It’s been a while since I’ve done anything new with the “Day Trips from Dallas” series. With my series about my recent trip to India complete, now seemed as good a time as any to pick it up again. This past Christmas Day, we didn’t have much going on since we’d be leaving for India in less than a week. So, we decided to enjoy a scenic trip across the Red River to spend an otherwise lazy day. Our destination: the Talimena National Scenic Byway, a beautiful, winding mountain drive in the Ouachita Mountains, just a few hours from home. In case the photo below piques your interest, read on for much more!
Talimena National Scenic Byway – What Is It
The Talimena National Scenic Byway, sometimes called the Queen Talimena Scenic Byway, stretches 54 miles through the Ouachita Mountains (the southernmost portion of the Ozarks), from US 271 north of Talihina, Oklahoma to US 59/71 in Mena, Arkansas. It is marked as State Highway 1 in Oklahoma, and State Highway 88 in Arkansas. The Byway is a miniature version of the Blue Ridge Parkway/Skyline Driving stretching through North Carolina and Virginia. Completed in 1969, the road traces its origins to two truck trails constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the Great Depression. Several scenic overlooks and campgrounds along the road were built by the CCC, as roadside markers indicate.
Talimena National Scenic Byway – How to Get There
The most direct route to get to the Byway from Dallas is to go north on US Highway 75, then east on State Highway 43 in Stringtown, Oklahoma. From here, head north on State Highway 2 on the south side of Sardis Lake. Continue east on State Highway 1 to Talihina. Finally, continue north on US Highway 271 about 8 miles to Talimena State Park and the state of the parkway. Total driving time is approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes from downtown Dallas. You can also start at the eastern end of the Byway by taking IH-30 east to Texarkana, then north on US 71 to Mena, Arkansas. Driving time is approximately 4 hours and 15 minutes.
For best results, allow approximately 3 hours to drive the entire Byway This allows time to enjoy all of the scenic overlooks, do some hiking, and perhaps enjoy a picnic lunch at either Talimena State Park or one of the many picnic tables along the road. If you don’t have time to drive the entire road, you can do what we did. Leave the road at US Highway 259 (about halfway down), and head south to Idabel. Then head west then south on State Highway 37 back across the Red River to Mt. Vernon, Texas. Here, you can catch IH-30 west back to Dallas.
The return trip home via this route is approximately 4 hours. This makes for a total travel time of approximately 11 hours if you drive the entire route. Total time is approximately 9 hours if you do only the first half to Highway 259.
Similar to the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Byway is built atop the ridges that make up Winding Stair Mountain. Thus, the road dips, climbs, and curves along the natural contours of the mountains. There are a few especially steep grades, where a lower gear is necessary to descend, even in a small passenger car. Travel is not recommended during foggy or icy weather. You won’t be able to see anything during fog, anyway. The Byway is usually closed during snow or ice since the area isn’t equipped to deal with clearing snow.
Talimena National Scenic Byway – What to See
You can also see the difference in vegetation between north facing and south facing slopes. South facing slopes feature mostly pine trees, whereas hardwoods dominate the south slopes. This is due to micro-climates created by the mountain ridges. These create differing levels of sunlight, temperature, and precipitation on either side of the ridge.
A few miles further down, Sugarloaf Vista provides a view of Sugarloaf Mountain in the far distance (the high mountain in the middle of the distant ridge). Historically, travelers going on foot or horseback to or from Fort Smith, Arkansas used the mountain as a landmark. The shadows from the clouds in the late afternoon sun make for a somewhat haunting scene.
The last vista we stopped at was Shawnee Vista, a few miles before the junction with Highway 259. This area apparently teemed with wildlife, and therefore was a popular hunting ground for the Native Americans. They would come from as far away as the Mississippi Valley to hunt here.
I can also see why this was such a popular hunting area. It didn’t take long for a wild creature to show up, in this case, an armadillo.
The drive from the Talimena to Idabel on US 259 is quite scenic, and I had taken a few photos along this stretch. Unfortunately, I appear to have nuked them, so I have nothing to share.
Talimena National Scenic Byway – When to Go
The best time to go is during fall foliage season, which generally peaks in early-to-mid November. Although not as well known as other fall foliage displays around the country, such as the Blue Ridge or Vermont, the color can be quite spectacular here in the Oklahoma mountains, with bright reds and golds predominant during good years.
The weather follows roughly the same season that you find in East Texas. That is, hot and humid from late May through mid-September, pleasant but occasionally stormy from mid-March through mid-May and mid-September through mid-November, and cool and wet with occasional sharp cold spells from mid-November through February. Be advised that although the elevation in the Ouchitas isn’t that high, temperatures along the ridgeline can be up to 10 degrees cooler than in the valleys below. Be especially aware of this during winter, when a cool day in Dallas can mean a cold one here.
As mentioned earlier, if you leave Dallas in the morning, Talimena State Park in Oklahoma, or one of the many picnic tables along the Talimena itself (particularly the Horse Thief Springs turnout area), makes for a perfect place for a picnic lunch, particularly on a warm day. If you have more time, make it a long weekend, and instead of turning south back towards Texarkana in Mena, head north, then east on US 270 to Hot Springs National Park in the appropriately named Hot Springs, Arkansas.
You can also head over to Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Arkansas to try your like at digging for diamonds (yes, you are allowed to keep anything you find). From Mena, head south on US 59/71 to Wickes, then east on US 278 to Nashville, then north on State Highway 27 to Murfreesboro. I wouldn’t advise trying to do both the scenic drive and the Crater of Diamonds in the same day, though. You likely won’t make it in time, and digging for diamonds does make for quite the workout, especially when it’s hot outside.