Overland travel in the 501

by Wes Craiglow 

So often today, travel has become a utilitarian task, often perceived as a necessary evil used only as a means to connect vacationers to our chosen destinations, complete with high cost, long lines and countless complaints along the way. But, we can counter this reality; we can choose to make our travels less of an act and more of an art.

Preparing to ford an Arkansas stream.

By choosing to travel overland and accepting the journey itself as a highlight of the trip, we make a choice to explore what lies between the beginning and the end. We inspire our imaginations, build our confidence in blazing new paths and immerse ourselves in the history, culture, wildlife and beauty of areas that cannot be sampled from a tiny window at 30,000 feet.

The idea is to see and learn about our world from eye-level — be it by foot, bicycle or vehicle. Although great travels can be had from almost any platform, many believe that their vehicles hold the key to experiencing our world in ways seen by few. In vehicle-dependent overland travel, or “overlanding,” one’s travels are carried out in off-road-capable vehicles, and camping is the principal form of lodging throughout the trip.  

Modern overlanding began during the mid-20th century with the advent of commercially available 4-wheel drive Jeeps and Land Rovers. Its growing popularity as an alternative to destination vacations has increased in recent years, likely influenced by the incomparable Camel Trophy Series, seminal publications like Overland Journal and the high cost and headaches of commercial airline travel.

Overland travelers are generally the self-reliant type who seek out the road less traveled and move with an understanding that the journey itself is the principal goal. Technical terrain can be encountered throughout the journey, and the travelers may even seek out the most challenging route to a destination as part of their experience, but overland travel is not the same as recreational “four-wheeling,” where the primary objective is overcoming challenging obstacles.  Conversely, an overnight trip to the local mountains on a well documented route where one stays in an established campground with full-hookups is not an overland adventure, either. It is car camping. 

Overlanding is the fulfilling and challenging blending of both. With a bit of thoughtful planning and a few key pieces of gear, any 4WD vehicle can be quickly prepared for self-reliant overland travel over moderate distances, through unpredictable weather and over variable terrain. 

One needs not travel to the farthest reaches of the globe to find significant adventures, rich history and culture and majestic surroundings. With a population density among the lowest in the U.S. and thousands of miles of rarely used roads and trails, Arkansas is truly an overlander’s dream. Just a short drive from the Little Rock metro area, one can quietly slip away into the easternmost regions of the Ouachita National Forest or the southernmost of the Ozark National Forest. Within both can be found millions of stunningly beautiful acres, which are, for much of the year, completely empty; thousands of miles of rivers and streams, with countless, often undiscovered waterfalls; Civil-war era cemeteries and historic homesteads hidden just beyond the wood line; and camping at undisclosed, primitive sites where peace and quiet are the only neighbors. 

The best part? It’s all public, free of charge and open year-round.

Interested in giving overland travel a try? Think about it like blending a road trip with a backpacking trip. Start by loading your truck or SUV with all of the things you’ll need for comfortable camping, including food, clothing and games. Always have a good map and compass handy. I recommend a state highway map (available free-of-charge from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department) and more critically, a highly detailed topographical map. These are available from the U.S. Geological Survey for a minimal fee, but they can also be found in paper and GPS formats from manufacturers like DeLorme and Garmin. I never travel without my topo mapbook and the Arkansas Atlas and Gazetteer, which can be found at many local bookstores. 

Some other things to consider when traveling remotely are fuel and water capacity, based on how long you’ll be out, and a basic first aid kit and the skills to use it should unfortunate mishaps occur. Be sure you have some basic understanding of how to use the 4WD system of your vehicle, just in case you run into a bumpy patch or slippery road far from service. Finally, and maybe most importantly, never travel into the backcountry without giving a friend or family member a detailed description of your route and your planned return date.

One area of note within the 501 is the Winona Ranger District of the Ouachita National Forest, which is the area east of Highway 7 and west of Highway 9. The best part about this region is that within one short hour’s drive from most of the greater Little Rock area, one can completely let go of the workday world. Pick an upcoming weekend and give this sample overlanding itinerary a go: 

Start your morning by taking in the views atop the Hot Springs Mountain Tower in Hot Springs National Park. Don’t forget to walk Bathhouse Row prior to heading out of town.

Drive north along scenic Highway 7, stopping to see the old Civilian Conservation Corps historic work camp along the way. After 18 miles, turn east onto the Winona Scenic Byway. This well maintained Forest Service road cuts through the heart of some of the most beautiful terrain Arkansas has to offer, with ample photo opportunities of the Cove Creek basin and Oak and Crystal Moun

Continue in a generally easterly direction along the various Forest Service Roads, being certain to stop and hike to the peaks of Crystal Mountain and Flatside Pinnacle and within the densely forested valleys of the Flatside Wilderness Area along the Ouachita National Trail. This is where overlanding varies from the average destination-based drive — there is no designated route and you have as much time as you desire to explore. So, enjoy the experience of having your truck or SUV off the beaten path by exploring seldom-used side roads or climbing a rocky trail. Just be sure to stay on designated routes and always tread lightly!

Finish the day by camping at Lake Sylvia, a picturesque 18-acre lake that makes a great place to wind down the active day. A swimming area with beach, diving platform and trails, which include a wildlife interpretive trail and tree identification, are available for your enjoyment.