Are you looking for a new place to ride within a day’s drive of Chicago? If your answer is yes, check out the 1.6-million acres of the Ouachita (pronounced Wash-a-taw) National Forest. Located just west of Hot Springs, Ark., the forest’s 600-miles of trails are an ideal place to escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Great singletrack, big wildlife (bears may be seen), scenic rivers and the opportunity to explore one of the best-kept secrets in fat tire riding are just some of the reasons to visit. “Arkansas is known for its laid back lifestyle, friendly people and great riding,” says Jann Hubbard, owner of Parkside Cycle in Hot Springs (501/623-6188).
Ouachita National Forest, located just west of Hot Springs, Ark., has 600 miles of trails including some challenging ones through the Ouachita Mountains.
Since the South is known for its hospitality, it’s best to rent a cabin at Ouachita River Haven Resort (870/ 326-4941); this 10-acre resort caters to mountain bikers. The owners will even give you a shuttle up to the 38-mile Womble Trail (one of the best rides in the South). And if you’re looking to sleep under the stars, campsites go for $4.50 per person, per night. Anglers can try their luck at hooking dinner (bass are abundant here), and the resort rents canoes for those looking to explore the waters of the Ouachita. Check out the resort’s website for further information: www.ouachitahaven.com.
The mountains, which range from 600 feet to 2,600 feet, may be small when compared to Western ranges but don’t be deceived; the trails are incredible and I found them to be a bigger challenge than the riding around Moab, Utah. Stream crossings, gnarly rock and roots and the constant ups and downs are exhausting. But the endorphin rush is worth it, not too mention the great views of the Ouachita Range.
Here are some of the best: the 5.5-mile Earthquake Ridge Trail (fast singletrack); the 58-mile Ouachita River Trail (fat tire nirvana); the 60-mile Wolf Pen Gap Trail (keep an eye out for ATVers) and the 7.5-mile Round Top Trail (a grueling, uphill loop). And if you think you’re in shape, make it a point to be on hand for the annual 100-mile Ouachita Challenge, held each year over the Thanksgiving weekend; the event is a combination of pain, pleasure and primo singletrack.
While riding, you may encounter two unwelcome trail mates: ticks and chiggers. Use plenty of bug spray and hopefully the fall and winter’s cool temperatures will keep them at bay. And if you enjoy having a beer after a long days’ ride, you better stock up on it. Once you get past Hot Springs, many of the counties are dry (translation: Bible belt). Brew lovers may want to make a stop at the Beer Depot in Crystal River (look for their warning sign). Local rider, Mike Kelsey said: “If we could get rid of the bugs and bring in the beer this place would be like Southern Cal!”
The area not only offers great singletrack, but also a lot of wildlife, and scenic rivers.
A Nice Day Trip
Spend a day in Hot Springs and enjoy a Southern institution. Ride the 7.5-mile Attila the Hun Trail. It’s a blast and afterwards you can head over to Bathhouse Row for a rub and a soak. There is no better way to get rid of that lactic acid. But when you’re through, no trip to Hot Spring would be complete without stopping at McClard’s for some barbecue (501/ 624-9586). Are you looking for the ultimate breakfast? If so, make it a point to stop at Gilligan’s Cafe (501/ 525-3919). Omelet lovers will not be disappointed in the “Razorback,” it will make you holler: “SOOO-EEEEE, Go Hogs!”
Another lodging option is to stay at the Queen Wilhelmina State Park (800/ 264-2477). Located on the state’s second highest mountain, the park’s lodge was recently renovated. Located along the Talimena Scenic Highway, the views are incredible: sweeping, panoramic and scenic are just some of the terms to describe it.
Don’t forget to bring a camera. And make sure you ride the pavement; the climbs are a killer, but the downhills more than make up for the burn. A two-car shuttle is highly recommended.
The Ouachita National Forest ends in Oklahoma, and there is some great riding here. A 30-minute trip from Mena, Ark., deposits one at the Cedar Lake Trailhead. In addition to its beautiful scenery, mountain bikers will find an excellent 25 miles of singletrack. And after the ride, you can cool down with a swim.
In addition to its mountain biking, the Ouachita National Forest also is a dream for lovers of the outdoors in general. Great hiking, fishing, canoeing and horseback riding are all found here. The area also is home to the biggest crystal mines in the world, and diamond mines are also nearby. And there’s no better way to end the day sitting on your cabin’s porch, reading a book, listening to the water of the Ouachita River and watching the sunset over the Ouachita Mountains.
Making The Trip
Check out the Ouachita Mountain Bike Adventure website at www.bikearkansas.com. The site is full of useful information regarding trail descriptions, distance and directions. The Ouachita National Forest has some great trail maps and best of all they’re free. Contact them at Ouachita National Forest, Federal Building, PO Box 1270, 100 Reserve Street, Hot Springs, AR 71902, 501/ 321-5202, www.fs.fed.us/oonf/ouachita.html; Arkansas State Parks, www.arkansas.com.