A new trail and a new race for the Ozarks and Ouachitas.
By Leslie Newell Peacock
Thanks to a schoolteacher from Russellville, bike-packers and other cyclists can follow a 1,200-mile trail that will take them from the Ozarks to the Ouachitas. The first official ride on what is now called the High Country Trail is set for June 8, and the schoolteacher — cyclist Chuck Campbell — and his River Valley chapter of the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists are sponsors.
It was in 2015 in Banff, Alberta, Canada, that the High Country trail idea was born. Campbell and cycling buddy Mike Dicken were eating pizza and looking at route maps created by Adventure Cycling before they were to set off on the rugged Tour Divide, from Canada to New Mexico.
“It looked to me like Arkansas was the only state that didn’t have any miles in the Adventure Cycling map system,” Campbell said. (Though it turned out he was wrong about that. At the time, there was no map for routes in Maryland.)
He and Dicken talked for days about the idea as they pedaled the Continental Divide, and when Campbell returned to Arkansas he called Montana-based Adventure Cycling and spoke to Carla Majernik, director of maps and routing, about the idea.
“Her response was warmer than I thought it would be,” Campbell said. She told him to mark out his idea on a highway map and send it to Adventure Cycling. He did, and the nonprofit told him “they thought this looks cool. It might be a good idea.”
Then one of Adventure Cycling’s employees who was on his way to Mississippi anyway decided to make a stop and ride part of the route. “He was just sold immediately,” Campbell said.
After the trip, Adventure Cycling put the ride on its blog to see if there was interest in the Ozarks/Ouachita route “and it blew up. Next thing I know these people are trying to friend me on Facebook,” Campbell said. One was Joe Jacobs, marketing manager for Arkansas State Parks. Another was Gary Vernon of Bella Vista, a program officer with the Walton Family Foundation, which is known for its development of bike trails in Northwest Arkansas.
The Walton Foundation quickly got interested in the idea and made a grant of $100,000 to the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation to hire someone to do the mapping for Adventure Cycling. That someone was Campbell.
Campbell, who teaches environmental science at Russellville High School, said Adventure Cycling was apologetic about the pay. “I thought, crap, they’re going to pay me?”
Equipped with a GPS unit that also recorded his comments on route landmarks and dropped a pin to mark the landmark, Campbell spent the summers of 2017 and 2018 driving the route, which follows mostly gravel roads.
Campbell completed 400 miles in 2017. At Majernik’s suggestion, he added in a cutoff loop from Dardanelle over Petit Jean Mountain to Conway. There are two more loops, both single track, west of Hot Springs.
The route does follow paved roads in places — up and over Petit Jean, for one — but Campbell said “we only have two places that have a high pucker factor”: the bridge at Dardanelle and a narrow section on the road around Roland.
Adventure Cycling will launch the High Country Trail map, which is a two-map set, on May 1. Maps may be purchased in waterproof paper form or through an app. The nonprofit — which also publishes Adventure Cycling magazine — will also sell GPS information for cyclists’ Garmin devices, Alex Strickland of Adventure Cycling said. Ellee Thalheimer of Portland, Ore., a freelance writer and the daughter of Chainwheel owner Bruce Thalheimer, will ride and write about the trail this summer for Adventure Cycling.
The first High Country Race will kick off at sunrise June 8 at the Clinton Presidential Center Park Bridge and take riders on a 1,000-mile ride north to the state’s border with Missouri and back to in Little Rock. Get more information at facebook.com/ArHCrace.