Road Tripping Around Arkansas
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
(This Arkansas road trip was our first foray out during the pandemic, and safety was our priority; therefore, instead of visiting as many museums and attractions as usual, we spent more time hiking—although we did venture into a few museums and attractions with masks on.)
And we were off for our first trip out during Covid-19. When we crossed into Arkansas, we received a warm welcome in the Arkansas Welcome Center on Hwy 30. (One reason that we had chosen to visit Arkansas was the mandatory mask in effect, and we were pleased to notice that everyone was following the law at the Welcome Center.) The woman who was manning the office shared lots of helpful information and brochures and then we were in our way. (Just a note…the restrooms and picnic areas here and throughout Arkansas were very nice.)
We had visited several Arkansas State Parks in the past and were very impressed with their hiking, lakes, cabins, lodges, and sheer friendliness. We were not disappointed this trip.
Our first stop was in Petit Jean State Park. We arrived at the burial site of Petit Jean about 4:30 in the afternoon and paused to stand on the beautiful rock outcropping over the valley far below. The romantic legend tells the story of a young woman who disguised herself as a cabin boy to go with her fiancée to the New World. The sailors called her Petit Jean (Little John) because of her small size.) The sailors, and her fiancée, discovered that she was a woman when she fell ill. Her last request was to be buried on the mountain which was then named after her.
Petit Jean State Park, Arkansas
We had reserved a cabin in the park and were so pleased with the accommodations. The porch swing completed the rustic look of the cabin and gave us a pleasant place to drink coffee both at breakfast and in the evening. Because we had arrived by 4:30, we had time to walk to the Cedar Falls Overlook. The falls were not at their peak since water was scarce by September, but the lookout point was pretty nonetheless. We walked down the main road to get to the trailhead but returned to Mather Lodge via the Winthrop P Rockefeller Boy Scout Trail. We took items for breakfasts and lunches, but we had agreed to order dinner each night. Mather Lodge Restaurant allowed us to call in our order and take it to our cabin. (We would have almost felt comfortable eating in the restaurant itself since they were observing social distancing, but we had agreed not to eat in a restaurant until data showed very little, if any, threat.) The restaurant overlooks the beautiful valley and has a wonderful view of the sunset. From the large, rock-paved overlook at the lodge, we were able to enjoy the gorgeous sunset colors as the dying sun rays peeked over the distant mountains.
The next morning the sun broke on a beautiful day as we began our hike. Thanks to an article by Joe Jacobs on ArkansasOutside.com, we had a list of trails that we wanted to hike before the end of our trip. This list was the 7 most popular treks based on a survey that Joe Jacobs had conducted. Our goal was to do all 7 of them. (https://www.arkansasoutside.com/7-favorite-day-hiking-trails-in-arkansas/)
First on the list was the Seven Hollows Trail. (The first thing to know is that a “hollow” is another word for “valley.”) We were fortunate to gain an unexpected guide, a retired gentleman who hiked the trails frequently and was willing to social distance while sharing information about the trail. Our first major photo stop was at the Natural Stone Arch, a huge, picturesque opening. All along our path we saw turtle rocks, rock formations that look like turtle shells. Although the exact process that makes these formations is not known, the weathered sandstone makes interesting pictures. We climbed over large rocks to reach the Grotto where we stopped for a snack and to enjoy the beautiful view under the large rock overhang. Along the path there were many caves worn in the large overhangs to be discovered…more than enough to warrant another visit. Along our well-marked path, we occasionally heard a babbling brook, even with the dryness of the season. (Upon stopping to listen, I also found that some of the babbling brooks were simply the sloshing of water in my water bottle.) We finished the 4.5-mile hike in 3.5 hours, even with lots of photo and snack stops. I couldn’t sit still so we did the Rock House Cave hike (.25 mile). The Rock House Cave Hike was extremely interesting because of its pictographs made by Native Americans who visited the site between 8000 BC and1600 AD. Thankfully, we finished the hike just as the large raindrops began falling and made our way back to our cozy cabin.
We were fortunate that Scenic Highway 7 was the best route for our drive from Petit Jean to Harrison, our next base. The roads were lined with beautiful yellow wildflowers that framed the scenic views over cliffs and up steep mountains. It only took me one curve to take all speed and sharp curve signs seriously. After all, several of those sharp turns were really U-turns of the highway. Even though we were too early to enjoy the fall foliage, an occasional red-leafed tree popped its head out to give a foreshadowing of the beauty to come.
Our volunteer guide at Petit Jean had recommended the Pedestal Rocks Hike in the Ozark/St. Francis National Forest so we made a short detour to experience it. (On the way, we stopped at the rest area at the Ozark National Forest/St. Francis for clean restrooms and a scenic look at the valley below.) The 2.2-mile hike was a good way to break up our drive. The pedestals are large flat stones balanced on extremely tall rock pedestals caused by weathering. Our trail took us along the bluffs overlooking the formations. The undergrowth made it difficult to see the large pedestal rocks from many perspectives and we didn’t have time to take some of the lower trails that would have allowed us to see the formations from the bottom up. (The hike took us 1.5 hours.)
Crystal Dome and Mystic Caverns Formations
Our next stop was to see both Mystic and Crystal Dome Caverns which are located on the same property. We bought a ticket for both caves and were glad we did since the price was significantly discounted by doing so. Mystic Caverns has been used for tours since sometime before 1928 when visitors had to climb down a wooden ladder into the sinkhole entrance. Thankfully, the entrance is now paved with a gradual slope that lead us to the Pipe Organ, a beautiful 30-foot-tall formation. Mystic was used as a distillery for moonshine during Prohibition and the smoke did extensive damage to the cavern. Between 1938 and 1949, the cave was closed for tours, but the public could come and go as they pleased. Our guide explained that they believe the majority of the damage to the beautiful formations was done during this period. Thousands of stalactites were broken at their bases to sell in rock shops. Between the smoke and the breakage, the cavern is just now beginning to heal itself and new growth can be seen in multiple places. We could tell our guide had great feelings for the cave in the way she told stories and pointed out the sparkling drops on the stalactites showing that growth and healing is, indeed, underway.
The Crystal Dome Cavern was not discovered until 1967 when a bulldozer blade accidentally broke through. This cave is basically one room, but the formations are pristine and sparkling white. The cave’s name comes from the 70-foot formation called the Crystal Bell.
Only a short drive remained to our Airbnb where we called it an early evening since the next day we had lots of hiking on our agenda.
We were fortunate that good weather continued and so we set out early the next morning for the Lost Valley Trail in the Buffalo National River, another trail listed on Jacobs’ “must-dos.” Buffalo National River is divided into three parts—lower, middle, and upper. Lost Valley Trail is in the upper portion which seemed wrong to me when I looked at the map, but…
The trailhead had super-clean restrooms, covered picnic tables, and a smooth, wide pathway along an old riverbed for the first of the trail. In fact, the first portion of the trail is handicapped accessible. The river now runs underground and provided a beautiful view for our hike. The first major stop on the hike was the Natural Bridge, a huge formation that encouraged photos and exploration. Cob Cave is a large cave formed by a rock overhang that gives another fun place to explore. Further along on the path lies Eden Cave which requires some crawling and flashlights but would be worth it for those who want to get a taste of spelunking. We finished the cave in 1.5 hours, ate our picnic lunch, and then headed to Whitaker Point Trail via Hwy 7 and then 6 miles down a rustic, quaint road (aka unpaved and bumpy).
Whitaker's Point Trail (aka Hawksbill Crag)
Whitaker Point Trail, which is 3 miles round trip, culminates at Hawksbill Crag, a very scenic outcropping that hangs over and looks over the valley below. This trail was not as well marked but there were several overlooks at the end for good photo ops. We made it to the crag, and I ventured out for a picture. (The best spot to take pictures is from another rock outcropping that you reach before the crag. The trail was also more crowded than any others that we had taken, but by now it was Friday afternoon and the start of a beautiful weekend. Another hike on Arkansas Outside’s list for us to mark complete. (We finished the trail in a comfortable 2 hours.)
Our Airbnb was located near DeVito’s Restaurant in Harrison, so we picked up dinner two nights from this friendly place. We had both their trout (raised in their own farm) and Italian food. We were impressed by their curbside service and food. We especially loved the pesto trout.
We had one more day with Harrison as our base during which we chose to explore the lower Buffalo Wilderness Area, Yellville, and a few of its trails. (Judging by all I have read and the hundreds of canoes and kayaks, we should go back in the spring when there is more water.) We arrived at the Indian Rock House Trailhead after making a quick stop at the Visitor’s Center that is located about a mile before we arrived. The most impressive part of this 3.3-mile trail was the cave itself. Thousands of years ago, Native Americans went to the cave to cook, eat, and talk. As we explored, I looked around the huge cave and could see visitors still doing the same activities, socially distanced of course. Everywhere we looked were hikers taking a break, exploring, eating, and talking. The trail was easy going in (aka downhill) which means that going out was a little more difficult because, “What goes up, must come down.” It was worth it though for the cave and to see the crystal-clear water in the bathtub formation and working waterfalls in another location. (It would definitely be worthwhile to visit in the spring.) The scenery throughout the hike was amazing. (We finished the trail in 2:21 and marked another trail as complete.)
Our next hike for the day was across the paved road, Overlook Trail, a 1.5-mile hike overlooking the Buffalo River. Of course, this hike was mostly downhill at first so… This hike was relatively short, but we were able to see the Buffalo National River far below where a few intrepid people were canoeing and kayaking. The hike only took 40 minutes and then we headed back to Harrison with a stop at Maplewood Cemetery. Although the cemetery is famous for its fall foliage, we enjoyed walking through this very large and very beautiful final resting spot. In the fall, the 700+ sugar maples that were planted here, display hues of red, orange, and yellow as a backdrop for the marble and granite reminders of those who have gone before.