Cedar Falls Trail can be accessed from the Mather Lodge. Starting out, you go down several “switchback” stairs. Cody and I knew coming back up this was going to be terrible! It took a while to get down the stairs and get on with the trail.

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We hiked to the falls in the afternoon. It was very populated at times. This is the most popular trail at Petit Jean so we expected this.

Hiking to the falls, we enjoyed views of Cedar Creek along with large rocks, tall trees and all types of lush plant life. When you get closer to the waterfall, you begin to hear the roaring water.

You are greeted with the sight of a quaint oasis with the Cedar Falls rushing into it. This is where everyone gathered and enjoyed the views for long amounts of time. You can even walk behind the falls. The views were worth the trek!

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Leaving the falls, we knew the hard part was to come. Going back up the steps took it out of us! Wow, it made me feel out of shape. You feel a great sense of accomplishment once you reach the lodge…and also a great need for some refreshing water! Altogether, the trip to Cedar Falls and back took us about an hour and a half.

Petit Jean State Park is a place we will come back to again and again. Something about the park draws us back continuously. Maybe it’s the scenery or maybe it’s the sense of community you feel on top of the mountain…either way, I think it’s safe to say Petit Jean State Park can please any type of visitor with its vast amount of things to do!

 

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