The Best Things To Do at Petit Jean State Park: Explore the Beauty of Arkansas
November 24, 2021
After traveling to natural places all over Arkansas, Petit Jean is my favorite place to hike and enjoy the state’s natural beauty. The park has so much to see, from a 95-foot waterfall to countless caves to incredible viewpoints of the surrounding valleys and mountains. The park is free for day use and is equipped with a lodge, a visitor center and a mix of both paved and unpaved trails. Petit Jean is located a little over an hour from Little Rock and is a must to add to your Arkansas bucket list!
I had cell service on the park roads and trailheads, but not on the trails. It is a good idea to download offline maps on All Trails, but the trails are all well marked so it’s not strictly necessary.
Petit Jean has a long history, starting with Native Americans who used the rocky bluffs for shelter. On the Rock House trail, you can even see pictographs inscribed by Native Americans over 500 years ago. In more recent history, the origins of how Petit Jean got its name take us back to France in the 1700’s. The story goes that a Frenchman named Chavet was granted permission to claim part of the land in the Louisiana purchase. When planning his journey from France to the New World, his fiance begged to go with him. He refused to take her along. In response, his fiance disguised herself as a sailor boy named Jean and joined the crew of the ship. The sailors called her Petit Jean. They made it to present day Arkansas and spent several months on the mountain that would later become the park. When they were due to travel back to France, Petit Jean fell ill and her identity was revealed. She asked to be buried on the mountain where she had spent her final days. Today, you can see her gravesite on Stout’s Overlook.
This blog covers everything you need to know about visiting Petit Jean State Park. Keep reading to learn about the best hiking trails, where to stay and more!
Please make it a priority to Leave No Trace when exploring the outdoors. This includes leaving nothing behind, respecting wildlife, minimizing campfire impacts, respecting those around you, planning ahead and traveling on durable surfaces. For more details, read about the seven principles at lnt.org.
I would recommend staying at least one night in or around Petit Jean State Park to get the full experience. However, I drove to the park two days in a row while staying in Little Rock and that worked well for me. Whether you prefer camping, a cabin or a hotel, here are some lodging options to suit your needs.
Petit Jean offers several campsite options inside of the park. There are 125 campsites that should be reserved in advance. They offer a mix of electrical, water and sewer hookups. There are four different campground areas and each one has its own bathhouse.
The state park also offers yurts, cabins and a lodge to spend the night. The yurts start at $55/night and come fully furnished with bunk beds, chairs and even camping essentials such as an ice chest. The cabins vary in size but many include multiple bedrooms, fireplaces, grills and porches. The Mather Lodge offers basic rooms and with incredible views of the valley behind the lodge. The lodge also has a pool, a restaurant and a gift shop. No matter which way you prefer to stay inside the park, try to book early if you’re visiting during a peak time.
There are several lodging options right outside of the park. Check out the Cedar Falls Motel or look for a cabin on Airbnb. Airbnbs to check out include a room that Petit Jean Coffehouse rents out, this A-Frame cabin or this home with an amazing view. You could also stay at a hotel in Morrilton, located about 30 minutes outside of the park.
Petit Jean is wonderful to visit year round. In the summer, you’ll likely experience highs in the 90’s°F and lows in the 60’s°F. In the spring, Petit Jean has highs in the 60’s°F and 70’s°F with lows ranging from the 30’s°F to the 50’s°F. In the fall, temperatures range from highs in the 60’s°F to 80’s°F and lows in the 30’s°F and 50’s°F. Finally, the winter typically bring highs in the 40’s°F and 50’s°F and lows in the 20’s°F and 30’s°F.
In my opinion, the best time to visit Petit Jean is in the fall. I visited at the end of November and experienced stunning fall foliage and wonderful weather.
The Cedar Falls Trail will lead you to the base of Cedar Falls, the 95-foot waterfall for which the park is most known. The hike is rated moderate and you’ll want to be prepared for some minor rock scrambling and steepness when you climb back out. The 367 feet of elevation occurs in the first half mile of the trail. The trail begins at Mather Lodge, where you can find restrooms or refill your water.
You will begin in a forested section and hike down some rocky switchbacks. After 0.4 miles, you’ll reach a bridge and cross Cedar Creek. After the bridge, you’ll turn right and follow the trail next to the creek for another 0.5 miles before reaching the falls.
The view of the falls from the bottom is incredible. There are some rocks directly across from the falls that you can scramble over to get up close, or there is a slightly elevated spot to view the falls to the left.
The Seven Hollows Trail is a 5-mile loop trail that will take you past natural arches, a giant grotto and so many interesting rock formations. I did the trail clockwise, but I’m not sure if it makes much of a difference which way you go. The trail is mostly shaded, has about 600 feet of elevation gain and is rated moderate. Also note that there is no restroom at the trailhead.
Going clockwise, the trail begins in the forest and you will soon start to see rocky bluffs on both sides. Soon you will start to see little caves in the rock faces and many interesting rocks right next to the trail. After 1.3 miles, you will reach an impressive rock arch on the left side of the trail. You can walk underneath it and see it from both sides. As you continue, you will climb up on top of the rock bluffs and reach the grotto. Getting back to the grotto is the most difficult part of the trail and involves a little bit of rock scrambling. When you reach the grotto, the temperature drops and you’ll see a waterfall and a small pool of water. The waterfall was just a trickle when I visited but it will depend on the time of year and recent rainfall. The grotto is a beautiful shady area that is a perfect place to stop for lunch.
The second half of the trail has several more interesting rocks to look at as you walk next to tall rock faces and around some boulders. The Seven Hollows Trail is full of interesting things to look at and definitely worth doing if you have enough time.
I hiked to Bear Cave from Mather Lodge, which was about a mile round trip. However, you can also drive and park right next to the cave. The Bear Cave area refers to about a quarter mile of trails weaving in and out of huge rock faces. There is not actually a true cave here, but it’s a fascinating place to explore. The rocks are huge and there are times when the sandstone boulders towering above you will look like a slot canyon. This area is great for kids and adults alike, and is a must while visiting the park.
The Rock House trail leads to one of the largest bluff shelters in the state. Rock Cave was used by Native Americas for shelter, evidenced by several pictographs still visible inside the cave today. The cave is considered an archeological historical site and is heavily monitored to prevent destruction. Make sure to be respectful while visiting. The trail to reach the cave is about a quarter mile and crosses over a huge area of “turtle rocks,” which refers to fascinating rock formations that look like turtle shells.
From the cave, you can take the trail another 0.1 miles to an overlook of Cedar Falls. The viewpoint isn’t as clear as the main overlook, but you get to see the impressive waterfall from another angle. This overlook is unmarked and requires a little bit of steep rock stairs to reach, but is not too difficult. Just make sure to be careful and respect the signage to not get too close to the edge.
Note that the All Trails map of the Rock Cave trail also includes Red Bluffs Road. You could hike along the road like it shows, but you can also drive.
- Canyon Trail, 1 mile, a trail that begins at Mather Lodge and follows along the Cedar Creek.
- Boy Scout Trail, 12 miles, a large loop going all around the park.
- CCC Hike and Bike Trail, 1.75 miles, paved and good for biking along the main road.
- Cedar Creek Trail, 1.25 miles, rated moderate and offers views of Cedar Creek.
The Cedar Falls Overlook is a must while visiting the park. There is an elevated pathway with railings that will lead you to an amazing view of Cedar Falls from above. Along the way, there are also some signs providing information about the park and the area. You can either park right next to the overlook, or take the Boy Scout trail about a half mile from the Mather Lodge.
Red Bluffs Road is a one-way road on the northwest side of the park that has two incredible viewpoints. The first is the Mary Ann Richter Overlook where there is a small parking area and a viewing area built from stone. The viewpoint offers incredible views of the valley below and other mountains in the distance. You can see nearby Mount Nebo State Park in the distance!
The second overlook is the CCC Overlook, which includes a small structure built by the CCC. This overlook has more space to spread out and a rocky cliff that you can walk on (just be careful!). This was actually where I took some of my favorite photos in Petit Jean and no hiking was required!
Stout’s Overlook is located slightly outside of the main park area and is home to Petit Jean’s Gravesite, the ruins of an old building and amazing views of the Arkansas River. You’ll find it along Petit Jean Mountain Road located almost 5 miles east of the visitor center. The overlook has a mix of platforms and rocks to walk on and offers plenty of space to spread out. A wide portion of the Arkansas River is right below and you may see barges venturing down the river. When you reach the gravesite, there is signage where you can learn about the legend of Petit Jean. It’s also fun to explore the ruins of College Lodge. The ruins are left from a camp administration that burnt down in the 1940’s and you can walk inside and see the shell of the former building. This overlook is definitely worth visiting on your way in or out of the park.
The Palisades Overlook is located very close to the Bear Cave and Seven Hollows trails and worth a quick stop. It offers a view of the Cedar Creek Canyon and of the CCC Overlook on the opposite rim. You can explore on some rock faces, however a tall metal fence blocks some of the view to prevent visitors from falling over the edge.
- Be sure to make a stop at the Petit Jean Visitor Center. There is a great museum area that talks about the history and geology of the area. There is also a gift shop, a fire place outside and you can ask the ranger any questions you have about the park.
- The Pioneer cabin is a preserved cabin from 1845 located right down the road from the Cedar Falls Overlook. This may be worth a quick stop if you are interested in pioneer history.
- You’ll drive by a CCC Water Tower on your way to Mather Lodge. The tower was built by the CCC in the 1930’s. You can typically go inside and see the wooden support beams.
Petit Jean Coffee House is a white A-frame cabin that houses a coffee house and gift shop. They serve coffee, breakfast and lunch items as well. I ordered the pimento cheese and jalapeno brown bag lunch and it came with chips and a cookie in addition to the sandwich. This is a really cute spot that is definitely worth stopping for a snack or a coffee in between hiking and exploring. It is located right on the Eastern edge of the park.
Mather Lodge has a restaurant serving a large menu of breakfast, lunch and dinner options. Meals include omelets and french toast for breakfast and burgers, pizza and sandwiches for lunch and dinner. I did not personally eat at the restaurant and the food gets mixed reviews. However, it was crowded when I visited and it’s worth giving a try if you are craving a hot meal after a day of hiking.
- Mount Nebo State Park is located about 40 minutes away from Petit Jean and offers incredible views of the surrounding valley. It’s worth combining the two in one trip if you have time!
- There is an automobile museum right outside of the park. The museum has a collection of historic automobiles dating back from before 1950 and was founded in the 60's.
Thanks for Reading!
Let's stay in touch!
Join the Lost with Lydia email list to get monthly travel guides and tips!