Riding the Backwoods of Arkansas, With Scents of Wood Smoke and Apple Pie
August 7, 2014
Filed under Features, Motorcycle Features: Bikes, Blokes, Culture and Beyond, Motorcycle Rides, Roads and Self-Guided Travel, Touring and Rallies
Think of the state of Arkansas and what comes to mind? How about rivers, tree-furred mountains, banjo music, moonshine and the smell of wood smoke? Well, if you’re a rider, what also should come to mind is a vision of excellent motorcycle roads that twist and turn as they transport you along the rivers, into the forests and onto those tree-furred mountains.
Last fall I had the opportunity to ride through north-central Arkansas, and it was a most delightful experience. After picking up a Harley Electra Glide Classic at Landers Harley-Davidson near Little Rock, I rode about 110 miles up scenic U.S. Route 65 and spent my first night with a group of journalists in some rustic cabins near Gilbert, Arkansas. We became acquainted outside at a wood fire, and then headed inside for dinner. During the evening, a gentleman showed up in country garb with a beard and a banjo and began pluckin’ and singin’, entertaining us with a selection of songs from sweet to bawdy, delivered in a heavy Arkansas twang. Someone produced a Mason jar containing a clear brownish fluid that was identified as apple-pie moonshine. I took a taste and found it smooth and delicious, like liquid apple pie with a kick. Yeah, I must really be in Arkansas….
The Jasper Disaster
When I arrived, I picked up several local riding guides including Cruise the Ozarks, Let’s Ride and Motorcycle Riding Guide of the Ozarks. In perusing them, I noted that several routes or areas were recommended in more than one guide, and these tended to have colorful nicknames, so I decided to give them a try. As a result, that next morning I headed north from Gilbert on U.S. Route 65, then west on State Route 123. At the turnoff for Jasper on State Route 74, I was greeted by a highway sign warning “Crooked and Steep Next 14 Miles.” Ah, that sounded like my kind of road. Not only that, but this was the beginning of a 56-mile loop with 316 curves billed as “The Jasper Disaster.” The name comes from its profusion of curves rather than any historic event, and this early morning, off in the meadows near Boxley, I was able to see deer, turkey and elk grazing in the distance. The Riding Guide called my attention to the fact that one of the attractions in Jasper was Emma’s Museum of Junk. However, I did not avail myself of the opportunity for a visit…it sounded too much like my garage.
The Ozark Moonshine Run
Many of these routes overlap, but that’s OK as I did not mind riding any of them more than once. After tasting that liquid apple pie, I was intrigued by a route in the Riding Guide called the Ozark Moonshine Run. It runs south out of Harrison and essentially adds a Southern component to the Jasper Disaster ride. What’s most intriguing here is that they claim it boasts 662 curves (who counts all these?) in just 110 miles, and refers to it as “the most picturesque route in the Ozarks.” Heck, with an average of about six curves per mile, it’s no wonder.
Once I’d backtracked State Route 43 south of Harrison to Compton, I noticed that elk were often visible at the forest’s edge, and took a break at the Elk Education Center in Ponca. I was wondering what the locals might be teaching them, and what size the desks might be inside. Instead, I found the Elk Education Center to be a small building tightly packed with information for humans including books, videos and displays about elk, bear and other native wildlife.
Near Compton, I came across a sign for Possum Trot Road and had to stop for a photo—there really is such a place! And speaking of backcountry places, near here is also the site of the now defunct theme park, Dogpatch USA, which was named for the Li’l Abner comic strip from years gone by.
Join up with State Route 21 at Boxley and continue south to Mossville; all along this route, watch for elk and other wildlife. State Route 16 from Swain through Nail and Deer is extremely twisty, then by Lurton head north again on State Route 123 through Mount Judea (pronounced “Judy”). Head west on State Route 374 out of Vendor and you’ll soon find yourself back in Jasper.
The Bull Shoals Dam Route
Another recommended route that begins in Harrison is the Bull Shoals Dam Route, billed as having 326 curves in its 100 miles. I headed west to Bellefonte and picked up State Route 62 toward Bull Shoals. It was mostly open highway past Pyatt to Flippin, where the flippin’ route swung north on State Route 178. Here at the James A. Gaston Visitor Center in Bull Shoals, I learned that in 1927 terrible rains had flooded hundreds of square miles of the state, so Arkansas’ leaders planned a series of dams designed to control the waters. The Bull Shoals Dam, constructed from 1947-51, was the fourth and last in the series and helped to create the White River and Bull Shoals Lake, the latter of which spreads across northern Arkansas and into Missouri. The lake is stocked with world-class trout, and in 2012 a 38-pound brown trout was hauled from this fisherman’s paradise.
When riding in this area you’re never far from a lake view nearby or in the distance. The road even crosses the dam on its way into the countryside. Continue on to Mountain Home to the east (and the aptly named Lakeview) on State Route 178, and eventually the waters will recede in your rearview mirror.
That night, I returned to spend a pleasant evening at Gaston’s White River Resort near Lakeview, which is located right on the river.
The Peel Ferry Route
The following morning, I turned my attention back down tight Route 178 south of Bull Shoals, then returned north on tight and twisty State Route 14 and State Route 125 toward Peel. Here you can experience an anomaly, a blast from the past. When the dam formed the lake in the early 1950s, a section of Route 125 became permanently submerged. Now to continue north on it, travelers must take the Peel Ferry across the waters. The Ferry is essentially a barge that holds about eight cars (or a whole bunch of motorcycles), and is pushed along by a small boat on the side. The crossing takes about 20 minutes, and is a relaxing interlude. Best of all, because it’s part of the state highway system, there is no charge to ride the Peel Ferry.
If you’re so inclined, continue riding north into Missouri and eventually complete the Peel Ferry Route, a loop that includes 378 curves in 110 miles. Once you touch down on the other side of the lake, continue up Route 125 to Rueter, then west on U.S. Route 160 and State Route 76 to every country music fan’s mecca, the town of Branson, Missouri. Then, once you’ve gotten your fill of country music, you can head back south and make some time on U.S Route 65, which is a multi-lane divided highway that may not be much fun to ride, but will have you back in Harrison, Arkansas, in a real hurry, where much of the fun riding begins.
Push Mountain Road
One route recommended in the guidebooks is State Route 341, also known as Push Mountain Road. It runs south out of Norfork (which is south of Mountain Home) toward Big Flat, and shows as an insane squiggle on the map. In actuality, this road runs at relatively high elevation and offers very good pavement all the way. It begins in among the trees, and then runs out into the open along the ridgeline where the views show a far-off carpet of forest. On this crisp fall day, the leaves were turning and some maples were already a brilliant red. It was also hunting season and I noted pickup trucks parked at overlooks, or meandering down two tracks into the woods. The road had a nice flow, with nothing abrupt and no decreasing-radius turns that can suck you in and then smack you. However, when I stopped for gas, the attendant cautioned me about frequent motorcycle accidents here, especially on the weekends.
Next, I recommend following the signs to Blanchard Springs Caverns just off Route 14 near the town with the unlikely name of Fifty-Six (it was named for its school district). This recreation area also offers camping, hiking and mountain biking, along with a cavern that has several tours. The temperature in the caverns remains at a constant 58 degrees year-round, so it’s a great place to cool off for a few hours. There’s also a nature trail to Blanchard Springs that offers a refreshing walk topside.
On my last day here, I rode to the Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View, which is designed to perpetuate the Ozark way of life. It offers special programs and demonstrations of crafts, concerts, cooking classes, folk dancing and even basket weaving. Dang, I wish they showed how to make apple pie moonshine! However, what caught my attention was an event listed as “Mountains, Music and Motorcycles” that will be presented August 15-17, 2014. Y’all come!
With its mountains, valleys, rivers and those excellent flowing roads, Arkansas presented a wonderful experience throughout my six-day stay. And it sure made me want to tell the world that it really is a great state—and state of mind.
Many thanks to Rikk “Captain” Dailey, Sales Manager at Landers Harley-Davidson in Little Rock, for the use of a 2013 Electra Glide Classic for this trip.
(This article An Arkansas State of Mind was published in the August 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)