The Natural State Parks

...and how to make the most of them, one hike, float, camp and history lesson at a time

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LegendEARLY THIS PAST SEPTEMBER, I found myself surrounded by water lilies in full bloom, the fragrance of their white and yellow flowers thick on the water. I’d made the early-morning drive down to Cane Creek State Park from Little Rock to fly fish for bream. Usually eager to take a brightly colored fly, they just didn’t want to bite that day. To pass the time, I found myself instead taking in the quiet beauty of the lake—its stands of sunken timber skeletal against the pale blue sky, the seemingly endless reaches of lily pads dotted with flowers, the heron skimming low over the water.

Just when I was about to give up and turn to taking photos—the park is picturesque enough that that would have been no sacrifice—I got a bite. I was so stunned, I completely forgot to set the hook and watched the fish flash in the sunlight as it darted for safety. I just smiled. Any day outside is a good day, fish or no fish.

And that’s something I’ve known for years. The woods and the water do wonders for my mental state, which is why I have a special affinity for Arkansas’ state parks. I can often be found riding the mountain bike trails near DeGray Lake or taking in the panoramic views at Petit Jean, but physical beauty is not why I love the park system. Without it, many of my favorite outdoor activities would be out of reach.

It’s not just that parks have trails or campsites or, in the case of Cane Creek, great places to fish. There are plenty of fishing holes across the state—Cane Creek itself was open for fishing long before the park was dedicated in 1992. But me? I need the park, and all that being a park entails, because I live in a small, downtown Little Rock apartment and drive a small, fuel-efficient car. Even if I’d been able to strap a canoe to the roof of my Mini Cooper that early September morning, there’s no way I could have fit the boat in my second-floor walk up. Instead, I simply stopped by the park’s visitor center, paid a small fee and had a canoe waiting for me at the boat ramp when I arrived.

And that is what’s so wonderful about our state parks—they make it so gosh darn easy to get out and enjoy what makes Arkansas great that we’d all be fools not to. Don’t have a tent? Rent a yurt at Lake Charles. Can’t do without air conditioning? Book a Civilian Conservation Corps-era cabin at Devil’s Den. Need to keep the kids entertained? Let them loose in the water park at Crater of Diamonds. Just plain hate the outdoors? Enjoy a spa day at DeGray Lake.

The variety of services offered by our state parks is matched only by the variety of the parks themselves. It’s a long way from Northwest Arkansas and its famous mountain views to the cypress-filled bayous of the Delta, but it’s not just the topography that changes. Each park has its own mission. Some are purely for the enjoyment of the outdoors. Some, like the Ozark Folk Center, Historic Washington and Toltec Mounds, preserve our heritage for future generations. Logoly in the southwest hopes to educate the next generation about ecology and environmental preservation. There are parks for thrill seekers and parks for quiet contemplation, much like what I found at Cane Creek.

Eventually, I figured out what the fish wanted and landed a few, but my heart wasn’t in it. That September trip was my first visit to the park, and the lake itself wanted my undivided attention. With no conscious decision on my part, I stowed the rod. I set off with no other purpose in mind than to explore, one paddle stroke at a time.

And after editing this guide to each of Arkansas’ 52 state parks, that sense of wonder is something I expect to experience again and again.

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