Spectacular sunrises, sunsets and views to admire all day long at three great escapes into nature.
By Hope S. Philbrick
On a recent trip through Arkansas, a busload of travel writers checked into lodges at three Arkansas state parks: Mount Magazine, DeGray Lake Resort and Petit Jean.
Traveling to all three parks from Hot Springs or Little Rock means driving on Highways 7, 59 and 154—in any direction, it’s a picturesque route that curves in pleasant arcs (not hairpin turns) through forests and past photogenic vistas. (One of our passengers, an avid motorcyclist, noted that the meandering drive would especially appeal to bikers.)
All three state park lodges offer comfortable accommodations at prices lower than comparable hotels along with on-site dining, miles of hiking trails plus a bevy of other activities, and great views. So pack your bag and get ready to explore.
Mount Magazine State Park
All writers dream of finding the perfect place to write—we manage to write in buses, on escalators, in coffee shops, on napkins in bars, on notebooks kept by our bed in case inspiration strikes at 2 a.m., and in messy offices (most often, at a frantic pace in order to meet a deadline). But we dream of finding a comfortable place where we can escape the distractions of daily life, get inspired and focus. The right place, we imagine, will help words flow easily. As a travel writer, I often find places to dream about re-visiting. But one look out my guestroom window at The Lodge at Mount Magazine State Park and it leapt to the top of my list of dream writing destinations. I believe that in a month here, I could write a best-seller. It’s got all the essentials—a desk, electrical outlets, a bed, a bathtub, a mini ‘frig, the Skycrest restaurant (which serves rather impressive classic Southern cuisine), and a view that lies waiting to serve as a muse.
But you need not be a writer to fall in love with the place.
Mount Magazine State Park sits atop the state’s tallest mountain, 2,753 feet above sea level. The Lodge overlooks the Petit Jean River Valley and Blue Mountain Lake and delivers at least 180 degrees of “Wow!” While the majestic view alone is enough to admire, The Lodge kicks the experience of staying overnight into the first-class realm. All 60 rooms are aligned on one side of the resort so every one faces the primo view—which means, as an added bonus, you won’t have noisy kids across the hall, since there is no room across the hall!
While many state parks nationwide are equal in quality to those roadside motels that brag about offering color TV, the sorts of places where old linens go to die, The Lodge at Mount Magazine, which opened May 2006, offers true upscale lodging. Towels are thick, sweet-smelling and absorbent. Sheets are crisp yet soft. Carpets feel clean to bare feet—in fact, every surface looks, smells and feels clean. Forty rooms offer balconies and 17 include spa tubs. Walls are thick enough that it’s difficult to hear your neighbors. And staff members’ genuine enthusiasm for the place shines through all services. It’s a happy place with conference facilities, an indoor swimming pool, fitness center, gift shop and oodles of activity options.
Within its 2,234 acres, Mount Magazine State Park offers challenging hiking, horseback riding, cycling, hang gliding, rock climbing, mountain biking, and geocaching as well as swimming, fishing, picnicking, wildlife viewing, bird watching, wildflower photography and sightseeing opportunities.
This is a place where you can get inspired, find adventure or simply relax.
DeGray Lake Resort State Park
Next time you’re lugging your recycling down to the curb and find yourself wondering if it’s really worth the effort, book a visit to DeGray Lake Resort State Park and sign up for an Eagle Watch boat tour. While you float on crystal blue water, spy bald eagles sailing overhead, breathe deep the fresh air, and listen to a ranger like Jason Parrie—who educates with a hefty dose of humor—detail the wonders of the surroundings, you’ll find yourself appreciating the earth anew and wondering what more you can do to Go Green.
Located in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains on DeGray Lake’s north shore, Arkansas’ only resort state park combines resort amenities with outdoor adventure. The Lodge sits on its own island and offers breathtaking views of the distant mountains and the 13,800-acre lake. Each of the 94 guestrooms is appointed with a flat screen TV, complimentary Internet access, and other conveniences like a mini ‘frig, coffee maker, blow dryer and more. The Lodge also offers a pool, hot tub, fitness center, day spa, and the Shoreline Restaurant (which serves American fare with a Southern twist).
The rooms are comfortable, but the main attraction here is the great outdoors. Spend time fishing, boating, snorkeling or lounging on the beach. Ride a bike. Play golf. Go bird watching, hiking or geocaching. Play volleyball, horseshoes, basketball or tennis. You can also take advantage of a variety of programs that change with the seasons (many of which are free), such as guided lake cruises, kayak tours, snorkeling excursions, guided hikes, wildlife demonstrations, nature programs, outdoor workshops, arts and crafts events, owl prowls, square dances and more.
This is a place where you can kick back and say ahhh or play hard, whatever suits your mood.
Petit Jean State Park
As if the rustic natural beauty of this place weren’t enough to grab your heartstrings, the history of Petit Jean State Park includes a 300-year-old story about a French girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to secretly accompany her explorer fiancé to the New World only to die before they could be married. So the unlucky girl had to settle for being buried in the place she loved at first sight, a place that went on to become Arkansas’ first state park, and a place that you’ll likely love at first sight, too.
Sure to sweep you off your feet, Petit Jean State Park boasts many distinctive, photogenic natural features like steep cliffs, rock formations, a canyon, grotto, natural bridge, and a dramatic 95-foot waterfall. The park is home to pristine, virgin forest, rare plants and wildlife. There are seven hiking trails which range from a quarter-mile to 12 miles in length. And, of course, Jean’s gravesite.
Lake Bailey offers fishing, kayaking and pedal boating. The park also has many historic, manmade facilities built starting in 1933 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).
Mather Lodge is an Adirondack-style building that offers 24 guestrooms, a swimming pool, and a restaurant overlooking Cedar Creek Canyon. The Lodge reopened in May 2012 after renovations that updated the ‘60s décor with contemporary rustic design features and modern amenities like free Wi-Fi.
This is a place to grasp and celebrate the romance of the forest.
Odds of Encountering Children: Children and teens are, of course, allowed at Arkansas state parks. Visit when school is in session for the best chance of a grownup getaway. But the good news is that even if you encounter lots of kids at the park when you visit, you’ll be surrounded by miles of hiking trails and hundreds of acres so a physical and mental escape is possible.
When To Go: Any time. But for moderate temperatures and optimum leaf-watching, an autumn trip would be ideal. Luckily, that coincides with school being back in session.
DeGray Lake Resort State Park
Eagle watching is best from the end of October through February, with peak opportunities in November and December.
2013 rates: golf $19-29; bikes $3/hour; boat tours $9/adult; kayak tours $15/adult; snorkel tours $20/adult; The Lodge $85-$100/night for 2 adults; campsites $19/night; yurt $55/night.
Mount Magazine State Park
In addition to The Lodge, there are 18 campsites and 13 cabins that range from one to three bedrooms available for rent.
2013 rates: Bike rentals from $4.50/hour; campsites $19-30/day; The Lodge $100-$219/night for 2 adults; cabins $200-475/night.
Petit Jean State Park
In addition to Mather Lodge, there are 33 cabins (21 with kitchens) available for rent; some are CCC-era rustic while others are more modern. There are also 125 campsites and a yurt.
2013 rates: Mather lodge $70-$75; cabins $80-$185; campsites $19-$50; yurt $55.
Within the Arkansas State Park system, there’s also a lodge at Ozark Folk Center State Park. And Queen Wilhelmina State Park is scheduled to reopen its lodge late 2013.
Beyond lodges, Arkansas boasts many state parks with overnight accommodation options: 31 offer campsites and 12 have cabins.
-Photo Credits: Petit Jean State Park photos by Chuck Haralson; Mount Magazine State Park photos and DeGray Lake Resort State Park photos courtesy of the respective state parks and Arkansas State Parks.
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.