Adrienne Dumont, a petit French woman without strong feminine features, fell in love with a nobleman named Chavet. When her beloved traveled to America in search of new lands for the king of France, Adrienne would not be left behind. She disguised herself as a boy and took sail with the rest of the ship’s crew, who nicknamed her “Petit Jean,” meaning little John.
When Petit Jean and the rest of the ship’s inhabitants explored the interior of what would become Arkansas, Petit Jean became ill. It was then she was discovered to be a woman and Chavet learned of her identity.
Petit Jean asked to be buried atop the Arkansas mountain she came to love and the crew complied. That mountain about an hour outside of Little Rock is now called Petit Jean and visitors may look down upon the young Frenchwoman’s grave.
And so the story goes.
It’s a lovely tale, whether true or not, and it’s why the state park located high in the Ouachita Mountains of central Arkansas carries her name as well. Petit Jean State Park was chosen as Arkansas’ first state park for the area is home to ancient natural formations to dazzle any visitor — no wonder Petit Jean loved it here. Hiking trails lead visitors to a dazzling waterfall inside an impressive canyon, Native American pictographs grace a cave wall and massive rocks that resemble turtles dot the mountainside. Plus, on our visit, during the conclusion of the spring migration of songbirds, we spotted numerous colorful birds to accent the fascinating rock outcrops.
Visitors can stay in the historic Adirondack-style Mather Lodge, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, or 33 fully equipped cabins (21 with kitchens) in a variety of styles. The park also features campsites, four Rent-A-Yurts and group camp areas perfect for family reunions. Mather Lodge includes a pool, dining hall with dramatic views of both the canyon and a steady stream of hummingbirds and plenty of atmospheric meeting spaces with fireplaces and comfy chairs.
And get this — the park also has an airport.
The main attraction at Petit Jean is the numerous hiking paths, enough to keep visitors busy for several days. The most popular remains the Cedar Creek trail that descends from Mather Lodge into the canyon below where 95-foot Cedar Falls provides a stunning view; be sure to bring your camera or cell phone! Less strenuous trails offer overlooks of the falls for those who don’t want to make the return uphill climb.
The Rock House Cave trail winds through giant rocks resembling turtles to a rock shelter containing ancient pictographs. The Bear Cave Trail also features massive rock formations. Day-long trails exist, such as the 4-plus-mile Seven Hollows Trail, which passes through diverse hollows and a natural bridge, and the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Boy Scout Trail that connects all the park’s trails in a 12-mile loop.
Other Outdoor Activities
In addition to hiking, the park also contains Lake Bailey where visitors can rent boats, swim in the pool, play tennis, or enjoy the amphitheater and picnic areas. Park events include ranger-led hikes, scavenger hunts, lectures and sunset kayak tours. Themed weekends are held throughout the year, such as Eagle Awareness; Hikes, Hearts and Hugs for Valentine’s Day; Celebrating Trees for Arbor Day and more.
Petit Jean State Park exists off Interstate 40 at Morrilton, then nine miles south on Arkansas Hwy. 9. For a real treat, exit I-40 at Arkadelphia and take Arkansas Scenic Hwy. 7 up through the mountains to the park, stopping at Hot Springs for a soak in the delicious waters.
As for the real Petit Jean, visitors can drive a few miles outside of the park to a dramatic overlook of the Arkansas River Valley and it’s there, on the mountaintop, that Petit Jean Dumont rests today, her grave alongside the visitor’s path.
For more information on Petit Jean, visit https://www.arkansasstateparks.com/parks/petit-jean-state-park.
This article was written by Cheré Coen.
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