Riding through the Ozarks

Credit: Jack Popowich
"Y'all gonna love this one here," proclaimed our Ozark Mountain bike tour guide, Dave Renko, as we pile out of the truck and start to unload the bikes.

"It's a screamer," added Stan Johnson, another Fayetteville, Ark., mountain bike freak.

The trail they refer to is the Mountain Creeks Falls Trail, located in the northwest corner of Arkansas, an area ripe with networks of singletrack, doubletrack, and four-wheel-drive roads. I came to explore it on fat tires, and captured the road less traveled over a five-day span.

Moments later, I found myself tearing around a corner, gripped. Just ahead lay a ledge drop, followed directly by 20 yards of fist-sized rubble.

Unlike most rides, this one began with a long and hairy descent. The climb came later. Toward the bottom of the descent, my hands and forearms burned from trying to keep up, yet the only remnant of Dave and Stan is a cloud of settling dust. Trees whiz by in my peripheral vision until I reached a set of switchbacks.

Beaten down by the elements

The Ozarks are one of the oldest mountain ranges in the country, dating back millions of years. Valley floors are at about 1,200 feet and the highest peaks rise to 2,800 feet. Beautiful, thick hardwood forests of beechwood, hickory, oak, maple, and dogwood blanket the landscape, and spring creeks wend their way down to bigger waterways like the Buffalo and White rivers. After a good hard rain, dried-up creek beds spring to life and feed countless tiny waterfalls.

A half-dozen puckering sections later, the trail finally mellows and I see them waiting for me beside one of these beautiful creeks.

"I thought you'd like it down here," Dave said with a smile as he shouldered his bike and started downstream. I couldn't have found a better person to show me the area.

Working mostly weekends, Dave plays a mean sax for The Cate Brothers Band, and on weekdays he acts as president for the Ozark Off-road Cyclist Club, building trails, organizing races, leading rides, and promoting mountain biking in the region. He also does a phenomenal amount of trail research — what most of us just call "riding."

Following the leader

The stream flows over one limestone shelf after another and then plummets 25 feet into an eerie green pool. Over the next four days, this same scenario replayed itself: gripping descents, pounding climbs, and a mountain culture vibe that feels like home.

Small towns rich with mountain folklore from the days of mining and logging dot the land. Eureka Springs, nicknamed "little Switzerland," is most notable for its old-world charm. Shanties and buildings defy steep terrain, teetering on the edges of cliffs, stilted.

Recently, Eureka Springs has become a funky town with unique shops, old hotels, and resident artists. The town also hosted the Ozark's first Fat Tire Festival earlier this summer.

There is an easy way about the people in this neck of the woods: real friendly-like, and willing to go out of their way to give a helping hand.

With undeniable beauty and hospitality, unique towns, endless trail and road systems, and developing organizations like the Ozark Off-road Cyclists Club, the Ozarks are a road tripper's prize.

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