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February 23, 2023 Comments Off on Drive on the wild side: Scenic drive takes travelers over mountain peaks Featured, Latest, Motorcycle

Drive on the wild side: Scenic drive takes travelers over mountain peaks

Flip Putthoff
NWA Democrat-Gazette

The queen of Arkansas’ picturesque backcountry tours may be the stunning Talimena Scenic Drive across the Ouachita Mountains.

The route climbs, dips and twists its way across the mountains for 54 miles between Mena and Talihina, Okla. Every hilltop and curve offers a new breathtaking vista with scant signs of civilization in the vast 1.8-million-acre Ouachita National Forest.

Talimena Scenic Drive in Arkansas is along Arkansas 88. As travelers drive west across the state line, it turns into Oklahoma 1 just beyond Queen Wilhelmena State Park located 14 miles west of Mena. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

The Arkansas portion begins in downtown Mena and along Arkansas 88. Driving west, travelers cross the state line and the highway becomes Oklahoma 1. Most of the route is along this Oklahoma highway. Talimena Scenic Drive ends at Oklahoma 259 north of Talihina, Okla.

It’s wise to drive the route with plenty of fuel in the tank. There are no towns, no stores nor gas stations the whole way. The 54-miles is actually a 108-mile round trip if travelers end up back where they start.

There is plenty of fuel available in Mena and some in Talihina. All travelers see in between are unspoiled views. What little civilization explorers see is in the distance on faraway horizons.

The ridges of the Ouachitas run mainly east-west with plenty of sharp curves and steep hills to navigate.

Pull-off areas are situated every few miles. Some offer long views looking north. Other stops face the south. Views of pine and hardwood forests unfold along each mile. Some stops have picnic tables.

The rare maple-leaf oak tree is found at only four places worldwide and all are in the Ouachita Mountains, according to U.S. Forest Service information. The National Forest is one of the largest in the southern United States. It was designated through an executive order by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907.

Most pull-off spots have information placards that tell the geology and history of the area. Tom Mowry and his wife, Karen, of Nob Hill pause Jan. 17 2023 during a drive along the scenic drive. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

Winter is a fine time to travel this scenic drive, weather permitting. Large signs at each end warn motorists that snow and ice removal may be minimal along the Talimena Scenic Drive. One group who drove the route in mild weather and dry roads on Jan. 17 reported seeing only five other cars the whole 54 miles.

Fourteen miles west of Mena, the scenic drive comes to lovely Queen Wilhelmina State Park. The park’s spacious lodge has 40 comfortable well kept rooms and 41 campsites at the top of Rich Mountain. It’s Arkansas’ second highest peak at elevation 2,681 feet above sea level. Mount Magazine is highest at elevation 2,753 feet.

The original lodge was built in 1898 by the Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Gulf Railroad to house rail passengers, says the park’s brochure. Most of the railroad investors were Dutch, so the lodge was named to honor Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands who was crowned in 1898. Investors hoped the queen would visit the lodge, but she never did.

The park is truly the only civilization, other than asphalt, along the entire Talimena Scenic Drive. From Queen Wilhelmina State Park, the drive continues 40 more miles west.

One option is to return to Mena on the same route and enjoy the scenery traveling in the optional direction. Or follow more level and less curvy U.S. 270 back to Mena.