The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced some pretty drastic changes in Arkansas, especially at our beautiful state parks. The parks for now are for day-use only. Weekend crowds recently have been outrageous. 

I’ve been to many of the parks in Arkansas, some of them a number of times for hiking, fishing, camping or just for spending a few minutes in nature.

When we lived in south Arkansas, my wife and I used to visit Lake Catherine State Park a lot. The park, located not far from Hot Springs and Malvern, was just two hours from our front door.

We often rented a cabin built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s – the so-called CCC boys. We loved building a huge fire in the massive fireplaces, walking the various trails, or just sitting on the screened-in back porch. During the winter we saw bald eagles fly overhead on more than one trip.

Most overnight stays were on a Monday, and there were times we had the park nearly to ourselves. There would be a few vehicles in the campground, but we could spend Monday and Tuesday and see very few people.

Last weekend, however, there were reportedly about 3,500 people at Lake Catherine on Saturday and 3,200 on Sunday. Lake Catherine is a small park (2,200 acres) with few facilities other than the campground, the cabins and a small swimming beach. There isn’t a restaurant very close. There’s one road in and that’s it.

Probably our favorite state park in Arkansas is the majestic Petit Jean. Oh sure, it doesn’t compare to some of the national parks, but the park near Morrilton has gorgeous views, CCC and modern cabins, a lodge, some great hiking trails, a pretty darned good restaurant and more.

On one trip, three hours from our house, we went on a guided tour of Rock House cave. It was in the dead of winter. The waterfalls were frozen and there was thick ice on bluffs everywhere. The park guide was anxious to show us the Native American drawings inside the cave.

The pictographs are hard to see these days because they’ve been there for thousands of years and time has worn away at the primitive materials.

Recently it was discovered that some heartless idiots scratched their names into the cave walls.

Don Higgins at the park said, “Once those scratches go across the sandstone, it’s pretty much done. The damage is there and there’s no getting rid of it, and it’s a beautiful piece of art that could be hundreds of thousands of years old that could be damaged for all time.”

I adore Devil’s Den State Park near Winslow, which has some of the best CCC cabins. I knew one guy from south Arkansas who worked at the Devil’s Den camp in the 1930s. The CCC boys were paid $30 a month – $25 of which was sent home to their families. He told me that his family in Norphlet made it through the very lean times because of that $25.

We also stayed at Lake Chicot in southeast Arkansas, where migrating birds are a sight to behold. The Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources in Smackover takes one back in time to when oil was discovered in south Arkansas. At Cane Creek we stayed in a rental camper, which was pretty nice until both of us woke the next morning with bug bites all over us.

We drove through Cossatot River State Park, which convinced me I would never ride a canoe there. Crowley’s Ridge State Park near Paragould is pretty nice, but Paragould is a very, very long ways from anywhere.

We’ve driven through Daisy State Park in Kirby, Millwood near Ashdown, Degray Lake Resort, ate lunch at the fantastic Historic Washington State Park,  hiked a few times at Moro Bay, spent some time at Hobbs State Park, spent the night at Mount Magazine, had our first wedding anniversary at Mount Nebo, looked at the beautiful Lake Dardanelle and Lake Fort Smith parks, caught a few fish at Lake Ouachita, walked the trail at Logoly State Park near McNeil, enjoyed the quiet at Mammoth Spring, visited Pinnacle Mountain State Park and saw the wonders at Toltec Mounds Archeological State Park. We retraced history at Poison Springs and Prairie Grove battlefield state parks and enjoyed probably the smallest park of all, the South Arkansas Arboretum in El Dorado.