The only thing I knew about Arkansas before my plane hit the runway at NWA was that Keith Richards had been arrested there in 1975, not long after the state had tried to outlaw Rock n' Roll. That was it. As I retrieved my luggage, I wondered what kind of Rolling Stones hating folk were waiting for me outside the airport. Needless to say, I was surprised and excited to find myself in the middle of one of the most elaborate and accessible community driven trails systems I’ve ever experienced – not to mention greeted and welcomed by some of warmest and most enthusiastic strangers I’ve come across in the United States.
Even with the Walmart head office causing a phenomenal rate of growth, Bentonville is every bit the charming town it was when Sam Walton, founder of Walmart, opened the original Walton five-and-dime back in 1950. From the quaint town square the town's footprint ripples outward offering world-class culinary options, microbreweries, colourful boutiques, a state of the art museum, and miles upon miles of singletrack.
Originally mountain biking was developed here as a recruitment tool for Walmart back in 2006. As the largest retailer in the world there is a need to attract employees to Bentonville and to keep them here. The Walton Family donated the first piece of land to develop trails on, a trail system that is now affectionately referred to as Slaughter Pen. “’If you build it, they will come’ has been proven here,” says Gary Vernon, the Program Officer for the Walton Family Foundation. While Bentonville has been fortunate to receive assistance from the foundation, Gary is quick to point out that “you can’t just throw money at this.” He credits great community partners and the volunteers as the heart and soul of Bentonville’s mountain bike culture. The terrain, year-round riding, and hotels that are full of business travellers during the week leaving the weekends available, are also part of the perfect storm that is creating a world class riding destination.
The multi-phase expansion plan of the OZ trails includes the original Slaughter Pen trails, 17 miles of the soon-to-be-open new Coler trails, the already open Back 40, another planned 95 miles of Bella Vista trails, Lake Atlanta trails and park, and more! The most ‘bang for their buck’ has been with developing urban mountain bike trails like Slaughter Pen. Less than a two-minute pedal from the middle of town is a paved urban path that is crisscrossed with singletrack. The accessibility of these trails, both in location and varying degrees of difficulty, is incredible. They are thoughtfully planned and wind through the sections of available forest with so much care that it seems every square foot of dirt has been used.
The Coler network is a beautifully designed concept of climbing and down trails that use every bit of swoop and gravity possible to create everything from green to black diamond rated runs, jump trails, drops, and rocky and technical sections and all under the canopy of typically gnarled and twisted Ozarks-esque trees. It is the kind of place that a family could spend a whole day as there would be something for everyone. Conveniently the trails all leave from the same place at the highest point and connect back to climbing trails at the bottom.
The Back 40; forty miles of singletrack that weaves through the ravines of unused land between townhouse developments, was built using multiple trail building companies. Progressive Trail Designs, IMBA Trail Solutions, and Crossland each took responsibility for a different section to increase the various styles of riding available in one condensed area of quality purpose built trails. The next big expansion will be the Bella Vista trails; 95 miles of trail that will start across the highway from the Back 40 and will extend up to meet the Slaughter Pen network.
The Lake Atlanta trails have a beautiful infrastructure including washrooms, a licensed concession, and a skills park for every age and ability. The design encourages families to spend the whole day onsite experiences the beautiful singletrack around the lake, watching the kids advance their skills, and kicking back with a cold beer after a hot ride.
In the bigger picture Gary believes that if Arkansas is going to be a world-class mountain biking destination, the non-profits need to work together. The Walton Family Foundation offers grants for trail building throughout the whole state, works with IMBA to support a trail maintenance program, and is constantly searching for new organizations to be involved with, like People for Bikes.
You could spend a week here and not run out of trails to ride, but if you are looking for a fantastic road trip option in the future, Arkansas has an incredible amount of singletrack to offer with 53 state parks currently developing mountain bike trails. It might be time to put Arkansas on your bucket list! Bentonville mountain biking trails