story and photography by David Bell
Living in one of the nation’s top motorcycling areas, the Ozarks, where great riding is literally 100 yards down the lane from my rural Arkansas home, it’s easy to forget that there’s another excellent mountain range in the central-western region of the state—the Ouachitas.
Hundreds of thousands of riders make their way to the Ozarks every year because of the area’s ample riding options. But those who don’t experience the Ouachitas, too, miss out on fine riding with a completely different geology.
Eons ago, the Ozark Mountains were sculpted by the weathering of an uplifted plateau. The newer Ouachitas, on the other hand, were formed by earth plates moving toward each other. The Ozarks tend to be more rugged, with undulating plateaulike tops; the Ouachitas can be steep, but have gently rounded tops. Both have distinct personalities and riding paradigms.
Each also has a dominate peak with outstanding views. Mount Magazine is the highest point in Arkansas at 2,753 feet. It’s often misidentified as the tallest peak between the Smokies and the Rockies, but that’s not accurate. Mount Magazine is the highest prominence between the Smokies and Rockies, towering 2,372 feet above the 381-foot Petit Jean River Valley far below.
In a close second place, at 2,681 feet, is the Ouachitas’ Rich Mountain, near Mena, Arkansas, adjacent to the Oklahoma border. Both Rich Mountain and Mount Magazine are part of a ride I call the peak-to-peak run. Both are crowned with wonderful state parks featuring beautiful lodges and restaurants.
I have made this loop several times, from a variety of directions. Recently I motored down AR 23, nationally known as “The Pig Trail” and named by some magazines as one of the Top Ten roads in America. That the serpentine and scenic Pig Trail happens to be the most direct route to Mount Magazine is serendipity. Actually, the entire 124-mile ride down through Ozark and Paris, on to Mount Magazine is outstanding. The reward for making the journey is the new $36 million lodge and restaurant. The views from the top are worth millions, too.
For that kind of money you would expect first-class accommodations, and that’s what you’ll find—top flight lodging and fine dining, with facilities matching the scenery. The restaurant, for example, features 20-foot-high, floor-to-ceiling windows for enjoying the view.
Mount Magazine sits in the middle of AR 309, between Paris and Havana. Didn’t know you could ride a motorcycle from Paris to Havana, did you? The 10 miles from the park south to Havana is more akin to an amusement park roller coaster, twisting its way through tunnels of dense hardwood forest. The ride is switchback after switchback, supplemented with tight curves and turns by the dozens. Unlike the Dragon, which is relatively level, AR 309 has that tremendous 2,300-foot elevation change. Now that’s exciting; I often turn around and ride it again.
After running AR 309 a couple of times, I finally continued east out of Havana on a rather bland stretch of AR 10, through the Petit Jean River Valley. At Danville I took AR 27 south, wending up into the Ouachita Mountains. My destination was Mena, Arkansas, and there are several routes I could take. But I wanted to make a special stop along the way, at a museum that harkens back to a time before television when radio ruled the airwaves—the Lum and Abner Museum.
“Lum and Abner”—set at the fictional Jot ’Em Down Store in the fictional Pine Ridge, Arkansas—was a wildly popular radio show from 1931-’54. It was based, though, on characters from an actual store in Waters, Arkansas, which changed its name to Pine Ridge in 1936. Since I wanted to drop by this unique, quaint little shrine to old-time radio, I took AR 88 west on my way to Mena, Arkansas.
Mena sits on U.S. 71 at the end of a popular scenic highway, the Talimena Scenic Drive, which is AR 88 and OK 1 from Mena to Talihina, Oklahoma. This is a marvelous ride any time, but it’s especially beautiful in autumn. On this ride my destination was in the middle of the Talimena Drive, the Queen Wilhelmina State Park, which sits on top of Rich Mountain and, like Magazine, commands gorgeous views.
I’m always fascinated by back stories about places, and I love the one about Queen Wilhelmina State Park. In 1898, a grand lodge was built by the Kansas City, Pittsburg and Gulf Railroad. Many of the owners were Dutch and, in the vain hope that she would visit on a planned trip to America, they named the lodge after the queen of the Netherlands, Wilhelmina. The railroad soon changed hands and the lodge fell onto hard times. After only 12 years of use it was totally abandoned. In the ’30s sheep sometimes grazed in the middle of the tumbledown ballroom. A second lodge was built as a state park in 1963, but burned down in 1973. In 1975, the beautiful lodge and restaurant you see today was opened.
The peak-to-peak run is not one I can easily make in even one long day. Because of that I often spend the night in Ft. Smith, whose nickname used to be “Hell on the border.” Ft. Smith is where the “Hanging Judge,” Issac C. Parker, held court from 1875-1896. The city has provided inspiration for many movies, including both the original and recent remake of True Grit, and Clint Eastwood’s Hang ’em High. I always stay at J.P.’s Bed and Breakfast—which is actually the current home of my older brother.
After a long day’s ride, I enjoyed the visit with my brother. But I’m always anxious to get back home because there’s still fine riding the next day. A large chunk of the 124-mile ride back to Berryville is on U.S. 71, the gorgeous Boston Mountains Scenic Loop. That’s a fitting end to an excellent two days in the saddle.
Lum and Abner Museum and Jot ’Em Down Store: A privately owned museum dedicated to the memory of the Lum and Abner radio show and movie series. Free admission. Open Tuesday-Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday noon-5 p.m. Pine Ridge, Arkansas, on AR 88; (870) 326-4442; www.lum-n-abner.com.
Main Street Café: Great place in Danville for a meal stop. Just south of the northern junction AR 10/AR 27. 219 Main Street, Danville, Arkansas; (479) 495-2423.
Mount Magazine State Park: Arkansas state park featuring a new $36 million lodge and restaurant, along with camping and other facilities dating back to the CCC era of the ’30s. (479) 963-8502; www.mountmagazinestatepark.com.
Queen Wilhelmina State Park: Small state park sitting at the crown of gorgeous Rich Mountain in the heart of the Ouachita Mountains. Camping, recreation, lodge and restaurant. (479) 394-2863; www.queenwilhelmina.com.