I heard it long before I saw it. Even so, I was not prepared for my first breath taking glimpse of Cedar Falls in Petit Jean State Park. The trail comes up below the falls, and you suddenly find yourself gazing across a small lake carved out of the rocks by the rushing water. The water, free-falling from a ledge 95 feet above the lake, touches nothing but air as it leaps from the streambed atop the cliff into the void above the lake.
While you can unhitch your trailer in the campground and drive your tow vehicle to an overlook and gaze down upon the falls, the hike into the canyon and along the creek – though a bit of a climb on the way out – is worth the extra effort. As impressive as the falls are from above, hikers enjoy a more personal experience, which is really what Arkansas is all about.
Finding Your Way to Arkansas
Getting here is easy. In the middle of the country, Arkansas lurks within range of a single tank of gas from 12 other states. And since another tank of gas will take you and your rolling house anywhere else in Arkansas you want to go, you can stay and play to your heart’s content.
Want to catch a big fish? Arkansas’s got ’em, including world-record brown trout exceeding 35 pounds. There are also bass, crappie, bream, catfish, stripers, rainbows and more. Any day will do; fishing season never ends in Arkansas.
What about history? The biggest Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River was fought in the northwestern corner of the state and is reenacted annually during the first weekend of December. Then, too, there are Indian mounds, old plantations and General of the Army Douglas MacArthur’s birthplace, to list a few historical attractions.
How about scenery? There are places you can hike to or drive to where it seems possible to stand in one spot and see the entire state. While that’s not quite literally true, these promontories provide awe-inspiring vistas. Hitch up, come along and let’s explore.
Arkansas’s capital and largest city is an obvious place to begin, since it’s located almost dead center of the state. Few, if any, attractions in Arkansas are more than a three-hour drive from the state’s seat of government.
Little Rock and its companion city across the river, North Little Rock, are both great towns for a stroll. In Little Rock itself the River Market spreads along the waterfront with specialty shops and restaurants. If you don’t want to walk through town, take the trolley. It’s cheap, runs every few minutes all day long, and can drop you close to many downtown attractions.
Across the water, North Little Rock’s riverside walk is a more park-like setting. It winds past the baseball stadium where some of the best semi-pro ball in the country is played during the summer. For very reasonable prices – less than $50 for a family of four – you can have a great afternoon or evening at the ballpark.
Other things to see include Bill Clinton’s presidential library ($7 admission for adults) and the little rock on the river for which the city was named. Probably the best campground in the area is the North Little Rock KOA (501-758-4598, www.koa.com) at exit 148 on Interstate 40, just a few miles from downtown North Little Rock.
Getting out of Town
Pleasant as it is, Little Rock is probably not what lured you to Arkansas. After seeing the sights in the city, it’s time to find out what Arkansas is really about. It’s called the Natural State for many good reasons, the state park system being perhaps the best of these.
Arkansas boasts a 52-unit state park system, 31 of which offer RV camping with hook-ups, encompassing a little of everything from the lowlands along the Mississippi River to the trout streams of the Ozark Mountains. There is no better way to experience Arkansas than to explore these parks. Broken down by region, here’s a quick look at 11 parks, all except one with camping facilities.
The Mississippi River, its bayous and the long oxbow lakes cut off from the river dominate this part of Arkansas. Seventeen of Arkansas’s parks fall in this part of the state.
Village Creek State Park
Swimming, fishing and hiking are the dominant activities in this unique hardwood forest, along with a brand-new 27-hole golf course that opened in 2008. Bicycle rentals are available for use on a 32-mile trail system (7 miles are reserved for hikers; the rest are multi-use). Boat rentals are available. Exit 242 on Interstate 40, north 13 miles on Arkansas 284. (870) 238-9406.
Creek State Park
Fishing, hiking, birding and canoeing are just some of what await in this park, both on a lake and on Bayou Bartholomew, the world’s longest bayou. Because this park is located in one of the parts of Arkansas that gets steamier during the summer months, there is an enclosed, climate-controlled public-use pavilion. Rental canoes, kayaks and bicycles are available. This is a really good bet for spring and fall if you want to avoid the heat and humidity. Five miles east of Star City on Arkansas 293. (870) 628-4714.
This 20-mile-long oxbow is Arkansas’s largest natural lake. In the center of the Mississippi Flyway, this park offers some of the best bird-watching in the state. Fishing for catfish is great year-round, and crappie, bass and bream are popular on the upper end of the lake in spring and fall. Rental boats and motors are available. Eight miles northeast of Lake Village on Arkansas 144. (870) 265-5480.
Here the alluvial plains along the Mississippi give way to the more mountainous terrain in the western part of the state. Access is easy because most of the state’s major highways converge in or around Little Rock. Eleven of Arkansas’s parks fall within this part of the state.
Petit Jean State Park
This is my favorite state park in Arkansas, simply because it seems to have everything that I enjoy: hiking, swimming (in a pool), fishing, camping, boating and an automobile museum just outside the park’s gate. Plus the scenery is pretty spectacular. This park is home to the waterfall described earlier and a loop drive offering vistas spanning hundreds of square miles. Take exit 108 on Interstate-40 and follow the signs 21 miles to the park. (501) 727-5441, www.petitjeanstatepark.com. Lake Ouachita State Park This impoundment is the largest lake within Arkansas, a 40,000-acre outdoor playground of clear water for fishing, boating, scuba diving and swimming. Rental boats, covered slips and dock space are available. From Hot Springs, go three miles west on U.S. 270, then 12 miles north on Arkansas 12. (501) 767-9366.
DeGray Lake Resort State Park
This park combines resort amenities with the great outdoors. A 13,800-acre lake offers all manner of water sports. A full-service marina can rent you a boat or provide the services for your own. Duffers will find an 18-hole course available for very reasonable green fees – $17 on weekdays and $22 on weekends. Take exit 78 on I-30 and go seven miles north on Scenic Byway 7. (501) 865-2801, www.degray.com.
Fifteen of Arkansas’s parks reside in this region, including the two special ones listed here. Dominating the terrain in this part of the state are the Ouachita Mountains and the Ouachita National Forest.
Diamonds State Park
This is the only place in the United States where you can dig for diamonds – $6.50 for adults and $3.50 for kids. You can rent digging tools or bring your own. Visitors found more than a third of the 75,000 diamonds discovered here since 1906, by sifting through a 37.5-acre diamond search area. Two miles south of Murfreesboro on Arkansas 301. (870) 285-3113, www.craterofdiamondsstatepark.com.
This bird-watcher’s delight is a series of tree-filled sloughs meandering through marshes and oxbows. The fishing is superb and bird watchers will thrill at the bald eagles that winter in this park. A marina with boat rentals is available. For those more attuned to land than water, there are hiking and bicycle trails. Sixteen miles north of Texarkana on U.S. 71, then nine miles east on Arkansas 32. (870) 898-2800.
Some would say that I saved the best for last when describing three of the nine parks in and around the Ozark Mountains. It would be hard to disagree. The Ozarks, especially when the fall colors touch to the hardwoods, can rightfully be described as some of the best Arkansas has to offer.
Devil’s Den State Park
Caves, crevices and overlooks lure hikers and backpackers onto trails in this park, along with a small lake that tempts anglers. One of the oldest parks in the state system, it also offers a fairly large number of campsites. It’s hard to beat the scenery and the solitude. From Fayetteville, take I-540 south to exit 53, then 17 miles southwest of Arkansas 170. This is the closest park with camping facilities to Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park (479-846-2990, www.arkansasstateparks.com/prairie grovebattlefield), the site of the historic Civil War battle described earlier. (479) 761-3325.
River State Park
If it’s big fish you’re after, this park tops the list. Here lurk world-record brown trout with rainbows and other species. Many of the campsites are along the river below the dam, and rental boats are available for the reservoir. From Mountain Home, go six miles north on Arkansas 5, then eight miles west on Arkansas 178. (870) 445-3629.
Stay For a
Camping costs are the same throughout the system. A full hook-up site with 50-amp power in 2008 was $27 a day; with 30-amp power, $24 a day. Dry camping sites were $10 a day. There are reduced rates available at some parks during the colder months. Most parks are open year-round. And while you’re getting around Arkansas, don’t overlook some of the day-use parks. Many of the historic-site parks, for example, lack camping facilities. My favorite day-use park, though, has to be Pinnacle Mountain State Park, (501-868-5806, www.partnersforpinnacle.org), a few miles west of Little Rock. If you’re up to a rocky scramble of a hike, take the trail to the summit of Pinnacle Mountain. When you get to the top and look out over all of central Arkansas, you’ll know in an instant why this is called
the Natural State.