words: Dwain Hebda
images: courtesy Arkansas Parks & Tourism
In the unspoiled splendor that is Mount Magazine, it should be no surprise to come across wildlife. Even so, rounding a curve to see a mama and baby deer nonchalantly nibbling by the side of the road still causes one to pull the car over.
The fawn, just a few paces from the doe, and shrouded in its white, dappling spots, looked at me with the quizzical expression of a toddler. Neither seemed particularly concerned by my presence, eventually sauntering across the road to the next mouthful.
If nature like this is your thing, Mount Magazine State Park is your place. This 2,200-acre slice of prehistoric Arkansas, at 2,753 feet, includes the highest point in the Natural State. Annexed under the protection of the Ozark National Forest in the 1930s, the mountain became a state park in the 1980s. About a decade later, the state entered into a unique partnership with the USDA Forest Service that allowed limited development and shared management. As part of this agreement, less than one percent of the summit plateau was developed.
Mount Magazine is one of the earliest recorded landmarks of Arkansas, thanks to Bernard de la Harpe’s 1722 expedition up the Arkansas River. Roughly a century later, renowned botanist Thomas Nuttall explored the Arkansas River creating detailed maps and cataloging native flora and fauna, including what was then known as Casstete, or Tomahawk Mountain, today Mount Magazine.
Settlers came to the higher slopes after the Civil War, in part due to the cooler temperatures. It wasn’t long before enterprising types launched development projects to attract tourists and lodges and cabins sprung up by the dawn of the twentieth century. The earliest of these, Skycrest Inn and Buckman Inn, promised breathtaking views and crisp mountain air. They delivered just that until the Great Depression sapped people of money for leisure and rendered the hotels (along with most other private holdings) unto the government for unpaid taxes.
All of the original settlements are gone now, save for a few stone fences and wagon ruts, but the idea of sleeping in the clouds never really went away and has reached its zenith with The Lodge at Mount Magazine. This awe-inspiring, sixty-room masterpiece is crowned by a panoramic vista out back of the valley, featuring the meandering Petit Jean River and sparkling Blue Mountain Lake. A restaurant, indoor pool, and high-speed Internet come standard. Farther up the paced mountain lane are thirteen fully equipped cabins offering one- to three-bedrooms with fireplaces and equally stunning views off of covered back decks with hot tubs.
Beyond these amenities, most of the rest of the park has been turned back to Mother Nature’s whims and wiles. Wildflowers bob and dance in the breeze, insects hum and flitter, majestic raptors glide like ballet dancers. All of this is taken in at a slower pace on the mountain, and it’s captured in photographs, framed by conversation, breathed in. Across picnic areas and campgrounds, families connect; as the sun sinks, the campfires rise with the smell of roasting hot dogs and laughter, wrapped in a cocoon of star-crusted night sky.
Mount Magazine offers some fourteen miles of hiking trails, winding through the various woods and glades. Road cycling is permitted throughout the park and mountain biking is permitted on Will Apple’s Road Trail and Huckleberry Mountain Horse Trail. The latter, thirty-four miles winding through the Ozark National Forest, is also open to horseback riding (bring your own mount).
There are also multiple scenic overlooks for taking in the view. One particularly interesting spot is the amphitheater, first constructed to accommodate sunrise services. It’s a prime spot for taking a souvenir photo of your adventure.
It should be noted that visiting such an ecologically pristine spot as Mount Magazine demands certain common-sense precautions. Bears have successfully repopulated on the mountain to the point that you see warnings everywhere about approaching these animals or leaving food unsecured at picnic areas, cars, and cabins. Keep your children and pets close to you, not just for the wildlife but because there’s often not much between you and thin air, especially at the scenic overlooks.
Of course, there is a percentage of visitors to the park for whom the edge of a cliff is merely the starting gate for their brand of adventure. For these, Mount Magazine also delivers. At designated spots, rappelling, rock climbing and bouldering take center stage, including the mountain’s south bluff overlooking the Petit Jean River Valley and its 1,500-foot-wide stretch of sandstone boasting more than one hundred routes up to eighty feet high. Or, you can go all the way and hang-glide off the cliff at a designated point, soaring into the vast river valley below.
Once off the mountain, be sure not to miss some other one-of-a-kind attractions. The charming community of Paris, Arkansas, serves as the base camp for Mount Magazine-goers and here you will find the Cowie Winery and Vineyards. This intimate operation offers a museum, bed and bath and chapel in addition to producing award-winning wines. Don’t miss Robert’s Port Wine, a competitive darling both at home and abroad, or Trish’s Passion, the winery’s best seller.
Also in the vicinity is Prestonrose Farm and Brewery, a certified organic “Beer Farm.” New York transplants Liz and Mike Preston have converted the generations-old Rose family farm into an agricultural operation that supplies local farmer’s markets with produce and herbs as well as a rotating tap craft brewery that’s a must for beer-lovers. Consumption is prohibited on the premises, but tastings are held to help you decide what to put in your growler. Plans are in the works for an expanded brewery, taproom and restaurant as well.
Finally, no trip to this part of the state is complete without a stop at Subiaco Abbey, a Benedictine monastery perched and gleaming on the top of a hill just to the east of Paris. The 140-year-old community welcomes tourists, pilgrims and the just plain curious with a fascinating look at monastic life. Be sure to take home a bottle of signature hot sauce or a tin of peanut brittle, both of which are Subiaco’s claim to fame.
Mount Magazine State Park