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Where natural beauty reigns

Arkansas' Mount Magazine State Park offers a peaceful respite.

By ROBERT N. JENKINS
Published February 27, 2007


PARIS, Ark. - Two-lane roads snake up, down and around hills and mountains of Arkansas. They lead to more than 50 state parks and countless recreation areas and boat-launch ramps.

Along these roads, you traverse cattle pastures, forests and villages so small you wonder how they got incorporated. For example, there's St. Joe, population 85.

The rolling hills are dotted by occasional trailer homes with an array of kids' toys out front, by tidy farmhouses - but those with tumble-down wooden barns hint of both history and ultimately misfortune.

Every so often there will be a long driveway from the blacktop up to a magnificent, multistory estate. Some of these are owned by ranchers who have cashed in, while others are retirement manses for wealthy northerners. "Money from Chicago," you hear the locals comment.

It's only a two-hour drive through this scenery west from Little Rock to the state park system's new pride, a handsome lodge atop Mount Magazine, Arkansas' highest point at 2,753 feet.

Opened last May, the 60-room, 13-cabin lodge is all rustic timbers and earth tones, with a patio behind the lodge lined with rockers to take in the view of the Petit Jean River Valley and Blue Mountain Lake below.

While the lodge has a restaurant offering continental takes on local food and an indoor pool, this is a destination for people who enjoy the outdoors. The park has roughly 14 miles of trails and enough observation points that "You can see about a quarter of Arkansas and even a big hill over in Oklahoma, about 50 miles west," notes Don Simons.

The slightly built Simons has been at Mount Magazine for almost seven of his 25 years as a state parks interpreter. In that job, he leads visitors on trail hikes, but a walk with him is a combination botany-entomology-wildlife lesson.

"Most of the mountain's slopes are covered by virgin timber," he says, leading me up an easy slope, "because the sides were too steep to easily cut the trees. The tops were logged, and settlers were here after the Civil War, farming.

"Most stayed until the Depression, and finally the government bought out the rest" to create the park.

Simons interrupts our walk every few yards to identify some living thing. A former president of the state Audubon Society, he cocks his head to listen, then names the birds he hears: "Squeaky wheel . . . Pee-wee . . . red-eyed vireo. (Later, at the visitors center's indoor observation room, he points through the large windows at the American goldfinch, indigo bunting and various hummingbirds at the feeders.)

Along the path, Simons uses his decal-decorated walking stick to point out plants such as the fly poison, ginseng, wild yam, paw paw and sassafras. "Down in Louisiana, where I came from, they grind the sassafras leaves for file gumbo."

Butterflies have become the specialty he shares with his wife, Lori Spencer. She has a master's degree in entomology, and last year she published a book on butterflies. She and Simons have identified more than 85 species of butterflies within Mount Magazine State Park.

But Simons says that most of what he knows of nature is from "years of self-teaching, getting on the trails, then learning what it is that I see."

He admits he was never driven by education when he was young. "I had no ambition out of high school. I got a full-time job at McDonalds - I was one of those geeks," he says, a smile breaking through his brown beard.

"I drove up to Arkansas (from his Louisiana home) and in a park I saw a ranger handling snakes, and I thought that was cool. So I went to college and got a degree in wildlife management. I learned to handle bison and bighorn sheep, because my teacher was from Utah and that's what he knew."

The smile grows larger.

Having reached the summit of the mountain, Simons stops to talk about the bill he and his wife had introduced in the legislature to have the Diana fritillary named the Arkansas state butterfly. The measure passed the state House this month and is to be considered by the Senate.

Almost on cue, a great spangled fritillary lands on me - "He wants to lap up the sodium in your sweat," explains Simons - before moving over to the ranger's hand.

Simons and his wife live a couple hundred yards from the new multimillion-dollar lodge, which he sees as a mixed blessing, because it is expected to draw a half-million visitors annually to this park.

"It'll bring the kind of people . . . who want to enjoy the beauty of nature," he says. By their coming, "I know the peace and quiet I enjoy will be lessened.

"But I know where all the neat, secret places are, and I can go there."

. IF YOU GO

Arkansas

The Lodge at Mount Magazine State Park offers four room types, plus 13 cabins that have fireplaces and kitchens. There are four pricing seasons.

For more on Mount Magazine, go to www.mountmagazinestatepark.com or call toll-free 1-877-665-6343.

For more on all of Arkansas' state parks, go to www.arkan sasstateparks.com.