Come for the Gravel, Stay for the Rolls…and more
I love it when a community ties together a revered local favorite and a burgeoning new reason to visit the community. Four years ago, local bicyclists in Leslie, Arkansas began participating in a gravel bike ride as part of what was known as the Umpteen Rides, a collection of bike rides, mostly involving dirt, taking place across the state between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. But what do you call such a ride? Remembering that one reason to expend energy on a bike is so you can eat what you want during this festive season and the Searcy County delicacy known as Chocolate Rolls, enjoyed for decades, the event found its moniker, The Chocolate Roll.
According to Kat Robinson, food blogger, author, and travel writer, “The chocolate roll has been made by families around Searcy County for decades. I can attest to this. My brother’s grandmother, Shirley Diemer, made these crumbly concoctions in her kitchen. I can remember that crusty, chocolate combination back to the age of ten. Shirley, as the rest of the Diemer clan, was from the Leslie community.”
We arrived in Leslie just before the start of the ride parking next to Leslie City Park, a half block of greenery and park benches in the middle of the historic town. Leslie is in Searcy County a gateway community to the Buffalo National River. We were greeted with our first tastes of Misty’s Chocolate Rolls as described by Robinson in her article from 2015 and hot chocolate. Since then, Misty has moved from a spot at the local gas station to new digs at the Red River Cafe, more about that later.
There were two rides to choose from, 14 miles and 19 miles, we chose the latter because we hadn’t driven all the way from Little Rock to do the short ride. Some participants did two laps to make more room for chocolate rolls. Cycling out of town with Darryl Treat, Executive Director of the Greater Searcy County Chamber of Commerce we got a quick history of the town including how the area had been home to a large stave mill in the early 1900s. We lollygagged around a bit and wound up losing sight of the lead group shortly after hitting the first gravel of the day, a couple of miles into the ride. It was okay with us since we were going to be stopping for photos and to take in the sites. We do recommend that you download the route maps before heading out. Below is the map for the 19-mile route.
Much of the route is shared with the Ozark Gravel Trail (OGT) which winds its way for over 134 miles in the Ozark Mountains. Unlike the route planned for our day, it has some extreme elevation changes which we experienced firsthand when we took a little detour at one point. There was a bit of pavement in the middle of our ride but the final section is built on an old railroad bed and is a nice gradual downhill back into town. It’s easy to get a lot of speed here but the views along the creek near the end should not be missed.
We had little traffic on the route and friendly waves were always returned. Cell phone service with AT&T was good throughout the trip but we still recommend downloading route maps just in case. The 650+ feet of elevation gain throughout the 19 miles made this a much flatter ride than we had expected. We could have left the mountain bikes at home and brought the gravel bikes.
Back in town, we were greeted by more chocolate rolls left on our bike rack by Dirk Merle, one of the local instigators responsible for the ride and much of the OGT. We decided to wander the couple of blocks that make up the original downtown and soon found ourselves in an artisan shop where a few Christmas presents were purchased. More wandering took us by some antique shops and a clothing store. Money was spent.
Despite all of the chocolate roll snacking, we were getting hungry and decided to head to the Red River Cafe for lunch. On the way there, we stopped in at Serenity Farm Bread Company. It is rare that I have ever traveled through this area without a stop at Serenity, usually bringing back bakery goods for friends and family. This trip was no different.
We both noticed a sign out in front of the Red River Cafe advertising the catfish special, I don’t think we even looked at the menu. A great meal of fried catfish, fries, hushpuppies, beans, and slaw, a perfect feast for a visit to the Ozarks.
Other Amenities in Leslie, Arkansas
For other local dining options, check out the Skylark Cafe or Ryan’s Main Street Bar and Grill. There is also a coffee shop in the Cove Creek Emporium on Main Street.
If you would like to extend your stay, there are Airbnbs in Leslie and the surrounding area, if you’d like to camp, try the Cherry Street RV Park in Leslie or Crown Mountain Campground to the east of town. Of course, there are numerous campgrounds along the nearby Buffalo National River.