Through word of mouth, the hidden gem of Hazel Valley Ranch had been talked about among my fellow mountain biker and cyclist friends here in Central Arkansas. I was determined to get up to NW Arkansas the next time an event was held there, and when Joe invited me to accompany him to the Saddlebock Mountain Bike Festival, I jumped at the opportunity. Billed as a “Family Friendly weekend event”, I decided to bring my boys Braden and Connor for some camping and riding fun.
Even though the weather forecast (cold, rain, snow) was dismal for Friday and Saturday, we headed up anyway expecting the worst and hoping for better. We were all up for whatever adventure awaited us. We arrived in the late afternoon on Friday and being one of the few guests that night, ranch manager Roger Rains invited us to sleep in the main lodge rather than camping out in the cold and yuck. The boys instantly made themselves at home and availed themselves to the pool and shuffleboard tables in the main room while we got the tour.
At this point, it was wet and overcast, but the nastier weather was holding off. Not knowing whether we would get another chance, I took the boys out on one of the 1-mile mountain bike loops close to the lodge. While my older boy Braden did fine, Connor struggled on some of the sections but persevered and rode most of the muddy, wet, and moderately difficult trail. We returned to the lodge tired, wet, and muddy, but after a quick shower, Connor was in good spirits all over again.
A delicious dinner of BBQ chicken and mac & cheese was soon served, and we ate like ravenous wolves. While the adults developed new friendships, my boys cycled between the pool and shuffleboard tables, and the television upstairs. There was no shortage of adults who were willing to teach my boys the finer points of pool and shuffleboard as we played, ate, and drank well into the night.
Saturday morning greeted us with the predicted weather – a steady, cold rain with occasional snow flurries. After a tasty breakfast of hot oatmeal, fresh fruit, and bread, we decided to take the boys on a hike up Spongebob Creek to Spongebob Falls in lieu of riding. The hike was a variety of hiking on the mtb trails, bushwacking through the woods, and scrambling over rocks and boulders in the creek bottoms until we reached the falls themselves. The boys did superbly, even though they were soaked and muddy. We scrambled up to the top of the ridge after seeing the falls and trekked back to the lodge just in time for lunch.
By this point, the rain had stopped and more guests had arrived at the ranch, including several kids, to the delight of my sons. They were soon found playing child-sized chess with each other on the grounds, riding the fatbike, taking their own mtn bikes off a bmx ramp that was set up, or coming indoors to play some pool or shuffleboard. Some people may have even seen me playing the role of a zombie and chasing Connor and one of the little girls he made friends with.
With several kids now at the ranch, Roger decided to load everyone up and take them down to see the small herd of buffalo roaming the grounds. The kids got to pose for photos with the buffalo and see them get fed, but the highlight was the Suzuki they were riding in getting stuck in a mud hole on the way back. It was quite funny listening to their laughter as the ranch hand tried unsuccessfully time and time again to get it unstuck. And then hear their cries of joy as a Jeep fitted with a winch came to the rescue.
For the rest of the evening, the kids were entertained by the bonfire outside, wandered in to listen to the wonderful bluegrass band that was playing, or were just content to hang out with each other as new found friends.
Even though the conditions weren’t ideal, the kids made the best of it, had an amazing time, and made some new friends along the way. What impressed me the most was how many of the adults at the ranch interacted with the kids and involved them as much as they could. My boys had an incredibly fun, memorable weekend and can’t wait to go back again! A special thanks to Chuck Maxwell who helped guide Connor through most of the difficult parts of the hike, and to Dr. Wayne and Roger Rains for being so hospitable with the kids.