One of the places that you absolutely must see when visiting Petit Jean State Park in Arkansas is the fascinating Rock House Cave.
This gem is often overshadowed by the park’s scenic overlooks and its grand waterfall. However it holds a rich history and a glimpse into Arkansas’ ancient past and the people who once called this area home.
About Petit Jean State Park
In my opinion, Petit Jean is one of the premiere state parks in Arkansas. It was the original state park and has a beautiful CCC built lodge, a restaurant, one of the best waterfall hikes in the state, camping, cabins, and so much more.
How to get to Rock House Cave
This is a very short trail, only about .25 miles long, with some interesting sights and a big reward at the end.
The trail is not difficult although it is slightly downhill on the way in (meaning slightly uphill on the way out) and the terrain across the rocks is uneven.
To get to the trailhead I used our GPS, it got us there…barely.
I would suggest stopping by the visitor center to get a map and directions. Petit Jean has a nice new visitor center that is just past the entrance to the park.
There is a parking lot at the trailhead and you will find toilets and trash cans there as well.
Just follow the trail down the stairs and as you see the “turtle rocks” area you will walk to the right around and across the rocks. After you cross the rocks the trail will pick up again into the woods and turn sharply right.
Just walk a few more steps, come up a little rise, and then…
The Rock House Cave at Petit Jean!
Is it actually a cave?
Rock House Cave is not actually a cave. It is a large and unusually deep bluff shelter. It is about 85 feet wide and 100 feet deep.
Bluff shelters (also called rock shelters) are simply areas where there are overhangs in the rock cliffs. They come in all sizes and were used by people in both prehistoric and historic times.
They have been used for thousands of years as shelters, campsites, storage rooms, burial grounds, and sacred spaces. In more modern times they have been hiding places for illegal stills, they have also been barns and even homes!
If you are going to be near Devils Den State Park you might want to hike to Moonshiners Cave which is a very interesting bluff shelter.
We have also recently stayed in an Airbnb that has a bluff shelter on the property that guests can visit.
Rock House Cave and Pictograms
The Rock House Cave is unique not only for its geological formation, but also for its historical significance.
Archeological digs have found artifacts in the shelter that indicate that the cave has been in use in some form or fashion for about 8,000 years.
But the Rock House Cave at Petit Jean State Park is even more special because it also contains a large number of pictographs.
Two types of Ancient Artwork
There are two types of ancient artwork that are typically found in these caves and bluff shelters: petroglyphs and pictographs. Petroglyphs are pecked or carved into the stone and pictographs are painted in some way.
Most of the art at Rock House Cave consists of pictographs. These are believed to be somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 years old. The images were made from mineral pigments mixed with animal fat.
The minerals actually bind with the rock which is why these images can last for thousands of years.
Where to see the pictographs?
Walk in under the cliff and first take a minute to truly soak in the size of this bluff shelter and let your eyes adjust to the dim light.
As you face the back of the cave most of the images are clustered in the center and left side of the towards the back. Search higher on the walls and on the ceilings.
Look for a rusty red color and soon the pictograms will be evident. Some are very clearly animals such as deer and fish, but others are more abstract patterns.
Why were these symbols painted?
We don’t actually know today why these symbols were painted here. However, they are consistent with paintings found in other caves in the region.
In recent years, archaeologists have begun to theorize that the Rock House Cave may have been considered a sacred site. There is some evidence that the Tanico people used the bluff to perform rites and rituals.
Perhaps the artwork had a spiritual meaning or perhaps they were the work of ancient artists expressing their dreams. They must have had a special meaning to the people who painted them.
Preserving Rock House Cave
It really is incredible to be given such amazing access to these important and moving pieces of art.
Unfortunately so many of these ancient paintings in Arkansas have been destroyed. Some through carelessness and neglect, but others through just mean spirited vandalism.
In my opinion, only somebody very small and pathetic would choose to destroy something like this.
Preserving these remarkable ancient artworks is of paramount importance. When you do visit Rock House Cave please do not touch the paintings. Obviously, do not deface anything in the cave.
Take the time to soak it all in, to imagine living in this area before roads, before electricity, before important events were even being written down.
Stand in the shadows of this ancient shelter, surrounded by the the artwork of a bygone people and allow yourself to be transported back in time and hopefully leave with a greater appreciation for the richness and history of the remarkable state of Arkansas.
Thanks so much for stopping by!