Springtime in Arkansas always arrives in full glory, with waterfalls coming alive amid lush green landscapes and sunshine filling the days with warmer weather. Petit Jean State Park and the city of Little Rock both sit in the heart of the Natural State and are perfect destinations for families seeking outdoor play and historical learning opportunities. Little Rock draws in visitors with its beautiful riverside parks and attractions. Plus, the dining scene is expansive, from Southern comfort food to unique artisanal fare. When your family is ready to break away from work and school this spring, check out the Murnan family must-sees of Central Arkansas!
Petit Jean State Park
Arkansas’ first state park is a little over 4 hours from the Oklahoma City metro. Petit Jean State Park is an incredible place to start your trip and relish in the great outdoors. This is one of our family’s favorite state parks, always inviting us to explore its vast natural treasures and historic places.
The Mather Lodge is a focal point of the park, welcoming travelers with an onsite restaurant and 24 rooms overlooking the Cedar Creek Canyon. Nearby, there are 33 rustic cabins to choose from, all with equally impressive canyon views.
Lake Bailey, not far from the park’s visitor center, has a large campground, bathhouses and plenty of opportunities to fish, pedal boat or kayak along its pristine waters. For a unique lodging experience on the lake’s shore, consider renting a YURT (year-round universal recreational tent), which is a tall, round tent large enough for six people that comes complete with electricity, wood floors, lanterns, cots and a stove. The experience is definitely a step up from traditional tent camping!
Hiking, overlooks and fun
Many of the park’s trails are short and often boast distinct features to help keep kids excited to explore. Rock House Cave Trail is one of our boys’ favorites because they enjoy hopping to and from the “turtle rocks” as they make their way to a large rock shelter and premier spot for viewing ancient Native American rock art.
Families can also enjoy hiking from Mather Lodge to the spectacular 95-foot Cedar Falls, where massive boulders and towering trees adorn this trail that descends into the canyon. Another favorite is Bear Cave Trail; while it doesn’t actually have a cave, kids of all ages still love climbing above and below the gigantic sandstone boulders that beckon exploration through secret passages.
Seven Hollows Loop Trail offers beautiful scenery, creek crossings and a quiet grotto with a small waterfall. While the length of the entire trail may deter some families with young children, there is a truly remarkable natural bridge just 1.3 miles from the trailhead when hiked clockwise. Shortening the trip to this marker is still a great way to enjoy this popular trail!
Petit Jean State Park sits about 1,200 feet above the Arkansas River Valley, lending to the sweeping views one can enjoy at various overlooks. Stout’s Point overlook is a peaceful spot to learn more about legendary Petit Jean, a young French girl who disguised herself as a boy so she could join her fiancé on a voyage to the “New World,” which ultimately brought her to the area. She thought the views here were so breathtaking that she actually chose it as her final resting place. Also from this overlook, a portion of the Trail of Tears can be seen, designating the park as a certified Trail of Tears National Historic Site.
After a day of hiking, let the horses take you down the trail at Barnyard Friends and Stables, which sits atop Petit Jean Mountain. Families can enjoy 30 to 50 minute horseback rides (for ages 5 and up), hay rides or pony rides for the youngest travelers. The barnyard also allows guests to hand-feed and pet a variety of farm animals, all eager to keep you company and put a smile on your face.
While in the park, consider popping in to Petit Jean Coffeehouse, a cute little A-frame café with rave-worthy scones and specialty coffee drinks. They also have brown-bag lunches to grab for a day on the trail. For dinner options, check out Elia’s Mexican Grill outside the park in the city of Morrilton, just 25 minutes away. This family-owned restaurant offers up fresh taco salads and all the classic Mexican dishes your family will be craving after a busy day on the mountain. Besides delicious food, the restaurant gets consistent applause for the friendly, attentive staff.
Just an hour southeast of Petit Jean State Park awaits the spirited city of Little Rock and its bustling River Market District in the heart of this capital’s downtown, offering plenty of places to shop, dine and play. The neighboring Riverfront Park stretches 11 blocks along the shores of the Arkansas River and features the Vogel Schwartz Sculpture Garden, a gorgeous outdoor labyrinth of art, as well as an impressive playground lined with boulders and secret tunnels for kids to navigate and climb.
Make your way east along the scenic 15-mile Arkansas River Trail to the William E. Clark Wetlands, where boardwalks wind through a 13-acre preserve and lead guests to wide-open views of the river and the Clinton Presidential Park Bridge, a grand pedestrian bridge connecting the north and south portions of the trail. Nearby, the Museum of Discovery invites children to embark on a Mayan archaeological quest and captivates all ages with engaging, interactive demonstrations that spark learning and imagination.
Many restaurants in Little Rock proudly share a common thread for giving back to their community, and The Root Café is one of the best. They source most of their ingredients, including all of their eggs, meat and bread, from local farmers to craft their delicious homemade dishes morning to night. Biscuit sandwiches, omelettes and pancakes are all tasty options to start your day, or try one of their fresh salads, sandwiches or burgers to refuel your crew for lunch. They also offer several gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian menu items.
Grab a mid-day coffee at Nexus Coffee and Creative in the River Market District, where they roast their own coffee beans in-house for fresh, high-quality taste. The shop is incredibly warm and peaceful, welcoming all to come in for rest and community with others.
Dinner at The Pantry Eatery is a must for your family, where they feature Czech and German classics among other perfectly plated American dishes, like flatbreads and burgers. The appetizer and dessert menus are simply delightful but it is their overall service and attention to quality food that has kept this restaurant at the top of Little Rock’s “best of” lists for years.
History was made in 1957 at Little Rock Central High School when nine Black children bravely paved the way to desegregation in an all-white school and opened doors for those seeking equality in education around the world. Today, families can visit the grounds of the school as well as its National Park Service Visitor Center to view an interpretive film and exhibits. Children can participate in the NPS Junior Ranger program to learn more about the sacrifice and struggle endured by the Little Rock Nine, who were a catalyst for change in our country.
Another historical site worth visiting is the Old Mill in north Little Rock, famous for its appearance in the opening credits of the movie Gone With the Wind and thought to be one of the last still-standing structures that can be seen in the film. The surrounding grounds are beautifully landscaped and are a perfect spot for a picnic lunch.
There are an array of outdoor activities at Burns Park, the largest urban park in the state, which rests along the northern shores of the Arkansas River. The park has both golf and disc golf courses, a BMX track, playgrounds, trails and a covered bridge fashioned after those found in New England. There’s even a mini amusement park open seasonally for young children to enjoy. Big Rock Mini Golf and Fun Park is another highly entertaining and affordable place to enjoy activities for all ages. Families can play mini golf, race go-karts, climb a ropes course, take a swing in the batting cages or get lost in an outdoor maze.
Round out your trip at Pinnacle Mountain State Park, just 20 minutes west of Little Rock, where visitors are rewarded with a birds-eye view of the city from its summit. This landmark park has more than 20 miles of trails and a gorgeous arboretum to wander.
When winter melts into spring this year, let your family delight in exploring Arkansas’ captivating wonders. The beauty of this particular spring break adventure is that not only will your family cherish all the moments of play, but your children will also be rewarded with valuable conversations and lessons learned surrounding the history found in Little Rock.