11 Days Bikepacking the Arkansas High Country Route

Day 1: 122 miles. 5,869 ft of climbing. Avg of 11.8 mph. 10 hr 22 min of saddle time. 5,871 calories burned. Little Rock >>> Crystal Springs Rec Area

Camping at Crystal Springs Rec Area tonight. Rode past beautiful lakes, pristine rock streams, and huge forests of pine. Today was a mostly westward trek through the valleys of the Ouachita Mountains. These old rocks were once part of the Appalachian mountains but were separated eons ago. They still share the same steep mountainsides that form long ridgelines. Going east to west mostly runs between the ridges, which means today was mostly just a warm up for tomorrow. Once I turn north the only way thru the mountains is up and over them, ridge after ridge.

 

Bikepacking gear Arkansas High Country Route

 

Day 2: 82 miles. 5,515 ft. 10.85 mph avg (not including the many hike-a-bikes). 7 hr 47 min. Approx 1 hr hiking. 5,439 cal. Crystal Springs Rec Area >>> Shady

Beautiful start to the day, legs were strong and soreness was absent. Blasted down some of the best gravel I've ever ridden, miles of gradual descent on perfectly pea-sized rock.

Eventually rode deep into the Albert Pike Wilderness Area where stunning waterfalls, creeks, and swimming holes were scattered along the roadside. Along with the unique beauty of this amazing place came STEEP, ROUGH climbs. The gravel grew to grapefruit-sized rocks looking for revenge. Riding down these chunky roads is rowdy!

I will definitely be making a return trip to the southern Ouachitas for more biking, hiking, and waterfall chasing.

Found much needed rest at a simple cabin to share with new friends at the Sugar Creek Resort on the Cossatot River.

 

Albert Pike Wilderness Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

 

Day 3: 113 miles. 8,210 ft. 10.4 mph avg. 10 hr 52 min. 6,436 cal. Shady >>> Waldron

What a day. Started out feeling slow and tired despite a solid night's rest. But once I rolled into Hatfield the flags advertising "Bakery" right across the street drew me in to My Kitchen Table Cafe & Bakery. This quaint little cafe was full of Cindy's hospitality. She went above and beyond making a delicious breakfast and making my to-go sandwich bikepacking ready, down to the written words of encouragement.

The views were grand today. Wide open fields shouldered by giant Ouachita ridgelines. Had a splendid climb (compared to yesterday's climbing anyways...) up the gravel road to Queen Wilhelmina Lodge for lunch with race buddies. A small black bear scurried across the road 60ft ahead of me and was gone before I had a chance to get him a selfie shot.

The paved descent off the mountain was crazy fast. I could feel my weight pressing down into every banked turn. The afternoon gravel was smooth and as good as it gets. Two hearty meals kept my legs churning across the valley and straight up Poteau Mountain as evening arrived. There were a few rough patches, some walking climbs, and the fastest gravel drops to date. I pushed hard to make it 20+ miles across the ridges down to Waldron for the night. Rolled up to Sonic and ordered my 2nd dinner of the evening 2 minutes before they closed.

Today on Poteau Mountain I learned that when my legs feel sore and tired they actually will still pedal a bike. Given enough food and water and the determination to keep going you'd be surprised where your limits truly are. Mine are now 2,400ft of climbing higher than any day before.

Big thanks to everyone following these posts, it really means a lot and has pushed me to the top of many a mountain so far!

 

Ouachita Mountain Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

 

Queen Wilhelmina Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

Day 4: 100 miles. 6,881 ft. 11 mph avg. 9 hr 7 min. 5,995 cal. Waldron >>> Dardanelle

Another day in Ouachita paradise. Yesterday's big push had me starting today a little slow. Breakfast at McD's because the nice local cafe was .6 mi in the wrong direction. That may not sound like much in the scope of these big days, but honestly ask yourself if you only had your bike for transportation, how far would you go out of your way for local vs chain restaurant?

The gravel was superb most of the day. The climbs weren't as steep as yesterday and the roads weren't as technical (think big, loose rocks everywhere) as two days ago. Steepness and road composition have a lot to with riding speed. Hence today's faster average speed. I didn't just get faster all of the sudden, nor did I drink red bull all day.

Next, the climb up Mt. Magazine happened. I was mentally preparing for it all morning. Its paved and the grade is steep, but not gravel steep. I still haven't figured out why they always manage to make roads with less traction go more directly up and down mountains. Anyways, I literally didn't stop until the overlook at the state park sign. 2,100 ft of climbing in 1hr exactly. Serious type 2 fun. In case you are unfamiliar with the term, here's the Urban Dictionary definition: an activity that is fun only after you have stopped doing it. I agree.

But all you have to do is scroll down to the breathtaking, expansive views and you understand why it's worth it. Plus, then I get to ride really fast down hill for like 10 miles. Not as fast or fun as yesterday from Queen Wilhelmina but actually more appreciated for the sake of racing. I didn't have to use my brakes but also gained a lot of mileage in a short time. When you work so hard to get to the top of something, using your brakes on the way down feels like wasted effort.

The gravel resumed down and across the valley floor almost all the way to Lake Dardanelle. If you have never ridden your bike down a backroad while the sun says its colorful goodbyes then I ask that you make plans to do so with me this summer. Because riding a bike off into the sunset is probably the most beautifully fun thing you can do. It's like being a kid all over again.

 

Mount Magazine Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

 

Lake Dardanelle Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

Day 5: 95 miles. 6,650 ft. 11 mph avg. 8 hr 37 min. 5,500 cal. Dardanelle >>> Turner Bend

This morning, just as I escaped the bustling streets of Russelville this little frontage of wildflowers ushered me into the Ozarks. Around every corner I was further welcomed by cloudscapes, each one unique. The first many miles went easy as I rolled over paved country roads.

Then I saw the joyous sign that reads: Pavement Ends.
And might I add: Adventure Begins.

I made a strong effort climbing up Pilot Knob to the Pilot Rock overlook. You can see distinctly what makes the Ozark Plateau different than so many other mountains from this vantage point. Most other mountains form when continental plates drift into each other, forcing masses of land to crumple upward. But the Ozarks are more akin to a pie crust puffing out altogether until finally a few cracks form first at the center. As rain falls into those cracks it tediously erodes down deep into these weak spots. Thus, the old saying of the Ozarks goes: it's not that the mountains are so high, but the valleys are so deep. Look for the flat mountain tops that are an even height across the valleys between.

The gravel today was once again, most excellent. The climbs were sturdy, but not ridiculous. I particularly enjoyed the 8-mile gradual descent off the mountain to meet the Mulberry River. After pushing hard through all the gravel to keep a pace that would land me at Turner Bend before their store closed, I was pleased to meet pavement once again. A quick calculation of the distance remaining left me free to causally pedal and enjoy the bright green of the forest and fauna along scenic byway Hwy 215. The traffic out here is ridiculous (I did pass the tractor though). He was going only a little slow, but how often on a bicycle do you get the chance to pass a moving vehicle?!

Soon I crossed paths with Derek who is racing the AHCR counter-clockwise. We met at nearly the halfway point of the route! He warned me with tales of rugged mountains and shared woes of his bike's functionality. We discussed today's travel and food plans, held comradierie over our Jones Loop handlebars, and raced our opposite ways wishing each other well.

Once I reached Turner Bend I sat on the porch with the owner Brad and listened to his river stories as I ate my 2 sandwiches, big bag of Doritos, and ice cream bar. I moseyed along to my campsite and got comfortable under one of Brad's handbuilt shelters just as an easy rain dropped in. Another perfect end to another wonderful day.

 

Wildflowers Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

 

Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

Day 6: 85 miles. 5,880 ft. 10.9 mph avg. 7 hr 49 min. 4,900 cal Turner Bend >>> Bentonville

Today was a really special day that I have been anxiously awaiting. Meet Karen and Joe, good friends of mine from Lewis and Clark Outfitters in Rogers. They both got up at 4am, were driven down to Turner Bend, and dropped off with their bikes by 6:30am so they could join me for today's ride over White Rock Mountain. Then we rode down to Fayetteville and on north to Bentonville. What a treat!!

Last night's settling rain formed into a light fog for the morning push out of the Mulberry River valley. After making our way up the first gentle climb the trees finally opened up for us to view the mountaintops peeking back at us over the misty valleys.

We climbed on and negotiated patches of gnarly bedrock as the grade gradually steepened. A few more fast descents and impressive hills later the road finally traversed us over to the highlight of our day, White Rock Mountain. It was Karen and Joe's first introduction to its sprawling views. It took a little convincing for them ride the extra .4 mi up another steep hill. We had already put down nearly half of the day's climbing in only a quarter of the total distance. But it was worth every pedal stroke it took to get there. My pictures do little justice to the view firsthand.

Oh yeah, and now we get to ride back down the mountain! We raced to the bottom and then strolled along more creekside gravel, talking life and bikes and outdoorsy stuff all the way. We swept thru the winding hills on country pavement to Fayetteville and caught the Razorback Greenway.

Once at Lewis and Clark in Springdale, Joe was fast at work cleaning and tuning my abused drivetrain. He also helped me build my first wheel, do a 100-mile training ride, a 40-mile downpour ride, and unloaded tons of other sage advice for my race. Many big thanks to Joe Gregg!!

We moved on down the trail, now with my boss Rob Potts in tow, to visit the Rogers L&C. Their signed sign cheered me on to Little Rock and at the same time I felt welcomed home. My high school friend Josh Ivie stopped by just to wish me well and share how my adventure has inspired him to get his family outside to all these amazing places right in our backyard. In case you were wondering why I'm out here riding this crazy race, Josh and everybody else inspired to go out and play because of my story is one of the biggest motivators. Heck, that's pretty much why I come to work every day.

A final push north to dinner with family in Bentonville and now my heart and belly are full.

 

Riding buddies Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

 

Mulberry River Valley Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route
White Rock Mountain Overlook Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

Day 7: 93 miles. 6,789 ft. 10.9 mph avg. 8 hr 35 min. 5,086 cal. Bentonville >>> Kingston

Out on the backroads solo again today. Riding with friends is always great, but I am one who can also appreciate time to let my mind pause, wonder, reflect, create, or simply absorb my surroundings. I never listen to music when I'm riding. I know for many its relaxing, but I can't help but feel that I am missing out on something terribly important and undoubtedly exciting.

I wandered out of Bentonville today along familiar back ways used only weeks ago for training. Nearing Missouri, I was delighted to cross a mother and her teenage son waiting to cheer me on! Her husband has been tracking the racers and they have pleasantly surprised many of us with big smiles and fresh bananas. With only 13 remaining racers spread over such a vast area, fanfare anxiously waiting is not exactly commonplace. Which makes it infinitely more exciting to encounter. 😀

I dropped across the old bridge in Beaver and pushed up paved hills for lunch in bustling Eureka Springs. A quick climb over to Rockhouse Road had me blasting down to the Kings River.

As the day wore on, I rode into the Madison County Wildlife Management Area. The gravel here and onward to historic Kingston was so dynamic and different than anything I've yet seen on this route. Primarily red clay as a base, but with plenty of golf-ball sized rocks dispersed quite evenly across the road. There was no "clean" line offering a path of least resistance as is usually the case. Next came the washboards. You have probably driven over these extra bouncy gravel features at some point. I assure you; they are even less fun on a bicycle. Especially one with no suspension. Most other tricky challenges that I face on gravel I have developed some form of defense against. I am still open to suggestions in dealing with washboard gravel...

As the sun fell toward the ever-changing horizon, I battled countless short, steep climbs each followed by a brief descent, but I managed once again to find my rhythm. Atop every hill I found pastures rolling off gently in every direction. Chasing the fading light into tiny Kingston square, I found a hearty meal and tiny bed at Waldron's Valley Cafe.

 

Historic Beaver Bridge Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

 

Kingston Sunset Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

AHCR Day 8: 72 miles. 7,305 ft. 10.2 mph avg. 7 hr 2 min. 4,559 cal. Kingston >>> Jasper

ADVENTURE! That is the word of the day. The infamous Buffalo River vastly exceeded my expectations for merely the 100th time in my life today. But here's the deal with adventure everybody, it's not gonna show up at your doorstep and just put on a show in your living room. You have to get out there and look for it! And here's the secret ingredient: a good attitude no matter what you encounter. You'll see what I mean shortly.

Started today with a giant breakfast which fueled my first 1,500ft climb of the day. I had to get out of the Kings River watershed and over the mountains. Race creator Chuck Campbell, in all his wisdom chose to drop us into the Buffalo River Valley via Cave Mountain Road. Home of the trailhead for Arkansas's most photographed locale, Hawksbill Crag. It's a lovely jaunt along the ridgeline until the grand finale: a 2-mile long 1,100 ft drop. Which I have ridden (hike-a-bike) up once before. Riding down the primo gravel for 2 miles at unprecedented speed was quite a lot more fun.

As I strolled through Boxley Valley grinning like a madman I made a new reptilian friend on the roadside. He was a little camera shy. Before I knew it, my tires hit the Ponca low water bridge for a quick photoshoot. It was nice to see lots of other adventuring at the put-in.

I checked in with Austin at the BOC for a sandwich and a status report on their new downhill trail system. Shuttle-serviced DH trails with more vertical than Crested Butte coming soon!

My second massive climb of the day landed me on the wonderfully gravelly Erbie Road. What started as a fast and fun downward treat after a grueling effort quickly eroded into the most rambunctious piece of dirt I have ever ridden on ANY bike. The term "road" is used very loosely in Newton County. You see the photos with the 18" deep ruts? The slanted shelves of bedrock? What about the bowling balls of sandstone in the middle of the road?

It was super tough. I lost my sandals 300 yards back uphill. From the hiking to retrieve them I had gritty mud preventing my shoes from clipping in to my pedals. From the constant battering of my bike my Garmin navigation computer stopped showing me any maps. Something in my front bag full of food was leaking stickiness. And I was still grinning like a madman. It was super fun.

From my perspective each of these was just a problem to be solved. A challenge trying to burst my happy bubble. You know how sometimes when two bubbles collide, instead of both popping, one bubble just gets bigger? Let that be your adventure bubble.

The morning was fast and the slow afternoon dragged into evening. As I cruised the final stretch of pavement down to Jasper all the hard work with a good attitude turned into stunning sights more than worth the price.

P.S. I do have offline maps downloaded on my GPS-enabled phone as a backup navigation tool, and the official set of waterproof paper maps as a redundant backup. So maybe good prep work plays into the right attitude concept?...

 

Ponca low water bridge Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route
Turtles Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

 

Rough roads Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

AHCR Day 9: 79 miles. 7,947 ft. 9.9 mph avg. 8 hr. 5,000 cal. Jasper >>> Marhsall

First things first. Happy Father's Day to Dave Martens! He raised my brother and me to be handy and hard-working, showed us how to have fun and be goofy, and always encouraged us to follow our passions. He's a pretty cool dude.

Today was a scene stealer. I kept weaving across the empty dirt roads as I tried to keep an eye pointed in every direction. You'll notice a lot of landscape shots today. I have many more, but it seems gratuitous to post them all...

Up and up I climbed out of Jasper, with passing views of distant Sam's Throne. I moved through Mt. Judea and then dropped into a wide valley guarded by ancient mountains. The black-eyed susan's came out to play with me today. I find great joy in big bunches of wildflowers.

After another stout climb on pavement I veered back to Grade A, Division I, Top Choice gravel grinding. The sustained climbs were just steep enough to break my sweat but not my legs. The gravity-fed portions made smart use of my efforts by rarely asking for a brake check. The last leg of this top-notch gravel session landed me at Richland Creek. Its deep green waters contrast the bright forest quite nicely. After a race protocol selfie on the bridge I began my final monumental climb of the day. It was hot. It was steep. I pushed my bike. I sweated a lot.

As I neared the town of Witt Springs, at the hilltop there was a group of enthusiasts cheering me on and offering drinks and snacks and chili dogs and everything in between. Big thanks to the whole community of Witt Springs for working so hard to welcome all the racers, y'all are amazingly generous!!

I set out, full and hydrated, to blast down Lick Fork Road and then bounce through the second worst road I have ridden so far to the most awesome view I have seen so far. Peter Cave Road boasts a Buffalo River overlook that should be on an Arkansas Top Ten list.

As I headed out back to normal gravel roads, I ran across a black bear. He was maybe 10 feet away off the road and he jumped so fast in the opposite direction that I'm sure he was more scared than I was. Shoot, I've been more scared of every dog that's chased me than that surprised black bear. Sorry, no photo. I thought it best to keep moving.

Once I thought the rough stuff was over the day had one final trick up its sleeve. My first river crossing. Glad I went and found my sandals yesterday!

I made it to Marshall in time for pizza and a chocolate shake before settling in to a rustic old refurbished cabin for the night.

 

Richland Creek Wilderness Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

 

Wildflowers Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route
Buffalo River overlook on Peter Cave Rd Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

AHCR Day 10: 61 miles. 6,145 ft. 10.2 mph avg. 6 hr riding (+ lots of hike-a-bike). 4,300 cal. Marshall >>> Mountain View

What a steep day! I know the vertical gain doesn't stack up to some other days so maybe my legs are getting just a wee bit tired. I also missed out on my secret weapon, breakfast for 3 just for me. Man, those hills weren't letting me up without a fight. But oh, how well they went down!

The first climb propped me up onto a wide-open ridgeline. Awesome views of a bright blue sky and perfectly white clouds over huge pastures. It's entertaining to notice the different reactions of animals to a cyclist. Cows often look concerned and will run easily, big surprise there... Horses and donkeys on the other hand, typically approach me. They are inquisitive in their eyes and body language. Once today a colt ran 150 ft or so along his fence line with me and shook his head in a generous farewell.

After grinding a few more perfectly laid tracts of gravel I skidded to a stop. I don't always brake for turtles, but when I do prefer to snap them a selfie. This big guy looked like he had been around the ditch a few times and had his fair share of stories to tell. I didn't get to hear them because I do not speak turtle. And the only turtles I know of to speak English are teenagers and have amazing combat skills for creatures that cannot bend at the waist.

Onward to Blanchard Springs where I did a little reflecting on the quaint Mirror Lake. When you visit, don't skip the Springs because they are impressive and the cave tour is also worth your time. I missed both today due to hill and time constraints, but I have had the pleasure before. Also worth a stroll is the cavernous bluff down at the picnic area.

Soon I found myself at a loss. My navigation computer (working better today, thank you) had me turning on a gated road. A road in disrepair. A road with tall ferns growing in the middle. I double-checked my triplicate of mapping systems and all signs pointed under the gate, through the ferns, and to a sketchy cabin in the woods we go! After pushing the steep bits, I eventually rode my bike down the ferny road and it was rather fun. It was like the true essence of bikepacking. The confluence of gravel roads and Ozark hiking trails in the springtime.

Past the exit gate I found a normal gravel road and a trailhead marking the Syllamo Mountain Bike Trails. The 4th Arkansas trail earning IMBA Epic status found along the route. Of which there are 5 total in the state, and we are tied with Colorado for the 2nd most in the country. Go Arkansas!

The Syllamo gravel was sweeeeeet! I can't speak for the trails, so I'll report back another time. It dropped out onto a pleasantly paved highway for a few quick cranks over Sylamore Creek and on to Mountain View for the night. Gonna rest big for a hopeful grand finale tomorrow!!!

 

Blanchard Springs Caverns Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

 

Gated gravel forest road Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route
Syllamo Wilderness Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route

AHCR Day 11: 122 miles. 6,187 feet. 12.3 mph avg. 9 hr 55 min. 6,479 cal. Mountain View >>> Little Rock

Today was bittersweet. It's exciting to finish a challenge of this magnitude. But also, it is hard to give up days bursting at the seams with adventure. I started out earlier than usual, to tackle the last proper stretch of gravel and the majority of the day's climbing before the rise of the afternoon heat.

I proceeded from Mountain View up into hills shrouded in dense morning fog. Pedaling straight up into a cloud, I tasted fresh mountain dew on my lips and was kept cool by the misty droplets forming on my arms and beard. The views were immediate, not distant. Reminding me to savor each moment.

The climbs and the miles went down easy on wonderfully rolling hills. Quickly, I intersected the return to paved riding. Sadly, it was time to stiffen my tires for a change in pace. As I pumped, I noticed the dewy dust collected on my frame. How fitting to take part of the gravel with me to the finish line.

A few more nice rollers of highway carried open vistas now that the sun melted the mist away. Then the middle of a big descent presented dramatic views of Greers Ferry Lake. I surfed back and forth on the empty, winding road. Hey, even a mountain biker knows how to joyride on pavement a little.

After a quick snack break, I sped out into the flat lowlands for a long, hot push down to Little Rock. Right in the middle of basically nowhere my navigation turned me onto a road under construction. Just for that one day only. Their big trucks completely blocked my route and they would not let me through. No big deal, time to bust out the handy offline Google maps and plan a re-route. Only a few extra miles, no big deal. Somehow on the way back to the actual racecourse my computer decided to stop navigating with turn by turn directions. After 3 restarts I finally plugged it up to my charged cache battery and swapped the settings to keep the screen on full-time, this way it at least showed me the route and my position.

Next, I realized just how far off the officially-mapped route our race circuit was. Meaning that my planned re-supply stop wasn't an option and I struggled to find alternatives on the map. I powered through the endless steaming straightaways and only missed my turns twice.

As I ran out of water, I pulled into a small tire shop and inquired about a spigot. I was gifted many cold bottles of water and sent along my way. Only miles later I pulled into a Dollar General and assembled a packaged buffet lunch! Now I was really ready to crush those last tedious miles.

As I neared Little Rock the familiar long ridges of the Ouachita’s returned. None of the climbs compared to hardly anything else on the whole route in scale, but after 90 miles that day and 999 in total I was easily challenged.

Navigating by tiny readout, on a moving map is easy when the roads are literally miles apart. It is surprisingly difficult block by block through an unfamiliar city. I lost and looped my way until I finally hit the river and could now navigate by landmark! On the final stretch to the Clinton Library I was pleasantly surprised by Ally Mabry and her parents hosting my congratulatory party!!!!!! Many more friendly texts of congrats ensued. After quick video chat with my folks who are camping in MO and enjoying their retirement, the 4 of us headed to Stone's Throw for a finisher beer, a hard-earned patch, and much needed proper meal!

Congrats to Ally Mabry, Luke Hall, and Jeremy Ordaz who finished 2 days prior. Congrats to all the other racers who finished! Big thanks to Chuck Campbell for years of hard work planning this route and making this race happen. I feel initiated into an elite class of type-2 fun seekers.

Bikepacking Arkansas High Country Route
finishing the Arkansas High Country Race
Check out our blog about how the Arkansas High Country Route was created, where it goes, and how to ride, race, or drive it yourself.

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