I love the Ozarks. I really should have been born in them. Instead, after riding in the Ozarks 15 years ago, I fell so much in love that I moved here. To this day I ride through northwest Arkansas on roads carved rudely through the landscape. Table rocks, great sheets of stone laying one atop the other for hundreds of miles,
circulate ground water in subterranean rivers and rivulets cascade over and out of the dynamite-exposed roadside cliffs to become known as “Roche a Cri” — Rocks that Cry. In winter’s depth the fluid turns to ice, making faerie castles out of ordinary highway construction just for our enjoyment.
If Walt Disney had made a theme park for motorcyclists he’d have called it Arkansas. The state is six separate chunks of paradise: the Northwest, North Central, Upper Delta, Southwest, Central and Lower Delta. Each has its own magic. We chose to make our home near the Northwest, with the most fabled motorcycle roads and, now, an array of attractions that bring international visitors to what remains otherwise a largely uncluttered, rural thrill ride for us brothers and sisters of the wind.
As fall began coloring the woods and the air turned crisp as apple cider, my good wife Max and I decided to fly our new Can-Am Spyder F3 Limited on a circle tour of just the northwest quarter.
The big thrill to riding the Ozarks is that roads here are rollercoasters. The lines go ’round and ’round across mountain ridges and valleys called “hollers.” On two wheels you lean and lean. On three, you hear shouts and squeals of laughter from the back seat.
We started from home on Missouri Route 13 south, running in loop-dee-loops around Table Rock Lake through green hills spotted with small towns, and across the lake on Route 86 into Arkansas, down Arkansas Highway 221 and the fairytale village of Berryville. Charged up on sunshine, cerulean skies and twists and turns we rumbled into the town square, the kind you remember from old movies and stories told at Thanksgiving, if you listened.
We never eat at franchise burger joints. On the square in the Norman Rockwell painting called Berryville, we found a café on the corner right out of idyllic Main Street. Lunch was more than tasty, it was fun. “Arkies” are the friendliest folks around, and always helpful and interested in motorcyclists. Summer Newberry, owner of the Hometown Scoop, made us welcome with a panini, hot berry cobbler and coffee. And she straightened us out on the best way to our destination for the night, over the mountain pass on twisty two-lane U.S. Route 62 to the first of our international hotspots, the enchanted village of Eureka Springs. On the ride over, while grinning at sweepers and a twisty or two, we waved at bison herds and riders coming the other way.
Eureka Springs drops you back in time, as the Victorian houses, hotels, restaurants and dozens of quaint shops appear just as they did in the 1890s, when the healing waters of the 60 springs drew the wealthy in for relief from the debauchery of their rich diets and drinking. Streets go up, down and around the rocky hillsides into which they are chiseled. Half the fun is just trying to figure out in which direction the sun will set, along with finding a place to park your ride.
Stay in one of the old world hotels here, rich in flavor as a steaming mug of early morning coffee…with a slug of brandy. We chose the New Orleans Hotel with a Creole-feeling suite on the ground floor that dropped off in the back three stories from the rear terrace to the parking lot. Be careful where you walk! The Crescent Hotel, way up on the top tier of the village, dates from 1886. Known as “America’s Most Haunted Hotel,” it’s worth your time to take the nightly Ghost Tour.
Morning light incarnadines the forest spanning both sides of U.S. 62, curling with delight along the ridge, swooping with more laughs from the backseat down and around happy twisties across our old friend Table Rock Lake, up to Pea Ridge National Military Park, the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, through Little Flock (not to be confused with Rock) and into the next international draw, Bentonville.
You’re in Walmart land! On the perfect town square you might see Jimmy Stewart dashing home in Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Here is the original five-and-dime store started by Sam Walton in May 1950. Twelve years later Walmart opened in nearby Rogers, and the revolution in commerce was on. The biggest retailer in the world began right here. A million or so visitors each year find out more at the Walmart Museum next door, and Walton’s daughter Alice left for us an amazing gift in Bentonville, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. It is a magnet for art lovers, and it’s free.
Heading south we passed neighboring Fayetteville, famed for its annual weekend fall festival, Bikes, Blues & BBQ. If you’re into crowds this is the South’s Sturgis. Last year more than 315,000 revelers rode into this self-described “family friendly” rally.
Four-lane Interstate 49 runs down to our next destination for the night, Fort Smith. Take that if you must, but we chose the rural two lanes. Highway 265 winds past Hogeye and Strickler (don’t blink) through pristine trees with so little traffic it feels like they paved it just for us. Join Highway 170 into a unique, unfettered virgin forest and Devil’s Den State Park. Arbor tunnels of green and gold have those yellow diamond shaped signs with curved arrows reading 15 mph. If you’re on a café racer or have done the Isle of Man — be wary. Anything else…go slow! “Arkie” highway engineers follow old Indian paths and hard rock ridges. One switchback warned, “10 mph.” A downhill giant paperclip twist, it made me stop dead in the middle and laugh!
Devil’s Den, like all state parks, is a refuge from the grind of city life. Deep in the forest, campgrounds and rental cabins are clean and close to the park store where rangers are friendly and eager to help. A river runs through and there is swimming and fishing. We plan to return here for a week in the spring.
Take Highway 220 out of the park and enjoy the dipsy-doodle ride in the Ozark-St. Francis National Forest past hamlets called Lee Creek, Cedarville and Figure Five, and then merge onto Highway 59 through Van Buren across the Arkansas River to rest for the night in Fort Smith. You’ll need a good night’s sleep.
Our last “international interest” spot for the northwest, Fort Smith is history buff candy. The National Park Service maintains the site of the fort where the Poteau River joins the Arkansas. It traces three episodes of our expansion, the details of which are all on display at no cost in the barracks visitor center, the commissary, gallows, Trail of Tears overlook and more. Check out #fortsmitharkansas and prepare to spend a day where the “New South meets the Old West.”
Eastward on Highway 22, the bottom line of our circle traces the course of the Arkansas River across flatter land for farms and livestock ranches. From Highway 22 we took Highway 109 at Midway straight north across the big river again to Clarksville and the start of the best ride of our lives. Scenic Highway 7 gets a lot of press for thrill-seeking riders.
This time we chose Highway 21 through the national forest. This is a heart-starter through Johnson and Newton counties, rivaling curve for curve its Carolina cousin, the Tail of the Dragon. I mentioned rollercoasters — this is the longest one I’ve seen!
Cross the headwaters of the Buffalo River and stop at Boxley. The 16-mile-long grassy valley is home to the protected herd of elk found lolling about in tall grass and a river so clean you want to drink it. The Elk Education Center up the road in Ponca will surprise you with animal tales and directions to viewing areas. There’s a café for needed refreshments, too.
We picked a new place to spend our last night on the road, following the buffalo along Highway 74 to Jasper. “Wowser” is the word for the first couple of miles of heavy forest and sidewinder switchbacks and twisties. Sport riders will drag knees here and make scraping noises and sparks. Max and I enjoyed the view on three wheels at a slower, yet fun clip. In Jasper we found scenic Highway 7 again and turned briefly five miles south and uphill all the way, sensing something wonderful off to the left.
Our stopover is a grandiose but cozy B&B called the Overlook. The “over” which it looks, is the stunning Arkansas Grand Canyon. Somebody said, “The Ozark Mountains are not so high but the valleys are so deep.” Here you can experience the full impact of that. Magnificent vistas from the deck of our room warm hearts and soften souls. On our way to dinner that evening we met two couples on Harleys — they too were “overlooking” the canyon. They’d ridden in snow from home in Minnesota and came down to ride just a little longer this year.
Next morning our odyssey ride took us back up Highway 7 with a final jolt of adrenaline and joy into Harrison and up U.S. Route 65 through Branson and Springfield to our own Ozark home. These hills and hollers with well-paved inspiring blacktop roads can only be dreamt about in the big city. The Ozarks are a wondrous mystery to be lived.