An unlikely place for one of America's scenic drives is far from the Rockies or either coast. Located in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, the Talimena Scenic Byway is surprisingly mountainous and is a favorite drive for motorists and motorcycles on cross country trips.
This doesn't look like a typical scene from the Midwest, does it?
Day: 28

The further I'm going on this road trip, the further I come from all my previous perceptions of the Midwest and South. Oklahoma and Arkansas seem to have significant traces of both regional cultures and I don't know if I'd fully place either state in a single category. The Ozarks and Ouachitas are mountain ranges that run from eastern Oklahoma through northern Arkansas, southern Missouri and just briefly touch southwestern Kansas. Really, the area is its own region and functions somewhat like a state with similar heritage and culture. It is similar to how the Pacific Northwest is a multistate area with shared background and culture. I've enjoyed this part of the country immensely because both the topography and the people are much different than the way they are commonly perceived.

The Talimena Scenic Byway is a great way to experience the area. It runs along a massive and narrow ridgeline extending from the town of Mena, Arkansas to Talihina, Oklahoma and rides much like the Blue Ridge Parkway. Although not nearly the elevation of its eastern counterpart, the byway has a similar design with plenty of roadside pullouts with sweeping vistas and hiking trails.
Plenty of places for a picnic or campsite
The ridges and valleys of this area give it an Appalachian feel
Its so nice to be in an affordable part of the country for a road trip. I filled my tank in Arkansas for something like $40 and headed up the byway from there. I was actually the only person in a car on the whole road- most everyone else was on motorcycles. I could see how this could be a thrilling ride for those used to driving across the surrounding flatlands.

It was good to start at one of the visitors centers. There's a visitors center just outside of Mena known as the East End Visitors Center which was very helpful. (The West End Visitors center appeared to be closed). I didn't realize that there are over two dozen vistas just off the highway that serve as photography moments and tell the history of the area.

I decided to spend a leisurely day just visiting the vistas and hiking around the few side trails when they were available. Sure I would have preferred some more epic singletrack or hiking but I was contented with a more relaxing pace. This isn't to say outdoor adventure isn't available- right at the beginning is the Earthquake Ridge Trail too which is a somewhat maintained mountain biking trail. The long-distance Ouachita Trail also runs across the ridgeline and parallels the road. Parts of it were a little overgrown but its an up and coming trail. The area isn't as well developed for mountain biking as nearby Hot Springs and Mt Ida but there's potential.

A foggy morning below made for some great pictures

Yes, this is Oklahoma
The highest point on the drive is Rich Mountain which is nearly as tall as the highest mountain in Arkansas. A road leads right to the top and the historical fire lookout. You can no longer get to the top but there are some interpretive sites and buildings. The road continues on through Queen Wilhelmina State Park featuring a quaint lodge and ample camping. Like the Mt Magazine Lodge nearby, the Queen Wilhelmina Lodge is quite chic. There's also a couple of well-established hiking trails. I wished I had stayed here overnight!

Shortly after the state park, the highway crosses in to Oklahoma and the vistas are just as glorious. Horse Thief Springs supposedly has mountain biking trails but I couldn't find them. I came across another great campsite which served as my lunch break. Winding Stair Campground doesn't have the amenities that Queen Wilhelmina does but it is secluded enough to feel like a mountain retreat. Some of my best pictures were from those vistas.
Near Winding Stair
Things begin to taper off as the road gets closer to Talihina but I couldn't leave without visiting another famous Oklahoma destination- Robbers Cave State Park. I headed down into the valley and enjoyed the view of the ridgeline I just crossed by car. I certainly never call Oklahoma or Arkansas "fly-over" states again!

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