School’s Out – State Parks Are In!

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!

5 Responses to School’s Out – State Parks Are In!

  1. What a cool place this would be to have a geocache treasure hunt for the campers.

  2. Lisa Mullis says:

    I agree with Jay, the journal is a great idea for all kinds of travel experiences. We have one for the youngest of our group that started when she was only able to draw pictures and write simple words. It’s tough to get her to write in it these days, but I treasure those early drawings. We’ve spent school breaks camping or backpacking and will be doing so again this year. Thank you Arkansas State Parks for helping parents give the gift of the outdoors to their kids!

  3. Ray Bostian says:

    Excellent article. Wish all parents with children could read about your experiences. Also makes me wish I could start over!

  4. Jay Miller says:

    I love the journal about your trips to state parks. What a legacy of a state park tradition you have created, and what wonderful family memories you and your children have.

  5. Rachel Engebrecht says:

    Cool comments about Petit Jean!

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