MONUMENT TRAILS TOUR
Words and photos by Brice ShirbachPresented by Arkansas State Parks
"Our mountains might not be as tall, but our valleys are just as deep." It was a point Joe Jacobs drove home on a handful of occasions throughout my tour of Arkansas's Monument Trails
. The point was well taken, as someone who has been banging the East Coast drum for most of my professional career, I didn't need to be convinced of the merits behind the statement. Arkansas has been making a lot of noise as of late, with most of it coming from the northwest corner of the "The Natural State", but in addition to the valleys here, its mountain bike roots run quite a bit deeper than many might think.
While the Waltons have certainly proven to be quite a boon for the state's recent trail explosion, I was surprised to learn of the decades-long history Arkansas has with riding bikes in the woods, and just how spread out the riding opportunities are. There are two primary mountain ranges that call Arkansas home: the Ouachitas and the Ozarks. While Jason Bateman and crew have brought a certain degree of notoriety to the Ozarks, it's actually the Ouachitas that are home to the highest peaks in the state. Between these ancient and venerable ranges there exists a bevy of recreational opportunities that Arkansas have seen fit to develop a state park system around, a park model much like any other state in the Union. What is different about this place is the system of state parks that are home to the Monument Trails created through a partnership with the Arkansas Parks and Recreation Foundation (APRF), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to enhancing parks and recreational opportunities throughout the Natural State. Yes, like much of the buzz throughout the state's massive trail development, the Walton Family Foundation is largely responsible for funding these gifts to Arkansas State Parks. However, not only are they an absolute blast to ride, somewhere in there is a model that other states might soon begin to replicate.
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A Bit About the Monument Trails
During my visit to Arkansas' Monument Trails, I had the good fortune to spend time with a handful of pretty fantastic people. Two of them in particular are specifically responsible for much of what you're about to see: Joe Jacobs and Amber Brown. Joe works on trail projects for Arkansas State Parks and has been with the park service for 15 years. He's been building trails for his community of Little Rock for decades and in addition to the work he does in an official capacity, is also a very active advocate for mountain biking within his community. Amber is the project coordinator for Monument Trails and has worked in the mountain bike and cycling industry for 17 years. Prior to her time in Arkansas, Amber cut her teeth as a rider and within the industry in Colorado working at bike shops, as well as inside and consumer sales for component manufacturers. The Monument Trails system is a pretty fascinating concept and the structure of which is one I wanted a better understanding of, particularly because I see the potential for replication in several other states. The three of us grabbed dinner on my last night in town and they were gracious enough to answer a few questions between bites.How would you describe the early conversations regarding the Monument Trails concept? Where did it come from?Amber
: The original conversation was about building trails in state parks. That simple concept drove a lot of development, including our own organization. The work began quickly and the concept of Monument Trails grew from the work. Within our Trail Committee we developed and with our partners—we began to have broad conversations about what makes a trip. The concepts and criteria developed as did the name—Monument Trails. It came from the definition—a lasting evidence, reminder, or example of something notable or great. An idea that would shift at each park and shift with each person from their perspective. These trails would weave elements of art, architecture, history, environment, and other unique elements around world class trail. It would represent all skill levels and be a destination. Joe
: The early conversations involved park staff including our director Grady Spann and myself, along with Gary Vernon of the Walton Family Foundation during a trip to look at cycling infrastructure in Portland, Oakridge and Bend, OR. When we got back from that trip, the idea of putting state-of-the-art trails in state parks began to take shape.Do you see a model for other state park systems to pursue similar to what you guys have done? Amber
: This model is certainly something that is attainable for state parks across the country. The key is a partnership that is open to ideas and leaning on the strengths of their organization. We could not do this without the firm support of Arkansas State Parks and our donors that believe in outdoor spaces and their ability to be transformational to communities and places. But the model is there and the diverse landscapes across the country are certainly there.Joe
: Yes, although every state park system will need to source funding in different ways, it starts with being open to realizing the importance of trails to visitors and creating a plan to expand and improve trails.Can you describe the structure and process of how Monument Trails work vs typical trail building at AR State Parks? Amber
: Because of the private nature of our foundation, we work through processes pretty quickly as well as building concepts/plans quickly. Our workflow involves identifying areas with our internal Foundation and donors and working with parks on their feedback of those areas. We typically do a lot of site work and visits prior to beginning on a plan. The Foundation develops the plan, works with ASP on evaluation and feedback and ultimately approval. From the approval of the organization, we move towards build and execution. The product is multifaceted because we infuse elements beyond just trail building and that will be area you will see develop through the next year or so. As we do not work within a state funded endeavor we can’t speak to that process. Are there plans for additional Monument Trails to be built at other locations?Amber
: We are working on a couple plans, but we do not want the brand to be over saturated.Joe
: We are currently looking at options throughout the state. The trails built so far have been the low-hanging fruit where we (State Parks) have control of the land. Many of our parks are on land that is leased from federal or local land management agencies so there will be more hoops to jump through to make these happen, but we are working in that direction.What separates the Monument Trails from the existing trail networks throughout AR State Parks?Amber
: The Monument Trails are a master planned trail system created by our partnership. So, the plan and process are different from the traditional State Park system.Joe
: Since the early days of the park system, trails were built by park staff or volunteers for the most part. While many of these trails are phenomenal hiking trails, the needs of today's mountain bikers were not being met. By bringing the latest in design and build techniques, the Monument Trails are not only meeting those needs but also getting hikers and trail runners to areas of our parks that were previously inaccessible.
Mount Nebo State Park
The drive up Highway 155 sets quite the tone for this stunning natural playground in the heart of the Arkansas River Valley, winding up a mountain road with 11 switchbacks and a gradient maxing out at 18%. At the end of the road lies the summit of Mount Nebo, where park facilities and the Monument Trails reside. Arguably the most scenic of the 4 Monument Trails networks, Nebo features stunning rock work and terrain, with views across the valley towards Mount Magazine, the highest summit in Arkansas, as well as both Ouachita and Ozark ranges. Rock Solid was contracted to develop the 24 miles of trail at Nebo and wrapped things up in June of 2020. Because Nebo sits 1,300 feet above the valley below, conditions here are typically a little bit cooler than other spots in the state, and many of the trails offer up a plethora of overlooks and views of the surrounding landscape.Key Trails:Lizard Tail - This might be my favorite of the Monument Trails... trails. There are a handful of sections that feature real exposure, along with some relentlessly physical descents and climbs. It's one of the most unique and fun trails I've ridden in the state, and is about as "must ride" as it gets.
Hayes Creek - A two mile, directional downhill trail that drops riders almost 900 feet, Hayes offers a bit of everything. There's a beautiful start overlooking the Arkansas River Valley (don't get distracted or you'll fall off of a cliff), before diving into a combination of purpose-built flow and natural rock features. The bridge toward the bottom is worth a stop as well.
Chickalah Valley Loop - A "dark blue" featuring some amazing rock work, moderate jumps and doubles, and some incredible views. The trail is located along the western aspect of the mountain, so if you can time the ride right you'll be rewarded with a stunning sunset.
Devil's Den State Park
Devil's Den is the newest of the Monument Trails, opening earlier this year in May, but is loaded with a history that pre-dates the Monument Trails by a few decades. Superintendent Monte Fuller and assistant superintendent Tim Scott are both deeply entrenched in Arkansas' mountain bike culture and history, and it's fitting that some of the newest trails in the state are also its best. Rogue Trails rehabbed the historic 6 mile Fossil Flats system in 2020, and Rock Solid Trails built up the new 12 miles of trail. Both outfits had their work cut out for them here, as the terrain is jagged, raw, and especially unforgiving. Where most places feature trails that work their way towards the top of a summit, Devil's Den dives deep into the rock instead. Riders are rewarded with 2 of the state's newest Downhill trails and plenty of fun optional lines that features caves, chasms, waterfalls, and more.Key Trails:Sparky - A beautiful directional trail with loads of alt-lines and a waterfall that you ride behind. This trail is a stunner.
Orville - Another directional trail with jumps, drops, and rock gardens. Another masterpiece. This trail takes riders above the waterfall that Sparky rides underneath.
Devil's Racetrack - A lengthier adventure taking riders along bluff lines, over rock gardens, and past several waterfalls.
Hobbs State Park Conservation Area
The first of the Monument Trail systems gifted to the state, Hobbs is Arkansas State Park's largest park totaling 12,000 acres. It opened June 2019. This is an 18 mile backcountry destination system of 3 loops, all an intermediate difficulty level, not due to features but its length and moderate exposure. Locals I spoke with really seem to enjoy the system for it's length as well as the contrast it provides to the more dynamic and popular purpose built trails in nearby Rogers and Bentonville. The park is quite beautiful and officials have done a fantastic job managing the park's many trails as well as opening this system with its art + architecture installation at the trailhead and campsites. When the weather takes a turn for the worse, Hobbs seems to be the place to go as the trails handle water extremely well, which as it turns out was quite a useful characteristic during my visit.Key Trails:Karst Trail - Karst is an incredibly scenic ride over undulating terrain, sandwiching riders between karst bluffs and the White River for several miles. It's rated green but does have some exposure and a few sections with technical features, but is generally appropriate for most skillsets and is really a must ride when visiting the trails here.
Timberjack - One of two directional downhill trails at Hobbs, Timberjack has some incredible corners and a few opportunities to make shapes from top to bottom.
Pinnacle Mountain State Park
Phase I opened in fall of 2020, and is currently home to 12 miles of XC trail and about 4 miles of directional downhill between 6 different trails. Arkansas State Parks and Monument Trails employed two different trail building businesses, Rogue Trails and Jagged Axe, for this system offering the Little Rock region a surprisingly diverse experience close to town. Previously the home to Orbea and originally the site of Competitive Cyclist, the capital city of Arkansas has a budding mountain bike scene and Pinnacle has added some much-needed clout to it, providing riders with the opportunity to build plenty of fitness and technical skills, while also allowing people to develop their flow and jump acumen. Key Trails:Glade Runner - Glade was Pinnacle's first black-rated trail, and features a relentlessly technical start for riders before finishing with a handful of moderately sized jumps and freeride features.
Jackfork - Jackfork runs for nearly 5 miles along the eastern perimeter of the trail network. It's a fairly fast and flowy trail, with numerous side hits and optional features, and a handful of overlooks above the Arkansas River.
Coachwhip - Designed initially as a NICA loop, this trail is ideal for beginners looking to build confidence with a few optional features for those who are looking to enhance their ride.
Accommodations and Food:
Two of the four Arkansas State Parks with Monument Trails networks offer cabins on site: Mount Nebo and Devil's Den. The cabins at both were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a legendary work relief program that gave millions of young men employment on environmental projects during the Great Depression. In its day, the CCC
planted more than three billion trees and constructed trails and shelters in more than 800 parks nationwide during its nine years of existence. The cabins at Devil's Den and Mount Nebo all have interiors that are updated with kitchens, televisions and bathrooms, but the exteriors are preserved to showcase the nuanced stonework of the CCC. They definitely don't build them like they used to. If you're planning a trip to either of these parks, I would highly recommend these for your lodging. While Hobbs doesn't have CCC cabins, it does offer camping throughout the much of the park and its proximity to Rogers means that there are plenty of places to stay nearby. You can also find "ride-to" camping on the Karst trail. Pinnacle doesn't offer any camping on site, but it's very close to Little Rock and its suburbs, so finding a place near the trails is very easy. I stayed nearby at the Burgundy Hotel, a bike-friendly hotel 15 minutes from the trails.
As far as food goes, if you intend to stay the night at either Nebo or Devil's, you're likely going to want to stop and grab groceries on the way. The fully equipped kitchens make it easy to prepare any sort of meal you are in the mood for, and many cabins also offer outdoor grilling. Neither park is especially close to any population center, so if you are looking for a night out on the town, you should expect a bit of a drive. Both Hobbs
are close to several places to eat.
Trail of Tears
There are no federally recognized Indian tribes in Arkansas today. In 1830, the United States Government passed the Federal Indian Removal Act of 1830
, and in the years to follow enacted the brutal removal of the Cherokee Nation from much of their southeastern territory to what is now Oklahoma. Other tribes fell victim to similar treatment including Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee, and Seminole Indians. Arkansas is the only state in which all five tribes traveled through during their forced removal. While the state is not currently home to Indian Tribes in an official capacity, the State Park System has five parks that have been certified as National Park Service Trail of Tears National Historic Trail Sites: Lake Dardanelle, Mount Nebo, Petit Jean, Pinnacle Mountain, and Village Creek state parks. You can learn more about this often overlooked and dark period of American History here
.Monument Trails at Mount Nebo State Park mountain biking trailsMonument Trails at Devils Den State Park mountain biking trailsMonument Trails at Hobbs State Park Conservation Area mountain biking trailsMonument Trails at Pinnacle Mountain State Park mountain biking trails