I live in the land of plenty, surrounded by an embarrassment of riches … riding-wise, that is.
My home in northwest Arkansas is surrounded by ribbons of pavement that wind through the Ozark Mountains. They pass through gorgeous scenery, along the creeks and rivers that carved the terrain that the area’s highways follow. Like a guy with a pickup truck who is always asked to help friends move, on many weekends friends come to visit so I’ll take them on a ride.
There are limitless combinations of roads to string together for a ride. But my cure for the common weekend is one I love to share with first-time visitors to the Ozarks, one that captures the essence of the area and is as much fun for me as it is for my friends.
Depending on whether we cruise leisurely or hang off like GP riders in fast corners, this ride can eat up an entire day or be done before lunchtime. Here’s the lowdown on the fantastic stretches of road and highlights we’ll encounter.
Starting in my hometown of Berryville, we motor 11 miles south on Arkansas Route 21 to a dot on the map called Metalton. There’s a county road designated 719 but locals know it as the Rudd Cutoff. Route 103 runs down from Green Forest and intersects at Rudd.
We take 103 south to Osage, which isn’t connected to the stretch of 103 you’ll encounter elsewhere (likewise for Route 74). Arkansas has a habit of leaving unconnected gaps between some of its state highways, which can be confusing for first-timers.
Osage is home to a couple of churches, a pottery shop located in a historic stone general store and a few houses. It’s quaint, but mostly it’s a waypoint on our ride. This section of 103 over to Route 43 is a wonderful, serpentine ride into the Boxley Valley Historic District along the Buffalo National River.
The homestead community of Ponca is on the extreme north end of Boxley Valley. It’s typically the first place on the Buffalo National River where canoeists put in on the river. Besides paddling, Ponca is a great place to stop at one of the two canoe rental/general stores to gas up and grab a cold drink.
Route 74 runs about 14 miles from Ponca to Jasper. The first mile and a half climbs 1,600 vertical feet up out the valley via a series of switchbacks that out dragons the Tail of the Dragon, with steep drop offs on one side and the mountain on the other. Three miles outside of Jasper is Wayne Clark’s motorcycle tree, a not-to-be-missed photo op. “I started hanging Japanese bikes because I could get them so cheap,” he said with a smile.
In the Ozarks there’s a town called Diamond City, but the real jewel in the region’s crown is the small mountain town of Jasper. The area benefited enormously from the designation of the Buffalo as the nation’s first National River in 1972, and from the influx of back-to-the-land hippies. The locals and the hippies got along well and Jasper developed into a thriving recreational destination. It has restaurants, shops and cabins for rent, and it’s a popular stop for riders. There are no better roads in the Ozarks than those leading into Jasper.
From Jasper, we take Route 7 south and Route 374 east to Mount Judea (locals pronounce it “Mount Judy”). The 50-mile stretch of Route 123 from Mount Judea to Lamar is one of the best single-highway rides in the Ozarks. It climbs out of Mount Judea on a long series of switchbacks that rival those out of Ponca. The rest of the highway is full of tight curves that cut through scenery as beautiful as anywhere in the Ozarks, and it crosses Big Piney Creek on a one-lane steel-truss bridge built in 1931.
We take U.S. 64 west to Clarksville, then 103 north to 215 and the town of Oark (no “z”) by way of a challenging series of switchbacks. Oark is home to the oldest continuously operating general store in Arkansas, which opened in 1890. Its wonderful restaurant serves great burgers, homemade pies and more.
Route 215 winds west along the Mulberry River to start of the Pig Trail Scenic Byway (Route 23), one of the most famous roads in the Ozarks, and for good reason. The byway is a 20-mile stretch of challenging corners through a dark green tunnel of trees.
At Brashears, turn east onto Route 16/23 and stop for a photo in front of the overgrown “Fallsville One Stop” sign. Take Route 16/21 north for a return to Boxley Valley, the headwaters of the Buffalo National River. In the mid-1980s the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission reintroduced elk to the valley, and today a large herd now calls the area home. They draw an equally large number of elk-watching tourists.
Continuing north on 21 takes us to the quaint farming burg of Kingston. The town’s gazebo is a popular rendezvous spot for riders, and the local restaurant serves delicious homemade donuts. Kingston is home to the former Madison Guaranty Savings and Loan Association, which played a role in the Whitewater scandal.
From Kingston, heading west on 74 and north on 23 takes us to Eureka Springs, which has many preserved Victorian buildings in its historic district. East on U.S. 62 to Rock House Road then north on 221 brings us back to where we started.
If this ride isn’t the perfect cure for another so-so weekend, I don’t know what is.