With the official start of autumn just days away and the temperatures changing from unbearably hot to hot apple cider crisp, the leaves soon will be turning brilliant colors. The nation’s rich forests soon will be alive with leaves dancing across the countryside in shades of red, yellow, orange, and a mixture of all three. And as the leaves begin to change their colors, many folks make plans to spend a few days in parts of the country where the colors are most spectacular—New England, Virginia, maybe in Colorado where the magnificent yellow leaves of the aspen trees leap out from the backdrop of surrounding green fir trees. Missouri and the Ozarks also are vibrant with their fall colors.
And then there is Arkansas. My brother Mark refuses to even mention Arkansas much less set foot into the state. He’s an avid George Bush Republican and staunch listener to ultra-conservative and former (I suppose) pain medication-addicted radio talk show personality Rush Limbaugh. Arkansas, afterall, is the home state of former President Bill Clinton and his presidential library in Little Rock. My brother doesn’t know what he’s missing, because Arkansas is one of the most beautiful states in the country. The roads wind through hundreds of miles of mountains and valleys with the countryside filled with lush green forests just waiting explode their colors with the arrival of fall. And those winding roads can be tempting, especially for anyone who rides motorcycles, no matter what time of year.
Riding buddy Darren Marshall, who didn’t make it to Knoxville, Tennessee this past summer because his motorcycle broke down, recently purchased a 2005 BMW GS1200.
Naturally, he wanted to try it out. Naturally, I couldn’t resist the invitation to join him on my 1998 Honda Magna 750. The route and the plan were simple. We left about 12:45 p.m. on a Thursday and reached Eureka Springs via U.S. 71 Highway and then picking up Highway 62 in Bentonville. Getting up the next morning, we took 62 east to Harrison and then headed south on Highway 7 to Hot Springs. We took Highway 270 west out of Hot Springs on Saturday morning to Highway 88 into Mena. From there, 88 winds its way through Queen Wilhelmina State Park, turns into Highway 1 at the Oklahoma border and then runs into Highway 271 where we went south into Talihina. Highway 63 out of Talihina takes the southern route back through Queen Wilhelmina and turns into Highway 8 at the Arkansas line and back into Mena. There we took U.S. 71 north through Fort Smith and into Bentonville. Sunday morning we rode to Carthage, Missouri, and then Highway 96 west into Kansas to pick up U.S. 69 north sneaking in behind the line of rain showers that were moving east into Missouri.
We traveled just less than 1,100 miles in the nearly four days we were gone, going through some beautiful country, the Boston Mountains, the Ozark National Forest, and Ouachita Mountains and National Forest. The scenery teased us with the vivid colors that are just waiting to come out and expose themselves, and all the roads were well maintained.
There are many places to stop, shops to visit, and plenty of small towns with down-home cafes that serve some great food. Just south of Jasper on Highway 7, there is a scenic overlook on the east side of the road. A wooden tower with four flights of stairs allows visitors a fabulous 360-degree view of the Ozark mountains. There’s a small souvenir shop at the base. Just a few more miles down the road is the Cliff House Inn Restaurant and Gift Shop where rooms overlook the Buffalo National River Valley. It’s a tremendous view. And here’s a hint: If you stop there, be hungry. The food is delicious and be sure to save room for dessert. The blackberry cobbler and the apple pie is to die for! They say their specialty is “Company’s Comin’ Pie.” I’ll have to check that out on my next trip. If you’re lucky, as you sit near the windows that overlook the valley, you will see hand gliders and native birds soaring through the air. Anyone planning to stay there needs to call ahead. They only have five units.
The rest of the way into Hot Springs was an extremely pleasant drive with several towns and places to stop along the way. And if you haven’t been to Hot Springs for awhile, you’re going to be surprised. It had been nearly 30 years since I had last been there. The bathhouses then were still operational and, well, dirty. In the 1980s, local citizens and the National Park Service began exploring ways to return the bathhouses and Bathhouse Row to the way it was during their heyday. As of now, only the Buckstaff is open and provides baths, steam baths, and massages. The restored Fordyce Bathhouse has been fully restored and now is a visitor’s center and museum furnished the way it was during the early 1900s.
There is plenty to see and do in Hot Springs, and several restaurants from which to choose. The ride through Queen Wilhelmina State Park from Mena, Arkansas to Talihina, Oklahoma just might be the best kept secret of all times. There was little traffic on this road that winds its way to the top of the mountain range and then across it. Pull off the side of the road and the silence is overwhelming.
Heading towards Bentonville for our final night, we stopped in Fort Scott, Arkansas to stretch our legs and grab a meal. Simple by chance we ended up at The Rib-Eye Steakhouse at 1400 Highway 71 South. The restaurant is more than 40 years old, but has been owned by Sonny McKinney the last year. “I ate here all the time growing up, and the food was great,” he said. “But over the years, it really became run down. I had the chance to buy it, it’s my dream, and I just want people to enjoy what I enjoyed growing up.” Darren had the rib-eye. I had prime rib. It was the best prime rib I’ve ever eaten. It was served with baked potato, salad, and soup. I was going to try the bread pudding, but just couldn’t do it. Sonny and The Rib-Eye Steakhouse (they also serve seafood and other items), definitely will be on my list of stops the next time I head back to Arkansas, which could be soon—just as soon as the leaves begin transformation into their brilliant colors.
By Chuck Kurtz