Motorcycling through Arkansas's Boston Mountains
Arkansas has some of the best motorcycling routes in the country, and the undisputed pinnacle of these stretches–where breathtaking scenery and adrenaline-inducing terrain combine for serious kick–is that which runs through the Boston Mountains.
But that's about as far as you can go on the subject without running into a serious controversy among hardcore and casual bikers. You see, there are two routes by which motorcyclists can take on the imposing Boston Mountain range, and opinions on which is better run as deep as its lush forests and as wide as the stunning mountain views the routes provide.
The Boston Mountains story
First, a little background.
According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, the Boston Mountains in north central Arkansas are the southern portion of the Ozark Mountains, the rocky dome that runs through northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. The Boston Mountains portion occupies a roughly rectangular swath about 20 to 35 miles wide and 200 miles long.
The range was last heaved skyward about 300 million years ago when the North and South American continents collided, creating what is today the greatest relief (elevation change between mountain high and valley low) of any range between the Appalachian Mountains and the Rockies.
Like a lot of places long on natural beauty, the Boston Mountains remain rugged. In fact, before the advent of highways and automobiles, it was considered more sensible to detour around them when traveling in the area, even though that meant getting from Little Rock in central Arkansas to Fayetteville in the northwest corner via St. Louis, Mo.
Even today, with ribbons of asphalt snaked over the mountain range connecting Interstate 40 with all points north, there is still plenty that's wooly about this ride for those who seek it. Technically, the gnarliest route is state Highway 23, otherwise known as the Pig Trail.
Woo Pig Sooie
Arkansas' most iconic stretch isn't the longest ride you will ever take, but it captures everything the Natural State is famous for from gorgeous scenery–particularly gussied up in fall colors around late October and early November–to the association it holds with the state's beloved University of Arkansas Razorbacks.
There are two conflicting explanations for the route's name, one being that it was simply a backdoor shortcut for football fans traveling to university games in Fayetteville. While that may be true, those who have ridden it attest to the other story, that the route earned its moniker for being as twisty as the tail of a wild hog.
A common misunderstanding, even from locals, is that the route includes the roughly 52 miles between Interstate 40 and Fayetteville. Actually, the Pig Trail only covers 24 miles, beginning in the southeast corner of the Ozark National Forest near Interstate 40 then extending north along Arkansas Highway 23 to Brashears.
From that tiny, unincorporated bend in the road, riders bear west on Arkansas Highway 16 to Fayetteville or stay on Highway 23 north to Eureka Springs for an 80-mile ride that USA Today and The Discovery Channel dubbed the second-best motorcycling route in the nation in 2014 and 2013, respectively.
Truly committed road hogs will want to try to tame the Oark Extension, a beautiful, if tricky, stretch of Arkansas Highway 10. Starting north at Clarksville then west on Arkansas Highway 215, this section ends in the middle of the Pig Trail. Take a break from the hairpins, tight curves, and 10-mph switchbacks at the Oark General Store, the longest continuously operated general store in the state.
Boston Mountains Scenic byways
Further west lie the designated scenic byways U.S. Highway 71 (42 miles long) and Interstate 49 (38 miles long), both linking to I-40 at Alma and terminating at Fayetteville. The fraternal twin sister highways provide travelers the opportunity to see the country from two decidedly different vantage points.
Those who like to temper their adventure–or those traveling for reasons other than sightseeing–opt for the wider, gentler, and shorter I-49 (formerly called Interstate 540). The route cuts through the heart of the Boston Mountain's most demanding landscape, but the ride is smooth, often soaring above the terrain via massive high-span bridges and featuring the state's only highway tunnel, the Bobby Hopper Tunnel. Views from I-49 are expansive and impressionistic, with variations of green in summer and splotches of brilliant color in the fall. If you're on a schedule, aren't into roller coasters, or are these days simply “born to be mild,” this is the road for you.
Playing the darker Rose-Red to I-49's kinder Snow-White is Highway 71, the precursor north-south thoroughfare. While not as primitive as the Pig Trail, the former stagecoach route does give riders a better up close taste of the terrain with rises and falls, twists, and turns.
Unlike I-49, Highway 71 features no truck traffic and few cars, furthering its appeal among bikers. It also gives easier access to the valley vistas and small mountain towns that dot the route.
What to See and Do
The Boston Mountains generally don't play well with other attractions, thus its rugged, unspoiled topography dominates much of what to see on the route itself. Other points of interest are generally near, at the start of, or after you clear the range instead of on it. These include Devil's Den State Park, a short jog west from Highway 71 in the Lee Creek Valley near West Fork. Devil's Den is one of the best-preserved Civilian Conservation Corps park projects in the country, and offers hiking, mountain biking, camping, and the largest sandstone crevice cave area in the nation.
At the north end of the route is Fayetteville, offering shopping, dining, and lodging after your ride. Dickson Street, near the University of Arkansas, is a lively entertainment district, and the city is also the trailhead for the Fayetteville Ale Trail, a collection of craft breweries throughout the area.
Of course, Fayetteville is also home to the university's Razorbacks, but the city boasts hogs of a different stripe with Bikes, Blues and BBQ, observing its 15th year, Sept. 23–26.
Continue the Pig Trail north on Highway 23 (rather than bearing west on Highway 16 at Brashears) and the rider finds Eureka Springs, an eclectic community of artists, free thinkers, and all-around interesting people. The town is biker-friendly and offers a host of attractions such as Victorian bed and breakfasts, 100 shops and galleries, and a 500-acre wildlife refuge, to name a few. Those who haven't been sufficiently adrenalized can take a two-hour zip line tour through the forest treetops, or you can take in an evening music or magic show.
South of I-40 and east of Alma, the traveler crosses through the heart of the state's wine country near Altus in the Arkansas River Valley. Four wineries operate here, each offering tours, tastings, and a variety of other amenities.
West of Alma at the Arkansas-Oklahoma border, many travelers take the opportunity to visit the numerous historical attractions at Fort Smith and slightly farther north in Van Buren. Both communities offer interesting and award-winning downtown areas, as well as artisan shops and dining opportunities. Best of all, these attractions can easily be accessed by car for those who prefer four-wheeled conveyance.
Whichever way to tackle them, Arkansas's Boston Mountains provide plenty of routes and sights that are sure to get your motor runnin'.
Dwain Hebda is a contributor from Little Rock, Ark.
September/October 2015 Issue
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