Date: November 13, 2023 | Story: Stephanie Maxwell Newton | Art Direction: Bailey Dougan |
Located just outside Morrilton, Petit Jean State Park was founded in 1923 as the very first state park in Arkansas. However, the story of its genesis really begins 16 years prior. “In 1907, officials from a lumber company were so impressed with the mountain’s beauty that they suggested the area join the National Park system,” says Shealyn Sowers, chief of communications for the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism. The campaign was led by Dr. Thomas William Hardison, the Fort Smith Lumber Company’s physician, but the area of land ultimately was deemed too small to require federal management. “National Parks Director Stephen Mather agreed the property was striking and challenged Dr. Hardison to establish a state park system, an idea Hardison enthusiastically embraced,” Shealyn says. “With land donations and legislative support, Act 276 of 1923 was passed and Arkansas State Parks was born.”
Today, there are 52 state parks in Arkansas. According to Shealyn, the parks system attracts more than 9 million visitors who account for an estimated $1 billion in economic impact every year. Part of this is due, of course, to the scenic beauty of the state’s natural landscape—the mountains, valleys, waterfalls, ravines, lakes, rivers, springs, floodlands, and forests that make Arkansas such a diverse terrain. Such variety offers a multitude of experiences for those who visit the state. “Arkansas State Parks are truly some of the best in the nation,” Shealyn says. “Whether you’re a history buff, love to hike, paddle, bike, wildlife watch, or all of the above, there is a park where you can have a meaningful experience and feel welcome.” Visit arkansasstateparks.com for resources such as trails, maps, accommodations, and events.
On the southern tip of Norfork Lake, Dry Run Creek offers some of the best trout fishing in the state—and it’s open to just a select few. However, this exclusive waterway is a destination not for professional anglers, but for a different set of fishermen.
Dry Run Creek was opened to the public in 1988 by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and designated as a place for youths and mobility-impaired adults to cast their lines. “The commission is always looking for opportunities to make more public access and create more opportunities for people,” says Trey Reid, assistant chief of communications for the AGFC. “It’s a place that really makes sense for that kind of access.”
In 2010, with the help of several volunteer groups, an enhancement project was completed to stabilize the banks and provide overhead cover. A pier, boardwalk, and ramps built into the site make it accessible by wheelchair. Visitors can use these platforms or wade into the chilly waters to fish for four types of trout: rainbow, brook, brown, and cutthroat. Because the water flows from Norfork Lake through the nearby hatchery, the nutrient-rich creek has a “robust aquatic bug life” that makes for a healthy diet for trout—and equally satisfying fishing trips for visitors. “The great thing about Dry Run Creek is you find a lot of fish, and they’re very big fish,” Trey says. “It is really one of the most incredible 1-mile runs of trout fishing anywhere I’ve
Children fishing at Dry Run Creek must be under age 16 and with a licensed adult. Anglers are required to use artificial lures, and all fishing is catch and release. Visit agfc.com and norforkhatcheryfriends.org for more information.
Nestled within 6,000 acres of flooded timber and rice fields just south of Stuttgart, Five Oaks Lodge is so much more than a hunting destination—though it’s certainly that as well. Opened in 1983 by George Dunklin, Jr., the lodge offers 10 en-suite bedrooms for hunters and guests visiting the duck-hunting capital of the world. “We have people from all over the state, but also lots of out-of-state folks come,” George says.
However, with the designation of Five Oaks Lodge as a nonprofit organization in 2020, every visitor also means a contribution to the efforts George and his team make toward ensuring a sustainable future for waterfowl in the area. Through a partnership with the University of Arkansas at Monticello and the University system’s Department of Agriculture, five students are able to live and work at the property. “The goal is to continue research in bottomland hardwoods, and for the students to become professional land managers,” George explains. “We have a responsibility, because of the amount of ducks we winter in Arkansas, to make sure the habitat we have keeps these ducks healthy. Guests who come to Five Oaks now contribute to that mission.”
Forty years after founding Five Oaks, the hunting enthusiast swears his job doesn’t feel like work. “I’d love to tell you in 1983 this was my master plan, but it really just evolved over time—mainly because of my love for the resource, and what we have here in Arkansas,” he says. Read on for George’s take on the latest and greatest in duck-hunting must-haves.
George reaches for Sitka brand. “They really have advanced the technology between what I started with as a teenager and what we have today,” he says. “It makes duck hunting a much more comfortable sport. ”
Be sure the pattern of your clothing matches the habitat you’re hunting, George says. “Ducks are very keen and they’ll see things that don’t look quite right.” A hat and face mask help, too.
Shotgun and Shells
George’s shotgun of choice is a Beretta, and he recommends both Boss and Sitka for nontoxic shotgun shells. “They both help
sponsor some of our research, which we appreciate.”
“Rich-N-Tone are excellent call makers here in Arkansas,” George says of the Stuttgart-based company. Check out their line of J. Stephens calls, named after the brand’s current president and 3-time world champion duck caller John Stephens.
Originally made from solid wood, the evolution of decoys to a lighter material is one of the many improvements to the tools of the sport, George says. “They’re so much easier to carry, put out, and take up.”
You’ll need an in-state license if you’re a resident and either a 5-day pass or full season license if you’re visiting from out of state. Be sure to get your federal duck stamp, Arkansas duck stamp, and fill out a Harvest Information Program survey following your hunt.
Mark your calendar: Arkansas is the place to be for the next total solar eclipse, which will be visible around 1:45-2 p.m. on April 8, 2024. And while it may be several months away, you’ll need to plan ahead if you want to catch this natural phenomenon at its peak.
The last time a total solar eclipse passed through the United States was 2017, though the closest the “path of totality”—or the track of the moon’s shadow across Earth’s surface—came to Arkansas was the western edge of Kentucky. This means that if you stayed in The Natural State for the 2017 event, you experienced a partial eclipse. On April 8, the total eclipse will be visible from two-thirds of the state, including Little Rock, Jonesboro, Hot Springs, Mountain Home, Heber Springs, Clarksville, and many of the state parks and camping grounds
What does this mean for Arkansans? If you plan to make the most of this spectacle, book your accommodations now. As of this writing, Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage, and Tourism reports that of the 33 Arkansas State Parks with overnight lodging (21 of which are in the path of totality), 77% of rooms are already booked. It’s also good to note that roads will likely be congested in the days leading up to and following the eclipse as thousands of visitors make their way home. Here are just a few places where you might want to be for this celestial event.
COSSATOT RIVER STATE PARK
Region: Southwest/Ouachita Mountains
Duration of Eclipse: 4 minutes, 18.5 seconds
Don’t Miss: Kayakers and canoeists can take to the river and experience the total eclipse while paddling Class IV rapids. Possible accommodations include campgrounds, nearby cabins, and RV parks. Call the park at 870.385.2201 for more information.
PETIT JEAN STATE PARK
Region: Central/Arkansas River Valley
Duration of Eclipse: 4 minutes, 14.5 seconds
Don’t Miss: Camp Eclipse at Camp Mitchell Retreat & Conference Center offers family-friendly fun in a summer camp environment. Accommodations include five nights of lodging (only single beds in shared cabins and tent camping are still available). Visit campmitchell.org for more information.
SEARCY COUNTY AND BUFFALO NATIONAL RIVER
Region: North Central/Ozark Mountains
Duration of Eclipse: 2 minutes, 55 seconds to 4+ minutes, depending on location
Don’t Miss: Forty-eight miles of the Buffalo National River run through Searcy County, making it a popular destination for floating, hiking, and camping. Cabins, campgrounds, and other rentals are available. Visit searcycountyarkansas.org for a list of accommodations.
HISTORIC DYESS COLONY JOHNNY CASH BOYHOOD HOME
Region: Northeast/Upper Delta
Duration of Eclipse: Outside the path of totality. Will experience partial eclipse with 99.3% visibility
Don’t Miss: The 2024 Solar Eclipse Festival at the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home is a three-day event featuring cycling, an afternoon of live music, tours of Johnny Cash’s restored home, a lunch and learn with a NASA scientist, and more. Tickets include primitive camping. Visit dyesscash.astate.edu for more information.