Mount Magazine’s main attractions — before State Parks’ opening Monday of the new $33 million lodge there — were its height (2,753 feet, Arkansas’s highest elevation), hang-gliding, rock climbing, hiking and, in the past decade, a butterfly festival celebrating the Diana fritillary.
Less widely appreciated were the rufous-crowned sparrows that nest there, unusual tree species, and the orchids, pipeworts and ferns that grow in its bogs. People who prefer sparrows and botanical splendor over lodges were outspoken critics of State Parks’ plan to build the lodge, fearing modern construction could threaten what makes the mountain unique in Arkansas.
But park interpreter Don Simons, who knows most of the mountain’s secrets, said last week that the handsome stone, timber and wood lodge — by the same architect who designed Big Cedar Lodge in Missouri — is on only 1 percent of the 2,230 acres State Parks leases on the mountain’s home in the Ozark National Forest. Simons added that the clearing of cedars required for construction might improve the sparrow’s habitat, and that while contractors weren’t happy about it, they agreed to make the parking lot smaller to protect a seep and its rare plants. A new rock retaining wall in front of the lodge provides homes to the rough-winged swallows that swoop and chatter overhead.
So fans of the mountain’s natural offerings might now in good conscience enjoy the three-story, 60-room lodge, convention center and attendant 13 cabins that hug the south rim of the mountain and offer a view of Blue Mountain Lake and the hills rising from the Petit Jean River Valley.
As Mount Magazine is unique, so is the lodge. The most startling difference, perhaps, from other state park lodges is that it will serve wine and beer in its restaurant. The state Alcohol Beverage Control Board has approved a private club license for the lodge, which hopes to be serving by June 1, marketing director Heidi Ryan said. Only Arkansas wines and beers will be served initially.
The lodge’s public areas are spacious; a common room with cathedral ceiling features oversized rustic furniture, a huge fireplace, woodsy-themed carpeting and lamps and access to the rear terrace and its wide vista of the river valley. Slate tiles impressed with various symbols of the lodge — like bears and butterflies — and unpainted wood wainscot are custom touches. An indoor swimming pool on the lower ground level beneath the three-story room section of the lodge is surrounded by native stone, Jacuzzis and a baby pool; a wall of glass gives the pool an outdoor feel.
Having invested $33 million (revenue bonds financed construction) in some pretty fancy digs, Parks has made the rooms fairly pricy. Summer weekend rates run from $129 a night for a room with two queen beds to $199 for a suite, and $199 to $429 a night for cabins. Two-night reservations are required on weekends. For people who can’t be too far from cyberspace even when they’re getting away from it all in the middle of nowhere, the rooms are wireless-ready.
In sync with trends at other resorts, the more expensive rooms feature balconies and, right in the bedrooms, Jacuzzi tubs, so that one might slip directly from bath into bed. (Similarly, Cabins 7 and 8 are on either side of a hang-glide launch area, so you could leave bed and the mountain with only a few steps in between.)
State park lodges aren’t generally known for their cuisine, but, in another departure, Mount Magazine’s Skycrest Restaurant will serve gourmet food. Larry Kelly, formerly of the Blue Mesa, Prego and Tapas in Little Rock, has been hired as chef and general manager. The food will be priced accordingly: Dinner menu entrees run from $11.95 for “Petit Jean River Yard Bird” (grilled chicken breast) to $25.95 for 10 ounces of beef tenderloin medallions. Other highlights: The “ ‘Brer’ Rabbit” (rabbit loin baked in Post Familie sherry, $18.95), pan-roasted duck breast with apple, cherry and bourbon chutney ($23.95) and walleye pike with chipotle-apricot aioli ($24.95). It’s bound to get good business, since it’s the only restaurant on the mountain.
More private, and featuring porches fitted with hot tubs, are the cabins, in the woods on either side of the lodge. One-bedroom, one-bath cabins are 850 square feet and feature French doors to the porch from the bedroom and living room. Two-bedroom, two-bath cabins are 1,317 square feet and the three-bedroom, three-bath cabins are 1,669 square feet. All feature fully outfitted kitchens, fireplaces and high, wide beds. Like the terraces in back of the lodge, the cabins offer a view of the valley and soaring birds.
Park interpreter Simon has built or repaired 10 miles of trail since Parks began its improvements at Mount Magazine in 2001. De rigeur is the hike to the top of Signal Mountain, the highest spot on the mountain, where Simon and others built in colored stone a map of Arkansas indicating its various natural areas. A computer kiosk in the lodge’s entry gives the natural and cultural history of the area, so visitors can memorize the sparrow’s song or learn about the mountain’s bears or the Civilian Conservation Corps’ work building the original lodge in 1940 or more about the mountain’s geology.
For those who can’t afford the lodge, Parks has improved the Cameron Bluff Campground, which features a bathhouse and electric hookups.
Not to be missed is the Visitor’s Center on Hwy. 309 over the mountain, where you turn off to go to the lodge. The center explains more thoroughly why one would want to come to Mount Magazine in the first place, with professional exhibits on the mountain’s natural areas and its flora and fauna. And, of course, a gift shop.