THE WOMAN BEHIND THE COUNTER at the Quik Mart doesn't know that I exist, or perhaps she doesn't care. It takes a couple of tinny taps on my Coke can before she reluctantly tears herself from the miniature TV behind the Slim Jim display and rings me up for the soda and pack of gum I've set down.
It's exactly this grudgingness (verging on full-fledged suspicion of newcomers), combined with outsiders' general Arkansas apprehension and ignorance of its geographic wealth, that has kept the Ozark Mountains off tourists' charts. After all, who goes to rural Arkansas, right?
That skepticismlocal and touristactually works in your favor. Wariness has helped generations of locals protect their unique hill-country culture as well as huge swaths of undeveloped public and private hardwood forests. With dark hollers creased by singletrack and clean, clear rivers for fishing and paddling, it's the type of place worth hiding from strangers, and the type of place strangers (like you and me) are constantly seeking.
With the recently opened Clinton Presidential Library giving downtown Little Rock, the nearest gateway city, a slew of slick new brewpubs and hip cafés, and a frenzy of trail building and maintenance projects introducing more outdoor athletes to the treasures of the Natural State, the region is warming up to company. I packed my bag and headed to the 1,875-square-mile Ozark National Forest in late fall to see just how cool the place has become.
Three hours north of Little Rock is Gaston's White River Resort, a legendary 48-year-old fishing outfitter on the banksof the White River in the town of Lakeview. Only a fishing camp with true bragging rights can get away with housing hardcore anglers in rows of pink cabins. Some of the largest trout in the U.S. are caught in this watershed every year. In fact, the world-record brown trout, topping 40 pounds, was nabbed in the Little Red River, a nearby tributary. The classic way to fish the White is to hire a guide with a driftboat, motor upriver half a mile or more, cut the engine, and float, either casting a fly or using conventional tackle. Under the tutelage of Gaston's guide Danny Messick, in a little over three hours, a fellow angler and I hooked 50 fish, including brown, cutthroat, and brook trout, and a couple of finely colored pan-size rainbows the resort restaurant's chef cooked up for our supper.
Just a couple of hollows south of Gaston's is the crown jewel of Arkansasthe Buffalo National River, a free-flowing, 150-mile waterway stretching from the Boston Mountains to its confluence with the White River. The Buffalo is the state's premier paddling river and can accommodate one-to-ten-day excursions through towering slot canyons and placid oxbows. The surrounding park has more than 100 miles of maintained trails within its 95,000 acres. There's the 55-mile Buffalo River Trail, a multi-day ramble through the park's most scenic bluffs and thickest oak-and-hickory forests, and easy afternoon hikes like the Lost Valley Trail, featuring a short walk to a 200-foot-tall limestone cave and 35-foot waterfall.
Six miles north of nearby Mountain View, "the Folk Music Capital of the World," you'll find the Syllamo Mountain Bike Trail, a five-loop, 50-mile fat-tire circuit boasting beginner sections and enough technical singletrack to keep experts at their target= heart rate. One of the most challenging bits, the Scrappy Mountain Loop, is a 12-miler that splashes through three creeks, meanders up wicked switchbacks, and screams down some 600 vertical feet.
But the Ozarks aren't just about burning calories; there's a fair opportunity to ingest them, too. On the way back to Mountain View, pull over at Jo Jo's Catfish Wharf, on the banks of the White. The delicacies here are catfish, fried or grilled, and "possum pie" (a chocolate-and-cream-cheese concoction).
Even below ground, Arkansas looks good. Blanchard Springs Caverns, a natural triple-tiered labyrinth 15 miles northwest of Mountain View, which opened to the public in 1973 and is operated by the Forest Service, offers the truly hardcore Wild Cave Tour. Outfitted with knee pads, headlamp, and helmet, I trailed a spelunking guide through the cave's middle level, belly-crawling over wet clay, wriggling through rib-constricting squeezes, and gingerly tiptoeing next to deep black drop-offs. After three hours in the dark, I emerged into a bluebird day with the scent of crisp autumn leaves and mouth-watering bacon in the air.
Arkansas will always have its skeptics, I realized. But with this much raw adventure rolled into one state, that leaves more space for the believers.