Thursday, December 03, 2009


Petit Jean SP Revisited

It had been almost two years since my last visit to Petit Jean State Park situated in the Arkansas River Valley. My last visit had occurred on a couple of cold but sunny late January days where I was about the only visitor to the park (see Jan 31, 2008 - Cedar Falls at Petit Jean State Park). This trip, over the Thanksgiving weekend, proved to be the direct opposite with people teaming at all the public venues --- luckily, they tended to gather at only the most publicized ‘points of interest’ and didn’t venture onto the trail system at large.

Bobby, a friend for over 40-years, accompanied me on this trip to PJSP. We left Memphis at 5 a.m. traveling darkened highways until we were near Little Rock when the sun materialized over our shoulders. Instantly we could tell it was going to be a beautiful day, perfect for being in the outdoors.

The centerpiece of the park is Cedar Falls with it’s 95-foot plunge. We stopped and viewed the waterfall from an observation platform on the southeast rim. It is an excellent vantage point offering the best view of the geological features of the falls. From there you can see the Hartshorne sandstone of the upper creek in contrast to the thin-bedded sandstone and siltstone of the area under the falls and down the lower river valley. The panorama is awe inspiring and made us eager to get to the trailhead for the decent into the canyon and the path to the base of the falls.

On the trip down the steep face of the cliff to the river bottom we paid attention to the rock formations as we traveled. Upon reaching and crossing the creek we followed the trail northeast to the falls. We were lucky to be the only two actually at the falls when we arrived, having passed several people on the trail going in the opposite direction. After about 30-minutes of enjoying Cedar Falls we followed the trail to the southwest toward our next waypoint - the Blue Hole.

Traveling down the creek the canyon walls became steeper and the canyon itself deeper, culminating at about 450-feet from rim to river. The stream goes through pinch points, forming small rapids, to wider areas, where the water slows. Our eyes were caught by both the beauty and the starkness of the landscape; naked hardwood trees with long bare tentacle like limbs stretched toward the clear sky above. The hillside and trails were carpeted by brown leaves atop gray stones, color added by a splash of fuzzy-green moss and the occasional cedar tree. Sunlight shimmered off the river and where it stilled the water projected a mirror image of the surrounding geography in its reflection. All was calm, quiet, and void of movement, the only wildlife being an occasional squirrel peering around a tree trunk or from behind a rock.

Two-miles west of the falls we reached a wide spot in the river known as the Blue Hole. Here stones have been laid across the creek making for an easy crossing. Bobby and I elected to rest here, soak feet in the cold stream water, and enjoy a snack.

Ten-minutes later, with sock and boots donned it was back to hiking as we took the south trail perpendicular to the river which led up and out of the river bottom. Here is were we really felt our age as we huffed and puffed up the hill toward Hwy 154. We gave a small shout of relief when we finally saw the road before us, knowing the upward climb had come to a conclusion.

Crossing the highway we picked up the trial again. On my last visit this area exhibited signs of a recent fire and much new growth; on this visit it was much less evident. Now moving eastward we crossed Hwy 155 and entered an area with huge striated rocks. It felt like a giant had taken slabs of slate and stacked them one on top of the other to create these rock formations. Actually, wind, water, and time had worked together in forming them. These rocks screamed ‘climb me’, so that I did. Regardless of age there is always the little boy in us that has to test the limits.

In no time we were at the Bear Cave Complex. I could spend an entire afternoon exploring here but hunger pangs got the best of us and half an hour after entering the complex we were on the final leg of the morning’s hike back to Mather Lodge and lunch.

Now it was time to visit the upper rim of the canyon and enjoy the view of the falls from above. The trailhead for the after lunch hike was a mile or so east of the falls. Here again we had to descend to the river basin, but on this upper side of the falls the distance is far less. Back in the 1930’s CCC members had cut steps into the stones to make the journey easier. The trail paralleled a cascading stream that eventually flowed into Cedar Creek. Crossing a bridge we started a gradual assent up the north face of the canyon. The path immediately became a goat trail, bordered by a sheer cliff on the north side and a sudden drop-off to the river on the south.

The striated sandstone cliff wall included many ‘carpet rocks’ where iron bands in the rock face have oxidized and the encircling sandstone has eroded forming geometric patterns. In some cases the sandstone had eroded to such an extreme that bands of iron an inch deep protrude from the stone.

As we continued to rise in elevation the trail narrowed even more until it eventually broke into a wide spot on the trail, and the cliff to the north morphed into a sloping hill. At this spot we were almost direction over the north rim of the waterfall several hundred feet below. We descended some fifty-feet to a small observation deck and were surprised, when we looked down onto the falls, by the number of people at the base of Cedar Falls. Many, probably a dozen or so, had maneuvered themselves to the rock behind the falls (something we had not thought of when we were at the falls earlier in the day). We were glad we had visited the fall earlier in the day before the crowd arrived.

Another 100-yards up the trail took us to the entrance of Rock House Cave. This large overhang is said to have Indian paintings on the ceiling, but neither Bobby nor I could say for sure that we saw any. The cave started to get crowded so we wrapped up our search for cave art and headed back down the path retracing our route to the trailhead.

On our way out of the park we stopped for a moment to examine Davies Bridge, an arched stone bridge built by the CCC in 1934. There is a small spillway on the east side of the bridge which makes it a great place to snap a few pictures.

It was dark by the time we crossed the Mississippi River I-40 Bridge, returning to our homes with sore legs and fond memories of a day spent between old friends in the great outdoors.

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