Sometimes fine attractions are not widely promoted in the media and travel literature. Such was the Talimena Scenic Byway in eastern Oklahoma, which I wouldn’t have known about if Ruth’s cousin’s husband, Bob Smith, hadn’t told me about it. On the other hand, tracking down a heartfelt recommendation, which I always eventually do, can lead to disappointment, like the Chuckanut Manor south of Bellingham, Washington. I can’t help it. If someone takes the time to tell me about a place they love, I must go there.
Ruth and I drove Talimena in November, 2009, a bad time of year. But dismal rain and shroud-like fog didn’t impact our enjoyment. Talimena, 19 miles of continuous mountain scenery in Oklahoma, of all places, is in the wonderfully named Winding Stair Mountain National Recreation Area about 45 miles south and slightly west of Fort Smith. However, we had approached it from Talihina, Oklahoma, driving eastward to Talimena’s end at Highway 259 near the Arkansas border.
The current paved byway was once a part of the Forth Smith to Fort Towson (down south near the Red River) Military Road, that passed through the Choctaw Nation. Colonel Robert Bean blazed the trail through this rugged terrain that became a road built by Captain John Stuart to move supplies and troops in 1832. It also became a westward ho pioneer route across Winding Stair Mountain.
As is true for lucky travelers on the Natchez Trace in Mississippi, those who stop can glimpse parts of the old roadbed that once meant hairpin turns and steep grades for soldiers and folks heading west. It’s now a bit of a stretch to imagine the difficulties of getting mule powered wagons to the other end of this rough, well used road, the shortest route over the mountain. It must have been somewhat similar to the Barlow Road, an impossibly treacherous alternative to the Columbia River, where lots of pioneers on the old Oregon Trail who had made it all the way across the country from places like Missouri lost everything.
Today’s scenic Talemina winds atop the Winding Stairs’ ridge. According to one memorial sign, “Winding Stair Truck Trail laid the foundation for this scenic byway when it was built in 1933 as a fire access road.” It became the Talimena Scenic Drive in 1970 and a National Forest Scenic Byway in 1988.
For its entire length, Ruth and I saw no other vehicles. How rare is that on 21st century American roads? Perhaps this was due to the time of year, just before Thanksgiving. But it was also probably due to the fact that very few people know about this unexpectedly great drive, except for Bob Smith, Ruth & me, and now you.