The striation of the warm setting sun’s rays matched exactly what I had envisioned in my mind when I dreamed of the Ozarks. I closed my eyes, breathing in heavily through my nose, exhaling loudly through my mouth. As I slowly opened my eyes, I realized that my initial reaction might be correct in that this must be the most beautiful place I have ever been on earth. The fact that I just rode my bike nearly 4,000 feet that day to see this view simply sweetened that cool, fresh October air.
I looked down at my friend Nicole, who had haphazardly climbed down a few short rock ledges to take in the view from another angle. I was cautiously worried about her safety, but I also couldn’t take my eyes away from the beauty that nature was painting vividly in front of me. After snapping a few photos that would never truly capture what my eyes were seeing, I sat down on the edge of a picnic bench that the White Rock Recreation area had perfectly placed. I literally felt as though I was in heaven.
Four days into my bikepacking adventure on Adventure Cycling’s Northwest Loop of the Arkansas High Country Route (237 miles with 18,920 feet of climbing) meant I was ready for a cold beer with my friends who had driven in from Austin, Texas, to literally take in this singular view with me. Although they were car camping for the trip, they had room for heavier provisions such as icy alcoholic beverages and fresh vegetables and fruit, which I hadn’t enjoyed since my departure from Bentonville.
I had opted to ride the 237-mile course over six days and five nights. I felt that an average of 40 miles a day with an estimate of 3,000 feet of climbing per day was something well within my fitness level. Unfortunately, I was running a gear ratio on my carbon Specialized bike that wasn’t quite equipped for handling a lot of the steep and unforgiving 12 percent gravel climbs. I ended up walking quite a bit, especially this particular day.
The first two days of my trip were full of cold rain and temperatures in the 40s. By the middle of Day Three, the rain had finally stopped, and the higher I went in elevation toward the White Rock Recreation Area, the warmer it got. On the first two days, no matter how hard I pedaled or how fast I tried to go, I never felt like I got warm enough. By Day Three of my travels, I relished this sunshine, the warmer temperatures, and the change in scenery as I continued to climb White Rock Mountain. The walking I was doing occasionally was actually quite enjoyable.
This trip gave me an opportunity to ride solo for an entire six days, only having the evening company of friends for a few nights while in the deep Ozarks. I enjoyed the various accommodations that I got to experience — a hotel room, a B&B with a friendly golden retriever named Ginger as the hostess/escort, a stealth camping site that seemed to be well known in the bikepacking and hunting communities, the camp stay at White Rock Recreation Area, and a generous and accommodating Warmshowers host in Fayetteville. One of the greatest gifts of bikepacking is the ability to make your own rules, route, accommodations, and fueling stops. The Arkansas High Country Route, in its 237-mile rendition, is no exception.
There were numerous moments on this trip where the stunning imagery that nature created for me made me feel as though this is possibly one of the most amazing bikepacking routes that exists in the U.S. I would find myself riding around the edge of a narrow highway with forests as far as I could see below me to my left. I would gasp in disbelief as I would then look to my right and see incredible 50-foot-tall Ozark cliffs. All around me the leaves were changing colors and lazily falling to the damp ground.
The most enjoyable aspect of this trip was definitely the half-gravel/half-road composite of the route. This meant I could bring a gravel bike with 38mm tires and not feel too sluggish on either surface. Of course, when it rained and the mud became like peanut butter, it was much faster to just get off my bike and push. Finishing the route primarily on roads with a fast 30-mile day back into Bentonville was exactly what my legs and lungs needed. I’m eager to eventually visit other portions of the Arkansas High Country Route and perhaps one day enter and attempt to complete the Arkansas High Country Race that takes place at the end of October covering roughly 1,037 miles of the route!