Category: Worth the Drive
Arkansas State Parks Passports, available at visitor centers, can be stamped at all locations and earn visitors rewards like stickers, playing cards and T-shirts.

Arkansas State Parks celebrate centennial

Back a century ago, when Arkansas established its first state park, driving to a mountain-top location for a day of pleasure lay beyond the reach of most families.

Only 110,000 motor vehicles (one-ninth of today’s total) were registered in Arkansas in 1923, the year that the General Assembly voted to create Petit Jean State Park in Morrilton. In 2023, as the highly regarded system celebrates its centennial, Arkansas operates 52 state parks. At least one is within an hour’s drive of every home in the state.

Pioneering Petit Jean is still the most visited, according to Shea Lewis, director of Arkansas State Parks. In total, the parks counted about 8.9 million visitors last year, with Mount Magazine (Paris) ranking second in popularity. Next came Pinnacle Mountain (Roland), DeGray Lake Resort (Bismarck), and Devil’s Den (Winslow).

While ranking as the oldest and most visited state park, Petit Jean has the newest visitor center. The exhibit-rich 17,000-square-foot facility, opened in May 2021, is named for Dr. T.W. Hardison, whose life-size bronze statue stands outside the entrance. He was a country physician who spearheaded the creation of the park, named for a legendary French maiden said to have dressed as a boy to accompany her beloved sailor to America.

Maintenance and Memories

Much of the center’s $7 million cost came from the Amendment 75 Conservation Fund, a one-eighth of 1% general sales tax passed by voters in 1996 for state parks and similar purposes.

Petit Jean State Park’s visitor center and a bronze statue outside it honor Dr. T.W. Hardison, founder of the park and park system. Courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.

“We are very fortunate in Arkansas to have funding through Amendment 75,” says Mike Mills, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage & Tourism, which oversees the parks system.

“This taxpayer support allows us to be in the forever business and offer free admission to all 52 parks. Most state parks elsewhere don’t have such backing, which allows us to maintain our parks properly and fund new projects.”

Thanks mainly to the taxpayer funding, four new visitor centers have opened in the last half-dozen years. Along with Petit Jean, they are located at Davidsonville Historic (Pocahontas), Logoly (Magnolia), and Woolly Hollow (Greenbrier). A new center is being built to open later this year at Pinnacle Mountain. For Devil’s Den, a new center is under design.

“We have many visitors who are regular guests who share lifetime memories made at state parks and tell us how they are passing those family traditions from generation to generation,” Lewis says. “First-time visitors are often surprised by how nice our parks are, as well as by the number of interpretive programs and events, and the fact that entry is free.”

Biking, Hiking, History

The focus of parks is roughly split among scenic, recreational, and historic themes — including prehistoric at three sites: Hampson (Wilson); Parkin in the city with the same name; and the recently renamed Plum Bayou, formerly Toltec Mounds (Scott). Some locations serve two or all three of those aims.

It took several decades for the parks system to begin the rapid expansion that benefits visitors today. At the end of World War II in 1945, just five of the present parks existed.

Arkansas State Parks by the Numbers

1,800Total number of campsites
471Miles of trails
208Number of cabins
214Number of lodge rooms
27Parks have at least one lake
28Qualify as historic sites
13Have mountain-bike trails
11Have beaches
10Have marinas
6Have swimming pools
4Have tennis courts

Besides Petit Jean, they were Mount Nebo (1928, Dardanelle), Devil’s Den (1933), Lake Catherine (1935, Hot Springs) and Crowley’s Ridge (1937, Paragould).

Development began booming in the 1950s when nine new parks were dedicated. In the 1960s, another 12 opened, many built around lakes created by Army Corps of Engineers dams. The biggest surge came in the 1970s, with the arrival of 15 more parks. Since 1980, another 11 have been added. No more are on the drawing board.

Mississippi River State Park (Marianna), which opened in 2009, is the newest unit of the park system.

Happy Trails

Centennial celebrations are planned at Petit Jean and other parks this year. Visitors can earn Club 52 rewards by getting their parks passport stamped wherever they stop. Also set is a program for earning rewards by doing 100 hours of volunteer service.

Favorite memories of visits to state parks can be posted for sharing at an online video gallery. Visit the Arkansas State Parks website to share your memories and for details on the 100th anniversary.