Petit Jean State Park

From Academic Kids

Petit Jean State Park is a 3,471 acre (14 km²) state park in central Arkansas managed by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Petit Jean is the flagship of the Arkansas State Park system.

Overlook at Petit Jean State Park
Overlook at Petit Jean State Park

Petit Jean State Park is located atop Petit Jean Mountain on the Arkansas River in the area between the Ozark and Ouachita mountain ranges, in Conway County, Arkansas.

Buildings of log and stone construction built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the 1930s are scattered throughout the park giving it a rustic feel. A 24 room retreat called Mather Lodge sits on the edge of a bluff of a deep forested canyon on the mountaintop. In addition to the lodge there are 32 cabins and 127 campsites available for park visitors.

The canyon and bluffs were created by Cedar Creek, which cascades into the canyon in an impressive 70 foot waterfall. Above the falls, Cedar Creek has been dammed to create the 170 acre (0.7 km²) Lake Bailey which is used for pedal-boating and fishing.

Petit Jean has a visitors center and gift shop in the center of the park and a boathouse at Lake Bailey which provides boat rentals, fishing supplies, and snack bar. Tennis and basketball courts, swimming pool, and picnic areas are available for the use of park guests. The Museum of Automobiles is less than a mile from the main camping areas.

The park also has several unique geologic features such as Bear Cave, Rock House Cave, the Grotto, Turtle Rocks, Carpet Rocks, and Natural Bridge.

The scenic overlook at Petit Jean's grave provides a spectacular view of the Arkansas River valley.


More than a thousand years ago Petit Jean was the home of bluff dwelling Native Americans who lived as hunter-gatherers and hunted with spears and atlatls, and left petrographic images--pictographs and petroglyphs--as a record of their passing. The Rock House Cave on the Rock House Cave Hiking Trail contains red and yellow ocher pictographs drawn by these ancient inhabitants on its walls. The Rock House Cave is classified as a protected archaeological historical site.

One of several legends recorded by mountain resident Dr. T. W. Hardison says that Petit Jean Mountain is named for a French girl who followed her lover, an explorer named Chavet, to the New World in the late 18th century disguised as a cabin boy on his ship. Because of her diminutive stature she was known to the crew as "Little John", or "Petit Jean". The explorers were invited onto Petit Jean Mountain by its Indian inhabitants. Once on the mountain the girl became ill and her true identity was discovered. As the story goes, she died of her illness and her grieving lover buried her atop the mountain at the site of the present Arkansas River overlook. Residents of the Arkansas River valley claimed to see strange lights above them on the cliff edge at night. Some said that these lights were the ghost of Petit Jean wandering amongst the rocks of the parapet, looking eastward toward her native France.

Traditional Gravesite of Petit Jean
Traditional Gravesite of Petit Jean

Petit Jean Mountain was a landmark noted by early Anglo-Saxon explorers of the Arkansas River. In 1819, English naturalist Thomas Nuttall ascended the mountain at its eastern point and described the scene in his Journal of Travels into the Arkansas Territory. By then it was already well known by its present name. In 1853 the famous German artist-naturalist H. B. Möllhausen sketched the mountain and later produced a woodcut, the first known artistic depiction of the landform, for the United States Pacific Railroad Survey.

In the 1840s the John Walker family was among the first Americans of European descent to live on the mountain. John's daughter, Adeline, was perhaps the first Caucasian child born on Petit Jean Mountain. A few years later, in the 1850s, Owen West and his family lived in a hand-hewn log cabin atop the mountain that, although removed from its original site, remains in the park at the entrance to the Cedar Creek Hiking Trail.

In the early 1900s the Fort Smith Lumber Company owned a lumber mill on the Choctaw, Oklahoma and Gulf Railroad near Adona. The company conducted a survey on the feasibility of expanded logging on nearby Petit Jean Mountain and found the proposition to be unprofitable. In 1921 the company offered to deed its property on the mountain to the United States government for use as a National Park. The effort to make the area into a National Park was spearheaded by the Fort Smith Lumber Company's contract physician, Dr. T.W. Hardison. A bill was introduced in Congress to accept the area and establish a National Park on Petit Jean. Hardison met with Stephen Mather of the National Park Service, who was sympathetic, but declined to recommend the area as a National Park due to costs, the small size of the park, and fears that it was not unique enough for the federal system.

Undeterred, Hardison approached the Arkansas legislature and sought to have the area declared as Arkansas's first State Park. The Arkansas legislature was favorable to the idea but Fort Smith Lumber had not offered their holdings for a State Park. Hardison pursued the matter and arranged for the donation of 80 acres (0.3 km²) around Cedar Falls by private landholders. Approval was unanimous and this 80 acres (0.3 km²) became Arkansas's first State Park in 1923. Over the years, the park has expanded through acquisition and donation of land atop the mountain.

During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corps was established as a works program to provide employment for out of work Americans. From 1933 to 1938 Company 1781 of the Corps, made up of former World War I veterans commenced major construction at the park. The Corps built over 80 structures throughout the park, including the Mather Lodge and associated cabins, several hiking trails, better roads throughout the park and the Davies Bridge over Cedar Creek. Those structures built by the Corps are still in use today and some are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1964 the Museum of Automobiles was establish by Winthrop Rockefeller, a resident of the mountain and future Governor of Arkansas, to display his private automobile collection. After his death the private collection was sold and the empty building and grounds donated to the state of Arkansas. A non-profit organization was formed and vintage automobiles were acquired on loan from other museums allowing the museum to reopen in 1976. Over the years private collectors have donated 30 automobiles to begin restocking the museum's private collection.


Petit Jean State Park provides a variety of events throughout the year. These range from mountain man rendezvous, wildflower weekend and camping weekends to the swap meet and auto show. Mather Lodge also has special programs for guests during the Christmas season, New Years Eve, and other holidays.

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