Arkansas High Country

Gravel Backroads and Roller-Coaster Ridges
Mike Lessard
Price :
Surface :
Duration :
12 days
Support :
Van Supported
Difficulty :
Level 5

This challenging ride will traverse backroads and gravel routes throughout the Ouachita Mountains in western Arkansas. Wait... the what mountains? (It’s pronounced wash-it-taw.) 

This still-mostly undiscovered corner of the country features wonderful low-traffic riding, green-cloaked hills, and crystal clear rivers and lakes. Those hills and “hollers” can make for challenging riding — as anyone who’s ridden the TransAm a few hours north through Missouri’s Ozarks will tell you — but the punchy climbs reward with rollicking descents as the landscape slowly reveals its secrets. Plus, we’ll leave our luggage in the van to enjoy this landscape unloaded! 

Join us on our Arkansas High Country Route for an unexpected adventure. 

Photos by Mike Lessard | Mike Lessard | Eric Urquhart | Mike Lessard

There are no scheduled departures for this tour.

"I was very impressed by the leaders. They were very effective at getting us/gear/equipment/schedules organized, and they were all genuinely glad to be out riding bike with us and getting to know us. I also liked the way the tour was structured — I liked that everyone was able to depart when ready, and ride at their own pace, as long as they arrived before dinner. I felt no pressure to go fast or slow, and that was very liberating for me."


Day 1. Maumelle, Arkansas, 0 miles

Maumelle (from the French word for breast) is the name the (lonely) French explorers gave to the mountain now called “Pinnacle.” Whether you drive, ride, or catch a shuttle from Little Rock to the trailhead, our tour will begin with an orientation to our leaders, route, and each other. We'll spend the night near the Arkansas River, ready to depart for our 10-day tour of the backroads of Arkansas!

Day 2. Maumelle Park to Lake Sylvia, 52 miles

The first 20 miles of this day are on pavement before the surface switches to gravel. The Methodist Church at Wye has a great lawn to recharge at lunch before we tackle a stretch of gravel through timber company land en route to the Ouachita National Forest. The highlight of the day is the view from the Flatside Pinnacle — a half-mile hike to the summit is well worth the extra effort. The North Fork Pinnacle is also on route if you’re feeling up for another walk to possibly even better views. We’ll finish the day alongside picturesque Lake Sylvia. If it’s too cold for a swim, there will be showers available before we turn in.

Day 3. Lake Sylvia to Blakely Mountain Dam, 48 miles

Minnesota might claim to be the land of 10,000 lakes, but you’ll quickly learn that Arkansas has quite a few too! Detour a half mile off route for a lovely snack spot at Lake Winona before our morning of gravel ends after 15 miles and we tackle some tarmac. You might stop for lunch at the Antioch Church on Danville Road, but save some room (and energy) for a break at Superior Bathhouse Brewery in downtown Hot Springs — the first brewery in a national park and the first to use thermal water! Then tour the park’s visitor center next door. It’s 11 miles from Hot Springs to camp with Parkside Cycling bike shop on-route if you need any supplies. Take time to ride to the top of the Blakely Mountain Dam to see the views and the twisted rock strata before calling it a day.

Day 4. Blakely Mountain Dam to North Fork Lake, 52 miles

Today is evenly split between gravel and pavement, starting with a morning ride that will take us through Bear, the site of Arkansas’s only gold rush — the fact that there was no gold didn’t stop 5,000 folks from coming to dig for it! Plan ahead if you’re looking for a cold brew in the next leg of our trip as Arkansas has many “dry” counties and we’re heading into 200 dry miles (though there is beer available at both state park lodges on our route). We’ll get a true taste of the kind of riding these modest-looking mountains offer as we pedal through lots of up-and-down stretches including Moondance Road, which might require a hike-a-bike! A short stop in Mount Ida makes a nice break before the final 10 miles to camp at North Fork Lake. There are no facilities at North Fork, but it makes up for it in beauty.

Day 5. North Fork Lake to Sugar Creek, 44 miles

Today may be short on mileage, but the beauty really starts to ramp up as does the route, which mostly gravel and mountainous. The first 10 miles are rolling hills on smooth gravel before we hit four challenging climbs in the last 25. Things get serious after crossing State Highway 8 with the climb up to Mosquito Gap. The reward is a long, beautiful descent on Crooked Creek. Stop for lunch at the falls on the Little Missouri River just one mile off-route. Then get ready for the final series of rugged, climbs on Blaylock Road and the border of the Caney Creek Wilderness. The Dicks Gap overlook is a great spot to catch a breather before you start the long descent toward Sugar Creek.  The views of the mountains and the smooth gravel beside creeks of turquoise water make the climbs worth it.

Day 6. Sugar Creek to Queen Wilhelmina State Park, 46 miles

We’ll begin another mountainous day on gravel roads along the Cossatot River. After climbing from the banks of Brushy Creek we’ll enjoy a downhill run to Hatfield where you’ll be tempted to grab some fried chicken at the gas station. Make sure you’re fueled up for THE CLIMB — actually four climbs. There’s a can’t-miss photo spot at the Arkansas welcome sign as you head up Weehunt Mountain (a 500-foot climb). Next is Self Mountain (400 feet), which features a rock cairn marking the Oklahoma border. A wicked switchback on a rocky, steep slope tops Middle Mountain (300 more feet) before you finally top Rich Mountain (another 500 feet — take that Rocky Mountains!). Don’t miss the natural spring flowing from a pipe on the left side of the road on the final climb. Our destination for the night is Queen Wilhelmina State Park, famous for its “Castle in the Sky” lodge and the perfect place to relax and enjoy views and brews after a challenging day of cycling.

Day 7. Layover day in Queen Wilhelmina, 0 miles

Spend the day basking in the splendor of Queen Wilhelmina State Park. Go for a hike, check out the Wonder House and the Glory Train, or relax at the lodge. There’s good reason why this park is part of the Talimena National Scenic Byway and it’s only appropriate that we take the day not only to rest from the challenging ride, but soak all there is to offer at this spot.

Day 8. Queen Wilhelmina to Poteau Mountain, 60 miles

After a few highway miles, the route follows rolling gravel roads through Black Fork to lunch at Walker Mountain. Onward to Bates and the town’s old coal mine. The climb up Poteau Mountain is the highlight of the ride today as we’re rewarded with scenic vistas that demand a little burn from our legs. After the climb, we ride to our camp and another beautiful scenic spot.

Day 9. Poteau Mountain to Waveland, 46 miles

Get ready for a roller-coaster route today with lots of ups and downs and mostly gravel surfaces. Who would have thought there was so much climbing in Arkansas?! One must embrace the love of the gravel and plenty of time climbing. The morning holds four big climbs, and the views are fabulous! Stop for lunch near the base of Pilot Knob on the east side of highway 71, then climb up Blue Mountain toward tonight’s camp.

Day 10. Waveland to Shoal Bay, 51 miles

Today we’ll ride to the highest point in the state and spend two-thirds of our time on gravel roads, but not before enjoying views from below as we peer up to the lodge on Mount Magazine as the route crosses the Petit Jean River valley. A wise cyclist will not overindulge at the store in Waveland, but rather will save room for a lunch at the Mount Magazine Lodge, situated 2,700 feet above sea level — and the rest of Arkansas! Then it’s 25 miles to our campsite on the shores of Lake Dardanelle.  

Day 11. Shoal Bay to Petit Jean State Park, 40 miles

The last leg of the route is almost all pavement. We’ll follow State Highway 22 to Dardanelle, where we’ll likely take a quarter-mile detour to see Dardanelle Rock, a local landmark used for thousands of years. The scramble to the top is a challenging trail. The ride through the Arkansas River valley is flat as a pancake, although there are a few small rises around Cotton Town. The final climb is up to Arkansas’s first state park, Petit Jean. The lodge is a must-see and the campground for our last night together has hot showers! 

Day 12. Petit Jean State Park to Maumelle Park/Little Rock, Shuttle

We will head out bright and early to shuttle back to Little Rock, closing our trip through this unique and off-the-beaten-path route — but you might already be planning a return trip!


Additional Details
Start Location:
Little Rock, AR
End Location:
Little Rock, AR
Clinton National Airport (LIT)
Total Days:
Riding Days:
Layover Days:
Average Daily Mileage:
Shared cooking
Level 5
Technical Difficulty:
Moderate to Difficult
Restricted Bike Type:
Touring, Road/Cyclocross, eBike, eTrike, Hybrid

Know before you go

Please consider the terrain, and road surface, when preparing for this unique, mountain tour. Portions of the tour require riding on rough, challenging, backcountry gravel roads that are unsuitable for a road bike. Bicycles that can accommodate 42c tires or larger are recommended. Although only 25% of the route is paved, some sections have limited shoulders with moderately heavy traffic. You can expect substantial climbing with some grades up to 21%. The recommended gearing is 23 gear inches or lower.