Words by Jeffrey Stern. Photos courtesy of Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.
Nearly smack dab middle in the country and flanked by states more known for their barbeque and blues music, Arkansas is actually the only state in the nation with a statewide trail maintenance crew. Home to former president Bill Clinton as well as the famed, rugged Ozark National Forest in the northwest, hiking trails through limestone caves such as Blanchard Springs Caverns have always existed in the Razorback State.
Until the last decade however, mountain biking was a relatively unknown and unpopular sport for this football-driven area. Step in the Walton Family Foundation, founded by the Walton family better known for their highly-successful Wal-Mart conglomerate. Found in an even further northwest corner of the state, about a 200-mile drive from the capital Little Rock, is the small town of Bentonville, population 40,000 – most employees of the multinational corporation or students at the University of Arkansas in the neighboring city of Fayetteville – are also some of the best trails you’ve never heard about.
Arkansas is mostly split into two halves, and it’s the highlands in the northwest half that is home to a large portion of the Southern U.S. Interior Highlands, that both the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains reside in. This is the only major mountainous (or highland) region between the other two main mountain ranges in the U.S., the Rocky and Appalachian.
Part of the efforts of the Walton Foundation have been injecting $59 million into building trails throughout the greater community of Bentonville. That has led to extensive rehabilitation of existing trail networks (both dirt and road) as well as development of entirely new sections of trails. Within a twenty-five-minute drive from downtown Bentonville sit five different, nearly 100% singletrack areas to shred through. That accounts for a couple hundred miles of pure singletrack flow joy. From the Slaughter Pen collection of just north of the city (even featuring a gravity trail), to the fast flow of the intermediate War Eagle Loop in nearby Hobbs State Conservation Park, this small Arkansas community also features the Park Rail Yard BMX park, to boot. Lake Atlanta and the newly opened 275-acre Coler Creek Preserve trail networks also sit within a stone’s throw from Bentonville, a city that obviously knows how to invest in its people.
An important factor leading to the success of these mountain biking proliferation dreams is the willingness of local municipalities to contribute to the costs associated with such expensive projects. Philanthropy can really only go so far. Communities within Northwest Arkansas know that in order for their residents to feel pride in the trail systems they must have ownership in these trail undertakings. To that extent, some cities in the region cover 50% of the costs associated with the extensive development. In the future, they see it paying off dividends in the quality of life, health and even education of their younger generations – already, the independent Thaden School is set to use the bicycle as a vehicle to teach students the importance of exercise, but in classroom projects as well.
They aren’t aiming to be the next Crested Butte or Sedona, but instead carve out their own niche while helping facilitate community growth both socially and economically. With weekly night rides hosted by the Friends of Arkansas Single Track (FAST) and a plethora of bike shops opening up in the area it’s no wonder Arkansas is blazing their own path to mountain bike destination stardom.