The Arkansas High Country Route (AHCR) is a multi-day bikepacking course plotted through 1,171 miles of the most scenic areas of the so-called ‘High Country” of Arkansas. The route is made up of a 50/50 mix of paved and gravel roads. It features over 90,000 feet of elevation gain for a sturdy overall climbing average of 77ft/mile. Along the way it passes all five of our mountain bike trails awarded with Epic status by the International Mountain Bike Association, including the Womble and Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT), which are official singletrack options on the route. It also touches 7 state parks, 3 national parks, and the prized Buffalo National River. Additionally, it travels through 13 Forest Service campgrounds, 9 Corps of Engineers parks, and 9 designated wilderness areas. It is a beautiful, grand tour of many iconic Arkansas destinations.
High Country vs. Low Country:
Route designer Chuck Campbell of Russellville divides The Natural State geographically into two sections. If you draw a diagonal line from the southwest to the northeast corner of the state, the upper half of that division he terms the “High Country” because it contains the Ouachita Mountains, Arkansas River Valley, and Ozark Plateau. The “Low Country” is made up of the Coastal Plain, Crowley’s Ridge, and Mississippi River Delta.
Where does it go?
Geographically speaking, the route begins in Little Rock. This is where some of the original settlers of Arkansas first encountered the “High Country” while travelling up the Arkansas River. Riding clockwise out of the bustling city you soon leave the tarmac, climbing up to Flatside Pinnacle Trailhead for the first sweeping view. Turning south, you pass right through Hot Springs National Park and begin a long westward trek just below Lake Ouachita. Both of the optional singletrack options lie along this section. Next you explore the Caney Creek Wildlife Management Area and wilderness areas. The waterfall hikes, swimming holes, overlooks, roadside creeks, and dense hardwood forest hidden within Caney Creek are worthy of any outdoor adventurer’s bucket list!
Soon the route steers north up and over the three biggest individual climbs. First is an intermediate dirt road at Queen Wilhelmina rising up 1,700 feet to the top of Rich Mountain. Second is the rugged gravel gaining 1,800 feet up the heinously steep Poteau Mountain. The last is 2,000 of steady climbing up the paved byway to the state’s highest point, Mount Magazine. A short eastern detour takes you out of the Ouachita’s to Russellville and along the shores of Lake Dardanelle. Bicycling while the Arkansas sun sets across a glassy lake surrounded by mountains should also be on your bucket list.
Heading north out of the Arkansas River valley leads you into the Boston Mountains of the Ozark Plateau and along the banks of the emerald-colored Mulberry River. Up and over another mountain at White Rock, where a short side-trip to the Civilian Conservation Corps built lookout is well worth the sprawling view.
After some rowdy descents you begin snaking along paved country roads towards Fayetteville, where cyclists are rewarded with the Razorback Regional Greenway all the way north through Bentonville. These are some of the easiest, amenity-rich miles of the entire route. A few more relatively tame twists and turns take you near Seligman, MO and back down to the Historic Beaver Bridge. The climbing escalates as you pass through Eureka Springs and parallel the Kings River. Soon the route really runs in every direction, trending eastward to the Buffalo National River.
Once at the top of Cave Mountain Road, you’ll pass by the trailhead for Hawksbill Crag, the most-photographed landscape in Arkansas. After a hearty helping of climbing up to Compton, you descend Erbie Road. This is probably the least maintained road of the whole route, it’s tougher riding than most mountain bike trails. The climbing continues all the way through Jasper, right by the climbing paradise of Sam’s Throne, and eventually jumps over to the boulder-strewn Richland Creek. The first-class scenery and tough climbing persist to the friendliest rural community of Witt Springs.
Another convoluted course leads you back to the Buffalo River for more magnificent views along the seemingly forgotten Peter Cave Road. Continuing east you’ll visit Blanchard Springs Recreation Area, there’s an excellent family-friendly cave tour if you’ve got the time. Head south towards Mountain View and cross Greers Ferry Lake. Finally, you have escaped the constant rhythm of climb and descend for a few short miles nearing Little Rock once again. As a kind of cherry on top, the route ends on the Arkansas River Trail, another paved cyclist-specific pathway.
How was the route created?
Campbell first conceived the AHCR while riding on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, a 2,750-mile transcontinental route tracing the Continental Divide of the Rocky Mountains. Both the Great Divide and AHCR are published by the non-profit American Cycling Association (ACA) as a waterproof, folding map series and in digital format via a smartphone app. Upon studying the ACA’s route network, Campbell noticed a huge absence in the state of Arkansas. While on his epic adventure in faraway mountains he started scheming of a new route exploring all the wild, beautiful places back home. He soon approached the ACA about his grandiose idea of an Arkansas bikepacking route and to his surprise they were all ears. Not long after, the Walton Family Foundation bestowed a grant to the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation so they could provide the ACA with the necessary funding to turn Campbell’s high-altitude dream into a rideable reality.
Campbell spent the next several summers driving dirty backroads and highlighting the best ones in his trusty DeLorme Gazeteer, gathering the route piece by piece. His other duties involved carefully notating amenities and services along or near the route for future users. He then sent his extensive route plans and notes to the ACA’s cartographers, who expertly drew the finished digital and paper maps. Isn’t it amazing what can be accomplished when one person is dedicated to an idea?
Racing the route:
As of May 2019, the AHCR is officially part of the ACA route network and the very next month Campbell organized, hosted, and competed in its inaugural race. It is somewhat of an insane tradition that these unfathomably long bike routes will hold annual races. It is also tradition that such long races, dubbed the “ultra-endurance” category, have no entry fee as well as no prize money for finishers or even winners. For the few daring enough to compete it seems satisfactory enough simply to complete such a feat, in addition to enjoying bragging rights among an elite group if you are gritty enough to win.
To gain a little perspective on such a niche race, here’s a few facts regarding the 2019 AHCR: 19 riders left the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock at 6am on Saturday, June 8th. Only ten of those riders finished the race. Mike Dicken won with a finish time of 6 days, 10 hours, and 5 minutes and a daily average of 158.5 miles. The last finisher rolled in after 11 days, 17 hours, and 56 minutes and a daily average of 86.1 miles per day. Many of those miles contain grades as steep as 21% and the majority of grades above 17% happen on the gravel portions, not the easier-going paved sections.
The gravel roads can be smooth, hard-packed dirt or contain nothing but chunks of rock the size of grapefruit for endless miles. Sometimes they are deeply rutted out or have downed trees. Many turn abruptly at the bottom of a hill to prevent riders from carrying momentum up the next hill. Often, they contain super sticky mud. They can also cross creeks and rivers, regardless of the water’s depth or speed, or slickness of the rocks bedding the river’s bottom.
Route preparation is much more complex than simply planning to ride a set number of miles each day or hour. Grade, road composition, and weather all have an argument against the best laid plans. Not to mention fatigue, be it physical or mental exhaustion. Riders often require 5-10,000 calories per day, just try eating that much while riding a bike for 10-18 hours per day. And what about mechanical issues? Can you fix it? Do you need a bike shop? Will they still be open when you get there? As you can see, races of this nature ask for equal parts good prep work, luck of the draw with weather, and steadfast determination. For any persuaded readers, the 2020 race starts at the Fayetteville Town Square on Saturday, June 6th at 7am.
Explore the route by car:
Fortunately, for rest of us mere mortals, the route is broken down into three smaller loops. Depending on your appetite for adventure you can ride the 238-mile Northwest Loop, the 434-mile Central Loop, or the 500-mile South Loop. For those less enthusiastic about long days of type-2 fun (it’s that kind of activity that is fun only after you have stopped doing it) it is also possible to drive the route. After all, the route is 100% roads. However, if driving is a consideration, keep in mind that several sections of road are entirely unmaintained and as such, require hefty clearance and solid 4WD. Of particular concern are the sections up and across Poteau Mountain, the western half of Erbie Road starting in Compton on the Buffalo National River, Peter Cave Road near the middle Buffalo, and parts of the Caney Creek Wilderness Area. Most of the rest of the route can be travelled with any average SUV, preferably with AWD or 4WD capability, and a decent set of all-terrain tires.
Maps, Apps, and more info:
Wondering what it's like to ride the AHCR?
Check out my day-by-day recap of racing the AHCR last year!