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.”

Eagle Eyes

January 25, 2010

Each year, hundreds of bald eagles find their way to the Natural State to winter.  Arkansas State Parks have numerous programs and special events to help you explore the fascinating world of these and other birds of prey.  Bull Shoals-White River State Park hosts such an event:  Eagle Awareness, held annually in January. This special weekend features a variety of activities and presentations from guest speakers.

One of these activities is the Eagle Watch Van Tour.  Bull Shoals Lake and the world-famous White River are havens for these wintering birds and ideal locations to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures.  Our van tours take you to parts of the shoreline along the lake and river.

Writing of these van tours brings to mind an experience I had on one such outing in recent years:

Eagle Watches are among the most popular programs in Arkansas State Parks during the winter.

Eagle Watches are among the most popular programs in Arkansas State Parks during the winter.

Our Journey Begins

My story took place on a cold January morning. I was riding along in Van #2 with a group of excited would-be eagle spotters.  Three vans were on the hunt, scouting different locations throughout the state park in search of these sometimes elusive birds.  Our group was an eclectic one, ranging in age from early twenties to, well let’s just say “up in their years.”  Small chat filled the van as each rider had one eye looking out of the windows to the cloudy sky above.

After a short drive into the campground we began scanning the bluffs above the crystal-clear waters of the White River, which flows right alongside the campsites. Up ahead, we noticed some activity from Van #1.  The vehicle had stopped and the riders had piled out. They were hastily approaching the river’s bank afoot, pointing to the bluff across the river.  Their binoculars in position and their fingers pointing to the bluff told us they had hit the jackpot!

Our van had barely come to a stop when the first of our group sprang open the doors. Each followed closely behind, binoculars and bird checklists in hand.  I look back, now, and imagine that sprint across the grassy field as a hazy, dream-like jaunt in slow motion.  I see binoculars flopping around the necks of grown men and women as they hold their hats on their heads as they run in an attempt not to lose them. In this almost-Olympic event, such an occurrence would cause one to have to stop and pick it up, only placing them even further behind in the heat.  Had Vangelis’ theme from Chariots of Fire been playing, nothing could have been more fitting.

We arrived riverside next to group #1 with our whole group slouching over, gasping for enough oxygen to ensure our brains could fire a message to our hands to raise our binoculars and place them to our eyes.  Something had caught the eyes of our companions and we were going to get in on the action.  After looking in the direction of the pointing fingers I noticed something white in a tree high above the river.  “It’s a bald eagle!” someone exclaimed. I placed my binoculars against my eyes and after a little focus adjustment I spied the anomaly.  There it was…..a white plastic grocery bag.

Quietness overcame the group and disappointment was on the faces of all standing there.  A plastic grocery bag, deposited outdoors by an obvious non-environmentally-conscious shopper, had been the cause of untold elation and then sadness.  Do you know how long it takes those things to decompose?  But that’s another story.

The easist way to see an eagle in the wild for your self is with the help of a park interpreter.

The easiest way to see an eagle in the wild for your self is with the help of a park interpreter.

A Second Chance

I’m unsure if it was disappointment from not seeing an eagle or embarrassment from mistaking a polyethylene bag for the symbol of our great nation that silenced all in the group.  But in that silence a faint static was heard.  It was coming from the radio held in my hand.  I raised the radio closer to my ear and adjusted the volume.

“This is Van #3…we have a sighting at”…..then static.  Everyone in the group stopped in their tracks and leaned forward, holding their breath and turning their heads so their ears could catch every nuance of the transmission.  “This is #2…please repeat.”

More static then… “This is Van #3.  We have spotted and eagle just below Bull Shoals Dam.”  Silence filled the air as each redeemed bird spotter looked around at the reaction of the others.  Then in a flash of excitement, the previous “run for the roses” was repeated but in the opposite direction.  You would have thought a blue light special had just been announced in the electronics department of a discount store on Black Friday.

In record time the vans were once again filled and ready to go.  As Van #1 quickly pulled away I found myself sitting shotgun in a van full of over-zealous, bird-crazy adults with no driver.  My colleague, the driver, was still on the bank of the river standing in awe of several species of waterfowl paddling in the water.  In an attempt to maintain my composure and a desperate sense of professionalism I yelled out the window across the field.  “Hello…there’s an eagle at the dam….didn’t you get the memo?”  I could sense the tension in the van as the driver scurried toward us, but to everyone’s credit nothing was said.  Finally we were on our way.

The Sighting

After another short drive, we safely arrived at the dam site in time to share what would be an incredible experience with our companions.  There across the river, perched high on the limb of a tree, sat a bald eagle.  As I peered through my binoculars I could see the detail of its beautiful iconic coat, which consists of an amazing 7,000 feathers.  Its yellow eyes stared directly at us, as if to acknowledge our presence there.  Its huge, powerful talons gripped the tree limb, while the winter breeze made its way through the pristine White River valley.  We all have seen photographs or video of a bald eagle at some time in our life.  But standing there observing, with our own eyes, this magnificent animal was an experience which can hardly be put into words.

Everyone stood quietly in adoration as they viewed the spectacle.  I looked around the group; smiles were everywhere.  Some of the couples even held hands as they shared the moment.  Then, without notice, the bald eagle left its roost as its 6-foot wingspan lifted it into the air.  A few gasps and exclamations sounded from the group as we watched the eagle soar above the river.  All eyes, some filled with tears, watched the bird as it flew high out of sight.

We all just stood there for a moment, reflecting on what had just happened.  It was as if the whole world had just stopped and nature, in all its beauty, reached out a touched each of us.  It was a moment that I, and all who were there, will never forget.

* * *
Click here for a current listing of eagle tours and programs at state parks across the state.
Randy Pearson, Park Interpreter

Randy Pearson, Park Interpreter

–Randy Pearson is a park interpreter at Bull Shoals-White River State Park. A native Arkansan, he was born in northeast Arkansas and moved to the Mountain Home area in 1992, where he worked in management and bookkeeping before diving into photography. After six years of owning/operating a digital imaging business, he decided to make a change, which included taking a job as a seasonal employee at Bull Shoals-White River State Park.  He enjoyed it so much that he returned for several seasons and began volunteering to present programs for campers. In 2007, Randy officially became a park interpreter.  “Coming to work every day for Arkansas State Parks is a very rewarding experience,” Randy says. “For the first time, I feel I am working for something instead of for someone.  The wonderful people I have met and the experiences I have had make me look forward to the years to come.”

A Wild and Scenic River

January 21, 2010

Stop! Listen!

Do you hear that sound? Something is pounding. Do you hear the music? What could it be? You are standing approximately 130 miles southwest of Little Rock, Arkansas, in 5,600 acres of one of the most rugged and spectacular river corridors in the central United States. It is made up of steep wooded slopes, outstanding geological features, and cascading clear water. Not only is the water quality high, but the river features Class III, IV, and even Class V rapids (this is dependent on rain events), making it a favorite with skilled canoeists and kayakers.

Cossatot Falls is one of the most picturesque places in the state.

Cossatot Falls is one of the most picturesque places in the state.

Little-disturbed cedar glades and forests cover many of the steeper slopes. Two species of fish that are found only in the southern Ouachita Mountains–the leopard darter and the Ouachita Mountain shiner–live in the river. Bald eagles winter in the area. Waterfall’s sedge and Ouachita Mountain twistflower, found only in a few counties in the Ouachita Mountains, and a number of other sensitive plant species thrive within Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area’s five natural plant communities.

The hillsides surrounding the river offer unique plants and wildlife to explore.

The hillsides surrounding the river offer unique plants and wildlife to explore.

The combination of natural vegetation, rugged topography, exposed rock formations, and sparkling water creates a scenic extravaganza. You can easily access the river in several places throughout the park, meaning you don’t have to be a skilled kayaker or advanced hiker to enjoy this scenery. Those who want that further challenge certainly have it available to them, but really, this park is open to everyone. Click here for more information on the park’s trails, river access points, floater tips, etc.

The Story of Cossatot:
The idea of establishing a Natural Area along the upper Cossatot River first surfaced in 1974, not long after the Arkansas Environmental Preservation Commission (AEPC) was created. In October, 1975, the staff of Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission (ANHC; formerly the AEPC) contacted Weyerhaeuser Company (WEYCO) to discuss acquiring the Cossatot Falls area and other portions of the Cossatot River corridor. A few months later, in January 1976, the ANHC presented a written proposal to Weyerhaeuser. The Company’s response to that proposal, while positive in many ways, was tempered by concerns over the Commission’s limited manpower resources for overseeing such an intensively-used public recreation area.

Discussions continued off and on until 1984, when productive negotiation began in earnest. By that time, the Division of Arkansas State Parks (ASP) had joined in the effort to protect the river corridor, enabling ANHC and ASP to prepare a joint proposal that addressed the WEYCO’s concerns about the State’s ability to manage the property. Once a tentative sale agreement was reached, the ANHC requested that the Arkansas Field Office of The Nature Conservancy assist with the negotiations and acquisition.

The Nature Conservancy agreed to acquire and hold in trust the acreage identified for the proposed Cossatot River State Park Natural Area (CRSPNA) until funding was available for its purchase.

Negotiations culminated on November 19, 1988, with Governor Bill Clinton’s announcement at a joint meeting of the State Parks, Recreation, and Travel Commission and the Natural Heritage Commission that the State of Arkansas, in cooperation with The Nature Conservancy, would acquire an 11-mile segment of the upper Cossatot River. On December 23, 1987, The Nature Conservancy acquired title to the 4,254-acre park-natural area. Final approval of state park designation was granted by the Legislative Council, per Act 512 of 1975, on February 19, 1988. In May of 1987 the Arkansas Natural and Cultural resources Council approved a multi-year grant for the purchase of CRSPNA. The Council also awarded a first-year stewardship grant for the project.

The Nature Conservancy transferred management responsibility for the area to the State in July, 1988. State Parks and the Natural Heritage Commission entered into a cooperative management agreement.

In 1990 Arkla Gas Company acquired the 160 acre Brushy Creek access tract from private individuals and donated it to CRSPNA in compensation for crossing the park with a 36 inch gas pipeline. With the addition of other land acquisitions, the current size of CRSPNA is 5,600 acres.

Cossatot River State Park’s Mission:
Our mission at Cossatot River State Park-Natural Area (CRSPNA) is, “to provide resource stewardship for the 12 mile CRSPNA river corridor and to sustain the natural integrity of the river and its riparian forest; to enhance public awareness and understanding of our natural resources through environmental education and interpretation. This includes natural resources such as endemic, rare, or threatened plants and animals of the Ouachita Mountains; and natural history of the Ouachita Mountains and the Cossatot River.”

The unique and beautiful geology of the river and its watershed lures many photographers.

The unique and beautiful geology of the river and its watershed lures many photographers.

Cossatot River is one of a kind it is unique in the fact that it is a river that offers Class V rapids (which is dependent on rain events), it is one of the cleanest rivers in the State of Arkansas (the pH average level runs around 6.7), and the river runs north to south, while the surrounding Ouachita Mountains line up east to west.  It is also a state and federal Wild and Scenic Rivers “extraordinary resource” stream.

When weather and water conditions allow, we offer kayaking classes and guided tours down this amazing river.  Here is a blog, written by one of our participants, about camping and paddling on the river with his son.

Enjoy a short movie clip of a part of The Wild and Scenic River:

Of course, when the water wants to get a little rowdy, it can. At these times we recommend only the most experienced kayakers venture out on the river:

Shelley Flanary, Park Interpreter

Shelley Flanary, Park Interpreter

–Shelley Flanary is a park interpreter at Cossatot River State Park – Natural Area. She has worked for Arkansas State Parks since 2001, stsarting out as a seasonal interpreter at DeGray Lake Resort, Lake Catherine, and Petit Jean State Parks. Shelley earned her degree in Parks and Recreation Management from Henderson State University in 2005. She is also an NAI Certified Interpretive Guide, recreational kayak instructor, and emergency first responder.

Volunteering “Warms You Twice”

January 18, 2010

Volunteer Lori Spencer reveals the wonders of Arkansas's mints.

Volunteer Lori Spencer reveals the wonders of Arkansas's mints.

Chop your own wood, it will warm you twice. – Henry Ford

We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. – Winston Churchill

When you visit an Arkansas State Park, do you notice the condition of trails, campground, signs, exhibits, or roads? If it’s a weekend, do you notice people working who are not in uniform? Do you notice words like “interpretive volunteer” or “docent” on program schedules? If so, then you are experiencing the impact of the park’s volunteers, who are as valuable as the resources they assist in preserving and interpreting.

Just as “wood is the fuel that warms you twice,” the act of volunteering gives the individual so much more. For example, the volunteers of the Mount Magazine Action Group, a non-profit public charity, support Mount Magazine State Park’s conservation and education mission through trail maintenance, resource inventory, program assistance, funding, and other activities. Members of this group come from all walks of life and ages, and have two threads weaving them together: they love the park, and they enjoy volunteering.

Volunteer Beverly Duke leads a garden tour at the Visitor Center.

Volunteer Beverly Duke leads a garden tour at the Visitor Center.

“I joined the volunteer group in anticipation of retirement. A purely selfish reason because I knew that I would need something useful to do with my time after many years in the workforce. I have stayed in the group because I think what we do is important, making visitors feel welcome while they are at the park and assisting them in any way that we can,” states volunteer Beverly Duke, Mount Magazine Action Group secretary and Master Gardener.

As the director of the annual Mount Magazine Butterfly Festival, I remember the years when there were no volunteers, and I did most everything myself. What hard work that was! Now I have trained volunteers to help with every aspect, including front-line with the park visitors and behind the scenes. Some of these tasks include greeting and orienting visitors, collating festival schedules, and providing funding for kids’ activities, guest speakers, and concerts. The butterfly festival has grown in numbers with 50 percent more children participating since the organization began funding these activities.

Volunteer Carolyn Allen greets and orients visitors.

Volunteer Carolyn Allen greets and orients visitors.

According to volunteer Carolyn Morris, “Mount Magazine has fantastic facilities that very few places have, and I am so proud of it. This area has been very good to me, and I want to give back to my community whatever I can.”

Six people can do in three hours what it would take a single park interpreter several days to accomplish. But the experience is so much more rewarding than that.  A volunteer organization gives people both the opportunity to help the park and satisfy their social needs. During the 6-year existence of our group, we have become a tight-knit family. Work days are a family reunion as much as they are for clearing a trail or orienting visitors during an event. We also learn new skills from each other as we work.

The volunteers of Arkansas State Parks often include more people in addition to a “friends” group. Parks state-wide have benefited from trail work projects completed by eagle, cub, boy scouts and girl scouts, Master Gardener chapters, and more recently, the Arkansas Master Naturalist program. These volunteers are typically professionals themselves, and are trained by professionals so they are ready to assist in whatever way park staff needs. These talented people give freely of their time and talent, and donate thousands of hours each year.

Volunteers clean out Historic Buckman's Pool on the Will Apple's Road Trail.

Volunteers clean out Historic Buckman's Pool on the Will Apple's Road Trail.

When you talk to a volunteer in an Arkansas State Park, you are speaking to someone who knows the park’s resources and is genuinely happy to see you. Their enthusiasm is often contagious. They are passionate about what they do and excited to share their skills. They are the reflection of the resource itself.

Volunteering has always been a part of my life, beginning when I was a teenager volunteering at the public library in my hometown. When I became an entomologist, I began volunteering for the butterfly festival in response to the needs of the new park and for myself. My role as an interpretive volunteer for Mount Magazine State Park has shaped my life, and my confidence is boosted with each project completed, each program I present, and each visitor who visits the park on a regular basis.

If you would like to volunteer at a state park, you will be welcomed with open arms. Part of the beauty of volunteering is flexibility of hours and tasks. Most often, you will be working with the park interpreter. If you live near a state park without a “friends” group, perhaps you could start one! It is your park, after all!

What are your strengths and abilities? Ask yourself what new skills you would like to learn, then turn around and give back. If you have time on your hands, how much would you be willing to give? Time is probably the most precious possession we own, and it’s intangible. Consider your time a living legacy. Leave a legacy of good work and volunteer in a state park this year. It will warm you twice.

(editor’s note: In 2008 over 11,908 volunteers contributed over 128,645 hours of work and expertise to Arkansas State Parks. We appreciate every minute they gave us. Contact your favorite Arkansas State Park to learn about volunteer opportunities.)

Lori Spencer, Certified Heritage Interpreter

Lori Spencer, Certified Heritage Interpreter

Lori Spencer has been a volunteer at Mount Magazine State Park since 1997, and is chairman of the Mount Magazine Action Group. She holds a M.S. in entomology and is the author of Arkansas Butterflies and Moths.

Winter on the Ridge

January 14, 2010

Winter Greetings from Village Creek State Park

If conditions are just right you may even find frost flowers.

If conditions are just right you may even find frost flowers.

Winter may seem an unlikely season to go exploring in a nature park, but it really can be amazing. This is the time of year to fully experience the geologic structure of Crowley’s Ridge in northeast Arkansas, and a prime place to see it is on the nearly 7000 acres that make up Village Creek State Park.

Crowley’s Ridge is covered with a lush hardwood forest featuring oak, sugar maple, beech, butternut, and tulip poplar. During this season, the majority of trees are bare, meaning the Ridge’s rolling ravines are highlighted and more easily seen.

What Exactly is Crowley’s Ridge?

Features of Crowley’s Ridge are easily seen this time of year.

Features of Crowley’s Ridge are easily seen this time of year.

Arkansas has six distinct natural divisions of land, which can be divided into uplands and lowlands. According to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, “Crowley’s Ridge is the smallest, but perhaps most unusual, geographical region in the lowlands. It is in the eastern part of Arkansas, completely surrounded by the Delta, but it differs from the Delta in many ways. It rises up to 200 feet higher than the Delta and can be seen for miles around in the flat fields of eastern Arkansas. The ridge is covered with a dust called loess (pronounced “luss”), which makes the ridge look tall and rugged. Through the years, water has cut through the ridge which now maintains an upland character like that found in the Ozarks.” Click here to learn more about the natural divisions of the Natural State.

What made this pile of leaves?

What made this pile of leaves?

What to See In Winter

If you take a winter drive around the park or hike along our trails, you can spot features you would miss during the lush and green summertime. You can easily see where water has eroded away the fragile topsoil and carved out the many ravines that

Birds’ flashes of color are fun to see in a winter forest.

Birds’ flashes of color are fun to see in a winter forest.

give the landscape its dramatic appearance. Along the ground you can see numerous dry creek beds, where the leaves have collected in curious sideways stacks.

Another advantage to winter visits to the park is the increased possibilities of seeing our native wildlife in their natural habitat. During the colder months many animals are active all day long and not just at dusk and dawn like in the hotter months. Even if you accidentally startle the animals and they move away, you can see where they go. Most of the time they don’t go too far, so if you stay still and quiet you can watch them for quite a while. (Click here for a guide to hiking at Village Creek State Park, and click here for tips on how to be successful when watching for wildlife.)

Our winter bird residents are active most of the day, and are much easier to spot in winter’s bare trees. Their flashes of color and activity are noticeable, and it can be a fun challenge to identify them.

Finally, the best reason to visit Village Creek State Park in winter is that after a day of exploring the outdoors, you can return to your cabin and warm up in front of the fireplace!

Tara Gillanders, Park Interpreter

Tara Gillanders, Park Interpreter

–Tara Gillanders was raised in Kingsville, Texas before moving to Jonesboro, Arkansas in the mid 1980s. She stayed in the area, earning a bachelor’s degree in science education from Arkansas State University and teaching high school science for three years before finding out about the profession of interpretation. Tara was hired at Village Creek State Park in 2008. “I cannot imagine a more fulfilling job,” she says.

Pinnacle Mountain State Park Rocks!

January 11, 2010

Pondering Pinnacle Mountain

A cold, snowy day can be the perfect time to experience Pinnacle Mountain State Park.

A cold, snowy day is the perfect time to experience Pinnacle Mountain State Park.

This week Pinnacle Mountain has been frozen with solitude.  The warm-weather crowds have diminished to a handful of bundled, determined hikers.  I no longer see colorful climbing dots moving slowly to the top when I look up.  Instead, my eyes tend to focus on the protruding, sharp rock outlays along each side of the uplifted land.

As I gaze at the mountain’s nakedness, it’s easy to recognize why such a dramatic landform is admired by all who know it. What is not so easy to recognize, is how such a landform arose from the earth.

The Making of a Mighty Mountain

Composed of Jackfork sandstone, Pinnacle Mountain rises 756 feet from the base.  Like all the rest of the Ouachita Mountains, it is in the eroded “crumple zone” which resulted from the collision of two continental plates of the earth’s crust.  Before the collision process altered this region, the Ouachitas

The "boulder fields" on the slopes of Pinnacle Mountain make for interesting hiking.

The "boulder fields" on the slopes of Pinnacle Mountain make for interesting hiking.

were accumulating sediments on the ocean floor several thousand feet below sea level.  After 275 million years of erosion, the Ouachitas–including many peaks like Pinnacle Mountain–are the greatly reduced remains of a once young and mighty mountain range.  The “cone” form of Pinnacle Mountain we see today is simply a small resistant remnant of a highly eroded ridge which runs east and west for several miles.

(Click here to learn more about the six natural divisions of Arkansas.)

Look All Around, But Look Down Too

When you hike up the cone-shaped mountain, it is easy to divert your attention away from the wonders of the mountain itself.  It took me several climbs to condition myself not to focus on the sparkling waters of Lake Maumelle or Arkansas River in the

Hiking to the top rewards visitors with awe inspiring views.

Hiking to the top rewards visitors with awe inspiring views.

distance, but instead on the dramatic landform right under my feet. Once I took my eyes and camera off the view, I fell in love with the Jackfork sandstone and became filled with wonder at the creation of the Ouachita Mountains.  It amazed me how simple it was to connect those physical geography facts from high school and college to something that was right beneath me.  Before my discovery, continental plates existed only in text books and on exams, but truly, they are visible, touchable, and climbable!

Exploring with your sense of touch is encouraged.

Exploring with your sense of touch is encouraged.

This Stone is Full of Stories

One of my favorite parts of climbing the mountain is the feeling of the sandstone beneath my hands.   It has a rough grainy texture that embodies its name well.  There are countless sandstone boulder fields on the mountain and scattered around this 2000-acre park, which makes them easy to take for granted. However, without this stone, many important places around Little Rock would not exist as we know them today.  Over 75,000 tons of rock was taken from the base of the east side of Pinnacle Mountain to create the Lake Maumelle Dam for Little Rock’s water supply.  Also, rock was moved from other areas of the park prior to the 1950s to help build the local Joe T. Robinson Schools and Shrine Country Club.

Two Routes to the Top

The trails to the top can be challenging and enjoyable.

The trails to the top can be challenging and enjoyable.

There are a number of trails at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, all designed to showcase various aspects of this diverse landscape. Collectively, we hope they help you understand that everywhere you walk here, from wetlands to upland ridges, you see an ever-changing web of life that flourishes because diverse habitats are protected.

In case you haven’t been to the top of Pinnacle Mountain, you should know that there are two main routes for getting there. The most popular path is via the West Summit Trail. This rocky trail begins at the park picnic grounds and winds its way up to the top for ¾ of a mile. To return, you must retrace your steps, for a 1 ½ mile round trip journey, or hike down the other side of the mountain using the rugged East Summit Trail and return on the Base Trail for a total hike of about 3 miles.

If you prefer more of a challenge, plan to go up and down the mountain using the more rugged, ¾-mile East Summit Trail. This route is often referred to as more of a “climb” than a hike, as it crosses several boulder fields and takes a more direct (steeper) route to the top than the meandering West Summit Trail. Technical rock climbing is not required, but much of the hike does require hands-and-feet scrambling as opposed to upright walking.

Either way, this hike is considered strenuous and you should allow at least 1 ½ hours travel time—plus give yourself extra time along the way and at the top for reflection and exploring.

Learning from the Land

Pinnacle Mountain is a dramatic landform that has inspired me to learn more about my local surroundings.  It is also a place where I have been able to provide curious students with real world examples from their textbook lessons and state-mandated curriculum.

No matter your reasoning for visiting Pinnacle Mountain State Park, I am sure that the scenic view—and the mountain itself—will ignite your passion for understanding your environment. I hope you are one of the next bundled-up, determined, wonder-filled hikers that I meet at the top!

The park maintains over 40 miles trails with something for everyone.

The park maintains over 40 miles trails with something for everyone.

Kristina Root, Park Interpreter

Kristina Root, Park Interpreter

Kristina Root is a strong advocate of environmental education for urban children. She has worked for Arkansas State Parks since 2007, stationed at Pinnacle Mountain State Park as a park interpreter. She is a Certified Interpretive Guide, and credits success on her career path to her B.S in Environmental Science from the University of Central Arkansas.

Living Underground at Devil’s Den State Park

January 7, 2010
Icicles hang along the many bluffs on the Devil’s Den Trail

Icicles hang along the many bluffs on the Devil’s Den Trail.

The white blanket of snow piled inches deep brings an exquisite stillness to the landscape of Devil’s Den State Park. Icicles linger from the tops of torpid bluffs, slowly dripping their steady eroding force down the sandstone layers. Drip, drip in the sparkle of sunlight. Cedar waxwings dart between underbrush hoping for winterberries. Deer tracks prominently weave down well-worn paths.

It seems that winter reveals a secret beauty only shown to the brave visitor willing to adorn thick socks, gloves, and hat and be invigorated by a deep breath of the crisp, cool air. For these courageous souls, the exposed bluff layers with their leafy camouflage returning to the earth, the panoramic views uniting the valley and ridge with the horizon as far as the eyes can see, the glitter of snow and icicles enhancing every clump of moss and shard of shale, and the tranquility of the trails is theirs alone.

For shelter from the shivers of the cold, all one has to do is venture into Devil’s Den Cave. There the 54 degrees of the cave feels warm and a completely new stillness awaits.

Spencer Foster, Laurel Chafin, and Jay Chafin delight in finding tri-colored bats (Perimyotis subflavus) hibernating in Devil’s Den Cave

Spencer Foster, Laurel Chafin, and Jay Chafin delight in finding tri-colored bats (Perimyotis subflavus) hibernating in Devil’s Den Cave.

The unique sandstone crevice caves found at Devil’s Den State Park offer an intriguing immersion into the literal center of the layers of geology that support all life in the park. Typically upon entering their immenseness, one senses the stability and security of the rock walls. Not only do these walls lure in thousands of visitors each year, but they also make inviting hibernacula for at least five of the sixteen species of bats known to live in Arkansas, including the tri-color bat, the big brown bat, the Northern long-eared bat, and two endangered species: the Ozark big eared bat and the Indiana bat.

While at rest in hibernation, bats’ body functions slow, their temperature drops, and their immune systems become compromised. However, their long winter naps are essential to their survival, for in the winter, they cannot forage on the millions of pounds of insects they eat nightly during the warm spring through fall nights. Being awoken during this delicate period is devastating to the bats.

This winter however, it is not the excited shrills of thrilled visitors that park staff fear will wake these vital flying mammals, but rather a filamentous fungus known as Geomyces destructans that produces a distinctive ring of growth around the muzzles of bats — a condition known as white nose syndrome. White nose syndrome (WNS) was first noted in a cave near Albany, New York in the winter of 2006. Since that time, WNS has been detected in eight other states and has infected hundreds of thousands of bats within dozens of caves with a 90% mortality rate of infected populations. At this rapid rate of spread, scientists and resource managers fear that the loss of these natural insecticide agents could have one of the most devastating environmental impacts felt ever.

Dozens of tri-colored bats (Perimyotis subflavus) use Devil’s Den Cave as a hibernacula in the winter months

Dozens of tri-colored bats (Perimyotis subflavus) use Devil’s Den Cave as a hibernacula in the winter months.

Unfortunately, there are still many unknowns about what is spreading the fungus and how it is killing the bats. One theory is that unsuspecting cavers are the carriers of the fungal spores and that the fungal infection acts as an irritant to the bat, causing it to wake and use precious stored fat reserves meant to last all winter. In a precautionary effort to protect these ecologically significant species, caves across the Northeastern United States are being closed to the public. In addition, visitors to caves that are still open are being asked to make sure that their clothing and gear have been decontaminated. Decontamination procedures can be lengthy, including submersing gear and clothing in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water, or simply not wearing any clothing or taking any gear that has been used in cave environments before. (a complete list of procedures)

Snow covers the entrance to one of the many sandstone, fracture caves at Devil’s Den State Park

Snow covers the entrance to one of the many sandstone, fracture caves at Devil’s Den State Park.

As the threat moves closer to our area, our park staff is working with multi-state agencies to develop a plan to protect our fragile bat populations. At this time, Devil’s Den State Park has closed three caves to the public, two of which are known hibernacula of endangered species of bats. We hope that through education of the public about this potential threat, we can prevent the spores from entering our caves without having to close them.

However, our job is not only to educate the public about Arkansas’s amazing resources, but also to protect them for future generations. Please help us to spread the word about the potential threat of white nose syndrome that any visitor could be carrying on a shoe, flashlight, or glove that has been into an infected area. Though the park feels at peace and the stillness serene, there is a silent struggle to protect one of Devil’s Den’s favorite winter residents — the bats!

Rebekah Spurlock, Devil's Den State Park

Rebekah Spurlock, Interpreter, Devil's Den State Park

Rebekah Spurlock is a native Arkansan, originally from the Delta. Since graduating with her Master’s in Geography in 2007 from the University of Memphis, Rebekah has called Devil’s Den State Park home.

Welcome to the new Arkansas State Parks blog!

January 4, 2010

In the coming months, you’ll be treated to articles and updates written by park staff from around the state. We’ll feature unique events, nature’s seasonal changes, interesting stories from history, outdoor hobbies, and more.

A goal all park employees share—from the most behind-the-scenes support staff to the top administrators—is to help make sure you have the best experience possible. We know your free time is valuable, and we want to help you make the most of your schedule while visiting our state parks.

A Park Interpreter leads a group through the wonders of the park

A park interpreter helps a group discover the wonders of birding.

We’d like to use this first blog entry to tell you more about one particular team of employees whose primary job function is to help you have fun. On our main Web site, and here on this blog, you’ll often hear us mention our “park interpreters” who coordinate the parks’ “interpretive programs.” Many people aren’t sure exactly what we mean by that. Today, we’ll explain:

What is a park interpreter?

Learning about bird calls

Interpreters can help you learn bird calls.

The most common question our interpreters in Arkansas State Parks are asked is “What languages do you speak?” It is a fair question. Most people are familiar with the term “interpreter” in the realm of translating spoken or sign languages.

When you meet an interpreter in a state park, though, he or she might be fluent in a language other than English, but translating languages is not a main job responsibility. Rather, it is to interpret the natural, historical, or cultural resources of the site for park visitors.

In simpler terms, an interpreter’s job is to help make your visit to the park meaningful. When you visit a park, there are always plenty of activities for you to do on your own. You can hike a self-guided trail, enjoy scenic overlooks, rent a boat to go fishing or sightseeing, or just relax at your cabin or campsite.

A Guided Hike

Guided walks aid discovery.

Imagine, though, walking that same trail with a park interpreter as your guide. This is someone who understands the history of the area, who knows land, who lives in the park day in and day out, 365 days a year. He or she is in tune with nature’s rhythms and is able to point out things you might miss, such as bird songs in the tree canopy above, signs of wildlife foraging in the area, or remnants of a historical homestead.

Interpreters are the employees responsible for planning, publicizing, and presenting the fun, interactive, and educational programs for which Arkansas State Parks are known. Activities vary by site, but if your family has ever taken a guided hike, lake cruise, or kayak tour…or if you’ve attended an evening owl prowl, amphitheater talk, or campfire…or encountered a living history character, nature craft workshop, or outdoor skills demonstration, chances are good it was the park interpreter who served as your leader and guide.

Dutch Oven Gourmets

Dutch oven cooking is a state park tradition.

Many interpreters are specialists in several subjects, and from time to time they offer multi-day workshops allowing visitors an immersion learning experience in a safe, supervised atmosphere. These include kids’ day camps, weekend family camping adventures, kayak and canoe overnight trips, Dutch oven cooking workshops, and many more.

In addition, it is often the park interpreters who research and write the brochures and exhibits you enjoy during your park visits.

Officially, our department uses the definition of interpretation adopted by the National Association for Interpretation, asserting that it is “a mission-based communication process that forges emotional and intellectual connections between the interests of the audience and the inherent meanings of the resource.”

Put more simply, says Administrator of Program Services Jay Miller, “Interpretation is communication that goes beyond facts to reveal what things mean, how they fit together, and why they matter.”

But I always thought they were called rangers…

Exploring what you may have missed

What animals walked here?

Some park systems, including the National Park Service, refer to interpreters as “rangers.” In Arkansas State Parks, we do have employees with the job title of “ranger” at many park locations, but their main duties are public safety, park security, and law enforcement. Our rangers and interpreters work as a team to educate visitors about how to enjoy the parks safely and protect the valuable resources of the area.

In Arkansas, the interpreter positions used to be called “naturalists.” Today, having naturalist skills is still a major part of their job descriptions; however, they do much more than just identify plants and wildlife. They are biologists, geologists, botanists, historians, educators, and recreation specialists.

More importantly, they are communicators who encourage you to discover your own meanings in the parks. We believe that interpretation helps visitors better understand just how special our parks are. Through understanding, comes appreciation and protection of the parks so that we can remain here for generations to come.

Being an interpreter is my dream job; what does it take to become one?

Helping kids understand their natural surroundings

Interpreters help you understand your surroundings.

All of our full-time park interpreters hold four-year degrees in a relevant major, such as biology, history, environmental science, park administration, communication, or education. They also are required to have professional experience doing frontline interpretation in the field. Many begin their careers as seasonal, or part-time, interpreters while completing their college degrees.

Interpreters are also encouraged to pursue credentials from the National Association for Interpretation, which is the recognized voice of the interpretive profession. Many have earned status as Certified Heritage Interpreters and/or Certified Interpretive Guides.

In addition, many complete specialized subject matter training from industry leaders. For example, we use the American Canoe Association’s standards for kayak training, and we use curriculum from the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics for teaching camping and backpacking skills.

Sharing Our Passion

Park interpreters are passionate people. We love our parks and want you to love them too.

We eagerly share our experiences and knowledge. We work hard, doing many things behind the scenes that you may never know about, to help put you in the right place at the right time to create wonderful memories. We help you have special experiences like a hike along a rugged mountain trail, a kayak tour in the morning mist, a nighttime forest walk

Park Interpreter Adam Leslie

Park Interpreter Adam Leslie

with owls hooting overhead, or a trip back in time to cook in cast iron and imagine what pioneer survival was like.

“It is the best job,” says Adam Leslie, our newest interpreter, stationed at Devil’s Den State Park in northwest Arkansas. “It really pushes me to use my education in fun ways.”

Park Interpreter Keith Covington

Park Interpreter Keith Covington

Keith Covington, interpreter at Moro Bay State Park in southeast Arkansas, agrees: “My experience as an interpreter has been wonderful. It is great to be able to share my love for the outdoors and this state with others.”

Sasha Bowles is a park interpreter at Lake Dardanelle State Park in Russellville. She says, “Being an interpreter is like igniting a spark and watching the blaze of wonder grow. I have the privilege of doing that almost daily. Someone took the time when

Park Interpreter Sasha Bowles

Park Interpreter Sasha Bowles

I was young to nurture the ‘wild’ child in me. Now I get to teach about and interact with our natural surroundings daily and nurture someone else’s ‘wild’ child.”

“It is really special to help a senior citizen see his first bald eagle in the wild, or to let a child

Asst. Park Superintendent Sarah Keating

Asst. Park Superintendent Sarah Keating

light a campfire for the very first time or to see a family enjoy tasting food they made during an outdoor cooking  workshop,” says Sarah Keating, Assistant Superintendent at Lake Dardanelle State Park in central Arkansas. (She is also a former interpreter there and now serves as an interpretive manager and trainer). “It’s really special when our interpreters get to see the light bulb go on in a visitor’s head during a program…their face shows it…it’s when they have that ‘a-ha’ moment of ‘I get it, I understand that this place is complex and special and neater than I ever imagined.’”

Deeper Meaning: It’s All About You

Remember lighting your first campfire…

Remember lighting your first campfire…

Interpretation is more than just leading you down a trail, though, or simply showing you how to do things. Park interpreters are trained to engage you in conversation, find out what you’re interested in, and relate to you in a way that sparks inspiration to know more.

Good interpreters reveal meanings and relationships in the world around them. They ask questions, encourage thoughtful reflection, and listen to the stories that visitors are eager to share. But they don’t stop there. The best interpreters take these emotional and intellectual connections one step further and provoke visitors to act on their newfound interests. This action could be as simple as attending another program (and bringing friends and family

Hands on fun

Interpreters facilitate hands on fun.

along) or as in-depth as joining the park’s “friends” group and becoming a loyal volunteer. Ultimately, we hope our visitors become more conservation-minded in the parks and in their daily lives at home.

“Park interpreters are the folks who get people to understand why parks are important,” says Richard Davies, Executive Director of the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism. “They answer the ‘so what?’ question for the public, and it is the public that votes and talks to legislators. This goes a long way to help keep us in the ‘forever business.’ We have a wonderful and dedicated interpretive staff in Arkansas State Parks, and in my view, we are better off for it.”

Schedule your next visit now!

Our park interpreters routinely schedule programs designed to help you make memories of a lifetime. We offer over 40,000 family-friendly programs and events each year, including lake tours on park party barges, guided hikes, birding adventures, living history demonstrations, nature games, fall foliage programs, historic site tours, bald eagle watches, spring wildflower walks, campfires, outdoor skills workshops, and much more.

One way you can maximize your time while visiting an Arkansas State Park is to know in advance what our park interpreters have planned during your scheduled trip. Or maybe, you want to plan a trip around a certain special event. Either way, be sure to take advantage of our fully searchable online calendar of events available to you year-round. This handy tool allows you to customize your search with specific dates, locations, and/or keywords. Save this page in your web “Favorites” and visit it often.

Fully searchable online calendar of events

Be sure to bookmark our fully searchable online calendar of events.

You can customize your search by date, park location, city, zip code, and keyword (such as “kayak,” “archeology,” “birding,” or “day camp”). Programs involving physical activity are noted with a small red “heart-healthy” symbol. Your search results are sorted according to categories: events, programs, hikes & tours, workshops, and exhibits. Within each category they are sorted by start time and title.

When you find programs you like, we’ve made it easy for you to post the information on your online calendar, Facebook page, or Twitter account, so you can quickly make plans and invite family and friends.

It is important to note that scheduled programs and events are subject to change. We try not to cancel or change dates for events that have been publicized, but sometimes weather or other unforeseen circumstances require it. Before traveling, contact the park for program confirmation, further details, reservations when required, and to check on accessibility for visitors with disabilities.

Get started now by clicking here to see what’s happening in the parks today!

A Paddle Salute!

A Paddle Salute!

Field Interpreter Kelly Farrell

Field Interpreter Kelly Farrell

–Kelly Farrell has worked for Arkansas State Parks since 1999. She started her career at Lake Ouachita State Park and also worked five years at DeGray Lake Resort before moving to Little Rock, where she now serves as Field Interpreter and works statewide to train and support frontline interpreters. She holds credentials as a Certified Heritage Interpreter and Interpretive Trainer.