Road Trip: The Scenic Byway Guide to Northwest Arkansas

Arkansas Vista
Arkansas Vista

Road Tripping North America full-time for five years has taught us many things, but above all, we’ve learned to swap the highways for scenic byways and let serendipity be our copilot. Arkansas’s rich history and beautiful terrain have afforded it 11 official state scenic byways, three of which are nationally recognized. So when planning our road trip from Little Rock into the dynamic Northwest, we plotted a route connecting three scenic byways to immerse ourselves in the mountains, national forests, state parks, charming towns, wild rivers, craft breweries, art galleries, and the unexpected.

Our Northwest Road Trip Route

This route connects the Mount Magazine Scenic Byway, detours to Subiaco, cruises up the Pig Trail Byway into the Ozark-St Francis National Forest, along the wild Mulberry River, over to the university town of Fayetteville, into the Buffalo River wilderness area, down the Ozark Highlands Scenic Byway and back to Little Rock. We did this 450-mile loop in three days and packed in so many adventures! Follow this Google Maps route for a stellar weekend road trip and the perfect balance of nature, culture, serenity, and fun.

Gearing Up in Little Rock

On any road trip, there’s no better first stop than the visitor center so we headed to the most official one around to pick up maps, guides, and get expert tips at the Arkansas Capitol building. They gave us so many great ideas we decided to plot it out over a picnic lunch in the River Market District. This is the city’s entertainment hub, beautifully set along the Arkansas River with its bridges, manicured park, and strip of hip shops and eateries. To provision for lunch and our road trip, we hit up the Ottenheimer Market Hall, a trendy international bazaar of 15 food stalls and farmers' market. Blue Sage Vegan Bistro was delish and even better when eaten in the shade of the Riverfront Park and among the incredible art of the Vogel-Schwartz Sculpture Garden. 

Little Rock

Mount Magazine Scenic Byway

Two hours northeast of the capital, we reached the Mount Magazine Scenic byway, aka Highway 309. Starting in Havana, we climbed the slopes of the state’s highest peak: Mount Magazine (2,753 ft). Before we even reached the state park, we were pulling over for incredible views over the Arkansas River Valley at the Petit Jean Valley Overlook and the Benefield Trail (a quick hiking loop that scores views of the bluff from two sides). Mount Magazine State Park’s visitor center was a wealth of knowledge, explaining how this ancient sandstone-capped mountain was spared from extreme erosion, leaving a plateau with sheer cliffs and creating nine unique ecosystems. (Fun fact: The park is home to 60% of the state’s butterfly species!) We hugged Overlook Drive, stopping every few minutes to capture these jaw-dropping vistas. With a big day ahead we took it easy, but the adrenaline junkie in us love that Mount Magazine has the AR park system’s most technical rock climbing, one of their only hang-gliding launch areas, and sweet cabins on the cliff to stay adventuring for days!

Mount Magazine

Subiaco: Monks, Beers, and Benedictine Hospitality

The Mount Magazine Byway descends more than 2,300 feet, cruising over picturesque Cove Lake, and into the mountain’s gateway city of Paris. But when we heard there was a Benedictine Abby making hot sauce and craft beer just off the route, we had to make a detour. We ascended the long driveway to the 1,800-acre property up to the Romanesque-style Abbey and felt transported to Italy, where the Benedictine tradition began more than a millennia ago. We asked where the gift shop was and a professor on his lunch break said, “Wait, you’re just in time for the monks' mid-day prayer.” The grand church, basking in the stained-glass window light and resonating with their melodic chants, took our breath away. He proceeded to take us around the courtyard, pocket chapels, relic room, and finally the gift shop where the monks sell their wood carvings, peanut brittle, and potent hot sauce. Where’s the beer? Across the property at the Country Monks Taproom in a cozy space with an antique wooden ice-chest fridge, four types of beer on tap, and cornhole in the yard (these are our kind of monks!). It’s open on Saturdays from 9am-4pm or call ahead for a private tasting. Our only regret is that we didn’t buy more Scholastic Stout ($2 for a tallboy, and SO delish)!

Subiaco

Selfie Stops in Paris

Having just passed through Havana and left an abbey that felt straight out of Europe, somehow Paris sounded like a fitting next stop on our off-the-beaten path. Founded in 1879, the town of Paris stays true to its namesake with Eiffel Tower Park, complete with its own tower-turned fountain and a love-lock fence to add to the light-hearted romance of this place. Set to the backdrop of the historic courthouse, it’s a fun selfie spot and the easiest way to bag a trip to Paris without a passport. Continue your photo fun to Main St & N. Express to snap a “Just Winging It” pic or stay awhile and visit the Arkansas Historic Wine Museum, the USA’s only museum dedicated to the wine history of a state.

Paris, Arkansas

Pig Trail & Mulberry River

Google Maps kept trying to pull us onto the interstate to Fayetteville, but we knew better and took the Pig Trail Scenic Byway through the Ozark National Forest and along the wild Mulberry River. This 17-mile section of Highway 23, was rated by USA Today as one of top 10 motorcycle rides in North America for its winding road through a tunnel of trees, beautiful bluffs, and rivers. Cool down with a stop at Pig Trail Falls or make a day of it with a float down the Mulberry River. Designated a National Wild & Scenic River, the Mulberry is a premier smallmouth and spotted bass fishery in Arkansas and its class I-II rapids are perfect for a canoe, SUP, or tube. We didn’t have plans to camp around here but one look at those teal waters and we decided to stay the night. We scored a $15 site right along the river at the Redding Campground, swam until sunset, and cooked dinner over the campfire to round out a fantastic day. Next time we might even stay here longer, since this campground has all the facilities for a full-day river trip and trailheads to the popular Spy Rock and Ozark Highlands Trail. Watch our Instagram Reel from Mount Magazine to the Pig Trail.

Pig Trail and Mulberry River

Fayetteville: College Town Charm

As its name suggests, the Pig Trail led us to the home of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks (Woo Pig Sooie!). Not just any college town, it was the state’s first with an enduring legacy of academics, politicians (the Clintons lived here as newlyweds), artists, and party-goers. We stayed at the Graduate, a cool boutique hotel chain only located in top university towns and decorated to the theme of that school. We walked in and the lobby was kitschy fabulous with Ozark woodland prints, leather furniture, and vintage Razorback everything. It was thoughtful and fun down to every last detail—like a library of past yearbooks to school-ID key cards! It was also the perfect location to walk to the Fayetteville Historic Square, UArk Campus, or Dickson Street—where the party’s at! Bars, restaurants, and concert halls line the strip, but there is none more famous than George’s Majestic Lounge—Arkansas’ oldest and longest running live-music venue. They get around 25 acts a month and don’t even bother opening unless they’ve got a good band. We danced ourselves silly at George’s then pretended we were still in college, taking in the scene at the packed patio and piano bars. 

Fayetteville

Riding the Razorback Greenway & Lake Fayetteville

No matter your level of biking experience, you need to take a ride in Arkansas. The state is home to five International Mountain Bicycling Association EPIC rides (that’s more than Colorado!), over a 1,000 miles of trails, and the impressive Razorback Regional Greenway leading from Fayetteville to Bentonville… the Mountain Biking Capital of the World! To get a taste, we geared up at Phat Tire Bike Shop and headed north to Lake Fayetteville to enjoy both the 36-mile bike path and some earthy single-track. We rode the berms and bumps along the lake’s nature trail, took a stroll at the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks, and toasted the day’s ride at the Fossil Cove Brewery, all without crossing a city street. It was the perfect ride for anyone who wants their mountain biking with a side of sightseeing. See more of this ride in our TikTok video.

Razorback Greenway

Buffalo National RiverCanoeing the Buffalo River in Northwest Arkansas

The Buffalo River is what inspired our first trip to Arkansas, and two years later we were just as excited to be back. This wild beauty is the country’s first National River, preserved for its scenic and scientific value, and it set the example for the 226 national rivers we have today. The National Park System manages this 95,000 acres of wilderness, complete with verdant mountains, limestone cliffs, elk herds, historic villages, and of course, this epic river. 

This time we wanted to dive deeper into the Upper Buffalo with the help of the Buffalo Outdoor Center’s canoe services and mountaintop cabins. We paddled the 10-mile stretch from Ponca to Kyle’s Landing, hugging the cliffs, riding rapids, and hopping out for hikes to multiple waterfalls–including the tallest cascade between the Rockies and the Appalachians! To top it all off, we stayed the night at Cabin X, our mountaintop hideaway with a hot tub to take in the valley views and countless stars.

FYI, Buffalo River is also an International Dark Sky Park and sitting in the path of totality for the Great North American Eclipse (mark your calendar for April 8, 2024 when this celestial phenomenon sweeps through Arkansas!)

Ozark Highlands Scenic Byway to Little Rock

Leaving Buffalo River Country via Highway 21 extended our wild scenery right up to the home stretch to Little Rock. Traversing ridges between headwaters of major streams with panoramic views, colorful flora, and rugged terrain, the Highlands Scenic Byway is a joy ride. (If you’ve got the time for another adventure, take a bite out of the 165-mile Ozark Highlands hiking trail that gives this scenic byway its name.) We made it back to the capital in time for a celebratory dinner at the Roots Cafe, where farm-to-table cuisine and community-building make you feel good from the belly to the heart.

Our scenic byways adventure through Northwest Arkansas reminds us what road trips are all about…soaking up the scenery, breaking for whatever catches your eye, and falling in love with places you never knew you would.

Epic Road Trip: Little Rock to Fayetteville, without the Interstate!

Author Bio: Mike & Anne left on their honeymoon in January 2012...and never came home. To chronicle their travels across the seven continents, they created HoneyTrek.com and authored two books (Ultimate Journeys for Two and Comfortably Wild: The Best Glamping Destinations in North America). In 2017 they adopted Buddy, a vintage Toyota motorhome, and have since road tripped 100,000+ miles from Baja to the Arctic Circle and 50 states in between. Their honeymoon continues with a quest for the world’s most sustainable and romantic destinations. Follow Mike & Anne’s adventures @HoneyTrek across all social media platforms.