2013 Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra Test

Harley-Davidson Authorized Rentals had been nudging me to give their service a try, with the offer to supply me with a ride anywhere in the United States. A great opportunity to be sure, it dovetailed with an enticing press mailing from the 1905 Basin Park Hotel and the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa.

The pitch for the riding in Arkansas was persuasive, so I booked a flight to the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport and made a reservation for a Road Glide Ultra at Pig Trail Harley- Davidson in nearby Rogers.

With all the razorback hog pride in Arkansas, it is almost a second home to Harley-Davidson. Pig Trail Scenic Byway begins about 50 miles south of the eponymous dealership and runs north through Eureka Springs, so there’s no doubt this is hog heaven.

Pig Trail H-D is a destination as much as it is a 47,000 square foot dealership, with the Rockin’ Pig Saloon next door and a huge parking lot that is used by enrollees in the Rider’s Edge courses for new and experienced riders.

Chris Sparks runs the rental department at Pig Trail, and he clearly takes personal pride in the condition of the bikes that go out under the H-D Authorized Rentals umbrella. When they rolled out what looked like a new bike, I was a bit suspicious that I was getting a ringer. However, the bike had over 1000 miles on the odometer, and a backstage tour of the facility revealed rows of rental bikes that were indistinguishable from the endless sea of Harleys on the expansive showroom floor.

After I do a few spins around the Rider’s Edge parking lot, the folks at Pig Trail are convinced I can handle the Road Glide Ultra and I’m cleared for departure. Sparks offers me any of dozens of ride maps that Pig Trail H-D has assembled, but getting to Eureka Springs is easy — just follow US Route 62 east from the dealership’s driveway.

My early alarm in Los Angeles, and two flights to get to Arkansas, has me fatigued before I even get started. The Road Glide Ultra is a big bike, and that is clearly apparent as I get going. The bars feel a bit high at first, yet the rubber-mounted Twin Cam 103 engine transmits reassuring vibes.

Route 62 starts off straight and wide, perfect for bike acclimation, and runs along the southern border of Pea Ridge National Military Park. History, especially military history, is a subject of great interest and attention in Arkansas. On roads large and small, you will see references to battlefields, marches, and other events.

As I ease past Clantonville Cemetery, my confidence is fully restored and I am ready to take on the route’s change from straightaways to twists. With good cornering clearance and reliable grip from the Dunlops, the Road Glide Ultra makes its way through some fairly challenging corners with constant elevation changes — almost like riding the Circuit of the Americas. I pass a couple of roads I know I will be riding later in the trip, and I arrive in Eureka Springs well before late spring sundown.

Lacking a GPS unit, I was relying on billboards to guide me to the Crescent Hotel. There were a number of signs for the Crescent, but none with the anticipated words, “turn here”. GoogleMaps on my iPhone was a great help, though getting from historic downtown Eureka Springs to the hilltop hotel turned out to be tricky the first time.

Relying on a map is usually a good bet, and I noted a quick shortcut off of Spring Street — just take Howell Avenue and I’m there! Well, Howell Avenue might just qualify as a site for an AMA Pro Hillclimb. I hang on for the climb — no problem for 103 cubic inches — and the narrow street without any centerline does flatten out at the top. I’m just glad I didn’t have to stop halfway up, because that would have been ugly.

Arriving at The Crescent, I am not disappointed. The stately lady has been lovingly returned to an accommodating level of splendor after years of neglect. Oh, yes, and Room 218.

Enjoying a serviceable deli-style dinner on the patio at Dr. Baker’s Bistro and Sky Bar, I take in an astounding view to the southeast, preparing myself for some unusual evening entertainment. After a rejuvenating nap on a plush bed, I walk upstairs to take the Crescent Ghost Tour.

Ramsey The Butler, a tall, slim, laconic gray-haired gentleman with a gently persuasive voice and period garb, is our host and he prepares the group for the tour. The very colorful, and sometimes macabre, history of the hotel is revealed—in 1937, the building had been Baker Hospital. Unfortunately, proprietor Norman Baker was in the business of administering fake cancer cures and, as Ramsey points out, no one came out alive. He shows a hair-raising clip by The Atlantic Paranormal Society on the Ghost Hunters TV show, and off we go to see the sites, and maybe an apparition or two.

Stories are told of unusual deaths — many from falling, others from harrowing quack cancer cures — and we visit the sites of these mishaps and misfortunes. Three spirits, and the rooms they inhabit, are the focus of the tour.

We visit Suite 3500, where a woman in a Victorian nightgown has visited contemporary overnight guests. To back that up, and so you’ll recognize her if she appears, Ramsey displays photos of a manifestation of the mysterious woman. Another room was the home of a nurse who had a young daughter die in a four-story fall down the stairwell.

The third room — and most-often requested room at the Crescent — concerns Michael, an Irish stonemason who died in the construction of the hotel. It seems he was on the roof, trying to get the attention of an attractive female, and fell over the edge. Apparently, the thud of him landing on a lethal beam can still be heard. He now resides in, as you may have guessed, Room 218 — Michael’s Room.

There is an audible gasp from my tourmates when we arrive at the room and I volunteer, “That’s my room. Let’s go in!” People poke around, take photos — a number of otherworldly images are framed on the wall—while Ramsey describes Michael’s antics, which include moving objects about the room and playing with the temperature of the shower. A few people look at me like I’m nuts for staying there alone. Ramsey quietly reminds me that some guests in 218 don’t last the night and request another room.

Having had a long day, by the time I hit the mattress I was, well, dead tired. If there were any visitors or noises, they needed to be a bit more demanding of my attention.

My weather luck is perfect for the trip. I wake up to a glorious sun- rise and am ready to take one of the five varying-distance loops that the Crescent-sponsored Eureka Springs Motorcycle Routes (ESMR) website recommends. The hotel courts motorcyclists, and the much-appreciated motorcycles-only parking spaces out front were never empty. Given the amount of dust and debris that settled overnight on the Road Glide Ultra, I would like to suggest that covered parking would be more appropriate for a luxury destination.

Not sure how much time it will take for me to traverse the longer routes, given that I will be stopping for photography frequently, I choose the mid-length 150-mile ESMR Route 4.

The roads on the loop are uniformly well maintained and nearly deserted. A church, rather than a gas station or convenience store, defines each village. More cattle are present than anything else, followed by plentiful road kill of all sorts. The Road Glide Ultra loves the backroads. Fifth gear is my best friend, and the big twin front discs (with ABS) and rigid Touring chassis bail me out when I miscalculate on the occasional decreasing radius corner.

The southern sweep of the trip takes me to historic Pruitt Bridge — a deteriorating 82-year-old through truss design across the Buffalo River on Arkansas Scenic 7 Byway — on the way to Jasper and the Ozark Cafe.

Feeding hungry travelers since 1909, the Ozark Cafe is now a popular motorcycle eatery. I arrive just before noon and watch the crowd roar in, even on a spring weekday. All sorts of bikes line Court Street, from BMW GSes to my attention grabbing and conversation starting Ember Red Sunglo mount. My hopes for local cuisine are dashed when the waitress suggests a Philly Cheesesteak, about 1000 miles from its source. Instead, I opt for a hefty and delicious bacon cheeseburger.

The ESMR Route 4 cleverly keeps the ride interesting, but not fatiguing, as it switches you between roads with gentle sweeps, and those that are more challenging and free of warning signs. In fact, signage of any sort is rare on Arkansas backroads. If you make a wrong turn and lack GPS, you won’t know it for miles. I learn to consult the map at every turn to remind me of the next junction.

Not including stops, and riding at a sensible pace, the estimated four-hour timeframe is about right. I find myself back in Eureka Springs in the late afternoon, and not ready to hang up my boots just quite yet. Fortunately, ESMR Route 3 is a quick 26-mile jaunt that includes Beaver Bridge and Beaver Dam — a perfect pre-dinner workout.

As I take Arkansas Highway 23 north from town, I pass through The Art Colony. Art is a huge part of the Eureka Springs experience, with enough galleries and shops to occupy you for a week. I, of course, focus on the ride, and look forward to Beaver Bridge on Highway 187.

A one-lane suspension bridge with a wood bed, Beaver Bridge is nearly two football fields long as it crosses the White River, which eventually feeds the Mississippi. From there, it is a fun rural spin to Beaver Dam and the winding Beaver Lake. The ride across the dam and up to an overlook tops off the evening excursion.

Back at the Crescent, I walk into my Room 218 and there is something very strange. One of my clean riding socks is sitting alone in the middle of the open floor. I had tidied up before I left, and put my clean and worn clothes in separate drawers. How did that sock end up in such a conspicuously wrong place? Michael, is that you?

With the sock returned to its drawer, I walk downstairs to the 1886 Steakhouse bar in the formal Crystal Ballroom. My casual attire is welcome on this quiet weekday, so this is a relaxing and pleasant experience. Attended to by a friendly and comely barmaid, I take in a rib eye steak dinner. It is cooked medium rare, as ordered, and elegantly presented with al dente vegetables.

Given my proximity to Missouri, I can’t resist a ride up north the next day, so the ESMR Route 5 gets the nod. At 142 miles, I need a bit more saddle time, so I add a bonus 45-mile loop of my own making around Table Rock Lake, just north of the border.

My addendum was fine at this time of the year — traffic was light, and the ride through more populated areas was a welcome change of pace from the solitary roads of Arkansas. However, this can get quite congested in the summer with blue hairs headed for Branson.

Bridges seem to be a theme, and my loop takes me over Table Rock Lake twice, on a pair of third-mile-long cantilevered through truss bridges — first on the Long Creek Bridge on Missouri Route 86, and later on Route 13’s rough-bed Kimberling City Bridge.

After the second bridge, I finally find the gastronomical experience I had been looking for — local cuisine! On my left was a sign for Jill’s Ozark B-B-Que. “You’re Here!” the sign says. I can’t argue with that logic.

A rustic cabin where wood and memorabilia are the two primary design features, Jill’s is all about the ’que. Not the least bit interested in a menu, I ask the lady serving me what she recommends. She suggests baby back ribs, and that is what I have brought to my table.

The dry rub ribs are perfect — moist, and cooked just right. Not fatty, the meat remains on the bone so I can feast like Fred Flintstone. I ask the server for a few details on the cooking process, and she remains mum. “We just do it our style,” she assures me with a smile.

These are the kinds of ribs that do not need a drop of sauce, though I do give Jill’s house sauce a quick taste. It is good, but I want nothing between the ribs, the rub, and me. The beans and homemade sourdough bread make for a pair of satisfying sides. If you’re in southern Missouri and like BBQ, you must visit Jill’s.

The ride back to Eureka Springs is highlighted by a trip through Mark Twain National Forest and finally Roaring Pine State Park, where the road makes its way through a canopy of trees. 80-degree weather has welcomed me to the region, and the shade is a welcome respite.

Reluctantly, I have to return home the next day, and in the morning I am alerted to how quickly the weather can change in the Ozarks. The temperature has dropped into the 40s, and it is a chilly ride back to Pig Trail H-D, though I am fortunate and the rain holds off until I am at the airport.

Harley-Davidson Authorized Rentals makes it possible to drop everything and jet off to an interesting riding spot and go for a spin on a premium machine.

In the case of Eureka Springs, you can bring the family and let them enjoy everything from zip line rides to natural caves to canoeing, while you spend a half (or full) day getting to know the lay of the land. Now, I just have to figure out which of the other 350 destinations to visit — this is too easy!

Photography by Don Williams

Riding Style:

  • Helmet: Fly Tourist
  • Eyewear: Liberty Sport Trailblazer
  • Jacket: H-D Illumination 360° Mesh
  • Gloves: Tour Master Gel Cruiser
  • Jeans: Drayko Drift
  • Boots: River Road Guardian Tall

This story is featured in the July/August 2013 issue of Ultimate MotorCycling magazine — available on newsstands and good bookstores everywhere. The issue is also available free to readers on Apple Newsstand (for iOS devices) and Google Play (Android). To subscribe to the print edition, please visit our Subscriber Services page.