By Zoie Clift, travel writer
Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism
The terrain of Arkansas is as varied as the motorcycles that crisscross it. The state’s six geographic regions offer a diverse topography that is a lure for both locals and riders from across the nation.
“It seems everywhere I go outside the state when I tell people (bikers) where I live they either say they love riding (here) or have heard how good the riding is,” says Lynn Ward, an Arkansas native who has ridden close to 300,000 miles in the past 12 years.
“Arkansas has it all – something for every class and level of skill rider — from the pancake flat terrain of the eastern Delta to the hair-raising steep hairpin curves of Mount Nebo and everything in-between.”
Ward points out that his home base is a prime starting point for day ventures. “From my house in Mount Ida in the Ouachita Mountains, I can go in any direction, ride all day and not really have to deal with traffic — the nemeses of all bikers,” he states. “Also I can ride my bike 12 months a year. I can’t imagine living anywhere I would have to winterize my pride and joy for months each year.”
A standout route for him is the Talimena Scenic Drive, a 54-mile byway that travels the crest of Rich Mountain (at 2,681 feet, the second tallest peak in the state) and Winding Stair Mountains between Mena and Talihina, Oklahoma.
“Most of the ride is across a series of ridges with scenic vistas off both sides of the road,” he says. “There are lots of scenic pull outs with beautiful views and even some small lakes. It is always a good ride, but when the fall colors are at their peak, it is breathtaking.”
Thirteen miles northwest of town is Queen Wilhelmina State Park. The lodge there is currently undergoing a $6.2 million dollar renovation and is scheduled to reopen in late 2013. The rest of the park is still open for business.
“When completed it should be an absolute ‘don’t miss’ ride for anyone getting even close to that part of the state,“ he says.
Ward suggestions other routes. “The whole northwest corner of Arkansas is just one big scenic riding experience.” He also offers Scenic Highway Seven from where it joins I-40 at Russellville to points south as an option. “The southeast, although flat, has some very good roads with interesting towns full of history. The northeast quadrant has some wonderful riding along Crowley’s Ridge and in the Mountain Home and Mountain View areas.”
Ward’s first bike was a 1964 Hondo 350 Scrambler. “My brother-in-law opened a dealership in Harrison and I was instantly hooked,” Ward shares. He rode it throughout college and then took a break from riding after graduating and selling his bike. Though he once considered himself finished with the sport, he returned to it at the age of 54, after a visiting friend put him back on a bike.
“He wouldn’t leave until I had ridden his brand new Kawasaki Vulcan 650,” Ward continues. “I finally said I would ride it just up the highway and come right back. I live in Mount Ida, a very popular area for motorcycling. I told my buddy after that very short ride, ‘I wish you hadn’t let me do that.’ I had forgotten the wonderful times on the bikes over 30 years ago. Needless to say, two months later I purchased my first Harley Fat Boy off eBay.”
About six months later he bought his second Harley, a 2001 Heritage Springer. “This bike was made for traveling. I have logged close to 135,000 miles in the past 12 years riding in all of the lower 48 states,” he says.
He then purchased his third Harley. “My wife Terri and I have put over 87,000 miles on this bike in just over two years. And the interesting part is most of those miles have been logged inside the boundaries of Arkansas.”
Michael Thomson, president of the Diamond Chapter of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America, moved to the state from Dallas, Texas because of the optimal riding terrain. Before that he had lived in San Diego, California for 30 years.
“I came up for the H.O.G. Rally (in Hot Springs May 2-4 this year) a few times and thought that this has a lot of great riding up here,” he shares, “a lot of diversity. It’s got hills and mountains, streams and back roads, a lot of curvy roads.”
Thomson, who is 64 and who has lived in Arkansas for 10 years, got his first motorcycle when he was 14-years old. Right now he has 18 motorcycles and most of them are vintage. He was instrumental in bringing the 2010 Cannonball Run (a 3,320 mile cross-country journey a group of adventurous riders made on pre-1916 motorcycles) to Hot Springs. Thomson points out the active vintage motorcycling scene in the Spa City. During the Sept. 5-7 Hot Springs Rally, the Antique Motorcycle Club will have a one-day show at Hill Wheatley Plaza. Organizers expect to have approximately 100 historic bikes display.
Thomson said it is hard to pick a favorite route, but “Scenic Arkansas Seven is a pretty good ride, going up to the northwestern corner towards Eureka Springs.”
Mario Caruso, author of the Arkansas Rider’s Guide, has ridden some of the most well-known motorcycle routes in the world including Tail of the Dragon at Deals Gap in Tennessee/North Carolina, Semplon Pass between France and Italy, and Million Dollar Highway in Colorado. For him, riding in Arkansas is a comparable experience.
“Almost any time of the year I can grab my Honda CBR or Triumph Tiger and head off to Ola on Scenic Arkansas Seven from my house in Hot Springs,” he says. “In about 20 minutes I’ll be on a twisting, mostly deserted stretch of road winding through a dense forest and crossing over tree-lined streams and rivers.”
When Caruso wants a longer ride, he’ll head north of I-40. “Any combination of roads there are bliss — Arkansas Highways 7, 21, 23, 74, 374, 16, 27, 103… for the absolute best of it all, Arkansas 123 to 74 then on to Jasper,” he says. “It is rare to see a car. There is the historic town square, Buffalo River, two good cafes to choose from, and on most nice days plenty of motorcycles and riders to hang with.”
Caruso started riding as a 13-year-old in Italy in 1968, when his friend pulled up on a blue Moto Guzzi Trotter two-speed moped and asked him if he wanted to ride it. “Shorts, sandals, t-shirt, a few quick thrusts on the bicycle-style pedals and it popped to life. I took off down Viale degli Oleandri,” he remembers. “First gear, second gear, crouched over the handlebars and full throttle ringing the little beast’s tiny motor, the red plastic speedometer needle quivering around 30 kmh. Might as well have been 300. I wanted one!”
His father figured it would be a passing phase, but appeased him and purchased one. “Forty-four years later, seven of them in all different sizes and shapes fill our garage. (There is) another being fitted for a sidecar sits in what should be my woodworking shop,” he shares.
Though the experiences and reasons for riding might differ, the lure of the open road is a strong connector for riders of all styles and skill levels. “Maybe it is just some sort of visceral need to be free from some of life’s perceived shackles,” said Caruso. “Adrenaline rush? You betcha! Arkansas on a motorcycle? It is motion, beauty, solitude, skills and adrenaline. And if you have your route right, you end up in a funky little place and meet down to earth people.”
For more details on riding in Arkansas, check out www.arkansas.com/outdoors/motorcycling/
Via this link you can download a “Let’s Ride” brochure. There are also city brochures available that highlight routes from Eureka Springs, Harrison, and Hot Springs — which include detailed maps and information specifically for motorcycle enthusiasts. Each contains locations for amenities and shops that offer bike repairs.
Along with the landscape, events in the state such as Bikes, Blues & BBQ in Fayetteville, the Wild Hog Motorcycle Rally and Music Festival in Helena-West Helena, and the Arkansas H.O.G. Rally in Hot Springs attract thousands of bikers each year.