Length: About 60 miles.
When to go: Year-round.
Words to the wise: Watch out for icy road conditions in winter.
Visitor centers: Talihina, OK (west end) and Mena, AR (east end).
Nearby attractions: Broken Bow Lake, a 14,200-acre recreation area, Broken Bow, OK; Hot Springs National Park, Hot Springs, AR; Fort Smith National Historic Site, Fort Smith, AR.
Further information: Ouachita National Forest, P.O. Box 1270, Hot Springs, AR 71902; tel. 501-321-5202, www.fs.fed.us/ oonf/ouachita/.
1. Ouachita National Forest
Traveling east on Rte. 271, you’ll soon reach Talimena State Park, just inside the boundary of Ouachita National Forest. Just ahead, where Rte. 271 intersects with Rte. 1, lies the West End Visitor Center, where you can get a map and information on overlooks and recreation areas along the drive. The Talimena Scenic Byway officially begins here, then continues all the way into Arkansas.
Some 480 miles of superb hiking trails crisscross the forest, including the well-known Ouachita National Recreation Trail, which begins at Talimena State Park and runs 225 miles to the outskirts of Little Rock, Arkansas. Paralleling parts of the drive’s route, the trail leads backpackers through some of the roughest, wildest, loneliest terrain to be found in the region. Ouachita National Forest can also be explored by canoe. Float trips along the Ouachita River begin at two sites: Pencil Bluff and Mt. Ida.
2. Winding Stair Mountain
As Rte. 1 climbs the thick, forest-covered flank of Winding Stair Mountain to the ridge top, it encounters not only a landscape of steep-sided mountains and compact valleys but also evidence of one of the greatest cataclysms ever to occur in North America. More than 200 million years ago, a continental plate “crashed” into the southern edge of this region, sliding beneath it with such force that the earth’s surface was folded into long, narrow ridges. As a result, the Ouachita Mountains (one of the oldest landmasses in America) stretch east to west—unusual for this continent, where nearly all other ranges run north to south.
Despite its abundance of lovely scenery and varied attractions, Ouachita National Forest remains a relatively well-kept secret. The oldest (established in 1907) and largest (1.6 million acres) national forest in the South, Ouachita is home to white-tailed deer, bobcats, foxes, and a host of birds, including hooded warblers, great horned owls, and—in winter—golden eagles. In the 1930s the forest was a candidate for national park status, but political issues overruled the region’s unquestionable beauty.
3. Horsethief Spring
In the late 1800s bold entrepreneurs operated a thriving—if illegal —business in these parts. They smuggled stolen horses across the Ouachitas to Texas. So blatant were their activities that the route became known as Horsethief Trail; a watering hole where the bandits often camped—now a grassy picnic site—was even dubbed Horsethief Spring. The Anti-Horse-Thief Association, organized at nearby Heavener, put an end to these shenanigans shortly after the turn of the century. Nowadays, the ones drawn to this spot are horse lovers. At Cedar Lake Recreation Area, just north of Horsethief Spring, an equestrian camp adjoins a trail system that extends more than 200 miles through the countryside.
4. Robert S. Kerr Arboretum
Sandy soil underlying the Ouachitas favors the growth of pine forests, making this area one of the country’s leading sources of timber. While shortleaf pine is common, hardwoods—including oak, maple, and elm—are also present in these parts in large numbers, providing splashes of red-orange that, in autumn, blaze in bright contrast to the subdued, emerald evergreens. In early spring pink blossoms of redbud, white dogwood blooms, and pale yellow buckeye flowers create lacy swirls of color in the woods, delighting the eye.
For an informative introduction to the many types of trees, shrubs, and flowers that are found in the Ouachita Mountain region, visit the Robert S. Kerr Arboretum and Nature Center, where three well-marked trails focus on soil formation, vegetation, and ecology. Farther along the highway watch the ridge tops for “dwarf” forests of mature oaks, stunted to miniature size by winter’s wicked winds and ice storms and twisted by nature into bonsailike sculptures.
5. Queen Wilhelmina State Park
As the drive crosses from Oklahoma into Arkansas, the route number changes along with the state (Rte. 1 becomes Rte. 88), but the views remain as boundless as ever. A few miles beyond the Arkansas state line, 460-acre Queen Wilhelmina State Park and its mountaintop lodge come into view. Investors from the Netherlands built the original structure here in 1898 and named it in honor of their young queen, hoping she would be flattered enough to visit. Wilhelmina never came, however, and the hotel closed after only a few years.
Today’s modern facility retains the royal title and enjoys the same panoramic vistas that gave its predecessor the nickname Castle in the Sky. Along the highway near the lodge, lucky travelers might catch a glimpse of a white-tailed deer, a black bear, or one of the scores of different types of birds.
6. Rich Mountain Fire Tower
At 2,681 feet Rich Mountain is the highest peak in Ouachita National Forest. Taking advantage of this lofty location, the Forest Service erected a tall steel tower here to spot fires. Now that helicopters and other aircraft have taken over that task, the site has become a popular picnic spot. As the drive nears its endpoint at Mena, several overlooks offer vistas of the surrounding summits, which stretch toward the horizon like a billowing ocean of green.
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