Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
We didn't get out of Little Rock until quitting time, so we didn't reach Havana, the little town that sits below the towering bulk of Mount Magazine, until dark. We'd booked our room at The Lodge at Mount Magazine with fingers crossed for good weather a week before, but the day of our road trip dawned dark and gloomy, a storm pushing in from Oklahoma. Headed out of Havana on Hwy. 309, we ran smack into a cloudbank that had roosted on the peak of the mountain. For what felt like the next thousand miles — until the lights of the lodge rose up out of the pale nothing like a lantern-bedecked ship — we crawled steadily upwards through purgatory at 10 miles an hour, only the hood of the car plus three feet visible through fog thick as a cotton ball, my wife and I trusting the robot voice from the cell-phone navigation when it told us to turn because we literally couldn't see the left edge of the road.
I'm sharing all this because it's too hair-raising of a memory not to share, but you shouldn't worry too much about a repeat of our experience if you're headed to the park. Folks at the lodge, once we got there, told us the dense fog wasn't a common occurrence. That said, do yourself a favor by driving up in daylight. We learned on our way back down the mountain the next day that the vistas on the way up are more than worth it.
Once we arrived, we soon realized that any amount of fogbound peril was worth it to get there. One of the jewels of the Arkansas State Parks system, the 60-room Lodge at Mount Magazine sits smack in the middle of the 2,230-acre Mount Magazine State Park, which includes — along with rare birds and butterflies, rock climbing, 14 miles of hiking trails, two mountain biking trails, a hang-glider takeoff ramp and a horseback riding trail — the highest point in the state of Arkansas: a spot within easy hiking distance of the lodge that rises to 2,753 feet above sea level.
The first lodge on Mt. Magazine was completed in 1940, but it was nothing like the showplace that crowns the mountain these days. Opened in 2006 and designed by the same architect who dreamed up Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri, the $33 million dollar Lodge at Mount Magazine is an extravaganza of exposed stone and timber framing, appointed with rustic wood furnishings and huge windows, with views of the valley floor far below and picturesque Blue Mountain Lake in the distance. The centerpiece of the main lobby is a monumental stone fireplace surrounded by comfortable chairs. Other perks of the three-story main lodge include a 1,325-square-foot indoor swimming pool and hot tub on the ground floor, surrounded by glass so swimmers can take in more of those soaring views. There's also the glassed-in, cathedral-ceilinged Skycrest Restaurant, which features a daily breakfast buffet, a full menu at lunch and dinner prepared by a resident chef, and a private club permit from the Alcohol Beverage Control Board so diners can have a beer or glass of wine with their meal.
As an added summertime bonus, Park Superintendent Becky Bariola said that thanks to the altitude, the top of Mount Magazine stays quite a bit cooler than the surrounding countryside. "Up here on the mountain at any given time we can be anywhere from seven to 12 degrees cooler," Bariola said. "In the summer, it's a little bit better. We've got all the shade trees, and a bit of a breeze usually blows, so it makes it a little more comfortable." Bariola said there is plentiful wildlife on the mountain, including a population of black bears, which aren't dangerous as long as you leave them alone. "It's rare for a visitor to actually see one," Bariola said, "but it's a real treat when they do. We have a park interpreter on site that actually monitors the bear movement for us. Almost every year, he finds a den, and he'll set up a telescope across from the den, so people can come and bear watch when they first come out of the dens in the spring." That kind of unique experience makes the park popular with day trippers. Bariola said the park logged just over 276,000 visitors in the last year.
Befitting a high-end retreat, the lodge rooms that hikers and wildlife watchers can retire to after a day of clean living on the mountain are comfortably appointed and spacious. The main lodge is constructed so all the rooms have a view of the valley below. Forty-three of the rooms feature balconies, and 17 have in-room spa tubs. For those seeking the ultimate experience, there are four corner suites, each with two balconies, a spa tub, separate bedroom/living area and a fireplace. All rooms feature wireless Internet. The lodge has special reduced rates in the bleak midwinter (December through February) but expect to pay premium prices the rest of the year: from $117 a night for a standard room with no balcony, all the way up to $217 a night for one of the two-balcony corner suites. Pets are not allowed in the lodge.
Those who prefer a more secluded setting — or those coming with a group — can choose from one of Mount Magazine State Park's 13 cabins, which sit on the cliffs at the south edge of the mountaintop. Sizes range from 850-square-foot one-bedroom units, all the way up to 1,669-square foot, three-bedroom cabins. Prices for cabins on the weekends range from $275 per night for the one-bedroom to $455 per night for the three-bedroom/three bath model that can sleep six. Only one of the park's cabins — the one-bedroom cabin No. 4 — allows pets, but all feature more amazing views, full kitchens, wood burning fireplaces, a hot tub, and porches just made for sitting a spell. Those who want to rough it can pitch their tent at the Cameron Bluff Campground, which features a bathhouse and electric hookups.
A scenic 2-hour-and-20-minute drive up Hwy. 10 from Little Rock, Mount Magazine State Park makes for a great summertime day trip, even if you don't want to indulge yourself by getting a cabin or the room at the lodge. Whatever you do, be sure to stop by the gift shop at the lodge or the nearby visitor's center at some point during your stay to snag a hang-me-up-and-save-me. If you're the outdoorsy sort, it's definitely a trip you'll want to remember.
Mount Magazine State Park is 106 miles from Little Rock, off Hwy. 309 just north of Waveland. For more information, or to book a cabin, campsite or a room at the Lodge at Mount Magazine, visit their website at www.mountmagazinestatepark.com, or phone 479-963-8502.
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