Arkansas state parks are a $1 billion tourism magnet that attracted a record-setting 8 million visitors in 2022.
With those numbers as a backdrop, state tourism leaders will celebrate 100 years of Arkansas parks on Wednesday where it all began — Petit Jean Mountain.
Today’s 3,471-acre Petit Jean State Park started with a small but spectacular donation of 80 acres surrounding Cedar Falls and part of Cedar Creek Canyon in 1923.
“The state park system began with that view and the preservation of Cedar Creek Canyon,” said Shea Lewis, director of Arkansas State Parks.
That landmark gift to the state, which includes the famed 95-foot waterfall on Cedar Creek, was the
seed that grew into 52 parks covering more than 55,000 acres across 49 counties.
The nine-member group of landowners who donated the property included seven Morrilton businessmen — A.C. Neal, A.J. Stephens, R.M. Huie, V.V. Hellums, Clifton Moose, A.C. Stover and M.M. Scroggin — along with W.J. Parks and E. Hale of Pine Bluff.
Wednesday marks the centennial of Act 276, which enabled the commissioner of state lands to accept land donations for state parks and the creation of the first and most popular state park in Arkansas.
Last year, more than 1.4 million day-use visitors spent time at Petit Jean State Park. Camping, cabin and lodge guests pushed the total to more than 1.5 million.
In advance of the 100th anniversary fete at Petit Jean, the Arkansas Legislature commemorated by resolution the history and contributions of state parks to the quality of life in the Natural State.
The 94th General Assembly also applauded Arkansas State Parks showcasing the state’s “cherished natural, historical and cultural resources.”
The public gathering on Wednesday will feature a cast of government officials at Petit Jean’s Mather Lodge and serve as a kickoff for a series of celebratory events for Arkansas State Parks.
“I’m just so excited,” Lewis said of the centennial festivities. “I’ve worked for State Parks for 25 years. It’s a part of who I am.”
The yearlong birthday bash will promote notable events and upgrades at some of the most popular state parks in Arkansas.
Lake Catherine State Park will reopen on March 18 after closing on Dec. 1 to accommodate infrastructure improvements and a general sprucing up of facilities.
“We’re coming back online for spring break,” said Jeff King, deputy director of Arkansas State Parks. “We really needed just to close the park, so we could do all the work quickly.”
The 2,180-acre recreational area southeast of Hot Springs ranked as the eighth-most popular state park based on a visitor count of 363,735 last year.
Mount Nebo State Park, covering more than 3,000 acres west of Dardanelle, will host a national mountain biking race May 6-7. Part of the Big Mountain Enduro series, the event is a first for an Arkansas State Park.
The race course at Mount Nebo is part of a monument trail network for world-class mountain biking that includes Hobbs State Park Conservation Area, a 12,056-acre recreation area east of Rogers; Devil’s Den, the 2,500-acre state park south of Fayetteville; and Pinnacle Mountain State Park west of Little Rock. The new visitor center at the 2,356-acre Pinnacle Mountain State Park should be open by fall, barring any more delays caused by supply chain issues.
“We’re in full work with exhibitory,” Lewis said. “The mission of the park is environmental education. We want the exhibits to set the stage for that experience.”
For visitors who want to virtually experience climbing Pinnacle Mountain, Arkansas State Parks will make that happen.
It is producing videos to show a hiker’s-eye trail view ascending and descending the mountain, which rises to a peak of 1,011 feet. The popular 1.5-mile up-and-back western summit trail, which covers an elevation change of 725 feet, is among the steepest in Arkansas.
The natural eye candy captured on camera will include a 360-degree perspective from atop Pinnacle Mountain to take in the vistas of Lake Maumelle, the Ouachita Mountains, the Arkansas River Valley and the wooded western environs of Little Rock.
In east Arkansas, progress on the build-out of the 84.5-mile Delta Heritage Bike Trail continues.
“We’re still on pace for a 2025 completion,” King said. “It’s something I’ve worked on for 15 years.”
A 9-mile stretch of rails-to-trails work between the Phillips County communities of Elaine and Melwood is 75% complete and should open in the summer.
Work on a 12-mile section of former railroad bed between Melwood and the Desha County community of Snow Lake is 15% complete and expected to be finished by year’s end. “That’s going to get us another 21 miles this year,” King said.
Retrofitting the Yancopin Bridge over the Arkansas River — part of a 1.9-mile section — is the next big piece of the project to tackle. “We will be bidding that out this summer,” King said. “It’s estimated to cost between $12 million and $13 million. We’re hoping that holds true.”
The former railroad bridge is the first of two river spans that will be converted to accommodate foot and bike traffic. Next up will be the Benzal Bridge over the White River.
The two bridges will provide links to traverse the 10,268-acre Trusten Holder State Wildlife Management Area. Work on the White River bridge is part of the 13.4-mile section between Snow Lake and the Arkansas River bridge that will complete the Delta Heritage Trail.
The southern end of this stretch borders a swath of huge bottomland forest, the 160,756-acre Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge. In addition to the river bridges, future work will retrofit a 400-foot trestle spanning Hole in the Wall Lake north of the White River to accommodate bicycle and foot traffic.
The investment in the biking-hiking trail so far totals $21.8 million.
“This is going to be the single largest investment in a state park,” Lewis said. “The Walton Foundation allowed us to get the matching funds and helped move this forward as fast as it has.”
A $20 million matching grant from the Walton Family Foundation helped Arkansas land a $20.8 million federal grant in November 2021 from the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability & Equity (RAISE) program.
On the western side of the state, Arkansas State Parks is working with the U.S. Forest Service to develop a lengthy trail network between Queen Wilhelmina State Park and Mena. “We’re looking at 120 miles of additional trail,” King said.
Arkansas State Parks is looking at trail proposals in northeast Arkansas to link Lake Frierson State Park with Jonesboro and Crowley’s Ridge State Park with Paragould. Covering the 6-mile gaps between each city and the nearby state parks could lead to future trails linking Jonesboro and Paragould along with the two parks.
“Anytime we can build connectivity between a state park and a city, we want to do that,” Lewis said.