The Ouachita (wah-shi-tah) River runs through it: the largest mountain chain between the Rockies and the Appalachians. The gentle folds of the ancient Ouachita Mountains offer some of the best motorcycle roads in America. We’re based in a place that Native Americans called the Valley of the Vapors, so named because of the steam produced by thermal springs bubbling up at over 140 degrees Fahrenheit. I’m eager to see what we’ll discover during the next four days on our adventures from Bill Clinton’s hometown.
Loop 1: The Legend of Little John
Cool temperatures and an overcast sky greet us on Saturday morning as we depart Hot Springs to explore the meandering backroads that thread through Arkansas’s Ouachita Mountains. Bruce is riding the red Kawasaki KLR, and I’m on my trusty orange KTM 990 Adventure. Our journey begins with a northern trajectory along Arkansas Scenic 7, which is probably the most famous touring road in the state. We follow writhing black tarmac up and over one ridge after another. After a suitable warm-up period on sweepers, though, Route 7’s curves become more intense. We’re leaning hard through a series of tight hairpins, rapidly climbing and descending ever-steeper elevation changes.
The two-wheeled fun continues on Route 27, which leads us into the Arkansas River Valley region. Mesa-like mountain ridges rise high above the expansive valley floor. Route 154 claws its way up Petit Jean Mountain, where we arrive in a land encompassed by an enduring 18th-century legend that originated when the French were exploring this area. Petit Jean State Park is dedicated to the remarkable journey and plight of a young Parisian girl. When Adrienne Dumont learned that her fiancé was leaving to explore the New World, she disguised herself as a cabin boy and sailed on the same ship as her betrothed. Her disguise was extraordinarily effective; she was dubbed Petit Jean (French for Little John) by the crew.
After arriving on this same mountaintop that we’re riding over today, she fell desperately ill, and her true identity was quickly discovered. She begged her fiancé for forgiveness and asked to be buried at a beautiful spot overlooking the river below. As darkness descended on the mountain, she passed away. Many years later, a mound of earth was found that was thought to be Petit Jean’s grave on the mountain named in her honor.
Motorcycle & Gear
2009 KTM 990 Adventure
Standing atop a high bluff, not far from the grave of Petit Jean, we look out upon a windswept vista. The Arkansas River meanders close to the bottom of the mountain. The Ozark Mountains, which appear as ghostly silhouettes across the valley, add to the expansive view. It’s easy to understand the allure of this special vantage point in Petit Jean State Park. To the east, Route 154 cuts a majestic path across the verdant green valley; it beckons us to follow it, and we do.
We stop to refuel in Oppelo and encounter a man and his daughter in a vintage Chevy pickup parked on the roadside near us. “Junk Yard Dog Classics” is emblazoned on the vehicle’s door. Bruce strikes up a conversation with the cherub-faced man dressed in overalls. We learn his hobby is restoring vintage vehicles. He and his daughter are on their way to check out a Model A Ford as a possible future project. We wish them a pleasant afternoon and make our way south back to Hot Springs.
Loop 2: North to Nebo
I’m awakened Sunday morning by a cacophony of thunder and lightning, accentuated by the steady drum of intense rainfall peppering the hotel room’s windows. The weather radar map on my smart phone indicates that the storm should move through town in the next hour or so. The enthralling aural resonance of the storm soon has me back in a state of blissful slumber.
It’s still misting rain when we finally disembark from Hot Springs at midmorning. Our first stop is Blakely Mountain Dam, which encumbers the Ouachita River to form Lake Ouachita. It is the largest, and probably the most pristine, lake that resides solely within the borders of Arkansas. Lake Ouachita is renowned for its excellent fishing and recreational boating pleasures.
Heading north on Route 27, we’re in for another Arkansas thrill ride. We streak up and over more mountain ridges, but slow to a more prudent pace around the ubiquitous blind curves that also happen to be wet today. Pastoral mountain scenery abounds along our path. Roads like this make you want to ride them twice: once to enjoy the thrill of a rapid pace, and once again to enjoy the scenery at a more moderate speed.
By afternoon, our spirits are lifted by drying roads and clearing skies on our way to one of Arkansas’s premiere motorcycling destinations. Mount Nebo rises 1,350 feet above the Arkansas River Valley. It treats visitors to commanding views of Lake Dardanelle, the Arkansas River, and the surrounding mountain ridges. But one of the enticing features of a Mount Nebo destination is the road getting there. The later part of Route 155, as depicted on a road map, looks a lot like the jagged line on a monitor of a patient experiencing heart palpitations. In fact, zooming up this road at a break-neck pace just might trigger heart palpitations!
Arriving at the summit of Mount Nebo, we’re not only still in one piece, but also have slightly elevated heart rates. This mountain, with its commanding views of the surrounding topography, is also a favorite launching spot for pilots of hang gliders. Thermals racing up the steep-sided mountain carry the gliders like eagles, soaring across the patchwork quilt of farmland far below.
In Dardanelle, a busy port on the Arkansas River, we catch Route 7 south for our ride back to the Valley of Vapors. I’m always pleasantly surprised when I ride a familiar route in the opposite direction and it feels like a new experience. Route 7 is no exception; we enjoy the same twisty tarmac as yesterday, but it feels completely different. Another splendid day of touring in the Natural State is coming to a close, and I’m already anticipating a scrumptious dinner.