WORDS Bob Robinson
IMAGES Bob Robinson and Arkansas Department of Tourism

Apr 1, 2024 | Featured, Life, Travel

April is finally here. We made it through another cold winter, and it’s time to get out and enjoy the great outdoors! An excellent way to explore the outdoors is perched on a bicycle seat.

The River Valley offers a wealth of scenic byways for road bikers to cruise through the rural countryside. The area also provides several dirt trail options for mountain bikers to explore. But did you know there is a third type of biking that attracts a large following? It’s called gravel grinding – bicycling on gravel roads.

Gravel grinding is the fastest-growing bicycle market in the United States. This environment appeals to cyclists intimidated by sharing the highway with drivers who may be distracted. It also attracts bikers not fond of weaving in and around trees on narrow rocky dirt pathways.

Gravel grinding is a marriage of both genres. Roadies can grind out the mega mileage they enjoy but under much safer conditions. At the same time, mountain bikers can ride in the natural wooded environment they enjoy on single-track jaunts through the forest, minus the technical obstacles.

With the abundance of forest roads within the Ozark National Forest to our north and the Ouachita National Forest to the south, the River Valley is rich with gravel grinding routes from which to choose.

White Rock – Shores Lake
The White Rock/Shores Lake area is one of my favorite places to plot a gravel-grinder bicycle adventure. The options are unlimited, and the inescapable extended climbs to crest the rolling hills provide all the challenges a cyclist could want.

Fort Chaffee
Area bicyclists can add even more options to the mix with the miles of gravel roads available within the 44,000 acres of Fort Chaffee. You can ride for hours on these well-maintained gravel roads and not encounter a motorized vehicle. As these roads route cyclists through oak forests, wooded wetlands, and past small ponds, they provide opportunities to view deer, wild hogs, and various waterfowl. It is like bicycling through a nature preserve.

Families will find it hard to beat Area 3 and 3A for an enjoyable bicycle outing. This area is located east of Barling on Highway 22 across from 1st Avenue, the main entrance to Fort Chaffee. Keith Brannon and children Caelan, McKenna, and Paxton use the area training for their National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) racing season.

These designated sections include miles of easy riding on mostly flat, packed dirt roads. The route takes cyclists past several ponds that offer almost guaranteed waterfowl viewing opportunities. As you pedal leisurely through dense backwoods forests and past open meadows, the road eventually parallels the banks of the Arkansas River. The backwaters created here by the numerous levees are a favorite stop for cranes, egrets, and other winged visitors. Be sure to watch high in the trees for the fuzzy heads of eaglets peeking out of the bald eagles’ nests. Preplanning is required as this area is an active Arkansas Army National Guard Training Facility. There are rules and regulations to follow, plus required use permits. You can visit fortchaffee.recaccess.com for more information and links to apply for inexpensive user permits. It is well worth the effort.

If cycling sounds like something you are interested in but want to try out before investing in a bicycle, stop by Champion Cycling, located at 5500 Massard Road in Fort Smith. For a minimal rental fee, Eugene Kersh and his crew will outfit the entire family with the equipment needed for a trial ride.

If you like to push your physical limits, Arkansas has many gravel grinding opportunities that will challenge even the most competitive athlete.

How about a combination of gravel and highway roads that connect the Ozark and the Ouachita Mountain Ranges for a 1,100+ mile loop? It’s called the Arkansas High Country Route (AHCR). The route’s designer, Chuck Campbell, describes the AHCR as “That route don’t go nowhere, it just runs around everywhere.” And, if merely riding the AHCR isn’t challenging enough, sign up for the Arkansas High Country Race to complete the route non-stop and self-supported.

If gravel grinding does not sound like your cup of tea, you should reconsider for no reason other than to take a break from your routine. If you own a bicycle, you won’t have to purchase another one to enjoy, as cruiser bikes, mountain bikes, touring bikes, and even road bikes can be used for gravel grinding, some with minor adjustments.

Visit gravelmap.com/browse/Arkansas to help plan your gravel grinding adventure.

Do South Magazine

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