It was March, cold, and drizzly, and we were headed for Queen Wilhelmina State Park in western Arkansas’s last fetches of the Ouachita National Forest before it spills over into Oklahoma. Not exactly the springtime weather one might have hoped for, but we were young—and had free babysitting and a couple of days to ourselves.
After lunch we drove the winding road up 2,681-foot Rich Mountain, the second-highest peak in Arkansas. Soon we were in the clouds. A deep misty fog hid nearly everything from view—including the road. When I pulled over, we discovered we had unwittingly stumbled into a magical fairy land. The queen’s jewels hung from every limb, and the visible landscape was nothing but glistening crystals. Every twig on every branch on every tree had been finely wrapped with ice and given to the two of us as the most extraordinary holiday surprise. Down below in Mena, dismal rain; up here in Wilhelmina, a sparkling, icy forest to get lost in.
We crept along until “the Castle in the Sky,” the park lodge, appeared before us like a rustic Camelot, and we quickly cozied ourselves in our new home for the weekend. Trapped now by the ice-fog with nothing else to do and nowhere to go, we set up shop in front of the big stone fireplace in the lobby, working jigsaw puzzles into the wee hours and listening to Ozark folk music performed by a north-Arkansas man and his two daughters—one girl played the spoons while the other danced her doll on a wooden slat. It was a mountain lodge experience to remember, I’ll tell you that.
The first inn to be built on this spot was a razzle-dazzle Victorian beauty named Wilhelmina Inn, christened the same year its namesake was crowned queen of the Netherlands at age eighteen. The first north-south railroad—from Kansas City, Missouri, to Port Arthur, Texas—passed right through here, and its Dutch investors decided a luxury resort in the breathtaking Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, appropriately named for their favorite international celebrity, would be just the thing to attract patrons. It was a roaring success, and the young queen herself was invited for a stay. But time ran out on the inn before she made it—the railroad sold after the turn of the century, and the new owners had no room in their plans for the inn. The Wilhelmina held on for nearly a decade, but finally it closed in 1910 and fell into ruins.
Fifty years later the state acquired the area and designated it a state park. A second inn went up, built with some of the remaining stone and timber from the original—and burned to the last cinder in 1973. The lodge we stayed in was built to replace it—a three-million-dollar venture—and, patterned on the original Wilhelmina (and currently undergoing renovations), it remains to this day one of the most attractive features of the park.
The morning the weather broke, we ventured onto one of the trails nearby, once again mesmerized by the mountain’s beauty, and this time accompanied by the sound of rushing waters all around us in every direction: the sheets and sheaths of ice were falling and crashing from the thousands of trees throughout the forest in orchestrated chorus. The cloud-fog melted as well, and the seductive scenery that had taken the Dutch investors now took us. The atmosphere was suddenly so crisp and clear—the visibility went from fifty feet to fifty miles in mere minutes—an endless ocean of forest stretched before us in every direction.
It was a moment fit for a queen (and her adoring king). I think Wilhelmina would’ve been proud.