Distance: 54 miles
Time: 2 hours
Season: Spring through fall. Spring bloom occurs in April and May; fall foliage peaks from mid-October to early November.
Built in the late 1960s expressly for grand views, this two-lane highway ripples over the gentle Ouachita Mountains along the border of Oklahoma and Arkansas. Evergreen and deciduous trees shoulder the road, the latter making for gorgeous floral displays in spring and brilliant color in autumn.
Catering to Choctaw Indians and cattle ranchers, Talihina (Choctaw for “iron road”) was founded by missionaries in the late 1880s, when the Frisco Railway came through the mountains. The byway’s name derives from a combination of the towns that form its end points—Talihina and Mena. It lies within the 1.7-million-acre Ouachita National Forest, the South’s oldest (established in 1907) and largest national forest. Ouachita is an Indian word meaning either “good hunting grounds” or “hunting trip,” and these woods still hold plentiful deer, squirrel, and other wildlife.
A visitor information station about 7 miles northeast of Talihina, at the junction of US 271 and Okla. 1, marks the start of the designated byway. Just 0.3 mile past the information station you come to Choctaw Vista, on the west end of Winding Stair Mountain, part of the Ouachita Mountains. From here you can look out on the beautiful dark blue hills and valleys through which the Choctaw traveled on their way west from Mississippi, in compliance with the 1830 Indian Removal Act.
For the next several miles the road cuts through a forest of shortleaf pine and scrub oak. Along here, too, grow prairie grasses such as little bluestem. The east-west lay of the Ouachita Mountains has caused separate plant communities to develop on either side: Post oak, blackjack, and serviceberry predominate on southern slopes, while the rich soil of the northern slopes supports white oak, hickory, dogwood, and papaw.
About 5 miles past the forest entrance, stop at Panorama Vista for wonderful, sweeping views of the mountains and the small farming villages tucked into the Holson Valley. Hang-glider enthusiasts often launch from here on weekend days with easterly winds. Golden eagles, vultures, and hawks also soar on the updrafts.
Continue on to Horse Thief Springs (mile 16). In the late 1800s, horse thieves in transit between Texas and Missouri often rested from their labors here. The road now swoops back and forth down Winding Stair Mountain, giving you constantly shifting views. The Ouachita Mountains once extended to the Appalachians, before the Mississippi separated the ranges. The 300-million-year-old sandstones and shales of the Ouachitas were thrust up, folded, and faulted. Fault lines are visible in places along the drive, including the area around Robert S. Kerr Arboretum and Nature Center. Three short trails here interpret the environment.
For several miles past the nature center, the byway follows the crest of Rich Mountain through a forest of dwarf oak stunted by severe ice storms and southerly winds. At about mile 40, the Old Pioneer Cemetery holds the graves of 23 people who homesteaded here between the mid-19th and the mid-20th centuries.
Two miles beyond, the Queen Wilhelmina State Park features dramatic southerly views from the crest of Rich Mountain. The park centers around a rustic stone lodge. Originally constructed at the turn of the century and since rebuilt, the lodge was named for the queen of Holland, whose country held a substantial stake in the local railroad.
Three miles east of the park stands the highest point on the drive, Rich Mountain Fire Tower (2,681 feet). From this vantage, you have fine views of the forested mountains and of the ribbon of road snaking over the ridges.
The drive ends at the visitor information station in Mena. A timber and cattle town, Mena sprang to life in 1896 when the first train of the Kansas City Southern Railroad came chugging through the mountains.
Side Drive: The Heavener Runestone, located 30 minutes north of the scenic byway, contains mysterious characters thought to have been carved by Viking explorers.
Be Safe: Since there are no services along the way, make sure your fuel tank's topped off and that you have enough snacks and water to last the drive.
Motorcyclist Memo: Mena’s motorcycle-friendly hotels even provide towels to allow riders to wipe away the morning dew.
Information originally published in National Geographic’s Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways