Biking, Camping and Climbing in the Ozark High-Country

I’ve raced my bike for years. From local road races to regional criterium series and, most recently, in an epic challenge of stamina, fortitude, and stupidity called the Rule of 3.  But like many of us, during the Covid19 pandemic I found myself dabbling in new hobbies; commence my new love for combining biking and camping!

Bike in the Ozarks

Bikepacking in Northwest Arkansas has recently gained some national recognition after the state created the ‘Arkansas High-Country Route’ and put on an event covering over 1,000 miles of rugged terrain.  I don’t think I’m crazy enough to attempt the full route, but several people have completed it: the most famous person being Ted King (an ex-European professional) who set the record time in 2020. 

With all of the hype around overnight bike trips in Bentonville and in the surrounding suburbs of Northwest Arkansas, I desired to try it out for myself.

The Ozark Biking Route

With little to no experience bikepacking or bike touring, I decided to design a route that I felt was achievable for my legs and that gave me the ability to have some friends support me—or at least rendezvous along the way and have a few beers with me. 

I set out Saturday mid-morning for the first section of the route.  My goal was to ride eastward towards the famous Buffalo National River.

On previous adventure gravel rides I had run into this area called McIlroy Land Conservation. I’m not sure who upkeeps the area, but they have these great little groomed camp spots, and it is generally deserted because it is pretty much in the middle of nowhere!  The route to get there takes you along the Razorback greenway from Bentonville to Rogers before jumping on scenic highway 12 that goes across Beaver Lake. 

Biking in the Ozarks

After catching glimpses of the Lake as I meandered around corners of the route, I ran into the lumpy part of the terrain.  As if the hills weren’t enough to test my legs, I added some gravel sections in order to bypass the heavily trafficked areas.

Ozarks Cyclist drinking Sierra Nevada beer

McIlroy to Ponca

The next morning I was off early because I wanted to meet my buddy Josh who had some food and beer that he had been packmuleing for my adventure (beer courtesy of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.).  We rendezvoused at the town of Kingston (not Jamaica), Arkansas.  This is where the road riding began along my route towards Ponca. 

Kingston Arkansas Sign

Eventually I made it into Horseshoe Canyon Ranch, our destination for the night and the end of my bike packing expedition. Horseshoe Canyon is home to the state, and some of the nation’s, best rock climbing.  The people at Horseshoe will allow you to camp for $5.00 per person in a dispersed fashion.  The place was crowded, but we found a little section that overlooked the canyon. My brother and sister-in-law even made it out during the late afternoon to camp for the evening and tell stories. 

Biking at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch

That evening we moseyed around the canyon watching skilled climbers lead climb and boulder the different crags and faces. My buddy Josh, an avid climber, forgot his boulder shoes and had some FOMO while chatting with the other climbers. 

Rock Climbing at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch

Because I was trying to pack lightly for the trip, I was ill-prepared for the camping portion of the evening, and I had to sleep on a blanket instead of a mattress pad. Huge thanks to my sister-in-law Abbie for letting me borrow her extra pair of leggings, otherwise I would have frozen my ass off! 

In conclusion, after a great weekend bikepacking, I now understand what the hype is about in NWA; next time I’ll be more prepared—I now know why all those panniers and frame bags make sense! 

Drinking Sierra Nevada Brewing at camp

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