In a bygone era, Hot Springs was a crooked place. This past fall we lit out for those storied hills to prove that it still is.
Men and women soothe their rheumatoid arthritis in the carbonated, pressure-heated springs seeping from the deep cavern of the mountains. They relax in a resort on Hot Spring Mountain, in the Zig Zag Mountains of the Ouachita Range, just below the Ozarks. But, regardless of the locale, it isn't all Bible-Belt recreation here. Upon a time, two dark birds, Al Capone and Baby Face Nelson, flew south to soak in the geothermal bathhouses and scheme in the steam with their hard-bitten cronies. Horses raced, money changed hands, and pretty women danced, cavorted, and turned a few tricks. Then the perfect getaway for the corrupt, Vegas before Vegas, Hot Springs was a deliciously crooked place.
Today, it's arguably the oldest National Park in the system (a Reservation was established by Congress in 1832 to protect the springs, long before Yellowstone), and flanked conveniently by a good-sized town. The bathhouses are still resort destinations - nearly two million visit each year and Lake Ouachita regularly summons summer vacationers mainly from Dallas, Little Rock, St. Louis, and Memphis. The town pulses with window-shopping foot traffic along the storefronts on Central Avenue, only two blocks and a stoplight from the National Park entrance. Some of the old bathhouses are restored to their former glory, minus the mobsters of course. Comparatively safe and sedate, but even so, the Hot Springs area is still a powerfully crooked place - as in steep, winding, and sweeping - chock full of great motorcycle roads in every variety. A dazzling array in fact.
Leaf One: North By Northwest
Scenic Byway Seven is known as one of the most beautiful fall drives in the United States. It's even better on a motorcycle. From Hot Springs north, "Seven" climbs into the Ouachita National Forest like a twisted ribbon and slips up through the rocky terrain and remote woods of the Ouachita Mountains.
The sun is shining, the colors of the trees have burst forth, and the temperature is a cool but comfortable 60 degrees. Just over the Fourche Lafave River, the curves tighten, and the first scrapings of the BMW R1150RS's foot-pegs startle me. After a quick start, I remember that it's only the sound of a nice bike on a good road and a mischievous grin spreads as I begin to push the R toward her limits. Christian rides another Beemer, a K1200RS. "Seven" is one of those roads that appeal to push-the-envelope urgings because the curves are so relentless. One after another they come and my confidence builds as I concentrate on hitting the perfect line in each one.
In Ola, the curves disappear and we have to put up with the traffic and stoplights of the Dardanelle and Russelville corridor. This short interval, like halftime, is over when "Seven" begins to twist through the hills again all the way to Pelsor. This second half has wider, gentler sweepers that allow one to open up the throttle a bit more. In Pelsor, we turn east onto State Highway 16.
Generally, the southern Ozarks run along the latitude lines and roads north and south have a lot more up and down action in them. SH 16, on the other hand, runs east to west, and is more of a ridgeline road, but it's just as curvy. It offers better views than "Seven," and with the vibrant reds and oranges of Ouachita National Forest glowing from the valleys and hillsides, we've found a very nice back road indeed.
SH 16 presents one big disadvantage though - it's periodically chip-sealed. This constitutes a sticky tar laden with gravel recently slapped on top of the damaged asphalt to fill in the ruts. A good portion of that gravel doesn't seat snugly in the composition and waits for us on the road. Fortunately, the scree disappears by the time we reach Ben Hur, and we begin trusting the road again. This isn't a moment too soon because the remote stretch of road between Ben Hur and Clinton twists and turns in short, quick curves along the ridgeline. I'm never higher than fourth gear, mostly in third, and not even holding anything back.
The final phase of leaf one is SH 9 from Choctaw, 71 miles south to Crows. The first half of this road is a welcome break of straight-shot pavement through the Arkansas countryside, and after lunch I'm happy to take it easy for a while. But I can't rest for long. Just south of Morrilton, as SH 9 flirts with the Ouachita National Forest boundary, the road produces several big, wide sweepers that are an absolute delight.
It's a simple leaf, only three major roads, and leaves an hour or two in the day for exploring Hot Springs. But don't be deceived by simplicity - these three roads serve up curve after curve through gorgeous Arkansas countryside.
Leaf Two: West by Northwest
It's a gray morning in the western half of Arkansas, but the temperature is comfortable, around 65 degrees, and there is no rain. Today's leg will be a long one, and with so many great roads in northwest Arkansas, you need a little iron in your butt to do them justice.
From Hot Springs, the ride starts again on "Seven." There is nothing better to get you excited about the day than a warm-up ride on such a prime riding road. We turn left onto SH 314, a nice, gentle, countryside cruise along the banks of the Fourche Lafave River to Onyx. On Scenic SH 27 north through a deep portion of the Ouachita National Forest, we rumble upon a sweet stretch of road. Giant sweepers, extremely long and constant in their radii, roll up the hillside as it traverses the landscape from east to west before us. Crossing the peak of the ridge, it's even more fun in descent. S-curves, linked in combinations of four or five in a row descend the range's opposite face like a water-slide. Looking ahead, I see another ridge directly in front of us, and know we get to do it again.
In Danville, we take Scenic SH 10 over to Scenic Byway 309 and Mt. Magazine, the best stretch of road on this leg of the Shamrock, and the highest point in Arkansas. Veering onto Scenic Byway 309, a caution sign reads, "steep and crooked - next 18 miles." I knew Arkansas was still crooked. The State Highway Department might as well have taped a bullhorn message, repeating the phrase, "Motorcyclists - Go Here!"
Mt. Magazine does not disappoint. It's tight, the curves are constant on the way up, and it's a good fast ride with very little traffic. From the top, after the last mile or two under a beautiful fall canopy, the view is spectacular. Blue Mountain Lake glistens like glass in the distant northwest, and the color of fall looks like a warm quilt draped over the landscape. On the northern side, the descending curves are wider, making for a comfortable ride down.
Scenic Byway 309 takes us all the way north to Ozark, the perfect place to break the tour in two for lunch. I'm always in good spirits when we find a good barbecue joint, and we hit the jackpot in Ozark. Rivertown Barbecue serves up grade-A razorback in a very quaint setting.
The term "razorback" comes from an old description of the wild Arkansas pig, or boar. They were said to be so skinny that you could use their spines to shave. I can't testify to whether that's true, but I can say that Rivertown Barbecue serves some tasty pig.