Monday, July 8, 2019

Bikepacking the Arkansas High Country Northwest Loop: Day 1, Bentonville to WMA

Route Notes: You can find full details on the Arkansas High Country Route here from the excellent Adventure Cycling Association. The full shebang is 1171.8 miles, but can be broken up into three smaller loops (Northwest, Central, South), with options for singletrack on the south loop. This short series covers my trip out on the Northwest loop, which took two days and some change. 

Additional important notes:

  • 50% gravel, 50% pavement
  • Climbs and descents with grades frequently in the 17-21% range
  • ~19,000 feet total climbing in 250 miles
  • "A minimum of 37mm tires with some tread is highly recommended." - Thoughts on this later.

Day 1: Bentonville to the edge of the Wildlife Management Area, plus some bonus riding - 76 miles

I rolled into Bentonville around noon on a Monday, unloaded my bike, and popped into Phat Tire to say hi to the cool people and confirm that I really could leave my car in one of the city public lots. Say what you will about Walmart, but Bentonville looks to have become a pristine little town with tons of restaurants, bars, outdoorsy things, and people on bikes. I had zero issues with cars rolling out of town on my loaded down Salsa Cutthroat, passing Crystal Bridges art museum en route to the gravel. The loop starts with lots of gently rolling hills, on and off the pavement, past farmhouses in the countryside until hitting a Dollar General and gas station just 28 miles in. I skipped this stop as I was still loaded up with water and snacks, but it would make a great first resupply if needed.

On top of the ascent to Pea Ridge National Military Park in Benton County.
The next major point of interest was Beaver Lake. There's a general store that was closed when I rolled through (open weekends if I recall correctly), but there was also a relatively new bar on-site where they kindly let me fill up water. My picture doesn't do the suspension bridge justice. Beware as it's one vehicle at a time, and if you're a short(er) person on a bike, it's a little difficult to see all the way across to make sure you're not about to be smushed by a car.

Beaver Lake. Tempting to jump in.
Suspension bridge crossing after Beaver Lake.
Leading into Eureka I hit pavement again, and car traffic picked up, although I was always given a reasonable amount of passing space. The town looked interesting, particularly this art colony that I cruised by. Most shops were closed, but I'm told there's resupply a few miles off-route.

Eureka, Arkansas.
From here, I turned back onto gravel and started some real climbing up into and through the Wildlife Management Area. This area is beautiful, remote, and gets pretty hairy. Perhaps it was the recent storms and heavy rainful, but the combination of dry loose big gravel that was quite slippery and BIG ruts made for some very hairy descents that had me wishing like hell for my mountain bike or at least some bigger tires on my Cutthroat. By the end of this stretch I was worried I'd run out of brake pads before the end of the trip if this kept up.

Riding through part of the Wildlife Management Area
My Garmin was also intermittently losing signal, and I think this led to undercounting miles. There are campsite throughout the Wildlife Management Area - free, primitive, and usually visible but set back a ways from the forest roads. I was on the lookout for WMA campsite #12, which should have been at mile 69...but 69 miles into my ride I found myself a few miles past the end of the WMA, after going up a long ascent and hitting farmland again. After circling back and a little ways off route, I found it down County Road 1350, and it was worth the extra 7 miles of wandering around. There was a clear stream with a small waterfall, and on the other side, a cave. I decided it would be neat to sleep near the cave, and also figured I'd hear any axe murderers coming for me if they had to cross a stream to get to my bivy.

Edge of a stream in the Wilderness Management Area

I carried my stuff to the other side.

Cave, cool air, bivy, bike.

Running clothes and stream-wading.

Other cave. Pretty sure armadillos live here.

Up next: Day 2, WMA to Byrd's Adventure Center

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