Petit Jean State Park near Morrilton, Arkansas, is the oldest state park in the state and is conveniently located near I-40 about one hour west of Little Rock. This is a park that warrants making a detour or even special trip to visit, though my visit occurred serendipitously as I enjoyed a long driving trip along I-40. Situated atop Petit Jean Mountain, the park offers a year-round display of peaceful beauty and activities for everyone.
Arriving in foggy and cool weather, I was happy to find the Mather Lodge restaurant open for lunch and vacancies at the lodge for a cabin with a fireplace. A bowl of stew served with homemade cornbread warmed me immediately, and the purchase of an extra load of firewood and a starter log continued the warming process through the afternoon and evening, as I retreated to my cabin to read and enjoy the falling rain while cozying up to my wood fire. Many of the cabins have a kitchen, though I did not need one. The restaurant is open daily from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., with shorter hours in the winter months. Artists have been making their way to Petit Jean Mountain for over sixty years.
Though cool mists still shrouded the Park the next morning, I enjoyed the walk to the scenic Cedar Falls Overlook and a short hike down the Cedar Creek Trail. I stopped in the Visitor Center for a map of the many well-marked trails, as well as information about rental of camping sites, rooms, cabins and boats. Tennis courts, basketball courts and a pool are centrally located for fair weather enjoyment. Located only about a mile from the Mather Lodge, the visitor center also has a small museum attached to the gift shop. Bird watching is a favorite activity, as well as viewing the serene beauty from the windows of the dining room at Mather Lodge. Whatever you do, don’t miss the breakfasts here. The biscuits are homemade, and the gravy is delicious. Grits lovers will enjoy it, too.
In addition to the more traditional lodging options at the Petit Jean State Park, those who wish to camp and don’t have equipment are offered either Rent-A-Camp or Rent-A-Tepee packages, which include a tent/tepee, mats, canoe, camp stove and other camping gear. Small stores offering picnic and grocery supplies and firewood are located near the park.
Hiking trails of varying lengths entice visitors to explore them.
Another rather unusual housing option available is the Winthrop Rockefeller Conference Center located about 5 miles away from the Park on the grounds of the late Governor Winthrop Rockefeller’s farm, called Winrock, on Petit Jean Mountain. Guests can stay in the well-appointed rooms, suites, and even fully-furnished houses. While often booked for conferences, meetings, and workshops, the rooms are available to all visitors wishing a leisurely getaway, when availability permits. Once famous for its Santa Gertrudis cattle, the Winrock enterprise now is primarily an agricultural foundation.
The car buff in the family will enjoy the nearby Museum of Automobiles, also founded by the late Governor Rockefeller. It features some of his personal cars and displays other classics. It is open year-round from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.. Only a half mile away from the museum is Barnyard Friends, home to a petting zoo and pony rides that are sure to please any youngster.