To minimize my off-topic rambling, I’m covering my trip to Petit Jean State Park in two posts: this one about the hiking, and Petit Jean State Park: the nerdy perspective to cover the geology we saw along the way!
My friend Jackie and I had been trying to put together a camping getaway for a few weeks. On the recommendation of Jackie’s friends, we finally made the commitment and the three-hour drive to head west to Petit Jean SP, near Morrilton, Arkansas. It’s hard to tell from the campsite map but Jackie and I both would recommend camping in the secluded, shady Loop C and Loop D campsites over the wide open Loop A and B sites. Not that we could tell when we finally made it to the park at 11 pm.
Walking along the paths of Petit Jean State Park feels like someone took all the most gorgeous parts of four or five similarly sized parks and spliced them together into a highlights reel. Around every corner there’s a jaw-dropping view, a waterfall, a thundering 90-foot waterfall, a rock shelter, or an adorable little brook, and every patch of turtle rocks is more turtle-y than the last. Jackie and I thought her friends were exaggerating as they described it but they sure weren’t!
Petit Jean State Park has the distinction of being the first state park in Arkansas, founded in 1923 and endowed with lodges and trails by the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. On Saturday the two of us linked five of those trails in the park into an 8-mile loop.
We started down the Cedar Falls trail early in the morning, hoping to beat the crowds. Several families were already heading downhill, and we ran into my next-door neighbors too. Small world! The trail is rocky but obviously the Civilian Conservation Corps put a lot of hard work into it – the path has dozens of rock steps. It’s beautiful too, as it follows a rocky little creek.
Cedar Falls was worth every bit of the hype. Torrential rains on the Thursday and early Friday before we arrived meant that the falls were flowing at full blast! Look for the people in the photo below for scale…
By the time we left the falls at 10:30, we felt like salmon struggling upstream as we squeezed past a solid line of families bound for the waterfall. Back at the bridge, instead of heading back up to the trail head we took the Cedar Canyon trail west. A few hundred feet past the intersection with the Cedar Falls trail we might have been in our own personal jungle – not another person in sight! This shady trail follows the creek down the valley, with some beautiful views of the flowing water, giant fallen boulders from the cliffs, and lizards hanging out on the rocks. Definitely wear long pants if you want to hike this one – the poison ivy was lush and thriving, but so were the wildflowers. We stopped at a convenient flat rock by the stream to have lunch, which we shared with a flock of very small blue butterflies.
Technically, the Cedar Canyon trail dead-ends into the Boy Scout Trail at a sturdy set of stepping stones across the creek. However the massive rainstorms on Thursday and Friday which made the waterfalls so spectacular also raised the creek above the level of the stepping stones. So we got wet. The water was freezing cold and actually pretty refreshing in the noonday heat.
The Boy Scout trail from the stream back up to the road is steeply uphill and an excellent leg workout. On one of our breaks to get some air back into our lungs, we met this little green tree frog taking a siesta!
The Seven Hollows trail is a dangerous place to go with a photographer and a rock-climbing geologist. The trail map said it was a 2 to 4 hour hike– we spent almost 6 on it. We hiked it backwards according the the trail map (counter-clockwise), which turned out to be perfect timing. Most of the families and other hikers we passed hiking to Cedar Falls did that trail as an out-and-back and then drove to the Seven Hollows trailhead to hike it clockwise after lunch. In the first mile of the trail we passed several exhausted-looking groups, and then we pretty much had our own personal trail! That first bit of our hike on that trail (Map miles 4 to 3) descended into one of the seven hollows the trail is named after – 50-foot cliffs rose on either side of the trail, full of hidden caves and swallow nests. It was so peaceful with the burbling stream at our feet and the birds singing. Not to mention, that mile is all downhill.
After “map mile” 3, the trail started to rise into the pine trees and sandstone clearings on top of the ridge. Jackie was so patient with me, because I’m the kind of person who wants to climb every boulder that I safely can, and there was no shortage of boulders.
The one downside of this trail is that it easily becomes a stream in wet weather like we had in the days before our trip, and especially from our “backwards” perspective the path that looks the nicest may actually be incorrect. Jackie and I spent an idyllic (and flat) ten minutes strolling down what turned out to be a trail to private property before noticing the absence of blue blazes. We retraced our steps to discover we should have taken the left-hand fork: the nearly vertical, soaking wet, bare rock face that was actually the trail. Oops.
That slippery slope is totally worth it, though because it leads to the highlight of this section of the trail: The Grotto. You reach it via a narrow, rocky spur off of the main trail that opens up into a rock shelter and cascade that look like a scene straight out of The Land Before Time.
I took a side trail up above the falls, and found a whole herd of turtle rocks!
After the Grotto, the trail turns back uphill has we climbed up the last ridge that the trail crosses before heading north to the trailhead. The peak of this part of the trail has more sandstone clearings and beautiful views to the southeast.
Jackie and I were in a hurry, though, to reach the last big landmark of the hike – a natural bridge. It lived up to the expectations! We hung out there for a while, refueling with trail mix and exploring all the nearby rock formations. For more on how arches like this are formed, you can check out my Red River Gorge post here. Same process, different sandstone!
There aren’t any more landmarks noted on the park map after the natural bridge, but if you keep your eye out there are two caves in the sandstone cliff on between the bridge and the trail head. After the two caves, at about “map mile” 0.5, there’s a well-beaten path that appears to dead-end in a cliff wall. If you take a sharp left at the “dead-end” and are comfortable scaling a short 5.4 climb, there are some spectacular turtle rocks up top and you can see for miles. The golden late-afternoon light and our haze of exhaustion made it really seem magical. Jackie and obviously need to hike more often so 7 miles doesn’t turn our legs to jelly.
The only downside of the Seven Hollows trail is that it ends in a long uphill climb whichever direction you do it in. Another mile up the trail we basked for a while in the evening sun, like two very tired lizards, on top of the rock formations at Bear Cave before making the last 1/2 mile push to the end.
^ The view from the top of the Bear Cave area, and Jackie climbing down
We celebrated with soda and junk food at Mather Lodge around 7pm and then drove back to Bear Cave for a great tour of the area with interpreter BT Jones and 53 other visitors. It was definitely worth it to hear the stories of the pioneer days of the area and to make a giant echo off of the walls of Cedar Creek Canyon.
We slept very well that night, and threw out the pipe dream of waking up to see the sunrise. We got up just early enough to pack up camp and start the Cedar Creek loop trail bright and early at 8 AM, when we had it all to ourselves! This trail is has a brochure that indicates that it’s a self guided tour (you can find it here), but Jackie and I couldn’t find stops 3, 4, or 5. The entire trail look like Middle Earth in the early morning light, it was really magical.
After lingering on this loop for an hour and a half, we piled back into the car for a driving tour around the overlooks in the park.
We had one last hiking stop – the trail down to the Rock Cave archaeological site. It winds through a phenomenal field of turtle rocks…
Jackie and I had one last stop as we headed out of the park: Stout’s Point and Petit Jean’s gravesite.
The name of Petit Jean Mountain and its park have a sweet and possibly even true backstory. The area was first explored by French traders, and the story goes that one of these traders had a particularly devoted sweetheart. Unbeknownst to him, who would have forbidden her to come if he knew, she sneaked onto his ship in the guise of the cabin boy “Petit Jean”. Her disguise held up and she was able to at least be close to him until the story took a tragic turn as they headed up the Arkansas river. She came down with a sudden illness, and only as she was dying did those caring for her discover her secret. Her last wish was to be buried on top of the magnificent lookout she saw from the river, and her grieving trader carried it out.
That lookout is now called Stout’s Point, after the Episcopal minister who led the effort to settle the mountain with white pioneers.
Jackie and I didn’t want to leave the park – we agreed that we needed a break in the space-time continuum to add another day to the weekend. Unfortunately we had to face reality and head back east, but now Petit Jean State Park has two more passionate promoters!