Buffalo Headwaters Challenge Fire Tower Aid Station

It’s More Than A Ride – Buffalo Headwater Challenge 2022

The Community Bicyclist
2022 Buffalo Headwaters Challenge Poster
2022 Buffalo Headwaters Challenge Poster

There is an abundance of fantastic outdoor events in Arkansas these days but there are few with the lineage of the Buffalo Headwaters Challenge (BHWC). As with most great events, this one grew organically. Little-known trails scratched into the Ozark mountains years ago were only visited by those in the know. Most of these folks belonged to the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists (OORC) a trail advocacy group responsible for building and maintaining many of the trails in Northwest Arkansas for the past 25 years. We wrote about this back in 2014,

Almost 20 [over 25] years ago, some families living in the headwaters area decided to start building trails that would take them to these beautiful spots but unlike most trails built in Arkansas at the time, these would be ridden by mountain bikes. They built 30 – 40 miles of rough cut trails that were technical and tough. After years of working with the Forest Service and with considerable negotiation, a plan was put together to improve the trails and make them accessible to all mountain bikers. Working with Ozark Off-Road Cyclists (OORC) and the Walton Foundation, funding was put in place to have the trails professionally built. Progressive Trail Design was hired to do their magic, and the rest is history…..well, almost history.

You can read more about this history and get some trail descriptions in the story quoted above. There are also more pictures and a video.

“It really is a festival, man.”

Today the event is huge yet still without a lot of pretenses. Hosted at the school in Red Star, Arkansas just off Highway 16 in Madison County, the scene is both chaotic and relaxing. OORC volunteers are everywhere, parking cars and RVs, preparing food, getting everyone signed in keeping fires stoked, and smiling through it all. Tent camping fills the little-used baseball field while cars and RVs line the edge of the ballfield and up and down Highway 16. Since the event outgrew the small schoolhouse, a line of large festival tents follows the treeline and includes a stage, lines of tables and chairs, a registration desk, and a small OORC gift shop.

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The festival headquarters Photo by Kate Austin Photography
The festival headquarters Photo courtesy of Kate Austin Photography

This is a multi-day festival and the best way to get the full experience is to spend two nights camping. just be ready for cold weather. The festival is normally held on the last weekend of January, this year it was moved back two weeks due to extreme winter weather that would have made the ride impossible. I can’t say enough how smoothly everything went considering the last-minute move. One of the issues the organizers had to deal with was adjusting musical talent and again, it was seamless. On Friday night we were entertained by Route 358 and on Saturday Isayah’s Allstars brought down the house. There was mechanic support by Phat Tire Bikes and free coffee from Trailside Coffee House. Registration fees also covered free beer and meals. Everything was taken care of.

Dancing to Route 358. Photo courtesy of Kate Austin Photography
Dancing to Route 358. Photo courtesy of Kate Austin Photography
Night two featured Isayah's Allstars. photo courtesy of Kate Austin Photography
Night two featured Isayah’s Allstars. Photo courtesy of Kate Austin Photography

One of the best things about this festival is just wandering around visiting campsites, fire rings, or sharing a meal in the tent. If you are into outdoor recreation, these are your people.

Hanging out at one of the campfires. Photo courtesy of Kelly Newberg
Hanging out at one of the campfires. Photo courtesy of Kelly Newberg

Let’s Ride

The ride started on Saturday morning with the “Mandatory Meeting” on the ballfield, the sponsors were thanked and we were reminded that this is the 25th anniversary year of the Ozark Off-Road Cyclists, they’ve come a long way. Due to the move in festival dates this year, the total number of riders was down some from some of the previous years making this year a little easier to get spread out quickly. Due to the recent winter weather, the creek crossings were up a bit and there were some mud holes along a few trails but all in all, the riding was excellent. The temperatures reached the 50s and it was bright and sunny all day, perfect riding weather.

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THe first wake up call comes just 1/2 a mile into the ride. Photo courtesy of Kate Austin Photography
The first wake-up call comes just 1/2 mile into the ride. Photo courtesy of Kate Austin Photography

The OORC sets up a couple of formal aid stations plus we found a few other pop-up aid stations in the woods. Riders were never more than a few miles from support. A tradition from the early days of the challenge includes grilled cheese sandwiches. Back in the day, these were usually served after the ride at How Kuff’s house (How is one of the original trail builders in the area). Now, they are served at the Firetower aid station, this is reported to be the highest point in the Ozarks. The grilled cheese along with some tomato soup (and beer for some) made this a very popular aid station to just hang out for a while.

Fire Tower Grilled Cheese. Photo courtesy of Kelly Newberg
Fire Tower Grilled Cheese. Photo courtesy of Kelly Newberg

There were two official rides listed a 30-mile route and a 50-mile route. There is a lot of elevation change along these routes and there are several technical sections. Most of the Upper Buffalo Trail System is still old-school singletrack, rocky, steep, and challenging. If you familiarize yourself with the trail system beforehand, you can cut off some of those distances but you will miss out on some remarkable scenery.

Ozark Outdoor Supply
Most of the creek crossing could be ridden across but there were a few... photo courtesy of Kelly Newberg
Most of the creek crossing could be ridden across but there were a few… photo courtesy of Kelly Newberg

Thanks to OORC and all those involved in staging this event every year. Come on out next year, bring your friends, and support OORC.

Also, HUGE thanks to Kate Austin Photography (OORC had the forethought to pay for Kate’s services so we didn’t have to worry about it) and our good friend, Kelly Newberg for all of the great photos.  It was nice to not have to focus on that for a change.


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