When I was riding this ride, I wasn't planning on submitting an article about it. My pictures suck and therefore my submission was R-E-J-E-C-T-E-D! No hard feeling though. So, thought I'd share it here.
Favorite Ride: The Ozarks: A Midwesterner visits an alternate universe
Covering most of southern Missouri and northwestern Arkansas is the beautiful yet ill-named Ozark Mountains, which is technically not a mountain range at all, but rather a dissected plateau: a highland area that has been severely eroded so that its relief is sharp, giving a mountainous appearance, but lacking any actual geological characteristics of mountains such as faulting, active volcanoes, or a history of either. But fortunately for me, I’m not here to research a geology lesson—I’m here to ride my Suzuki SV1000S through the Ozark’s majestic landscape and glorious twisty roads.
A week-long family reunion in Branson, Missouri brought me to the region 2 days prior. Although I could have joined the rest of my family in the car to transport myself from home in Sioux Falls, South Dakota to Branson in 1 day, I opted instead to take the motorcycle over a 2 day jaunt. This would provide me with the perfect excuse to trade a half-day of family festivities for a little quality time with my motorcycle and some of the best roads in the country.
When I snuck out of the condo at 7:00 on that June morning the temperature was already in the mid-eighties. Leaving Branson, I was happy to get out of town before the traffic got too heavy in the tourism capital of the Bible-Belt. Using only a tourist map to navigate my way around the oddly shaped Table Rock Lake, I finally passed through Table Rock State Park and over the Table Rock Damn. Finally, I broke into the flat valley that cradles Highway 65, leading me on an easy 30-minute warm-up ride straight south to my starting point in Harrison, Arkansas.
For me, no motorcycle trip can begin without a stop for good coffee. A little meandering around town landed me at the Downtown Coffeehouse. In my shaky state of withdrawal, I failed to notice that, although the doors were open, the sign was lit, and the lights were on, the coffeehouse was not yet open for business. Among the scattered tables and chairs, I met the generous and knowledgeable proprietor who made me two delicious double espressos and provided some chit-chat about coffee and motorcycling.
“I need to practice using my espresso machine anyway” he said, after kindly explaining that his upcoming business—the only place in Harrison that roasts their own beans—was not due to be opened for another week. I was happy to oblige. Explaining that I was on a motorcycle, we talked about the local riders’ favorite routes, and he just so happen to recommend the exact loop I had plotted the night before: I would leave Harrison heading south on Highway 43 leading me to the towns of Compton and then Ponca. From there I could go east on Highway 74 to the town of Jasper before ending my loop by going back north to my starting point. Or, he explained, I could make the loop longer by continuing south from Ponca through the Ozark National Forest. I chose the latter.
Highway 43 is a drastic down-hill shenanigan all the way to Ponca. I was careful not to let my sense of speed be deceived by the rollercoaster-type terrain. Blind curves and “watch for elk” signs abound, further heightening my attentiveness. The quality of the pavement, however, is superb, inspiring confidence and smiles the whole way. The road is lined by heavy forestation on both sides, but for the corners where visibility is adequate, a more spirited riding pace is definitely justified. The landscape is mostly blocked from view by the heavy forestation lining either side of the road, but the occasional crests offering views of tree-tops and scattered peaks as far as the eye can see are magnificent.
Stopping in Ponca for gas, I’m surrounded by the towering peaks of the Upper Boston Mountains region of the Ozarks—the most rugged area of the entire Ozark range. Ponca resides at a modest elevation of 1,073 feet, but my ride will soon take me through some of the highest peaks of the Ozarks. The highest named summit is Turner Ward Knob, which resides at 2,448 feet. Other unnamed peaks reach upwards of 2,550 feet.
Leaving Ponca, I’m now steadily climbing my way up in elevation. Riding alongside the Buffalo River, Highway 43 turns into Highway 21. The summit of Cave Mountain is to my right displaying an elevation of 2,162 feet. As I turn eastbound onto Highway 16, I’m flanked by the summits of Lost Mountain to my left at 2,241 feet and Culbertson Point to my right at 2,087 feet. Highway 16 feels incredibly open with its relative lack of forestation compared to the previous Highways 46 and 23, but there is no less corner-carving between peaks and valleys. Moreover, its less drastic elevation changes account for greater visibility and more confidence through the corners. I’m reminded of Nick Ienatsch’s famous motorcycling article The Pace, in which he eloquently describes how to enthusiastically enjoy the art of cornering without irresponsibly encroaching on dangerous speeds.
Continuing through the Ozark National Forest, I finally reach the junction of Highways of 7, 16, and 123. I should be turning north onto 123, but I decided to first take a detour south on the scenic byway of Highway 7 to the town of Dover, Arkansas. The road is gentle and joyful, finally dialing back the intensity and giving me a chance to enjoy the stunning Ozarks. The Rotary Ann recreation site prompts me to pull over and capture some photographs. Once in Dover, its gas, water, and back up Highway 7.
Returning to my 3-way junction, my SV now takes me north on Highway 123—the famed “Arkansas Dragon,” presumably named for its little-brother relationship to the more well-known “Tail of the Dragon” in North Carolina. This 20-mile portion of the Arkansas Dragon features hairpin after hairpin lined with broken guardrails and well-used semi-truck runoff ramps—definitely not a road for the faint of heart. Once I reached my turnoff onto Highway 74, I couldn’t resist turning around and hitting 123 again.
Leading me northwest to the town of Jasper, Highway 74 continues the theme of weaving through peaks and valleys, albeit quite less drastic than my previous switchbacks on 123. Upon reaching Jasper I stopped for gas and water under the peak of the afternoon sun. For the first time on my loop, I’m reminded that I’m encroaching back toward tourist-land by the plethora of minivans, RV’s, and under-dressed “hardcore” bikers asking me how crazy I am for wearing “all that gear” in this kind of heat.
From Jasper, I go north on Highway 7 through the Henry Koen Experimental Forest, a part of the Ozark National Forest used for research of forest management and conservation techniques. The site was named for the former forest supervisor of the Ozark National Forest. After encountering the Buffalo River once again, Highway 7 exits the curvy terrain of the National Forest and makes a 5-mile B-line back to my starting place of Harrison.
To a born-and-raised east-river South Dakotan, the Ozarks feel like an alternate universe—one where straight lines were never discovered and flat plains deemed too boring to inhabit. My 4-day round trip from Sioux Falls to Branson was definitely worth the timeless 6 hours I spent in the Ozarks.
Downtown Coffee House: http://www.facebook.com/DowntownCoffeeHouse View Larger Map