The Once and Future Mather Lodge

June 9, 2011
Restaurant after demo 3/12/11

Restaurant after demo 3/12/11

Restaurant during demo 2/17/11

Restaurant during demo 2/17/11

Restaurant pre-demo 12/8/10

Restaurant pre-demo 12/8/10

On December 1, 2010, Petit Jean State Park’s historic Mather Lodge closed its doors – but not forever.  The lodge closed for more than a year’s restoration, renovation and major rebuilding.  On the first of December, for the first time in nearly a half-century, the day had come again to begin construction on a modern new restaurant to adjoin the old lodge – a restaurant designed by architects to capture the park spirit and “parkitecture” of the original Mather Lodge’s rough-hewn, large stone and log structure.  The upcoming restaurant will offer a spacious and modern facility that is larger, more capable of seating guests and groups and will include a 75-person conference/dining room.  The next Mather Lodge Restaurant, due to be completed in spring 2012, as well as restoration of the original, historic Mather Lodge, mark yet another significant stepping stone into the interesting future of Arkansas State Parks.

Mather Lodge was originally completed in 1935, one of several Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) projects put in place during the first building phase of Petit Jean State Park.  In keeping with a nationwide park trend of offering rustic yet gracious amenities to the visiting public, a restaurant was built on the northern side of the lodge just off the main fireplace lobby.  A small kitchen, complete with wood stove for heat, adjoined the restaurant just north of the dining room’s large stone chimney. Hired cooks prepared meals for visiting groups, or sometimes the visitors came in, by reservation, and cooked up their own meals.  The old restaurant dining room is called the CCC Room today and will continue to be visited for its historic significance.

Dining Guests at Original Restaurant 1950s (Not being removed, now called the CCC room)

Dining Guests at Original Restaurant 1950s (Not being removed, now called the CCC room)

By the mid 1950s, the baby boom was underway, and parks were experiencing a swell in attendance but with deteriorating resources.  On the federal level a project called Mission 66, lasting from 1955 through 1966, drew funding for major recreational improvements nationwide, while Arkansas State Parks initiated improvements of their own.  In 1958, a swimming pool was constructed in the courtyard just behind Mather Lodge.  Six years after, in 1964, a second, larger Mather Lodge Restaurant was constructed adjoining the original lodge.  This was the restaurant that served the public until December 1, 2010.  The Mather Lodge Restaurant built during the baby boom era was extremely spacious by 1960s standards and featured plank beams in a vaulted ceiling above the dining area and an incredible view through large windows of the park’s lower canyon looking west toward the Arkansas River Valley.  Many today remember dining or conferencing there.

By the turn of the century, Arkansas State Park visitation was higher than ever.  Petit Jean State Park alone had approximately a half million visitors every year.  On a busy day during the first decade of the 2000s, parking space near the lodge was limited, the Mather Lodge Restaurant was often packed with people, and lines formed getting into the few restroom facilities available.  It was time, yet again, to meet public demand with more up-to-date park facilities.

The last photo of the 1964 Restaurant (tables & chairs removed).

The last photo of the 1964 Restaurant (tables & chairs removed).

As of this writing, the construction of the new Mather Lodge Restaurant, designed by Little Rock firm SCM Architects is well underway.  The foundation has been laid, and the SAMCO Construction Company, based in Cabot, Arkansas, is at work sealing the base and readying the outer building.  The SCM Architectural firm describes the project as follows:

“An interior and exterior renovation is underway at historic Mather Lodge which will expand the hospitality offerings of Petit Jean State Park. A new inviting lobby and restaurant waiting area will provide improved access and increase the lodge’s capacity to welcome guests and operate efficiently. The existing restaurant and kitchen, built in 1964, will be demolished and replaced by the new lobby, new restaurant and new kitchen. The lobby and restaurant will feature exposed log construction, use of natural materials, and extensive glass window walls to provide a full view of the natural beauty surrounding Mather Lodge. The addition will also include lodge and restaurant offices, a private dining room, and public restrooms, as well as a new pool and new outdoor spaces.”

Looking at the new addition from the west. The current lobby (historic) is to the right of the restaurant, the rest of the lodge is out of frame.

Looking at the new addition from the west. The current lobby (historic) is to the right of the restaurant, the rest of the lodge is out of frame.

Arkansas’s first state park proudly welcomes this next step into the future.  Since the park’s beginning in 1923, Petit Jean has been a place for lifelong memories to be made.  Petit Jean State Park offers calming, scenic views, hikes along a diverse series of beautiful park trails, comfortable, rustic cabins and lodge rooms, great camping spots and – in the near future – a fine, new, hospitable lodge restaurant to enjoy at leisure.  We welcome everyone to join us at Mather Lodge in the coming years for some of the best moments of your lives.

(note: Although the lodge & restaurant are unavailable during new construction, the cabins are available. Contact the park for more information.)

BT Jones, Park Interpreter

BT Jones, Park Interpreter

BT Jones is a park interpreter at Petit Jean State Park and has worked there since 2005.  He holds a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  BT is a member of the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) and holds a Certified Interpretive Guide credential.  He is also a Leave No Trace (LNT) master educator and works as an advocate for Arkansas wilderness as a wilderness ranger.  BT’s pasttimes are nature and wildlife photography, hiking and backpacking, and helping to preserve Arkansas’s wilderness and natural areas.  He most enjoys hiking with park visitors and presenting programs on Petit Jean’s natural and historical features.


An Adventure in Spring

April 5, 2010
The main trailhead for three of the trails at Lake Catherine.

The main trailhead for three of the trails at Lake Catherine.

Spring has come to the park once again. I love the smells and sounds of this time of year. There are tiny buds all over the trees. The spring birds are back and filling up the air with their songs.  The winter bleakness is behind us. The warm air hits my face as I hike on one of our trails here at Lake Catherine State Park. I decide to hike Falls Branch.

There is so much to see on this trail. There is a nice little creek that greets you at the beginning. There are a series o f bridges that you must cross to traverse the trail. In front of me, I find a fern garden. The fiddleheads are poking through.

As I start to climb upwards I am greeted by the novaculite glade. Novaculite is a very special rock found in Hot Springs. The Native Americans used this rock extensively in their everyday life. You may know it as the knife sharpening stone or whetstone. This rock weathers very slowly.

I continue on my journey stopping for a moment at a bench to rest and take a drink. There is a slight breeze blowing that gently pushes my hair from my face. I hike on. There is a group of rocks to my left that overlooks the area I just came from, I affectionately nicknamed them the Pulpit Rock as I can imagine someone standing in front of them and reading a verse or two.

Serviceberry is one of the early blooms of spring.

Serviceberry is one of the early blooms of spring.

There is no creek on top of the mountain right now, but I know that I will pick up Falls Creek Falls soon. Upwards I climb, I pass the intersection of where Falls Branch meets Horseshoe Mountain and I know that I am on the downward stretch.  All around the Serviceberry has bloomed. I hear that they received their name because of the early days when there were traveling preachers, this was the bloom that coincided with the first services of the year as the snow melted and roads became passable again.  I start hearing the creek and I know that I will be on the home stretch soon.

There are many downed trees from previous storms around me and I am in awe to see the root system that they have and know that this tree had stood for 50 years before an ice storm or a mighty wind took it down.

Sitting and listening to Falls Creek Falls is a great way to spend an early spring day.

Sitting and listening to Falls Creek Falls is a great way to spend an early spring day.

CCC steps along the trail.

CCC steps along the trail.

As I continue my journey down, I start seeing the series of waterfalls that will lead to the major waterfall. One waterfall has moss growing down and the water drips off the moss into the pool below.  I watch my footing as I descend steps built by the Civilian Conservation Corps many  years ago. Finally, I am at the waterfall. It is flowing pretty well as we had rain and it filled the creek. I take a few pictures and head on. I am almost to the finish now.  I see the lake in front of me and then there is Remmel Dam. The dam was built in 1924 and was the first hydroelectric dam in the state of Arkansas. This dam created Lake Catherine.

The Swinging Bridge on the Falls Branch Trail.

The Swinging Bridge on the Falls Branch Trail.

I come to the swinging bridge. I love this part, wobbling across this bridge that expands over a small ditch.  I round the curve and see Bald Cypress trees to my right. This about the only place in the park that these trees are found. They love wet soil.

I walk on to the parking lot and my journey is finished for now.

Julie Tharp, Park Interpreter

Julie Tharp, Park Interpreter

Julie Tharp is the park interpreter at Lake Catherine State Park and has worked there since 2006. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Parks and Recreation from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville. She is a Certified Interpretive Guide and a member of the National Association for Interpretation. Julie enjoys photography and playing with her dogs in her spare time. She grew up camping in the state parks and likes to share nature with park visitors.


Parks—Places Where “Everlasting Moments” Are Born

March 8, 2010

If you asked me what I ate for dinner yesterday, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t remember. Yet, I can recall in such detail—and with such clarity—encounters I’ve experienced in Arkansas’s state parks over the past 37 years since that winter day in 1973 when I, like so many of my colleagues here at Arkansas State Parks, choose this park system to be my life’s work, too. Those myriad moments—personal, poignant and often profound encounters that I lived through—are always with me. Some occurred in solitude. Others were shared experiences with park visitors, or friends and family. But these encounters when I connected with nature or history, or with another human being whose life was being enhanced by that time in that park, too, are etched in my mind, and in my heart, forever. Like the parks themselves, these memories are something I can always reconnect to. George B. Hartzog , Jr, who served as director of the National Park Service in the 1960s and early 1970s, keenly called these heart-moving minutes in a park that stay with us forever “everlasting moments.”

I’m picturing some of those everlasting park moments right now that occurred in early September in 2002. Back then during the final years of my beloved mother’s life, she lived near my two older sisters in northwest Arkansas. I would often drive from Little Rock to spend a day or two with Mother on weekends. While traveling back to Little Rock late that September afternoon after spending the day with her, I couldn’t shake this sense that I was supposed to take a detour off I-40 and go across Petit Jean Mountain.  As I approached the Russellville Hwy. 7 exit, I gave in to the mountain’s pull, took the detour and headed towards Petit Jean State Park. I’m glad I did.

For over 75 years the overlook behind Mather Lodge at Petit Jean State Park has been a favorite place to watch the sunset.

For over 75 years the overlook behind Mather Lodge at Petit Jean State Park has been a favorite place to watch the sunset.

I hoped to watch the sunset from behind Mather Lodge, the park’s 1930s-era CCC lodge there on the bluff overlooking rugged Cedar Creek Canyon, but I missed being at that vantage point by just minutes. Instead, I watched the sunset through my rearview mirror as I drove along Ark. 154 from Centerville past Holla Bend. The months of August and September are when sunsets viewed from the lodge are often their most dramatic, and it was a spectacular sunset, although not viewed from where I hoped to watch it. I stopped briefly at the lodge, an Arkansas historic treasure where I worked in the mid-70s and which was the setting of so many cherished park memories.  Then, I headed through the park to Stout’s Point on the mountain’s east brow to enjoy the sweeping scenery from that overlook. I walked around the overlook’s elevated walkway and then climbed up a large rock so I could sit and enjoy the view of the Arkansas River and valley below. Twilight darkened to dusk.  As the minutes went by, the night grew darker. Far down below in Morrilton, located there alongside a big curve in the river, the lights of the city were shining brightly. As far as I could see, lights marked where other smaller communities were scattered through the Arkansas landscape.  Those lights were mirrored by stars shining in the clear sky above me.

Eventually, all the other sightseers left, but I was in no hurry to go. That time there in that park was so peaceful, and so perfect.

Then I noticed a man with long dark hair walking along the opposite side of the walkway. He didn’t see me. The man stopped and looked to the east at the view across the Arkansas River. He stood there perfectly still in that position for several minutes. As I watched his dark silhouette against the darkening blue of the night sky, I saw him reach down and pull something out of a long slender bag. He raised the long straight object to his face. Suddenly, I felt panic wondering if he was about to take his own life and I would be the silent witness to his act. Just as I was drawing my breath to call out and make my presence known, he began to softly play his American Indian flute. I sat there spellbound listening as he played the Cherokee courting flute. I’ve attended many a musical performance in my life. None were more memorable than this. I’ve sat in many a concert hall featuring acoustic ceiling panels and walls, but none were more beautiful, or offered any better acoustics that I can remember, than this park setting. He continued to play for, I guessed, well over half an hour. The only sounds accompanying his flute were crickets, cicadas and the wind rustling leaves.

Only two people were experiencing this park experience—a Cherokee playing his love flute in thanks to Mother Earth and Father Sky and an unnoticed Arkansas State Parks staffer who took a detour off a busy highway.

As he played, I quietly, and reverently, took it all in—his music, the view from the mountain, the night sky. I thought about the time I’d watched a sunrise from this same overlook almost three decades earlier with two park colleagues the day before I left Petit Jean to go work at another Arkansas state park. I can still remember every moment, color and detail of that sunrise. I knew I’d remember every detail of this starlit concert, too.

I finally made my presence known as he was heading towards his car, and we spent about an hour talking. The story he shared with me was as moving as the earlier sounds from his flute. He said that an elder Cherokee had dreamed about him and then sought him out to tell him to learn to play the flute. It would be part of his destiny. And so, this young Cherokee would drive from Russellville to Petit Jean Mountain in the evenings and play his flute from points north, south, east, and west there on the mountain in tribute to earth and sky. Ironically, because of the lure of the mountain and my detour that late afternoon, I was destined, too, to be there and witness his flute playing at the park’s overlook on the mountain’s east brow.

Stout's Point on the East brow of Petit Jean Mountain is a wonderful place to enjoy one a scenic views of the Arkansas River.

Stout's Point on the East brow of Petit Jean Mountain is a wonderful place to enjoy scenic views of the Arkansas River.

Arkansas’s state parks are here to protect natural and cultural resources.  They’re here for outdoor recreation and to support tourism, too. And the parks are here to connect us to those natural and historic resources, and to inspire those personal and profound “everlasting moments” that become memories we cherish a lifetime. As George Hartzog said as he reflected on the first time he stood on the south rim of the Grand Canyon and looked at that magnificent view in front of him, “These are everlasting moments that stay with you and influence your life all your life.”

The next time your travels present the opportunity for a detour to an Arkansas state park, I hope you take it so you can experience some everlasting moments, too.

 
 

 

Joan Ellison, Public Information Officer

Joan Ellison, Public Information Officer

Joan Ellison is a 37-year veteran of the State Parks Division of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. She has served as the Division’s public information officer since 1987. Prior to that she held positions as administrative assistant to the state parks director, state field naturalist, park naturalist at Lake Catherine, and in lodge management at two state parks. A creative force in the Arkansas state park system’s advertising and promotion efforts in print, electronic and outdoor media, she has written and produced hundreds of Arkansas State Parks television and radio spots. Her work is featured in state travel brochures, regional and national magazines, and the park system’s 12 Web sites. Ellison holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Park Administration from Arkansas Tech University. She has served in leadership and membership roles in a wide array of parks, recreation, environmental education, and government communications organizations including the Arkansas Information Coordinators Association, Arkansas Recreation and Parks Association, Arkansas Advisory Council on Environmental Education, the Southern Regional Environmental Education Council, Training Resources in Environmental Education, Project Learning Tree, Project Wild, Outdoor Biological Instructional Strategies, Arkansas Native Plant Society, and the Arkansas Herpetological Society.

 


Petit Jean State Park: A Place Where You Can Go Home Again

February 18, 2010

“Experiencing the changes in life over the years has meant more to me than simple aging.  It has meant watching the landscape and the world become more tame, drab, and developed.  Human life and wildlife are both losing their world.”   – Barbara Kerr

I have spent more than a few hours in January reviewing Ken Burns’ recent documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea and have learned a great deal from it, both factually and emotionally.  The documentary has helped me to piece together some scattered thoughts.

A map was drawn up by the National Park Service of Petit Jean.

A map was drawn up by the National Park Service of Petit Jean.

I found it interesting, even before I ever served as a park interpreter at Petit Jean, that this state park has ties, and some similarities, to national parks: We have a lodge named for the first Park Service Director, Stephen Mather, who visited here in the 1920s to help strengthen a new Conference of State Parks. Our country doctor/park founder, T.W. Hardison, originally had the national park idea in mind when he first met with Mather.  They would meet again, and Hardison would come to know Mather as a friend and fellow conservationist.  Petit Jean State Park has a set of archived park plans (on display at the visitor center) drawn up by the National Park Service during the time of the Civilian Conservation Corps – another tie.  The idea of setting this beautiful, rugged area aside to be conserved for future generations parallels the notion that began the national parks.  It follows the same pattern.  As our Executive Director of Arkansas Parks and Tourism, Richard Davies, noted in a talk back in December, “Our state parks are the ‘child’ of national parks.”  It’s a pretty accurate metaphor.

Though I believed I knew the answer, I have asked myself on several occasions recently, “Why do I like parks so much?”  And the more I think about it, the deeper the answers run.  There are volumes.

One reason might be summed up by the title of a Thomas Wolfe novel, You Can’t Go Home Again.  Wolfe’s title refers to change.  In time, change may alter any place – even home, or maybe especially home – to a point that it is no longer the same place.  It’s not home as you knew it anymore.  You can’t go there anymore.  The sentence/title strikes a chord with me because it is so true.  But parks are, by nature, change-resistant.  The idea is to let them remain “home” to the people who visit them generation after generation.  A person who made the hike to Cedar Falls fifty years ago can return today, make the hike, and little has changed.  Somewhere, deep down, that must be a source of inspiration and perhaps a source of great relief as well.

Hiking the trails at Petit Jean State Park is timeless.

Hiking the trails at Petit Jean State Park is timeless.

When I was eight years old, a clever second-grader, I made one of my first organized hikes – a very special one.  It was not in a park, but it was in a place very much like a park – a natural area with an expansive reach and an interesting history.  Four generations of my family had just come back from a service at a small country church.  My grandmother provided music at the church’s piano.  There were my younger sister and myself, our parents, my father’s parents, and my father’s mother’s parents.  From my great-grandparents’ old country house, we all made an afternoon walk up our home stream, the North Fork of Ozan Creek.  This old creek sliced through the Gulf Coastal Plain of southwest Arkansas, revealing colorful rounded stones washed away from conglomerate outcrops and mounds of slate-blue clay the local people called “Indian soap.”  The creek’s water was clear and churned down riffles into long pools that again became lively riffles.  Caddo burial mounds dotted the countryside along the creek, and artifacts from that culture turned up everywhere.

We hiked for several miles that afternoon, on a pretty well-established trail, and for the first time I got to see places that would become an embedded part of my early life.  There was one spring, in particular, that flowed down a clay embankment, leaving multi-hued mineral patterns on a cusp that faced a small pool which emptied into the creek.  My buddies and I would later dub it “Buffalo Spring” because of its brown colors.  The trail builders, whoever they may have been, created bench paths that cut midway along the sides of the bluffs some thirty feet up over the creek.  Hardwood and pine canopied the creek corridor, and down along the creek bed were springs and more springs, feeder streams, canebrakes, and openings into fields.  Our final destination that day was a waterfall, about five feet high and twenty feet across, with a darn good swimming hole washed out beneath it.  And I found my eight-year-old self in love with a place.

Late that afternoon, I settled in warm by the fireplace at my great-grandparents’ house, thinking about it all.  I hoped that we would all do the hike again next week.  But it didn’t happen.  Then I wished that we would do the hike together again later on.  But time passed, and changes came.  My great-grandparents and grandparents grew older, my parents grew busier, and that group of eight would never make the hike to the waterfall again.  For the four generations, it turned out to be a one-time experience.  Later in my childhood, though, I became as intimately familiar with the Ozan and its surroundings as I was with each of those members of my own family.  Three other boy companions lived just down the road.  We kept the Ozan Creek company for years and, looking back, were pretty good caretakers.

We witnessed the dynamics of the stream, knew the scents and sounds and responses to seasons.  Spring rains brought the big, swift, brown water out of the banks.  When the creek settled down, expansive new rock bars appeared, newly washed out swimming holes were discovered, while other pools were filled in with stone and gravel.  One swimming hole, the flood-scoured floor newly-cleared to reveal a large deposit of blue clay, became known to local people as the “Blue Hole” or “Clay Bottom.”  I was baptized in that swimming hole one summer Sunday afternoon.  Afterwards, my buddies threw me off the diving bank and “re-baptized” me.  Summer droughts brought shallow pools laced with algae; riffles turned to dry rock.  Long-ear sunfish made nests in shallows and dutifully defended them.  Small chain pickerel darted beneath grassy banks.  There were cottonmouths all along the creek, a species that I would later learn defines a healthy watershed – but if you want to stay healthy, don’t let them get their fangs into you.

As we grew older, our territory expanded.  A few miles downstream, the Ozan ran into a wetland.  There was a beaver dam the length of a football field, and we learned of old natural caves that had been slowly eroded into the sandstone hills not far from the beaver pond.  Waterfowl flew in by hundreds.  One year, on my best friend’s birthday, we were set free to hike across the bottoms.  His mother picked us up at a pre-determined spot late that afternoon.  It was an unforgettable day.

By the time I was a senior in high school, “progress” was afoot, and there were plans for the North Fork of Ozan Creek.  Change was on its way.  The USDA Soil Conservation Service was in the final stages of building “watershed dams” on many of the streams that flowed into the rich farmland miles downstream – this theoretically to control flooding and to save crops.  I vividly remember hiking upstream one spring day and being wide-eyed to find dozers and earth movers beginning the process of building a huge earthen dam across the Ozan – a quarter-mile of dirt, dust and noise.  Once the dam was completed, the entirety of water in the creek was funneled down a chamber and fed through a pipe about three and one-half feet in diameter.  Only the heated top-water of the new reservoir made it to the other side of the dam.  On a summer day, the water that fed from the dam into the old creek bed was as warm as bathwater to the touch.  And, as several years passed, the living, changing creek that I had known for so long all but vanished.  Only a withered remnant remained, slowly filling with soil and fallen trees.  The Ozan had become a mere, winding overgrown ditch.

A wealthy rancher from the west bought the wetland area.  Before long there were more dozers and chainsaws busy clearing and draining the bottomland.  A new channel was cut for the stream to run through, a straight drainage ditch.  Being paranoid that someone would become injured or trapped in one of the old sandstone caverns, the landowner even had the bull dozers cave in and seal off the entrances.  In time, and to the amazement of some of the local residents, the wetland became a cow pasture.

Later still, when I was in my mid-twenties, I made a scouting walk up the Ozan.  I had a new son and had it in mind to make some of my childhood treks with him once he became old enough.  By then, a new housing development was beginning to spring up in the fields above the bluffs.  There were brand new, large homes being built for the upwardly mobile of the nearest town.  Once I came upon Buffalo Spring, I was dismayed to find, in the pool beneath the cusp, a large wooden cable spool, dumped along with lesser bits and pieces of leftover construction material.  Developers and new residents were using the creek as a garbage dump.  Further on, I found barbed wire strung all the way to the creek banks.  The old walking trail was gone.  The bench paths along the bluffs were eroded away.  As more time went by, the wealthy occupants of the Ozan estates began to use the creek for riding popular, new all-terrain-vehicles, scarring the creek bed and its banks with deep, muddy ruts as well as leaving litter.  It was a whole new change and not necessarily for the better.

Scenarios similar to mine have happened in many places during the past several decades.  I hear it from like-minded people all over the world: “I once knew this lovely place.  It’s changed now.”

Why do I like parks so much?  One reason is I can’t go home again.  Only in distant memory can I walk along the path that my family’s four generations took one Sunday afternoon long ago.  As I grow older, I look on and see, in real terms, what happens if an inspiring, natural place is not protected in some way.  There is certainty that it will be degraded or vanish entirely, especially with new populations, changing values, and a drive, by some, to turn natural resources into more wealth.

One of the most comforting thoughts that I can imagine is that when my granddaughter is grown and tall, and a force to be reckoned with, that there will still be a Boy Scout Trail at Petit Jean State Park.  I hope that she will be out on it with a daypack strapped to her back, testing strong legs against stone, sunrays still heating up the walls of the ancient slot canyons in the Seven Hollows.  And I hope I’m there, trying to keep up.  Parks such as Petit Jean, for us and even for those who exist out in the distant future, give special places and the people who know them a chance to endure.

“The legacy of Arkansas State Parks is to preserve our state’s diverse beauty and history, so that all Arkansans and visitors may find emotional and intellectual connections to their heritage.” - Theme Statement of Arkansas State Parks

“The legacy of Arkansas State Parks is to preserve our state’s diverse beauty and history, so that all Arkansans and visitors may find emotional and intellectual connections to their heritage.”

BT Jones, Park Interpreter

BT Jones, Park Interpreter

BT Jones is a park interpreter at Petit Jean State Park and has worked there since 2005.  He holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  BT is a member of the National Association for Interpretation (NAI) and holds a Certified Interpretive Guide credential.  He is also a Leave No Trace (LNT) master educator and works as an advocate for Arkansas wilderness.  BT’s pasttimes are nature and wildlife photography, hiking and backpacking, and helping to preserve Arkansas’s wilderness and natural areas.  He most enjoys hiking with park visitors and presenting programs on Petit Jean’s natural and historical features.


The Timelessness of Petit Jean State Park

January 28, 2010

In a world where the pace of change sometimes seems to accelerate daily, it’s nice to know that there are still places that don’t change so rapidly or so much.  One of my favorites of these special places is Petit Jean State Park.  When I compare the natural beauty I see here now with what I saw more than a quarter of a century ago, I can’t think of anything that has altered significantly.  And that’s the way I like it.

Cedar Falls, below Mather Lodge, is one of the most beautiful settings in Arkansas.

Cedar Falls, below Mather Lodge, is one of the most beautiful natural settings in Arkansas. Thousands of visitors a year hike the Cedar Falls Trail for the view.

Dr. T.W. Hardison was one of the early architects of Petit

Dr. T.W. Hardison was one of the early architects of Petit Jean State Park

One of the purposes of establishing Petit Jean State Park in 1923 was to protect an exceptional piece of Arkansas for the future enjoyment of the public.  The 2,658-acre park has the distinction of being Arkansas’s first state park.  Part of the reason for this is that Petit Jean Mountain was a very special place for a physician who began practicing in the area in the early 1900’s.  Dr. T.W. Hardison was a staunch advocate for setting aside and protecting some of the mountain’s most scenic areas, and it is largely due to his efforts that the park exists today.

Petit Jean Mountain is actually one of many plateaus in the Arkansas River Valley Region, shaped from millions of years of erosion.   But it has natural features that set it apart from other nearby areas, such as sandstone rocks which resemble the shells of giant turtles, a large bluff shelter (Rock House Cave) was inhabited and decorated by prehistoric Native Americans, and Cedar Falls, an exceptionally scenic waterfall cascading from the upper Cedar Creek Canyon into the lower canyon.

The Davies Bridge over Cedar Creek has endured for over 75 years.

The Davies Bridge over Cedar Creek has endured for over 75 years.

Man-made features also help to set Petit Jean State Park apart.  Many of these were constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s, and they were built to last.  Historic Mather Lodge and some of the park’s cabins were built in a rustic style that has a timeless appeal, and these have served park visitors for many decades.  We make renovations when needed, but the historical integrity of the structures is maintained.  For example, the historic Davies Bridge, which is one of only 8 masonry arch bridges in Arkansas and was originally constructed in 1934, served park visitors and mountain residents for more than 70 years with little need for maintenance.  But eventually,

Interpreter lead park programs are a great way to experience the diverse flora and fauna of the park.

Interpreter led park programs are a great way to experience the the park.

years of hard use necessitated major repairs which were begun in 2006.  Although stones had to be removed, each one was numbered and replaced in the same position it had originally occupied, so that the overall appearance of the bridge hardly changed at all.

I and the other staff members of Petit Jean State Park are committed to preserving the park as a place of timeless beauty for present and future generations to enjoy.  This commitment may be best summed up in the park’s mission statement: “Petit Jean State Park is a natural and historical area which has been set aside by the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism for protecting and preserving in its original habitat and native beauty the flora, fauna, and cultural history within its boundaries.  A highly trained professional staff is dedicated to managing and preserving the many unique natural resources, historical structures, and facilities for the benefit of park visitors and future generations.  Recreational activities, natural and cultural interpretations, outdoor education, and other goods and services are provided to accommodate the public’s need for leisure time and to attract leisure travel to the state.”

"Here is the place to rest, eat, sleep, dance, play and enjoy a summer's vacation...The view from here is inspiring."

"Here is the place to rest, eat, sleep, dance, play and enjoy a summer's vacation...The view from here is inspiring." - 1940's publication

Rachel Engebrecht, Park Interpreter

Rachel Engebrecht, Park Interpreter

Rachel is a native Arkansan and a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University, with a Bachelor of Science in biology.  Her interpretive experience includes work as a seasonal interpreter at Lake Dardanelle State Park, 1997 -1999, and as a full-time interpreter at Crater of Diamonds State Park, 2003 – 2007.   She has been a full-time interpreter at Petit Jean State Park since September of 2007.  Rachel is a member of the National Association for Interpretation and became a Certified Heritage Interpreter in 2009.  “One of my favorite things I do in my job is helping park visitors discover new ways to enjoy and learn from nature.”


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