Sounds of the Night

March 29, 2010
These little guys can produce quite the chorus.

These little guys can produce quite the chorus. The Gray Tree Frog.

Out of all of the relaxing things to do in an Arkansas State Park sitting around a campfire at night is my favorite. It is one of the best ways to experience nature in the park. Where else can you sit and experience such a variety of animals, and all you have to do is listen. After your ears get past the sound of a hot dog hissing or the crack of the fire you can hear how alive the park is. Night time is full of activity and there are many animals to listen for.

My favorite animals to listen for are frogs. There are about 20 different frogs that live in Arkansas and several of them are very common in our State Parks. One of the most common calls you hear this time of year belongs to the Spring Peeper. As the name implies, they make a loud peep and when several of them get together it can get very loud.

Say hello to the Grey Screech Owl.

It may sound like a horse but it's a Grey Screech Owl.

Another of my favorites is the Gray Tree Frog. These guys will be coming out a little bit later in the year and also occur at several of our parks. They can be found around the lights on buildings waiting for a tasty bug to fly in. Their call is a little different in that it is a quick trill.

Of course if you think about night time sounds you always think Owls. In most of the parks in the state you’ll be listening for three in particular the Great Horned Owl, Barred Owl, and Screech Owl. The Great Horned is the classic owl that most people think of. It has big yellow eyes and tufts or “horns” on its head. They have the traditional hoot sound and generally are vocal later into the night.

The next and arguably most vocal is the Barred Owl. This owl has a bar pattern on its chest and big brown eyes. Their call is very easily identifiable and most people refer to the saying “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” when trying to remember it.

The last and smallest is the Screech Owl, which looks a lot like a small Great Horned Owl. They have a very fun call that almost sounds like the whinny of a horse.

Owls are a fun animal to listen for and are very responsive to other owl calls. Check with your favorite park about going on an owl prowl with an Interpreter. If you want to listen to these calls before you visit a quick internet search will lead you to many choices.

Anything missing from your food stores? Check with this guy.

Anything missing from your food stores? Check with this guy.

The last animals to talk about are the ones that you have to listen very hard for. A soft step on the leaves may be the only sound you hear as they creep up, but they will soon let you know of their presence. About the time that you are finally nodding off they will tear into the hot dogs or Hershey bars that were not properly secured. Of course I’m talking about Raccoons, Opossums, and Skunks. These animals are notorious for getting into coolers and trash bags that are left out at night. I remember one summer night camping out at Crowley’s Ridge State Park and waking up to Hershey wrappers spread out all over the campsite and an empty bag of hot dogs in the cooler. I’ve since learned to be more careful with my food storage.

So whether it is enjoying frog calls, owl calls, or the sound of a hot dog hissing over a campfire I hope you will enjoy night time in an Arkansas State Park soon. Just remember to pack those hot dogs and Hershey bars somewhere safe.

Adam Leslie, Park Interpreter

Adam Leslie, Park Interpreter

Adam Leslie is a Park Interpreter at Devil’s Den State Park. He has been there since September of 2009. Prior to Devil’s Den he was a seasonal interpreter at Petit Jean State Park. He received a degree in Wildlife Management and Ecology from Arkansas State University. His main interest is natural resource management.


Artifact Tales

March 25, 2010
More than a collection of rocks. How did they get here?

More than a collection of rocks. How did they get here?

Artifacts amaze me. It is a simple statement but every word is true. In certain cases, they are the only link that we have to past cultures. This is true at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park. The American Indians that lived here are called the Plum Bayou Culture and they left clues to their way of life in the form of artifacts. They lived at this site around 1,200 years ago and were resourceful, innovative human beings that were not that much different from you and I. They probably got up in the morning with a mental “to do” list that may have included going hunting, making pottery or repairing a thatched hut. There is so much that we are still trying to learn about their way of life. We are learning more and more every day thanks to the artifacts and features that were left.

At first glance, stone artifacts are simply pieces of rock that have been shaped into something useful. But upon closer examination, stone artifacts tell a story. I grew up in the natural division of Arkansas known as the Delta. I played in the farm fields, explored wooded areas around my house and helped my parents plant a garden during my childhood. I never thought about it then but looking back, not one time did I ever find a rock in the ground. Toltec Mounds is in the delta and there are no rocks here, yet we find artifacts made of stone. That stone is not native to this natural division. Where did it come from? Some of it can be traced back to the Ouachita and Ozark Mountains as well as the Arkansas River Valley. Whatever the origin, it had to be brought in from a great distance.

Each artifact tells a story.

Each artifact tells a story.

Today, moving supplies over long distances is as simple as getting in the car, driving for a few hours, loading your supplies in the trunk and driving home. Now let yourself go back in time for a moment. Travel wasn’t as easy then as it is now. There were really only two modes of transportation at that time; walking or dugout canoes. If walking was the chosen way to travel, then following a foot path through the woods would have taken you to your destination. Fast, no. Imagine the return journey. Packing heavy loads of chert, novaculite or quartz would have certainly added to the burden. Dugout canoes might have lightened the load but only after you took the time to learn the art of making one strong enough to carry you and your treasure. Cutting/burning down a tree and using coals from a fire along with stone tools to hollow it out was no easy task. What a difference time has made.

When stone artifacts are found here at Toltec, they tell a tale. The material that the artifact is made out of tells where and how far people traveled to get the raw material. The shape and style of the projectile points can help to determine its age. What it was used for helps to reveal a little about the cultures lifestyle. The more artifacts that we find, the clearer the picture becomes.

Could this have once been a major commerce area?

Could this have once been a major commerce area?

Artifacts amaze me. They are the only voice of the Plum Bayou Culture. Something made so long ago can still speak to us if we know how to listen. Archeologists are still uncovering the stories of the past at Toltec. With every artifact that we find, we learn more about this long vanished culture. Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park is hosting the annual training dig June 5th through the 20th of 2010. This dig is coordinated by the Arkansas Archeological Society and they invite you to participate. If you would like more information about how to be involved in this dig, contact the park.

Robin Gabe, Park Interpreter

Robin Gabe, Park Interpreter

Robin Gabe has been a park interpreter at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park for eight years. She began her career with Arkansas State Park system as a seasonal interpreter at Lake Poinsett State Park. She grew up in Caldwell, Arkansas and received her Bachelor’s of Science in Education from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro in 1997.

Two Roads…

March 22, 2010

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.     -Robert Frost  “The Road Not Taken”

A portion of the Great River Road passes through Mississippi River State Park.

A portion of the Great River Road passes through Mississippi River State Park.

I’m lucky enough to have several roads less traveled in Mississippi River State Park.  Two of these roads are pretty well-known:  the Great River Road, running the entire length of the Mississippi River, and Crowley’s Ridge Parkway, that highlights Arkansas’s most unique natural division.  Being two of only three national scenic byways in Arkansas, you would expect these roads to draw lots of traffic.  But here in Lee County, they, like much of the region, quietly exist.   Both byways turn to dirt roads as they plunge through the murky heart of the only national forest on Crowley’s Ridge.  I have seen it time and again: motorcyclists wisely turn around and bypass this section of road, while birders and nature lovers delight in the wilderness.

The Great River Road, or the “low road”, as called by locals, skirts the eastern edge of Crowley’s Ridge.   When the spring rains bring the Mississippi River out of its banks, the low road often goes under water.  Because of this floodplain, you can count on one hand the number of people living on the low road.  Here, Crowley’s Ridge acts as the levee to protect the rest of the Delta from flooding.  It also creates swampy lowlands bordered by giant overhanging trees.  At one point you can drive down to the banks of the Mississippi River, experiencing the river on a personal level.

Crowley’s Ridge Parkway, called the “high road”, drives directly through the National Forest.   This section is uninhabited until you reach the outskirts of West Helena.  Overlooks allow views of the Mississippi River and the Delta.  Limbs seem to interlock overhead creating a green tunnel to drive through.  At times the winding, twisting road comes within 100 yards of the low road, just 150 feet higher and worlds apart.  The trees, the plants, and even the wildlife are different.

Wildlife abounds at Mississippi River State Park

Wildlife abounds at Mississippi River State Park

Animals abound along these roads.  Grey Squirrels prefer the upper forest, the huskier Fox Squirrels the lower areas.  Birds likewise separate into woodland and water-loving species.  At night, deer, opossum and raccoons seem to be around every corner.  Stopping, turning off your vehicle and sitting still will produce the sounds of the deep woods rather quickly.  Owls are guaranteed at this time of the year – Barred in the evening and Great Horned deep in the night.

These roads were not built for speed.  A stately 20 mph is about all you can do on the twisting, loose gravel.  On the high road, if you try to go too fast you can very quickly find yourself on the way to the low road.  This forces you to slow down, take in the scenery and appreciate the going, not just the getting there.

For me, in life and in traveling, the road less traveled is always the better one to take.  Take some time, take out your map and turn off the GPS – they don’t work well on back roads anyway.  Spend a little time exploring the back roads in your area.  That road that most folks say leads to nowhere, often leads to the best somewhere of all.

John Morrow, Park Superintendent

John Morrow, Park Superintendent

John Morrow began work at Mississippi River State Park as the first superintendent for the park in February 2009.  He has worked for Arkansas State Parks since 2000, first as interpreter at Lake Chicot (2000-2003), then as interpreter at Petit Jean State Park (2003-2005), then as the first Chief Interpreter at Historic Washington (2005-2009).  His specialties are in interpretation and the application of interpretation to planning and managing a park.  He has graduated from the Park Superintendent Training Program, is a Certified Heritage Interpreter, Certified Interpretive Trainer as well as a First Responder and SAR Tech II.  He likes spending time with his family and antiquing with his wife.

Capturing the Magic of Waterfalls

March 18, 2010
Longer exposure times will help you "silk" the water as it falls.

Longer exposure times will help you "silk" the water as it falls.

There is something uplifting about natural waterfalls. They are simply examples of gravity at work. It could be a little ripple and splash over a rocky rivulet.  It could be a brook babbling playfully through the heart of a forest or a trickle tumbling down a series of stair steps of a wet season streambed.  It could be a washboard cascade sliding down a mountainside or rapids of a young river bouncing from boulder to boulder.

It could be a thunderous leap from a high cliff into a pool below.

No matter its size or volume a waterfall adds quality to any hiking adventure: Beautiful in so many ways, yet these same sites would go almost unnoticed without splashing water. Mount Magazine State Park and a few other Arkansas State Parks offer plenty of opportunities to truly experience nature at its best.

Waterfalls enhance our senses.  Listen to their trickles or roars.  No two have the same music or rhythm.  Each seems to have a pulse like a living entity.  Feel their spray and vibration. Breathe in their pure, cool, misty air.  Soak in light and dark contrasts of their natural colors.  Let them wash away your worries.

There is a scientific explanation for this. Thunderstorms, crashing waves, and waterfalls split air molecules, creating negative ions which have positive effects on our brains. So if you suffer from cabin fever, seek out a waterfall.

Artists spend hours trying to capture essences of waterfalls with oil or watercolor paints.  Many people whip out little pocket cameras for quick snapshots.  Some pose in the foreground to let everybody they know they had been there.  Almost every coffee table book and calendar of natural scenery contains magnificent images of waterfalls.  Tim Ernst published a wonderful coffee table book that focuses on waterfalls in Arkansas, as well as a guide to locating many of them.

Look around, sometimes it's a unique perspective that makes the picture.

Look around, sometimes it's a unique perspective that makes the picture.

Most of today’s point-and-shoot cameras don’t have the features or lens quality to take more artistic photos.  For good quality landscape photography you need a camera that has changeable settings. 

Two things to remember when trying to capture such quality images are “slow down” and “hold still.”  

“Slow down” refers to the shutter speed on your camera.  Exposure times need to be at least half a second.  “Hold still” suggests that a tripod is required.

More important is getting out to those wild places. Many waterfalls are in rugged, hard to get to locations that can challenge adventurous explorers. This is true about many of Mount Magazine State Park’s waterfalls. Creeks flow in all directions from the mountain, especially after rainfall. Many of these waterfalls are outside state park boundaries, are seldom visited, and lack names. This writer has not seen all of the waterfalls Mount Magazine has to offer. This rugged mountain does not give up all her secrets easily.

Sometimes the season matters. A clear view of the falls is the norm in Winter but it maybe obscured in the Summer.

Sometimes the season matters. A clear view of the falls is the norm in Winter but it maybe obscured in the Summer.

“Slow down” also refers to your experience in wild places.  Before taking photographs, study, listen, and soak in all it has to offer.  Memories will come flooding back each time you view images captured by your camera.  Let them wash away your worries.

Tips for taking great waterfall photographs will be shared during a new program at Mount Magazine State Park on March 19th.  The following morning an expedition will venture out to visit at least four waterfalls in the park.  These activities will be repeated on March 25th and 26th.

For details check our website:


Don Simons, Park Interpreter

Don Simons, Park Interpreter

–Don Simons works as the Park Interpreter at Mount Magazine State Park. One of the state’s great naturalists, Don has been showing and explaining the “Natural State” to visitors for 28 years, at Daisy State Park, Lake Chicot State Park and now at Mount Magazine. Don is also an excellent photographer whose work can be seen throughout the Mount Magazine Lodge and Visitor Center and in publications. Don has the unique ability to entertain children and adults at the same time while also teaching about the world around them. Don is an active member of the National Association for Interpretation and is a Certified Heritage Interpreter.

School’s Out – State Parks Are In!

March 15, 2010

Anyone with grade school or college-age kids already knows that Arkansas’s spring break is coming up fast, March 19-28. Arkansas State Parks are open for business and ready for guests who want safe, outdoor, family-friendly places to play and make memories!

Today’s blog is from Sarah Keating, one of our park staff who has made a family tradition of going Spring Break camping in the State Parks of Arkansas.

Why I Take My Kids Camping in Arkansas State Parks

Every year as my girls get older, they become more involved in school, sports, and other activities. It seems I have less and less time to spend with them doing the things that I love, such as exploring nature and watching sunsets. These are activities that for me hold fond memories of my childhood, and I want to share these things with my children.

Several years ago, my oldest daughter, Courtney, and I took our first spring break camping trip to Woolly Hollow State Park. After much planning, packing, and eager anticipation of sunny days and spring wildflowers, it turned out to be a cold and rainy week. Some people would have just cancelled the plans and stayed home, indoors, but I had made a promise that we would go camping and Courtney’s heart was set on it. Our camping trip was on.

It was one of the most memorable trips we have ever taken and it began our family’s Spring Break camping tradition.

The rain did keep us in our tent at times, where we had tons of fun just spending quiet time together, playing cards, talking about whatever came to our minds, and listening to the rain drip-dropping on our tent’s rain fly.

The Huckleberry Trail at Woolly Hollow State Park.

The Huckleberry Trail at Woolly Hollow State Park.

Finally, it stopped raining, and we took the chance to explore Woolly Hollow’s Huckleberry Trail. We reached a spot where a creek’s high water was up over the trail. It was not unsafe, but it was enough water that we’d need to get our shoes wet to continue our hike. I silently wondered if we should turn back, but Courtney insisted that we take our shoes and socks off and wade out across the icy cold water barefooted.  On the other side, we could put our socks and shoes back on and continue our walk comfortably.

Kids can come up with some of the best ideas.

Kids can come up with some of the best ideas.

To me, this was just a small inconvenience, but to my child, this was one of the most fun, adventuresome things we did all week! Such a simple experience–crossing that cold creek barefoot– was exhilarating for us both. I was proud of my daughter for insisting that we keep going. She was tickled that we worked together to solved a problem, and that we did something a bit on the wild side. I love that we will always share the memory of that moment.

Now, I have a second daughter who is old enough to go camping too, and my husband and I make an annual effort to schedule a family camping trip every Spring Break.  We have hung onto several activities over the years that are a must on every trip:

  • We always bring a Goosebumps book and read it around the campfire each night.
  • We try a new Dutch oven recipe each trip, and some of those recipes have become part of our camping tradition because we liked them so much.
  • We keep a journal of all the activities that we do and all the funny things that happen on each trip.
  • We always have powdered donuts.
  • We always take a family vote to decide which Arkansas State Park we will camp at next. All four of us have different requirements of our destination…Joe wants it to be someplace new that we have never visited as a family, the girls prefer somewhere with a playground, and I want somewhere with water to put my kayak in.
  • We like to go to the parks’ interpretive programs, and it’s nice that they usually have a variety of them so we can choose what’s best for our family.
  • Besides the programs, we don’t plan out our days. We just go on nature time, and explore whatever the park gives us when we get there.

Our family has now taken many fantastic Spring and Fall Break camping trips, at some wonderful Arkansas State Parks. Here are a few favorite excerpts from our journals:

  • “We woke up to a chilly morning today at Lake Ouachita State Park, with birds singing and crows calling. A gentle fog hovered over the calm surface of the water, and we all enjoyed a slow morning as the sun rose. We made a Dutch oven breakfast casserole and it was delicious.”
  • “At Lake Dardanelle State Park, we used driftwood and other natural materials found along the shoreline to make little boats. They actually floated! This was a fun, easy, free activity we all had fun working on these together.”
Emily sends her driftwood boat on its maiden voyage.

Emily sends her driftwood boat on its maiden voyage.

Courtney's boat was more of a cruise ship.

Courtney's boat was more of a cruise ship.

  • “While Daddy was setting up the tent on our first night Mount Nebo State Park, Emily (age 4) was awed by the owl we were hearing in the distance and marveled at all the stars shining so bright above us.  It’s these moments that make all the preparation of camping worthwhile.”
Childhood is all about discovery.

Childhood is all about discovery.

  • “The girls found an inchworm on the walk back to our camp at Petit Jean State Park. Emily really enjoyed letting it crawl all over her hands.  After I convinced her to let it go she talked about how she thought she could still see his little footprints on her hand.”
Kids love an adventure.

Kids love an adventure.

  • “The whole family spent a great evening on a sunset kayak tour with the park interpreter [at Cane Creek State Park]. We saw a beaver, several beaver lodges, lots of woodpeckers and other birds, and tons of lilypads.  It was a fun trip and the interpreter was a great guide.”
  • Today we decided to walk the short, easy ¼-mile Bear Cave Trail at Petit Jean State Park. There isn’t really a “cave” on it, but believe me, there is no disappointment about that, because the path winds you through a forest of humongous sandstone boulders. We all agreed there is a magical feeling there.
Insturctions: Just add water!

Instructions: Just add water!

  • “The first thing the girls wanted to do when we arrived at Lake Ouachita State Park was sit in the lake in their clothes so of course, I let them. Emily’s laughing face in the picture shows just how much they enjoyed doing something silly and out of the ordinary!”
  • “Our whole family spent the afternoon exploring nature at Petit Jean State Park today. We love looking up close at woodpecker marks in tree bark, bright colors of small wildflowers, amazing patterns in the rock formations, and of course, we are excited when a lizard darts across our path! Emily wanted to catch this one for a closer look, but she never was fast enough. There are so many little science and life lessons in these moments.”
Experiencing a day of discovery.

Experiencing a day of discovery.

  • “You can rub two small sandstone or shale rocks together with water to make nature paint! We used it to make designs on our bodies today. (It’s really just mud, so it washes off with water.) If you look carefully you can find resources to make white, gray, yellow, and red paint! The girls loved that it goes on wet as one color, and it dries another color! Here is Courtney’s “tattoo” of a kayaker and kayak.”
  • “We did a little geocaching today at Cane Creek State Park! Our family is just getting into this popular hobby, but we love the thrill of a scavenger hunt that leads us to neat history and nature places we might otherwise not see. The girls love looking at the logbook to see who’s been there recently, and we like leaving our note for the next people.”

Introducing the kids to a bigger world.

Introducing the kids to a bigger world.

  • “Today all four of us took a hike on the Bench Trail at Mount Nebo State Park. Not only did we enjoy the forest and little spring-fed waterfalls, but the views off the mountain into the Arkansas River valley were incredible. We took time to just sit and stare at Arkansas’s beauty.”
  • Evenings together around the campfire, like the one we had tonight at Petit Jean State Park, are one our family’s favorite things about camping in Arkansas State Parks. We do different things to pass the time, including tending the fire, cooking over it, reading aloud, telling jokes, talking about the day’s adventures, and of course, roasting marshmallows and making s’mores!

I just made our reservations for this year at Daisy State Park on Lake Greeson, and we’re looking forward to sharing all these traditions again and making new ones to add to our list.

* * *

State park interpreters in over 25 locations have scheduled daily programs during Arkansas Spring Break 2010, and quite a few actually have programs scheduled throughout the month to also accommodate different spring break dates from neighboring states like Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Missouri.

Programs include guided nature hikes, kayak tours, arts and crafts, hands-on workshops, historic site tours, and much more. Programs are scheduled at different times throughout the day, with additional evening activities such as night hikes, campfires, and owl prowls. In addition, many historic state park sites offer daily tours. Most programs are free of charge. Those requiring fees include most lake cruises, kayak tours, and site tours. Fees are minimal in most cases.

Park Finder Map:

Every town in the Natural State has at least one state park within an hour’s drive! CLICK HERE to see a Park Finder map.

Online Calendar of Events:

You can also check out our online calendar of events to see what’s scheduled at your local park, or to help plan a day or overnight trip to a park further from home. CLICK HERE to find a program that fits your schedule. You can customize your search by date, park location, city, zip code, and keyword (such as “kayak,” “hike,” “archeology,” or “birding”).

Besides scheduled, interpreter-led programs the State Parks of Arkansas provide facilities and settings for plenty of things you can do on your own in the parks, including geocaching, hiking, mountain biking, watching wildlife, studying Arkansas history, exploring nature and history exhibits in our visitor centers, and more.

Additional resources:

Parents wanting additional resources for year-round outdoor activity ideas might check out the following Web sites:

No matter what your family does this year during Spring Break, remember, your Arkansas State Parks are here for you. Make plans now to visit one soon.

School’s Out, State Parks Are In! Arkansas Spring Break 2010

Sarah Keating, Asst. Park Superintendent

Sarah Keating, Asst. Park Superintendent

Sarah Keating has been stationed at Lake Dardanelle State Park since 2001. She is currently Assistant Park Superintendent, and preceded that by six years as a Park Interpreter there. Sarah has also worked at Crater of Diamonds, Withrow Springs, and Lake Fort Smith. Sarah holds a bachelors degree in park resource management from Kansas State University. She is also an NAI Certified Heritage Interpreter and Trainer. Each fall she serves as an adjunct professor of Interpretive Methods  and Interpretive Field Studies at Arkansas Tech University. Most importantly, she works hard to ensure that her family goes camping in Arkansas State Parks as often as possible!

Because words can’t describe…

March 11, 2010

Instead of a regular post today we decided to leave you with a lovely visit to The Lodge at Mount Magazine State Park.

The Lodge at Mount Magazine opened in the Spring of 2006 and is one of the great vacation attractions of Arkansas. All rooms and cabins have a view off the bluff-line overlooking the Petit Jean River Valley and Blue Mountain Lake. All cabins have a hot tub on the deck with the same view. Amenities include the Skycrest Restaurant, Conference center, free broadband internet access, indoor pool and fitness center, business center and gift shop.

Also in the park are miles of hiking trails including the Signal Hill Trail which takes you to the highest point in Arkansas. A state-of-the-art Visitor Center greats visitors with exhibits of the mountains’ natural and cultural history and wildlife viewing areas. The park is also known for its wonderful programs that immerse you into the flora and fauna of the mountain. A slow drive through the park should include the Cameron’s Bluff Drive which has several overlooks.

Besides the lodge and cabins the park has a beautiful modern campground. Reservations can be made online or by calling 1-479-963-8502 for the campground or 1-877-MM-Lodge for the lodge and cabins. We look forward to your next visit.

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.