Petit John State Park, Part 1: Lake Bailey, Turtle Rocks, Rock House Cave, and Mountain Overlooks

The first thing I did once we had decided we were going to the Ozark Mountains was start searching my friend Paige’s blog, Paige and her husband Matt are avid adventurers and since the Ozarks are practically in their backyard, I knew it would be a perfect place to start my planning. After making an extensive list of places that piqued my interest I messaged her for suggestions.

At the top of her list was Petit Jean State Park, a gorgeous mountaintop getaway located between the Ouachita Mountains and the Ozarks. There was a bit of a cold snap prior to and during our visit and remnants of glittering snow lingered under trees and in the shade. I was immediately excited for the colder temperatures — not to mention the pines — after being at low elevation for so long. It was delightfully quiet as well – of the 125 spots in the campground only 6 were occupied including ours.

We arrived at the park midday and once we’d set up, Allie and I ventured off for a couple hours walking beginning with an exploration of Lake Bailey. Located directly across the road from our campsite, the lakeshore became our go-to walk in the mornings and evenings, I taking pictures of tree reflections and cypress knees while Allie watched the birds.

The first of our two full days at Petit Jean began by hiking the Turtle Rocks Trail to Rock House Cave. The so-called turtle rocks are a type of weathered sandstone formed when water permeates the grains of sand as iron precipitates to the surface. Polygonal joint patterns form and the result strongly resembles turtle shells.

After crossing over this short stretch of reptilian landscape, we descended below the bluff and soon arrived at Rock House Cave, a large rock shelter with Native American pictographs. I failed at capturing any decent photos of the painted rock, but I can assure you, it was pretty neat, as was the “cave” itself.

After climbing back up and over the turtle rocks we proceeded to take a driving tour along Red Bluff Drive, a one way loop with several overlooks providing views across the Ouachita Mountains and Arkansas high peaks to the west as well as a nice vantage point of Cedar Falls – which we would hike to the subsequent day. We then continued our tour on the opposite side of the bluff by driving Petit Jean Mountain Road where we were again treated to some remarkable vistas.