The Talimena National Scenic Byway is a 50-odd-mile route connecting Mena, AR, and Talihina, OK. It twists and turns along Rich Mountain in Arkansas, climbing from 1,100 feet in Mena to almost 2,700 feet at the summit before plunging into Oklahoma through the Winding Stair Mountains. There is so much beauty that it’s nearly impossible to experience it all in one ride. Some locals say they can take the ride for granted because they always see it. But, today, we most certainly will do nothing of the kind.
From Mena, SR 88 immediately climbs and turns to the left through trees. A cluster of homes lines both sides before a sign welcomes you to the Ouachita National Forest. Another sign warns of ice, but the third one is my favorite: “Crooked and Steep. Drive with Care.”
The crooked part starts quickly, with long curves at easy speeds. After an initial set of corners, the road straightens out, still climbing, with the forest on either side blocking the mountains. Even in the fall, the trees are full and cast zebra-striped shadows on the road. A scenic overlook appears on the right, and the proper twisties arrive. It’s tempting to cast your eyes to the spectacular vistas, but the left-right corners require your full attention and are guaranteed to put a smile on your face. There are plenty of straights ahead for sightseeing.
The Oklahoma border is some 20 miles from Mena, a few miles past Queen Wilhelmina State Park. The remaining miles on the Oklahoma side are packed with the same turns, elevation changes, and picturesque views as Arkansas. Most overlooks have a plaque with information about the region. From an 1832 military road cut through the trees connecting Fort Smith, AR, and Fort Towson, OK, to white oak trees less than 10 feet tall because of the relentless wind at the top of Rich Mountain, the area is rich with stories.
The end of the ride comes at the intersection of US 271 with a closed Park Ranger station on the left. It’s a perfect spot to catch your breath and decide which overlooks to visit on the way back. There’s no way you aren’t riding this road again. There are campsites and hiking trails to explore and picnic grounds to have lunch. Hunters can take advantage of nearby wildlife management areas, so you may hear the occasional crack of a rifle in the distance. There is even a hang glider and paraglider launch site for those who like their thrills in the air instead of on the road.
As you head back to Mena and begin the climb up SR 1, be aware of the weather. The road has no snow or ice control in the winter. It can be sunny and beautiful at the bottom of the mountain while the top is rainy, windy, and cold. Be smart and pay attention to the road conditions—there isn’t much traffic to help out in an emergency.
But for now, the weather is perfect, the sun is high in the sky, and the road beckons.
Points of Interest
Foot of the Hill Gift Shop
This quaint souvenir store in Mena, AR, is perfectly named, as it sits at the bottom of the hill that starts the Talimena Scenic Drive. It sells typical souvenirs, from shirts and hats to stickers and magnets, but be sure to ask about all of the Bigfoot paraphernalia. Not only is there an annual Bigfoot Festival not far away in Honobia, OK, but there have been several “credible” sightings in the area. Find it at 200 Grandview Heights, Mena, AR, (479) 437-3660.
Mena isn’t a big town, but there’s plenty to explore off your motorcycle. The Mena Depot Museum is an excellent place to start and it’s within walking distance of antique stores and art galleries. There aren’t a ton of local dining options, but a stand out is The Ouachitas, with their duck wings and local beers as highlights.
Queen Wilhelmina State Park
Called Arkansas’ “Castle in the Clouds,” the lodge at Queen Wilhelmina State Park is the third since its founding in 1898. Named for the queen of the Netherlands, the lodge has 40 rooms, a restaurant, and a conference room for large groups. The park includes 41 campsites, numerous hiking trails, and plenty of activities for the whole family.